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ASSK campaigningIn a field, people can be seen witnessing some three dozen corpses laid out, in the open, in rows on the grass. Some are armed soldiers; others villagers, women squatting, curious onlookers. The people approach holding hands over their mouths; others wear surgical masks and gloves. Easily half of the corpses are those of children; many of those are infants. They are greyly ill-defined, as if charred and recovered from fire, or in stages of decomposition after exhumation from mass-graves; recognisably human only through their elongated forms. Many are decapitated; heads or skulls lie placed nearby. They look, even in a foreground view, more like early sci-fi, ghostly aliens. Their humanity has gone from them entirely, much as it had been denied them before they were killed.

Not long ago, a friend in central Burma (Myanmar) sent me the digital images. I’d asked after her welfare, knowing her as the daughter of a Bamar Buddhist mother and Muslim father. Where she is, she replied, there’s no conflict. As if an afterthought, she sent the photos, without identification. Uncurated atrocity imagery commonly does the rounds in Burmese social media, and in this case too it was not clear whether the figures shown should be understood to be of Buddhist, or Muslim identity; either could be claimed, to serve the needs of either ethnic-religious group—and their sub-groups as Rakhine or Rohingya.

Their appropriation as religious or political objects occludes the fact that, found semi-decomposed in a field, the dead are barely still people, let alone Buddhist or Muslim, Burmese or foreign interloper. Beyond legal forensics, what does it mean to identify dead people as one or the other? The photos are readily accessible on my phone, but I can’t accept them, nor delete them so that they will then, presumably, be elsewhere. They are liminal hauntings I can’t appropriate or ignore: a terrible echo of what, as Rohingya Muslims, they were when alive in the Burmese state. Yet the bodies conform to a familiar received image; the obscure shock, soon after, of receiving the images casually, as if a common occurrence to which I have grown inured, was almost worse. News of a genocide, it seems, in the digital age. Ironically, the internet is awash with far more of the gore.

State actors are accountable for at least four hundred murders of stateless Rohingya civilians, and those actors’ political leadership is responsible for holding them so. As many observers of the Burmese crisis are aware, the latter responsibility has fallen to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as the de facto leader of Myanmar’s governing NLD party, and which many believe she has failed. Murmurs of discontent, among a wide Burmese as well as Western contingency of her otherwise staunch supporters, were already at large in 2012, when she offered only belated or muted responses to the violence of that year between Burmese Buddhists and Muslims in western and central Burma.

The violence flared repeatedly over the subsequent period in the western Rakhine state bordering Bangladesh and, until then most disturbingly, in October of 2016. That month saw conditions of the pervasive extermination, rape and abuse of Muslim civilians such as to meet the legal criteria for intent that distinguishes spontaneous, communal violence from the will to commit genocide: in this case against the many thousands of internally-displaced Rohingya people of Rakhine state.

Following it, Daw Suu Kyi, as the newly-minted State Counsellor, in April 2017 disallowed a U.N. commission of enquiry to carry out the impartial investigation that might ascertain the truth of those events (otherwise since secured by the research of Fortify Rights, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other groups). The first months of 2017 saw her roundly censured by Western press and human rights organisations for what could be called a shortcoming of rhetorical persuasion. Still worse, the delivery of international aid was obstructed or compromised not merely to the Rohingya who most needed it, remaining in disease-ridden IDP camps, but also to the other minority peoples displaced in the northern war-zones of Kachin and Shan states.

Daw Suu Kyi, on finally taking on a well-deserved democratic mandate after the election victory of November 2015, sought above all to bring peace to these ongoing battle-zones that have ravaged Burma-Myanmar for decades. Her concerted diplomatic steps—along with the inevitable foot-dragging of the military-heavy government—have willingly been taken. It is the follow-through that has disappointed, and the rhetorical ballast that is supposed, it would appear, to give weight to democratic transformation of a robust and lasting kind.

