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 70 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.

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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.

LADY GAGA: FASCIST IS AS FASCIST DOES

I’ve always liked Lady Gaga.

In spite of the fact that her “friend of the marginalized” routine was done better by David Bowie and Madonna, she has always seemed like a genuine pop talent. It’s hard not to like Just Dance.

I will say though that Born This Way struck me immediately as a ripoff of Express Yourself and so maybe it would be better to say I used to like Lady Gaga.

Taking a bit of persona from Madonna and Bowie is one thing; blatant plagiarism is another altogether.

I wish now that I’d gone to see Madonna when she came to Bangkok doing that sarky mashup of the two songs as a way of letting everyone know what she thought of the bitch stealing her music.

And then came the recent Democratic primary. Both Lady and Madonna came out for the warmongering Saudi supporter Hillary Clinton and blew all respectability right out their celebrity asses.

I mean, Margaret Thatcher was a woman too, right? She who destroyed British unions and led the Anglosphere charge into atomistic neoliberalism? She didn’t so much break a glass ceiling as smash a champagne bottle and shove it right up the workers.

But the show Gaga just did for the ever-tawdry SuperBowl was the last straw.

After showing up in Michael Jackson’s Prussian drum major outfit at a Hillary rally and causing a TwitStormFuhror over her apparent Nazi appearance, it was hard not to read her mouthing God Bless America against a backdrop of drones rendering Old Glory in a night sky subtly reminiscent of Baghdad back in March ’03 as a paean to the perpetual fascism that is and has been America since The Donald was just a lad.

I don’t really care who’s land that land is or who it was made for. It sends its sons and daughters of all races and sexual orientations to kill kids wherever brown folks live in relative poverty.

And celebrating that puts Lady Gaga right up there with Leni Riefenstahl, except of course that Leni was blessed with a brilliant visual sense and Gaga’s choreographers on this occasion could only have been blind.

Trump(ets) of Doom

January 29 1917

Well here we are at last, ladies and gentlemen. America is waking up.

America is waking up to the shocking sight of itself in the mirror provided by Mssrs Trump and Bannon and– surprise, surprise– much of America doesn’t like what it sees.

America and Americans and the thuggo halfwits they call “the troops” slaughtered and tortured and napalmed their way through SE Asia back in the day, but America is shocked by Mssrs Trump and Bannon because that was only 4 million non-white folks that died.

America and Americans have funded and trained and armed and provided tactical support for death squads and rightwing insurgents bent on overthrowing popular governments throughout Latin America, but America is shocked by Mssrs Trump and Bannon because banana republics are like that, don’t you think?

America is missing its most recent President because he glided through 8 years with dignity and grace and a lovely family and America just loves to watch that kind of reality TV while the thugs are out acting on the orders of President Dignity-Grace, killing kids and sustaining brushfire wars wherever The Dignity decides.

But America is shocked by Mssrs Trump and Bannon because one or both of them seems to think that all the hiding of what Amerika really is is no longer necessary and so might as well let it all hang out.

So fuck you all America. Let’s see how you like it.

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

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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

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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.

The Way We Are: Creating Our Own Realities I

Watching the Trump Show, aka the 2016 Presidential elections, has been a real eye-opener.

Apparently there is a problem with racism in the United States of America, and it is just recently coming out of the deep dark hole it has hidden itself in since the last time American racism was on display for all the world to see.

Now there are those who might think that the fact that American police officers kill black men at an alarming rate with impunity for just about any reason at all at just about any time is the face of American racism, but they would be wrong.

There are others who might think that the American record of mass slaughter of non-white people around the globe over the past half century is the face of American racism, but they too would be chuckled at for even suggesting such an absurdity.

No, ladies and gentlemen, the face of American racism is Donald Trump and his white working class supporters. Serious liberals, and even more serious conservatives, are throwing  the f-bomb around like someone had spiked the punch at the Pundits Ball. And the f-bomb I refer to is FASCISM.

Yes, folks, those overweight, badly dressed, gun-wielding, low-class white people with their religion and their shitty jobs are turning to fascism in their frustration with their loss of absolute control of the American dreamscape.

They want their America back. They want America to be great again. And they want someone to set things up so they don’t have to work two jobs, both requiring silly uniforms and obsequious sloganeering, to pay the rent on their crappy houses.

Fascists, or what?

Fortunately for the liberal hegemony we have all come to know and love, Trump is on course for a thrashing by Hillary Clinton, whose liberal credentials include the astounding fact of her gender. She is woman. Hear her speak to Wall Street. Then watch the millions stream into her bank accounts.

Women love Hillary of course because glass ceilings need to be shattered and Hillary is certainly the woman for the job.

Neoliberals love Hillary because, no matter how much bogus “leftward movement” has been forced on her by the traitorous Bernie, she is one of them. Wall Street will continue to run the American economy as it has done for decades, and when Hillary gets out of the White House in 8 years she will have more seats on boards than the Titanic had deckchairs.

Neocons love Hillary because she is a firm believer in America the Exceptional and Indispensable Nation and will gladly use whatever weapons are available to prove it. This is not to be confused with the neo-fascist desire to make America great again because neocons just want to pound the living shit out of some third world country because America is already great and it has a duty to do so.

Black people apparently love Hillary but I can’t for the life of me understand why. While Wall Street was reaping billions in profit from the mortgage fraud that decimated many black families, maybe Hillary was having buttons printed up somewhere about “rainbows” or “POC” or something similar. Maybe black Americans forget who torpedoed welfare and set the militarized police forces across the nation on the course they are on today.

And “liberals” love Hillary because she is a woman and because “liberals” will be on a real “liberal” streak when they deliver the one-two “liberal” punch of a black POTUS followed immediately by a woman POTUS. Because, after all, what else does “liberal” signify? Besides membership in or support for the Democratic Party.

