Disaster Management, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict

Calling a spade a spade: Michael Roberts’ ‘moral relativism’

Dear Sanjana,

I am responding to Michael Roberts’ two articles Dilemmas at wars end: Hard realities (article-A)  and  Dilemmas at wars end: Clarifications and counter offensive (article-B) published on Groundviews, and since about half of article-B was devoted to the counter offensive aimed at Lionel Bopage and me, I do hope you will give this response equal prominence. The counter offensive B was to thwart a presumed offensive from Bopage and me, and in so far as I was involved the ‘offensive’ (pun intended) was a very brief comment which I posted on Groundviews. In the comment I asserted that Roberts, on balance, had strayed beyond scholarship and placed himself at the service of chauvinism and behaved like an apologist for one of the protagonists (the state) in a race war. He seems to feel that instead of calling a spade a spade I christened it a bloody shovel; so be it, bloody shovel it was.

Serving mammon
Now here is what he says in article-B. “Let me stress, too, that I was fully alive to the fact that Sinhala chauvinists would use my essay as a prop in their virulent activities“. Yes these are his own words. That is, fully cognisant of the miasma of poisonous racism in the country, knowing that an ethnic civil war was in full cry, Dr Roberts chose to write an essay that could be used as a prop by Sinhala chauvinists. This is mind-boggling, stunning! Instead what Roberts finds “quite mind-boggling” is that Bopage and I take up what he contends is an extremist position in defence of human rights; but more on that anon.

Roberts’ anxieties of being used as a prop by chauvinism have been borne out. Article-A has become music to chauvinist ears and been inducted into their arsenal. It has been appreciatively reproduced in the pro-war media and quoted by those who concur with Roberts’ definition of a “dictatorial, fascist” LTTE. What separates Roberts’ two documents from useful scholarship on the national question in Sri Lanka is his consistent failure to understand that the LTTE, as with many such organisations, is both a terrorist excrescence as well as an expression of the Tamil national liberation movement. The bottom line is who used article-A, and for what purpose? The answer is just what Roberts was “fully alive” to. Then why did he do it? The charitable reply is: Search me!

I know Michael Roberts personally and doubt that he planned to prop up chauvinism or pander to a state with “fascist tendencies and an unsavoury recent history involving some (sic) atrocities, media intimidation and other misdemeanours” (B). Then his “fully alive” perplexes me and I prefer to conjecture that article-A was a blunder and instead of acknowledging this Roberts simply digs himself into a deeper hole with his counter offensive.

Serving another mammon
Article-A recounts how German and Japanese civilian populations suffered carpet bombing, were denied medical supplies and had to cope without food as a consequence of British and American war policy. He summarises atrocities by nations that are now pleading for human rights in Sri Lanka. Surely he is aware that he is making common cause with those who would blunt these pleas, as when he writes: “The present demands of Western spokespersons in the Sri Lankan context appear to have conveniently forgotten this past example from within their space“.

Why choose this moment to propagandise that the British and Americans committed to a concept of “total war” in World War II and “did not relent“? Why just now when Western human rights bodies and diplomatic networks are appealing for a cessation of hostilities? Does Roberts believe that he can partake of ivory tower scholarship in writings destined for the public domain in the midst of war? His sentiments have been picked up with delight by warmongers and xenophobes whose very point is: ‘The Brits and the Yanks indulged in violations which by today’s standards would be judged war crimes; then who devil are they to tell us to stop bombing hospitals in LTTE areas, or not treat civilians in uncleared localities as enemy combatants, or spare ‘traitors’ in the press corps?’ This is the lobby that Roberts’ has pandered to; he has added grist to the mill of xenophobes and militarists.

Moral relativism
Dr Roberts counts Bopage and me as human rights extremists (HRE), rather like those addicted to too much of a good thing. We dwell, it seems, in the “Himalayan heights of ethical righteousness“. And what exactly does our righteousness, “without foundations in the ground realities“, consist of; what have ‘HREs’ like us been asking for that is so unpalatable to Roberts and his ilk? I will tell you: Stop all bombing, artillery shelling and firing into civilian encampments even if LTTE cadres are hiding there, no more extra judicial killing of young Tamils in the north and elsewhere, stop murder and intimidation of newspapermen. These ‘extremisms’ have now been endorsed by the European Parliament, and repeated in British House of Commons statements and in US Senate testimony. In his own words: “I just asked the HR agencies to reveal greater balance in their presentations when speaking to an ignorant outside world” – some assortment of ignoramuses in the outside world! Presumably Roberts would like us to have more empathy with the slide to authoritarianism, a balanced appreciation of extrajudicial over-kill, and to show greater poise in clobbering journalists.

