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October 27, 2004

Anthony Daniels discovers certain parallels between the UK and Burma

Posted by Anthony Daniels

It is a cardinal sin of social commentary to mistake minor irritations for major catastrophes. (The opposite error, of course, is another such sin, equally grave.) We should never forget that many intellectuals were guilty for much of the past century of magnifying the deficiencies of their own societies while ignoring those of communist societies. So I do not mean in what follows to imply that Britain is, or even is becoming, a dictatorship. I think freedom is on the retreat, but that is another matter. Political democracies are far from immune from the perils of bureaucratic over-regulation, but that is not the same thing at all as a fear of the knock on the door.

While reading an interesting and instructive travel book about Burma recently -Secret Histories: Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop, by Emma Larkin - however, I came across more than one passage that put me somewhat in mind of my own dear country. It is odd how similar processes may be at work in such different political circumstances. After all, Mr Blair and General Ne Win, the British Government and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), could hardly be more different.

On page 30, for example, Miss Larkin is having a discussion with educated people about the state of Burmese education:

One of the professors brought up the new government initiative to raise the number of Ph.D. Candidates from the current 40 students per year to 800. Everyone laughed heartily. Hla Hunt turned and said to me,
"In Burma, Ph.D. stands for Phoney Doctorate."

"They simply open up more and more schools so the system will look good on paper. It's all bluff," said one of the professors. "It's only education on paper.... They don't care about quality..."

"Quantitatively we have progress," said the psychologist. "Qualitatively we are going down the drain."

Does this sound in any way familiar? Target-setting by politicians for propaganda purposes, with a complete disregard of what is actually being produced? Here, for your delectation, is the definition of a pass mark for an examination essay (50 per cent, though actually 46 per cent is to be rounded up to the nearest multiple of 5) at a university at which I teach a little:
A just satisfactory answer that may omit some major points... showing some sound knowledge and limited understanding...
In other words, you can be awarded a degree in a subject of which you have but a limited understanding: and this so that the government may claim an ever-rising tide of university graduates.

On page 78, Miss Larkin describes the Burmese police. Outside a police station is a sign saying, "Allow us to help you." She goes on:

...there were rumours that robbery, theft, rape, assault and murder were increasing throughout the country. Yet there is a worrying trend in Burma's police stations. In order to please the central military command, the police leave crimes unreported, so that their division will look good and crime-free, at least on paper.
Again, does this sound familiar? The other day I had a conversation with a policeman (my work brings me into quite a lot of contact with the police). I mentioned the alleged fall in crime in the last few years though of course it could still fall by fully a half and yet dominate the lives of the people in the poorest areas.

The policeman laughed at the suggestion that crime had fallen: the police had simply become more adept at producing pleasing figures. They were also very good at changing the category of crime into which a reported incident fell. Just as universities had an interest in inflating marks, thanks to government targets, so the police had an interest in deflating the seriousness of the crimes reported to them, for the same reasons. And, as every policeman knows, the job of Chief Constable is not that of a policeman any longer, but that of public relations officer and political toady. This is not because they are by nature wicked men, but because of the nature of modern administration, in which reality is less real, or at least less important, than the presentation of reality.

This results in a deep-seated cynicism that is inimical to real work and progress. Ersatz or pretend work comes to replace work itself: the production of signs, for example, saying "Allow us to help you," when there is no intention of helping anyone. The cynicism corrodes the public servant and the public alike: everyone treats everything as a source of plunder and personal advancement.

Of course, we in Britain are still free to criticise anything we like. We can expose absurdities and abuses for what they are; everyone (except, perhaps, those belonging to the Kafkaesque bureaucracies that are proliferating like mould through wallpaper) can say what he likes, without fear of reprisal of any kind.

This is becoming less and less of a comfort, however, because no amount of criticism seems to make any difference to any process that is criticised. The machine, or vehicle, just seems to go rolling on, an unstoppable juggernaut. Criticism comes to be a replacement or substitute for change.

Integrity is a fragile thing, and most people have only a limited reserve of it. They are usually more concerned for their private welfare than the public good (I mean this as no criticism, it seems to me to be an ineluctable fact about being human). So when intellectual, moral and financial corruption grows, they will not resist it to the bitter end. Rather they will join in most with a heavy heart, some joyfully - and keep their traps shut. Payment of their mortgages requires their silence. But the knowledge that they have sold their souls means that they live the rest of their lives in fear and self-loathing.

Cui bono? In reality, no one. Certainly not the general public, of course. What about the officials who seem to wield such power? Not them, either, because there is always a more senior official than they, who tyrannises and terrorises them. What of the people at the very peak of the command structure? They have their little pleasures, of course, but they are fleeting, as they are allowed a breath, a little scene to monarchise, be feared and kill with looks. But he who kills fears to be killed.

Perhaps this helps to explain the apparent paradox, that while we have made such palpable and remarkable progress in the material sphere, being richer and healthier than ever before, we nonetheless feel that we have lost at least as much as we have gained. And to be unhappy in the midst of myriad advantages is to be unhappy indeed.

Anthony Daniels is a doctor and writer.

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Anthony Daniels is always worth reading - but the similarities he finds here are mainly linguistic. Is the euphemism not the universal norm of politics today? I do have to agree that Emma Larkin's book is very good.

Posted by: James Morris at October 28, 2004 03:01 PM

"Anthony Daniels is always worth reading - but the similarities he finds here are mainly linguistic. Is the euphemism not the universal norm of politics today?

Indeed. Isn't that his point? The baleful influence of "modern administration, in which reality is less real, or at least less important, than the presentation of reality."

Posted by: Paul H. at July 1, 2007 01:20 PM
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