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Wither Morality

Dec 18, 2010 2:29:04 PM - thesundayleader.lk

Moral politics no longer makes sense. Would any moral policy have worked against the LTTE, now reportedly to be planning zombie attacks against Indian PM Manmohan Singh? Is the US really a moral model, with its 21st century legacy of torture and war? Yet, morality persists. Why? more importantly, how?
The poet Rumi said “We have been secretly fed from beyond space and time. That’s why we look for something more than this.” On some level this is true. Whatever their failings, temples, churches and kovils can be embassies of a higher order in times of crisis. As can, for an atheist, a library perhaps. There is obviously some greater good which even tyrants give lip service to, but there are very few who will put their bodies on the line for it.


These leaders can found moral political orders, usually emerging from crisis. The American Revolution began with tax disputes, but really took off when its founders added the nuclear payload of freedom, justice and democracy. India’s rebellion against English colonisation was powerful in the negative (simply kicking the British out) but Gandhi’s non-violent inspiration made it a positive foundation of what seems to be the future of democracy.
Crisis, however, can just as easily breed despotism and oppression. Take China’s years of post-colonial turmoil, continuing in its repression of speech, religion and humanity. Take Cuba or North Korea’s cases of liberators becoming oppressors just as fast. Morality by leadership, prophetic morality if you will, seems to be a matter of luck.


How, then, does moral governance evolve, and is it bound to evolve at all? Francis Fukuyama was ambitious to proclaim the end of history and say that all nations now were moving towards liberal democracy. It does, however, seem that people who earn more also demand more. Even the American Revolution gave freedom to landowners first, then poor whites,then slaves, then women.That nation still begrudge full civil rights to gays, showing that democracy is an evolution.
While the Magna Carta only guaranteed accountability to nobles, rising fortunes of all led to a slow, non-Constitutional democracy in the United Kingdom. Even in nascent democracies like India, recent scandals have been shown that the wealthy enjoy more access and power than most. At some point in a nation’s fortunes, enough people have money and, since money talks, they get a voice as well. Sri Lanka, however, has not reached this point.
Sri Lanka and other countries were given universal enfranchisement (the vote) at the beginning, unlike, say, American democracy which extended it gradually. This led to a positive focus on universal education and health, essential to the daily survival of all, but these people don’t seem to ask for too much beyond survival. As in, freedom. America’s founding fathers were often wealthy landowners with slave-run estates that had time to demand free speech and assembly, and to read the Enlightenment scholars that provided a moral basis for these rights. Most Sri Lanka voters, however, are concerned with their next meal.
Instead of fundamental rights, they ask for only the most basic humanity. Food, water, shelter and some support for their children. Many seem to seek morality in faith and find only cruel survival in the political world. The current Rajapaksa government is not especially moral, but it has got the basic task of security done, it is building roads and infrastructure, and it is paying lip service to morality through faith. For many people this is enough, but we could actually ask for so much more.

The Point

What, however, is the point of asking for more if it gets you killed, branded a traitor or simply laughed at in polite company? Many faithful readers of this paper may have this problem, where they feel like increasingly lonely voices in the wilderness, saying ‘something is wrong’. The party seems to be going on as usual, with only we lonely few standing at the wall.
There is, however, a point. As more people hopefully rise into economic empowerment, they are going to realise that something is missing. They are going to be concerned about government spending because they pay direct taxes (income, not taxes on spending). They are going to be concerned about government waste because they will see the government is wasting their money.
Right now moral politics is something of a luxury good. People worried about their next meal are understandably happy with stability over ideology. In time, however, people – perhaps even Chinese consumers – will go from demanding more worldly goods to demanding actual good in the world. This seems to be in the nature of democracy.

What Now

Right now, however, defending democracy seems like a lonely battle. What people seem to understand of democracy is that it is a check on feudalism, not an entirely new way of doing things. At some point, however, this developing country will come to a point where people have stability and begin demanding something more. There is a point where people will not be happy with handouts and where they want to have an actual hand in their own affairs.
That time, sadly, is not now, but that time will come. That is why it is important that The Sunday Leader continues to publish, that our readers continue to read and debate, and why it is important to keep a sense of morality in the midst of the cruel realism around. It is a lonely battle, but it is a just one, and there is hope.
Other moral revolutions from the fight against slavery in America to the fight against colonialism in India have seemed difficult and even hopeless, but over time (and given time) masses of people have caught up. Not that they were behind morally, but often because they were simply struggling to survive and couldn’t struggle for anything more abstract. In Sri Lanka, people now seem content with their economic freedom, such as it is, but in time they will be hungry for more than rice and milk powder, they will be hungry for ideas.
It is up to those who do have the time to look at what is going on to remember that this is not moral politics, this is not an efficient government, and this is not the way things have to be. It is up to us to keep this light burning, until everyone gets electricity.