Sunday, August 25, 2013

Role of the Beatles in the Mongolian Democracy

Хотын төв дэх Beatles-ийн хөөрхий энэ муу хөшөөг хүмүүс их ад үзэх юм. Үзэмж муутай л гэнэ. Болж бүтэхгүй нөхдүүд цуглуулдаг л гэнэ. Нөгөө талаасаа хөшөөнд дуртай хүмүүс нь дан ганц Beatles-ийн хөгжимд хайртайгаасаа болоод байх шиг. Харин миний хувьд энэ хөшөөг улс төрийн ач холбогдлын талаас нь нэлээд өөрөөр хардаг юм.

Дээрхэн NYU-ийн профессор Jeffrey Goldfarb манай сургууль дээр ирж номоо танилцуулах үеэр энэ талаар богино илтгэл тавьсанаа доор орууллаа. Тэр үеэд нас залуу ч байж, бурамтай чихэрт дуртай ч байж.

After reading a few chapters of Prof. Goldfarb’s book Reinventing Political Culture, I remember thinking “spot on, I’m really glad that someone finally noticed the elephant in the room.” Indeed, this book addresses one of the most obvious questions that constantly hover over us: How should we understand the political culture? What Prof. Goldfarb gives us in his book is a very neat framework of looking at political culture. Through understanding how politics on the one hand and culture on the other hand affects each other and together they form political culture, we can come up with a more realistic picture of how our society functions. But what the book lacks is more examples to support this framework. I feel the three examples, revelatory and fascinating they are, are still not enough to forcefully make case for political culture. I think more cases need to be tested against this framework to fully appreciate its importance. So in this spirit, in the next few minutes, I’ll attempt to see the significance of political culture on our lives.

A few years ago, my father told me a story. I was going through the photos of his youth, and I spotted a picture of him, presumably in the late 70s, wearing weird hair. I made fun of it and said how silly his hair looks—shaggy, with huge sideburns. He said, “guess what, I was actually once got arrested by the police because of that hair.” When I asked how come, he said, “One day I was walking down the street, wearing my bell-bottom jeans that my friend just smuggled from Greece and of course sporting my cool haircut. And two policemen showed up and took me to the station. There they questioned me and almost cut my hair along with the part of jeans that was below my knees.“ And I foolishly asked, why did he dress that way if it was constant object of harassment from the authorities. He said, “Oh that’s simple, because I was a Beatles fan.”

And I just thought that perhaps there is a certain political implication of it on the 1989 Mongolian democratic movement. The more I thought about it, the more interesting it got. I’ll give you one fact: more or less all the leaders of the Mongolian democratic revolution are self-proclaimed Beatles fans. But I was never quite sure how to link the four Liverpudlians to the democratic movement of Mongolia. After reading Prof. Goldfarb’s book, things started to make sense. What Beatles did to the Mongolian society was, if we use Prof. Goldfarb’s own words, “to detach truth and various sorts of social commitments from the powers.” The Beatles represented to the Mongolian youths a much more attractive way of living, it represented a possibility of different way of looking at things. Truth does not necessarily mean what the Communist Party says. Truth can be diverse, or sometimes even a completely different thing. And among the youths who were sitting in some dark corner trying to imitate the sounds of Beatles, a space for conversation has emerged. While sitting together and singing, they would address their common problems in their daily lives. And this space is crucial because this is a kind of place where people together form their political culture.

Photo courtesy of Wide Eyed Skittle Juice

Here is a photo of a statue in the center of Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia. I’ve been told that this is one of the few Beatles statues in the world (I still can’t understand who else in the world is crazy enough to come up with something like this). It was erected a few years ago by a group of Mongolian political and business elites—some of whom led the democratic movement in 1990. Poor aesthetics notwithstanding, I find it quite remarkable. In a sense, Mongolians who are incredibly pragmatic people, openly acknowledges the impact of music on our everyday lives. If you look at the other side of the statue, you’ll find a lonely Mongolian boy who is sitting and trying to imitate them with the background of a window blocked by bricks—perhaps a subtle reference to Pink Floyd. There is nothing political about this boy. He is just sitting there and singing. But if you think about it, the ideals he is trying to imitate who are depicted on the other side of the wall presents everything that the communists oppose. So that simple act of singing automatically makes him political. It presents him a different sort of truth regime and a different structure of everyday practice that is different than the Communist truth. This of course represents to me the end of the legitimacy of the Communist rule. This is also I believe what Prof. Goldfarb says by the potentiality of seemingly small things to produce a big event.

However, although incredibly attractive, there are two issues that I would like to raise here concerning political culture. First, how should we understand political culture in the context of institutions? Of course, we can say that this is a perfect demonstration of the Arendtian conception of power. Communism both in Poland and Mongolia crumbled because the power was collaboratively created. Through coming together and talking, people developed a capacity to act in concert. But still it seems to me the existing ruling institutions hold the crucial power—namely the Weberian power of coercion. In China, for example, despite the widespread wave of support for democracy by millions of people, the rulers said no they still hold the society in firm grips. On the other hand, the Mongolian Politburo gave up all their power overnight to a movement initiated by a dozen 20-somethings. I feel the idea of political culture still needs to account the decisions made by the ruling institutions. Why in some cases they feel overwhelmed by Arendtian power, and why in other cases decides to confront it?

The second question I have is, how should we understand the erosion of political culture? So far all of the three examples are presented in a way that reinvention of political culture always leads to a better outcome. However, the erosion, if not perversion, of political culture should also be addressed. For example, Mongolia has always been portrayed as a democratic anomaly. In the words of Mongolian president, “From the Sea of Japan to the eastern border of Europe, Mongolia is the only functioning democracy.” However, with the recent discovery of enormous amount of natural resources in the Gobi desert, politics has become a boxing ring where economic interest groups settle their scores. Along the way, money corrupts Mongolian politics, and the freedom of press is undermined because the economic interest groups trying to influence public opinion buys out media. This, at least in the Mongolian case, is eroding our political culture. And I am just wondering how should we address also the fragility of political culture.

So perhaps I’ll go now and change my hairstyle. Who knows in a few years I can tell my child that I contributed to a revolution.

Addendum: A few years ago, Russian historian Mikhail Safonov wrote that Beatles did more for the break up of totalitarianism in the USSR than Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. He wrote , “The apolitical Beatles, though, slipped into every Soviet flat, packaged as tapes, just as easily as they assumed their place on the stages of the largest stadia and concert halls in the world. They did something that was not within the power of Solzhenitsyn nor Sakharov: they helped a generation of free people to grow up in the Soviet Union. This was a non-Soviet generation.”