Saturday, June 20, 2009

Simple Propositions about Complex Circumstances

In President Elbegdorj's inaugural address in the great hall of the parliament building he emphasized the historic importance of this year's presidential election, laying out in stark terms the challenges facing the nation. Poverty, corruption, indolent and incompetent leadership, monumental choices regarding Mongolia's untapped wealth, and other issues to make the most idealistic wither at the thought of trying to solve them. Echoing a bit of President Obama, he called on all citizens to work together in the common cause to overcome these challenges, as his presidency will need their support to achieve a new future for Mongolia.

The idea of a new future for Mongolia has gotten me thinking about the fact that the public discourse surrounding politics in the country has a tendency to devolve into simple propositions about complex circumstances. Predicting Mongolia's future is a game that everyone participates in, yet the level of play never seems to rise above the amateurish. Things are often painted in stark, polarizing ways that lack the full nuance of the situations, with the ultimate unfolding of reality diverging almost routinely from the commentary and analysis provided by the social and political elite. Both Mongolians and foreign observers are guilty of doing this, taking a complex web of political and social interests and distilling it down to one or two simplistic notions nearly devoid of context or predicated on flimsy historical facts. A happened because of corruption. B is occurring because of the inertial effects of the "Communist mentality." C is the manifestation of neo-Putinism. D is just Mongolia for you. These sorts of ideas are thrown around so often without critical analysis, I think we all get sucked into believing, probably out of habit and expediency, that analyzing complex political issues in this way is not only acceptable for Mongolia but most effective.

It, of course, is not effective, because the vast majority of us remain unable to predict with any sort of accuracy how political situations will ultimately be resolved. Complex issues like the mining agreements, for example, remain mysteries, and I perceive this to be the case for everyone, from the streets to the Prime Minister's office, with the degree of the mystery only varying marginally with the level of one's own access to primary sources of information. The discourse and analysis does not match the complexity of the situation, and it inevitably fails the test of time.

I came across a passage written by Owen Lattimore in "Nationalism and Revolution in Mongolia" that is not exactly a perfect fit to what I am describing but nonetheless it draws a sufficient analogy to the kind of discourse that predominates when analyzing Mongolia's present and future:

Revolutionaries tend to make history too simple. They burn with a fire in which they try to sear away the infinite complexities of individual character and the infinite multiplicities of social variation, so that they can confront the absolutely bad with the absolutely good. But revolution is not in fact a melodrama of the "good" against the "bad." It is the most tragic form of history, in which good men often make bad decisions not for evil reasons but for reasons of human weakness that may range from ignorance, or partial knowledge (which is often more treacherous than ignorance) [emphasis added] to such things as a mere hesitancy in making up their minds which, in less urgent times, would not matter much either to them or to their fellows. By the same token, revolution is also a phase of history in which the irony is often supplied by the "good" decisions made by "bad" men. (pg. 32-33)

In the passage he is speaking to the multifaceted circumstances that befell Mongolia roughly 1900-1940s where Mongolia faced historic and monumental decisions regarding its social and economic system and, of course, of utmost importance even today, about its sovereignty. But, it is also a good working analogy for the conventional framework used to produce propositions about Mongolia and the direction it is heading. The problems are more complex than dichotomies of good vs. bad, socialism vs. capitalism, democracy vs. autocracy, and yet the vast majority of commentary wholeheartedly embraces this framework.

There is nothing wrong with a political leader such as President Elbegdorj using simple propositions to make more profound statements, but I sometimes wonder if we are all not doing ourselves a disservice by not demanding more of the leaders of Mongolia and ourselves in terms of examining the circumstances more critically for, as Lattimore writes, the "infinite complexities of individual character and the infinite multiplicities of social variation." As Mongolia's exposure to complex geo-political circumstances, especially in the mining sector, continues to grow, a great deal of the success or failure of the decisions made will rest on whether they were made out of ignorance, partial information, or genuine and effective analysis. At this point, however, the current state of affairs indicate to me that the road ahead to a new future for Mongolia is still one cloaked in fog.


amstravels said...

Hear, hear! Excellent post!

Anonymous said...

nice writing, linguistically though! Some might find your word choices quit offensive! So please re-read and figure out!