Occupy the Square and Colombo’s Coffee Shop Liberals

23 March 2016 08:34 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Gihan De Chickera in his analysis published last week puts forth an argument on the class dynamics of the recently-held ‘protest’, for the lack of any other term, at Independence Square. He brings to discourse a valid point on the class dynamic of the protesters and how it panned out during the protest. Only, he stops short. He stops short of unveiling the hypocrisy of the protest, the protesters and the symbolism that is projected through the ‘cause’ for which against, they protested.

The protest among others, brought to the fore a collective I’d like to identify as “coffee shop liberals” or “coffee shop radicals”. They usually roam -- no not Colombo’s streets -- but its more up-market coffee lounges. These “coffee shop radicals” and “coffee shop liberals” are the focus of this critique, and I use the terms interchangeably because the two overlap. 

But before looking at their role in “Occupy the Square”, let’s flashback to the 2013 Commonwealth Summit in Colombo. Two things happened then under the direction of the Urban Development Authority. The city’s beggars were removed from the streets to god knows where, and so were the stray dogs. In the weeks that followed, social media commentaries and columnists were aghast at the fate of the dogs. Reams of columns, posts, protests, comments and discussions in Colombo’s coffee shops centred around the fate of the dogs. All well and good. Only that the beggars, whose fate remains a mystery to this day, were ignored. 

I brought this up once, during a conversation with a self-styled animal rights activist, someone I’d call a ‘coffee shop radical’ or “liberal”,  and pat came the reply. “ The dogs have no voice, the beggars could protest”. It is this kind of stupidity, or lack of ideology, or both, for me, which symbolizes the gathering at the Independence Square. I am aware that my genaralisations are sweeping. They are intended to be. To the minority who don’t fall within the ambit, I extend no apology. Instead, I take a leaf from comedian George Carlin’s classic tirade on Golf. He has no pity  for those who aren’t ‘rich’ or  ‘white’ but yet are participants of the sport-, “Shame on them for engaging in a rich, white, elitist, boring, meaningless, mindless activity”.

 

The coffee shop liberals were only protecting their little space, and that was what “Occupy the Square” ultimately represented

 


It’s true that the issue of couples being harassed is not an elitist one. In fact it’s an issue that has affected Sri Lanka ever since we imbibed Victorian morals into our culture. 

One of the more dramatic examples of this happened a few years ago in Dambulla, when several lovers were rounded up by the cops. The youth were herded to the police station, divided according to their sexes, and video footage showed a police officer reprimanding them. The police then called their parents and handed them over. The incident made the news. There was no suggestion that the lovers did anything more than hold hands. There was no charge as serious as “public nudity”, for which they most certainly would have faced a magistrate. The police simply decided that the couples’ behaviour was against our “culture”. But the coffee shop radicals maintained a stoic silence throughout it all. 
 Independence Square, however, is too close to home. It has become a haven for the elite, especially after the controversial post-war city beautification drive. Why one might ask, is the reason for this sordid silence over the thousands of incidents that affect the common man, and the sudden call to action when it’s close to home?. Self-interest seems to be the clearest answer. The coffee shop liberals were only protecting their little space, and that was what “Occupy the Square” ultimately represented. To imagine that it was about a larger cause and was symbolic of people taking to the streets for this larger cause is a load of nonsense. The larger cause may have been vicariously addressed, but the motives of the protest weren’t altruistic. It’s true that most causes arise from a threat to personal space, and I have no problem with it being depicted as being just that. It’s the projected altruism that reeks of hypocrisy.

Another instance of such self-interest was seen during a rally for LGBT rights in Lipton’s Circus a few years ago. Such rallies must be lauded as they represent a cause we as a country should espouse and fight for. Sexual freedom has for long fallen under the watchful eyes of the cultural police and continues to do so. But Lipton’s Circus drew the ‘occupation’ crowd. The very same genre we saw holding placards a few weeks ago. Eager to picture themselves, eager to be seen as a part of the rally, and eager more than anything else to be a part of that social circle. Again I stand guilty as accused-of generalisation. Day in and day out homosexuals are arrested and charged with indecency, arrested and produced before courts. Not a word is being said, not a word will be, by these ‘radicals’. The arrests and the fines are in the public domain. They make the news, just like the above incident involving couples did, but our coffee shop liberals remain indifferent, because as Richard de Zoysa would say, they have to “load chicken livers on a plate - declare the world’s a total mess”. 

