‘Walkman Syndrome’ afflicts the ruling party and our government

With a Walkman and its headphones, one could go anywhere and yet be cut off from their surroundings.

Mahfuz Anam

Mahfuz Anam

The Daily Star


With a Walkman and its headphones, one could go anywhere – from the busiest of markets to the most boisterous of gatherings to the biggest of demonstrations – and yet be cut off from their surroundings. Perhaps not unlike our government at present. ILLUSTRATION: Biplob Chakroborty

August 12, 2022

DHAKA – Walkman was a battery-powered portable personal stereo cassette player invented by Sony in Japan in July 1979, that made quality music available on the go. It revolutionised the experience of listening to music as people could take their favourite numbers wherever they went, making personal trips, especially their lonely, long and dreary commutes to and from work, considerably more pleasant. Soon, it took the world by storm – listening to music has never been the same since then. Like the transistor in the 50s, Walkman in the 80s was among the early signs of the digital revolutions that were to sweep the world.

However, like all revolutions – social or technological – there are unforeseen consequences. In the case of Walkman, as its use became almost universal, it appeared to isolate people. They became self-absorbed (a situation that is far worse now) and detached from their surroundings. With a Walkman and its headphones, one could go anywhere – from the busiest of markets to the most boisterous of gatherings to the biggest of demonstrations – and yet be cut off from their surroundings.

The term “Walkman Syndrome” first came to use after the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1979, when people wondered how Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, being in power since 1953 and with SAVAK, his dreaded secret service, and all the other institutions of surveillance – not to mention the help from the CIA and successive US administrations, whose great ally he was – could not know or fathom that the ground was shifting from under his very feet. Later, research showed that “talk” was all over the market place in Tehran and other cities of Iran, but all the Shah’s men/women were only tuned to their Walkman, playing the narrative that they wanted to hear.

How could this happen? It was my good fortune to witness this intense debate from close quarters. I was working at the Unesco headquarters then, and Paris was the city where Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Iranian revolution, passed his last years of exile and from where he returned to Iran. Unesco’s corridors buzzed with hundreds of narratives at that time, the most prominent of which was how the Shah’s regime could have been so unaware of the changing circumstances, proving, once more, Lord John Acton’s dictum that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The obvious analysis was his disconnect with the people, and the term applied in the Unesco circles in the early 80s was “Walkman Syndrome,” using the wide popularity of the newly invented gadget to make for easy understanding of what happened in Iran, especially to the Shah’s regime.

After 40 years, and its disappearance from usage, I am tempted to use that term again. It is my view that our government and the ruling party have both been afflicted with the “Walkman Syndrome.” Not only are they listening to their own narratives, but they have gone one step further and have put all sorts of impediments in the creation and propagation of alternative narratives. If a contrary view somehow finds its place in the public domain, at once all sorts of “conspiracy” theories are spewed with venom, accompanied with veiled and not-so-veiled threats of “consequences.” I had written sometime earlier that “press freedom has now become praise freedom,” and as long as praise continues, the press and everyone else are safe. The intolerance for critical views and alternative narratives is so pervasive and intense that democracy’s fundamental feature, freedom of expression, is most severely compromised in today’s Bangladesh.

Along with debilitating the press, the government has all but disabled the parliament in the sense that this vital component of a functional democracy has hardly ever debated issues of urgent public concern. Bangladesh is at the forefront of the climate disasters facing the world. Yet, there has not been a single in-depth discussion on it in our parliament. Education, youth, employment, environment, defence, foreign policy, threat of terrorism, human resource development – name any issue of vital national concern, and we will see that they never featured in our parliament’s agenda in any meaningful way.

We have one of the highest numbers of road accident deaths in the world, with no reflection on it in our Sangsad. Handling of Covid and the thousands of crores of taka spent in dealing with it, and the massive bailout in which taxpayers’ money – again, thousands of crores of taka – was distributed, never saw the light of the day in a parliamentary discussion. PK Halder laundered Tk 10,000 crore – one-third of the cost of Padma Bridge – and there was hardly a word from our people’s representatives. There are many other examples.

On “point of order,” sometimes sporadic discussions on issues do take place. But they are hardly substantive or lead to any meaningful way forward. Hours are spent on praise or self-congratulations. But when thousands die of Covid, flood or of any natural calamity, our parliament – the House of the people – has no time for them.

All our statutory bodies – the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the Information Commission, etc – also suffer from the “Walkman syndrome.” They hear only what they want to and shut out the rest. However, it is the Election Commission (which is a constitutional body) that takes the cake. Its main job, supposedly, is to get the voters’ “will” reflected in the elections. But it is quite happy to reflect the will of the power of the day. Enforced disappearances is one of the most shameful aspects of our recent history. Every year, the concerned families hold tearful press briefings demanding government action or at least some answers, and yet our NHRC has shown no interest in the issue. Newspapers write detailed investigative reports on corruption, but those don’t attract the ACC. All are busy listening to their own narratives.

The latest energy crisis has revealed a critical area of national security and, as such, is of high concern for all of us. But it is an area that remains mostly outside meaningful public scrutiny. The whole gamut of our energy sector – gas exploration, power generation, quick rentals, LNG import, construction of LNG terminals, etc – are all serious questions that have escaped parliamentary scrutiny and ACC probes. Two days back, on Wednesday, the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) published some astonishing facts about the record fuel price hike and whether it could have been avoided. This one act of the government has driven the poor and the middle class into desperation and the industries into a severe crisis due to the enhanced energy and transportation costs. Will it find any serious reflection in our parliament?

In the meantime, more draft laws – with many already in the statute books – are under consideration as to how the freedom of expression can be curbed (the Press Council Amendment Act), how to access personal data of citizens more (Data Protection Act), etc.

What makes our version of the “Walkman syndrome” far more lethal is the culture of rhetoric that goes with it. Two examples should suffice. We paid a foreign company to launch our own satellite (the need and the business case for which remain to see the light of the day) and it was called our “conquest of space.” We won a legal battle (the government deserves praise for pursuing it competently) in the international court and got our share of the Bay of Bengal and went to town calling it our “conquest of the oceans.” Did we convince anybody with these claims – not, perhaps, even the paid sloganeers?

The “Walkman Syndrome” produces a delusional mindset. By constantly feeding on self-praise and throttling contrarian views, our government and the ruling party have deprived themselves of vital feedback, which could have helped them to be more aware of what people want and what they are thinking. They have further removed themselves from the reality by indulging in a culture of rhetoric that so exaggerates their achievements (which, when realistically assessed, is significant and impressive, especially the Padma Bridge) that ultimately pushes them into a make-believe world that further removes them from what people – and many of them are their well-wishers – are saying and thinking.

Hopefully, the present challenges will trigger a “wake-up call” and inject a desire for reality check.

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