Rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia


July 11, 2018

Rethinking race and its appeal in Malaysia

by Tan Zi Hao

Tan Zi Hao is a PhD candidate in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is also a conceptual artist whose artworks can be viewed at http://www.tanzihao.net. As both artist and writer, he is interested in the arts, language, cultural politics and mobilities.

http://www.newmandala.org/imagined-minorities-rethinking-race-appeal-malaysia/

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Despite the game-changing outcome of the 14th General Election, the spectre of race lingers in Malaysia. Appointing an ethnic Indian and Christian Tommy Thomas as the Attorney General has already attracted some predictable flak. When Hindu Rights Action Force 2.0 (Hindraf 2.0, a Hindraf splinter group) demanded that MARA University of Technology (UiTM) be opened to entry by all races, an online petition was immediately kickstarted and has collected more than 150,000 signatures in the first two days. The new Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng—also Malaysia’s second Chinese finance minister after a 44-year break—was condemned for uploading a Mandarin translation of his statement, even though it was officially released in Malay, and later translated to both English and Mandarin.

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If race remains as a potent category of exclusion, its perpetuation must have an emotional appeal rooted in the realities and assumptions of those who embrace it. However, public intellectuals who wish to do away with racism tend to give a response that is dismissive in nature: sociologist Kua Kia Soong proposes outlawing racism, law lecturer Azmi Sharom considers racists bereft of ideas, Dialog Rakyat committee member and academician Omar Abdul Rahman pushes for a greater collective effort in eradicating racism.

But these criticisms refuse to acknowledge the sentimental affect of racism. Key to most racial thinking is the seductive appeal of imagining one’s own race as a living minority in need of some protection. It enables a majority to be convinced of their own vulnerability, and to live as, to borrow from Benedict Anderson, an “imagined” minority. Without a doubt, the most vocal imagined minorities in Malaysia are the ethnic Malay majority, and the largest ethnic Chinese minority. They are the two “racialised” ethnic groups who succeed in the enterprise of self-minoritisation.

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To be an imagined minority is not only to assume victimhood, but to believe in the appeal that one’s own vulnerability is racially unique and significantly more urgent than that of others. The more vulnerable your “race”, the better your prospects. Unsurprisingly, the most controversial of all race-related debates in Malaysia revolved around the competitive narcissistic posturing of the Malays and Chinese. Actually-existing minorities—such as the Orang Asli, Orang Ulu and Dayak, or Anak Negeri—hardly make the cut.

The Malays and Chinese each have at their own disposal a plethora of rhetoric to foster their brand of imagined minorities. Among this is their special attention directed to tradition and heritage. From national institutions (e.g. Muzium Negara, and the Malay Heritage Museum) to privately-funded Chinese cultural institutions (e.g. the Malaysian Chinese Museum or Johor Bahru Chinese Heritage Museum), in museumising what is in dire need of preservation they are able to articulate better their vulnerability.

Each of these museums emphasises narratives of loss and sacrifice, while de-emphasising narratives of elitism and privilege. Whenever narratives of privilege are presented, they are framed as an overdue accomplishment, an exemplary success whose arrival is the fruit of previous sacrifices. Additionally, while anti-colonial struggles are highlighted and detailed, complicity with colonialism is sloppily summarised and omitted.

Beyond infrastructural facilities, another effort in self-minoritisation is to think through racially-oriented solidarity movements and protests. For the Malays, Muslim solidarity movements with the Palestinians, Rohingyas, Pattanis, or Moros, yield a new awareness of being an imagined minority in places beyond Malaysia; for the Chinese, issues pertaining to the dignity of the Chinese language and the official recognition of Chinese independent high schools offer an avenue through which the imagination of being minorities can be constantly reinvigorated.

These movements are valid political expressions. But it remains crucial to question their almost organic proclivity for attracting only a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group. At the outset, their protests appear as reactionary and racially exclusivist, but in fact the principal premise is strikingly similar: a vulnerable minority against a dominant majority, the powerless against the powerful. The very impossibility of imagining cross-ethnic solidarities in these essentially anti-hegemonic movements in Malaysia is, in and of itself, a testament to how one is more appealed to race (or religion) than to the actual oppression at stake.

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That these solidarity movements only lend credence to identitarianism should compel us to question the limits of solidarity among Malaysians. Can a Malay who antagonise the Israeli occupation of Palestine stand in solidarity with a Chinese who calls for the abolishment of Bumiputra policies in Malaysia? Can a Chinese who insists on the recognition of Chinese independent high schools stand in solidarity with a Malay who demands for the recognition of the Pattanis in Thailand’s deep south?

More provocatively, can a Malay who applauds Indonesia’s assimilationism that had stigmatised and marginalised the Indonesian Chinese minority truly empathise with the marginalised Pattanis?

Truly empathise with the marginalised Pattanis? Can a Chinese who disregards the implicit Chinese privilege in Singapore genuinely lament the prejudicial effects of Bumiputra privilege in Malaysia?

These hypothetical questions, at a cursory glance, have little to do with race, but they bespeak the exclusionary temperaments of racial thinking.

The affect that these protests reveal, or at any rate create, is more fundamental than what the movements advocate. One finds in these ritualistic public demonstrations the highest realisation of imagined minorities: the subliminal emphasis on racial–religious identity over power inequality helps mould the psychological temperament that one is born into victimhood. They become symbolic tokens for self-minoritisation. Whereas the abovementioned museums exhibit narratives of loss and sacrifice, these protests stage and perform them, in public and in action. Under this operant self-minoritisation, it is not too far-fetched to claim that to become a “Malay-Muslim” or a “Chinese” in Malaysia, is to first learn to become a victim and to think like minorities.

