The stupid modern “Man” and his hushed “conscience”

Over 4 years ago, on a short visit to the US, I was introduced to an Elementary – Teacher in a public school in Brooklyn, at a private party. The adjective for this American was “White” and that distanced him from the Brooklyn majority. What is important here is not that, though. But wait. That may have some relevance to his ignorance. Why not ? He did not know there is a country called “Sri Lanka” now, and that it was “Ceylon” at the time he was born, in the early 60’s. It thus served no purpose to ask this American about Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.* Michael Moore called this ignorant, modern ‘white’ generation, “Stupid White Men”. And they are, or they have to be.

This generation and those before and after them, are those who elect the man or may be a woman next time, to sit in the Oval Office, at the White House. They elected and re-elected George Walker Bush as the 43rd President of the USA from 2001 to 2009. Then again, Barack Hussein Obama II, as the 44th President, from January 2009, still going loud.

These “modern” White Americans are different to that old generation of American men and women, who took to the streets against the Vietnam war. Different to that of Cassius Clay’s generation. Cassius Clay, who in 1967 as Muhammad Ali, refused to be conscripted into the US military to fight the Vietnam war. Arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges, Ali “The Greatest” was stripped of his boxing titles and his license suspended. But he stood firm on his conviction, like all other great men and women of the 60’s.

“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what ? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” Ali is quoted in the book, “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999) by Mike Marqusee.

That certainly was the spirit of the “sixties”. That spirit was electrifying. It wasn’t only Muhammad Ali. Listen to John Lennon. Listen to “Imagine” and the Beatles’ Album, “Revolution”. And then Lennon wrote “Power to the People”. They were not the present day radicals in peripheral art worlds. They were giant musical icons who moved whole continents of anti war youth. Those like Mick Jagger, who took to the streets in London against the American State, waging war on Vietnamese people. Cities in other European countries couldn’t be left empty of anti Vietnam war protests. Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Oslo and Lyon were all having their share of large anti war protests. Very often dominated by college students and artistes.

The US, was obviously into a bigger storm of protests. Joan Baez, her journalist husband David Harris the peace activist, who was later imprisoned for resisting military draft, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Barry McGuire, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, were not alone among thousands of peace activists, who coaxed the American society to condemn war, discuss and debate civil rights, freedom of expression and even the right to protest, in mid and late 60’s, into early 70’s. The “counter culture” movement was pricking the conscience of the American society.

It wasn’t singers and musicians only, who were coming out on the streets. “Throughout the Vietnam war, artists contributed their works, skills and names to the antiwar movement. Pop artists Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Ed Kienholz made works that referenced the war. Alexander Calder designed a button for the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, a national mass protest held in Washington D.C. in 1969. Many African American artists like Cliff Joseph of New York’s Black Emergency Cultural Coalition railed against war.” The “change artist” Mark Vallen reminisced on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the US army in Vietnam.

The large protest at the Pentagon and the much larger protest march to the UN office in 1967, radicalised the “Peace Culture” that was brewing as a counter culture movement.  In 1969, the network of anti Vietnam war activists, fixed the date October 05th as the day for the “National Vietnam Moratorium”. Jasper Johns, the popular American painter was commissioned by the Leo Castelli Gallery of Los Angeles, to design a poster for the occasion that became the most popular poster of the entire anti Vietnam war period. Anti war sentiments in the US ran so high, the National Vietnam Moratorium turned out a stunning success, with university campuses across the US either cancelling classes or lying paralysed by student strikes. Some 30 million Americans, “Black, White and Latino”, participated in some type of protest against US engagement in Vietnam.

The “Spirit of the Sixties”, the developed world in the West, they had a conscience to live with. When Pete Seeger wrote and sang the song in anti Vietnam war rallies, “If you love your Uncle Sam – bring ‘em home, bring ‘em home”, the Americans were tired of seeing their sons fighting a war in a land they did not know and had nothing to do. No, it wasn’t only about their sons and husbands getting killed. They wanted their sons and men brought home from an unwanted war, that had killed over 1.6 million Vietnamese civilians. That’s a conscience to live with.

When the Paris Peace Accord was signed in January, 1973 that brought all American servicemen home, 58,000 American soldiers, their average age 22 years, had died in Vietnam. Over 2.5 million Americans had served in the US army fighting the war in Vietnam, during a 10 year period.

