Trump(ets) of Doom: On Bringing der Fuehrer Back Home

As a 60s teen who read Camus and Sartre and fancied himself an existentialist, I used to think that all serious moral-ethical-political challenges were in the past and all we could do now was ask ourselves what we would have done had we been German in the 30s or whether we would have gone to fight like Orwell in the Spanish Civil War.

Somehow growing long hair, dropping acid and protesting the Vietnam war, or getting kicked out of high-school for refusing to stand for the Lord’s Prayer (among other things), just didn’t quite reach the level of the political and ethical challenges to personal integrity that confronted so many in the 30s.

It never occurred to me then that hindsight (especially the hindsight embodied in a historical tendency to valorize “the left” in the literary world that I entered almost every time I opened a book) might have been creating a clarity that people alive at the time could not possibly have experienced in reaching for a decision about which road to take.

I realize now that part of the reason nothing in my then-contemporary environment seemed to require the level of moral-political commitment that had characterized the left in the 30s was due to the elevation of fascism, especially in its Nazi variety, to the heights of metaphysical evil. I mean, LBJ was bad, but he wasn’t Hitler, right?

Ultimately the Vietnam war killed around 3 million SE Asians and devastated 3 countries. The United States used chemical weapons, anti-personnel bombs and massive non-stop terror bombing as well as torture and assassination in a pointless and ultimately fruitless display of callous disregard for international law and human life.

But within a few years, American politicians, American media and Americans in all walks of life were wallowing in self-pity over the Vietnam Syndrome and the high cost of gasoline. Oh, and the 58 thousand American soldiers who died so that 3 million SE Asians–men, women and children– would never again threaten American freedoms.

By the end of that episode of mass murder in the service of democracy, a majority of Americans had come around to the view that the war was a bad thing. The mind boggled. The combination of Richard Nixon and the Kent State shootings had somehow trumped the mindless slaughter and finally motivated Americans to oppose the war.

In recent years, various Arab dictators have been promoted to “Hitler-status” as the American public is primed for yet another war on yet another poor country filled with yet more non-white people whose children will die in massive numbers so that freedom and democracy can replace the Hitler du jour who oppresses them.

While domestic politics in the United States often revolves around what looks like nothing more or less than a game of “victim-victim, who is the victim?”, foreign policy often revolves around the question of “who is the Hitler that the American war machine needs to take out next?” This is known as liberal interventionism. So it’s liberal.

Putting aside the utility of maintaining a pervasive awareness of a “Hitler-Nazi = Ultimate Evil” equation for the apartheid and genocidal state of Israel, it is even more obvious that by never quite reaching the levels of iniquity of Nazi Germany,  Americans can usually obscure their own marked tendency to mass slaughter from themselves.

The Vietnam War in popular memory was not so much an American travesty as it was a Nixon crime. Gulf War II was not an American crime against humanity so much as it was a Bush crime, a Rumsfeld crime, a Cheney and a neocon crime. It is never about America and Americans and their constant rush to support American wars.

But along comes Trump, a genuinely ugly and vulgar man from the get-go. Suddenly Americans are able to envision a homegrown Hitler and an American Fascism sprouting all around them like unwelcome weeds on the otherwise pristine suburban lawn surrounded by the white picket fence of American feigned innocence.

The man isn’t in office for a month and “Antifa” are out in skinny jeans and hoodies bashing fashis and setting off fireworks in order to keep media darlings like Ann Coulter from speaking at universities. A “Resistance” springs up, and immediately all kinds of folks who’d gladly bomb the shit out of brown folks are “anti-fascist”.

It’s almost as if history began, yet again, on the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. And what distinguishes Trump and “the Trump era” and “Trumpism” from all the other American administrations that have deliberately and consciously slaughtered millions of non-white poor people?

Racism apparently.

Who knew?

What’s Been Did & What’s Been Hid

The disappearance of the plaque commemorating the 1932 coup that ended absolute monarchy in Thailand has provoked a flurry of responses that inadvertently highlight one of the major problems with Thai democracy: a refusal to deal honestly with either history or the realities of the present.

The idea that the bloodless coup of 1932 ended 700 years of absolute monarchy pops up repeatedly in spite of the glaringly obvious fact that Thailand only ever had “absolute monarchy” for roughly 50 years. Before Rama V managed to gather the reins of power into his own hands, Thailand’s system of government was more similar to feudalism than anything remotely like what we mean by absolutism.

