“I’m Not Interested In Politics”
By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan
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 decisions 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, relatives 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 of 1983, ‘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”. 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’).