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.

Unethical ordainment of children

9 August 2007

More serious than unethical conversion is unethical ordainment. It is in the interest of both the religious and the secularists that ill-disciplined, dishonest and malevolent individuals do not make it to the ranks of monks and priests. Make it illegal for a parent or any adult to ordain a child as a priest/monk without his/her consent. It is disgraceful that certain parents find nothing wrong with the practice of ‘donating’ their children to the Order in the hopes of accumulating merit/blessings for themselves. Unfortunately yet predictably, these tend to be the same priests/monks who start behaving like regular individuals (and sometimes worse) when they become adult members of the clergy. They were never meant to be priests/monks; they may even harbor resentment over their fate. They are unable to lead the life of a priest; yet they cannot leave the Order without social stigma; even if they do, most of them are without the skills to survive outside their respective religious establishment.

Ordainment is a decision that carries life long consequences. A dependent under the age of 18 is in no position to give consent to it. Yet, the major religions prevailing in Sri Lanka require than the training of priests/monks start early. The minimum age for ANY form of ordainment should be 13. Between 13 and 16, the parents and the priests/monks must provide written assurances to authorities that the person to be ordained is fully willing and prepared and he must be interviewed separately by officials before legal permission is given. Ideally, religious laws should change to allow anyone to undergo priesthood training from any age between 13 to 18, and at age 18 decide whether to continue or not; and to be able to leave the establishment without any stigma. Ordainment of children against their will should be banned.

Separation of Church and State

1 August 2007

The result of any mixture between religion and politics is EVIL. Sri Lankans who are aware of world history already know this. Christianity corrupted by political power took a thousand-year bite out of our civilization: the period spanning approximately 5 – 15th century AD are lost to humanity, the Dark Ages. The Church tortured and burned women as witches; it had the power to dictate what people learned and what they didn’t; to ban and burn books; to jail/execute writers and scientists; to send troops to other countries in the name of God.

Christianity was restored to the form originally designed by Christ, only through a massive internal struggle between Christians themselves: the Reformation. Christians have never forgotten this lesson. This is why in America, religion is forbidden from entering the government and is forbidden at the highest possible level: the Constitution. Religion may not be taught at school; public prayer or religious symbols within state buildings are not allowed. Most non-Christians find Americans’ apparent hostility toward their own religion puzzling. There is nothing puzzling when you see that the hostility is not toward religion, but toward mixing religion and politics. Muslims have yet to learn this lesson.

Buddhists tend to argue that, since Buddhism is a non-violent and tolerant system of beliefs, it cannot happen to Buddhism. They were proven wrong: on the subject of the ethnic conflict, political monks continue to be the most outspoken advocates of violence and intolerance. Astonishingly, some of them went beyond advocacy to direct demonstrations of violence.

There is ZERO correlation between the teachings of a religion and the degree of evil committed once it is mixed with politics. If “he that is without sin, cast the first stone” and “turn the other cheek” lead to the Witch Trials, it is no surprise that sermons of the Buddha too, were distorted to serve political ends. Buddhism in Sri Lanka has already been heavily corrupted by the politicized clergy, yet there is no sign that Sri Lankans are becoming wise to what Europeans learned centuries ago: ANY MIX OF POLITICS AND RELIGION IS EVIL.

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist COUNTRY. But it cannot be a Buddhist STATE. The difference seems subtle but is critical. Americans are far more Christian than Europeans or even their own neighboring Canadians. It is said that America is at once the most secular state and the most religious nation.

Amend the constitution to prohibit the government from favoring any religion or the parliament passing any law mentioning a specific religion. Make it clear that no religion is exempt from the Law: in any contest between the Law of the Country and the Law of a religion, the Law of the Country must prevail. In the eyes of the Law, only the Law is Holy. Religion must remain a private matter. Abolish all religion-related government departments and funding programs, with the exception of archeology projects dealing with preserving ancient Sri Lankan ruins (most of which happen to be from a Buddhist civilization). Sri Lankan cannot become a Buddhist state or a Christian state or an Islamic state or a Hindu state. It MUST be a secular state.

