ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 04, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 40
Financial Times  

Sri Lanka is a classless society

By Nous

The recent outbreak of the most degenerate form of pragmatism in the political arena and among political families, distinguished not only by social position, but also by ancestry, was once again a reminder that in this country the privileged and the undeprivileged are difficult to tell apart.

In a word, we are becoming accustomed to admitting a distinction, not between the better and the worse, but between the powerful and the powerless, in most things we do in Sri Lanka.

The absence of a distinction, both moral and intellectual, between the privileged and the underprivileged goes to the heart of the problem of progress confronting us as a nation.

When the emphasis is on business, the difficulty of drawing such a distinction is felt on a daily basis. The overwhelming feeling that confronts us when we look at business in terms of the courage to run risks, the imaginative grasp of possibilities and the character of goods and services is one of ordinariness, of mediocrity, of missing the mark.

Such ordinariness might be attributed at least in part to an adverse investment climate. But to do so entirely would be to overlook the obvious that goods and services of great proficiency and technical virtuosity have seen the light of day from businesses working in investment climates far more adverse than what we have to contend with here. Moreover, such proficiency and virtuosity, to say nothing of the imaginative vision and the beauty of form, are readily found, as anthropological studies show, even in the manufactures of the primitive man. However, the character of goods and services that we have to contend with on a daily basis is often found wanting. Some of our indigenous products are indeed perceived as power brands by us, yet although brand power speaks to the rule of the best, as a nation we do not habitually associate the character of these products with any sort of goodness, with hitting the mark.

In fact, despite the convincing display of financial might by some companies, the conviction is growing daily that in this country the mighty and the humble are very much alike in that the profitability of both are inextricably linked with the habitual presumption that the character of goods and services may be filthied with impunity.

In a word, we are becoming accustomed to admitting a distinction, not between the better and the worse, but between the powerful and the powerless, in most things we do in Sri Lanka. In fact, today the talk is increasingly of “a culture of impunity” and of our predisposition to revere the rule of power. The readiness to filthy things to gain riches and power and for the indulgence in pleasure is nothing new. What is perhaps new is the habitual presumption of impunity.

However, it is difficult to imagine how “a culture of impunity” could have risen, without the privileged and the favoured playing the leading role in creating such a culture, without the privileged first institutionalizing the habit of indulging in self-seeking wants by any means whatsoever.

When the privileged act as if they have no awareness of the future, when they cannot desire a future good, they are in effect seeking affinity, not with God, but with the unfortunate and with other beings having no capacity for foresight and imaginative vision. However, the unfortunate do not set standards.

Theirs is a desperate ethic. We have yet to witness a privileged class ethic in which the good life is harmonized and made distinguished by a nurtured susceptibility to such things as the idealizing love of perfection, the rigorous and experimental temper of science, the tragic sense of stubbornness in loyalty to an ideal, and the impulse to grasp the world scientifically and speculatively.

The ways of the privileged have not always been crudely pragmatic. In the past the privileged actually wished to be improved - at least in the sense that they went abroad to be polished off socially and intellectually - and not merely to acquire a trade or a MBA. This brought a modicum of rationality or modernity to the good life, an improvement in the intellectual status to reap the fruits of a fuller life.

Even then, by all accounts, none appears to have grasped modernity significantly. Perhaps their education and surroundings were not altogether conducive for them to fall under the sway of either the Greek rationalism, which aimed at an intellectual and imaginative vision of Nature, or the modern scientific rationalism, which aims at a blueprint of Nature.

The significance of modernity may have eluded many of them; and some may have found the naturalism of Greek science and philosophy - the wellspring of modernity – wholly inadequate to the mood and temper of either the mysticism and irrationalism or the narrow-minded provincialism. Nevertheless, the modernity of the West as a magnificent human achievement was not altogether lost on them.

Consequently, they could draw some inspiration from the West. And under the influence of her beauty, her magnificence and her liberty, the country was able to admit a contrast between the rustic and the urbane, the vulgar and the refined. But no such contrast could be admitted today - at least not when the emphasis is on the intellectual and the moral.

Today, even the privileged are inclined to view modernity itself as an eventuation of imperialistic criminal adventure, while America’s outspread wings of modernity and its high soaring are viewed as the gravest threat ever posed to human survival.

Yet we are not shy to cherry-pick modernity to suit the cravings of our unruly hearts, while practicing magic and witchcraft as applied science. In fact, magic and witchcraft remain rife, as they have always been, in the conduct of the affairs of the privileged and underprivileged alike here; and both are happy to let their worldviews be informed by “medicine men with a dash of rational thought thrown in”.

Never missing a baila beat and never failing to grab an opportunity to prostrate themselves on the alter mat of the powers that be, the privileged are seen filthying everything from food to freedom with their “bestial touch”.

In the face of such classlessness, there is but the example of Diogenese, the Cynic of the fourth century B.C., for us to follow - and look for a good man (and a good product) in the gutter with a lantern in daytime. But when we cannot find goodness there, we may look for it where it is possible to find - at Visumpaya – there we will at least find goodies from Fortnum & Mason!

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