Today, five years after the event, there will be those who still look back to the day for a reassurance that all is still well because it all ended well for those of us who lived to tell the tale with gratitude mixed in with all the glory. Today, four days before another long-forgotten or [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Up with the republic


Today, five years after the event, there will be those who still look back to the day for a reassurance that all is still well because it all ended well for those of us who lived to tell the tale with gratitude mixed in with all the glory. Today, four days before another long-forgotten or half-remembered national landmark or time-post, let us choose to look forward to the day when we can all – without any exception on the grounds of ethnicity, religion, or any other cultural identity marker – look back farther than that. Today, let us look back (say forty-two years, or some half-a-lifetime) and not look back in anger, bitterness, contempt, disgust, enervation, frustration. Today, you and I may have cause to celebrate the victory but justification to rue the ethos of the writers and pedlars of our history and the legacy they seem determined to leave our posterity.

If I had small offerings saved up or stashed away for every time someone mentioned Acton’s axiom that “power corrupts”, I wouldn’t have to be a wage slave in the fourth estate. For inevitably hardly a day goes by these days – today, four days short of Republic Day – that someone, somewhere, does not erroneously invoke that British historian. Glancing about the glory that was once our own republic and now empire on the ascendant, they are bound to say, with a sad and knowing shake of the head: “Power corrupts.”
Actually, Lord Acton intimated that “power tends to corrupt”. And most people who misquote him tend to omit the full flow of his idea. Understanding only too well the weakness of the human soul (will, intellect, emotions), he declared: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.”

Great is not good

In our new empire, we make this mistake far too much and far too often to our detriment. Too many of us assume that political leaders are good because the offices they hold are great. Why else would we lionise ordinary mortals apparelled in the splendour of unconstitutional political office? We vote faithfully for them, hang on their every word, splash their least utterances across the 72-point headlines, invite them to ‘grace’ our functions even after they have disgraced themselves on the national stage, and generally reinforce their own self-induced myth that they are some superior breed of creature or even incarnate deity.

The polity indulges them shamefully – and the politicians let themselves be indulged shamelessly. When voters and votive hangers-on reinforce what the politicos are trying to enforce – that they should be served, appeased, pandered to – the public will find that the cult of the demigod is forced on them.

Look… there they are: about to “ceremoniously declare open” something or be “guest of honour” at something else, all dressed in spotless white “national” costume while harbouring distinctly “antipatriotic” thoughts. And while you get the garlands ready and prepare the banquet, they disrupt the already disturbed traffic and threaten anyone who stands in the way of the politico who will shortly be standing up for an hour, boring everyone to death about how this is the best of all possible states or worlds. The extra half an hour or so that he or she has to stand distributing prizes and making inane and asinine comments on the international conspiracy or the Miracle of the Region is a small price to pay for all the fuss and bother made. Look at us: we are the champions! Even if we have to go through global hell to prove how great we are, and that our badness is the conspiracy of the dull to discredit the good that we did!
The office does not sanctify

Forget politics. At home or in school, we do not always treat our parents and teachers with respect. Much less, then, our elders and our betters. Our peers often get short shrift from us in the competitive, productive, and progress-oriented marketplace. So why are our elected representatives exempt from the general rule that respect must be earned? Is it because they can grant us favours in return for the attention we shower on them or the admiration we pretend to give? Or is it that their power to abuse us brings out the mice in all men (to put it rather politically incorrectly)?

The one entity in the body politic that could change our mindset is the corporate community – for is it not business that kowtows most to the state? Sponsorship at election time, felicitations of politicos alive and commemorations of politicians dead, the naming of public property after the people’s representatives. If these were to discontinue, until a new political culture ensued, a new political culture could very well emerge, and not unless.

The mass-media culture today and perhaps even our education system today, we feel, have been extolling the wrong virtues. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with assertiveness, self-confidence, and the will to succeed. However, taken to the extreme – or interpreted in a milieu where might is right – these could very well degenerate into aggressiveness, overconfidence, and selfishness. Isn’t it time we reintroduced some morality and a sense of proportion into civics, politics, and governance? Or is “service before self” too much to ask of servants of the public – and the republic, not quite yet the empire – who think that public service means that the public must serve them?

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