“Opponents of racism need to understand that proponents of racial politics do believe in race. We need to listen to and explain these affective temperaments rather than dismissing them outright. It is only by first understanding the appeal of race and the complex imagination it summons that one can begin to find ways of uprooting racism”.–Tan Zi Hao

Many who still question why an ethnic Malay majority requires institutional protectionism miss the point. Recall what Arjun Appadurai provocatively identifies as the “anxiety of incompleteness”, whereby postcolonial ethnic majorities are burdened by an unfinished project of obtaining authenticity: equipped with temperaments of loss, a demographic majority will remain “incomplete”, “inauthentic”, and live as imagined minorities in fear of actually-existing minorities.

What is lost to the Malays in colonialism is lost to the Chinese in migration. Both imagined minorities seek to rectify their “incompleteness” by pinpointing, even racialising, one another as the dominant “imagined majorities” obstructing their attainment of an originary authenticity.

There is a seductive appeal to this track of imagination that liberal analysts and public intellectuals disregard. It is an imagination that is grounded on the fact of being “Malay” and of being “Chinese”.

However unscientific or unfounded these racial categories, the temperaments contained in them are disturbingly honest, intimately personal and subjective. Part of the affect of being “Malay” is to first identify how “Chinese” became the cause of their grievance, vice versa.

Opponents of racism need to understand that proponents of racial politics do believe in race. We need to listen to and explain these affective temperaments rather than dismissing them outright. It is only by first understanding the appeal of race and the complex imagination it summons that one can begin to find ways of uprooting racism.

Education in America: Meritocracy, like Democracy, is under siege


July 1, 2018

Education in America: Meritocracy, like Democracy, is under siege

by Dr. Fareed Zakaria

https://fareedzakaria.com/columns/2018/6/28/meritocracy-is-under-attack

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In recent weeks, you might have heard about two seemingly unrelated issues that are actually quite connected. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio (pic above) signaled his desire to scrap the highly competitive exam for eight New York public high schools, including Stuyvesant High School, and began taking more limited steps to admit more black and Hispanic students.

In Boston, new revelations emerged from a lawsuit that alleges Harvard University systematically discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions process. These developments come from very different directions, but they indicate an assault on one of the foundations of modern society — meritocracy.

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Meritocracy is now an idea under siege. On the right, many of President Trump’s supporters see it as a code word for an out-of-touch establishment that looks down on ordinary, hard-working Americans. In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May’s call for a more meritocratic society was assailed on the left as a concept that breeds elitism and inequality.

Let’s remember when and how meritocracy became the organizing ideology of modern society. Before it, people moved up in the world through a clubby, informal system that privileged wealth, social status and family connections. As Nicholas Lemann recounts in his fascinating book “The Big Test,” America was run in every corridor of power by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants until the 1950s. Chief executives, college presidents and senators were, almost without exception, all WASPS. That WASP aristocracy was slowly but surely dislodged through the rise of merit-based systems, largely in education, that opened up elite institutions to people of talent, no matter their background.

The New York challenge to meritocracy involves its selective high schools, which are a wonder of the modern public-education system. Admission is currently based on a single test. Having wealth or connections will not get you in, nor will your race or athletic prowess. As a result, Stuyvesant High School — the most prestigious — accepts a smaller percentage of applicants than Stanford or Harvard. Most importantly, these schools have an astonishing track record of moving smart kids out of poverty and into the middle class.

 

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No matter how you organize society, there will be an elite. The question is: How does it get formed — through talent or other criteria, such as political ideology or financial connections?–Dr. Fareed Zakaria

De Blasio (D) says the schools “have a diversity problem.” Blacks and Hispanics constitute just 10 percent of these schools, compared with 68 percent of the city’s student body as a whole. The tests are said to favor one group, Asians, who make up 62 percent of the students. But de Blasio’s stance is both wrong and wrongheaded. First, these schools are incredibly diverse. The category called “Asians” encompasses people who trace their ancestry to China, South Korea, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. They come from wildly different cultures and socioeconomic conditions, speak different languages and worship different gods.

Perhaps more important, the test is designed to find talented students, not to raise up specific minorities, which the rest of the vast New York City school system works hard to do. Behind de Blasio’s challenge lies a discomfort on the left with the idea of any kind of hierarchy of talent. In an op-ed in the New York Times supporting the mayor’s plan, scholar Minh-Ha T. Pham wrote, “All of our schools should be elite schools.” This is, of course, a contradiction in terms. No matter how you organize society, there will be an elite. The question is: How does it get formed — through talent or other criteria, such as political ideology or financial connections?

The Boston challenge is different, asking for genuine meritocracy. The lawsuit argues that elite universities pretend to be meritocratic but don’t actually practice what they preach. A mountain of evidence suggests persuasively that many highly selective colleges are systematically biased against Asian Americans. As laid out in recently filed documents, the lawsuit alleges that Harvard uses soft criteria such as “personality” to downgrade applicants with high test scores and grades and considerable extracurricular activities, harking back to methods they began using in the 1920s to reject qualified Jewish applicants.

