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.

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”:

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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.

Identity, The Left, and Never “Woke” At All

Identity

I think I can quite honestly say that I have never had a political awakening.

As far back as October, 1960, when Richard Nixon was still leading John Kennedy in the polls, I could cite chapter and verse of my dad’s trade union socialist credo when called upon to do so.

At a large Thanksgiving gathering in our tiny house in the poorest neighborhood of Canada’s biggest, grimiest, most heavily-polluted industrial town, my father pushed my 9-year-old self to explain to our guests what was at stake in the upcoming US election.

I launched into a tirade that held that the Republicans were the rich man’s party and that the rich men of this world wanted to take back everything that my father and his union forebears had won for the “working man”. The Democrats, on the other hand, were the party of the “working man” and would defend us and the “negroes”, our natural brothers in the struggle, against the efforts of the rich Republicans to keep us in our places.

That is what I remember most clearly about that somewhat embarrassing display.

My father went on to ask me questions about the characters of Nixon and Kennedy– neither one was a good man, and Kennedy was the spoiled son of a wealthy mafia-connected millionaire thief. So I  was also asked to explain that socialism was the best system, in theory, but since it had never been, and likely never would be, given the opportunity to work out in the real world we had to settle for people like Kennedy and the Democratic party.

When one of the men asked me about Canadian politics, I told him that the Progressive-Conservatives and the Liberals were more or less the same as the Republicans and that the New Democratic Party was the party of the unions and the “working man”.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I understood just how deeply alienated my father was from his family and from most of the people who’d politely listened to my harangue.

I also understood how much my mother hated my father’s politics and his “unrealistic” attachment to his union, first and foremost due to his having turned down the offer of a foreman’s job because it would have meant becoming a “company man”. (To my mother it would have meant more money and getting out of debt.) But there was also how angry everyone became when my father started going on about “the working man” after a bottle (or a dozen bottles) of beer.

Where we spent many weekends, and sometimes even weeks, during summers was on the banks of the Grand River, some 30 miles outside Hamilton, where my father’s mother had a one-room cottage built next to her older sister’s “house”. On “our” stretch of the river there were five small cottages, four like my nan’s that were occupied only from spring till autumn, and my great-aunt’s permanent home which it always frightened me to enter. Our nan’s place was in the middle of the five.

On the far side of Aunt Nell’s house was a cottage that was often rented to a black couple from Buffalo, New York. On the far side of my uncle’s cottage was a cottage owned by a family from Welland, Ontario, who were often joined by a family from Buffalo, New York, especially on American holiday weekends.

Two things have stayed in my mind about the people from Welland and Buffalo in that cottage: first, Susie, a girl my own age from Buffalo, was my first serious and seriously painful “crush”; secondly, they all, Canadians and Americans alike,  hated the black couple in the cottage at the other end of our strip and resented my father for constantly wandering over to have a chat with the man and for sending my brother and I over with gifts of freshly caught catfish. My father told me that black people ate catfish even though we didn’t and we shouldn’t let them go to waste.

My father eventually lost his steward’s position in his local and became disillusioned with  the refusal of his generation to commit to the union movement, but not before he went up against the leadership by using union funds to charter a bus and take a load of Canadian machinists to Washington, DC to attend the March on Washington in 1963. I don’t think my mother had any idea where he had gone and we all only heard about it when he got back.

In those years, I loved to sit with my father while we watched the news and pepper him with questions. In memory, the early 60s was a time of heightened possibilities all round: Tommy Douglas leading the federal NDP, the Kennedy administration, the Civil Rights movement, my beloved Tiger Cats constantly in the Grey Cup and, of course, Cassius Clay. I have a distinct recollection of my father actually getting me out of bed to watch news clips of him winning gold as a light-heavyweight in Rome, but that might not be quite right.

Nevertheless, by 1966 my father and I had drifted so far apart that we hardly ever spoke at all, and the only thing we held in common was a respect verging on reverence for Muhammad Ali, so even though the longer my hair got the more I disliked boxing as a sport, I would sit silently in the living room with my equally silent dad and watch Ali fight. Maybe that’s why the boxing matches I remember best are those Ali fought against Canadian George Chuvalo and England’s Henry Cooper.

When Ali refused to go to Vietnam and either did or did not say the famous lines about the Viet Cong, my father and I had our last shared moment of political solidarity. And when I whooped and praised the American runners for making the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics a silence descended between us that would not be broached for a decade.

The grandmother, my nan, whose cottage on the Grand was the site of so many treasured and not-so memories from my earliest days, came to Canada on an “assisted passage” in 1910 at the age of 12 and went to work immediately in a cotton mill to begin to pay off the half of her ticket cost that her older sisters had not been able (or willing?) to afford. When the government inspectors came into the mill looking for evidence of child labour, my nan was hidden along with the other children somewhere in the machinery.

