04/30/2006 12:31 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maoists and the Press

Nepal has been much in the news in recent weeks -- and not surprisingly, since a multi-pronged popular uprising seems to be dismantling a monarchy while pressing for the erection of democratic institutions. The unfolding of events has an eerily familiar cast: an unpopular ruler who lacks legitimacy; crowds of young, courageous civilians in the streets, defying curfews and dodging bullets; politicians jockeying for position in the new parliament. We have seen this drama before -- not only this year but in earlier centuries -- and it is a stirring and affirming one.

Our newspapers and broadcast media also tell us about a particular wrinkle to the story in Nepal: Maoists are playing a significant role, especially in the countryside. The Maoists, apparently,have been engaged in a rebellion against the government for decades, recently joined a coalition with other political parties, and have now offered a three-month-long ceasefire to the government.

But our press says nothing about who the Maoists are in Nepal. What does it mean to be a Maoist in 2006, long after the death of Mao? What is the political program of these Maoists? Is land reform their central issue? Are they anti capitalist (unlike the Chinese heirs of Mao)? I, for one, would like to know. Perhaps I'm uniquely ignorant on this subject, and most readers of the New York Times and Washington Post already know a great deal about Maoism in Nepal. But somehow I suspect that's not the case.

The issue here is not simply that I and other consumers of news would like to better understand what is going on in a very-far-off place: in an era of immense American power, it would indeed be valuable for Americans to learn what Nepalese Maoists believe and why a Maoist movement has endured in the Himalayas. (Oh yes, it now appears that there are Maoists in India also, most of whom are probably not software engineers.)

The issue is also the use of lazy, politicized labels to describe political movements that are ill understood and out of the (American) mainstream. Reporters always need to use some shorthand, but if the shorthand is nowhere fleshed out, it can only serve to promote stereotypes. Maoists? Populists? Insurgents? Warlords? Words that mask more than they tell can get us into trouble.