I am now browsing over numbers the modern man of the “developed West” perhaps knows better about. Numbers in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Anti war division of the Randolph Bourne Institute, counts 1.42 million deaths in Iraq, due to US invasion. It says, 448 academics and 348 journalists have been killed too, in Iraq since the US invasion. Since the war began, 4,447 American soldiers have died there. After Barack Obama was inaugurated as President, 219 had died. American soldiers wounded to date, total 33,000, while other estimates lay it at over 100,000.

In Afghanistan, US military casualties account for 1,419 deaths to date. Another 363 British forces personnel have also been killed. The total Coalition forces’ deaths total 2,323 up to March, 2011. Reuters in February, in a “fact sheet” report said, “at least” a total of 401 Afghan civilians were killed in hostile attacks. In March 2011, the UN reported 2,777 Afghan civilians killed in the year 2010 alone, but saying most were due to Taliban attacks. A significant number of civilian deaths account for women and children, responsibility being irrelevant in war.

Despite all the news that come much faster and more accurate to their homes, than it did in the 60’s and the 70’s during the Vietnam war, there are no anti war protests in any city, any university now. No civil movement now says “If you love your Uncle Sam – bring ‘em home, bring ‘em home”. There are no celebrity names, no academics, no artists on front pages of news papers, on TV Talk shows, condemning the Iraq war, holding the US government and its Allies responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq and continuing Drone attacks in Afghanistan. There’s blood in the hands of the Western world, but this millennium, the “civilised” West has lost its conscience. Deaths don’t matter any more to them.

The Student Non violent Co-ordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, American Writers Against Vietnam War, National Black Anti War Anti Draft Union, Washington Peace Center, Catholic Association for International Peace, Vietnam Day Committee, Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and many, many more were sprawling platforms then in the sixties that brought the conscience of the West into loud and unavoidable public display, but wholly absent today with not one, but two major catastrophes unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan. Possibly spreading to North Africa.

The spirit of the sixties have had a slow death in de-civilising the modern man in the West and muting his democracy that now allows war to be waged on any one’s land. It is this man with a dead soul who now runs the world and its apex bodies, the UN, the EU parliament and most other appellate agencies within the world order.

On tradition and on old experience, we are still looking for their solidarity, their intervention. But the wars painfully bleed through humanity. It bled ruthlessly in Sri Lanka. It is bleeding profusely in Palestine, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

How many more societies are still bleeding ? No matter how, this modern West would not speak out as in the sixties. Its the turn of the non developed man in other parts of the world, now, to take the lead. Its their turn to reignite a new counter culture, write and sing for peace and decency. Its their-our- turn to question,

“Who held the riffle ? Who gave the orders ?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land ?
Who manufactured the bullets ? Who paid the taxes ?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands ?”

[from 'Last train to Nuremberg' by Pete Seeger]
Till, as Pete Seeger sang, “We shall overcome….some day”.

Kusal Perera, 15 April, 2011

[written after the UN SG's advisory panel report and in view of the 36th anniversary of “Vietnam Day”, just a fortnight away]


* A pioneer Theosophist from US, considered the first American convert to Buddhism, who arrived in then Ceylon via South India in 1880 May 16, and established the Buddhist Theosophical Society that is accepted as the catalyst and forerunner of modern Buddhist revival in the country, that also established the early Buddhist schools in the country, beginning with the Ananda College, Colombo. Olcott also helped design the “Buddhist flag” which is now the symbol of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.

 

  • MV

    Good article.

    One look at the history textbooks taught in the West, for example, would suggest that slavery had been abolished in the 20th century. We know that is not the case, instead slavery has taken different forms today i.e debt bondage in India, domestic workers, human trafficking, etc. I wonder whether the ‘modern’ man is lacking conscience than those in the 60’s or simply that they have not come to terms with this changing reality.

    Anyway, no conflict today can be viewed in isolation of global context – the geopolitics of Indian ocean, which contributed to the blood shed in the island, is an example.

  • Panabokke

    ”He did not know there is a country called “Sri Lanka” now, and that it was “Ceylon” ….”

    Not very different is:
    Looking at the comments on online articles on Sri Lanka around the world(including the Groundviews), many young Sinhalese do not know anything about i.pre-1983 and ii.what the government has been doing to the Tamils while LTTE was dispensing its quantum of violence – they know only about the LTTE violence. It’s simply illogic, the result of hatred sown through the textbooks.

    Looking at the submissions to LLRC the average age of those who(more than a score of them) were speaking of the discrimination from the time of independence is about 65.
    Unless a reasonable solution is found soon, there is no chance there ever will be.