From 2012, the ethical charges levelled at Aung San Suu Kyi have centred around what they assume to be a failure of the right kind of representation. She ought to have spoken out unequivocally against the anti-Muslim hate speech and violence that in large part planted the toxic roots for the abuses that have since occurred, committed with impunity by the Burmese military or Tatmadaw. She ought to have condemned its criminality and executive leadership under Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, who has either tacitly condoned or actively instigated some of the most heinous violations of human rights yet seen in a decades-long history of crimes against humanity. She ought to have at least tried to initiate an immediate withdrawal of the military in Rakhine, if only to attenuate the menace to the Rohingya and other Muslim women, girls and children who have been the most abused victims of the army’s depredations, there and elsewhere.

But—the charges ring—she did none of these things. We can only wonder what having done them would have been likely to have achieved; few seemed at the time to have fully considered that question. Nevertheless, even Daw Suu Kyi’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureates, from His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and most recently Malala Yousafzai, felt compelled to urge on her what would have amounted to a humiliating self-rebuke of conscience. What all this seemed to come to, by April 2017, was her limp denial (in a BBC interview with Fergal Keane) of what have been accurately described by the U.N. as conditions of ethnic-cleansing. She claimed that it was too strong a term to use of the situation, that hostilities have been mutual, and by implication its casualties, in intent if not in numbers, proportionate.

This was wholly in keeping with the other minimal, but maximally disheartening, statements of dissimulation of the previous five years. The latest and worst outbreak of violence, in late-August, 2017, between Muslim Rohingya insurgents and the Tatmadaw, followed by the ethnic cleansing of many hundreds of Rohingya, did nothing to soften her intransigence, or prompt her to press for accountability. Yet this dereliction of duty is ostensibly underwritten, and even justified, not merely in the case of Daw Suu Kyi but also the Buddhist nationalist Ma Ba Tha movement that ‘defends the Buddhist faith’ in its Bamar homeland, by a concern to protect, sustain and promote Buddhist values and identity, perceived to be at risk of moral attenuation by a growing Muslim presence in the country.

In Buddhist ethics, one of the limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path enjoins those aspiring to the Buddhist life to observe something called right speech (sammā vācā). This commonly refers to the virtues of foregoing lying, slander, verbal abuse, and idle gossip. It also points to other, more complex moral valencies than these, to those occasions where so-called rightful speech resists sins of omission as much as those of commission. It encodes an epistemic as well as moral value in what is said, by imparting the integrity that truth-telling brings to those who risk the telling. It enjoins Buddhists, for instance, to speak truth to power, to denounce gross abuses of propriety, to disengage deceit and duplicity, especially where these are implicated in the real suffering of the many, as opposed to a mere discomfiture of the self. To do so is a power in itself, irrespective of the consequences.

If Aung San Suu Kyi speaks as a Buddhist, even a Buddhist politician, and on behalf of Burma’s oft-cited Bamar Buddhist majority, has she failed the Buddhist ‘rule of right speech’? Could she have spoken any other way, been more skilful a wielder of the rhetoric of human rights she had so masterfully proved to be during the long years of her house-arrest—the very same skill that won her the 1991 Peace Prize? Has she forfeited that mastery, in seeming to fail it so dismally now?

Many seem to think so, and demand the Prize be revoked. The other side of the rhetorical divide defends the necessity of her appearing to betray a former integrity. She has, instead, never proved herself moreso. She has with the NLD had only limited power to bring any great changes to bear. In that case, it is not a political ambition of egoism that has kept her from the right kind of condemnation—of what could in the circumstances be perceived as a misguided and more dangerous kind of speech.

Rather, her reticence might be a sign of selfless integrity: in order to guarantee the future of a still-fragile democracy in Myanmar, she has had to forge a working compromise with the former, and present, military old guard which still wields constitutional and legislative power. Her political hands are tied, if not entirely, until and unless the army is on her side, and as soon as she shames it on the domestic and international stage, then she only shoots hard-won democracy, and her own leadership, in the foot. She can’t speak out against even the worst abuses of the Tatmadaw, because alienating its trust means throwing away whatever tenuous advantage a quarter-century of patience has earned her.

