Half a century later, we have begun to wonder whether this principle so dear to believers in democracy should be changed to Vox Populi, Vox Assimus — the voice of the people is the voice of the asses.
We are inclined to this conclusion when during our waking hour in the mornings, the sound of our neighbour’s TV waft across to us giving us a compendium of the day’s news and views in most of the front pages of the newspapers. This includes sycophantic views of the notable and quotable governing us and if these are their views reflecting the views accepted by the people — public opinion — then these people certainly qualify to be called asses.
Bertrand Russell, perhaps the greatest philosopher of the last century cautioned: ‘One should respect public opinion in so far is necessary to avoid starvation, keep out of prison but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to unnecessary tyranny’.
Indeed the so called enlightened people of Sri Lanka have willingly succumbed to the tyranny of public opinion since 1970 when the United Front government of Sirima Bandaranaike won a massive victory with a two thirds majority. It was called ‘a mandate of the people’ which entitled them to anything they wished, and in fact did anything which they wanted to do.
This was followed by the tyranny of the five-sixth majority and executive presidency under J.R. Jayewardene. The tyranny of the executive presidency of JR was followed by executive presidential tyrannies of Chandrika and Mahinda Rajapaksa (in his first term) and now with a two third majority and the powers of the executive presidency Rajapaksa is steaming ahead to capture absolute power.
But are these leaders solely to blame? Initially at least they were creations of peoples’ power but after that what have the people done to save themselves?
It is believed that public opinion is created in modern societies by institutions responsible for their creation: press, radio and TV. Yet in Sri Lanka, three mighty governments have been toppled by the opposition which did not have the backing of any such institution. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956 had the press, Lake House and then Times of Ceylon against him and fully behind the UNP but staged an electoral revolution to take over power. Mrs. B in 1970 had only the Independent (Sun) group of newspapers backing her and others bitterly opposed to her but she scored a two-third majority and JR who too had no backing of a recognised media institution and the UNP split as it is now, scored a five-sixth majority. It is held that the oral tradition, direct communication between people did the trick. Is the oral tradition now dead?
The Rajapaksa administration appears not to give two hoots about public opinion. The pardoning of Deputy Minister Mervyn Silva for his blatant act of thuggery of tying a public official to a tree with a coir rope, his sham ‘ trial’ and pardoning by President Rajapaksa himself, could be described in the words of another columnist: Spitting the public in its face. The replacement of the 17th Amendment adopted unanimously by parliament, by the 18th Amendment where the President who opposed the executive presidency and pledged to abolish it but enabled him to run for a third term, is another example.
There are many more known examples but there is no clear outcry from the public. The Sri Lankan public seems to be resigned to lie down flat on the highway and let the government run its juggernaut over them.
United Or Fight?
The moral indignation of some UNPers over their leader not resigning from leadership of the party appear to be considered of much greater consequence than the elimination of fundamental rights of the people entrenched in the constitution. Indeed the UNP problem over the leadership is grave but shouldn’t the challengers be joining hands to overcome the erosion of the rights of the people? It could even resolve the leadership issue.
Public Opinion Or Published Opinion?
The opposition resistance to the Rajapaksa juggernaut will take time. The first step forward obviously is to unite the opposition ranks: JVP, Gen. Fonseka, Chandrika faction, UNP and the TULF. Public opinion is not even focused in this direction. Where are the UNP journals that could bring together a party in defeat? It has been said that there is no such thing as public opinion — only published opinion.
The use and abuse of public opinion is subjective. Bertrand Russell in his essay on Power as far back as 1938 argued that it is easy to make out a case that opinion is omnipotent and all other forms of power are derived from it. ‘Armies are useless unless the soldiers believe in the cause for which they are fighting …… the law is impotent unless it is generally respected….. opinion is the ultimate power in social affairs’.
On the other hand Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels held: ‘It is the absolute right of the state to supervise the formation of public opinion.’ Another Goebbelsian gem of note (at the Nuremberg trials) is: ‘Naturally, the common people don’t want war but after all it is the leader of a country who determines policy and it is always simple to drag the people along whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or parliament or communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice the people can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders. That’s easy. All you have to do is to tell them you are attacked and denounce pacifists for the lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country’.
Which way the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa is heading we cannot say. But his favourite Sunday paper, the Observer is quite confident. Its editorial last Sunday said: “President Rajapaksa proved in no uncertain terms his exemplary statesmanship, diplomacy and farsighted vision when he addressed the 65th Session of the UN……
“His inspiring speech highlighted the world-class statesmanship, political maturity, transparency, accountability, clear-cut vision, desire to achieve goals and unmatched political willpower… He was courageous and bold to fearlessly express his forthright views against terrorism….. He followed international protocol to the letter and diplomacy to the highest order……” etc, etc, etc.