When McCargo labeled the modern Thai system “network monarchy” he was underlining the dispersed nature of power in contemporary Thailand. As was the case under the sakdina system that many equate with European feudalism, under the network monarchy power is shared and shifting according to alliances and the vicissitudes of conflict and economic competition that underlie them.

And regardless of scholarly attempts to establish that this loose yet effective network  has morphed into a more structured “deep state”, it is evident that Thailand is still governed by a network of networks centering on the palace, the military, the bureaucracy and Bangkok capital.

By constantly identifying “royal absolutism” or “absolute monarchy” as the primary obstruction on the road to Thai democracy, analysts are deliberately or otherwise obscuring the realities of power in Thailand.

Directly related to this misidentification of the locus of power is the pointless and often hysterical emphasis on lese majeste legislation- the notorious 112– and the absurd suggestion that making it impossible to criticize one element in the network cripples all attempts at political critique.

The education system in Thailand, with its emphasis on rote learning and hours and hours of time wasted in exercises designed to promote group cohesion and military-style obedience, is not protected by 112. Neither is the justice system which keeps the wealthy immune to prosecution. The various corrupt police organizations in the country are not protected by 112 and neither are the ministries and departments whose “officials” routinely ride roughshod over ordinary Thai people and make a mockery of any law, never mind laws controlling “free speech”.

At the same time as commentators constantly misidentify the historical conditions that were “overthrown” in 1932, they overstate wildly the “democracy” that was thereby established.

plaque

The Promoters, as the group of military and foreign-educated civilians that made up Khana Ratsadon (People’s Party) are known when the subject is the Revolution of 1932, were a near-perfect embodiment of how “Thai democracy” has played out in the 85 years since they established constitutional monarchy in Thailand.

Half military, half civilian, and all elite, the men of Khana Ratsadon did not support the establishment of political parties and did not trust the people of Thailand to constitute a democratic electorate until sufficiently “educated” by their betters. Although initially determined to place severe limits on the power of the monarchy, within months of the coup, Khana Ratsadon gave in to demands from the palace for more authority. This refusal to trust the people of Thailand and reflexive deference to a version of droit de seigneur characterizes Thai politics to this day.

The People’s Party, as is the case in all subsequent Thai political history, was divided by its military and civilian factions and each faction had a leader who would go on to play an outstanding role in the development of “Thai-style democracy” with its endless back-and-forth between elite liberalism (disguised as democracy) and military dictatorship (disguised as protector of democracy and the monarchy).

What is called “pro-democracy” activism in Thailand is always only anti-junta or anti-military dictatorship. There is nothing “pro” about it because there is not and has never been a democratic movement in Thailand, outside of a few heady years in the late 60s and early 70s when left-wing radicalism related to the communist and nationalist surges taking place throughout SE Asia caused a temporary glitch in the normal flow of elite liberalism versus royalist military conservatism that constitutes Thai political reality.

There are many possible reasons for this lack in Thai politics but one that never changes is the nature of the Thai middle classes, none of whom sees any advantage in moving toward a democratic system that would enfranchise the people of Thailand.

This is as true of the supporters of military dictatorship and quasi-fascist thugs like Sondhi Limthongkul and Suthep Thaugsuban as it is of the academics and journalists who go on and on about the constitution and free speech but never address the real questions of what democracy is good for, what it requires beyond the right to say mean things about your betters, and, most importantly of all, who can be entrusted with its administration.

Trump(ets) of Doom

February 3 2017

These two tweets are a perfect distillation of one of the many things ailing “the left” these days:

It’s possible that Murtaza isn’t old enough to know what the “decades of struggle” he is talking about were actually about. They were not about getting racist speech out of the public sphere. They were about voting rights and discrimination in housing and employment.

One of the side effects was to make public expression of racism impolite and extremely unattractive and uncool.

People like Murtaza apparently think it’s the side effects that matter. And that politics can be conducted as a class in deportment and etiquette, and so long as saying racist things is uncool, all is right with the world.

Question: What if they instituted a new Jim Crow and no one ever said the n-word?

Whataboutism: In Defense of Defensive Propaganda

whataboutism

Inevitably, as the horror stories, some possibly true, many probably not, emerge from the “liberation” of Aleppo, there are sporadic outbreaks of “whataboutism” on Twitter and other social media.