    Will educators(and other professionals) take note of:

    1.http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/Home/5680782-182/story.csp
    Why education matters for global security, Irina Bokova(Director General, UNESCO), 1 March 2011:
    ‘’ Education must rise on the agenda of peace building. We know the wrong type of education can fuel conflict. The use of education systems to foster hatred has contributed to the underlying causes of conflicts, from Rwanda to Sri Lanka, but also in Guatemala and Sudan.’’

    2.http://transcurrents.com/tc/2009/01/why_sirimavo_refused_to_visit.html
    Why Sirimavo refused to visit Jaffna after 1964 cyclone
    By Neville Jayaweera, 18 January 2009:
    ”…. Building a consciousness of nationhood, or a deseeya cintanaya, is not a responsibility that can be left to politicians and constitutional lawyers. A deseeya chintanaya cannot be legislated, nor can it be secured through structural changes. Unlike a jathika cintanaya, whether Sinhala or Dhamila, which have roots reaching back over two thousand years, the seeds of a deseeya cintanaya have yet to be planted.
    It is pre-eminently an educational task, to be initiated at the level of our schools. It requires a new way of looking at history, and helping young minds climb out of the constraints placed on their understanding by the sectarian myths, legends, and memories that are embedded in their ancient chronicles, whether they relate to their Aryan origins or to their Dravidian origins. This does not mean that children should be ignorant of, much less that they should reject, their rich historical inheritance, but that they should acquire a more global view of history and be equipped with a critical sense that will enable them to stand back and look at their respective narratives more objectively. ….
    Unless and until Sri Lanka can produce leaders who can realize that truth, and are willing to act on it, it will continue to be dismembered by conflict, long after the LTTE and Pirabhikaran have passed into history.”

  • Panabokke

    contd…..

    1. A school honouring ex-soldiers in Vesak(very important Buddhist festival) with student dancers in combat dress depicting guns and Vesak cards with roses on guns:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGhMIgnwZuA
    The Changing face of Wesak in Colombo and Militarizing Sri Lanka, 15 May 2009

    2. GCE Advanced Level(August 2009) Sinhala question paper(prepared by the Department of Education): http://www.lankanewsweb.com/news/EN_2009_08_19_004.html
    (ii) Write an essay with your observations on the belief expressed by some that the various types of arms and ammunition recovered by the security forces after defeating the Tiger terrorists in the humanitarian operation carried out in the north indicated the LTTE’s moving away from its initial target of building a separate Eelam state.
    (iii) There are views expressed that the actions of some non government organizations in Sri Lanka has had an adverse impact on the country’s independence, peace, culture and even development. Write an essay backing your stance with reason.

    3.http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EDUCATION/Resources/278200-1121703274255/1439264-1126807073059/Paper_Final.pdf
    Respect for Diversity in Educational Publication – The Sri Lankan Experience, Ariya Wickrema and Peter Colenso, 2003:
    The Government dominates the educational publications sector in Sri Lanka through its provision of free textbooks to all students from grade 1 to 11 ….
    Tamils not involved in writing the textbooks – Textbooks written in Sinhala, and then translated into Tamil …. full of spelling, grammatical and factual errors ….
    distortion of history …. the history of Sri Lanka is confined to a few selected Sinhala kings …. distorted maps under-represent North and Eastern Provinces; “geographical, social, economical or cultural features” of Tamil communities (including the plantation sector) are not adequately discussed or presented;
    in studying art, the Tamil student only studies Sinhalese Buddhist aspects of art; the textbooks encourage children to develop “apartheid attitudes” …..
    Tamils are portrayed as “aggressors”; forces of the Tamil kings are “mercenaries’ , whereas forces of the Sinhala kings are “soldiers” ….
    War is shown as patriotic while peace is portrayed as cowardice.’’

    4.The Two Faces of Education in Ethnic Conflict: Towards a Peacebuilding Education for Children – Kenneth D Bush and Diana Saltarelli(2000) – published by Innocenti Research Centre, UNICEF:
    ”Ethnic intolerance makes it appearance in the classroom in many ways…… Textbooks have often been shown to contain negative ethnic stereotypes….. A review of the textbooks used in the segregated schools of Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s, for example, found Sinhalese textbooks scattered with images of Tamils as the historical enemies of the Sinhalese, while celebrating ethnic heroes who had vanquished Tamils in ethnic wars. Ignoring historical fact, these textbooks tended to portray Sinhalese Buddhists as the only true Sri Lankans, with Tamils, Muslims and Christians as non- indigenous and extraneous to Sri Lankan history.

