Friday, January 29, 2016

What happened in Matale?

Some years ago, not that long ago actually, 2013 to be exact, I attended a series of student presentations following an international conference. The conference was sponsored by a Sri Lankan university that I won't name. The students were graduate candidates of that university. They did their own work but like all students at that university and in this country they were supervised by senior lecturers or tutors. That they were supervised brings a certain seriousness to this note. Someone knows better. Someone knew better. Someone should have known better. There was a responsibility some supervisor should have assumed. Why didn't they? What did they serve by not exerting what they knew to be true, half true, untrue, stupid, vile? 

The student presented a rather hackneyed view of rust belt cities in America. Buffalo, Detroit, Schenectady. His presentation was filtered through cultural eyes into a landscape at once stereotyped and dimly understood. But dim understanding and stereotype go hand and hand down the aisle of, dare I say it? Cultural genocide. 

He invoked "statistics" about a town in central Sri Lanka, north of Kandy. It is called Matale. The first bus ride I ever took in this country was Matale-bound. "What is Matale?" I asked the driver. Or maybe it was the conductor. "Matale is some place," was all they answered. There are many places. 

It was the year of Detroit's shame. Its downfall. Its slithering in the mud of the Great Lakes, racism, "white flight," divestment, capital retreat, economic collapse. The popular topic was picked up by the student, an up and coming city planner, and encouraged by his tutor and maybe by his professor. Maybe they introduced it to him. I've heard so much misnomer here about topics like sprawl, urban decay, and sustainabiliy. Hot topics sell. Matale, he intoned, was like the rust belt. A failed economy, depopulation, empty precincts, burnt-out storefronts. What a strange scenario I began to think, for a pre-post industrial town in Sri Lanka. What really happened in Matale?

People fled, but not the majority. People rioted, but not disgruntled minorities. Businesses closed. But not because of a poor economy. Matale had nothing in common with Schenectady. Matale was a scene of pogroms. My people in Germany were wrenched out of their communities by government-sponsored pogroms. That was 1938. People here were wrenched out of Matale in 1983 by government-sponsored pogroms. People left their businesses, their neighborhoods, and their homes because their lives were at risk. Or lives had been lost. Or lives were threatened. Not just livelihoods. Lives. So. Like they did in Lubeck and Frankfurt and Essen and Munich and wherever they could (most couldn't) people of the wretched hated minority, those who had lived alongside the majority for centuries, those who had been "taught a lesson" or needed to be taught a lesson and would soon, predictably, be taught more, fled. 

That crime, those crimes, were unforgivable. They were noted by history but as my friend Thavarajah, a gentleman of Tamil extraction says, "the winners write history."

So. Without the gold crusted statue of triumphalism you may see in the North, without shouts and screams of conquest, the "winners" of an ethic outrage paint a rotting city, site of pogroms and death, in a vogue popular as it is timely. Matale, much in need of the "planner's" hindsight wisdom, was the victim of postindustrial urban decay. No word word of truth is uttered. The student is applauded. The presentation is accepted and passes with high marks. 

Massacre, degradation, persecution. These are swiped off the academic slate by generalizations, stereotype, and misinformation. Lies become truth as another "planner" or "designer" is cookie-cut from this university, one of a "batch" of eligible candidates, in sequence to the next available government job.  Truth is published in refereed journals. "Findings" are painted in a swath of statistics. I ask my German colleagues who are there with me as an international team of jurors, what they understand about what they just saw. They speak little. Simply, they just forget to come back for the next year's conference. So should I have. 

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