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Obama or Osama? A critique of crude anti-Americanism

by Dayan Jayatilleka

“…the time has come for the world to move in a new direction… The test of our leadership will not be the degree to which we feed the fears and old hatreds of our people. True leadership will not be measured by the ability to muzzle dissent, or to intimidate and harass political opponents at home. The people of the world want change. They will not long tolerate those who are on the wrong side of history…Among those rights is the freedom to speak your mind and worship as you please; the promise of equality of the races, and the opportunity for women and girls to pursue their own potential; the ability of citizens to have a say in how you are governed, and to have confidence in the administration of justice.” - President Barak Obama, UN General Assembly 2009

There is an unhealthy upsurge in anti-Americanism and what is more striking, anti-Obamaism in the Sri Lankan media, emanating from sources identified or self-identified as nationalist or patriotic. I have no problem with anti-interventionist, anti-hegemonic or anti-imperialist discourse and have been a practitioner of it in prominent international forums in defense of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and the causes of the Global South. That however is not what we are speaking of. In recent weeks, the news of a possible State Dept report critical of Sri Lanka has triggered an outpouring of insult, invective and abuse which would not be recognizable as rational anti-hegemonic discourse in mainstream progressive and radical or even revolutionary circles throughout the world, including the Third World. The current Sri Lankan discourse is recognizable though, as part of the fundamentalist critique of the West as distinct from the rational critique of the policies of neo-liberalism or neo-conservatism or of imperialism and capitalism as System.

The current outbreak of criticism in the Lankan press is not so much nationalist as ultra-nationalist, not so much patriotic as chauvinist, and not so much anti-imperialist as xenophobic. It reveals how isolated we are from the global Zeitgeist, while isolating us further from it, because it is Obama who has shaped that Zeitgeist with his style and substance, cerebration and cool, firmness and flexibility, cross cultural dialogue and deadly drone strikes, drive to defeat al Qaeda while outlawing torture under any circumstances thus “forging a framework to combat extremism within the rule of law”, disarmament and climate change goals, rejection of unilateralism and establishing a new architecture of relations with China and Russia, more robust healthcare plans and a more regulated, responsible capitalism.

What is dismaying is the utterly uncivil, unbalanced, near-hysterical nature of the current Sri Lankan ultranationalist criticism. A rational critic of the US contrasts Obama with his predecessor, distinguishes between Obama and the System, between the progressive aspect of Obama and the (perhaps inevitable) status-quoist or Establishment aspect, and finally between that which is positive and precious in the USA which permitted the presidency of Obama, and that which is not -- which for instance brought his predecessor to office and prevents the implementation of a healthcare plan along Canadian or British lines. Some Sinhalese critics of the USA actually blame Obama on the basis of testimony from the Iraq war; a war which Senator Obama opposed and which President Obama is extricating the USA from.

Illustration is better than instruction or is a more effective form of it. Therefore let me illustrate what I mean, about a rational, balanced, differentiated critique of the USA and the Obama administration from a top official of a country which has far more reasons accumulated for over half a century, to excoriate the US than has any Sri Lankan, however hot under the collar he gets. I quote from an AP report of the speech at the current session of the United Nations General Assembly by Cuba’s new and youthful Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, a veteran of the Angola war, whom I have had the privilege of meeting.

Extracts from the AP report published in The Island of Wednesday Sept 30th read as follows:

‘Taking a conciliatory tone, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez told the U.N. General Assembly that Cuba had approached the American government with "a set of essential topics" it considers imperative to improving bilateral ties …

Rodriguez refrained from many of the anti-American barbs that have sometimes dominated Cuban addresses before the General Assembly and other world bodies, saying Obama has ensured "a period of extreme aggressiveness, unilateralism and arrogance in foreign policy (has) come to an end and the infamous legacy of the George W. Bush regime had been sunk in repudiation."

But he also said the White House has done little so far to justify sky-high international optimism that came with Obama’s election.