    5.Reggie Siriwardene, a well-respected Sinhalese writer, in a well-­documented analysis of the effects of school textbooks on ethnic relations in Sri Lanka(1984):
    “Millions of school children are taught, in the name of social studies, through text-books published by the state, the myths of divergent racial origins which will help to divide the Sinhalese and Tamils for more generations to come… What this lesson does is to evoke the child’s memories of being frightened by his parents with threats of the mysterious and fearful `billo’ to identify these bogeymen as Tamil agents, and thus to enlist the deep-seated irrational fears of early childhood for the purpose of creating apprehension and hatred of Tamils.”

    6. In the 1950s and 1960s Tamil and Sinhalese scholars vehemently protested this but the Education Department that produces the textbooks dismissed their concern.

    The clock must be turned back as soon as possible – beyond a certain threshold it can’t be retrieved – though the thresholds were crossed in 1958, 1977, 1983, etc….

    http://www.llrc.lk/images/stories/docs/Harim%20Peiris.pdf
    Submission by Harim Peiris to LLRC, 7 October 2010:
    ‘’ We may have united the nation geographically, but remain polarized ethno-socially. It is not possible to simultaneously argue the need to maintain Emergency Law, the need for war time levels of defence expenditure and deployment of a network of security installations in the North not found anywhere else in the country and still maintain that the Tamil people are not alienated from the Sri Lankan State. If one needs to maintain security that is more in having to hold a population by force, then one concedes the fact that the people are alienated.”

    • sabbe laban

      Don’t waste your time man! It’s not nice to see a ripe old man acting like a cry baby!

    • sabbe laban

      It’s not simply “ignorant, modern, white man”, but ignorant Black man and Brown man as well! The whole of the Western world is engulfed in a generalized attack of idiocy, according to my experience. Only the really educated and well read people of countries like the USA know ANYTHING ABOUT THE OUTSIDE WORLD! The rest have gone to school, had fun, maybe gone to a college or a University and joined the work force. And all they know is America(or Canada for that matter) and the mysterious conpiracy theories that the ‘government’ is playing on the people. Sometimes I wonder whether these inhabitants in the ultra-modern world could even hold a candle to an average man on the streets in poor and humble Sri Lanka!

  • Panabokke

    MV
    I agree: ”Anyway, no conflict today can be viewed in isolation of global context – the geopolitics of Indian ocean, which contributed to the blood shed in the island, is an example.”

    But the outside factors are able to play only because the inside factors(eg racial hatred, corruption, nepotism, etc…) are very conducive to them.

  • samath

    The ideological warfare waged by the US in the 1960s allowed the flower power movement and other protesters to rally around a common cause and thus act in a united manner.

    Today’s wars are far less centralised and the rapid flow of information in the media has created an era of disinformation where taking a strong stand on a particular matter seems to be increasingly difficult. A good example is the intervention in Libya. Should NATO and the US have gone in? Or should they have refrained and remained relatively indifferent like the African Union, Arab League, Russia and China?

    The very fact that they did decide to intervene shows the power of the public lobby (backed by the media), perhaps more so in Europe than in the United States. Ironically, its the same media and public which initially encouraged regimes to help the endangered Libyans, who seem to be the first to point the finger and accuse their governments of invading the nation with vested interests! With information flowing at such speeds I wonder if its even possible for regimes to even know what their real intentions are or whether they’re modelled on a step by step basis – taking public opinion and economics into consideration.

    The Western public might have got off the streets (although there have been numerous protests against the Afghan and Iraqi wars in london, as well as those against Burma, China’s control of tibet and even protests against the Sri Lankan government attack on civilians in the north) but rather than leave their ideology of democratic peace and humanism behind, i think they have taken it to the next level. Rather than a few protesting on the street, they have become powerful figures, influencing governments and, in the UK for example, dominating media including the BBC. Humanism has got off the streets and entered the office space. Since the 60’s, universities have begun to provide courses in International relations, development studies and similar courses which further show the strengthening of the civil society movement of the west.

    The most recent protests in London saw students protest against the rise of university fees. The extremely well organised protests (which turned slightly violent) did nothing and the bill was passed, although I’m sure the kids had a great time as they were allowed to run wild around the streets of london. The protests at the G20 summit which saw huge crowds gather to protest the world leaders who had descended on London, didnt seem to prove that effective either. Protesting in this fashion just is not effective in the west in this day and age.

    The current Iraq inquiry which has seen Tony Blair being summoned to trial did not come about due the protests held in the streets. the intervention in Libya though prompted by the public, was not done through street protest but by gaining almost universal public support using more advanced media tools.

