From The Impossible To The Inconceivable

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Sunday, November 9th, 2008

Something beautiful happened in America last Tuesday. It was not simply the election of a black man as president of what is arguably the most conservative of the world's developed countries. It was the realisation by the American people that the cause of human progress transcends that of human prejudice.

'Evolution' has structured humans - indeed, all animals - to be racist. Our genes dictate that we mate only with our own kind which, for the most part, we find more attractive than all other kinds.  Although biologists now recognise all of humanity's races to be equally human, this was not always so.

Carl Linnaeus who first it was in 1758 that gave humans their name, Homo sapiens, assigned many of the world's other races to different species, such as Homo americanus, Homo europaeus and Homo africanus. While race no doubt offered evolutionary advantages (e.g., by giving local people a monopoly of local resources to the exclusion of outsiders), it also made it easier to distinguish 'us' from 'them.' That was the down side. Like all animals, humans too, have a propensity to treat members of other 'kinds' with less sympathy than they do their own. Hence the well-known social hierarchy we unthinkingly recognise today: progeny, kin, in-laws, friends, race, species - in that order.

We kill and eat other species or exterminate them as pests while making it a crime to treat our own species likewise. In order to justify the extermination of the Jews to the German people, Hitler resurrected the idea that human races represent species, and that Jews represent a lower species - untermenschen - subhumans. Thus it is also in Sri Lanka that many Sinhalese do not turn a hair at the idea of ongoing aerial bombardment of Tamil terrorists in the north. They seem to accept that it is somehow possible to target with pinpoint accuracy a terrorist from 5,000 feet in the air. Yet, the far less powerful suicide bomb that killed Janaka Perera was targeted to within six inches and nevertheless killed 30 innocent bystanders of our own kind - hence our outrage.

And there would have been outrage in 1971 and 1990 too, if in order to eliminate JVP terrorists, the government took to bombing their strongholds in Matara, Akuressa or Weerawila.

While most people still carry the odious baggage of racism bequeathed us by 'evolution,' modern humanism has set increasingly higher standards for human societies. One by one, we uproot the last vestiges of the animal in us as we strive to be more like gods. But while the preaching of egalitarianism - the proposition that all men are created equal - in Asia began long before it did in the West, the practice has lagged along way behind. That is how it was that in 1834 the colonial government made it compulsory for slaves to be registered in the Central Province of Sri Lanka, where slavery was still common practice. And how it was the Colebrook-Cameron Commission of 1833 that first called for the abolishment of rajakariya: forced labour. And indeed how, even today, to become a clergyman of the Siyam Nikaya one has to be born into the Goigama caste. And as for women being admitted to that clergy, well... the cows haven't come home yet.

The transformation of Europe has been even more dramatic. Few societies have gone as far in criminalising racism, sexism and other manifestations of bigotry as the Europeans have. None of this makes Europeans, Americans or Australians less racist, but it does commit them consciously to the ideal that all humans, though certainly not created equal, must be treated as being equal. Perhaps even more than the information technology revolution, when the history of our time comes to be written on the millennial scale, the 21st century will be remembered as the age in which institutionalised prejudice was finally eliminated. It is only in that age that the Sinhalese will finally come to regard the bombing of Tamils as being equally abhorrent as bombing their own kind. For that is what distinguishes the rest of us from terrorists, who are equally given to killing their own kind, just as the LTTE has slaughtered countless Tamils and al Qaeda countless Muslims. When governments adopt terror, however, it is time to shake our heads.

It is into this great tide of history that America swept Barack Obama last Tuesday. Racial prejudice is certainly not dead in America, but the inability to rise above it surely is. And it is to that ability that we must doff our hats. Whichever way one slices Obama's victory, two facts stand out: he received 52% of the popular vote, and only 14% of Americans are black. And that compares extremely well with recent white presidents: Bill Clinton, 1992: 43%; 1996, 49%; George Bush, 2000: 47%; 2004: 50.7%. Barack Obama was elected then, by a preponderant majority of white Americans in an election in which his race was statistically inconsequential.

