The rise of TV intellectuals

28 November 2007

Attention seeking ‘TV intellectuals’ are increasingly replacing real intellectuals in the Sri Lankan media. These ‘intellectuals’ are often featured in group discussions on TV and interviews on the radio. The usual format involves a group of chairs set in front of the camera. In one sits the host while the others are occupied by various ‘intellectuals’ who a) blame all problems on the standard ‘bad-guys’: the West, businessmen, modernity and the younger generation, and b) are more concerned with demonstrating their (alleged) intellect and learning rather than educating the public (notable exceptions exist).

These are not debates. No dissenters are invited to the panel. No opposing viewpoints are entertained. There is no one to challenge the dominant viewpoint. The ‘discussion’ is really a group of individuals patting each other on the backs in the absence of any meaningful resistance while play-acting at being intellectuals.

Arguments are brought in to explain why every aspect of our culture is somehow superior to the western versions, be it language, society, customs, sometimes even scientific progress. For example, a university academic appearing on a certain TV show took several obscure phrases from Buddhist scripture and interpreted them as descriptions of light modulation (LASERS), knowledge of the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound, and knowledge of distant interstellar objects. This absurdity is frightening as it came from a PhD holder. Neither the host nor the callers chose to challenge the claim.

The West is represented by examples taken from the worst and the most deviant segments of western society and is compared against imaginary local virtues. The West is painted as decadent, drug-dependent, TV-addicted, consumption-driven, AIDS-infested and materialistic for Sri Lankans who have never set foot outside the country or have no accurate knowledge of western life. Sri Lanka is painted as a country of ‘cultured’ and ‘hospitable’ people molded by Buddhist values. This illusion, however, is not entirely robust. All but the most delusional Sri Lankans know the following unspoken truth: all the ‘vices’ that exist in the West exist here too. Only in the West it is done in the open; here we do it in hiding. Drugs and pre-marital sex are the best examples.

Excluding a few notable exceptions of genuine intellectuals, most TV intellectuals are transparent in their motives. The entire exercise is an attempt to compensate for self-esteem deficiencies by playing a make believe game of erudition: the stereotypical TV intellectual adopts a slow, deep, saint-like voice and assorted mannerisms that are conspicuously not present off-air. He also tends to quote religious scripture and provide religious rationalizations for his arguments in at attempt to both demonstrate his ‘holier-than-thou’ status and to inoculate his arguments against criticism. The technique, pioneered by a recently founded religio-nationalist party, is now alarmingly common: the argument is presented with a religious coating. Any attempt to counter the argument is portrayed as an attack on the religion. For example, the said political party publicized all criticism against it as ‘threats to the religion’ or ‘attempts to split the Order’. It is only one of the tools in the pop-intellectual’s repertoire.

The callers who gravitate to such TV shows are often a variant of the same type of attention seeker. Most such callers unknowingly embarrass themselves on air by attempting to demonstrate their own intellect instead of posing questions. Before or after a token question which they do not expect to be answered anyway, they launch into long monologues in an attempt to mimic the pseudo-erudition of the panelists themselves. Often, they have to be interrupted by the host. It is difficult to determine what is more embarrassing: the shows themselves, or the fact that they continue weekly with little or no public laughter or outcry. As a gauge of viewer intellect, the popularity of these shows is saddening.

It is the duty of a true intellectual to broaden the public’s minds and open them to newer, bolder ideas that they would otherwise fear to consider on their own. Yet these pop TV intellectuals are doing the exact opposite in an insidious way: even crude, prejudicial viewpoints are given intellectual ammunition in the form of obscure, convoluted arguments that the average person cannot decipher. Viewpoints that would not even hold under a mere common-sense attack, such as racism, religious supremacy and oppression of individual freedom, now have pseudo-arguments to back them up.



5 June 2006

Kemalism (Re: The Kemalist Option, my first real post) is a recurring theme on this blog: that a country cannot effectively modernize without westernizing. Not westernizing in terms of dress, speech and other customs, but westernizing in terms of ideals and thinking. Western development is not just a result of technology or exploitation of the east (the favorite excuse of third world nationalists) — it is a result of the ideals on which western societies are built on.

