Canayjun, eh?

I don’t know much Canadian history. I’ve tried but always found it boring. I don’t find it necessary to apologize for that and neither do I agree that it invalidates any opinions I may have regarding social issues in Canada.

I don’t know much about First Nations people in Canada. The few times I’ve made the attempt to correct that I get annoyed and bored in equal measure. I am put off by mythologized “histories” of people who had no written language and no historical tradition beyond the “oral tradition” and its “stories”. I find notions of “racial guilt” passed down through generations of such indefensible constructs as “white people” to be offensive in the extreme- intellectually and morally offensive.

I have no problem accepting the truth and relevance of the history of treaties signed and treaties broken that characterizes much of the history of relations between the “Crown” and various indigenous peoples in Canada. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies and a healthy mistrust of the state and the middle-class people who administer it, it would surprise me if the history of treaty relations were any different.

I have no problem accepting that the issue of the Residential Schools which has come to act as a cynosure in the discussion of indigenous rights in Canada is an issue whose real history is replete with abuse of all kinds. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies who spent 7 years of his life working in what were once known as children’s “mental health centres” I have no difficulty accepting that in such institutions as the residential schools there will be adults whose wielding of power will result in sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children. I look back with pride on the one occasion when I worked hard to have a coworker fired for what eventually people in authority in our agency agreed was abusive treatment of some of the children in our care.

I do, however, have a problem with “blood and soil” approaches to politics and identity. As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies I find the sacralization of land and culture and racial identity that characterizes so much of the discussion around indigenous issues offensive. “Blood and soil” is often a shorthand phrase used to refer to a predominant aspect of fascist, specifically Nazi, ideology and I use it here fully conscious of that fact.

Private property is theft. Leaving aside the utter unreality of mouthing such a principle in the world we live in, it is nevertheless a guiding principle in any approach to socialist ideation. We hear often that the indigenous peoples of North America did not have a notion of private property and this is often emphasized when we are discussing the pre-colonial idyll that European invasion and conquest interrupted. For indigenous people to attempt to grab and hold parcels of land and the various mineral and other rights associated with it on the basis of never having held a notion of property rights is odd, to say the least.

As a lifelong socialist with anarchist tendencies I have come to accept that in the case of a country like Canada it is probably true that the best we can hope for in the 21st century is a defense of the liberal democratic system that is laid out in the constitution and the charter of rights and freedoms.

There are things in our constitution and our charter that I disagree with, specifically those which provide for “group rights” and those which provide for the protection of the “cultural practices” of identified minorities like the indigenous peoples. I believe fervently that wherever or whenever “group rights” or traditional “cultural practices” infringe on the rights of individuals, the rights of the individual must always take precedence.

Just as I find it offensive and absurd to refer to the “two founding peoples” of Canada as if their predominance in the early days of the establishment of modern Canada gave them some special status, I find it offensive and absurd to assert that the people who were on “Turtle Island” before Europeans arrived should have some special status.

As an atheist I object to any and all special treatment for religions and religious institutions. I object to government funding of religious schools, as happens in the case of Ontario and Catholic schools, and I object to the tax-free status of any and all religious organizations. I don’t want “prayer spaces” to be made available for Muslim students in public schools and I don’t want Christian theology or Native Spirituality taught in public schools. From my point of view, one woman’s “oogy-boogyism” is as absurd and counterproductive as any other man’s.

I believe that freedom of speech and thought and opinion and belief are the bedrock of the minimal good that is provided by liberal democratic institutions like Canada’s charter. I also believe that these freedoms are under attack from many sides in contemporary democracies like Canada.

“Hate speech” legislation is bad enough but it at least requires lengthy and unwieldy legal procedures to be implemented. The censorship algorithms and the “algorithmic chanting of racism-sexism-transphobia” that are more and more coming to dominate in social media, thereby arbitrarily limiting debate on issues of pressing importance in free societies, are more likely to act as the death of liberal democracy than the protection of the minorities they ostensibly set out to protect.

The virtue-signaling crowd who most definitely dominate discourse in Canada are not interested in debate or discussion of any kind. They know what is right and, probably more importantly, who is right. Neither are they interested in the “democracy” half of the liberal-democracy equation, because that involves a recognition that each and every single person in the country is equal to each and every other single person, regardless of colour, creed or level of education.

I think it is a shame and a troubling sign of things to come that “the left” has abandoned the notions of freedom of thought and belief and expression to the scheming, devious buggers on the right, because dimes will get you dollars that the day will come when all of the virtuous refusals to allow for the free play of thought and expression wielded presently by the authoritarian “good” people of the contemporary “left” will become justification for the absolute shutdown of dissidence by the authoritarian right.