Her husband died on the loading dock at Eatons in Hamilton when my father was sixteen years old and dreaming of becoming an engineer. He quit high school to work in a factory to support his mother and older brother and sister, neither of whom was prepared to do so.

My mother worked in a cotton mill until I was five and my brother two. Her mother had died of cancer when she was 16 and her father was in England wooing the woman who would come home to Canada with him as my mother’s step-mother. This made her so angry that she left home and  I never really knew I had a grandfather until I was twelve years old.

I grew up across the street from another cotton mill, falling asleep every night for the first 6 years of my life to the humming of the spinning machines and often wondering how it was that my mother worked in a spinning mill but not the one behind the Frost fence across the street from our house.

The point of all this is to suggest that whether or not it seems either likely or possible to contemporary “identitarians”, I was raised anti-racist and have remained anti-racist to this day.

I don’t suffer from “white liberal guilt”, as is often charged by racists (usually attempting to deflect an accusation of racism by me), and neither do I feel the need to temper either my thought processes or my way of expressing myself, as is often demanded by the avatars of the “political correctness” that I myself helped formulate in the early  80s as a campus “activist” involved in various aspects of “left politics” as they manifested at that time.

I come from a solidly (and unusually consciously) working-class background, have been one kind or another of socialist-lefty-radical since I was too young for that to mean anything and I have never had a moment’s regret or doubt about either element of what I suppose I would have to say is my identity. There are many other aspects of that identity but those are what you might call foundational.

A Touch of Class

*Originally published January 28. 2014

Just Another Case of History Repeating

When the Coup Group of 1947 introduced the interlocking notions of Nation, Religion, and King as the fundamental elements of the Thai state (which only the Army could defend and uphold), they set the predominant  pattern and tone of Thai politics down to the present day. The constitution they issued returned most of the powers and privileges that had been taken from the monarchy in 1932, and this in turn cemented the relationship between royalists and the military that also continues to this day.

The rationale they offered for their coup has also provided a template that shapes, with modifications due to the passing of the cold war, not just post-coup rationalization statements, but much of what passes for political discourse in contemporary Thailand. They justified their intervention on the twin grounds of eliminating both communism and corruption.

“Communism”, in this case, really meant Pridi Banomyong and his followers and allies, and any remaining influence they might have had in either the government or the military.

“Corruption”, on the other hand, is harder to define at this distance in time, and in that sense is the most salient “ideological” gift that Choonhavan et al passed on to those who intend to seize power by non-democratic means in 21st century Thailand.

When the generals of the Ratchakhru Group settled into power, they also settled into seats on the boards of directors of the major business concerns of the country, seats vacated by the “corrupt” administrators of the previous government of course. In other words, “rooting out corruption” essentially involved cutting the strings connecting the old governing faction to Thai capitalists and establishing new ones that replaced Khana Ratsadon people with Generals from the Group.

Seni Pramoj, one of the early leaders of today’s Democrat Party, was awarded a cabinet post in the junta for his cooperation in the coup. Thus was another precedent set that, outside of a few years when military rule became very unfashionable with Bangkok’s “civilian” middle and upper-middle classes, has remained relevant until today, with the Democrats essentially operating as the “political wing” of the royalist-military anti-democratic faction.

And so it is that when corrupt “former” Democrat party leader Suthep Thaugsuban leads a movement calling for the overthrow of a democratically elected government on the grounds of corruption, and the head of the Thai military suggests that the “door” is neither open nor closed to a coup, and a member of the royal family uses Instagram to post photos of herself adorned in the paraphernalia associated with Kamnan Suthep’s insurrection, no one should be fooled into thinking that we are witnessing something “new” in Thai politics, nor that the consistent refrain of “Thaksin, Thaksin, Thaksin” means that these past 8 years of turmoil has been caused primarily by the man from Dubai.

On the contrary, the current round of protests is simply the latest expression of the network of individuals and groups that have coalesced at times of crisis over the past eight decades to ensure that “democracy” never takes root in Thailand.

Democracy: U and non-U versus the Great Unwashed?

But what about the protestors themselves? Aren’t many of them the same people who agitated against military government in 1992? Have some of them not been involved in pro-democracy movements as far back as 1973?

As has been pointed out time and time again over the past few months, the educated Bangkok middle classes are providing both money and bodies to keep this movement alive, and they themselves deny that they are anti-democratic, insisting instead that their intention is to “restart” the democratic process that has been hijacked by the “parliamentary dictatorship” of the Thaksin “regime”. It is difficult, not to say churlish, to flatly deny that these people believe themselves to be acting out of a desire to uproot corruption and install an improved democratic system in Thailand.

