Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Michael Aung-Thwin

From Wikipedia's article on the neo-conservative political theorist Leo Strauss:
"Strauss noted that thinkers of the first rank, going back to Plato, had raised the problem of whether good and effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of their society. By implication, Strauss asks his readers to consider whether "noble lies" have any role at all to play in uniting and guiding the polis. Are "myths" needed to give people meaning and purpose and to ensure a stable society? Or can men and women dedicated to relentlessly examining, in Nietzsche's language, those "deadly truths", flourish freely? Thus, is there a limit to the political, and what can be known absolutely?"
Why do I bring up Leo Strauss in a blog devoted to Burma? Leo Strauss's notion of political myth helps to make sense of the convoluted and hard to follow arguments made by Michael Aung-Thwin and highlight their inconsistencies.

On the one hand, you have Michael Aung-Thwin in his recent book The Mists of Ramanna pretending that myths for political legitimation are somehow exceptional behaviour, that the Mon king Dhammazedi was doing something unique and exceptional by mapping Buddhist history to the history of his Mon kingdom where in fact this is a universal of politics in all ages. You can even see it in Livy's received history of early Rome.

On the other hand, you have Michael Aung-Thwin defending the current state of Myanmar which habitually uses legitimizing myths. Renaming every road and town in the country and the very name of the country, insisting that everyone outside the country retroactively rename and refer to everything with these names, when the actual people in the country itself often can't or don't want to keep all these name changes straight. In Korea, the English language "Korea" is also different from "Hanguk" the designator for the country in the Korean language, but Koreans don't bizarrely and retroactively insist that everyone change their language and put on an authoritarian linguistic straight-jacket.

Using them when you are writing history would condemn you to an inability to communicate, to be understood by anyone at all, effectively preventing you from talking about the subject, forcing you to talk about it only in their newly created terms, according to their own "interpretive community" (the hegemonic straight-jacket terminology of their own shoosing), as if there was no objective notion of objective historical truth, a very convenient notion for want-to-be dictators.

Then there is the mythology fo all mythologies. Moving the capital to the jungle 26 miles outside of Pyinmana in some mysterious simulcrum of king Thalun's relocation of the capital from Pegu to Ava circa 1630 and then having Pagan Aung-Thwin interpret and explain it to use, how it is natural given their 1630?

That Aung-Thwin sees Dhammazedi's legitimizing myths as exceptional and is blind to the truly exceptional legitimizing myths of Burma's junta is a major inconsistency in his thought.

Leo Strauss in the blogosphere

Leo Strauss as a conservative political theorist in his work provided the arguments that could be used to support military regimes like Burma's junta (See also Balkinization Blog).

Carl Schmitt, one of Strausses associates before he left Germany, is a little scarier, being a precursor of fascism and essentially an advocate of war for war's sake (See Crooked Timber 1 and Crooked Timber 2 and Brad de Long). His political philosophy seems to be a throwback to a much earlier era when war supported by the surplus of subsistence agriculture was economic reality, or opposition to humanism "in favor of an emphasis on the role of power in modern society" (Alan Wolfe). War is the reality that dominates the Burmese chronicle tradition, religion taking a definite secondary role. This historical tradition might be one of the principal factors motivating political decisions by Burma's generals such as the Pyinmana move or name changes.

The political thought of Michael Aung-Thwin seems to steer perilously close to that of the pre-WWII German conservative Carl Schmitt:
Schmitt criticized the institutional practices of liberal politics, arguing that they are justified by a faith in rational discussion and openness that is at odds with actual parliamentary party politics, in which outcomes are hammered out in smoke-filled rooms by party leaders" .
Immediately reminded me of Aung-Thwin's:
"Realise that in Myanmar, anarchy is feared far more than tyranny. Singapore’s system is probably one of the best models: strong, unified leadership without selfish bickering and politicised social issues. In the 50s and 60s, most South-east Asian countries were in the same boat. Singapore and Malaysia are now generations ahead of Myanmar. One of the reasons is leadership — and it was not democratic."(Source)
Singapore and Malaysia were also the last Southeast Asian states to jettison their colonial connections. They never seized and nationalized businesses, schools, and hospitals run by westerners, for instance. Aung-Thwin has spent his whole career criticising colonial era institutions and now he is holding success based on their very persistence up as a model for Burma. It's a little late, isn't it? Why does he pick out the tiny Chinese city state of Singapore as a model for Burma? Thailand is much more similar to Burma than Singapore is and they have clearly rejected the Singapore model. Similar confusing, contradictory, and not very well thought out statements by Aung-Thwin can be found elsewhere: magazine interview, Democracy Jihad, and Singapore Interview. Ultimately, like Carl Schmitt, despite his desire to be the lynchpin of the junta political thought, the ruling junta doesn't really need someone like him.