When someone points to reports of a hospital deliberately bombed in Aleppo as part of the Assad-Putin strategy to make life hell for civilians in the city, someone mentions the American bombing of a hospital in Afghanistan last year. (Notice it won’t be referred to as the Obama strategy.)

Almost immediately someone will say “two wrongs don’t make a right”, thus doing the almost miraculous merely by admitting that Americans destroying a civilian hospital is “wrong”. More often it will be pointed out that the Kunduz horror was a “mistake” and that American soldiers and officers have been “disciplined” for it, thus removing the stink of immorality from that particular war crime.

But more commonly the response is to point to the old Russian and fellow-traveler technique of “whataboutism”, which Wikipedia will inform you falls under the logical fallacy of “tu quoque” and which schoolchildren in the 50s and 60s referred to as “I know you are, what am I?”

And while it may be true that there is a logical fallacy at work if what one is suggesting is that the Russian bombing was not immoral or a war crime because the Americans have done the same, that is not the point at all. The point is something altogether different and more relevant than constructing a piece of spurious “logic”.

Consider this. You are at a small gathering at a friend’s house when you are approached by an acquaintance who points out someone you don’t know and whispers, “Disgusting. Why would ‘A’ invite her I wonder.”

When you ask what the problem is, your interlocutor continues in a low hiss, “She has a small hole just below the base of her spine. Fetid gasses occasionally seep out of it, and almost daily, sometimes more often, foul messes ooze out that require immediate treatment, treatment that actually costs the taxpayer massive amounts of money to avoid contamination of public space. She’s utterly, disgustingly filthy.”

If you don’t immediately recognize that your new friend is talking about the other person’s rectum and therefore that there is nothing especially disgusting or filthy about her in the least, you may feel revulsion and wonder why such a creature was invited to your friend’s house at all.

Focusing on some particular bit of information that suggests that someone or some nation is prone to immorality or criminality while simultaneously ignoring the context of a world in which the particular behavior is common or at least shared by others is one very salient element of propaganda.

Half a million civilians may have died in war-related incidents in Iraq since the American invasion in 2003. Three to four million Vietnamese, Lao and Khmer people died during the so-called Vietnam War, or more accurately, three to four million people were slaughtered by US military involvement in Southeast Asia in the 60s and early 70s.

Those are not “logical fallacies”. They are dead bodies: men, women, children. They were killed by Americans or as the result of American military adventurism. No one  since 1945 comes even close to the record of war crimes and international immorality that America has racked up.

And that is not a fallacy of any kind whatsoever. It is, however, a context. And it is in relation to that reality that our judgments of other governments and other militaries need to be made, never forgetting that when we want to accuse someone of war crimes or human rights abuses and actually get the “international community” to do something about it, we should begin with the biggest perpetrator and work our way down.

Otherwise it would just be another case of sweeping up the little guys and letting the ringleaders go free.

Islamic Exceptionalism: Challenging Liberal Universalism

I

Living in Thailand for the past decade has changed me or, if not ‘me’ exactly, my view of the world, human nature, and the role and relevance of history and culture in shaping both.

To be more precise, theses changes started when I first became interested in reading Japanese history some 25 years ago, which led to an exploration of Chinese history and then Korean history, and on and on. A visit to in-laws in Japan combined with a rock climbing holiday in Thailand in 1998 introduced me to the Asia I had only read about in history books and online forums like Dead Fukuzawa Society and soc.cult.japan. Eight years later I decided to move to Asia, choosing Thailand as a base.

An interest in Thai politics has led me to question the universality of liberal values. Not that my belief in individual rights, human rights, equality before the law, or democracy and the rule of law have wavered even a little. I have simply come to accept that not all people who do not share my liberal faith are either evil or tragically mistaken, brainwashed or otherwise abusively coerced into denying the tenets of contemporary liberalism. It’s a difficult thing to communicate to liberals, this questioning of the universality of our values, not least because one of those values appears to involve the celebration of diversity and tolerance.

II

One of the recurring obsessions in the expat community in Thailand is a question regarding “real Buddhism”. The commercialism, materialism and nakedly hierarchical class divisions that are on display in daily life here apparently give the lie to Thailand’s claim to being a Buddhist society and culture for many foreign observers of Thai life.