Let’s be clear. Tests are not perfect, and they should be supplemented by other factors, but we should be wary of de Blasio-type efforts. They could lead down a path that returns the selection process to one in which elites make highly subjective judgments, as in the days of the old-boy networks. Historically, that was a process that smuggled in prejudice and preferences, based on class, race, religion, politics and money. It did not find or promote talent, nor create much social mobility.

Meritocracy is under assault, but those who attack it should ask themselves: What would you replace it with? To select a society’s elites, as Winston Churchill said of democracy, a meritocracy is the worst system — except for all the others.

(c) 2018, Washington Post Writers Group

Dissecting the 2018 Election in Malaysia


June 28, 2018

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Dissecting the 2018 Election in Malaysia: The End of Cronyism?

Left to Right: Asia Centre co-founder and Chairman, Board of Directors Dr. James Gomez; Dr. Victor Karunan; Mr. Lutfi Hakim; Prof. Dr. Mohd Azizuddin bin Mohd Sani; Mr. Scott Edwards; Asia Centre co-founder and Executive Director Dr. Robin Ramcharan

The key challenge of undoing six decades of cronyism, patronage and money politics was a central point highlighted during Asia Centre’s Roundtable discussion on the Malaysian elections held in May 2018. Despite the political earthquake, the end of Barisan Nasional’s (BN) rule in Malaysia after 61 years and the defeat of former Prime Minister Najib’s government, fundamental change is not guaranteed.

All speakers at the roundtable, held on 22 June 2018 at Asia Centre, observed this critical point. It remains to be seen if the new government of Pakatan Harapan (PH) can usher out the politics of ‘money, race and patronage’.  After all, PH is led by a member of the old guard, 92-year old PM Mahathir, who had mentored former PM Najib  and helped to build up that system.

PM-in-waiting, 70-year-old Anwar Ibrahim, has forged an alliance of convenience with his former mentor and tormentor, Mahathir. Should Anwar be designated PM, is he likely to bring fundamental change?

The desire for change among a large percentage of the youth was raised as a factor tipping the balance in favour of PH, which appeared on the political scene at the perfect time. Another key immediate factor was the disaffection of voters with the well-documented corruption scandals rocking former PM Najib, which resulted in a drift towards authoritarianism and harassment of political opposition to his Government.

Creeping authoritarianism, including recent attempts to stifle freedom of expression through hastily passed ‘fake news laws’ prior to the election, was a noticeable feature of the Najib’s rule over the past decade, amidst other longer term factors affecting the election. Already in the 2013 election, it became apparent that minority groups, notably Malaysian Chinese,were less willing to accept the national affirmative action plan that has privileged the Bumiputra. Indigenous peoples, such as the Orang Asli, also have become wary of their routine treatment by politicians as ‘second class’ citizens.

Splits in the BN coalition had begun to appear well before May 2018. In addition, the new administration will need to contend with an economy that has featured rising costs of living in recent years.

Resolute action to tackle these deeper problems will be a drawn out affair, especially in the uncertain leadership transition that is set to take place in two years, with Anwar assuming the mantle of Prime Minister, while his family presumably gives way as he succeeds.

The rich discussion was moderated by Dr. Robin Ramcharan of Asia Centre. The discussion was animated by expert commentators from Malaysia and the UK: Dr. Mohd Azizuddin Mohd Sani (PhD), Professor of Politics and International Relations at the School of International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM); Mr. Lutfi Hakim, independent consultant and an associate of IMAN Research, where he was previously a research lead; Dr. Victor Karunen, lecturer and former UN official with UNICEF; and Mr. Scott Edwards, doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Cooperation, Conflict, and Security (ICCS).

The Roundtable set the scene at Asia Centre’s third anniversary celebrations, where Asia Centre announced its new branch in Malaysia. The second Centre in Johor Bahru will be rolled out over 2018-2019. All expressions of interest for collaboration in Malaysia can be sent to contact@asiacentre.co.th.

 

 

Photos from the event are available here. This event was held with the support of the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy.

 

Witnessing the Obama Presidency


June 7, 2018

Witnessing the Obama Presidency

by  George Packer

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/06/18/

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Ben Rhodes was the President’s speechwriter, foreign-policy adviser, and confidant. His book records the Administration’s struggle to shape its own narrative.

Barack Obama was a writer before he became a politician, and he saw his Presidency as a struggle over narrative. “We’re telling a story about who we are,” he instructed his aide Ben Rhodes early in the first year of his first term. He said it again in his last months in office, on a trip to Asia—“I mean, that’s our job. To tell a really good story about who we are”—adding that the book he happened to be reading argued for storytelling as the trait that distinguishes us from other primates.

Obama’s audience was both the American public and the rest of the world. His characteristic rhetorical mode was to describe and understand both sides of a divide—black and white, liberal and conservative, Muslim and non-Muslim—before synthesizing them into a unifying story that seemed to originate in and affirm his own.

At the heart of Obama’s narrative was a belief that progress, in the larger scheme of things, was inevitable, and this belief underscored his position on every issue from marriage equality to climate change. His idea of progress was neither the rigid millennial faith of Woodrow Wilson nor Bush’s shallow God-blessed optimism. It was human-scale and incremental.

Temperamentally the opposite of zealous, he always acknowledged our human imperfection—his Nobel Peace Prize lecture was a Niebuhrian meditation on the tragic necessity of force in affairs of state. But, whatever the setbacks of the moment, he had faith that the future belonged to his expansive vision and not to the narrow, backward-pointing lens of his opponents.