I don’t regard “westernization” as taboo. I’ve no misgivings whatsoever about throwing out what we call our “heritage” when we are faced with the option of adopting something better. We should discard the “What is ours is what is best” attitude and adopt a “What is best before what is ours” attitude.

Is Sexuality a Western Import?

25 May 2006

If you think sexuality is a western import, think again. Sexuality is a part of every culture because it is a part of every man and woman. A culture may hide it, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

The actual western import is the OPEN EXPRESSION of sexuality, which is what unnerves most defenders of “culture”. They know what fuck means; they just don’t want to hear it out loud. Every man wants to see women naked. But some just don’t want to admit it, and wouldn’t let others admit it. And so on and so forth.

I would have dismissed the differences in the level of sexual expression as cultural differences, if it weren’t for two things. Firstly, suppression of sexual expression is a suppression of expression. And suppression of expression is suppression. Suppression is bad because it’s contrary to freedom.

Secondly repression of sexual desires is bad (on a personal level, I mean). Repressed sexual desires have a tendency of surfacing in very ugly, Freudian ways. If you are a regular user of Sri Lankan public transport, you know what I mean. If you’re a woman, I’m SURE you know what I mean.

One Possible Semi-Solution for the Ethnic Problem

4 May 2006

Cultural Fault Lines
Sri Lanka is a country torn along cultural fault lines. Before the end of the Cold War, the world was divided into two along political lines — the Free World and the Communist bloc. The two groupings were multicultural, but held together by the threat of a common enemy. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the common enemy disappeared and the world fragmented into smaller pieces, with the fault lines running across cultural differences (‘civilizations’ as Samuel Huntington would put it). We now have the West, Latin America, the Middle East, East Asia, South Asia etc.

Sri Lanka has a similar problem within a single country — we have two cultures in conflict. While Tamils and Singhalese are morelike each other than either would be like Americans or Chinese, these two cultures seem incompatible at present. Ours is more a cultural/ethnic problem than a political one.

We have three possible solutions:

#1 Full segregation: Divide the country in two; Tamils will live in the North, Singhalese in the South

#2 Conflicted coexistence: The two groups will continue to live together as they do now and deal with conflicts as and when they arise (i.e. a may-blow-up-anytime situation)

#3 Full integration: Erase the cultural differences between the two races, develop a common Sri Lankan culture that is neither Singhalese nor Tamil; erase this distinction from the minds of the next generation so that when they grow up, it will only be a trivial difference.

Full segregation (option #1) means partitioning the country. A lot of people don’t like this and there are of course disadvantages — politically, socially and economically. We’re starting to learn rather painfully that option #2 does not work verywell. So we should explore option #3: full integration.

How is integration achieved? By gradually erasing the conflicting differences between the various Sri Lankan ethnic/religious groups and introducing and stressing commonalities.

A Common Language
Apart of Sri Lanka’s ethnic problem began as a language problem (the “Sinhala Only” movement). Therefore part of the solution should be a language solution. Make English the national language. Make Singhalese and Tamil associate national languages. The twoethnic languages will continue to be spoken at homes and private gatherings. But over a period of about 10 – 20 years (a reasonable time frame for such a radical undertaking, I think) everything government sponsored (including government schooling) will be converted to English, and the entire population will be familiarized with the language. With the language barrier gone Singhalese and Tamils will interact and understand each other much better. History teaches us that different peoples who speak the same way tend to get along with each other better. But language should only be the beginning.

The Kemalist Option

24 April 2006

Westernization and modernization are not the same. A country may adopt either, none or both. An Arab youth may sip Coke, eat a Big Mac and watch The Terminator, but that’ll not interfere with his desire to join an anti-American terrorist group, should he wish to do so. Enjoying western products and culture does not imply embracing western ideals. Samuel P. Huntington lists three options for a developing nation:

Rejectionism: Reject both westernization and modernization
Reformism: Reject westernization and adopt modernization
Kemalism: Embrace both modernization and westernization

Reformism, at first glance, seems to be the most sensible path for a country like ours. It seems to imply that we should keep our own culture and values, and adopt only material improvements from the West.

