A (vulgar, extreme) response to Ronald Benjamin

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What if Malaysia’s prolonged victimisation of the poor by the rich is due to our misplaced anxieties with niceties, with sounding reasonable, with reaching a ‘consensus’, while those in power continue to rape the country blind, wonders Alwyn Lau.

Ronald Benjamin’s article is a lamentation over what he calls ‘extreme’ partisanship i.e. the tendency to degrade politicians from parties we don’t favour (what some would call exposing the truth?), the ‘vicious vulgarism’ (as if there’s another kind of vulgarism?) occasioned by online anonymity and the survival-at-all-costs mentality (hardly the attitude of froggers like Hee Yit Foong?).

To deal effectively with these attitudes, Benjamin prescribes the creation of a political culture which focuses on ‘common good’ ideals and virtues instead of ‘common bad’ racist and personal attacks. Benjamin calls us to aim for a level playing field between political parties, one stripped of discrimination, irrationality, dishonesty and filled to the edges with accountability, dialogue and overall good governance.

Benjamin’s article reminds me of death-row prisoners being given antiseptics prior to being lethally injected. Or being concerned about deck chairs on the Titanic. But instead of antiseptics or deck-chairs, writers like Benjamin focus on ‘rational dialogue’, implicitly equating it with true politics. If a country is going to the dogs, let’s fall back on reason and civil-mindedness. Yes?

Rubbish. What if the country is in such a shambles precisely because of an obsession with the ‘rational’, with dialogue, with high-n-mighty ideals? What if Malaysia’s prolonged victimisation of the poor by the rich is due to our misplaced anxieties with niceties, with being poh-lite, with sounding reasonable, with reaching a ‘consensus’, while those in power continue to rape the country blind? Isn’t this akin to worrying about the lack of beer when a party guest has just collapsed from alcohol?

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Benjamin’s remark about the importance of a level playing field exemplifies the problem. First, we don’t have a level playing field. What should we do? Ask (again and again and again?) those in power to level the playing field? And if they don’t want to do that, what then? Do we pretend the field is level? Would it not be better to leave the god-forsaken field out of the equation and work from there?

Second, there is a presupposition that politics is in fact a sport-like competition between two ‘equal’ teams. This ignores a few things, not least of which is the belief that true politics is simply about following public official (usually market- and finance-friendly) rules. Putting aside the fact that usually it is just such a mentality which has condemned millions to poverty and marginalisation (trying solving the slum problem with mere ‘dialogue and rationality’ without a serious transformation of the entire socio-political system!), Benjamin’s view also presupposes a Referee’s Eye view of the political world. Newsflash: We do not have such a view. In the real political world, the referee owns multi-million dollar assets given to him by ‘anonymous parties’.

To win, therefore, not only requires that we take the field out of the equation, but that we remove the ‘referee’ from the formula by changing the very game itself.

How do we change the game? We do so by using the methods not endorsed by the ruling regime and by adopting tactics not in the rulebook. Not because we don’t believe in ‘playing fair’, but because we recognise that in the game of power the rules have already been compromised and opposing parties labelled ‘deviant’ or, gasp(!), ‘extreme’.

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Benjamin should relax. Given that he’s clearly in favour of changing the system, he should be glad that certain ‘extreme’ partisan individuals and groups are vying for the only thing that truly matters, that which everyone knows is the prize yet which everybody superficially disavows, that which is a necessary condition for real political transformation and which will certainly be viewed as partisan because there is no other way.

We all know what that thing is. It’s not Reason – it’s Power.

(While this article doesn’t include much in terms of a way forward – especially given its primarily critical motif – in the following articles, I have at least hinted at the kind of proposals I consider more substantial for transformation: Malaysia’s Neurosis & Revolutionary Repetition and Revolutionising Malaysia’s Vending Machine Politics)
Alwyn Lau is a regular reader of Aliran

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