This progressive story emerged in Obama’s account of his own life, in his policies, and in his speeches. Many of them were written by Rhodes, who joined the campaign as a foreign-policy speechwriter in mid-2007, when he was twenty-nine; rose to become a deputy national-security adviser; accompanied Obama on every trip overseas but one; stayed to the last day of the Presidency; and even joined the Obamas on the flight to their first post-Presidential vacation, in Palm Springs, wanting to ease the loneliness of their sudden return to private life. Today, Rhodes still works alongside Obama.

The journalistic cliché of a “mind meld” doesn’t capture the totality of Rhodes’s identification with the President. He came to Obama with an M.F.A. in fiction writing from New York University and a few years on the staff of a Washington think tank. He became so adept at anticipating Obama’s thoughts and finding Obamaesque words for them that the President made him a top foreign-policy adviser, with a say on every major issue.

Rhodes’ advice mostly took the form of a continuous effort to understand and apply the President’s thinking. His decade with Obama blurred his own identity to the vanishing point, and he was sensitive enough—unusually so for a political operative—to fear losing himself entirely in the larger story. Meeting Obama was a fantastic career opportunity and an existential threat.

In “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House” (Random House), Rhodes shows no trace of the disillusionment that gave George Stephanopoulos’s tale of Bill Clinton its bitter, gossipy flavor, or of the light irony that came to inflect Peggy Noonan’s adoration of Ronald Reagan. More than any other White House memoirist, Rhodes is a creature of the man he served.

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When Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., went to work as a special assistant to John F. Kennedy, in 1961, he was a middle-aged Harvard professor, the author of eight books, and a Democratic Party intellectual. Schlesinger was a worshipful convert with serious blind spots about Kennedy, but he did warn the new President not to go ahead with the Bay of Pigs, persistently enough that Robert Kennedy told him to back off. It’s impossible to imagine Rhodes giving Obama that kind of advice, or writing a book like “A Thousand Days,” which isn’t so much a White House memoir as a history of the New Frontier.

What Rhodes lacks in critical distance he gains in unobtrusive proximity. He spent thousands of hours with Obama in the Oval Office, on board Air Force One, and inside “the Beast,” the bulletproof Presidential limousine. “My role in these conversations, and perhaps within his presidency,” Rhodes writes, “was to respond to what he said, to talk and fill quiet space—to test out the logic of his own ideas, or to offer a distraction.” Although Rhodes took on important projects like normalizing relations with Cuba and building support for the Iran nuclear deal, his essential role was to be the President’s mirror and echo.

When Obama mused that Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful” should be the national anthem, Rhodes added, “They should play it before every game.” Obama seems to have wanted his right-hand man to be smart, loyal, and unlikely to offer a serious challenge. Reserved and watchful himself, Rhodes provided just the level of low-key, efficient companionship that his boss needed. It’s not surprising that the aide whose company Obama tolerated best was another writer.

This is the closest view of Obama we’re likely to get until he publishes his own memoir. Rhodes’s Obama is curious, self-contained, irritable, and witty, and Rhodes—sixteen years younger and six inches shorter—is his straight man. On a Presidential trip to Latin America in 2011, at the start of the NATO air campaign in Libya, Rhodes found himself cast as spokesman for a country at war. The stress—he’s appealingly candid about the anxiety and self-doubt, as well as the arrogance, that went with his job—caused him to lose track of his razor.

Obama noticed. “What, you can’t even bother to shave?” the President chided him. “Pull yourself together. We have to be professional here.” Rhodes wanted to plead that he was overtasked and underslept, but instead he used the rebuke to understand Obama better: “I realized that these little flashes were how he relieved some of the stress that he had to be feeling, and that being composed and professional—doing the job—was how he managed to take everything in stride. I hadn’t just failed to shave; I’d deviated from his ethos of unflappability.”

With a fine writer’s sense, Rhodes includes, along with the important speeches and decisions of state, a quiet moment in which Obama, standing on a beach in Hawaii, points to a hill and says, “My mom used to come here every day and sit there looking out at the bay when she was pregnant with me. I’ve always thought that’s one of the reasons why I have a certain calm.” This ability to stand back from the passing frenzy and survey it at a distance was an intellectual strength and a political liability.

More than any modern President, Obama had a keen sense of the limits of American power—and of his own. But it’s hard to build a narrative around actions not taken, disasters possibly averted, hard realities accommodated. The story of what didn’t happen isn’t an easy one to tell.

What Rhodes conveys forcefully is the disdain that he and Obama shared for the reflexive hawkishness of the foreign-policy flock, the clichés of the establishment media, the usual Washington games. Even in the White House, they saw themselves as perpetual outsiders. This aversion to normal politics gave Obama’s story its cleanness and inspiration, while leaving the progress he achieved fragile and vulnerable to rougher practitioners with fewer qualms about the business they were all in.

 

There were two moments during their ten years together when a gap opened up between the President and his aide. The first came at the start of Obama’s second term, when the promises of the Arab Spring were unravelling. The second came with the election of a successor who pledged to dismantle everything Obama had stood for. In each case, Obama was forced into a reconsideration of his idea of progress, and Rhodes, a step or two behind, had to catch up. The drama of “The World as It Is” lies between these points.

