by Dr.Dayan Jayatilleka
“The contest is never over, the field never quite ours.”- Dave Robicheaux in James Lee Burke, ‘The Tin Roof Blowdown’ (2007)
Is it only me, or is not sad that there is no review in the Sri Lankan public space, of the first decade of the 21st century and the new millennium?
Should we not be looking back at the road that has been travelled by the world, by our country and ourselves as individuals?
At the global level, we experienced 9/11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the overstretch of the USA and the West due to the Iraq war, the rise and fall (and now the incipient return in a vicious grassroots form) of neo-conservative ideology in the West, the erosion of the West’s soft power reserves and consequent global standing due to hawkish unilateralist militarism, the revival of that soft power and resultant recuperation of some measure of that global prestige through the breakthrough Obama moment and his multicultural new centrist discourse, the emergence of a new left or new social democratic Latin America, the return of Russia as a strong international player, the economic power shift to Asia, acting as engine of an Asian Renaissance and the emergence of what is variously termed a New Asian modernity, an Asian Alternative modernity or a Post-Western Modernity.
At the level of political ideas, thought and leadership- my favourite field of inquiry- the most exciting developments come from a widely diverse set of sources or impulses: the surge of the Latin American democratic populist left as most successfully represented by Lula, the model of Asian meritocratic modernity as exemplified by China and Singapore, the ‘soft power’ success of India under the Congress, Obama’s inspired and inspiring oratory and literary brilliance, the robust rational statism (labelled ‘sovereign democracy’) of Vladimir Putin, and the stream of contemporary commentary by Fidel, the Old Testament prophet in the new millennium.
Sri Lanka as a society began the millennium and the century with a patchy period of vacillation (retreat from Elephant pass, retention of Jaffna), and as the decade wore on experienced years of appeasement, retrenchment and bitter humiliation as state and community. The Sri Lankan ‘Southern’ Risorgimento came in the decade’s second half, when the country took the hit of the tsunami, rallying better than did Louisiana, a state of the world’s sole superpower after Hurricane Katrina, and moving into a fight-back against one of the post World War II era’s worst terrorist formations (a Jim Jones mass suicide cult with a navy and air-force instead of Kool-Aid, says Robert Kaplan in ‘Monsoon’, citing an authoritative American researcher), prevailing over it and reunifying the territory of the island. As a postscript we rolled back by means of the vote, a possible tilt away from the principle of elected civilian leadership, long cherished in Sri Lanka.
We have proved ourselves a country and a community that cannot be pushed around, will not retreat beyond a point without rallying. Our resilience and resolve, stemming from a continuous collective awareness of selfhood and situation, should not be underestimated.
Opinion on and off the island, and on and of it, divides up between those who see the post-war glass as half full and those others who see it as half empty. There are of course those at the lamentably thick (in its descriptive and British colloquial senses) fringes who see it as a cup running over or wholly empty. Painfully aware as I am that the most progressive war against secession in the modern era, the American Civil War, was not devoid of scorched earth tactics and was followed by the ghastly years of Reconstruction and decades of Jim Crow, I know that most mornings after in History dawn upon a more sluggishly prosaic reality than the heroic promise of the night before.
I trust and value the modest potentialities of electoral empowerment, democratic re-openings and representation, just as I recognise the power of the larger reality, the need of even the most myopically self centred collective consciousness to take account of the environment in order to survive, and the wisdom of my father’s words that just as Donne was right and no man is an island, in today’s Age of Information and economic globalisation “no island is an island either”.
As an analyst-commentator I have had the satisfaction of seeing some of what I advocated in my writing and public statements over the decade, achieve fruition. In the battle of ideas that accompanied the wars of the decade, I struggled against appeasement and for the defeat of the LTTE, as well as the safeguarding of the sovereignty of states in the face of externally imposed outcomes such in Kosovo and Iraq and for the vision of a multi-polar world.
Less grandly I have pushed for the replacement of the removal of the comprador, anti-national leadership of the main Opposition party, with a more patriotic and social democratic one. I have seen some of these struggles succeed, participated actively in some others (e.g. at the UN special session on Sri Lanka in May 2009 facing the boys in Miliband’s band, plus tens of thousands of Tiger flag waving demonstrators, the human rights and humanitarian lobbyists and the western media offensive), and am perhaps on the verge of seeing a positive generational, leadership and ideological change in the mainline domestic opposition.
The new century hit me exactly halfway between the deaths of my father and my mother, sharply etching the adjective in the defining lifetime designation of ‘only child’, except that this was a man entering his mid-forties. Nietzsche was the greatest help, but as the first decade of the third millennium ends, the minds I continue to find the most politically penetrative are a pair on opposite sides of the barricades of crisis and war, revolution and counter-revolution: Antonio Gramsci and Carl Schmitt. A personal pick of this decade’s thinkers would be Slavoj Zizek with his irreverent, retro-chic Leninism, and Kishore Mahbubani, evangelist of the Asian Resurrection.
The decade’s reading is ending in the company I commenced it, with the fiction of Elmore Leonard (tagged by Dennis Lehane as “the greatest crime writer who ever lived”), James Lee Burke (described by the LA Times as “hardboiled...neo-existentialism”), George Pelecanos and Walter Mosley. Two very different films, ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘The Hurt Locker’ are my movie picks of the decade, Jack Nicholson directed by Scorsese in ‘The Departed’, Javier Bardem in the ‘Coen Brothers’ ‘No Country for Old Men’, Uma Thurman and David Carradine in ‘Kill Bill 2’ and Jet Li in ‘Hero’ and ‘Fearless’ are my favourite pieces of acting, while ‘The Wire’ and ‘Justified’, were the most addictive television of these years.
Deaths of parents and assassinations of friends, another divorce, marriage to Sanja in Brisbane and peace, contentment, satisfaction and equilibrium in personal life after the right choice of life-partner at last, a doctorate quickly accomplished after two decades long interruption due to political activism, a book published in the UK and US on a non-Lankan, non-Asian subject collecting some decent reviews and classified as political philosophy, rotation between university pedagogy, op-ed commentary, diplomacy and think-tank research, a battle or two won against the enemy outside and the demons within, a prized photograph with Brazil’s Lula while he peruses my book on Fidel (placed next to the one of my parents seated chatting with Indira Gandhi), listening up close to Leonard Cohen, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, the decade shows up positive on a balance sheet. Whatever the disappointments and frustrations, it did close out with a collective win, following a protracted struggle, over an implacable foe.
I’ve spent the better part of the 21st century’s opening decade overseas, on four continents— America, Europe, (East) Asia and Australia. I’ve also written quite a bit over those years; political writings, written politically; interventions in “the battle of ideas” (Marti, Fidel). However, with an imminent return to representing my country Sri Lanka in the international arena, it’s going to be a short goodbye. Au Revoir.