Only ever half-seriously, I sometimes point out that looking at the origin stories of Buddhism and Christianity should be sufficient to explain why so many of the children of liberalism, itself, arguably, a child of Christianity, are shocked by the venality and illiberalism of Buddhists and Buddhist societies, preferring instead to privilege the version of Buddhism that they have absorbed through books written for westerners, often by westerners, that have become recognized as forming a distinct school; i.e., Western Buddhism.

Each of these two very different religions, like Islam, has one primary founding figure:

Jesus of Nazareth, in the most common telling, was born in a barn, surrounded by farm animals, to parents scurrying to register for the first ever imperial census, ordered by Augustus Caesar. After a few years working as a carpenter and debating theology and law in the public square, he took up life as a wandering prophet followed closely by a number of fishermen and at least one former tax collector. He taught the value of every individual life, emphasized the moral superiority of poverty, and performed miracles: healing the sick, feeding the masses, and even bringing the dead back to life. Ultimately seen as a threat to the imperium,  Jesus was put to death by local authorities. The most prominent symbol of Christianity is the image of the body of Jesus hung on the Roman cross, dead or dying. His teachings slowly spread out among mainly poor people in the eastern regions of the Roman sphere, eventually becoming the state religion of the Roman empire.

Siddhartha Gautama, on the other hand, is usually presented as having been born a prince in a minor kingdom in what is now Nepal. Due to a prophecy that his son would become either a great spiritual leader or a great king and soldier, his father the king surrounded young Siddhartha with luxuries and prevented him from having contact with religious notions or with the realities of death and suffering through illness and poverty that might incline him to think about humanity in spiritual terms. On escaping this sheltered life, Siddhartha was so shocked by aging and illness and death that he ran off and lived in the woods as an ascetic till one day he discovered the middle way and started preaching his wisdom. Not long after, various wealthy merchants and kings and other notables wished to be associated with his teachings and granted him tracts of land on which to build a shelter for his monks to remain apart from the world. The usual symbol of Buddhism is Gautama himself, sitting cross-legged with a smile on his face, apparently removed from all human concern through meditation.

So, a poor working-class lad grows up to lead a small band of potentially subversive fishermen and others and is put to death by the oppressive Roman state versus a coddled princeling who grows up to abandon his wife and child in order to gather followers from the upper classes who grant him land and domicile and a long comfortable life. Where Jesus preached the value of human individuals, emphasizing the equality of all, Buddha denied the existence of individuals and taught that we are born into situations determined by our actions in past lives.

To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, in their beginning is their end, just as in their end is their beginning.

III

Shadi Hamid, author of Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World, in a much more serious vein, points to the “founding moment” of Islam as a significant determinant of the problematic nature of Islamic societies and their relationship to the modern nation state. It is what makes Islam “exceptional”:

51qwSfB3NBL._SY344_BO1204203200_-198x300.jpg

Islam is different. This difference has profound implications for the future of the Middle East and, by extension, for the world in which we all live. This admittedly is a controversial, even troubling claim, especially in the context of rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States and Europe. “Islamic exceptionalism,” however, is neither good nor bad. It just is, and we need to understand it and respect it, even if it runs counter to our own hopes and preferences. Second, because the relationship between Islam and politics is distinctive, a replay of the Western model— Protestant Reformation followed by an enlightenment in which religion is gradually pushed into the private realm— is unlikely. That Islam— a completely different religion with a completely different founding and evolution— should follow a similar course as Christianity is itself an odd presumption. We aren’t all the same, but, more important, why should we be?

Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 5). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

Hamid traces this difference to two aspects of Islam’s founding: one, the fact that Mohammed was, besides a prophet through whom god spoke directly, a military leader and, most significantly, a head of state. It follows from this that Islam was necessarily concerned with rules and laws and other elements of the state that Christianity obviously was not. And secondly, Muslims tend to emphasize the inerrancy of the text of the Koran in a way that Christians do not and have not. This is because, unlike Christian scriptures which are acknowledged to have been written by men, albeit inspired by god, the Koran is believed to be the actual words of god as spoken through Mohammed.

Hamid is at pains to emphasize that this “founding moment” does not mean that Islamic political society could never take on the lineaments we associate with liberal modernism, but that it is highly unlikely to do so within any reasonable time frame.