After Rhodes, a New Yorker, witnessed the 9/11 attacks, he considered joining the Army but instead went to Washington to become a speechwriter at the Wilson Center, a foreign-policy think tank. He supported the Iraq War in order to be taken seriously by the older people around him—he was just twenty-five—but his staff work for the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, which issued a damning report on the war, in 2006, made him suspicious of the foreign-policy establishment.

“The events of my twenties felt historic, but the people involved did not,” he writes. “I wanted a hero—someone who could make sense of what was happening around me and in some way redeem it.” Professional connections led him to the nascent Obama campaign. Rhodes showed that he could write under pressure and think against the conventional grain. He had found his hero.

Rhodes was a liberal idealist. He turned against the Iraq War, but not against American intervention to prevent mass atrocities around the world. He was strongly influenced by Samantha Power’s book on genocide in the twentieth century, “ ‘A Problem from Hell.’ ” Power was an adviser in Obama’s Senate office, and she and Rhodes became comrades in the Obama cause, with “a sense of destiny” about their work on the campaign and their place in “a movement that would remake the world order.”

Rhodes saw Obama as a symbol of aspiration for billions of people, including Muslims who had become alienated from the United States in the years since 9/11. He believed that the identity of the new President could transform America’s relation to the rest of the world.

Rhodes drafted a speech for Obama to give in Cairo in June of 2009, outlining the difficulties with the Muslim world and promising a new start. “It expressed what Obama believed and where he wanted to go, the world that should be,” Rhodes writes. Eighteen months later, the Arab Spring began.

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Rhodes quotes a Palestinian-born woman telling him that Obama was its inspiration: “The young people saw him, a black man as president of America, someone who looked like them. And they thought, why not me?” A more seasoned adviser might have been skeptical, but Rhodes lets this dubious claim stand. His firsthand experience of the rest of the world came from the huge crowds that he saw through bulletproof glass lining the route of Obama’s motorcade in Lima and in Hiroshima, from the young people who posed earnest questions at town-hall meetings in Ramallah and Mumbai. He took them as evidence of the tide of progress.

“Yeah, the rooftop-farming idea isn’t working out.”

Rhodes and Power were among the White House aides who wanted the United States to stand with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. Obama encouraged Rhodes to speak up more in meetings: “Don’t hold back just because it’s the principals. You know where I’m coming from. And we’re younger.” After Egypt came the American-led military intervention in Libya—prompted by Muammar Gaddafi’s threats to rebel-held Benghazi—which ended up toppling the dictator. The spring of 2011 was the high-water mark of Obama’s foreign policy: Osama bin Laden dead, American troops withdrawn from Iraq and preparing to leave Afghanistan, the Arab Spring in full flower. “Barack Obama’s story was gaining a certain momentum,” Rhodes writes. “But something was missing—the supporting characters, in Congress and around the world.”

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“The supporting characters”—Mitch McConnell, Vladimir Putin, Egyptian generals, Libyan warlords, reactionary forces that had no stake in Obama’s success—were in fact forces of opposition, and they weren’t just missing; they were gathering strength. You get the sense that Rhodes, and perhaps Obama, too, wasn’t ready for them. Relentless Republican obstruction didn’t fit with Obama’s tale of there being no red or blue America; rising chaos and nationalism were out of tune with his hymn of walls falling. In Libya, civil war killed thousands of people and left much of the country ungoverned and vulnerable to terrorists, and the U.S., as usual, had no plan or desire to deal with the aftermath of intervention. But Rhodes took the criticism that followed as a sign of the absurdity of American politics: “I couldn’t reconcile how much doing the right thing didn’t seem to matter. . . . I thought it was right to save thousands of Libyans from Gaddafi, but we were now being second-guessed.”

The failure of the supporting cast to join the march of progress came as a kind of irrational affront: how could they be so impervious to the appeal of Obama’s example and words? “One of Barack Obama’s greatest frustrations during his time in the White House was his inability to use rhetoric and reason to better tell the story of his presidency,” Dan Pfeiffer, Obama’s communications director, tells us in another new White House memoir, “Yes We (Still) Can: Politics in the Age of Obama, Twitter, and Trump” (Twelve).

Rhodes stuck to the ideals of the Arab Spring, but Obama was leaving him behind. “Our priority has to be stability and supporting the scaf (Egyptian Military Council),” he snapped at Rhodes in one meeting. “Even if we get criticized. I’m not interested in the crowd in Tahrir Square and Nick Kristof.” This sounded like cold realpolitik, and it came as a shock to Rhodes: “For the first time, I felt out of step with my boss.”

It got worse with the Syrian civil war. Rhodes again supported American military intervention, but without much faith, and Obama half-listened to Rhodes’s half-hearted arguments. “It was wrenching to read about the brutality of Assad every morning, to see images of family homes reduced to rubble,” he writes. “I felt we had to do something in Syria.”

In August of 2013, Bashar al-Assad killed hundreds of civilians with chemical weapons, and the White House debated whether to punish the regime for crossing Obama’s stated “red line.” The President decided to leave the decision to Congress, which meant no military action. “It will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism,” he told his advisers. “Everyone will see they have no votes.”

Obama regarded this decision as a clever tactical win, as if exposing Republican hypocrisy mattered more than trying to prevent another gas attack in Syria. He was willing to follow the logic of inaction as far as it led. “Maybe we never would have done Rwanda,” he told Rhodes during the Syria crisis. “There’s no way there would have been any appetite for that in Congress.” For Obama idealists, this stance was apostasy. “ ‘A Problem from Hell’ ” turned out to be one of the least relevant foreign-policy books for the Obama White House.

