Monday, 22 December 2014

Following up with Prof. Erick White (Buddhism and/or/as/vs. Politics)

Did you read about this in the J.I.A.B.S.? No? In any other academic journal?

There are two messages below: the second one is much more amusing than the first one, so you might as well just skip to it.  The first message  shows that I tried to be reasonable and somewhat polite (even finding something to apologize for, in a message that really isn't shouldn't contain an apology) --and then the second message is a bit more brutal.

The photo at the top (with its caption) sums up my feeling on the matter: real political history is unfolding in Theravāda Asia, and Buddhism is deeply involved, and if you can read about it anywhere it won't be in academic journals connected to Buddhism (so far as I know, it isn't covered in any academic journals at all!).  I do think that we have a real problem in that the journals who could be engaging with these issues have the attitude of either (i) no politics please, we're Buddhist, or else (ii) no Buddhism, please, we're political/historical/some-other-discipline.  Honestly, however, the most frequent obstacle I encounter is, (iii) "No Cambodia, please, we're Asian Studies" --and "Asia" is so often implicitly defined as "China plus Japan" (even if they do not say "East Asia" overtly).


Prof. White,
Prof. Erick White of Cornell.

I must confess that I do not find your response to my (very informal)  article on New Mandala convincing.

I am familiar both with the publications you mention, and with a  significant percentage of the people you mention (seemingly at random), from the history of scholarship in the region.

Instead, your comment rather leads me to doubt that you're familiar  with these publications yourself.  I understand the the title of (e.g.) Contemporary Buddhism may be misleading, but you will search in vain for this type of research on the intersection of politics and religion [in that Journal].  I know this from reading the publication, and from meeting the editors, and discussing with them the limits of what they do.

Moreover, you are welcome to repeat the experiment, and see for yourself how few times the name Shinawatra has ever appeared in the journal Contemporary Buddhism (i.e., as it is digitally searchable, online).

In fact, these examples serve to confirm the warning I've raised, and  not to dismiss it --although, as I say, you may be sincerely unaware of the problem.

I was a scholar of Pali for more than 10 years, I lived in Laos for two and a half years, continuously, and lived for various stretches of time in Yunnan, Cambodia, Thailand, etc.

I do not appreciate your suggestion that I've spent too little time in the field, and have hardly done any reading at all, etc., to come to the conclusion I've come to.  On the contrary, I am left wondering if you've ever read anything by the people in the long list of names you've provided: do you have an example of an article by Richard Gombrich discussing the politics of Thaksin Shinawatra?  No?  Me neither.

Now, conversely, if you really did write a reply to inform me of a much shorter list of publications and persons who REALLY DO work on the intersection of politics and religion (in the region) I would be delighted, and I would thank you, and I would say how much I appreciate learning about these publications I had not known of before.

Alas, that is not the case.

Katherine Bowie
There are some authors in your list whose work I've admired (e.g., a few essays by Katherine Bowie), but this hardly dismisses the blind spot that my article calls attention to.  I think that if you gather together all of the mentions made of Thaksin Shinawatra in the work of Katherine Bowie, it really doesn't add up to much --and I would say the same of other authors in your list whose work I actually do value/appreciate.

Now, conversely, of course there are plenty of authors mentioned whose  work I don't value much at all, but there's a greater number whose work simply has zero salience (zero relevance) to the issue being proposed.

[Note: there is another question of salience here, as not all of the names would be considered specialists in Buddhism… but I did not mention that angle in my reply.]

Your suggestion that the failure to mention any political leaders or religious leaders by name seems like the most inexcusable type of Jesuitical reasoning.  Yes, there are anthropology papers discussing general issues without mentioning such names, but that is genuinely irrelevant to the complaint I'm offering here.  I'm complaining, specifically, about the dearth of material dealing (explicitly and directly) with politics.  For you to reply, "But there are so many articles that indirectly pertain to your interest while avoiding any mention of such politicians and politics!" may be meant sincerely and helpfully, but I think it only further illustrates the  extent of the problem.  Journals on Buddhism don't want to deal with politics, and, as I said in the article, other types of journals have other limitations, etc.

It is a problem --and a rather sad problem-- that so little is published at the intersection of these issues.  One of the effects of this problem has been my own decision to abandon entirely the area of  my former expertise, and this has led (eventually) to my starting again with Chinese.