    I think people who are passionate about such issues in the west have realised that in order to be effective and truly rally public support, public oudoor protest is not the most effective method of gaining more support or to change the agenda of a regime. Instead they have begun to use media effectively as well as connect themselves with likemindd organisations such as think tanks and other NGO’s to further spread their fight for justice, and it seems to be working. The ‘white’ man the author is referring to has transformed into a ‘mulitcoloured modern man’ and he has taken his struggle to a more advanced level than merely outdoor protests. Though protests create a united energy and amazing picture opportunities which an online social website cannot provide, it seems the latter is more effective in lobbying governments, dispensing information and actually creating change.

    • samath

      Having said that, there is growing concern for immigrants within western countries, combined with islamaphobia which is on the increase in Europe especially during the current economic downturn. Though this does tend to create extremist groups (islamist and anti-islamist/immigrant), I feel it would only encourage the ‘White man’ to encourage democratic peace in other countries, in hope of deterring immigrants from wanting to leave their home countries.

      Liek the author, I too would love to see a louder public voice from the people of eastern nations, especially in a time when economic power seems to be shifting east. rich economies sans strong civil societies could create increasingly disparate societies and illiberal democracies supporting each other. It is unfortunate that we are yet to see a protest against the Military junta in Myanmar (whose general was invited by rajapaksa on behalf of all us Sri Lankans) and their attacks on Buddhist Monks. It is unfortunate that Sri Lanka as a country, once stood for the freedom of Palestine, yet under the present regime chose to side with Israel in order to gain from its military armaments. The same can be said of our relationship with China and our neglect of the (Buddhist) people of Tibet.

      We as a society must push the boundaries set by the illiberal democratic parties which continue to govern us and restrict our basic information flow by literally banning the Freedom of information under the pretext of it being a threat to state security. Until we reach that level of democracy we may have to rely on our International partners, bodies and activists in western societies to help us fight our own causes.

  • Savi Hensman

    Actually, about one-and-a-quarter million people turned out on the streets of London in early 2003 to protest against the planned attack on Iraq – probably the biggest demonstration in the history of the UK – and there were huge protests in other parts of Europe. In some cases these persuaded governments to withdraw their soldiers in Iraq. Campaigns continue to end the war in Afghanistan.

    Though there is far more that yet needs to be done in the West, and there are indeed valuable lessons to learn from the 1960s, there are people all over the world who believe that governments everywhere need to be held to account when conflict occurs. But, alas, there are also people all over the world who make excuses when it is ‘their’ government that has acted unlawfully and inflicted suffering on non-combatants.

  • Panabokke

    Just because others have problems doesn’t mean that we shoudn’t think rationally to solve our problems. I’ve been seeing this sort of illogic in many websites when Sri Lankan problem is discussed – instead of discussing how our problem can be solved, respondents come with childish ”so and so have problems”

  • yapa

    “Glorifying Self”

    The writer Kusal Perea wrote two articles “Political Opposition in a Nihilistic Sinhala Society” and “Political Opposition in a Nihilistic Sinhala Society: Responses and clarifications” in Groundviews vehemently criticizing present Sri lankan society for not being able to become a “modern Western Democracy”, because of “Heenayana Buddhist values” of the society that acted against the progress in a nihilistic manner.

    Now he is critical of the present western society coining it as a stupid one. He manes the zenith of modern nations as,

    “These “modern” White Americans are different to that old generation of American men and women, who took to the streets against the Vietnam war.

    He talks of glorious days of 60’s in America, but comfortably forgets evils prevailed in there in 60’s like Apathy, various unjust wars waged against many counties by America. If you do an objective comparative study of good and bad of American societies in 60’s and present time,no one would agree that American society in 60’s was a better one. Then why the writer highlight 60’s.

    This is the result I got after fantasizing about his writings, may be I am wrong, but I would like to use my right of Freedom of Expression.

    60’s was the young days of Kusal Perera. The society he lived young and belong to was a good society, not corrupted like this, due to the good qualities of the young people like Mr. Kusal Perera. Not only the society he lived, all the contemporary societies to his young age were better societies. “People of our young days are good set of people, whose good qualities are intrinsic to to that period of time and such period of time never comes.

    “Giya Lula Maha Eka!”. (The eel swam away was the biggest one.)

    Thanks!

    • sabbe laban

      This could well be the case, Yapa. “Every generation, blames the one before….”

      Maybe the present generation in more self-indulged with all the hi-tech gadgetry of entertainment. The generation at Kusals time definitely had less facilities!

      Suddenly Kusal finds himself praising the societies like the “Nihilistic Heenayana Buddhist” Sri Lanka, after he personally experienced the ignorance of a certain White Man! Enlightenment?