Rodriguez said there still "is uncertainty about the real capacity on the part of the present authorities in Washington to get over the political and ideological trends that threatened the world under the previous administration," adding that "neo-conservative forces" who supported Bush "have very quickly regrouped and still have the reins of power and considerable influence."

…Rodriguez blamed America’s "fascist right" for helping the Honduran military carry out the coup that toppled leftist President Manuel Zelaya in June and accused American interests of besmirching Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who sends more than 100,000 free barrels of oil a day to Cuba, keeping the cash-strapped island’s weak economy afloat. "The slanders and lies uttered against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela are brutal," Rodriguez said.’

The AP report is interestingly entitled ‘Cuba somewhat conciliatory toward Washington at UN’.

The official text shows that in his speech the Cuban Foreign Minister makes a fundamental differentiation and places the blame for the recent misdeeds of the USA exactly where it lies:

“The neoconservative groups that took George Bush to the presidency, which promoted the use of force and domination with the support of the US colossal military and economic power, the ones to blame for crimes such as torture, assassination and the manipulation of the American people... The American fascist right, represented by Cheney, openly supports and sustains the [Honduran] coup”.

Why is this so different in tone, style and substance from the corrosive vitriol in the Sri Lankan press regarding the USA in recent days and weeks; attacks which have at times been downright abusive about President Obama, not only the most cerebral, but easily the most respected and popular political leader (by all opinion polls) in today’s world? Could it be perhaps that Sri Lanka has more problems with the USA than has Cuba, or is more under threat from the USA than is Cuba? Or that the Sri Lankan Sinhalese critics of the USA are more caring about our sovereignty and independence than the Cubans are about theirs? Could it be that our anti-imperialists are more anti-imperialist than the Cubans? Once these hypotheses are discounted for the ridiculous nonsense that they are, what is one left with?

One is left with the truth: that there is a basic difference in values and outlook; that this Sinhala ultra-nationalist anti-Americanism is not the anti-imperialism of Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Vietnam or China, but of Pol Pot and Idi Amin. It is crass. It is uncivil and ugly. It is deeply racist. It contains ‘subterranean’ traces of racism towards President Obama. It is also ‘reverse racist’ towards whites (“suddhas”), and ‘reverse racism’ is not anti-racism. It is more comfortable with the universally reviled George W Bush because his militarism, unilateralism and culturally conservative religious fundamentalism is little different from theirs. They do not understand that the problem is not of exorcising or confine to an internment camp, the “suddha within”, but precisely which “suddha” and which “kalla” one has or chooses to have within.

His initial attempt at armed uprising having failed, the young lawyer Fidel Castro delivered in provincial court house, his famous defense speech History Will Absolve Me, which was actually a moral attack on his captors and the rulers, “…taking in Montesquieu to thumb his nose at despotism, and citing just about everyone from Thomas Aquinas and John Knox to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the American Declaration of Independence.” (Fidel & Che: a Revolutionary Friendship, by Simon Reid-Henry, Sceptre, UK, 2009, p77). And what of his private reading in prison, which he shared with his fellow imprisoned revolutionaries in preparation for the struggles to come?

“After having knocked heads a good while with Kant, I find Marx easier than the Pater Nostrum”, he wrote. ‘Both he and Lenin had a powerful polemical spirit and I’m having a fine time with them, laughing and enjoying my reading’. Fidel was in fact working his way through a vast number of other thinkers too. Political and social science began with Weber and ended with Mannheim; literature began with Thomas More’s Utopia and was topped by Tolstoy, Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare and his favorite- Dostoyevsky. This still left time for Thackeray, Turgenev, and Balzac. He worked his way through Freud, Ramiro Guerra’s ten-volume History of the Cuban nation, and biographies of his favorite historical figures: Bolivar and Bonaparte both figured large (he compared Marx’s and Victor Hugo’s analysis of Bonaparte, favoring that of Marx), as did Trotsky’s Stalin.” (Simon Reid-Henry, Ibid, p90).