I am sorry if you felt that my minor contribution to New Mandala was somehow hostile or an offense to your discipline; I think it was a sincere complaint, made on the basis of more than a decade of real reading and research --and that you should not dismiss it as merely the opinion of a 5 minute google search (although, to make the article concise, this was the example proposed).

Further, again, I would urge you to apply the same metric --fairly-- to these other publications you mention. I think you may discover, on reflection, that there is a real lack of examination of precisely the issues I alluded to (so briefly) in this informal article.

I say again, conversely, if you can really direct me to a publication that deals with these issues (i.e., definitely not Contemporary Buddhism!), I will be delighted and thank you for it, and I will become a reader of that publication myself.  However, please do not presume to send me a reading list that contains such miscellaneous names as Tambiah, Steven Collins and Obeyesekere!  Ye gods man, what were you thinking?



Prof. White,

"What exactly is this (singular?) blind spot you are pointing to? After all, your target of criticism shifts as your post progresses."

It is remarkable (as it would be for any other religion) that we cannot find the names of either political leaders or religious leaders in the academic literature on Buddhism, and the general problem this hints at is (in my opinion) made worse by the ways in which the different disciplines happen to overlap (i.e., Anthropology vs. Buddhist Studies, etc.). It is so remarkable that I took 5 minutes to remark on it. I do not impute bad motives to the editors who are the heads of these journals, however (as my article says clearly and directly) the way in which different disciplines have been defined happens to leave a gap.

"I suggest you look more carefully in the future before making grand pronouncements built on empirical foundations of sand."

Did I make a grand pronouncement? Really? Or did I make a limited claim, that is absolutely true, that (1) the journals of Buddhist studies have a blind-spot in this area, and (2) due to the way that other disciplines are defined (religious studies, Anthropology, East Asian studies, etc.) there are not –currently– other publications that would compensate for the blind-spot seen in J.I.A.B.S. (and other, similar publications).

That is true, and you’ve conceded the point (in this message to me) even while pretending to disagree with it. I do not think I’m making any grand pronouncement, and, on the contrary, you’ve made a grand pronouncement that positively every name in the book writes about Buddhism and Politics, when they clearly don’t, backed up with the names of three journals that scarcely touch on political science in Southeast Asia (as if they contradicted my thesis!).

You made a “grand pronouncement built on empirical foundations of sand” when you claimed that I would find the name Shinawatra if only I searched in the journal _Contemporary Buddhism_ –a search you evidently did not attempt to do yourself. Well, search and see the results for yourself: your argument is a sham.

"IF your argument is solely that Buddhist studies journals don’t publish much on Buddhism and politics, well then you are correct although that should hardly be surprising to any academic familiar with the field."

No, it SHOULD be surprising, and it SHOULD be dealt with –honestly– by persons including yourself, instead of offering the absurd excuses that you’ve offered for it.

Yes, as you here concede, I AM CORRECT, and your reply should have instead said exactly this: “You are correct”, RATHER THAN “You seem to have hardly searched at all / don’t know what you’re talking about / there’s so much to be discovered through a quick google search”.

The omission of politics should "hardly be surprising to any academic familiar with the field", he says.

"As I indicated however, other types of journals do publish about Buddhism and politics, even if not large amounts."

IMAGINE HOW DIFFERENT THIS CONVERSATION WOULD BE if you had made a reasonable statement such as this (above), instead of attacking me, suggesting that I’ve hardly done any reading or searching in 10+ years of scholarship, and that I don’t know what I’m talking about (in contrast to your absurd list of irrelevant names, that is supposed to demonstrate that you know better than I how much these journals do publish about politics!).

Instead, you insulted me publicly, and you followed up this insult with the most fatuous and spurious argument imaginable, trying to prove something that you know is not true (i.e., you’re making the concession here, that, “[these journals] don’t publish much on Buddhism and politics” and that no such thing exists “in large amounts”, which is half a step removed from my blunt statement that it exists in insufficient amounts).

"My god. I’ve handed you a long list of names that lead you to where you claim you want to go."

Let’s be clear: you named THREE JOURNALS, and all three of them are a dead-end (either indicating your ignorance, or your dishonesty, in making this claim): Contemporary Buddhism, the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, and the Buddhist Studies Review.
"I’m sorry you don’t find my comments convincing. Apparently other do, however. Currently 20 individuals find my post to be a quality comment; not a single reader takes the opposite view."

