Every time I cross into the border of Burma, I laugh a little. These days Burma styles itself as the Union of Myanmar. Burma is not, and has never, been a union. From before the time it gained its independence from England, Burma’s minorities fought (and, sadly, more than sixty years later, are still fighting) for their freedom from the oppression of Burma’s military leaders. There is neither freedom nor union in Burma, but among Burma’s corrupt leadership, there is the aspiration of unity, and so the name reflects not the reality, but the goal of the Burmese military regime to unify the disparate population of Burma under their own rule.
There is another lesson in Burma’s experience that we would do well to ponder. Burma does not have a dictatorship because the Burmese are strong, but only because the centralizing tendencies in the nation are weak. Military regimes are a sign of weakness in a nation, a sign that there is no sufficient cohesion except that which can be forced from above, and that is invariably a very shallow kind. It is the anarchy and liberty of captive peoples that has threatened the Burmese military establishment into attempting to establish order by force. Those who are enamored by liberty and chafe under any kind of order ought to reflect that most people would much rather prefer a tyrannical order than anarchy and chaos. Sadly, this is why we have had vastly more tyrannies in human history than libertarian paradises. We are what we are.
But lest we laugh too loudly at the expense of Burma, there is much we can learn. Burma’s aspirations for union, aspirations which appear to this jaundiced observer to be vain and futile, if persistent, are present in its own name. Lest we forget, using the name “union” or “united” does not necessarily reflect the reality either, but the hopes and aspirations of those who knew the name. This is, not coincidentally, why those supporting the preservation of the United States in the American Civil War were called the Union, and those who claimed to support a weaker central government called themselves the Confederate States of America, even if they too fought to keep secession-minded parts of their own territory (like parts of Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee) loyal by coercion.
William Shakespeare may have said, “A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet,” but he forgot (or chose not to comment on) the reason why names are chosen the way they are. All too often the names of countries are chosen to reflect dominant peoples. France has populations (fairly restive ones too) of Corsicans and Celts, and even some Basques, but the name of the country reflects the dominant ethnic group. This is, we shall remember, why Burma officially changed its name to Myanmar, to try to give the appearance of being a more tolerant state than it really is. Sometimes a name gives a fierce sense of identity where no ethnic or cultural one would seem necessary. The nations of Central and South America are all largely mestizo, with regional variations (Panama has a strong African influence, Bolivia and Peru and Guatemala a much stronger American Indian one), but their fairly minor ethnic and historical divisions pale in contrast to the fierce sense of nationalism that has led to frequent wars and conflicts in that part of the world, a local nationalism that has doomed every one of the many attempts at union among its various peoples.
It is not only unity or dominance that leads groups of people to choose the names they do. Those groups that are afraid of dying off give themselves names as if they are alive. Those groups that are seeking a global influence give themselves names like international or worldwide. Other organizations want to draw attention to their competencies or to the locality in which they operate. Around Chiang Mai, for example, quite a few companies use Lanna as a name, which has local and historical connotations (Lanna is the first and most-remembered part of a longer name that, in Thai, meant “Kingdom of One Million Rice Fields”), similar to what Duquesne has in the area around Pittsburgh, or Ft. Brooke has in the area around Tampa, among other places where I have lived. Other names of organizations wish to make it clear exactly who is in charge, or provide a personal symbol or reference to one’s life or body of work.
It is worthwhile to examine names. Some of the funniest names to me are those which attempt to proclaim high quality. Along the bus route from Chiang Mai to Hod there are two pet shops in the same mini mall, one of which is called “Best Pet Shop.” To hear such an aspiration is noble, but often the reality falls far short of the aspiration. To give but one example of this, one of the game companies I am familiar with calls itself “glitchless” but is sadly all too full of glitches and errors. Aspirations are nice, but we have to meaningfully work for them before they can actually do us any good.
And that is the real tragedy of names. It is not that we choose bad names, but we are not always aware of the fact that our names reflect desires and not reality, and desires that we are often ill-equipped to put into practice, or may not even know how to do so. All too often our names become, like Burma’s name, something to be mocked as obviously ridiculous instead of a glorious name to be pleased with. Our names only reflect well on us if they are backed up by performance, and do not reflect empty aspirations without achievement. It’s hard to live up to a good name, but if we want it to mean something, that is the difficult task we have.