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Commentary Last Updated: Jul 6th, 2007 - 01:00:19

Of pigs and believers
By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jul 6, 2007, 00:58

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I remember my first encounter with a Believer. I was much younger then, and inexperience rendered me unequal to the occasion. It is only of late, thorough the avenue of years, that I have managed to see the event in its true proportions.

I was teaching English at Notre Dame College, and, after classes, several of us were gathered together in the office, chatting and sipping strong tea. Ms. N. M. came into the room and we recklessly included her in our conversation. We, the locals, were unanimous in our conviction that what we needed was military rule. N.M., an American, shook her head disapprovingly, seemed to withdraw into some recess of her intellect, and out of the profound depths of her wisdom pronounced, oracular-like, slowly, seemingly reluctantly, �No . . . no . . . I don�t think that�s the solution.� Her sharp, pointy nose drove the point home -- her entire body seemed to participate in the rejection of our suggestion.

In retrospect, what strikes me today is not what she said, but what she left unsaid. She didn�t call me �boy,� as in �Boy, massaknows best, so you do as massa sez, y�hear.� That�s how they used to talk to negro slaves down south, and even when the slaves had been emancipated (substituting �I� for �massa� with scant regard for grammar).

Now, I don�t like calling people �massa� and I didn�t take kindly to being treated like a �boy.� After all, I was as old as the �misses.� However, over the years I have met many of my compatriots who get a frisson of pleasure when using the address, �massa.� In fact, most of my compatriots get a frisson of pleasure when they are addressed as �boy.� These people are the Pigs.

They pretend to agree with their masters (�Yes, massa,� �That�s right, massa,� �I couldn�t agree with you more, massa�) because the masters have the power to give them either an improved diet or a good thrashing. No self-respecting pig can pass up an improved diet.

Before I continue, I must confess that the Believer-Pig distinction is not mine. I owe it to the English historian, Richard Vinen. And he uses it to explain why Communist Europe went over to capitalism without a shot being fired.

Here�s the story.

In the early 1950s, Zdenek Mlynar, a student at Moscow University, was accosted by a drunk Russian. The latter had just voted in favour of keeping out a friend from the party for a minor offence. Ashamed of himself, he asked Mlynar to �call him a pig� (we know from Dostoyevsky how those Russians are given to bouts of alternating criminality and contrition.) When Mlynar inquired why, he received the following reply: �Because you are not a pig, you really believe in all this . . . You read Lenin, even when you are all alone. You understand? You have faith in all these ideas.� The Pig went on to become a successful military prosecutor. In the late 1970s, Mlynar went on to write, �No doubt he still gets drunk after a trial and gets someone to call him a pig.�

The children of the nomenclatura grew up, pigs almost to the last man and woman. They cared nothing for communism, and a great deal for their inherited privileges. As communism became more manifestly a failure, the Believers -- there were still some -- tried to reform the system. The Pigs made a show of �outward orthodoxy,� to use Vinen�s expression, but were in fact concerned only with their careers.

Of course, the Pigs twigged that capitalism would allow them to pass on their privileges better, and that they were in a unique position to benefit from the transition to communism. In the event, according to Vinen, the move to capitalism was a �management buyout.� Some people lamented that self-interest, rather than idealism, had won the day. Istvan Csurka of the Hungarian Democratic Forum said that �his country had been cheated of the revolution.� Ah! well. Some people will insist on blood when vodka will do just as well.

In Bangladesh, too, we noticed the sudden pirouette of the Marxist intellectuals: they espoused democracy and capitalism. These ideas, not accidentally, were backed up by huge funds from the west -- and they still are. With capitalism, I have no beef: under capitalism, the Pig and the Believer are one. That�s why it works.

Democracy is a different story.

�You read Lenin, even when you are all alone.� So said the drunk Russian to Zdenek Mlynar. Substitute �John Locke� for �Lenin� and you can bet your bottom dollar that the resulting statement will not be true for most democrats in Bangladesh. Most of us are -- observed Transparency International over five consecutive years -- Pigs.

Bangladeshi democracy is built on a system of lies not unlike the Soviet Union, where managers would routinely cook the books to ensure that the quota dictated from the Kremlin had been fulfilled. The endless propaganda has an Orwellian feeling. Today I read in the newspaper that the American ambassador deplored our hartals and, in the same breath, congratulated us on our democracy. Frederic Temple, the ex-chief of the World Bank here, deplored our hartals (work stoppages/strikes)) as well; each day lost to hartal costs us, he said, $50 million.

How about the cost in terms of human lives? I remember a hartal a few years ago when a 16-year-old boy called Ripon Sikder died at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital after struggling for his life for 11 days. He was injured by a bomb. And truck driver, Fayez Ahmed (50), died when a bomb was thrown on his truck. An auto-rickshaw was burned to ashes, and when the driver, Saidul Islam Shahid (35), tried to put out the flames, he was sprinkled with petrol, and burned to death. It took him more than two days to die.

As for the perpetrators of these democratic acts, one must reserve some sympathy. Most of them are student politicians, and, on my reckoning, six are murdered in gangland wars every month. The American ambassador was being economical with the truth when he congratulated us on our democracy.

Bertrand Russell wrote: �Belief in democracy, however, like any other belief, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical and therefore harmful.� Let me revise that: �Belief in democracy, unlike any other belief today, may be carried to the point where it becomes fanatical and therefore highly profitable.� Now that the neoconservatives have attacked Iraq, and are determined to spread the gospel of democracy throughout the uncivilised world (that�s us, by the way), there�s plenty of lucre for the democratic Pig.

But the wild-eyed, tousle-haired Believer in democracy is more dangerous than the Pigs he rears: the uncorrupt lunatic is always most fearsome. No amount of cash or frustration can divert him (or her) from the �rightful course.� No number of dead bodies -- of boys, girls, men and women -- can ever make them see the light of humanity. How many corpses would have been required to persuade Ms. N.M from America that she was wrong? Not even 1,700,000 dead Iraqi children (Madeleine Albright: "it was worth it") would have done the job, let alone a few regular murders in broad daylight in Bangladesh in the name of �democracy.�

Iftekhar Sayeed was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he currently resides. He teaches English as well as economics. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Postcolonial Text (on-line); Altar Magazine, Online Journal, Left Curve (2004,2005) and The Whirligig in the United States; in Britain: Mouseion, Erbacce, The Journal, Poetry Monthly, Envoi, Orbis, Acumen and Panurge; and in Asiaweek in Hong Kong; Chandrabhaga and the Journal OF Indian Writing in English in India; and Himal in Nepal. He is also a freelance journalist. He and his wife love to tour Bangladesh.

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