Those of us in the reality-based community outside the American media wonderland, outside the Beltway, and outside Wall Street and the circle of those who really really admire Henry Kissinger, can only shake our heads in wonder.

And what about those crazy Thais, eh? Voting for an anti-democratic constitution? And those Filipinos? Electing a man who brags about extrajudicial executions! Wow. You’d almost think they were Thai!

Beacon, Beacon: Who’s Got the Beacon?

A few days ago, Nicholas Farrelly of New Mandala published a piece in Myanmar Times that is essentially an extended riff on the “beacon of democracy” lament that I blogged about here.

The usual application of this journalistic trope is to suggest that in the years before the 2006 coup, Thailand was a “model democracy” for Southeast Asia. Carefully elided or simply omitted due to ignorance are the actually existing and highly inconvenient facts concerning the nature of that democracy.

I mean, what, after all, do a few thousand extrajudicial executions and dozens of journalists removed from their jobs for criticizing an elected government have to do with democracy?

But Farrelly has been a little more clever than those who assumed (correctly for the most part) that no one would care about the long-past democratic deficits of the Thai Rak Thai administrations. He has pushed the Golden Age of Thailand as Democratic Beacon of the Region back to the mid-nineties and managed to get the ever-popular People’s Constitution in there.

That was the constitution that eliminated 90% of the Thai electorate from eligibility to run for parliament and enjoined the state to be responsible for educating “the people” in the ways and meanings of properly understood democracy.

The intention of the drafters of the 97 Constitution, much like the intentions of the folks who’ve produced the most recent soon-to-be-disposable version, was to ensure that the people would not have so much effective input into the choice of their rulers that those rulers might end up being drawn from the vast pool of “not-good people”.

Like the PDRC and the NCPO, the PAD and the deliberately mistranslated CNR, the ostensibly liberal drafters of the People’s Constitution wanted to limit democracy as much as possible while ensuring the kind of good governance that could only result from severe limits on the powers of the electorate.

There are many problems with labeling the Thai governments of the nineties ‘democratic’ (unless of course we are conflating “elected” with “democratic” and leaving it at that). As is usually the case in Thai governance, there was little to no effective parliamentary opposition in those good old days. That job was usually, and admirably, taken up by Thailand’s remarkably free press.

Not, mind you, the broadcast media with which most people spent most of their leisure time and from which the masses drew their view of the world around them. That was owned by either the military or the state and so tended not to disrupt anyone’s sense of the ultimate goodness of the good people running the country. (During the TRT “golden age of democracy” the one independent TV station was bought by the PM himself and any inconvenient news programs were removed from the air.)

But in the lead up to the promulgation of the 97 Constitution and earlier, when the democratically-elected Prime Minister was none other than former coup-leader Suchinda, it was the print media that played the role of effective and occasionally “vitriolic” opposition, moreso than the parliamentary opposition itself.

And while it is important to acknowledge the role played by Thai newspapers in those increasingly hopeful days, no one elected the owners of those papers to be the opposition to the elected government, any more than the ugly biased “reportage” that smoothed the way for Thailand’s most recent coup was done at the behest of the sovereign people of Thailand. Critical commentary from journalists is a necessary component of a democratic society but it is absolutely not democracy itself that is functioning when the press takes over the role of the opposition.

It needs to be recognized that while it may be true that people in journalism and in academia were excited about the democratic thrust of Thai development back in the day we can see clearly now that it really wasn’t all that much of a muchness where democracy is concerned. It was, as is so often the case in the media weltanschauung, the illusion of democracy and not the thing itself.

Otherwise it is difficult to understand what people mean when they talk about the Thai Redshirts and the ta sawang or Awakening. If Thailand before Thaksin was such a “model democracy” what could there possibly have been to learn from the electoral success and fulfilled platform promises of TRT?

All Thailand and the Thai people have ever had of democracy in any meaningful sense is its possibility, increased or decreased by one condition or another. And that is very far from being a democracy, or a beacon or model thereof. If anything, it has been a simulacrum.

And so we come to Myanmar, with its constitutionally-ordained 25% military presence in parliament and military control of three of the most powerful ministries in the government. As has been pointed out, the election of Aung San Suu Kyi appears to be the result of a cult of personality and a pseudo-religious faith rather than a response to programs offered in a platform. There is still nothing more than the possibility of democracy in Myanmar and even less of one than exists in poor dictatorship-ridden Thailand.

No doubt Myanmar offers the exciting prospect of massive development and capital infusion that neoliberals everywhere slaver for. It seems rather disingenuous though to refer to this situation by ending an article with “[r]ight now, Myanmar is Southeast Asia’s best democratic bet”, as Farrelly does. It’s almost as if Indonesia and Joko Widodo weren’t the beacon of Southeast Asian democracy just a mere few years ago.

But that is apparently what is behind much of the journalistic boosterism that Farrelly’s article is such a perfect example of. Myanmar is a land rich in natural resources and just chockablock with poor people whose wages in factories and services will reliably remain lower than those in Thailand for a long time to come.

As a matter of fact, one of Southeast Asia’s best-known human rights activists, Andy Hall, is pushing to have working conditions for Myanmar’s migrant labor improved. In Thailand. Not, as would be less welcome to neoliberal capital, in Myanmar.

If the generals and the plutocrats of Myanmar manage to remain hidden behind a journalistically-hung curtain of democratic simulation as effectively as have their counterparts in the more sophisticated version that has effectively kept democracy at bay in Thailand for the past 84 years, it will be with the assistance of well-meaning folks in media and academe and the ubiquitous civil society denizens who practically worship Suu Kyi.

But it won’t be democracy. And it won’t help the people of Myanmar to insist on the pretense that it is.