 

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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.

What’s the Matter With Southeast Asia?

Part One

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In spite of the tendency for journalists and academics to routinely nominate one ASEAN country or another as a sign that democracy can and possibly will finally take hold in the region, there is very little real evidence that, beyond the desire to take part in elections, the people of Southeast Asia care very much at all about such things as rule of law and human rights.

And while it may be argued that there is a silent majority in the region who do care about these things, it has become very evident that the middle classes absolutely do not. It goes without saying that Southeast Asian elites, like their confreres around the world, never do, no matter what lip service they feel required to perform to maintain trade relations with the EU and US.

The people of the Philippines have just elected “Asia’s Donald Trump”, an experienced politician who campaigns by making jokes about going first in gang rapes and bragging about the criminals he has executed. Personally, that is. He promises to kill 100,000 more as President. Far from denying charges of human rights abuses, he used his links to “death squads” as part of his platform. His overwhelming victory coincides with a return to international visibility of the Marcos family, with son Bongbong losing the vice-presidency by a slim margin while mom Imelda and sister Imee retained their positions in the House of Representatives and a Governor’s mansion.

Myanmar, everyone’s “democratic favorite” of the moment, has just elected its first “civilian government” since 1962. It is no coincidence that the de facto leader of this administration is the daughter of the “Father of the Nation”. Regardless of her family connections to the history of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi is only partly in charge of the government and even the areas she may have control in are subject to military veto. Suu Kyi has always talked a good game when it comes to  democracy and human rights but she has refused to adopt a democratic position regarding the Rohingya, having gone so far as to request that the US no longer refer to them as such, thus signalling her acquiescence to the Buddhist nationalists who prefer to insist on the foreign status of a people they are engaged in “slow genocide”against.

 

In Cambodia, the opposition party sends almost as many people to jail as to the parliament and its leader is forced to live in exile.  Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 31 years, once said “What the U.N. says doesn’t bother me. The problem is my people and whether they support me.” This was in response to a question about a UN report confirming the political executions of 41 opponents. Executions of opponents and imprisonment of labour and other activists continue apace.

Thailand is ruled by an increasingly brutal and absurdist congeries of Generals who also make jokes about women in bikinis getting raped and murdered while ordering the arrest and imprisonment of a dissident university student’s mom for posting “Yeah” on Facebook. The most successful democratic politician in Thai history once famously said “The UN is not my father” when asked about human rights observers coming to investigate the more than one thousand extrajudicial executions he oversaw during his War on Drugs. The death squad-style killing and a raft of genuinely beneficial pro-poor policies garnered him a landslide victory after becoming Thailand’s first ever elected PM to serve a full term.

Singapore under Harry Lee perfected a form of “soft authoritarianism” and hid it under a steaming pile of “Asian values”, a somewhat paradoxical strategy to be adopted by a Cambridge-educated son of parents whose first language was English and whose grandfather was educated in English at the utterly colonial Raffles (as was Harry). Like the people who went on to create authoritarian governments in South Korea, Lee Kwan Yew collaborated with the Japanese during WWII. And like Brunei, the only absolute monarchy in the region, Singapore’s “democratic” leadership operates on the hereditary principle.

Of the four remaining old-style “communist” states in the world, two are in Southeast Asia. Lao PDR and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, while not quite as venerable as either Cuba or China in terms of longevity, have been one-party  states since the Americans ran off with their tails between their legs in 1975 after slaughtering 3-4 million people in order to make Southeast Asia “safe for democracy”.

 

What’s Free Speech Got To Do With It? Update #1

wai kru

A Thai Fairy Tale

Your stepdaughter, a  very ordinary young girl of 15, comes home from school one day complaining of harassment by a local boy, also 15, who has apparently asked her a number of times to be his girlfriend and been rejected politely but firmly each time. He has started following her around both at and outside school, sometimes entreating her, other times berating her. She is too embarrassed to go into detail but you establish that there has been no physical contact besides the one time he grabbed her by the arm to demand that she listen to him.

Your wife talks to her mother about the situation and grandma suggests just letting time take care of the problem. She is very insistent that approaching the boy’s parents to complain will have nothing but negative consequences and the same goes for going to the school administration.

The context here is utterly “Thai”, or perhaps “Asian”. The boy’s family is distantly related to the richest family in your neighborhood. The land that all your houses are built on used to belong to the boy’s grandfather’s half-sister’s husband’s family. The school the two young people attend is headed up by a corrupt autocrat who has made a habit of tearing up and rebuilding various outlying buildings and gardens on school property as a way of using the capital budget to generate graft and kickbacks in a way that subtle one-time improvements to the students’ environment just would not.