To do that would be not merely unprincipled but obtuse, and Daw Suu Kyi has no choice but to walk a morally compromised strait, a nasty crooked mile, between implication in military abuses—in intended genocide no less—and the high-moral judgement on that very quandary which, it has to be said, she shares with no-one else and carries uniquely on her shoulders. So goes a possible defence; as Jose Ramos Horta has suggested (in some detraction from the chorus of disapproval he had earlier shared), Daw Suu Kyi really deserves our sympathy, just as she did when she suffered at the injustice and ignominy of the ruling generals for decades of internal exile.

It is difficult to believe anyone would ever condone what has happened to the Rohingya minority, and other Muslims, in Myanmar in recent times, or to those much-fewer Buddhist casualties of the violence. It is disingenuous, though, to claim that ethnic-cleansing is too strong a description: circumstantial evidence paints the grimmest portrait of a consistent intent among the state players responsible for internal and security affairs. It has not been a conflict suffered equally by two equal sides, because they are not equal, in any sense, and never have been. Muslim politicians weren’t able to run for parliament in 2015 and even the NLD debarred them from its lists. To what degree Daw Suu Kyi and the NLD are implicated in permitting mass-murder is uncertain. But through a failure of right speech, of speaking to the facts, she and her party are duplicit in the fiction that would pretend to delimit their true extent. The broader stakes enmeshed in this occlusion of the truth could not be more critical: democracy and its secure leadership, the future of Rohingya rights should those now displaced be repatriated or integrated into the mainstream of Bamar and Rakhine Buddhist society, and the nationalizing project of Bamar Buddhist self-determination itself.

Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken truth to power before, when she wielded the power of being powerless. Now she yields it to the caution, or maybe the bad faith, that speaks truth down. Not just anyone could have done as much, but anyone could have done as little. The moral force she knew so long and well how to utter, and embodied, has been diminished in a failure to honour the facts. If right speech is defined as that which does not lead to one’s own torment (tapa) nor to anyone’s injury (vihiṃsā), her almost uniquely revered right to right speech has been not so much betrayed as supplanted. What this leaves in its place is an equivocal status quo it takes no imagination to deride or to defend, by detractors or supporters alike. We are all always the victims of assuming that either of these is ever enough.

November, 2017

Published (print & online) in Overland Literary Journal #227 (August, 2017):

https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-227/feature-martin-kovan/

On Being Released

poem, published in PERIL MAGAZINE, Melbourne, April 3, 2017:

http://peril.com.au/current-edition/edition27/on-being-released/

Capital punishment is practiced in many nation-states,
secular and religious alike. It is also historically a feature
of some Buddhist polities, even though it defies the first
Buddhist precept (pāṇatipātā) prohibiting lethal harm.
This essay considers a neo-Kantian theorization of capital
punishment (Sorell) and examines the reasons underwriting
its claims (with their roots in Bentham and Mill) with
respect to the prevention of and retribution for crime.
The contextualization of this argument with Buddhist metaphysical
and epistemological concerns around the
normativization of value, demonstrates that such a retributivist
conception of capital punishment constitutively
undermines its own rational and normative discourse.
With this conclusion the paper upholds and justifies the
first Buddhist precept prohibiting lethal action in the case
of capital punishment.

Published July, 2017, in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 24 (2017):

https://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/2017/03/03/capital-punishment-a-buddhist-critique/

http://blogs.dickinson.edu/buddhistethics/files/2017/03/Kovan-Capital-Punishment-final-July-2017.pdf

Short article for Overland Journal (published November 24, 2016):

https://overland.org.au/2016/11/zizek-during-trump-rhetoric-and-philosophical-impotence/

(The published version of this article contained editorial obfuscations. The original text is given here.)

It has been instructive to observe the different kinds of desperation with which different kinds of commentator on the political spectrum have weighed in on the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election. I want to hone in on only one here: the unsurprising but egregiously misguided grappling tactics with which Slavoj Žižek, as perhaps the major public representative of a European philosophical mainstream (that is also a loudly-advertised subversion of it), has tried to maintain some grip on philosophical credibility in the face of unprecedented threats to the very intellectual constituency that allows a Žižek to flourish at all.