Some people might object that bringing larger debates from western politics into Burmese politics and political history is either: 1. external interference (Michael Aung-Thwin), or 2. not relevant due to Burma's unique cultural differences.

At the extremes of political argumentation over the current political situation in Burma/Myanmar you rarely see very well reasoned arguments and rarely, if at all, do they have any historical or comparative breadth or perspective.

In fact, by even supposing that there could be a debate, by not presupposing that one side is absolutely right, the left side would already consign you to the status of pro-government apologist. For some, political discourse on contemporary Burma-Myanmar politics is total war. Either choose a side or get shot by both sides. On the right side, the Michael Aung-Thwin side, you also get the belief that debate is bad, there is no need for democratic debate, because it is external interference in Burma's affairs and democracy is not really an institution suited to the Burmese anyway, according to him.

Isolationism in Burma and Burma Studies

Why is there so little solid scholarship on Burma and its history? Isolationism seems to be the core reason. Burma started separating itself from the rest of the world in the 1950s with Burmese state policies of non-alignment (even from the non-aligned movement itself) and western focus on French Indochina. With the virtual closing of the country's doors in 1962, scholars stopped studying the country. Then in 1988 political discourse started becoming more polarized and intense to the point at which there wasn't even a shred of debate left. Eventually, anyone expressing a wish to be objective was ipso facto accused of having some ulterior motive.

Then there is the isolationism of Burma studies itself in the United States. The Burma Studies center for the United States is moved to Northern Illinois University, a second rate university in the middle of a corn field, that attendance at will almost certainly guarantee that you will never be recognized as a scholar of any note or rank. No slight intended to Hsaya U Saw Tun, the best Burmese language teacher in the United States and one of the foremost experts on Burmese language and literature.

Almost none of the professors of Burma Studies themselves give papers at the conferences they hold or publish papers in the journals they publish. There is no peer review, collaboration, or use of the internet. Quite frankly, they need to be subject to a thorough review and audit. After this, their funding will be cut for sure. Someone needs to do some good investigative journalism and uncover the full sorry extent of nepotism, cliqueishness, and incompetence and make it public.

In a shallow contest for prestige, publishing in their own journals seems to be below them. Prestige is more important than the advancement of knowledge, despite the fact that 1. the number of published journal papers is truly deplorable and 2. publishing high quality papers in a timely fashion is the only way that the field of Burmese history will advance.

Guaranteed, if anyone shows individual initiative, tries hard, works hard, works independently, without the sanction of this American Burma Studies group and their minions, there will be academic vultures swarming over him or her.

I'm sure I will also eventually be attacked, because I work hard and publish regularly in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research published at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London which has a long tradition of scholarly excellence in Burmese history including the greatest of all Burmese historians U Than Tun who throughout his long and productive life staunchly refused to act as an apologist for a authoritarian Burmese state, the perfect role model at a time when we have very few indeed.

The world of business, any world of business, is more productive and attractive than the nepotistic, cliqueish, and tightly controlled world of Burma Studies in the United States. A couple of people hold on to control of the main organizations, journals, and funding, use it to serve their own self-serving ends in a rather pitiful simulcrum of modern day "Myanmar" itself.

Their minions even threaten to sue people, if they act independently and show initiative. No wonder there is no progress in this field. Graduate students have no choice but to fall in line with them, uncritically tow their pitiful party line, and become pitiful automata. The field goes nowhere. The best recipe to do meaningful work is to remain aloof from ths charade.

Given that research funding and academic publishing in the area of Burma Studies in the United States has long been controlled by a small clique which prevents critical and objective history from being written, the best choice is clearly Europe, Australia, Thailand, or Japan.

Well, back to work. In my Mon Paradigm Fallacy Blog I am picking apart piece by piece Michael Aung Thwin's sorry excuse for historical scholarship, surreptitiously presentist promotion of Burmese nationalism, and naked affront to those of Mon ethnicity, his new book: The Mists of Ramanna.