You don’t really see the significance of these elements of the context until the boy actually physically assaults your stepdaughter outside the school one day soon after, leaving her cut and bruised and emotionally traumatized. A few of her friends accompany her to your home and your wife’s mother immediately takes her to hospital. A few other students follow behind as the little group half-carries the crying and limping teen to your door. It turns out that once the law becomes involved in this situation, there will be two groups of students “giving testimony”: a group of “her friends” and a group of “his friends”.

At this point you have to imagine yourself straining at the bit to simply walk out, find the lad and kick his ass for him, leaving him in just a little bit worse shape than he has left your stepdaughter. Failing that you insist again and again against the hushing and shushing and suggestions to calm down that the police need to be called and charges must be pressed, regardless of the reputation for incompetence and corruption of the Thai police. Against the urgings of  your mother-in-law and just about everyone else in the immediate vicinity your wife finally decides to go to the police.

Over the next two days, a number of things become absolutely clear.

1] Your stepdaughter’s injuries will heal quickly, she will not be scarred physically nor does she have any broken bones. She is already insisting that everything is alright and you are told to not upset her by suggesting that she must be feeling upset by what happened. Apparently attempting to deal with the trauma by acknowledging it is in fact tantamount to creating it. You imagine things might have been like this for your mother’s generation and grudgingly accept it in spite of everything you believe about emotions and their place in a healthy life.

2] The police will not actually “investigate” the incident until they have received ten thousand baht to do so. Once they have received the ten thousand baht to cover the expenses of the “investigation”, they will be prepared to accept a delegation from each side to present the case as it appears to them. What this really means is that each family must find a suitably “influential” person to advocate for them with the police. Unbelievably, everyone around you seems to feel that this will be the deciding factor in whether or not charges are laid or any further “investigation” is undertaken.

3] The school head has made it clear that for a suitable payment (unlike with the police there seems not to be a set fee for this service) he will gladly back up one of two possible stories. If the boy’s family pony up it will transpire that the lad was the victim of a seductive vixen playing hard-to-get who finally just pushed her game-playing a little too far for the poor innocent boy to control himself. If you are the successful bidders (and this is why no set price was initially announced) it will turn out that the lad has made a nuisance of himself on a number of other occasions and your little girl is just his latest victim.

Most outrageously to your alien sensibility, the two groups of  student “friends” will be available as back-up for whichever scenario goes forward. The teacher who communicated all this to a friend of grandma’s after a tutoring session with one of the girls in your step-daughter’s “friend” group was apparently urging you all to simply let it go. It was not good for the students to be involved in this sort of “unclean” dispute.

In the end, which seemed to come rapidly out of absolutely nowhere to you with your alien expectations of police procedures and the workings of justice when a crime has been committed, the boy went to your home with his mother and apologized to your daughter, who was accompanied by her mother and grandmother. And that was that.

What had led to this denoument was instructive. While the boy’s connection to the local big family had led everyone to believe that you would end up somehow in the wrong and have to make some payment to the boy’s family for having wrongfully accused him, grandma’s husband, who no longer lives with her or has any meaningful contact with your in-laws, called on an old connection with someone very high up in the police force, who put in a brief appearance and “out-big-faced” the boy’s “uncle”. Case closed.

Interestingly enough, no money changed hands between the officer and the old gentleman estranged from your part of the family for over a dozen years, and the ten thousand baht payment to the police was returned. You don’t imagine the boy’s family got their “investigative fee” returned and you never found out whether the “uncle” was being paid for his appearance or some of other “family value” was invoked to bring him onside.

Yingluck and police

What remains is a simple question: What does a fictional story like this have to do with either “free speech”, Thai politics or the ubiquitous Democracy?

The answer is:

1)Nothing, to Thai liberals and their insistence on the primacy of things like elections and free speech.

2) Everything, to people who understand that without rule of law and equality before the law, abstract principles like “free speech” and hollow extravaganzas like elections have nothing to do with what is actually intended when people utter the word “Democracy”.

 

At some point, inevitably, many people begin to talk about “Thai culture” and “patronage” and “corruption” as if these things were among the immutable building blocks of Thai society.

It is obvious that this sort of mindset cannot co-exist with either rule-of-law or equality before the law but it is just as obvious that this tendency is deeply engrained in the thinking and the emotional responses of Thai people. That after all is what is meant by ‘culture’ in this context.