His stance has been signaled at various points before, during, and after the election, at significant nodes of the big-player network. WikiLeaks, above all, was quick to post on Facebook, on November 4th, a Channel 4 News video of the day before of Žižek endorsing Trump as his candidate of choice. Published on November 15th, a RT (Russia Today) post-election interview with Žižek has him repeating, somewhat chastened in the rainy streets of a post-election Manhattan, the same mantra: that Trump is unconscionable but preferable to a Clinton Presidency.

What do Žižek’s claims amount to, now that possibility is fact? What might before the election have passed, ironically, for an aspirational rhetoric, a hope for a radical displacement of what Žižek calls “status quo” Democratic exceptionalism and the kind of impunity Clinton Inc. appeared to sustain almost to the end (despite, above all, WikiLeaks’ efforts to derail it), now promises something perhaps more radical than even Žižek had in mind. The gist of his pre-election “desperate, very desperate” hope in preferring a Trump presidency was that it would necessarily entail a total recalibration of U.S. bipartisan political consensus, in which both parties would “have to return to basics, rethink themselves” in a “kind of big awakening” in which “new political processes will be set in motion.” He acknowledges the danger of especially the legal implications of Trump’s proposed rejigging of the U.S. Supreme Court, among other policy bugbears of his election campaign. Clinton, on the other hand, stood for an “absolute inertia … the most dangerous one … pretending to be socially progressive.”

Žižek pivots these more or less anodyne characterisations against the other, and surely he is correct that the “establishment elite” will require an intense period of self-scrutiny, that Democrats and Republicans alike will be reeling in a worse electoral shock than any so far this century, that the political process as Western liberal democracy has known it has suffered the worst disabusing of its putative moral authority since, quite possibly, January 1933. Nevertheless, Žižek is willing to allow that this is preferable to a Janus-faced liar and agent of corruption, what Assange called in his November 5th interview with John Pilger the “centralizing cog” in “a whole network … of relationships … with particular states.” For Assange, these include(d) “the big banks, like Goldman Sachs and major elements of Wall Street, and intelligence, and people in the State Department, and the Saudis, and so on.” No great surprises here, and WikiLeaks was untiring in demonstrating evidence of the same claims. They also fit neatly with Žižek’s catalogue of “status quo consensus” that he wants to see Trump dismantle, come hell or highwater.

Even where Assange has the grounds to be right, and Žižek can be justified in taking that cue to mobilise it in a critique of hegemonic Clintonian hypocrisy (what he and Assange condemns as her self-interested willingness to recruit both Saudi oil-money and LGBT rights to her democratic cause), it is also the case that Žižek mis-plays the ideological advantage his case might make for him, and many of the rest of us ‘ordinary people’ who are concerned to consolidate his and Assange’s critique of the exhaustion and bankruptcy of Democratic self-representation—the thing that, for most, is what cost Clinton her coveted post.

The self-description ‘ordinary people’ is intended because it is in its notoriously vague and even untenable reference that Žižek makes one of his apparently inoffensive mistakes. The first was to assume that in some equally vague capacity Trump and his not-at-all-ordinary billionaire’s club is in any sense not an integral, if antagonistic, part of the Clinton-friendly network of the “Wall Street status quo.” His second is to imagine that the ‘ordinary people’ who gave Trump their vote—as would have Žižek himself—are either ordinary, or qua ordinary, wanted to elect an authentically ordinary candidate (any ideas?) to the White House. Because Žižek also claims that like those who wanted to see Sanders win, they are “anti-establishment people.” Neither Žižek, Trump’s voters, nor Trump are in any sense ordinary, whatever that might actually as opposed to expediently mean.

Žižek, the ‘ordinary people,’ and Trump himself, have proved, rather, hyperbolic in the truest sense, and as equally prone to flagrant over-statement, inaccuracy, blind-sightedness and cant of the most intellectually irresponsible kind. No-one needs to reiterate the extraordinary embarrassment that was Trump’s effort to engage in anything like intelligent and coherent discourse with the Democratic nominee and his own domestic critics. All too many of the ordinary Trump-folk of America were seen in multiple media to betray a basic ignorance of or indifference to the sheer seriousness of the moment of the world, well beyond domestic U.S. conditions, that in itself should have long-before disqualified Trump from his candidacy. Mike Pence denies the scientific evidence for evolution and climate change, a fact which will make it all too easy for Trump to sideline himself in opting out of U.S. commitments to the Paris Accord. We won’t begin to speak of likely Republican healthcare, gun-ownership, civil rights and foreign policy, because it is already far too depressing to contemplate.

