Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover: Speaking of Burma

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with Amitav Ghosh and Robert Coover (17 minutes, 8 mb mp3)

Amitav Ghosh & Robert Coover

Our conversation draws on the novelist Robert Coover’s exercise of conscience about freedom of expression in the world. Today. Burma was the focus this week of what’s become an annual International Writers’ Project teach-in at Brown.

Burma of the thin-skinned but immovable military regime in Rangoon. Burma of the Nobel Prize prisoner and non-violent point of resistance Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma of Kipling’s old “Road to Mandalay” (how we loved the Sinatra version) and the mahogany, jewels and oil that the British Empire stripped from the land between the 1820s and World War 2.

After our week with Burmese poets, artists and writers who’ve done hard time, some in solitary, in modern Burma, our conversation here is with Robert Coover about the artists’ predicament, and with the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, whose first big novel, The Glass Palace, retold the colonial story behind the “news” of Burma. Resonating around the conversation somewhere is the spreading scandal of official US torture of terror suspects after the 9.11 attack on New York, through the war in Iraq.

Amitav Ghosh makes a point of starting off with Burma’s colonial history. He’s driving much the same point that Mahmoom Mamdani posed against the American (typically “liberal”) reflex to moralize and racialize our stories of faraway people.

Burma experienced colonialism, perhaps, in the most extreme way, where it was almost completely ransacked. After 1885 it was, actually, strangely similar to Iraq. The British went in under the guise of freedom and so on. Shock and awe, tyranny, all those tropes were there. But then after that they were faced with this very long resistance, so the during the pacification campaign, thousands and thousands of Burmese were killed. And ever after the countryside was fairly unsettled, so there was a lot of brigandage and so on. So then after that, I think, what profoundly affected Burma was the Second World War. People don’t adequately recognize that in the Second World War, when the British were withdrawing from Burma against the Japanese attack, they adopted the “scorched earth” policy. They literally laid waste to all of the infrastructure that they themselves had built in Burma. All the bridges, all the railways, all the warehouses, all the oil pumps. Everything was just blown up. But then the Japanese did come in, and when the British were reinvading, the Japanese adopted the same policy. So Burma was flattened twice. You think of the sort of aid Europe got, the Marshall Plan and so on. After the Second World War, Burma got nothing. There it was, this really poor country, completely devastated, it had no way of really rebuilding itself. You know, what has happened in Burma is one of the great tragedies for which the whole world, in a sense, bears responsibility.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Historical amnesia is Ghosh’s thread to Iraq and the furor today about the CIA’s “harsh interrogation techniques” in the Bush years.

You know, I must say, I sort of knew that the Iraq war would be a catastrophe. But since then, so much of what happened there, actually, is incomprehensible. Leaving aside the torture, do you remember, a couple of weeks after the fall of Baghdad, there was an Iraqi general who actually went to the American authorities and surrendered? He surrendered. His sons came with him. The next he was heard of he had been wrapped in a carpet and beaten so badly that he died. Now, can you imagine an American doing that to, say, a German general in the Second World War? It is inconceivable. Can you imagine the British doing that to a French general during the Napoleonic Wars? It is literally inconceivable. How is it possible that these deep, deep taboos, not just in global culture, but specifically in Western culture, come to be flouted so easily? This other thing, this torture business, you know, the Prussian state, of all, abolished torture as a method in the 18th century because Frederick the Great said that it doesn’t work. All the things that people are saying today, he said. And ever since it has been one of the rules of warfare and, you know, the rules of warfare basically decided what civilized conduct was… So it is strange to see these arguments being rehashed over two hundred years later.

Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Robert Coover and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

Amitav Ghosh in his public talk here relayed a subtle and fascinating piece of advice from Burma’s most famous resister, Aung San Suu Kyi. Resist politics, too, she has told her followers. That is: resist the post-modern tendency to locate morality in politics alone. This was the example of several Burmese artists at Brown this week, none more touching than the physician and writer Ma Thida, who said that she survived in prison by meditating 20 hours every day. The lesson for all of us seemed to be: remember also (quite apart from politics) the inner life, “laughter, love and joy,” as the last repositories of moral consciousness.

Robert Coover took the advice, first, with a grain of salt; and then as an embrace of art.

I have worked a lot on political issues and have always been disappointed at how few were alert to those issues and how many were sunning themselves on the green, enjoying their inner lives. But, I think that one of the roots here — it’s what we all pretend, anyway, is the root – is the thought that art itself has this function. The novel, the painting, and, now, digital art as well: all of our modes come into deep focus without having an external object at which that is aimed. So that you can be moved by music at the same time you are moved against American foreign policy. And I think that’s our hope as performers.

Robert Coover in conversation with Amitav Ghosh and Chris Lydon at the Brown’s International Writers Project, April 23, 2009.

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  • paul.cline


    I felt the need to respond to Robert Coover’s comment about the education of military members.

    It is just false that soldiers are not educated about ethics, history, and the political causes of conflict. Just like all large groups, different individuals will have different levels of expertise based on their talents, experience, interests, and responsibilities. To impugn an entire group based on an unconsidered stereotype smacks of bigotry.

    Please consider interviewing a diverse group of soldiers and get a sense of what they bring to their duties.

    Thank you for your time and consideration.

    Paul Cline

  • I have to confess that the first time I listen to your show (while I’m working) I miss much and have to listen a second time for content. The first time I’m just experiencing the pleasure of hearing intelligent people conversing about a topic about which I’m ignorant. Then the next time I’m listening more for content. The third time I’m actually adding knowledge to my brain. I have been away from an academic environment for so many years with no regrets, but it is great to hear such intelligent and informed people bouncing off one another!