What a surfeit of suddhas! Fidel and Che knew that which we must all realize: that it is the mix, the fusion, the synthesis of the best of thinkers, national and international, North and South, West and East, white, black, brown and yellow, that yields the optimum results in terms of ideas and values, not some self-referential intellectual or cultural apartheid that assumes an absurd posture of purity and self-sufficient superiority. They were followers of the great 19th century Cuban and Latin American patriot Jose Marti, whose anti-colonialism resulted in his death by Spanish gunfire, but which rejected any narrow exclusivist or exclusionary nationalism and held that “homeland is humanity”. “Humanity” is homeland, not Sinhala-Buddhist or Eelam Tamil.

Little wonder then that Fidel and the Cuban revolution took one path, with a certain type of discourse, trajectory, and outcome, and Sri Lanka’s liberation movements led by Wijeweera and Prabhakaran took completely another. Sinhala ultra-nationalists actually minted a theory some years ago, that it mattered crucially that one “thought in Sinhala”. This was deemed to be politically correct. This absurdity diverted attention from the real question that what was important was what one thinks, the content of that thinking, not the language in which one thinks. What is crucial was the right attitude, the right thinking, the correct ideas, not the language in which one does one’s thinking – unless of course the assumption is that ONLY if one thinks in Sinhala, can one think accurately: “I think in Sinhala , therefore I am…correct? Superior”?

The problem is not with the “suddha” within or the scope he or she is accorded, but which “suddhas” and “kallas” lie within and to what effect. The trouble lies not with mounting a critique of US foreign policy, US society and even of the Obama administration; the trouble is that the local ultra-nationalists criticize Obama from an extremist standpoint increasingly similar to that of Osama!


USA under Obama has started a policy of engagement and reconciliation with the rest of the world. This is based on universal principles of ,Justice, Democracy and Human Rights. Although progress is slow some headway has been made as compared to the antagonism and impunity of the Bush era. These are basic principles which can bring people together in equamity and brotherhood. Hence we must welcome this break from the dark years after 9/11.
Similiary we have now got over our own 9/11 and need to come to terms with the Global realities where Justice, Democracy, Human Rights are being center staged. We cant keep attacking other Nations when our house is not in order. Problems faced by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq are serious issues which threaten to undermine the entire world. Osama Bin Laden and his gang of fanatics pose a grave danger to the entire region and world, just as Prabakaran posed a threat to Sri Lanka. Hence pointing at US excesses of the Bush era cannot justify our governments continuing violation of human rights of IDP's and other civlians. We need to set our house in order by accepting constructive criticism rather than raising our hackles and attacking anything that moves.

Posted by: SriLankan | October 3, 2009 08:18 PM

It's about time that some one exposes the evils of SL society.Mainly the chauvinist who have no regard for any set of moral values but of narrow minded ultra nationalism.
Dayan ,
You have shown the courage to start a dialogue about the duplicity of these ideologies be it Sinhala buddhist,Tamil Hindu, christian,Muslim etc.
Be a human, care for each other and cherish universal values of human rights basic human dignity and more importantly learn to cherish each others culture, language,religion and life style.
E PLEURIBUS UNUM."Out of many, one".
Here is a link to the great seal.The motto of America.
Bravo Brother.

Posted by: Justice | October 4, 2009 08:53 AM

The State inspired, “kept-Press” supported anti-Western campaign to insult is not just “uncivic and ugly” - it is infantile. Our one-time democratic culture where the free Press with superlative giants like Mervyn de Silva spoke out fearlessly and selflessly is a thing of the past.

Pygmies in mind and spirit, ignorant of the ways of the world, run the show with an ubiqituous well-fed army of professional sycophants. Democratic dissent and constructive criticism are made out to be anti-regime, traitorous and anti-Buddhist. The law of the jungle is entrenching itself.

Fidel Castro took on the USA at a time of history in a bipolar world where inequities in South America was high; when American arrogance matched its politico-economic strength.