This part of the book, while carefully argued and presented with due circumspection, is open to serious criticism and will not likely find many adherents in any of the communities where this sort of theorizing might be relevant. In many ways, it is a more sophisticated version of the kind of “Just So” story that I presented above.

To begin, there is very little hard evidence that the “founding moment” of Islam as presented here is anything more than a carefully crafted fiction developed over the decades and centuries following the initial surge of Islam out of the deserts of the Arabian peninsula.  Once that has been taken on board, much of what Hamid suggests is a cause may in fact be viewed as a post facto justification that has continued to be useful to authoritarian governments and individuals down to today.

The suggestion that theocratic governments have not characterized Christian history because Jesus himself was not a head of state and was therefore not concerned in his teachings with rules and laws that could be taken directly into a state’s institutional structures ignores the theocratic leanings of the Byzantine Empire and the long intermittent struggle between Rome and western European secular authorities during the middle ages.

IV

Be that as it may, the question of the continuing influence of the founding moment of Islam is not really central to Hamid’s book. It is in his refreshingly personal and anecdotal presentation of contemporary Islamism and Islamists that this book offers its most accessible insights. “Islamic Exceptionalism” provides a number of necessary correctives to our generally blinkered view of political Islam.

Contrary to popular belief, Islamists are, almost by definition, in favor of democratic governance, if by democratic we refer only to the practice of determining governing bodies through the process of elections. As Hamid points out, Islamists are and have long been in a constant state of negotiation with liberals and other secular groups as they develop strategies for involvement in democratic processes of varying degrees within their political communities.

Equally against the grain of common misunderstanding is Hamid’s insistence that rather than being representatives of some atavistic 7th century feudal ideology Islamists are in fact uniquely modern. Given the intrinsic interweaving of religion and governance that characterized centuries of Islamic history, it is only in the modern context that Islamism could stand as one ideological strand among others in competition for power over the problematic nation-states of contemporary Muslim-majority countries.

It is impossible to come away from an honest reading of this book with stereotypes intact and for that alone Hamid is deserving of respect and thanks. But the most substantial sections of the book are those presenting detailed examinations of the recent political histories of three Sunni-majority nations that embody the inherent conflict between Islam and liberalism.

V

Hamid’s choice of Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia as “case studies” in the problematic clash of Islamism with the nation-state and the implicit “liberal” assumptions that underpin much of its structure is telling in more ways than one, that is to say as much for what it deliberately excludes as for what it so astutely analyses.

The utter failure of Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood to hold onto power once elected in the wake of the ouster of Mubarak makes the perfect contrast for the equivocal “success” of Ennahda in Tunisia. Unlike Morsi, who once in power began to renege on promises of moderation, Ennahda actually stepped down after vaulting into the Prime Ministership of a coalition government as a result of the country’s first-ever democratic elections.

In neither of these cases does “democracy” triumph of course. The return of military dictatorship and a harsh, repressive, murderous regime in Egypt is blatantly a failure of democracy to take hold after the ebullience of Tahrir Square. Less obvious but perhaps even more pernicious is the perceived necessity for Ennahda to step down, adopt western dress and, arguably, deliberately “lose” the elections of 2014 in order not to destabilize the country as it struggles to transition to a more democratic model.

As Hamid has made clear in this as well as his earlier work Temptations of Power: Islamists & Illiberal Democracy in a New Middle East, deliberately avoiding victory in democratic elections has long been a survival tactic for Islamist parties well aware of the violent reactions their winning would likely provoke. Anyone who doubts that “liberals” could possibly constitute such a threat would do well to consider Hamid’s description of those who cheered the massacre of Brotherhood supporters on August 14, 2013.

Turkey and the virtually uninterrupted 14-year reign of Erdogan and the AKP is the case most intimately bound up with the West and its liberal ideological pressures. Ostensibly a “secular state” since the Kemalist revolution of 1923, the Turkish state has nevertheless had to walk a tightrope between the people’s undeniable Muslim identity and  the strictures of Kemalism since day one.

In spite of winning election after election, the AKP has always had to recognize limits to its mandate. “Turkey wasn’t a normal democracy. Every day, AKP officials woke up wondering if the army or the courts would move against them.” The constant threat of military or judicial coup goes beyond what liberals normally refer to as “checks and balances”, so regardless of the electorate’s choice of an Islamist party to govern them, Turkey’s democracy is even more severely limited than the usual western liberal democracy with its in-built protections for individuals and minorities against the potentially hostile intentions of the majority.

