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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The treason of the learned

I was reading John Gray in the New Statesman on Mao Zedong:
... the collection has the shortcomings that are to be expected in a book of essays by academic authors. The prose style is mostly stodgy and convoluted, and the contributors seem anxious to avoid anything that might smack of a negative attitude towards the ideas and events they describe. “As a group,” the editor continues, “we are diverse with respect to age, gender, ethnicity and political sympathies.” He is right that, judged by prevailing standards, it is a well-balanced group. All of the relevant disciplines are represented – history, area studies, literature, political science and sociology – and although ten of the 13 contributors teach in the US, the collection is representative of the range of views of China that you will find in universities in much of the world. However, the fact that it reflects the present state of academic opinion is also the book’s most important limitation.

Reading the essays brought together here, you would hardly realise that Mao was responsible for one of the biggest human catastrophes in recorded history. Launched by him in 1958, the Great Leap Forward cost upwards of 45 million human lives. “When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death,” Mao observed laconically. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” He did not specify how those condemned to perish would be made to accept their fate. Ensuing events provided the answer: mass executions and torture, beatings and sexual violence against women were an integral part of a politically induced famine that reduced sections of the population to eating roots, mud and insects, and others to cannibalism. When Mao ordered an end to the horrific experiment in 1961, it was in order to launch another.
There is a Principal-Agent problem going on with academic authors. You may think that academics should seek the truth and do things that matter, but what most academics do on most days is worry about what journal editors and referees would think about their work if X was done. This generates all kinds of distortions. It's more like the fashion industry than most of us care to admit: will blue look better than black? The journal editors define what is fashionable and hordes scurry after that. It's bad enough in economics (link, link). It's much worse in the humanities where the anchor to empirical evidence is weaker than the weak link to reality that's found in economics.

Gray's article also reminded me of the famous essay by Omar Ali (link, link) on the Indian and Pakistani Left. I often get struck by the odd subset of persons that write on India in the New York Times.


  1. Its much worse that you seem to suggest.

    There is now a nexus between old socialists who have now taken on the role of anti-imperialists and faux liberals and the multi-culti folks. Students are getting suspended for saying something that is not "political correct" in the US. Who would have though that that could ever happen in the US. Anything produced is first judged on whether it is political correct or not. And, if not, complaints and agitations make sure that it is withdrawn.

    Major institutes and professorships are being bought by foreign money and influence, so much so that dubious topics of research are being funded in the humanities to alter history, or to alter perceptions. In fact, manipulation of the humanities departments has worked so well for the propagandists in the US and Europe that they are now trying to replicate the propaganda in the schools. David Cameron's recent sharp comments on school manipulation might be noted as an indication of how deep the problem runs.

    Pankaj Mishra writing on NY Times is one thing, as NY Times has always been like that. But, he writes on Bloomberg too and he is the main opinion presenter on India over there. It wouldn't bother me if he was one of a few. The irony of him writing against capitalism on Bloomberg!

  2. Your article has nailed the main disease prevailing among our learned scholars. Let me assume that learned one is a liberal individual. He/She constantly ignores voices of majority in the favour of unheard voices of minority and gender issues. That secular and mostly left oriented liberal seek only fault in the right. Instead of looking for truth and accepting practical challengers, the holier than thou destroy their own credibility in the majority. Despite of good intention, they are unable to stop fundamentalism. While conservatives thrives only on failure of such liberals who offer resistance to everything but solution to none. Fundamentalism began both ways either with intellectual triumph of the conservatives or loss of credibility of liberals. And then parties like Tea Party in USA gets a lot of support from the public.

    1. The problem isn't that the so-called liberals pander/appease the minorities. If they actually improved the condition of minorities everyone would be happy. But what they end up doing is destroying hard-earned meritocracy and they promote the worst (most radical/most noisy) of the minorities, rather than promoting and defending the educated and the true liberals among the minorities. I've never been able to understand why this latter point holds true. It seems to be a result of ignorance, lack of knowledge of history or other countries, decision by presumptions (rather than facts) and most of all a result of sustained propaganda and media control. But, even so, its hard to understand.

      By the way, this isn't an issue with just the liberals today. Many cultures have gotten to a point of faux, suicidal liberalism before they passively collapsed to another culture in the history of the world.

      Where propaganda is concerned, the answer is to follow the money trail. Consider the prices of commodities, particularly since 2007, the shift in wealth and the subsequent outflow of that wealth into which activities, what kind of lobbying and the issues are pretty obvious. If you looked into the funding of the humanities, or the profiles of professors (even at places like UC-Berkeley), you would be very surprised.

  3. Have a case in mind for this? "Students are getting suspended for saying something that is not "political correct" in the US."

  4. Both the New Statesman review and this blog have missed out quite a bit..

    Edgar Snow's Red star over China was influential in building the Mao myth abroad and it could also have been mentioned.

    Mao The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday is not authoritative. It came under serious criticism by sinologists and some of the materials are collated in the book, Was Mao really a monster?by Gregor Benton and Lin Chun.

    There is a more recent book, Mao The Real Story by Alexander Pantsov and Steven Levine.

    Unfortunately, Chinese historians who know better cannot write freely on account of censorship.

    Mao left a poisoned legacy. Sadly, it was embraced by some of our idealists like Charu Muzumdar and gave rise to Naxalbari movement. The state response has remained brutal,with the arrest, torture and killing of Maoists, starting with Charu Muzumdar first.

    Maoists in turn have targeted landlords, politicians, police and suspect collaborators.

    Often the victims have been police constables, army jawans and ordinary folk who were caught in the crossfire of Naxalism and state terrorism.

    The real tragedy that began in 1967 continues to be played out in the Indian countryside even as predators sit in board rooms of India & abroad and plan how

    land and precious resources of this country can be bought at cheap rates.

    If a naive person among them asks, “What about Indian laws and local opposition?”

    He is assured, “Our lawyers will manage the paperwork and the minister has assured us, their cops will take care of the trouble makers.”

    Currently quite a few ideologues of the movement are behind the bars, Vernon Gonsalves, Srinivasan, Kobad Ghandy and so on…

    The media seldom mentions them.

    But then what does one expect?
    NAMO sells, even if his record has been mired in the blood of innocents.

  5. The dawn of the enlightenment age was marked with freedom for speech and end to blasphemy laws.

    That will soon be overturned. Its only a matter of time:

    When it happens (not if), we can welcome a new dark age. A dark age with information wars where one side tries to manipulate information as does the other, while the truth has to hide from view. I think the 2008 crisis will really be an important marker in terms of the social and cultural inflection point, not just the economic impact.

    Sometimes I wonder if the flaw of capitalism is that it doesn't differentiate between a dollar backed by a good idealogy vs a dollar backed by a bad idealogy. Usually, the dollar turns around and reforms the bad idealogy so it works out in the end. But, I'm not sure that one can rely on that all the time. I wonder if lessons from history resolve this.


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