Rejectionism is out of the question, but many nationalist groups in this country are advocating a path closer to rejectionism than reformism, and they don’t know the consequences of what they’re advocating (or, they know all too well).

The third option is Kemalism (named after Mustafa Kemal of Turkey). Kemalism holds that modernization cannot occur without westernization, or more specifically, without adopting the western ideologies that made modernization possible (not necessarily western culture, though). This is the one option everybody’s afraid to look at.

To quote Huntington:

Through a carefully calculated series of reforms in the 1920s and 1930s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk attempted to move his people away from their Ottoman and Muslim past. The basic principles or “six arrows” of Kemalism were populism, republicanism, nationalism, secularism, statism and reformism.

Rejecting the idea of a multinational empire, Kemal aimed to produce a homogeneous nation state, expelling and killing Armenians and Greeks in the process*. Then he deposed the sultan and established a Western type republican system of political authority. He abolished the Caliphate, the central source of religious authority, ended the traditional education and religious ministries, abolished the separate religious schools and colleges, established a unified secular system of public education, and did away with the religious courts that applied Islamic law, replacing them with a new legal system based on the Swiss civil code.

He also replaced the traditional calendar with the Gregorian calendar and formally disestablished Islam as the state religion. Emulating Peter the Great, he prohibited the use of the fez because it was a symbol of religious traditionalism, encouraged people to wear hats, and decreed that Turkish would be written in Roman rather than Arabic script.

This latter reform was of fundamental importance. “It made it virtually impossible for the new generations educated in the Roman script to acquire access to the vast bulk of traditional literature; it encouraged the learning of European languages; and it greatly eased the problem of increasing literacy.” Having redefined the national, political, religious and cultural identity of the Turkish people, Kemal in the 1930s vigorously attempted to promote Turkish economic development. Westernization went hand-in-hand with and was to be the means of modernization.

* Despite his far sighted reforms and his contribution to the making of modern Turkey, I see this as one of his greatest sins

Hello world

18 April 2006

I am an advocate of radical social and political reforms for Sri Lanka. This blog will shock most Sri Lankans. Expect nothing less. I will make no apologies for the things I say here. I may play devil’s advocate and defend ideas that I don’t personally endorse, but I will not mention which are which.

Reformation vs. Metamorphosis

The social/economic/political problems this country is facing cannot be solved by any single administration because solving them will take longer than the maximum term any administration can serve. It cannot be done in six or even twelve years. At minimum, it will take one generation — approximately 25 years.

Political and economic reforms by themselves will not solve the problem. The core of our problem is social. The political and economic systems that we’ve allowed ourselves to get trapped into are a symptom of this core problem, not its cause. Ours is a problem of ideology — the way we think. Until that is changed in a drastic and radical way, we cannot hope to sustain any sort of political or economic reform even if we manage to actually implement them. What we need is not reformation, but a complete, gradual metamorphosis.

Reformation: Personal and Systemic

A society is reformed through two converging movements of reformation: one, personal reformation and two, systemic reformation. Neither can achieve any lasting success without the other. A brilliant social/economic/political system will fail in the hands of scoundrels. Even the most virtuous person will be eventually broken by an improper system.

There are different degrees or levels in each type of reformation. For example, it’s easier for you to change the way you brush your teeth each morning than to change your deepest beliefs about good and evil. Similarly, it’s easier to change the way a license application form is processed at a government office than to change the constitution or develop a new one based on new moral principles. Between these two extremes (under both types of reformation) we get a whole spectrum of reforms of varying degrees of difficulty.

I believe that we should start at the lower levels of each of the two ‘avenues’ of reformation. That is the realistic and practical thing to do. Dramatic changes will be quickly reversed if either the people or the ‘system’ is not ready for them. Lasting changes depend on firm foundations, not on coups or revolutions. When revolutions DO work, it’s because they’re the culmination of years of foundation-laying.

The biggest challenge in making reforms is to not choose the wrong ones. No reform at all is better than a bad reform.

Comments: Please send comments, thoughts and ideas to AT I may choose to either ignore them, answer them, post them on the blog in part or in whole, expand on them or refute them, depending on how relevant I think they are to my objectives.