The price of knee-jerk reactions to protest

by snowden1984

It so happened once in Spain that a young doctor came upon a demonstration where they were chanting, ‘Down with the Bourbons!’. He asked one of the protestors, a passionate man convinced of his cause, ‘Who exactly are the Bourbons?”What! The guardia civil, of course!’

The Bourbons were a French royal dynasty whose influence had extended to Spain. This foreign domination was resented in some quarters. The guardia civil was a paramilitary police organization, also detested by many.

The protestor had his facts mixed up, but that did not take away from the legitimacy of his action — the repudiation of an organization that had abused power. [Incidentally, the protestor is no more; the House of Bourbon and the Guardia Civil (or was it another, similarly hated police organization?) persist in Spain]

A few generations later, something similar was reported from India. An officer came upon farmers shouting, ‘Gatt, go back!’.

‘Who is Gatt, respected sir?’, asked the officer.

‘It is the man, a foreigner, who threatens our livelihood’, returned the elderly farmer.

Now, the object of the protest was properly GATT, the General Agreement on Trades and Tariffs. It was not a man — but that made little difference to the outcome as experienced by the farmer.

I do not imagine that any Spaniard will make such a blunder today, and I would ascribe that to universal education, and prosperity which allows time for the pursuit of non-essential activities. India, alas, is still in darkness, as was made evident by a recent incident.

In this case, it was an elected head of local government who hastened to the door of an unfortunate suicide. The deceased had attributed his action to the federal government’s refusal to increase pension payouts for the military. The local politician designated the suicide as a ‘martyr’, and announced a diversion of public funds, an enormous sum for one of the world’s poorest countries, to the grieving family.

Quite apart from whether this was a shabby publicity stunt to increase one’s own popularity using taxpayer money, there are two symptomatic issues here.

Firstly, the fetishization of the uniform. The era of the brave, male hero defending his wife and hearth against the barbarian invader, who triumphs against odds, and to whose glory bards shall evermore raise voice — is over. The interests of nations are no longer exclusively defended by gun-toting patriots on snowy peaks. Many others contribute to a country’s security — including researchers, artists, engineers, farmers, traders, lawyers and political analysts. Not all of them are soldiers, and quite a few are not even employed or directed by the State.

Add to this the fact that even the army’s supply chains of fuel, food, weapon systems, and ammunition are intricate and extend well into the civilian and international sphere, and it becomes plain that it is superficial to regard soldiers in border regions as somehow more important than the rest of society. It is a romantic notion that is suited for picture-books aimed at adolescents — not something that the wretched in contemporary India can afford.

Secondly, the knee-jerk reaction. A man has killed himself. That this is a personal tragedy is beyond dispute. It might even be grounds to consider whether a systemic change is called for. To immediately, unilaterally, munificently reward the action using the public purse, and to label the act as evidence of the majority public opinion — these are not what one expects of a mature democratic government.

Instead, use public resources to seek a consensus on how to deal with the risk of suicide, establish minimum quality of life standards, make government policy making more transparent and participatory — these are examples of a considered response to tragedy, responses which will serve many, many people, and not just the family of the unfortunate pawn who desired a bigger pension, and upon whose untrained intellect cannot be placed the burden of thinking for the entire country.

Some weeks ago, a piece of Mexican media came to my attention, ‘¿por qué hay naciones pobres? (Why do exist poor countries?) Not a dense academic work, the single-page sketch used examples to reject climate, accident of geography, culture, religion as decisive factors in determining the wealth of nations — and suggested that prosperity was caused by political and economic institutions working to benefit a majority of the target population. The opposite too holds true. Poverty and desperation are caused when a privileged elite is favored, when institutions are weak.
It might be that simple. More transparency, less arbitrariness, increased debate and participation in government — and that shall lead to increased freedoms, greater prosperity, and more reasons to live.