In 2005, Damien Rice and Lisa Hannigan, Irish singer-songwriters (and musical activists, if there are such things), came out with “Unplayed Piano,” a song to support Aung San Suu Kyi’s 60th Birthday campaign. At the time, she had been serving her house arrest for 16 years.
Suu Kyi, locked up in a house -- full of potential and the ability to change the Myanmar landscape to one of tolerance, peace, and harmony -- sits unsung and “unplayed,” unutilised by the world. “She sits alone with her silent song,” they sing, as they decry the way the military junta had imprisoned this beautiful soul.
It’s easy to do nothing wrong when you don’t have the choice to do anything.
As a 17-year-old who revered his favourite artist, I was already rooting for Suu Kyi, seeing her as worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize as anyone ever was.
While recent events have succeeded greatly in shattering this image, what campaigns such as this highlight is the flawed nature by which the West perceives the leaders of the East, and the values they hold. The West deifies not only these leaders of freedom and all-that-is-right, but also the ideological basis for their campaigns, which mimic the West’s own.
Heroes and villains
Apologies in advance: One thing I do not enjoy doing is creating a dichotomy between the artificial hemispheres erected by ideologues. In our desperate need to label and define, to better and more easily understand the world, we are often forced to view the world bespectacled -- with the wrong prescription, in twos, out of focus, “us”-ing and “them”-ing it beyond truth.
(The world would be nicer with heroes and villains, but while America flies around the world pretending to be Superman fighting General Zod, man and steel collide to leave the world battered, bruised, and broken.)
And, in this case, I have had to fall on similarly comfortable ground, based on the pattern by which the “diabolical” West has written the narrative for democracy.
While it is easy and nice to imagine democracy as this potentially utopia-building political system that caters to everyone and minimises conflict, this is a pipe-dream that the West (and we, too) have bought into.
The end of history
In the same way post-World War II Americans bought into the American dream, we have bought into the dream of democracy.
Years before Fukuyama deemed the fall of the Berlin Wall as the “end of history” -- for we had reached our ideological apex, which had culminated in the establishment of democracy as the perfect mode of government -- Ginsberg mourned the death of America to capitalism. We have yet to make the same a similar revelation.
Suu Kyi is a product of such thinking: A mirage in the desert, an American dream, an unplayed piano (and, it seems, will remain so). And there are countless others like her
Perceptions of democracy have remained the same: Despite the fact that almost three decades having passed since the so-called death of global communism, we continue to rate the victor (and its replacement) as the perfect product of an imperfect species.
While the merits of democracy are undeniable, so too are its flaws. It relies too much on a majority. And with a burgeoning majority that resides in nations which boast similar variants of the American dream, filling up with less and less awareness and education, democracy is resting on the haunches of a most feeble demigod.
But this is nothing new; the rise of the “alt-right” has assured us of that. But in attacking right-wing and ultra left-wing policies so much, we, and especially the West, oftentimes forget to criticise our own political systems. This leads to a lack of introspection and, thereby, a lack of change.
Look at the headlines: 26 dead at mass shooting in Texas.
Why? Because Americans have held a piece of paper, which is man-made, as being more important than progress and evolution.
A constitution is as powerful as the people who decide to give it value. Democracy is no different. It has become evident that, instead of looking for democracy elsewhere, what we should try and do is to look at the points where democracy has continued to fail us.
This is no easy process; this is no gentle soiree. And I know that each of us has different ideas of what utopia is, which makes this entire attempt at perfection, perhaps, completely futile.
But one thing that we need to stop doing is allowing democracy to be the be-all, end-all of political systems. Evolution does not stop merely because we want it to.
If the last few years have taught us anything, it is that people are too unreliable to be satisfied in stasis; if we have something for long enough, eventually, we will find reasons to complain (and with good cause, a lot of the time).
Suu Kyi is a product of such thinking: A mirage in the desert, an American dream, an unplayed piano (and, it seems, will remain so). And there are countless others like her.
A history of confirmation bias and Western-influenced propaganda has convinced us that we have done the best we could have done.
We are not even close. Thing is, we never will be.
SN Rasul is Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.