And what would Roberts have to say of the no less severe indictment that Bopage and I often make of LTTE terrorism, its usurpation of Tamil democratic rights, eviction of the Muslims and murder of Rajiv Gandhi? Logically, he would be constrained to say that this is further evidence human rights extremism. Presumably we and others like us, UTHR for example, must be deemed to own two dwelling places on “a Mount Meru of ethical righteousness”. Or does he get hot under the collar only when we flay the state?

Finally we learn that David “is subsumed within his manic Manichean condemnation of Roberts“. Manic! What hyperbole but let it pass; and what about Manichaeism?  A rough and ready description of Manichaeism is; ‘a religious system based on the belief of a conflict between light and darkness which teaches that self-knowledge is the path to recovering one’s true self’. Are Bopage and David’s fairly modest demands in respect of human and democratic rights manic Manichaeism, or has Roberts become a moral relativist? A moral relativist is one who hastens to compromise with iniquity and injustice on the pretext of laying “foundations in ground realities“.

When simple folk do it we call them apologists, when the well schooled bring their scholarship to bear for these unbecoming ends, it is moral relativism.

  • useless

    See the problem is that some people don’t realise the bigger chauvinist inside them! There are so many responses to Dr Roberts article because it has credence and truth in every word he said and it has struck a chord with another bunch of chauvinists. I never saw these concerned good fellows get agitated against articles defending atrocities by the LTTE. Nor do they realise that in times of fighting evil there are hard realities to comprehend. Which is what Dr. Roberts in my view tried to convey. Not plead allegiance to a side!! History has shown over and over examples of this as Dr. Roberts have expressed. Whatever the reason the man has made his point of view heard in a society that values freedom of speech and ideas. These poorly constructed “responses” only add to Dr. Roberts credence.

  • the last line defining moral relativists is on the spot. i would rather call dr roberts an apologist. its unbelievable that people like michael roberts, victor ivan (and to a lesser extent to the surprise element) dayan jayatilleke have all become apologists of this regime. actually i shoudnt be surprised. its naive on my part to have expected better from these gentleman. by the way dr roberts article is now on GOSL's official website: http://www.priu.gov.lk/opinion/opinion4.html. they must be very proud of having it there. i am sure dr roberts is also happy.

  • Velu Balendran

    Everyone shuts up when a spade is called a spade!
    Well done Kumar

  • A.R. M. Imtiyaz

    Dear Lionel,

    I just read your rejoinder to Dr. Robert's article on the LTTE in groundviews.

    First, I agree with your understanding about the LTTE. I was really appalled to read Dr. Robert's views. I am sure those who prostituting their knowledge for power or serve power would love to stomach to Robert's ideas. Dayan is well know intellectual prostitute, sorry for my language, but this is the way my uncle, Mr. Abou Yousuf (former EPRLF led administration's [only one Muslim] minster and Dayan'c colleague at the EPRLF admin.), calls him –due to Dayan's well known ,but ugly service to the successive sinhala administrations and its running dogs.

    second,for me, whether the LTTE employed ugly tactics, or it negatively hurt the Tamil resistance, history will address these questions. But it is sheer shame to support the oppressive forces and to justify their brutal actions and war, simply saying the group representing the oppressed employs terrorism. These justifications are highly political and clearly aimed to serve power and its elites as well as running dogs of the Sinhala power.

    Third, As long as quislings (Dayan's buddies such as Devanda, Karuna) dominate the Tamil polity, it is kind of safe to assume that the Tamil extremists (likes of the LTTE) who pose serious challenges to the Sinhala state would dominate years to come even after the demise of the LTTE. I just wrote a piece to on this issue to Sundayleader. I don't know they would give space for my views.

    And the last, let me wrap uo this email in your words–because that is what precisely I have been sharing for a while-

    “I am no admirer of the LTTE or of its ideological and military tactics, but I do not hesitate to recognise that it does represent a sizeable proportion of Tamil political spectrum and aspiration. So it is politically untruthful to claim that any true rapprochement can be conducted or achieved without their participation. This will be the reality. Those politicians and bureaucrats who claim a settlement can be gained without the LTTE seem to be deluding themselves.”

  • bishan

    I have been reading these articles with interest. Thanks for all your viewpoints and perspectives.