The way the long drawn-out period of the EU accession process has impacted both Turkish democracy and the AKP is instructive and perfectly illustrative of the ironies that abound when illiberal democratic impulses get filtered through a relationship with powerful liberal states like the EU.

In order for the AKP to confidently govern as an Islamist party, and thus as a less liberal but more democratic one, it had to be assured that the military would no longer function outside civilian control as a sword hanging over the heads of any government mandated to move away from strict Kemalist secularism. At the same time, in order for the Turkish state to meet the demand for liberal reforms that were part and parcel of the move toward EU accession, “the military would have to respect the elected civilian authorities.” As Hamid succinctly puts it, “EU membership, then, became AKP’s most important cudgel against the Kemalist “deep state.””

VI

What is left out in “Islamic Exceptionalism” of course is any treatment of Iran and the decidedly Islamist theocratic state with democratic characteristics that has been in place there for the past 37 years. It is, admittedly, outside the scope of Hamid’s study, partially due to Iran’s “outsider” status (as part of the “Axis of Evil”?) but primarily due to intractable theological differences between the Islamist strains within Sunni Islam and the Shiite “heresy”. As justifiable as this exclusion may be for the purposes of making the study manageable, it nevertheless leaves out a major element of modern Islamic history in regard to attempts to integrate the religion with governance in a modern state.

And while not ignored completely, the vast difference between the development of democracy in other nations outside the Arabic world, like Pakistan and more particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, and how things have worked out in the Greater Middle East is not given anything like its due.

It is hard to ignore the rather obvious reality that how these very different Muslim-majority democracies have interacted with the west, primarily the US, since WWII, goes a long way toward explaining their very different experiences with democratization.

As Hamid points out, both Malaysia and Indonesia display more “Islamist” features, such as sharia ordinances, than most middle eastern nations outside the Wahhabist core of close American allies like Saudi Arabia. Indonesia is recently being hailed as the outstanding democratic success story of the whole of Southeast Asia, in spite of the fact that both Islamist and “secular” administrations at the local level throughout Indonesia institute and enforce a wide variety of Islamist-style legislation.

And this brings us to the most glaring absence in the book, which is simply the role played by American and other western involvement in “problematizing” the relationship between democracy and Islam in the oil-rich region of the Greater Middle East. As I write this review, American arms and American permission have been given to the Saudis and Qataris to reek havoc in Yemen. Neither the Americans nor the Saudi autocrats are comfortable with Islamist democracy in the region, threatening as it does to destabilize western hegemony there.

Regardless of Obama’s snap decision to pull American support from Mubarak at a crucial moment, the residual inertial tendency in American policy was to support a dictatorial regime and avoid any possibility of the chaos of democracy in Egypt, hence the instant recognition of the al-Sisi junta and the hesitation to call a coup a coup.

And although American law demands the suspension of all support for a military that undertakes a coup, within ten months both cash and weapons systems that were initially held back were flowing as usual to the murderous junta. So much for American support for democracy.

VII

I have to admit that my enjoyment of Hamid’s book rests primarily on his careful presentation of an argument that convincingly undermines the assumed universality of liberalism implicit in almost every word spoken or written by westerners when discussing governance and politics anywhere outside the tightly drawn limits of “the west”. Like him, I hold firmly to my faith in the tenets of liberal democracy and cannot imagine ever letting go.

But I no longer believe that my faith is a universal one.

It’s just mine.

But neither do I accept the claim that Islam is exceptional in its resistance to liberalism. I think it is more the case that the “post-reformation west” is exceptional in its affinity for liberalism.

China is not and has never been a liberal state. Japanese “liberal democracy” has many features that are neither liberal nor democratic. India’s oft-celebrated “world’s biggest democracy” would likely not come even close to satisfying the expectations of the children of European or North American liberal democracies no matter how often and how many elections are held. Any suggestion that liberal democracy is about to take hold in any nation in Southeast Asia is a pipe-dream.

That is not to say that many governments around the world are not motivated to put up a facade that satisfies the demand of giant markets like the EU and even more gargantuan militaries like the US for an appearance of liberal democracy before access to the riches of the west will be granted.