I quote the lines from de Zoysa’s poem “Talking of Michelangelo” because they aptly portray the hypocritical and self-serving nature of the Coffee shop liberals. The poem describes a woman who would like to be a poetess “and sit aloof in a Sapphic state / Preside, beringed and Kaftan clad / at coffee mornings-soirees, teas  / expound the need for nuclear freeze”. The title of de Zoysa’s poem is no coincidence. It is a reference to a refrain from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. Although Eliot himself espoused elitism and classism, this poem exposes the hypocrisy of London’s elite. Its protagonists pretend that what they are doing is of value, but in reality they do nothing of value. 

The same mind-set can be seen in Colombo’s pseudo-feminists, who are also an inherent part of the ‘coffee shop liberals.’  Sri Lankan women suffer rape, marital rape, domestic violence, sexual assault,  and other such despicable, heinous and horrendous acts on a daily basis. These pseudo-feminists weren’t seen protesting against reports of rape and murder in the North or the South, nor against the use of servants in their own houses. The term “servant” may have changed to “maid”, a convenient masking, but the master-slave dynamic remains unchanged. Women mainly from the estate Tamil community, have no option but to pay obeisance to their “owners” in Colombo. 

Our coffee shop liberals/pseudo-feminists maintain a sording silence throughout all this. They would however explode over the use of the word “rape”, while employing their “maids” and feeling good about doling out some extra petty cash to them during Avurudu. They are quick to be outraged and project their disdain against patriarchy and misogyny, while sipping cappuccino and munching a cupcake or brownie.  The predicament faced by the hundreds of housemaids shipped abroad and the underlying de-gradation that comes within the families, don’t even feature in their enlightened discussions. They would take offence to the term “beggar” and instead would want a better euphemism to mask a prevalent social condition, like they do in most of their endeavours. Latch on to the semantics, and stop there. The hypocrisy of it all is telling. 

But parallels can be drawn. The white feminist movement which dominates public discourse in the West is also guilty of the same. Rarely were the problems of Black, Hispanic and women of other races taken up, except when it served a political goal. Their ideology was limited by their narrow, un-enlightened self-interest, with the underlying ideology of protecting their reproductive rights and health at the heart of it. Much has been said and critiqued about this movement, but its ideology stretches far. As far as Colombo.

Joe Gould, a New Yorker in the 1930s, was one of the most profiled bohemians at the time. Writer Joseph Mitchell in his seminal profile of Gould, rephrases Gould’s description of the New York radicals of the time. “I know a woman who is married to a rich doctor and collects art and was a ballet dancer. I ran into her one day and she told me that her daughter now is a proletarian ballet dancer”. The sarcasm is scathing. He then goes on to describe the gatherings at New York coffee shops.

“They sat around the old village hangouts that they sat around when they were ordinary bohemians and they talked as much as they ever had, only now it wasn’t art, sex or booze that they talked about, but the coming revolution and dialectical materialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat”. It’s not that hard to replace these scenes with what might be said today in Colombo’s coffee shops.
It is these ‘radicals’ who take inspiration from the “14 steps to organise a protest”, and I’m not being tongue in cheek here. The step by step guide  was posted on a site that is trendy among our Coffee Shoppers-paying no heed to the larger dynamics of social movements, and how they come forth.  Unsurprisingly of course, the ‘step by step’ guide drew inspiration from the “Occupiers”. It is these coffee shop liberals, who are unaware of the crucial role played by women to bring a government to its knees during  the 1953 hartal. It is these very same radicals who live in blissful ignorance of the day-to-day struggles of the common Sri Lankan. 

Whether laughing, crying or writing about it would be an eye opener, I don’t know. But the bluff must be called. 

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