  • nother

    Love the following:

    “The lesson for all of us seemed to be: remember also (quite apart from politics) the inner life, “laughter, love and joy,” as the last repositories of moral consciousness.”

    Thank you for that.

    I would like to piggyback on paul.cline’s comment.

    I’m not sure if Mr. Coover misspoke, but to say that the officers ext. are not taught the literary history and “their history is military history, and their notion is simply a kind of blunt tactic and often involves just understanding their weaponry.” He goes on to imply (it seems) that these guys are not thinking about “moral behavior or conscious.” They “have never been schooled in this.”

    All I can say is I was totally put off, this is the kind of generalizing and dismissiveness that is not only elitist but incendiary.

    Mr. Coover – Bill Clinton has a more nuanced view of the torture issue, does this make him less educated?

    The Jack Bauer question can be dismissed but it is not going away. President Clinton’s take on it is the best one I’ve heard.

    Torture is against the law, but if that CIA/military/FBI officer is confronted with a Jack Bauer moment, (and herein lies the nuance) it is up to the CIA officer to make that personal decision and deal with the consequences, “and I think the consequences will be imposed based on what turns out to be the truth.”

  • nother

    Please disregard the first link, I was showing someone the video of that great song.

  • hurley

    Nother, I take Coover’s comments not as criticism of military rank and file, but as a lament its members not better done by. I’d place his remarks in the context of his principled anti-militarism (he made an early film against the Vietnam war that I dearly wish someone would upload to YouTube) and what seems to me his essentially — not aproximately, essentially — humane concerns. Neither do I detect anything elitist in his remarks. He’s a smart man from humble beginnings made good. What he said more likely an expression of despair at the spectacle of young people being fed into the shredder on a political lark, without an adequate sense of the actual stakes involved. Laus Deo you weren’t one of them, but you could have been. I think Coover was speaking in your interest. Concerning aspects of military culture that might have been ameliorated by broader education, consider this, on the amazing levels of rape withing the US military:

    What “culture” breeds this sort of thing?

    No animus in my response, Nother. In a better world, which Chris might just shift into being, you’d do a show on the subject.


  • potter

    Anent the above starting with Paul Clines- there was also the question ( arising yet again) as to why we don’t learn from history. My feeling is that those ( leaders) who are not doing “better by” (as per Hurley above) the military rank and file are seized by the notion that they are somehow either outside history, or gambling that this time things will be different ( b/c of superior weapons, the illusion of being smarter, or right with God).

  • nother

    Thank you, Hurley, I appreciate you taking the time to give me feedback. You know or your should know, that I respect your opinion to the utmost. And It’s funny, I was somewhat reluctant to write the post initially, because I thought I remembered you writing reverential things about Mr. Coover in the past.

    But I wasn’t sure, and then I read paul.clines’s post, and realized it wasn’t just me who felt uncomfortable. Then I listened to the interview again, and heard what he said and, didn’t like it still. But all the while I knew deep down that I probably wasn’t getting the full picture on the man or his true sentiment. So I felt I had to at least respond to the words he said…but thank you for reeling me in.

    Yet, what I think set me off on my tangent is a kernel of something a little deeper than the specific words of Mr. Coover. From the countless discussions I’ve had with military members, and in a broader sense, conservatives. I’ve come to a general conclusion that the animosity they feel towards liberals comes from as much the condescension they sense, as the policy they disagree with. Personally, I now see the condescending bias in the media they bitch about. Unfortunately, Fox news is the out of proportion response to that bias. And thus the cycle happens: Condescension = reactionist…(or visa versa).

    Our old friend, Allison, from the old days of ROS, used to say: attack the idea, not the person. Mr. Coover was attacking the person (vis-à-vis the military members) as opposed to the idea (tangible arguments against torture) – or specific people who have that idea (there are almost 3 million people in the military).

    What a great arsenal Mr. Coover has in is intellectual handbag. For a man that is so well read I guess at any point in any argument he can go the well of “they are just not literary enough.”

    Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Character is higher than Intellect.” Hurley, I can tell you first hand that I met as many men and women of high – or higher – character as I’ve met in the realms of Harvard Square – where I live.

    I define elitism as thinking that intellect is higher than character.

    Just because some insecure frat boy was commander and chief for the last 8 years does not mean the people he was commanding are lacking. It means that are Constitution says that civilians oversea the military. Consequently, civilians are the one “without an adequate sense of the actual stakes involved,” as you wrote.

    I have a feeling that what we are discussing here is a consequence of the limitations of language. I have no doubt that the net result of Mr. Coover’s contribution to the greater good is massive. And a few unclear words spoken in a joint interview coveys nothing about the actual man.

    But it was fun to have the discussion nevertheless.

    All the best, Hurley. Until next time.


  • nother

    Correction: “our Constitution.”

    And I do appreciate the link. My response is that the “culture” you ask about has more to do with our misguided patriarchal society in general than it does the military. I can only tell you from my own experience. I went into the Navy after Tailhook and and they beat into us every day that sexual harassment would not be tolerated. I swear to you that I felt more pressure to treat women on equal grounds then, as I have any time since the military.

    Not to mention people from different races. The culture of diversity in the military outshines so many industries. How many occupations do you know as diverse as the military?

    I can only speak for my personal experience in the Navy, and the ships I was on. I do not for a moment doubt the stories of the women in the article. No matter how you slice it, we have a long way to go.

  • nother

    Correction: I put quotes around – They are just not literary enough. Mr. Coover did not actually say that sentence.

  • hurley

    Gracious and illuminating as ever Nother.Better than ever. Many thanks. Wanted to write something more, but dinner on the hob. Ciao for now,

  • nother

    Thank you, hurley. I hope you will fill us in at some point on your summer reading list.