The 'interest in politics': Option or obligation?

In 1971, many in the world were overwhelmed with excitement caused by the rising tide of a revolutionary spirit. The third world was  rocked by a chain of social explosions and liberation wars, which sent ripples across the entire tri-continental region. The Vietnam war reached its height as hundreds of thousands of anti war marchers and war veterans stormed the streets in Washington and San Francisco while the US backed South Vietnamese troops marched into Laos. In April, the disillusioned Sinhala youth in rural Sri Lanka rose up in arms against the sate, causing tremors in the Indian sub-continent while the Eastern Bengalis were ferociously resisting the military might of the Pakistani dictator General Yehya Khan, which forced Nixon administration to move it's 7th Fleet towards Bay of Bengal.

Much of the world remained engulfed in flames of change and  freedom hung in the balance.

In the midst of all this turbulence, two leading western intellectuals, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, met in Netherlands on the invitation of Dutch philosopher, Fons Elders. The conversation between the two philosophical giants, aired by the Dutch TV, became widely known as the 'Chomsky - Foucault debate on Human Nature.' In the middle of the discussion, Elders asked Foucault, why 'he is so interested in politics?'

And with stunning clarity, Foucault responded :

"Why am I so interested in politics? But if I were to answer you very simply, I would say this: why shouldn't I be interested? That is to say, what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct. The essence of our life consists, after all, of the political functioning of the society in which we find ourselves. ....Not to be interested in politics, that's what constitutes a problem. So instead of asking me, you should ask someone who is not interested in politics and then your question would be well-founded, and you would have the right to say "Why, damn it, are you not interested?" (The Chomsky-Foucault Debate: On Human Nature | The New Press, 2006)

Four decades after Foucault's clarification, Professor Chales Sarvan grapples with the same question on 'interest in politics'. Here we reproduce his article, which originally appeared in 'The Sunday Leader' on July 22, 2012   -   Editors

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“I’m not interested in politics”

Sometimes, the above statement is intended to signal innocence and harmlessness; occasionally, it’s uttered with an air of distaste; of ethical (if not aesthetic) superiority. Is the latter because politics is seen as being inherently and inescapably “dirty”, the sphere of those whose ambition and greed make them unscrupulous, cynical and ruthless? At other times, the statement may be an indirect declaration of powerlessness; of resignation, and a washing off of one’s hands.

Etymologically, “politics” comes from the Greek ‘politikos’ and meant"of, for or relating to citizens".It’s therefore not surprising that, within Athenian democracy, one of the meanings of “idiot” was someone who was concerned almost entirely with private, as distinct from public, matters: “idiot” is related to “individual”. We are all born idiots. Infants and little children are “idiots”concerned only with their needs and wishes but, as they grow up, through education and socialisation, they cease (more or less!) to be “idiots” and become (interested, concerned, participating) “citizens”. The ethos created by political leaders is the “weather” people enjoy or endure. Politicians, in turn, are influenced by the response and reaction of citizens: it’s a symbiotic, inter-active, mutually-influencing relationship.

But is the distinction between “public” and “private” valid and sustainable? Don’t political decision about things such as, for example, taxation, the cost of fuel, the funding of schools and hospitals etc. affect private life? Can, for instance, a non-profit organisation helping the disadvantaged, be they adults or children, in an urban or rural area; be it in education or health, remain immune to political decision and action? They do not, and cannot, function in a vacuum.

Some citizens may leave politics alone but will politics “repay the compliment”, and leave them in peace? Aren’t the hapless victims of politics - most often and most pitifully - those who were “not interested in politics”? Writing in the month of July, I cite a personal example. The interests of my mother were largely taken up by her family, relations and friends; the church, prayer and prayer - meetings. Hers was a private, and utterly harmless, life. She did not think, much less do, any harm to anyone. She often quoted to me the words of William Penn: 'I pass this way but once, so all the good I can do, let me do it, for I shall not pass this way again.'  Yet the anti -Tamil pogrom of1983, “Black July”, found her (a widow, aged 75) in a refugee camp, a victim of “politics”. (I remain grateful to Mr. Nanda Godage – presently, Ambassador - for helping her to flee ‘the Paradise Isle’ turned into hell.) So to say, “I’m not interested in politics” is similar to saying, “I’m not interested in the weather”: whether you are interested in it or not, the weather affects you, bringing joy or sorrow. How many of the “not interested” have been murdered, maimed, dispossessed; driven to despair and into exile? I have before me a book, ‘Sticking together’(issued by the International Auschwitz Committee, Berlin: 2012), consisting of the testimony of Hungarian Jewish women, survivors of the Holocaust. In it, I read statements such as: I was Hungarian and Jewish, and was happy and content with that identity. It was persecution that brutally forced me to see myself as a Jew. And, on page 43: “I wasn’t at all interested in politics” (emphasis added).

If the good and the decent do not take an alert and active interest in politics, one should not be surprised if pollution worsens. Some,because they are confused or indifferent or pessimistic that change for the better can be made, do not even trouble to vote. But often what those who say “I’m not interested in politics” really mean is that they do not contest elections; do not  mount public platforms; do not take a public position on an issue or enter into argument and controversy. On the other hand, they read, listen, discuss and argue with friends, and come to form opinions which, in turn, influence electoral behaviour.  And so it should be, because the “health” and well-being of a country depends vitally on its voters not being “idiots” but well-informed and mature; decent and caring; aware, alert and active “citizens”.

“Money isn’t important” may be said by the well-off but not by the poor who, daily, in big and small ways, suffer the consequence of poverty. Somewhat similarly, “I’m not interested in politics” may be said by those individuals and members of an ethnic group enjoying favouring and favourable political “weather”. It’s unlikely to be said by those grievously disadvantaged by politics.

In Orwell’s Animal Farm, hopes and expectations are disappointed; ideals, aims and dreams shattered; tyranny and corruption rampant. The reaction of Boxer, the hard-working cart-horse, is to put his head down - literally and figuratively - and to say that he will work even harder at his job. Of course, it doesn’t help, and things go from bad to worse. Ignoring the wider reality is refusal to face an unpleasant truth: denial leads to inaction; inaction to further deterioration.

To be interested in politics is not an option but an obligation one owes oneself - and others. No doubt, sometimes it’s neither ignorance nor a lack of interest: we may know but lack the honesty to understand in depth, and the courage to do something (Sven Lindqvist: Exterminate all the Brutes).

Photo courtesy: Dinidu de Alwis | Dinidushoots

Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan studied at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya and left for England two years after his graduation. He obtained the degree of Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy from the University of London. He was the contributing Editor of English Literature: Introductory Essays (National Educational Company, Lusaka, 1981) and co-author of Readings in Poetry (Lusaka, 1986). Professor Sarvan, now retired, taught in Sri Lanka, England, Nigeria, Zambia, the Middle East and Germany.