Morning Muse: Illiberal Liberalism

*Originally posted December 29th 2013*


The people attempting to tear down Thailand’s flawed democratic system do not believe in the principle of one man-one vote. In this, they are in agreement with earlier liberal reformers in western nations where the poor, the halt, the lame, the ‘colored’ and the women were excluded from the franchise as “unfit”. Modern liberal democracies still exclude large numbers of their citizens from the voting population based on judgements that they are not capable of democratic responsibilities.

In those western nations, there is a large consensus concerning something we might best call “equality”, no matter how qualified and restricted by conditionality. Observation would suggest that this broad sense of “equality” does not share the same large social consensus in many Asian nations, even those where it  is enshrined in law.

In Thailand, which we hear again and again is a Buddhist country, the belief in some version or other of the notion of accumulated merit is spread across a large number of people and is enshrined both explicitly and implicitly in institutions and behaviors that make up Thai society and culture. Put in simple terms, to many Thais some people are born “better” than others. So when anti-democratic protestors call for a council of “good people” to rule the country, they are not just pulling this notion out of a rhetorical bag of tricks to justify their inherent fascist tendencies (although there is that too); they are speaking out of a firm societally conditioned belief in inequality.

Many years ago, my first real Thai friend explained to me why it would be a “sin” for her to give money to a beggar. We were in Vancouver at the time so the question was relevant to our shared daily experience. Because there was the possibility that a beggar would use the money for drugs or some other evil purpose, and because she would be responsible for said evil as the financial enabler, she would gain demerit for the beggar getting stoned. When asked about whether the government in Thailand should be giving money to alleviate the poverty there, she reacted the same way. Poor Thais would waste the money, being uneducated and therefore irresponsible. The poor should be taken care of rather than empowered to take care of themselves. “We” had the responsibility.

I learned on my first visit to her home in Bangkok that a well-respected monk made regular trips from his wat in the countryside to give talks at her family compound. The faithful who came in surprisingly large numbers received both spiritual and physical nourishment and family members and the live-in servants were eagerly involved in doling out both. I had never thought to see something so like “noblesse oblige” operating at this level in my lifetime. I must admit, I was horrified.

Like those old Calvinists who believed that the mark of their predetermined ascent into heaven was their wealth, many Thais, both rich and poor, believe that material abundance is a measure of moral superiority. To be born into money is a sign of merit; to be seen to scrabble for it (as is the case with the loathed provincial politicians who play the role of bogeyman in these people’s horror tales about democracy), is a sign of many things, none of them good, but it mainly signals an unwillingness to know your place.

So to call the refusal to accept the notion of “equality” of all citizens immoral, as someone has done recently in my Twitter stream, is to reject out of hand the morality of people who think differently. And to suggest that they have the “right” to believe in the superiority of certain people but not to force others to accept it while at the same time insisting that the principle of equality be made the basis of a one-man one-vote democratic system for formulating and enforcing laws is to indulge in an unconscious hypocrisy so vast that it beggars the imagination.



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