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Moore criticism

Moore criticism

I found the article "Cambodia in the Western Press: Whose Reality" by Stephen Moore (PPPost 25.2) enlightening. Unfortunately it was not at all enlightening about reporting on Cambodian affairs in the Western media or about the state of Cambodian political values and awareness generally, upon which the author purported to write authoritatively, under the aegis of his academic credentials.

Rather it was enlightening about the academic standards of the author who misapplies the theories of Benjamin Lee Whorf in linguistics, then cherry-picks a 2000 Asia Foundation report on democracy in Cambodia to advance his argument that the Western press is biased against the current Prime Minister of Cambodia and out of step with the sentiments of the vast majority of Cambodian people.

In order to give his arguments a veneer of academic respectability, Dr Moore relies upon Whorf's linguistic theory (largely discredited by the work of Noam Chomsky) that language constrains the thinking of different societies: appositely that because Cambodians speak a different language than English speakers, they think differently. He provides no linguistic analysis of the Khmer and English languages to demonstrate his point.

Rather, having demonstrated that the reporting style of The Economist magazine follows its editorial line (hardly a revelation to anyone who reads it), he uses a summary of an analysis he has done on the reporting by the magazine of the words of Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy to suggest that The Economist is biased in favor of Sam Rainsy.

This, of course, has nothing to do with Whorf's theory, although it may have something to do with The Economist's editorial line. Still, if he wanted to be taken seriously, academic rigor would compel Dr Moore to consider alternative explanations, such as that The Economist is limited in its reporting on Hun Sen by his relative unavailability for media comment, his need to express his views carefully because of his position as Prime Minister, his natural style of expressing himself etc. and compare that with the style of, and constraints on, Sam Rainsy when he makes media comments.

Dr Moore's most egregious offence, however, is in his misuse of the 2000 Asia Foundation report. He cherry-picks that report of over 100 pages to find that "fully two-thirds of respondents could not describe any characteristics of a democratic country."He doesn't mention that in answer to the same question in the 2003 report, 55% could do so without prompting.

He then states that over half of respondents "held a paternalistic view of government, consistent with their cultural heritage". This is purely Dr Moore's conclusion, which, as a linguist and not a political scientist, he is not professionally qualified to draw. The survey did not ask respondents whether they had a paternalistic view of government or whether their cultural heritage influenced their views. Nor do the authors of the 2003 report make or support the conclusions drawn by Dr Moore.

A fair reading of the report, available at the Asia Foundation's website, shows a diversity of views and knowledge on political issues and governance amongst those surveyed as you would expect if you conducted the same survey in any democracy.

From his specious conclusions from the report Dr Moore then jumps to the conclusions, which as a linguist and not a cultural anthropologist he is not professionally credentialled to make, that, for the eighty percent of Cambodians who live in rural areas and who are subsistence farmers, Sam Rainsy's ideas on democracy, the rule of law and free markets "must seem not only alien but potentially dangerous [as] they involve significant risks in discarding the familiar and real in favor of the unfamiliar and abstract," while Hun Sen "faithfully represents their cultural heritage and expectations."

Those conclusions are Dr Moore's alone. They are not supported by the survey. The survey did not ask respondents for their views on the ideas of Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen or any other politician regarding democracy, the rule of law and free markets. The Foundation's report does not draw those conclusions in its findings.

In drawing these conclusions Dr Moore does a disservice to the Cambodian people. In an audacious bit of patronizing, neo-colonialist condescension, he infers that their views are determined by their unspecified (but, from the context of his article, paternalistic and undemocratic) cultural heritage, rather than accepting that in a democracy they make up their own minds, taking into account, as they see fit and as they interpret it, their cultural heritage. It is for them to decide what they think of Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen's respective ideas on democracy, the rule of law, free markets and anything else that is important to them when they cast their vote. It is the height of arrogance to ascribe to them, without evidence, what they MUST think on the basis of where they live and how they live. Political scientists undertake opinion polls to find out what people actually think to avoid the very error that Dr Moore has made. The Cambodian people deserve no less of Dr Moore.

I hope that Dr Moore will do better when he next writes about a topic outside his discipline and area of expertise as a linguist. I hope too that when he does so he sticks to the academic standard of relying on current researched material and not on his personal speculations and prejudices.

Greg Moylan

BA (Major: Political Science, Honors in Political Sociology) LLB MBA

Phnom Penh

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