20 July 2016

Jeerers and applauders are also part-players in spectacle-politics

This article was published on July 17, 2010 in the 'Daily Mirror'.   A different time, different players but perhaps it is about a drama that is often played out and not entirely unknown in these theatrical times.

Somewhere in the middle of the year 1987, I was present when a conversation took place between two friends, Kanishka Gunawardena (now the Director of the Programme in Planning, University of Toronto) and Asoka Hewage (presently the Principal, D.S. Senanayake College).  Kanishka and I, quite opposed to the SLFP-led coalition that was in the process of being formulated and of course the fascist tendency of the JVP, were leaning towards the SLMP led by Vijaya Kumaratunga.  Hewage wanted to stick to the so-called ‘meda mawatha’, the ‘Middle Path’ of the SLFP.   

At one point, in exasperation, Hewage interjected, ‘deshapalanaya kiyanne sinamaawak nevei’ (politics is not cinema) to which Kanishka responded, ‘lokaya rangahalak nam deshapalanaya sinamaawak wena eke veradda mokadda?’ (if the world’s a stage then what’s wrong in politics being cinema?).  The reference was to Shakespear’s reflections on the seven stages of a ‘man’.

William Shakespeare, in ‘As You Like It’, divided the average human being’s brief sojourn on earth into seven parts. He tied them all together as a kind of seamless movement from one act to another, role to role and relevant costume-change that comes unannounced and sometimes without the consent or consciousness of the player concerned.  The seven stages are less known than the introductory to their elaboration, ‘All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players; they have their exists and their entrances’.  Few would like to admit that this is what their lives are about, though, i.e. they wear decreed costume and appropriate frills, including body ornament and make-up, that life is an endless process of replacing face with mask, mask with mask and that there comes a point when person and perceiver of person are both unsure what’s face and what’s mask. 

That was more than twenty years ago.  We were at the time merely crawlers in a world that was at the crawling-stage of the Age of Communication.  Spectacle was, we knew, part and parcel of politics, but it was yet to be bathed in spotlights and confetti.  Today, though, it is not part and parcel of politics. It is politics.  It has come to a point where even ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ have to come wearing costumes that emit subliminal messages conveying these ‘attributes’.  It has come to a point where nothing short of public self-flagellation can convince anyone of someone’s commitment to cause.  Indeed, I would say that in this age of cynicism, even open wound might not be enough.  Yes, hara-kiri might be the one way to defeat the cynic. 

Politicians can’t blame anyone for this.  They have played the spectacle game for so long (and been very creative about it too, may I add?) that the public has come to accept it as par for course.  J.R. Jayewardene sensed what was to come. This is why immediately after the famous ‘parliament bomb’ incident he attended the cabinet meeting wearing the same (now blood-stained) clothes he was wearing.  It is alleged by some that Chandrika knew beforehand of the 1999 bomb in which she lost an eye and that this was the price for re-election.  Wimal Weerawansa’s naadagama outside the UN premises a few days ago, then, was ‘business as usual’ and quite in order. 

Wimal, more than any other parliamentarian, understands ‘spectacle’. To my mind there are three exceptional communicators in Sri Lankan’s political firmament. Mahinda Rajapaksa is No.1. It comes naturally to him. He never breaks into a sweat.  He delivers punch without script, without cue.  Champika Ranawaka is not gifted this way.  He is no actor.  His edge is a composite of irrefutable logic, an exceptional memory, a commitment to doing the hard yards of reading and the intellect to synthesize.  Wimal was, is and will always be ‘drama’.  His edge is turn of phrase; he has nothing of Rajapaksa’s natural charm or Champika’s sharp, analytical mind. 

He tripped when he barged into the UN premises.  That was a classic error.  People should stick to what they know best. Wimal is made of word, not of agitation.  He tried to scale a wall that was too high for him. He slipped and fell flat on his back.  Yet, let’s give him credit, being consummate politician, he made the best of a bad situation; fall on back, stay there like that and say ‘fast unto death’.  Made perfect political sense.  He is enough of a public figure and has a long enough history for the politically alert to predict the what-is-next of the relevant political script.  Everyone knew that sooner rather than later, Mahinda Rajapaksa would offer a sip of water or thambili and persuade Wimal to end the fast.  That was the one ‘exit’ available after Wimal messed up his ‘entrance’. 

