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.