It is, however, to suggest that this condition is being eroded in the present time. And if liberal democracies do not begin to tend to their own institutions and procedures, not only will the rest of the world stop pretending to struggle to achieve liberal democracy in order to access their markets, there won’t be any liberal democracies left for them to simulate.

White Talking Heads: Media Punditry and the Case of Thailand

Television news, as everyone knows, is essentially idiotic.

It is idiotic partly because the simplification required to say anything meaningful about current events–Syria, say, or Putin or Trump or the recent coup in Brazil– in the time allotted by the format makes intelligent commentary or analysis utterly impossible.

So what television news deals in is better described as little snippets of ideology which act as “sentences”, if you will, to the morphemes of “soundbites”and “lexical” imagery: video clips of war-torn cities, pictures of dead children and weeping parents, maps with arrows showing advance and retreat.

A pre-existing frame of ideology is invoked and confirmed, a commercial is shown, and the viewer goes back to Orange is the New Black feeling edified and responsible.

One element in the standard western ideology of course is free speech. Democratic societies encourage freedom of thought and speech, and the media, especially television news, provides a platform for debate and discussion.

Quite often we get a panel or a pair of pundits, usually described as “experts” or former officials or journalists with extensive experience covering A, B or C, who perform “disagreements” that are also already inscribed in the basic ideology.

The standard “disagreement” of course is that of “right versus left” and everyone is familiar with how that plays out depending on the orientation of the network presenting the “disagreement”.

Big news items get the “pundit debate” presentation that provides a simulacrum of “free speech” and “freedom of thought and opinion” but the pundits are always or almost always “experts” at one important unspoken skill: their opinions and arguments are circumscribed by an acceptance of the fundamental elements of the western ideology.

This is why experts like Noam Chomsky rarely show up in mainstream media, and slightly less offensive but still outside the dominant paradigm pundits, like Glenn Greenwald who do, are often ridiculed or at least questioned more harshly than is normally the case.

With the election of Donald Trump, a phenomenon not yet successfully incorporated into the media’s ideological apparatus, there is a possibility that something will have to change and a space for real discussion may be opened up, in print and online media at least, but television will still have to find a way to fit the new “disagreements” into the time-limited formats that were more than capacious enough to handle the previous standard “disagreements” within the ideological frame.

This, however, is decidedly not the case with “smaller” news items: anything concerned with politics in a medium-sized Asian country like Thailand, for example.

In these cases, we get a pure, one-sided affirmation of the western ideology and nothing more. There is almost never a debate, although Al Jazeera may have once or twice had a token representative of something other than the dominant ideology on to be made to look foolish by the other “experts” on the panel.

This tends to be true of all of Southeast Asia as it is presented in the mainstream media. We learn that all of these societies are less democratic, more corrupt and plagued with more official violence than the gold standards upheld by the west.

The junta in Thailand, for example, is usually presented as both violent and unjust, using examples of torture claims and excessive sentences for ridiculously petty instances of violation of the lese majeste law. We are expected, of course, to understand these criticisms in the frame of the ideology of the west regardless of the rather glaring fact that Thailand is not and never has been a part of the west.

The effect of  “experts” placing the reality of a country like Thailand into the frame of pure ideology is to reinforce the essential rightness of that ideology.

It allows the pundit to present himself (for they are invariably male) as an advocate for better things for the people of Thailand  (better here meaning more inline with the ideological fantasy he weaves with his “critique”), and as such come across as an “oppositional” figure, thus creating the simulacrum of “disagreement” without actually presenting any other viewpoint.

In short, we are in the realm of neo-imperialism, with white male talking heads taking up “the White Man’s burden” and playing the role of “the best [we] breed”. (It might be relevant in this context to look at a work like Owen Jones “The Establishment” and see how many of the white male Thai “experts” attended either Oxford or Cambridge.)

A more interesting and enlightening approach to presenting the situation in Thailand might be to compare the reality of, say, US torture, imprisonment and corruption with the comparable realities in Thailand.

Rather than invoking the glories of “free speech” as an ideology and lamenting the capacity of Thai citizens to think freely due to the rigid controls on free expression in Thailand, it might be more informative to compare the Thai case with how corporate media and its funneling of all information through the ideological filter has influenced the capacity for Americans and American “talking heads” to think and speak freely.