A lot has been said on the incident.  The pundits have thundered that this was the wrong way of dealing with Ban Ki-moon.  They’ve pointed out that Wimal’s theatrics were counter-productive.  I agree.  He was in damage-control mode the moment he ‘fell down’ and to be fair by him, I don’t see if there was any other way he could retreat.  His party claims that the ‘fast’ was an awareness-creating exercise and that it had ‘achieved success’ in terms of galvanizing support for the political position locally.  Perhaps.   There could have been other ways of achieving such goals, but I’ll let that pass. 

I’ve argued elsewhere that unbecoming and ridiculous as Wimal’s ‘entrance’ was, his ideological stand was to my mind without error. I said that I would still stand with him and by him against Ban Ki-moon’s theatrics (yes, that man is also a spectacle-case, a point which very few of Wimal’s detractors are willing to acknowledge or even see).  The man has been lampooned mercilessly and that’s a price that all actors ought to be ready to pay.  Time will tell us who will have the last laugh of course but that’s not my concern. 

When limelight-hugging politicians whisper, it comes out as a roar; one false step and it appears like a major and crippling slip.  That’s one part of the limelight story.  The other part is the limelight-absence does not make audience impotent, without agency or passive recipients of theatre and theatrical.  Those who applaud and those who boo are also part of the overall spectacle.  I remember Gamini Haththotuwegama, widely recognized as the Father of Street Theatre in Sri Lanka, after a performance at the Peradeniya ‘Wala’ (open-air theatre) falling on his knees and worshipping an applauding audience.  It is the audience, friends, that makes stage, births player and scrip-writes the political drama.

I have read all the jeers and much as I am nauseated by political theatre in general and Wimal’s recent antics in particular I found myself asking, ‘what have these jeerers done that gives them the moral right to laugh at Wimal?’  There is an email doing the rounds with pictures of Wimal close to a box of Lemon Puff biscuits, the insinuation being that he was not really fasting.  That’s spurious on the face of it and inconclusive, especially given the intense media coverage and the now taken-for-granted presence of mobile phones.  If Wimal sipped, he would have been media-murdered by the sipping.  I don’t buy it. 

That was a minor laugh, though.  What bothered me was the veritable salivating on the part of some analysts in newspapers.  We all know that people don’t die easily in these fasts-unto-death, for a number of reasons.  Some have howled in protest that Wimal was insincere, and this too is legitimate.  And yet I have wondered if the true source of their discontent is that Wimal did not die.  Would they have rushed to fall on his coffin, weep their hearts out and hailed him as a true patriot and the one sincere politician they’ve encountered in their lifetimes had he in fact perished?  I doubt it. 

To my mind, Wimal’s theatrics were matched, breath to breath, one foodless moment to a corresponding ‘fooded’ moment experienced by the applauders of jeerers.  It is easy to say ‘Wiman dug his grave, let him lie in it’.  That’s an acceptable position to take.  Gamini Gunawardane, retired DIG, in a letter to the Island puts things in perspective when he comments on what two individuals present at the protest had to say. One of them, an elderly person, had said he hadn’t fought in the war and that therefore he came to show solidarity. Another, a woman, she didn’t lose sons to the war, so she had come as a mark of solidarity.  These were individuals who may or may not have seen Wimal as Actor, but recognized the validity of his objection, and in this were implicitly charging Ki-moon of being an actor, a role-player, as much a ‘theatrician’ as anyone else.   Both individuals and Gamini Gunawardane are part of the spectacle, as are those who jeered at Wimal in the newspapers, but they brought a different dimension of ‘light’ to the proceedings.

