By Iftekhar Sayeed
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Jun 17, 2008, 00:16

The rational thing to do, according to economic theory, is to maximize your income, and buy goods and services, and be happier than before. What about dignity?

I frequently think about Vercingetorix, the leader of the Gauls. According to economic theory, he should have kowtowed to Julius Caesar, asked for a handsome retainer, and lived happily ever after. Instead, he -- dumb Gaul that he was -- had the irrationality to rise against the Roman Republic. For his foolishness, he was taken to Rome in chains, exhibited in Caesar's triumph, and executed six years later. Today, it is not Caesar I admire, but Vercingetorix. I never was a good student of economics.

From Vercingetorix, my mind moves, by association, to a more recent figure. Mullah Omar was promised "a carpet of gold" or a "carpet of bombs" by the American Republic. He -- totally ignorant of neoclassical economic theory -- chose the latter. Some people are just born losers ("doofus," I think, is the word).

Why should anyone in his senses rise against power? It's not the rational thing to do. Consider the so-called suicide bombers. In 1991, we were stunned by the report that a Tamil woman had blown up Rajiv Gandhi (and herself). (Incidentally, this gives the lie to the assertion that the "suicide bomber" was a Muslim, irrational innovation). She had taken revenge against Gandhi because the Indian troops he had sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 to help enforce a peace accord there had ended up fighting the Tamil separatist guerrillas. Now, blowing yourself up must be the most irrational of human acts -- there isn't even a chance of your sticking around to find out which side finally prevails. But perhaps that's the point: when you have little or no hope of prevailing against a mighty foe, it makes sense to destroy the enemy and yourself in the process. I say "makes sense" even though Adam Smith would have ridiculed me for making that statement. After all, bombs and bullets are bad for business -- unless you are in the business of making and selling them. The production of explosives is an eminently productive and remunerative enterprise, but the use of such gadgets -- and here's the rub -- makes no sense at all. In that case, a query arises: if the consumption of bullets makes no sense, then how does the production thereof? It seems, then, that the biggest sellers of arms -- the world's topmost democracies and capitalist countries -- must be engaged in an irrational pursuit. Or perhaps there's a mystery here that some future PhD (in economics, of course) will resolve, and my puny little brain can't.

It is estimated that around 5 million Vietnamese died fighting the American Republic. That, surely, was insane. These Vietnamese should have accepted the American yoke (much as the prostitutes described in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American accepted the American poke) and maximized their economic well-being. Instead, they invited a "carpet of bombs," including a weed-killer called Agent Orange that, to this day, deforms Vietnamese foetuses. Why not let sleeping dogs lie? As to those who admire the Vietnamese for their heroism -- such as myself -- the less said, the better. As a student of economics, I should have enough common sense to condemn irrationality when I see it. But I don't!

Take my compatriots. Ever since Mir Zafar betrayed the last Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Dawlah, we have been a rational people. At the Battle of Plassey, the former sold his honour, his country and his ruler to the British. A force of 3,000 went on to defeat a force of 50,000, and the Nawab was ferreted out and executed. Now, there's a real doofus for you. If he had supinely allowed the British to go on building their fort in Calcutta, turning a blind eye to the obvious, and selling his loyalty after an agreed upon interval, well, he would never have found a place in the hearts of the common people, as he has with the superb popular play enacted in the countryside, but he would have died in a silken bed. After all, you can't eat glory and heroism. Posthumous applause is posthumous.

"US Charge d'Affaires Geeta Pasi yesterday refuted claims of interference in Bangladesh's internal affairs, while Foreign Affairs Adviser Iftekhar A Chowdhury reiterated that the government's recent caution against foreign interference is not directed at anyone in particular." So reported a local paper. Now and then, like an intermittent itch, we have moments of irrationality; we complain about foreign interference, for instance, knowing well that the country is run by foreigners -- mostly by Americans and Europeans. We know it, and we love it -- the amount of money that we get from these Western powers swells our pockets at the price of our honour and dignity. But you can't consume dignity. It is simply not for sale.

Therefore, the wise Bangladeshi avoids dignity at all times. Only when it becomes blatantly obvious that our real rulers are not the murderous begums now in jail do we shrug off our lethargy and make noises, and promptly fall asleep. The Americans, the British, the French, the Germans just adore us -- we are their quiet little pet, albeit with a soft bark uttered at long intervals. Cute.

It can be no accident that economists are so highly valued in Bangladesh. The chairmen of Transparency International Bangladesh and the Centre for Policy Dialogue are highly respected economists. They serve as exemplars of the economic doctrine of maximizing personal income, the nation be hanged. Nearly half the people live below the poverty line, and have little chance of augmenting their income -- and with the rising price of rice, the poverty level is bound to increase. That makes the achievements of Vietnam and China all the more irrational. Their rulers actually work for the people's welfare. They don't scurry off to attend seminars in New York to gain prestige; they don't kowtow to Caesar. They don't genuflect before Geeta Pasi or the current US ambassador to Bangladesh, James Moriarty. An elite should learn to sell the national interest to the highest bidder, to make sure that their children can live in Europe when the nation collapses. And what if women are going to be raped by the student armies of the political parties? So long as it's not my sister, why should I care?

Not to love thy neighbour -- that's rational. Only the doofus loves his neighbour as himself. In Bangladesh, we're not doofuses.

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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