Rhodes had to choose between sticking with the principles that originally drew him to Obama and continuing to identify with his hero. He went with the latter. When Egyptian generals overthrew the elected Islamist government, and the Administration refused to call it a coup, Rhodes made one last pitch for Arab democracy, but “as with intervention in Syria, my heart wasn’t entirely in it anymore.” It’s hard to blame him. There was no obvious policy that could have reversed the Egyptian coup or, short of a full-scale military invasion, forced the departure of Assad. Worse to try and likely leave a bigger mess, Obama concluded, than not to try at all. Other voices—Secretary of State John Kerry; the National Security adviser, Susan Rice—argued for more American activism, but Obama was unmoved. Without congressional or allied support, without a clear answer to the question “And what happens after we bomb the runways and Russia, Iran, and Assad rebuild them?,” he dropped “Never again” for a more skeptical motto: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Rhodes adopted the more minimalist words and ideas, though never with the same equanimity as his boss. “It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was.”

 

“The World as It Is” charts the education of Ben Rhodes through his White House years from liberal idealism to a chastened appreciation of how American power can be more wisely harnessed to limited ends—hence the title. With Obama’s encouragement, Rhodes spent the last years of the Presidency trying to realize his original ideals through diplomacy. He took the lead in talks with Cuba that achieved normalized relations after more than half a century of Cold War hostility. He helped prevent Congress from sinking the Iran nuclear deal. He involved himself in humanitarian issues in Southeast Asia. He became more emphatic in his contempt for the Washington establishment (although I’m not sure what makes you a member if not eight years in the White House), and he became a high-profile target of the conspiratorial right wing.

Rhodes concludes his book with the thought that “billions of people around the globe had come to know Barack Obama, had heard his words, had watched his speeches, and, in some unknowable but irreducible way, had come to see the world as a place that could—in some incremental way—change. The arc of history.”

That’s more qualified than the sense of high destiny with which Rhodes set out, but it’s still a story of progress, of the philosophy that he ascribes to both the chef Anthony Bourdain and Barack Obama: “If people would just sit down and eat together, and understand something about each other, maybe they could figure things out.” Yet Rhodes was still fighting the last war against the tired Washington establishment, the reflexive hawks, the carping ignoramuses in the media. Meanwhile, in places as far-flung as Turkey, India, the Czech Republic, Moscow, and Washington, the strongest political forces were running dead against the idea of sitting down together over a meal and figuring things out.

After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the burden of proof is on anyone who would make the case for military action as a force for good. But Obama, proudly defying political convention and confident in the larger forces of progress, was reluctant to acknowledge that inaction, too, is an action. We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved, but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria. It turned out that prudent inaction didn’t necessarily further the cause of progress any more than a naïve confidence in overt action. When America sobered up under Obama, other powers saw not wisdom but a chance to fill the gap.

Obama doesn’t seem to have known what to make of Vladimir Putin: “He neither liked nor loathed Putin, nor did he subscribe to the view that Putin was all that tough.” This dusting-off-the-shoulder attitude underestimated the Russian leader’s ambition to manipulate the resentments and hatreds of democratic citizens. Obama told Rhodes that he knew all about the Putins of the world—from the Tea Party, Fox News, and the Republican extremists who had been trying from the start to delegitimize his Presidency. “Obama was more sanguine about the forces at play in the world not because he was late in recognizing them,” Rhodes writes, “but because he’d seen them earlier.” Obama had come to think that he could work around Putin and McConnell and Fox News, by picking his shots, setting the right example, avoiding stupid shit, and bringing change in increments.

In fact, he was too sanguine, perhaps because he was overconfident in his own transformative power, perhaps because he wasn’t alert to the brittleness of his achievement. Progressives find it hard to imagine that there are others who in good faith don’t want the better world they’re offering and will fiercely resist it. Obama was always better at explaining the meaning of democracy than at fighting its opponents. Other than “Yes, we can” and a few other phrases, it’s hard to remember any lines from his speeches, including ones drafted by Rhodes. Many of them are profound meditations that can stand reading and rereading—Rhodes quotes some of the best—but Obama’s way was to rise above simplifications that would have stuck in people’s heads and given them verbal weapons with which to defend themselves.

His aversion to the dirty tasks of politics culminated in the moment during the 2016 campaign when U.S. intelligence about Russian meddling on behalf of Trump reached the Oval Office. Obama’s instinct was to avoid politicizing it at all costs. Rhodes urged the President to be more vocal, just as he’d urged him to intervene in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, but Obama replied, “If I speak out more, he’ll just say it’s rigged.” Trump, if he lost, was going to say the election had been rigged regardless. His supporters were going to disbelieve anything Obama said. The rest of us deserved to hear it, anyway. “I talk about it every time I’m asked,” Obama protested to Rhodes, concerning the issue of Russian interference. “What else are we going to do?” He wasn’t going to worry about it, true to character; Rhodes, true to character, did the worrying instead, and still does.

