Thursday, December 4, 2008

Potato, Potah-to, Mumbai, Bombay

In a post yesterday, Sullivan agreed with Hitchens, saying that we should go back to referring to Mumbai as Bombay, since the city was officially named Mumbai to appease Hindu nationalists in 1996. Today, one of his readers corrects him, noting that Mumbai is not (or not just) a Hindu nationalist name, and that Bombay is a British/Portuguese colonial invention. So we've got a choice between a sectarian religious symbol and a Western imperialist one.

Yet again, like most things in international relations, things aren't as simple as they seem. We like to categorize the world into good and bad, but it's never so clear.

Indeed, the other supposedly "clear" example of renaming that Sullivan points to is the change from Burma to Myanmar that the military dictatorship (the SPDC -- another Orwellian name, but I digress) imposed in 1989. Most Western and Burmese human rights activists still call the country Burma, in order to oppose the military regime and stand up for democracy. (Hell, I still call the airport in Alexandria "National Airport," but again, I digress.) But alas, it's not so simple again. There are some good reasons to call it Myanmar rather than Burma. For example, when I was on the Thai-Burma border last year with a group of AU students, we spoke to a few Burmese human rights activists who preferred "Myanmar," because "Burma" is associated with one of the dominant ethnic groups (Burman) rather than the nation as a whole.

So anyway, I guess the bottom line is: Names matter, because people associate ideas with them, and those ideas shape actions. But it's always complicated; names mean different things. And despite the complication, you still have to pick a side. So until further notice, I remain opposed to the dictatorship in Burma and the terrorism in Mumbai.

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