Given that this is the case, even the most intrepid “reformer” will sigh and suggest that it will take generations to move Thai people out of this way of thinking.

And this is simply wrong.

That is the wonderful thing about legal liberalism: it doesn’t matter whether you agree or not, or whether your emotional responses are in synch or not .

If something is against the law, it is, not to put too fine a point on it, against the law.

And it doesn’t matter who your great grandmother slept with or whose Mercedes your uncle drove for 20 years, when you break the law, you stand before the law like anyone else.

And while there is no doubt that no liberal democratic society in the real world has ever achieved this perfect equality or a method of parsing law in such a way that all instances of certain behaviors are clearly either legal or illegal, these imperfections do not come anywhere near the tawdry lawlessness of the present Thai state.

Usually when people think of ‘patronage’ they think about “vote buying” or “crony capitalism”or opportunities for advancement at work working more on the “who you know” than “what you know” system, raising loyal incompetents to high positions and holding back the competent who cannot attach themselves to the right patron.

And all these things are true enough. They do however fail to capture the all-pervading nature of ‘patronage’ and how it corrupts and undermines any and all attempts to use law as a means of ordering society. It makes democracy itself a meaningless term to be appropriated and abused by all and sundry.

What do the young people involved in this scenario learn?

They learn that there is neither good behavior nor bad behavior, neither legal nor illegal action, only power. And the money it takes to purchase a little power when it becomes necessary.

They learn that the “truth” of a matter is less important than who your friends are and which ‘truth’ will benefit them more.

The adults involved learn nothing, of course, having lived all their lives under the system.

The adults already know that the police are corrupt and will do absolutely nothing for “ordinary” people unless sufficient money changes hands.

They already know that the school system is rife with administrators who are little more than thieves and that there is nothing they can do about it because it would require corrupt police or other more highly-placed and equally corrupt bureaucrats to “investigate” the administrator’s corruption. And since corruption pays so much better than most honest livings in Thailand, and since becoming a school head requires a patron in the first place, there is absolutely no chance of justice in the system.

Why satire is holy to the French – Opinion – Al Jazeera English

Why satire is holy to the French – Opinion – Al Jazeera English.

These rather sadly solipsistic defenses of Charlie Hebdo’s racism and vulgar Islamophobia have recently spread around the internet like mildew in an old cotton tent left damp before being put away for the season. About the only thing of value I can glean from them is a better understanding of Franco-American relations. One inward-looking, self-regarding “exceptional” nation face to face with its far more powerful identical twin is bound to create neurosis, and apparently it has.

It’s telling that in his potted history of “French” satire Remi leaps from medieval court buffoons entertaining kings and their courts, to Aristophanes having a go at Socrates, before finally coming to Moliere and La Fontaine who “mocked the powerful”, which mockery is the usual justification for the importance of satire in democratic societies, at least outside France.

A final backward glance at satirists lampooning Marie Antoinette and leading starving Parisians to the barricades ends this edifying tour of a grand “French” tradition before we make the great leap into the present. And what do we find there? A television program featuring puppets which is “nothing short of a cultural institution” in France.

Satirical “cultural institutions” are waved like flags in these nationalist cries de coeurs. Charlie itself is also one, apparently.

Presumably they take their place along with other consumer products in the pantheon of contemporary French culture and I think it is touching, this kind of fierce customer loyalty. I mean, I enjoyed watching Spitting Image back in the day, too. Funny, really funny. I don’t recall there being any satire on “nig-nogs” or “sambo” on that show, though.

Muslims in France are a relatively weak, maligned and discriminated against minority. Just because France refuses to recognize ethnicity doesn’t mean it disappears or doesn’t exist and it certainly doesn’t mean that the scurrilous depictions of Muslims in Charlie are not precisely “racist” in the sense laid out by the UN Charter.

Defending Charlie Hebdo’s repeated and constant attacks on Islam and Muslims by referring to court jesters, Aristophanes and bad ol’ Marie Antoinette is beyond pathetic. Mocking Islam and Muslims in today’s racist France is not performing the traditional role of satire mocking the powerful; it is playing the high school bully, entertaining one’s peers by savaging those perceived as weaker and somehow less than yourselves.

And “free speech”? Don’t make me laugh. Even suggesting that freedom of expression is really at issue here is beyond satire, regardless of what “cultural institution” is invoked. I suggest that the French citizens proudly displaying their myopia and narcissism in these spirited “defenses” pull the tent out of storage and let in a little air and light. Look at the world around you, read the UN Charter, check out reruns of Spittng Image.

That mildew has really started to reek.