In “The Final Year,” a new documentary that focusses on Obama’s foreign policy at the end of his Presidency, Trump’s victory leaves Rhodes unable to speak for almost a full minute. It had been inconceivable, like the repeal of a law of nature—not just because of who Trump was but also because of who Obama was. Rhodes and Obama briefly sought refuge in the high-mindedness of the long view—“Progress doesn’t move in a straight line,” Rhodes messaged his boss on Election Night, a reference to one of Obama’s own sayings, which the President then revived for the occasion: “History doesn’t move in a straight line, it zigs and zags.” But that was not much consolation. On Obama’s last trip abroad, he sat quietly with Rhodes in the Beast as they passed the cheering Peruvian crowds. “What if we were wrong?” Obama suddenly asked. Rhodes didn’t know what he meant. “Maybe we pushed too far. Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.” Obama took the thought to its natural conclusion: “Sometimes I wonder whether I was ten or twenty years too early.”

Rhodes wrestled with this painful blow. It sounded like a repudiation of everything they had done. But then he found an answer, and it was in keeping with the spirit of his years in service to Obama: “We were right, but all that progress depended upon him, and now he was out of time.” ♦

This article will be published in its print form in the June 18, 2018, issue.

  • George Packer became a staff writer in 2003. For the magazine, he has covered the Iraq War, and has also written about the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone, civil unrest in the Ivory Coast, the megacity of Lagos, and the global counterinsurgency. In 2003, two of his New Yorker articles won Overseas Press Club awards—one for his examination of the difficulties faced during the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq, and one for his coverage of the civil war in Sierra Leone. His book “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq” was named one of the ten best books of 2005 by the New York Times and won the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award and an Overseas Press Club book award.

  • He is also the author of “The Village of Waiting,” about his experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, and “Blood of the Liberals,” a three-generational nonfiction history of his family and American liberalism in the twentieth century, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award; in addition, he has written two novels, “The Half Man” and “Central Square.”

    He has contributed numerous articles, essays, and reviews to the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harpers, and other publications. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 2001-02, and has taught writing at Harvard, Bennington, and Columbia. His most recent book is “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.”

Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress


May 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW

Factfulness : The Miracle of Human Progress: Hans Rosling’s Legacy

 by  Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta
http://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/factfulness-review-the-miracle-of-human-progress/article23783050.ece

 

Is a tendency towards negativity, fear and blame preventing us from seeing all the good in the world?

Factfulness review: The miracle of human progress

As district medical officer in Mozambique, Hans Rosling discovered a previously unknown paralytic disease. Later, he became a professor of international health, co-founded Médecins Sans Frontières in Sweden, and a renowned public educator. His TED talks have been viewed over 35 million times.

Rosling was also a sword swallower, having learned the skill from a patient. Often, he would do a small show at the end of a lecture: “to demonstrate in a practical way that the seemingly impossible is possible,” he notes in his book Factfulness.

It’s human tendency to be bored with stories of everyday incremental progress, and to focus on the negative — for which the state of the world in the 21st century provides much material. So much is in fact terrible and heartbreaking: the refugee crisis, melting glaciers, plastic in the ocean. From pandemic breakout to climate change, there are real dangers to be concerned about.

Why the bleak view?

But so much more seems to be wrong, and not getting better. This has made cynics of most of us. In Factfulness, Rosling suggests 10 instincts that prevent us from seeing real progress in the world. These include the tendency to negativity, fear, and blame. He also describes the ‘straight line’ instinct, by which he means the tendency to view trends as unchanging. But as he shows, not all changes in the world happen in this way.

The most dramatic chart in the book shows the average number of babies per woman from 1800 to today. It is not a straight line: more like a slide in a playground. Over the last 50 years this number has dropped from five children per woman to below 2.5. As child mortality reduced, as families came out of extreme poverty, as women and men got more years of education, as access to contraception increased, people were able to feed their children better and send them to school — and thus had fewer children.

When things get better, Rosling notes, such as the decrease in child mortality across the world, it is not just because of heroic individuals, but systems. Lots of people working together at the frontlines in a sustained way, every day, over the long term, to bring the incremental changes that, together, constitute progress.

The India connection

Rosling’s life has a special India connection: he studied public health at St. John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, and qualified as a doctor in 1976. He describes his first lesson there as a fourth-year medical student: “How could they know much more than me? Over the next few days I learned that they had a textbook three times as thick as mine, and they had read it three times as many times. I suddenly had to change my worldview: my assumption that I was superior because of where I came from, the idea that the West was the best and the rest would never catch up.”

Family stories are also a part of the book, contributing to its personal tone. As a child, he remembers his father taking him every Saturday, by bicycle, to hospital to visit his mother who had tuberculosis. “Daddy would explain that if we went in we could get sick too. I would wave to her and she would wave back…”

But the story didn’t end sadly. “A treatment against tuberculosis was invented and my mother got well. She read books to me that she borrowed from the public library. For free. I became the first in my family to get more than six years of education, and I went to university for free. I got a doctor’s degree, for free. Of course nothing is free: the taxpayers paid.”

Life-changing tales

Another story describes how a washing machine changed their lives. “My parents had been saving money for years to be able to buy that machine. Grandma, who had been invited to the inauguration ceremony, was even more excited. She had been heating water with firewood and hand-washing laundry her whole life.”

Family, education, advances in health care, tax-funded social security, labour-saving devices, functioning democracies: these are all things to be grateful for. And a way of showing appreciation would be to read the data, because otherwise we would be missing the entire picture.

The book is the product of enormous research, but the tone is light rather than ponderous. It makes a complicated world appear simple, without foolish optimism, stereotypes or cliché.