Ah, yes, well, if you take comfort from the readership of New Mandala, far be it from me to deprive you of this consolation. [Note: He is referring to the "thumbs up" button being pressed more than 20 times.]

As I say, the list of names and publications looks very different from the perspective of someone who is actually familiar with (1) the publications or (2) the scholarship of the people involved.

Ah, yes, Juliane Schober… am I supposed to be impressed that you know the name of Juliane Schober, or am I supposed to be so ignorant as to imagine that her work is any more relevant to the discussion than the name of Steven Collins? etc. etc.

Oh, yes, I’m so impressed that you know the name of Peter Jackson… he has a long list of publications pertaining to sexuality and transgender issues in Thailand, but it is of absolutely no salience to this discussion! You will search in vain for any treatment of Thaksin, Hun Sen, or the collusion of politics and religion in his works. I have, indeed, read his long work on Buddhadasa, and I respect his accomplishments, I simply do not regard them as salient to the question raised here.
I could say the same about many of the other names on this list (despite your repeated claim that you’re familiar with their work, and I’m not, etc.).

This type of research is salient to the discussion… how exactly?

As I said before, “There are some authors in your list whose work I’ve admired (e.g., a few essays by Katherine Bowie), but this hardly dismisses the blind spot that my article calls attention to. I think that if you gather together all of the mentions made of Thaksin Shinawatra in the work of Katherine Bowie, it really doesn’t add up to much –and I would say the same of other authors in your list whose work I actually do value/appreciate.”

Your message gives me the impression either (1) that you’re an ignoramus, completely unaware of the work of the people you’re citing, and/or (2) that you’re being intellectually dishonest (e.g.) in pretending that a journal such as Contemporary Buddhism actually covers these issues (when it doesn’t, and never has!), and pretending that people like Peter Jackson and Katherine Bowie cover these issues (when they don’t, and never have!).

"And what by the way constitutes quantitative proof of “little” or a dearth?"

I would say that Shinawatra’s name failing to appear once in the J.I.A.B.S. indicates a dearth; the fact that it appears in only one article (ever!) in the history of _Contemporary Buddhism_ is also a dearth. As I say, I would be delighted if there were some other journal (competing with J.I.A.B.S. and C.B.) that dealt with these issues directly (and that was truly _contemporary_, in the sense of covering each election, each coup d’etat, etc.), but I don’t know of any, and I suspect that you don’t know of one, either. As I say, if you provided me with a reference to such a publication, I’d be delighted to find it.

"Perhaps we just have different standards regarding what is evidence of a dearth, a little, a modicum, a substantive amount and an excessive amount? (I am being quite serious here; I’m not trying to be coy.)"

Yes, well, how do you define "politics", anyway?

Yes, that is entirely possible, keep in mind:
1. My first degree is in political science.
2. Thereafter, I worked on Pali for more than 10 years.

As such, I care rather more about both (1) politics, and (2) Buddhist philology than most people in the field. I find the vast majority of Anthropologists of Southeast Asia painfully ignorant of both (i.e., both the Pali canon & Politics). I wrote an article on the subject that you can find in both English & Chinese translation, here:
 "And JIABS is the most conservative of the lot."

Not from my perspective (i.e., as someone who spent years reading Pali); they publish all kinds of garbage.

"And as my answer clearly indicated, if one looks beyond Buddhist Studies journals AND looks beyond journals period to edited volumes and monographs, one find plenty of discussions of Buddhism and politics."

That is not my opinion, and I have an exceedingly well-informed opinion –although you seem to enjoy pretending that I don’t.

"Every one of them [i.e., every one of the authors mentioned] is directly salient to the topic under discussion and in combination a rebuttal of your assertion that the topic is ignored." […but cf. the concession in the very next quote!]

You must be defining “politics” so broadly as to be meaningless (i.e., a given article by Peter Jackson about the status of homosexuals in Thai society does indeed deal with “gender politics”, but not “politics” in the sense here broached at all).

"I’m not even sure what readings would satisfy your definition of “politics” (none have really written about Thaksin or political leaders, after all)." [Note: he is here admitting that none of the names on his list of authors --provided as a rebuttal to my point-- have ever "really" written about Thaksin Shinawatra or political leaders.]

Well, that’s an interesting concession!

Here's the one-and-only article to EVER mention "Shinawatra" in Contemporary Buddhism.