The uselessness of learning

by Rajpal Abeynayake

(January 04, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) We do not know what is it about Sri Lanka that’s different from other countries where newspapers are sold. A veteran newspaper editor used to tell me that three things usually sell newspapers in other countries: sex, finance and crime. But, in Sri Lanka, he used to add, only one thing sells newspapers: politics.

It may have been said half in jest and for effect, but it is mostly true. Half the newspaper articles in Sri Lanka are about politics. We do not know whether it is because of this or otherwise, but much of the lobby room and drawing-room chatter in Sri Lanka, and small-talk in the party circuit is about politics as well.

But let’s take the newspaper articles. These mostly revolve all around the melodrama of inter and intra-party politics, about the gnashing of teeth with regard to ideological confrontations, and about the arcane and the generally insufferable details of petty political intrigues concerning who did what to whom, and who ate what in the smoke-filled backrooms where political deals are made and unmade.

All fine — it is assumed — if the readers are willing to lap up this stuff to a point of distraction. I suppose then that there is no effort to educate people, to help them make informed decisions and generally raise the bar as far as people’s reasoning is concerned in what pertains to politics? As they say in the popular argot in the social media - why ever let the facts get in the way of a juicy story, eh what?

For instance, how many of our political analysts including the learned, so called, so much as foray into the wide area of economics or the state of the economy in their generally lengthy and verbose tracts which form the pith of what passes for political commentary in this country? I mean not the mere passing comment about how JR handled the economy better, or the polite aside about the socialist experiment of the late Sirimavo. I mean, those platitudes aside, who cares to analyse the fundamentals of the economy, the direction in which it is headed, and the economic ramifications of the political equation particularly relative to the trending global economic realities etc.,?

Very few — less than one can count on the fingers of one hand.

Is it because they think that abstruse political theory is more important than the fluid and organic economic realities that face the mass of people, which usually in turn, are the realities that determine the emerging contours of the political map? If they do think that’s so, they are incredibly abstracted and wooly-headed, but if they don’t, it means they can’t kick the habit of writing politics as thriller ...
And all this brings me to the core point that I would want to make in this commentary — which is that conventional learning or conventional wisdom, particularly in the case of this country, rarely makes for the kinds of minds that would help build this nation and meet her 21st century challenges.

Extreme right-wing direction

Queerly, what’s true for this nation holds for many others as well, perhaps in varyingly different ways though.

Today, very few political analysts attempt to write about the extreme right-wing direction in which Obama and Cameron are taking their countries. Maybe one or two in the local commentariat have felt the need to interpret the creeping Eurocentric and West-appeasenik tendencies of the avowedly nationalist Rajapaksa government (cosying upto Solheim, inviting the UN panel after initially dis-inviting it ...) with reference to a developing nation’s economic imperatives. Leave that alone, very few have attempted to decipher the politics involved in the Rajapaksa policies of say, printing money, particularly in the initial stages of the Rajapaksa tenure, or the reducing of interest rates.

About Obama, they do not care to comment about the extreme right-wing direction in which crypto-plutocratic socialist has taken the country, bailing out obscenely rich and incompetent bankers at the expense of the poor, and now agreeing to extend Bush era tax cuts to the rich. Instead, they love to prattle on about how intellectually chic and refreshingly stimulating to their own cerebrally honed sensibilities this exotic philosopher president is!

All of which goes to show in my view that book learning or blind allegiance to conventional wisdom — or even possessing doctorates in philosophy and political science — does absolutely nothing to raise the bar of the common denominator of the public discourse, or to educate people in a useful as opposed to cosmetic way to help build the nation/build nations.

Those who purport to know economics have specialised as far as I know in statistics; in any case those such as Harsha de Silva are partisan in their analysis, even though I suppose that comes with the territory of embracing party politics. Their interpretations of where the economy is going therefore are of hardly any use except perhaps sometimes as interesting reading.

Reminds me of one of these so called intellectuals who told me long ago that he had a very high percentile at US university admission tests. He didn’t care to ask; I would have told him what mine were! But that aside, his brain has remained static — while the intellect and IQs of some real thinkers I know in this country have progressed by quantum. That his brain has not grown is obvious from what he writes; but the fact that most other real thinkers have bypassed his intellectual capabilities over time is beyond him, precisely because his brain has remained static. Now, go figure that one out.

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