Fidel and the Argentinian Che – romantic heroes offered opposition to the mighty military power – changed the equation and gained a global following. They defied the mighty USA for long and stayed to tell the tale. Many South American countries have since gone up the ladder economically and politically. Last week Brazil captured the right to stage the Olympics in 2016.

Powerful bids from USA (Chicago)personally lead by the Obamas, Spain lead by King Juan Carlos and Japan were brushed aside with Rio getting it for Brazil. Little Costa Rica is probably the only country in the world without an army – 97% literate, high per Capita and HDI/PQL - arguably the greenest country in the world; pledged to be Carbon free by 2015.

Latin America slowly but surely is on the way up. They can afford to rub the nose of Super-powers now and then. Can we? We are good at “starting unncessary fights” and then going and genuflecting before our adversaries – in the E/U and in the USA.

Insulting Hillary Clinton, Milliband, Kouchner, Bildt, Navi Pillay and others will carry penalties of their own that the country may have to pay soon. The village wisdom “know your position, size and behave accordingly” is not out of place is something our leaders will have to educate their mediocre followers with.


Posted by: Ilaya Seran Senguttuvan | October 4, 2009 01:31 PM

Hello Prof.Dayan,
Your article is quite confusing.Are you with Barack O or Fidel C?I do not think you can defend both.By the way, I hear that Prof.Uyan is being asked to step down so that you could assume the chair of the department.Is this true?I hope not,Prof.Uyan has done so much and has a lot more to contribute.

Posted by: Siva | October 4, 2009 02:30 PM

Dr. D,
It is very nice to see that your previously impaired vision has got clearer since you got your head out of the Rajapaksa posterior. However your romantic infatuation with Fidel and Che still betray your double standards. Appealing as they might be in socialist mythology your idea of heroes is not what the world wants at this moment in history. Fidel maybe a hero in some circles but a leader who didn't relinquish power for 49 years may not be the ideal example we are looking for at this juncture. Yet, hats off to you for at least realizing that Obama is as much of a revolutionary as Fidel or Che. You are indeed better off, finally, in the right side of history even though it was a choice that you may not have made consciously. Is there a point in being an Ambassador, Foreign Minister or even maybe a Secretary to a Ministry of Human Rights for a regime like Zimbabwe, Myanmar or North Korea? I hope your enlighten views that you seem to have rediscovered since getting the sack would not disappear at the next offer a good posting. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Roger | October 5, 2009 09:37 PM

Excellent article and quite timely since many are seeing conspiracies everywhere. Hope you will have the courage to ask the most pertinent question in this regard, in a future article, as to who in fact is fueling this anti west, anti human rights, anti NGO, anti everything paranoia in Sri Lanka. The answer I assume will not please your former bosses.

Posted by: Sene | October 5, 2009 10:13 PM

Like Anakin Skywalker, Dr. Jayatillake crossed over to the dark side and appears to be making restitution now. How much more respected would he have been had he stuck to this academic line instead of serving and writing for some time under the pleasure of the 'king' :)
welcome back.

Posted by: Goldberry | October 5, 2009 10:33 PM

Dayan is one of the most confused political philosophers in the current times. He thinks Fidel is a hero and thinks Rajapakse is also a hero Then he believes that the paramilitary leader and government quisling Douglas Devananda as a "moderate Tamil leader",another hero. He also want preserve his friendship with the leaders of the west for they are also his heros. Confusion confounded in trying to figure out why all these heros think in diametrically opposite directions when it comes to human right violations,press freedom,the 13th Amendment,devolution of power to Tamils,allowing foreign observers and press to visit IDPs and even the release of IDPs.
Posing as n intellectual Dayan is trying to qualify for a Nobel price for most confused political scientist.

Posted by: laindiansingles@yahoo.comaul zenigan | October 6, 2009 11:29 PM

Dayan thinks Fedel is hero and “chinthanaya” man also hero, he got double zero for his credentials and for losing his position in Geneva,
He is man of no stable party and no stable policy.
They are so called leftist admirers in Modern Sri Lanka like the JVPers


Posted by: Nero | October 12, 2009 02:50 AM

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