Occidentalism: in the thrall of the “West“
The “Godayata magic“ of Oxford
There is a storm engulfing this country “ not the incessant rains and consequent floods that have brought much suffering especially to the rural poor and urban slum dwellers. Rather, it is a storm over the failure of our Head of State (somehow “President“ seems inadequate to describe Our Great Leader) to gain access to the podium of a student debating society in a distant foreign land “ a debating society that does not even speak our languages at that! This comment focuses on the cultural contradiction we are seeing being acted out in this reversal of Orientalism: the plague of Occidentalism.
All the hue and cry and Parliamentary fisticuffs currently on-going seems to be about expressing outrage at this humiliating exclusion, condoling the Great Leader for his great loss, probing the causes of this huge debacle, identifying the operational lapses that led to it, and finding and targeting of the officials and other individuals deemed responsible for this violation of This Nation“s Right to be heard on that distant and exotic podium. Everyone who could be blamed is not merely being blamed but is being summarily dealt with “ no due process, let alone dignified process here. Rather, in true accordance with our great civilisation, nothing less than the august legislative chamber of our Dharma Dveepa was the first scene of a violent reaction. And then, of course, in the very name of our Great and Sovereign Nation (or “Race“? Am never sure since the all the sloganeering and shouting is in Sinhala), there is the, now ritual, raucous public agitation against the embassy of the Suddaa. I wonder whether there will be a “fast-unto-death“ (how ridiculously Biblical English is this Sri Lankanised re-wording of “death fast“!). In every way, clearly, the focus of outrage is this loss access to the podium at Oxford, not anything else. The anger against the Tamil Diaspora in this instance is about the stymieing of entry to Oxford. So, it is all about “Oxford“. Why is Oxford so important?
The Sinhalas may deprive the defenceless ethnic minorities of national recognition of their language, Tamil, but the Sinhalas themselves are busy frantically learning English and insisting that everyone in the country must learn English. In my childhood “Elocution“ was the fetish, although my most Anglicised parents disdained sending us for Elocution classes like other parents did their children on the grounds that our English is “perfect“ both in pronunciation “ sorry, enunciation “ as well as in grammar and idiom.
In later years I did thank my parents for my “perfect“ kaduva, as I watched far richer, infinitely more powerful, panjandrums and clawing and cloying would-be potentates cowering and struggling to match my impeccable enunciation (they didn“t even know what it meant) as they talked of “biscuts“ and wrote “looser“ when all they should have written was “loser“. The new rich still insist that “we need English to develop“, and send their children to English tuition at age 5 years!“ This mentality, of course, plays into the hands of the Anglicised (some post-Anglican) elite, who, worried about their waning cultural supremacy and ignorance of the vernaculars, promote English as the “link language“ and language of “development“ (another Occidentalist fetish) for all Sri Lankans!
Now we find that the most Sinhala supremacist and ultra-nationalist governing regime this country has seen (so far) is unashamedly going ga-ga over their favourite Bhoomiputhraya being invited to London (streets paved with gold) to speak to the “most prestigious“ Oxford Union of the “great“ Oxford University. Just days before Mahinda Rajapakse emplaned with tax-payers“ money to London, other government politicos were continuing their lambasting of “western imperialism“ and of imperialist “conspiracies“ using the Tamil diaspora and Tiger terrorists to undermine glorious Sri Lankan (read Sinhala-Buddhist) “civilisation“.
Just look at what the country“s First Gentleman, Head of State, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and prosecution-immune, all-powerful Executive President has done. Notwithstanding having previously emplaned at taxpayers“ cost to Oxford the first time he was invited a few years back, he got set to go, yet again, to a second invitation by that university student debating society. And His Excellency goes to all the trouble to strategise over weeks and months over the most opportune moment to visit the United Kingdom (I think “Kingdom“ increasingly touches a chord these days) without being arrested for war crimes and evading Tamil protests. He even spends more taxpayers money (both logistical costs as well as paid public service time) to send the country“s Minister of External Affairs merely to check out the lay of the land before his own private foray West. I am certain many officials of the External Affairs Ministry as well as the Presidential Secretariat (not to mention Srilankan Airlines) spent considerable taxpayers“ time and resources in consulting, communicating, analysing and assessing; all on this single project of getting Mahinda Rajapakse to “ what?
That is the question I raise: what has been the objective of all this Presidential effort; our First Public Servant“s endeavours? The objective has been to speak not just once, but twice, on the podium of a university student debating society! “Haaa“!“ some people might say, “This is not any old student society, but the OXFORD University student debating society!“
And THAT is the whole point of this comment. What exactly is the significance of the OXFORD student debating society over, say, the Jawaharlal Nehru University student debating society or the Beijing University student debating society, or the Columbia or Princeton University student debating society (if they have this kind of student extra-curricular activity), or, for that matter, the Colombo University student debating society? It must be noted that the Oxford Union is not any serious university student political movement, as such. The Oxford Union is merely an extra-curricular activity body “ a debating society – just like it is in Mahinda College or Royal College or Ananda College. The people who would attend a session of the society would be the student undergraduate and graduate members (usually more undergrad kids than grad) “ certainly not the bulk of the university“s student body nor the bulk of the faculty.“ And certainly no major opinion leaders of the UK or business leaders or political leaders would be attending. Thus the influence of the speaker making the speech hardly goes beyond the young minds of those students attending the lecture and, via a sycophantic media of the speaker“s own country, the minds of the Sri Lankan media audience “ especially the Sinhala rural masses.