Unethical Prevention of Conversions

22 May 2006

What exactly is an ‘unethical’ conversion? The religious-extremist-nationalists have been trying hard to get the government to ban these ‘unethical’ conversions, but nobody is really bothering to properly define ‘unethical’. Let me tell you what the only type of unethical conversion is — if you put a sword to somebody’s throat and say ‘convert or else’, that’s an unethical conversion. Everything else is perfectly ethical.

I can hear all the objections now. I’ll tell you why I’m perfectly aware of them all but continue to disregard them. First of all, no government, no organization, no group ANYWHERE can tell ANYBODY what to think or believe. If a Buddhist government attempts to keep a Buddhist from embracing another religion, then THAT’S an unethical conversion. If an Islamic community or a Christian community pressures one of their own to not embrace another religion, THAT’S an unethical conversion. Or more accurately, an unethical prevention of conversion.

Promises and Incentives
So that’s the first reason. If somebody is promised food and medicine or even money in return for converting, it may be unethical in the eyes of whatever higher power the converter or the convert believes in. But it cannot be unethical in the eyes of the Law. It is wrong to promise what your religion does not promise. But it’s not illegal.

If a Buddhist promises Nirvana, peace of mind or happiness and riches in the next life to a potential convert, that alright by all counts. If a Christian promises heaven and miracles to a potential convert that’s also fine by all counts. Those are all promises of that particular faith. But if a Buddhist promises immortality or a Christian promises the power to levitate then that’s wrong spiritually. But the Law has no business poking its nose there. And no one group has the right to manipulate the law into doing such nose-poking.

If I were to decide to become say Jewish, I don’t want anybody getting in my way. If I believe Judaism is right for me, for whatever reason, I want to be able to publicly, proudly and freely declare it, to be able to freely practice it and not be persecuted for it. If my practice hurts no one then it doesn’t matter whether my choice is Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism or African Voodoo. What’s more, the law has no right going after my rabbi, my priest, my minister, my monk or my witch doctor.

But what if I convert for benefits? Then that’s not a real conversion is it? Me and my converter are likely to rot in at least one of our hells for it. But like I said, the law can touch neither. What if I’m ‘tricked’ into converting? Tricked? How so? By being promised something that cannot be delivered? Last time I checked, EVERY religion promises things with no definite delivery date. That’s the nature of religion and why religion requires something called faith. These are things that cannot be regulated or legislated. People doing “Unethical” conversions should be dealt with by their own religion’s hierarchy. Potential “victims” should be enlightened by their own religious authorities. Nothing more. Unless of course if you’re drugged or something. In that case you don’t need additional anti-conversion laws — regular criminal law would do just fine.

Let’s be fair. And realistic. ALL decent religions spread by conversion. There are only two other means of spreading a religion — one is conquest, the other is rapid reproduction. Neither of those are very virtuous methods. So conversion it is then. If these “unethical conversion” laws had existed two thousand years ago, both Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha would have been in jail.

Liquor ban during Vesak

15 May 2006

Banning the sale of liquor during the Vesak* week doesn’t make Sri Lankans any more Buddhist than they already are. It’ll just alter their external behavior. That’s not the goal of religion.

You cannot legislate religion. Law and religion both aim for morality but do so using two completely different approaches. The Law does not care whether a person is good or bad — it’s only concerned with his external behavior. Therefore it can depend on the threat of punishment. Religion IS concerned with whether a person is good or bad, sometimes REGARDLESS of his external behavior. The Law is compulsory. Religion is voluntary. Mix the two and you have a problem.

To say nothing of the wrongness of one religion ruling all in a multi-religious society. The Law MUST be secular. There is NO place in the law for religion-specific or group-specific morals.

* The Buddhist holiday commemorating the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha