by William Milam March 8, 2019
Two friends sent me last week a video from an Al Jazeera TV show called Head to Head, a similar to the BBC model of Hard Talk, that debates a current political question. In this TV newscast, a political issue is the subject of hard questioning by a TV moderator of a knowledgeable guest. The political question at issue on the video sent me was whether the recent election was proof that Bangladesh is becoming, if it already is de facto, a one-party state. I watched about half the program before I could not watch anymore; and I could not watch anymore because the knowledgeable guest was a man I have known for a number of years. I found it sad that he was embarrassing himself, obviously willing to do so, in defending a regime that verges on becoming totalitarian police state and defending what was clearly a totally crooked and rigged election in which the government party won 96 percent of the seats in the parliament. He began his defence by asserting that the election was indeed credible. Surely that number itself – which are the totals similar to those that dictators like Stalin won by – must tell any objective observer that it was a crooked election.
When I knew him, he was an academic who had taught at Oxford, Harvard and the University of Virginia. I did not know him well, but we took part on several panels and met at several meetings between 2003 and 2008, before he returned to Bangladesh to take up a job in the Prime Minister’s office. In those days, he seemed a well-informed and accurate observer of Bangladesh. I met with him occasionally in Dhaka but found him less forthcoming than I remembered. On one level, that he works as an advisor to the Prime Minister surely explains why he took on this task of defending Sheikh Hasina’s government on TV.
But on a deeper level, his performance on the show brings up serious questions of why someone so intelligent and accomplished is willing to expend his credibility so cheaply. He denied evidence clear to the objective naked eye and tried to dissuade the audience from the belief that what is clearly an incipient growing, if not yet fully achieved authoritarian government, elected in two illegitimate elections, with a proven and extensive human rights abuse record, and a very muzzled media, is really just a country which is concentrating on economic growth and social development. Surely, he knows the truth, but made a valiant effort to avoid it in his responses to the moderator’s questions and statements
In most cases, he simply denied the truth of these facts, though they are all there for any reasonably objective observer to see. His effort to make the case, indirectly, that a good economic growth and social development record justifies authoritarian governance and repressive human rights policies that have harmed many thousands of people and taken away their right to choose their leaders freely and fairly, was weak and unconvincing. And while I did not watch the end of the “debate”, I do not think he convinced very many viewers or audience members that the Bangladesh/China model was the budding paradise he described.
After my sadness at his plasticity had passed, however, I realised I had seen much the same thing here in the US only a day or two before during the public testimony of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal lawyer, to the House of Representatives Oversight Committee. I will not go into detail on that hearing as readers probably have already seen and heard much about it. But I cite it as an example of the equivalent failure of politics here in the US. Cohen, who this time had every incentive to tell the truth, supplied fairly strong evidence of the President’s complicity in a number of unlawful acts. For what seems to have been a truthful and evidence-backed testimony, he was attacked personally by every Republican on the committee as a convicted liar and criminal bag man, though not one of them thought to question the evidence or pay any attention to it. This is par for the course these days in American politics. As the President comes under increasing pressure from House Democrats for what appear to be illegal acts, he is blindly defended by Republicans in Congress. The Republican party is, it seems, enslaved to the President, and its members close their eyes and react with ad hominum attacks on all who add to the increasing volume of evidence of the President’s wrong doing.
I am not naïve, and I have seen political fidelity carried to excess before, and witnessed blind support of political leaders who had clearly lost their moral compass and committed acts that were illegal and abused human rights or civil liberties. One could point out that many Republicans stuck with Richard Nixon until almost the very end. But at that very end, most Republicans favoured impeachment, which is what drove Nixon from office.
I think I first learned about excessive political fidelity and political enthrallment in what has remained since my youth my favourite novel of American politics,All the King’s Men. This novel, published in 1946 by novelist and poet Robert Penn Warren is centred on the rise and fall of a populist demagogic politician in the American South. It is based loosely on the rise and fall of the colourful Governor/Senator Huey Long of Louisiana in the 1930s, a radical leftist populist who had gained great popularity with his share the wealth programs, and who many politicians at the time, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered a very dangerous Hitler-like threat to American democracy. But an equally interesting part of the novel, to me, was the narrator, a cynical ex-journalist who became the press spokesman of the fictional politician and enthralled by his progressive programs propagated lies and denied the truth of that politician’s ambitions, as well as his crimes, even the point of even helping to destroy, unknowingly, his father who opposed the politician. In the end the narrator discovers that all actions have consequences and has to accept responsibility for his actions while in thrall and the employ of the politician.
I guess that one can use the term “enablers” for all those who blindly support and often provide services to corrupt and power-seeking political leaders. They enable such leaders to carry out their predations and their corrupt behaviour by ignoring the moral considerations of their actions and by bearing false witness. The truth is often the greatest loser. It seems that in politics, the enablers outnumber those whose moral compass is strong and who place premium on the truth. There are many reasons that these enablers become enthralled with such leaders and remain so. Some are ideologues and support authoritarian political leaders out of blind ideological passion. Many of the Republicans who support President Trump without reflection, or second thought, are willing to put up with anything from the leader who is pushing their conservative agenda. Many others support him blindly out of fear of losing his support and their seats or jobs. In many countries, enablers are often bought, either through sharing the corruption of the political leader, or through his turning a blind eye to their corruption. Many enablers are just passive—they go along to get along, as the saying goes.
But none of those explanations would seem to fit the individual who sparked this piece by going on Head to Head and defending the indefensible, resorting to alternative facts as well as many fictions to portray a budding police state as a budding developed country. Is he delusional? Or does he seriously believe in the Chinese model of development as the wave of the future? In other words, does he serious believe that democracy and free expression is not important to human development? Is he, as one interlocutor has said, the acceptable face of a new and rising South Asian Fascism?
As I was finishing this article, I received from yet another friend a third copy of the same video. That message contained the information that this video has been taken off all Bangladeshi websites. See what I mean by a muzzled press? His performance seems to even have displeased his own government.
The writer is an American diplomat and is senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington
The article appeared in The Friday Times on 8 March 2019