But of course if anyone were to attempt to do so in the soundbite format and by attempting to step outside the ideologically correct syntax of allowable discussion, they would wind up like Chomsky, silenced by mainstream media.

It must be just so much more personally satisfying to follow Kipling’s advice to journalists covering these “sullen peoples, half devil and half child”:

By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.

Of course, any attempt to measure how anyone other than the pundit himself “gains” from the simulacrum of “open speech and simple” will run up against the rather simple fact that no one does. No one, that is, among the people singled out for their usefulness in confirming the ideology that provides the context for their presentation to the world.

Narcissus and Echo Do Thailand

narcissus-and-echo-500x280

Everyone knows the myth of Narcissus, the beautiful young man who so loved to look upon his own reflection in the surface of a pool that he lost his will to live and wasted away and died there.

Less well-known is the story of Echo, the nymph who loved him, and who, because of her own inability to communicate anything but a repetition of the last part of the last thing she’d heard, was unable to help Narcissus find his way back to the hunt from which he’d become separated, thus inadvertently leading him to his death beside the spring.

As always with Greek myths, whether in their “raw” versions or after being “cooked” by a subtle chef like Ovid, the psychological suggestiveness and ever-shifting hints of possible meanings in this tale are tantalizing to say the least.

A figure who can only bear to gaze upon his own representation is desired and endlessly repeated  by a figure who can never actually say anything but what has been said just before by another.

Sound familiar?

It’s not hard to see how one interpretation of this ancient story could be applied to a critical examination of “western mass media” (one of whose outstanding characteristics has even been labeled an “echo chamber”)  and its treatment of “the other”, particularly governments and institutions native to areas outside the conventional boundaries of “the west”.

Like Narcissus, western media tends to love to gaze upon its own image, judging the world in all its variety by its similarity to that image, which for all intents and purposes may be called “liberal democracy” and all that that entails.

When “international opinion” is generated and reflected in the media it is more or less always an opinion that says little more than that “ours is the most beautiful image and the only one desirable”.

In relation to Thailand, of course, the most recent manifestation of the western scribes’ tendency to enact the eternal recurrence of the tale of Narcissus and Echo is in taking place on New Mandala, among other sites both on and offline.

Whatever else we can know about what is happening behind the curtains in back rooms with closed doors that create in effect a black hole, we can be sure that there will be “sources” of information that simultaneously deny and affirm that no information is getting out about what is actually going on.

“Source” of course, in French, means “spring”, as in The Spring of Narcissus, which Pausanius located in the territory of the Thespians. And when you consider the degree of dramatization involved in what these sources/springs are leaking out you can see how apt his choice of locale was.

You can also see that “sources” never give out information that does not reflect  the image of our dear scribe/Narcissus and his superior values. Whether this is because Narcissus simply cannot see what is not himself or because  a wise “source” will never waste time emitting information that can never be received anyway is unclear.

What is clear is the tendency for many of the writers on the website to reflect and amplify the speculations and outright fantasies of other writers there.

There is also a remarkable tendency for commenters to celebrate the paucity of real information by echoing the self-congratulatory tones of the writers with such exclamations as “courageous!” and “eye-opening!” when something written by an armchair observer of Thailand ensconced comfortably thousands of miles and unscalable legal mountains away from any threat has simply reflected the “sources” and built an article on pure guesswork.

Both Echo and Narcissus died by attrition, by wasting away from afflictions very much like those of contemporary media. Narcissus could not see

narcissus-caravaggio-300x363

anything, could not love or desire or value anything but the image of himself, and so died longing to possess what he could not and already did.

Built as it is upon the most shallow acceptance of the nostrums of “liberal democracy” as a cure-all for what ails the world outside the west, even media like pseudo-academic websites can do little more than gaze into a pool of bogus reflections when confronted with people and systems that care little for the westerner’s loudly proclaimed self-regard.

And the absolute need to parrot, to echo, whatever it is that the pool of journalists and academics have decided is the “true” reflection of what is going on in a situation like the Thai succession gives off more than a whiff of death by incessant repetition of empty banalities, especially since it is all predicated on the insistence that nothing can really be known at all.

In that it reminds me of how “old Thailand hands” have a tendency to say things like “It’s all smoke and mirrors, lads. We can never know what is really happening and never understand how they think, these Thais” just before they launch into the definitive version of “what is really happening” and “what Thais really think”.

Narcissus and Echo indeed.