Nor has there been any surprise in the spike of race-related hate-crime in the streets of America, and throughout the Web since November 10th, a fact that Trump’s incoming chief strategist and Senior Counsellor Steve Bannon will doubtless relish even if Trump himself is careful to be seen not to. These people, and the media agglomerations that support their frequently litigious claims, are not “alt-right” whatever that aseptic and transparently white-washing euphemism is actually meant to signify (pun intended). They are agents of white, male, monied privilege and supremacy, pure and simple. They are agents of hate-speech, hate-acts and self-serving mendacity that, especially but not only in their most frankly neo-Nazi guise, would in most Western putative democracies be unable to reach the back pages of the shoddiest tabloid rag let alone the hallowed corridors of power of the most powerful democracy in the world. We have entered a moment of a fantastic travesty and reversal of decades (a post-war seventy years) of global evolution out from the shadow of precisely the conditions that sullied so much of that century, and threaten to irremediably ruin this one.

And Žižek wants to call its praises, however qualified they may be? How could a major intellectual get it so wrong, even and especially when he sounds almost right? On November 15th he suggested that “the traditional machine of [for] manufacturing consent no longer works.” He may well be right in this, for better or worse, unless he is referring to the same machine that, with some minor adjustments, will now seamlessly be able to manufacture a new shape of consent for a far more dangerous driver than Clinton Inc. might have been.

But can Žižek really intend this as the preferable state of affairs? Trump’s embarrassments and indiscretions “even helped him because ordinary people didn’t identify with an ideal Trump. They perceived him as one of us precisely through his vulgarity, mistakes and so on. That’s how political identification works.” Again, the profundity is mind-boggling. Žižek even chuckles at his own suggestion that “ten years from now, and it’s not a joke, rape will be called ‘enhanced seduction technique.’” It’s good to know that he’s not joking, in case we thought he might have been taking rhetorical liberties: Žižek means to say that he means what he says.

And what does this actually mean? Nothing much less than now that the pernicious rhetoric of a Trump was able to hold sway over the most important democratic contest of our time, the rest of us now have permission not to really mean what we say, unless we couch it inside the invisible but ubiquitously ironic scare-quotes that are fully intended to scare precisely the people that are not explicitly identified, but only indirectly assumed in any given rhetorical statement. And Žižek’s mandate for this, in Trump, is carte blanche: “precisely the shock of electing him will maybe trigger some restructuring of the entire political space where new options will maybe emerge.” Another profound insight (mind those invisible scare-quotes!) and, again, he’s not kidding. “An authentic leftist movement around Bernie Sanders”? That is almost like assuming the third-placer Communist Ernst Thälmann had an authentic political future in Germany after April, 1932. Or would that be to commit the indiscretion of ironically exaggerating my claims in the sense Žižek emboldens us to? And what would be wrong with that, if so?

Donald Trump as a political player is, for Žižek, a “basic ethical catastrophe.” We suppose Žižek means this in a way he doesn’t mean the other things he says he means. Many would agree with him. And Žižek helps them, and us, wipe their hands of any incentive to assume that that is as bad a thing as it really is. He says we “should not focus on Trump as a person.” Perhaps we should focus on “the new face of power” as a cipher, who legitimately represents any number of variables as possible, instead. Perhaps the philosophical margin-caller has always been as naïve, and as futile. Let us hope that Žižek has reason to hope, as he claims he does, even when that means betraying his own, and our, reason. As he says, “Again, the situation is open.” For how long will it remain so?

In Khost Province

Short prose in Mascara Literary Review #19, September 2016: http://mascarareview.com/in-khost-province-by-martin-kovan/

Ballots not Bullets - Anja Niedringhaus, March 2014.png

“Ballot not Bullet” – Anja Niedringhaus, March, 2014

 

Voluntary Inundations

poem in ISLAND MAGAZINE #146; publ. in print Sept. 1, 2016: http://islandmag.com/pages/146-contents