That is not to say, however, that fate has dealt Obama an excess of picture cards. The memorable lines of Sir Tim Rice in the musical Evita come to mind:

Now Eva Peron

Had every disadvantage you need

If you're going to succeed

No money, no class, no father, no bright lights

His father abandoned him when he was two, and saw him again only once, when he was 10. While his mother worked as an anthropologist, he was brought up by his grandmother. While still in high school he was smoking marijuana and shooting cocaine, well on the way to being the loser fate had cut him out to be. But fate had not reckoned with the American system and the opportunities it offers those who accept its ways, and from his 18th year, hard work and opportunity changed his trajectory into the one we are coming to know so well.

What is perhaps most striking about Barack Obama is his refusal - unlike many African Americans - to acknowledge his 'blackness' or his 'Africanness.' He conducts himself and sees himself simply as an American. There is a lesson in that for the thousands of Sri Lankan ‚migr‚s now naturalised in Western societies who seek to seclude themselves in 'Little Sri Lankas,' the ghettos that have sprung up Melbourne, Toronto and East London. Not only do they fail to assimilate, but accuse others who do of being kalu suddhas.

Indeed, it is among these communities, comprising those who have forsaken their motherland, that one finds the most zealous extremists on either side, whether they be supporters of the Hela Urumaya or Tamil Tigers. Their children, hamstrung by parental bigotry, by and large, also fail to assimilate. They become misfits both in their adopted country and in Sri Lanka. In many cases, the parents seek to find spouses of like race, caste and religion for their offspring from back home, perpetuating the identity-crisis of their children. They would all do well to take a leaf from Mr. Obama's book: if there is one thing he does not have, it is an identity crisis - he knows who he is.

America's incorporation into the school of enlightened humanism did not come easily: it had to be fought every step of the way. Remember that women's suffrage, for example, came to America only in 1920, a mere 15 years before the British granted Sri Lankans universal franchise. The 13th Amendment that abolished slavery came only 55 years before that, and it was not until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s that that reform attained true meaning.

One by one, Western society (not least America) has sought to dismantle the shackles of inequality that divide citizen from citizen, subscribing to a humanistic ideal that transcends all religions. Which latter-day humanist would not squirm to be told of the caste-consciousness of institutional Buddhism, the senseless violence and intolerance espoused in the name of Islam or the genocidal intolerance of the Judeo-Christian creator, Jehovah ("Spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." - The Bible: 1 Samuel 15).

Indeed, even as modern civilisation has risen above the barriers of social position, birth, race and gender, religion remains the last social divider that still persists. Very few countries have found it possible to transcend the barriers of religion; Australia, Scandinavia and Japan numbering among the select few.

In the Nixon-Kennedy election of 1960, one of the factors that worked strongly against JFK (he won by the slimmest of majorities) was the fact that he was Roman Catholic. So much has America progressed that when Obama chose Joe Biden, also a Catholic, as his running mate, the latter's religion was not so much as mentioned. Hardly anyone cared anymore. And in our own time we have seen that neither race nor gender is a factor in reaching for the highest elected office the world has to offer.

It was not without irony then, that Hela Urumaya stalwart and Minister of Environment, Champika Ranawaka, published an article in a daily newspaper last week, purportedly written by himself, applauding the advent of the Obama presidency. Ironic because if Obama belonged to the Tamil or Muslim minorities of Sri Lanka and ran for the presidency of this country, Ranawaka would have been singing an altogether different tune. Indeed, even though tiny Sri Lanka never actually blips on the radar of the U.S. president, the policy reforms that are predicated by Obama's manifesto have the direst implications for the bigotry, chauvinism and intolerance that result from the politics of Ranawaka and his eager student, Mahinda Rajapakse.

There is no doubt that Obama, who has pledged to discontinue Guantanamo, will show little tolerance for human-rights violators in Sri Lanka, or the fact that many of these violations are being presided over by US citizens and permanent residents domiciled in Sri Lanka. Change most certainly is on the way.

Among the great challenges before the Obama presidency is to restore America's respectability on the world stage. It has to demonstrate to all nations that the United States is not merely an economic and technological powerhouse, but an engine of social progress and an icon of righteousness. That, to many, seems a tall - nay, inconceivable - order.

Then again, for a man who has already done the impossible, what better challenge than the inconceivable?