    There seems to be a simple difference of opinion her as to what the majority of the Tamil population feel with regards to the LTTE. Surely a more scientific answer to this question would be the best solution.

    "but I do not hesitate to recognise that it does represent a sizeable proportion of Tamil political spectrum and aspiration."

    Perhaps this is true, but please define "sizeable" and please let me know how you make this judgment? What is the sample you used to survey opinion of Sri Lankan Tamils? (please send a link to the study and methodology if it is available) Without a systematized well designed survey we are often left with "convenience sample" – ie people we move with, and not the people who we don't generally associate with – and we assume that this judgment is generalizable.

    Agreed, that such a survey would be difficult to carry out, especially given that LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation in most countries and now Sri Lanka also. However, with a little ingenuity and if it were recognised to be important, I think a more scientific answer to the question of Tamils Sri Lankan's allegiance with the LTTE and or their views would be possible.

    Otherwise the crux of this argument consists of largely speculation and opinion

    thanks
    bishan

  • Dear Bishan, this issue is so sensitive that only few people like Lional can talk straight and call spade is a spade. Normally, you will hardly find people express their views freely. It is not worth the risk. Therefore, any statistical method chosen to judge the population will not give us the correct indication. In other wards, any samples chosen will not represent the true standing of the thamil population.

    Secondly, the point in question is time, circumstance, and territory dependant. It is subjective and people are confused and they lost themselves. In other wards, they lost their clear and conscious mind. People are starving without food and dying without medicine and hospitals. Please put yourself in their(people in vanny) position and ask the question again.

  • Dear Bishan, this issue is so sensitive that only few people like Lional can talk straight and call spade a spade. Normally, you will hardly find people express their views freely. It is not worth the risk. Therefore, any statistical method chosen to judge the population will not give us the correct indication. In other wards, any samples chosen will not represent the true standing of the thamil population.

    Secondly, the point in question is time, circumstance, and territory dependant. It is subjective and people are confused and they lost themselves. In other wards, they lost their clear and conscious mind. People are starving without food and dying without medicine and hospitals. Please put yourself in their(people in vanny) position and ask the question again.

  • cdw

    If I understand this debate among you all, the issue of what are the ideals/ objectives, and how to achieve them (method, or means), did not get separated and cleanly discussed. Kumar David and Bopage seem to take the high-ground and insist on the human-rights stuff, but fail to see that the government is also claiming that they are doing all this to uphold the human rights of the Tamils who are in the clutches of the
    Tigers. The Tigers are also claiming that they are doing all this to uphold the human rights of the Tamils. So i think it should have been a discussion of the efficiency/validity of the methods (i.e., means for achieving g the HR objectives). But instead it seems to have become a discussion about the ideals and ends (where I think, every one is in agreement) – Here KumarDavid and Bopage have struck a cheap holier than thou tone and got away with it.

    [ However, if the objective were the achievement of the Marxistt Utopian, then KD and Bopage would presumably claim that the end justifies the means!!!!
    oral relativsm indeed]

  • nadesan

    I think CDW has hit the nail. The Human rights people are talking about ideals and everybody (including Roberts and all right thinking people) agree on this. The issue is about the MEANS to achieve ENDS. The Marxist “left-thinkers”, the Eelamists, the JVP, Pol Pot and the Fascists have claimed that the “end justifies the means”. So, when Kumar David and Bopage come forward as champions of Human rights, they are the “prostitutes” who have changed hue because they want to defend the LTTE. The LTTE has done to the Tamils what neither the Sinhalese, nor the Portuguese could do – i.e., reduce the Tamils from a thriving 18-20% to a mere 8% or perhaps even less, living under the thumb of the LTTE. The Tamils enjoyed leadership in banking, commerce and the professions in the 1950-1960s, and were far more influential in the country than our 18% population. But due to the extra-parliamentary political agitation of the Tamil parties, we roused political hostility against us, and lost everything.

    t would be like the Jews in New York agitating for Yiddish Language rights and launching civil-disobedience against the US government!.
    The crack-down would be swift and unmerciful. But the Sinhala governments have dithered and gone at it in fits and starts, allowing the LTTE to rear its ugly head.

    We created and funded a terror group because of this cry for “Tamil Homelands”, when most of us come to Colombo when we can afford it, and then leave for Canada when we can cobble up even more funds.

  • david

    Yes, Discussing the ENDs separately from the MEANS would bring clarity to this debate. Every one agrees on the ENDS. It is the MEANS to achieve the ENDS that are being debated.