If, for example, President Obama addresses the Beijing University student body, he does not aim to influence Chinese business or policy makers. He does that by meeting them directly. In addressing Chinese students in a staged session on campus he aims at creating a certain “social outreach“ which, too, depends on massive media coverage which then transmits the session to a large Chinese general society audience. And that is why such special sessions with students are deliberately staged by the host country and is done so as an item on an official visit agenda.
The Sri Lankan president was not functioning in such circumstances of a nationally staged session with students with massive media and public attention at all. Thus his Oxford speech would certainly not have made headline news in the UK. Even the Tamil agitation, sensational as it tried to be, did not make major headlines in the UK “ fortunately for Rajapakse and for our country!
Then what is the significance of “Oxford“, if it does NOT provide a major influence platform? The significance is the perceived social acceptance and recognition given to someone who places major value on such recognition. Recognition by what and whom? Recognition by the mainly undergraduate students of one of the world“s elite educational institutions, but more so, by an institution which, among certain social circles, has a very high social class status. Oxford, along with Cambridge, is where the British Lords and Ladies were educated and sent their children to be educated (if they made the grade); it is where the world“s rich society and aristocratic-rich society gets educated and sends there children to be educated.
Because Sri Lanka was colonised by the British, Britain, more than any other imperial western power, looms large in the yet colonially subservient mentalities of many Sri Lankans “ fortunately a decreasing number. For people of former Francophone Africa, the Sorbonne may loom similarly large “ at least among those who place value on such colonial attributes. But the Sorbonne, in republican France, cannot boast of patronage by royalty or aristocracy. For colonised Sri Lanka “ the most westernised society of all SAARC countries “ Oxford obviously is a much desired goal, just as much as “England“ is a desired goal. I have heard stout Sinhala-Buddhist patriots argue that they would much prefer a second colonisation by Britain to domination by India!
And such is nature of human desire and aspiration, that when one so intensely desires something and yet one cannot and never will achieve that desire, one can begin to hate and revile the object of that intense desire. I suspect that it is this spiritual subservience and the desire arising from it and, consequently, the rage of frustration by those social classes with no hope of attaining such goals, which gives rise to the extremity of ultra-nationalism, of xenophobia and anti-European anger that is encouraged and bursts forth from may corners of our country.
President Premadasa played to this gallery of “godayas“ when he went about the country implanting bits of dazzling “Kolamba“ and bits of “hi-tech“ magic in his various “Gam Udaava“ exhibition sites. We see the same in the current “Deyata Kirula“ tamashas. But Premadasa himself was politically sophisticated enough not to be too naively subservient to such cravings himself.
Not so the current social groups that have clawed their way (at long last) to state power in our democratic socialist republic. To them the “magic“ of “Engalanthaya“ “is real. It is the land of The Queen and the Lords and Ladies, and the fairy tale Prince and Princess. Such is the construct of Occidentalism. Just as much as the Europeans, arising from the colonial experience, have their construction of the “Oriental“ Being, so do the Orientals have their own, colonially mediated “Occidental Being“ construction of the Europeans, the Suddaas. And it is an interesting irony that some of the very people who, out of their ultra-nationalist and xenophobic fervour, revile the West, are those who now set so much store in “attaining“ Oxford and feel so deprived and humiliated that the grapes of Oxford are not theirs for the plucking. That is the paradox of Sinhala supremacism, a paradox that reveals the inner dynamic, the inner pathology, of the supremacist mentality: the Sinhala supremacists so lust for what they revile and reject.
The Anglicised elite, as it sneers at the “accents“ and misspellings and mixed metaphor of the “yakkos“ and “godayas“, is also subservient to such a Occidentalist construct and their own obsession with “bling“ serves to perpetuate the neo-colonial ideology among the masses who yearn and rage at their failure to attain what the elite already possesses.
And so our country must suffer the ignominy of botched attempts by the socially deprived and the socially depraved to attain the illusion, the mirage, of Oxford.
If our President had managed to evade the demonstrators and sneaked out of side doors and entered through back doors and made his speech in Oxford, he would have brought to Sri Lanka the dubious honour of being the only head of state of any country who has gone to all this effort and public expense to speak at a distant foreign student debating society for a second time.
Is this the “honour“ that Sri Lankans, mainly Sinhalas, sought when they voted en masse in 2004 for a politician who promised “peace with honour“? Is this the greatness of Sinhala civilisation that is now being hailed in the aftermath of a “great“ military victory?