Factfulness is densely illustrated with charts and pictures, including the inside covers, but at the heart of the book is Rosling’s ability to listen, discuss and learn from other people everywhere.

Published after Rosling’s death, the book was written while he was under palliative care for pancreatic cancer. It is a book about his life and ideas, but it is also about how to pay attention to the world.

 

A Specter is Haunting Asia – The Specter of Authoritarianism


April 6, 2018

A Specter is Haunting Asia – The Specter of Authoritarianism

 

This guest post is published around the Association for Asian Studies conference in Washington D.C., occurring March 22-25, 2018. #AAS2018

by Claudio Sopranzetti, author of Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility, and Politics in Bangkok

https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/35276/a-new-specter-is-haunting-asia-the-specter-of-authoritarianism/

In 1848, Karl Marx opened his manifesto with an eloquent sentence: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism.” One hundred and seventy years later, Laos and Vietnam are among the fastest growing economies of twenty-first century capitalism and the Chinese Communist Party plans to abandon the post-Mao doctrine of putting its assembly above any individual leader. Communism, which once materialized so prominently in East Asia, is little more than a faded ghost, haunting no one. Yet another specter has taken its place in Asia- the specter of authoritarianism.

Whether in terms of China’s attempts to establish a life-long chairmanship, Philippine’s systematic dismissal of habeas corpus or— as my work Owners of the Map analyzes—Thailand’s new forms of constitutional dictatorship, a new wind of authoritarianism is blowing over East Asia. Contrary to existing theories of the “end of history” or of “democratic transition” this wind does not waft against the wish of the middle classes, but rather with their support, and it is not a temporary breeze, destined to died out, but rather a stable wind, one that carries forward an alternative system of governance.

Much has been written on this trend as the result of geo-political, military, and economic push and pull between the patronage of the United States and that of China. These explanations, while important, miss a central element evident to anyone who spends time with office managers, business executives, and traditional elites in Thailand: the growing popularity of authoritarian ideology among local middle class, a popularity that finds its roots in the shifting local meaning of words like corruption, good governance, and rule of law.

Image result for Corruption in Thailand

 

During the last decade, the understanding of corruption among Thai middle classes underwent a radical transformation. Corruption today does no longer refer to someone misusing public office for private gain. The word’s semantic universe has expanded to include three major components. Firstly, a traditional understanding of corruption as taking advantage of your position to steal money or gain. Secondly, an idea of moral corruption, related to the intrinsic immoral nature of one’s personality. And, thirdly, a vision of electoral corruption that reframes any redistributive policy favoring the working masses as a form of vote-buying. Under these new meanings, elections themselves become a corrupt practice, one that favors populist leaders who, through policies, gain popular support without necessarily producing “good governance.”

The discourse of good governance itself has become central to Thai middle-classes ideological flirtations with authoritarianism. This mantra entered the country after the 1997 economic crisis, pushed by the IMF and the World Bank. These institutions understood the concept as a technocratic category, one that mostly meant efficient and transparent governance. In Thailand, however, the concept was translated by conservative political ideologues as thammarat, the governance of Dhamma, transforming good governance into righteous governance, a governance that does not rely on electoral support but rather on alignment with the monarch, the thammaraja.

While these semantic shifts in ideological categories may take local forms, they do not occur in an international vacuum. Previous authoritarian phases in Thailand—particularly the period between 1945 and 1992—had been supported, both economically and ideologically, by the United States and its anti-communist rhetoric. Since the 2014 coup, the junta has been looking to China for similar patronage. The alignment between the two governments has not just been the result of real politic and shifting international alliances but also rooted in parallel claims about the rule of law and corruption. In 2002, the 16th Chinese Communist Party Congress endorsed a new rhetoric of legalism, as a more efficient system to deal with equal and fair participation. Political scientist Pan Wei, in a famous article that took the shape of a political manifesto for legalism stated that “rule of law directly answers the most urgent need of Chinese society—curbing corruption in times of market economy. Electoral competition for government offices is not an effective way of curbing corruption; it could well lead to the concentration of power in the hands of elected leaders.” While not as sophisticated as Professor Pan, and not with the same ability to govern as the Chinese Communist Party, the system emerging in Thailand since the 2014 coup looks quite similar: a legalistic system in which non-elected officers create and enforce the law, above and beyond the electoral will of their population. The Thai transition from a polity in which people make the rules through elected parliamentarians to one in which the rules are imposed from above for the people and parliament to follow, has been legitimized on a basic principle: the superiority of unelected “good people” over elected politicians in preventing corruption and establishing good governance.

It would be easy to dismiss these changes has temporary pushbacks. Yet, my work argues, something deeper is changing around Southeast Asia, something that we will not see or understand unless we stop working under preset theories of democratic transition and we engage ethnographically with the shifting landscapes of class alliances, everyday ideologies, and forms of governance. These transformations, in fact, are particularly resistant to quantitative analysis and questionnaires. Often they do not imply the emergence of new terminologies or ideological concepts but rather the re-signification of words like corruption, good governance or rule of law. It is only when we spend long stretch of time with people and participates to their lives that these new meanings emerge. The risk of failing to see these transformations is a familiar one to people in the US: becoming aware of the emergence of a new political and social order when is too late to do anything about it.


Claudio Sopranzetti is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at All Souls College at the University of Oxford. He is the author of Red Journeys: Inside the Thai Red Shirt Movement.