I got an email from Ramzeen Azeez, a friend.  He, like most people who sympathized with the political objective of the protest, condemned the action and was by no means given to hero-worshipping Wimal.  He put things in context:

‘The fast in in the month of Ramadan (falling around 9th Aug this year) is an obligatory one and one that we expect and (surprisingly to non-Muslims) happily awaited each year. It’s a month of spiritual cleansing. We also observe optional fasts during the rest of the year. This may be either to upgrade piety levels or in fulfilling a vow, calamity, thanksgiving etc.

Optional fasts are more difficult. While the obligatory fast is like income tax (hence easier to undertake) the optional is like giving a donation. The latter is not an imposition - good if you give no problem if you don't. Hence in the case of the optional fast the most difficult moment is when making the INTENTION (we also have a stanza in The Qur'an that echoes Buddha's "chetanahan bhikkhawe kamman wadami" - Kul a'maalin bin-niyya or all actions are judged by their intention. That's why I admire WW's action. The intention to carry out the fast would've been his most trying moment. Those who laughed him off cannot and will never comprehend this aspect.’

Now a man can of course suffer all manner of pain in order to make a point.  Indeed, history is full of self-flagellators who embraced what many would consider ridiculous and even violent causes.  The above, however, ought to sober those who are upset that Wimal didn’t die.  Perhaps they would realize if they meditated a little on these things that jeering is as much spectacle as that which is jeered, that they too are players on a political stage and that they are not more innocent or less culpable than Wimal Weerawansa or anyone else in detracting from the national interest. 

I told Ramzeen that I am disturbed by the venom and that I wondered how these people would write about Wimal’s fast if they themselves (for no reason at all) fasted for 24 hours.  Ramzeen continues: He did it for 52 hours and that's a marathon of a fast! We do it for about 14 hrs for 29 or 30 days.  If one starts fasting at 4.30 am the result is usually a thundering headache around 3pm. The pangs of hunger cringes the stomach linings around 10 am. One can sleep but one cannot sleep away the convulsions of the digestive tract.’ 

And concludes thus: ‘Wimal it seems had a genuine axe to grind with the UN to carry it out and since we know what it was - 3 hearty cheers to Wimal, Hip hip hip..... I've since updated my opinion of the man but still have a few reservations: after all, he's a politician.’  

It was not just Wimal who made an entrance and an exit.  We all enter, we all exit.  We are all applauded or jeered.  This doesn’t mean we cannot or should not pass judgment of course, but perhaps we ought to consider being a little sober about it. 

The last word on theatre and relevant politics is not with William.  It was written earlier, in fact, by Omar Khayyam:

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.

If one does not go overboard with the ‘fate’ element here, there’s a message to all of us.  There is complicity.  There are degrees of complicity.  And complicity can be witnessed and assessed in both applause and jeer.  We are not all saints and neither are we all demons.  Again, nothing wrong in politics being cinematic if the world’s a stage, but there’s something wrong in actor pretending to be audience and therefore conferred with privileged rights to be art critic.  Wimal’s theatrics made me reflect on my stage-strutting.  I wonder if others are or were conscious of their stage-spot. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindaseneve@gmail.com



Anonymous said...

Excuse me, but please make your posts to the point and concise. Your posts are long ramblings. Difficult to understand nor keeps the reader interested.

Did you know that THIS post has a whopping 12,589 characters with spaces?
2169 words. This is a 4 page MS Word document, with size 11 fonts, meaning, it's bloody long for a blog post IMHO.

As a rule of thumb, anything less than 1000 words is OK. Between 500 to 600 is IDEAL. This is basically 1 page in a MS Word document.

BTW, what are you trying to say here??? Do you support WW's antics??

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Anyone forcing you to read my blog? Poor you!

hi said...

Not too many seems to be reading it. I.e Lack of any comments.

I just told you a method to get more people to read it. When you doing a desk job, and take a 10 minute break, you just cannot read a 2000 word article. Nor is it enticing.

So, if you can put all your thoughts to a 500 word post, the it's very easy and less time consuming to read. That will bring more comments.

These blogs are all about the COMMENTS. Without comments, blogs are useless.

Malinda Seneviratne said...

touched by the magnanimity. :)