However that may be, “parliamentary dictatorship” is an interesting term to be bandied about by people claiming to support democratic governance, not least because the very notion of dictatorship is a hard one to correlate with the 650 members of the mostly elected Thai houses of parliament. “Tyranny of the majority” might be the more cogent choice, or even “dictatorship of the proletariat”, were it not so firmly associated with an ideology that is even harder to hang on Thaksin than “democrat”.

But like so many elements of the struggle for power that has marked the past 8 years of Thai politics, “parliamentary dictatorship” is a term drawn from tradition.

When the Chatchai government was removed from office by military coup in 1991, one of the charges leveled by the generals as justification for the coup, besides the classic “corruption”, was “parliamentary dictatorship”. It is easy enough to read this particular charge as meaning little more than “insufficiently grateful” to the bureaucrats and generals who permitted the politicians to kin pathet at the buffet; the Chatchai government, like the Thaksin regime, tried to establish civilian control over the military and legislative control over the bureaucracy, but worse than either of those, also like the Thaksin administration, it failed to share the spoils. Thus has “corruption” come to be understood at the highest levels of Thai society.

As was the case in 2006, there was a general sense of relief when the Chatchai government was removed from power, even if there was also unease at the return of military government. By appointing a “good person” like Anand as interim Prime Minister, the coup group managed to allay much of the initial resistance they would otherwise have met, particularly from the media and the international community. Nevertheless, when an election was held roughly one year after the coup and a military-controlled government was elected, the stage was set for the “mobile phone mob”, the Bangkok middle class, to come out and demonstrate for a return to “real” democracy.

What that constituency meant by “democracy” may be best understood by looking at the oft-lamented 1997 Constitution, the “People’s Constitution” as it is sometimes known.

Just as Suthep and the PDRC of today demand a “time-out” for a group of “good people” to formulate a constitution that will ensure a “genuinely” democratic Thailand free of corruption, the framers of the ’97 Constitution, “good people” all, aimed the bulk of their effort at the same goal.

Most strikingly perhaps, the People’s Constitution eliminated the opportunity for roughly 90% of Thai adults (95% in rural areas) to run for election in the national government by requiring a candidate to have at least a BA or equivalent. This was done apparently in the belief that having a university education would somehow prevent a candidate from indulging in vote-buying during elections and other forms of corruption once installed in parliament. The suggestion is clear: “educated” equals “good”, or at least more likely to be so.

There was also a provision insisting that the government provide education to “instil right awareness with regard to politics and a democratic regime of government with the King as Head of the State”, presumably in order to correct the tendency of less-educated people to misunderstand what the middle-class framers understood by “democracy”.

In order to avoid politicians actually chosen by voters gaining too much power or access to graft, constituency candidates could not sit in cabinet unless they resigned their seats and funded the resulting by-election. The purpose of this was obviously to keep people involved in electoral politics out of the cabinet, hardly an endorsement of democratic procedure to say the least. By restricting cabinet membership to party-list MPs, it was hoped that only “good people” would have access to the juiciest spoils in the trough.

The document also created the much-celebrated “independent bodies” that were to provide the “checks and balances” necessary for the operation of an honest and fair democracy. In practice, however, these bodies, made up as they are of “good people” and “experts”,  have simply meant, for example, that the 5 members of the Election Commission could overturn the decision of thousands of voters by disqualifying a member of parliament, or indeed negate the votes of millions by the simple expedient of disbanding a political party. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the “one man, one vote” principle that many would argue is fundamental to democratic structures, even if not sufficient to their maintenance.

While it would be foolish to deny that there were at least some good intentions behind the various provisions of the ’97 Constitution, it would be delusional to ignore the emphasis on “good people” and the equating of “educated” with “good” that established an essentially anti-democratic tilt to the People’s Constitution. The “people” in that formulation are essentially the Bangkok middle class and its outliers in the provinces, and definitely not the vast majority of the Thai electorate.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Truth

So there is a certain truth to the Suthep mob’s insistence that they are not “anti-democratic”; it’s just that the “democracy” they long for is one that requires a great deal of at least partial disenfranchisement of the Thai electorate, most of whom do not belong to the Bangkok middle class. And that, to be blunt, is really not democracy at all.

For anyone with a sense of Thai political history, it should not really be all that surprising to find the old “mobile phone mob” and its contemporary descendants out shouting for the very things that the military juntas of past Thai political crises have claimed to represent.

In 1973, the middle class supported the students in their demand for democracy. In 1976, that same middle class supported the return to military dictatorship because they were shocked to find that democracy actually involved the active participation of trade unions and farmers and coalitions of poor people, none of whom fell under the self-regarding definition of “good people” as “people like us”.

When it came time for the military government to start killing protestors in 1992, the educated middle classes were essentially nowhere to be found. Not one of those killed in Black May had a university degree. It would seem that “dying for democracy” is something the servants can do for the Thai middle class.

When the Thaksin government was removed from power in 2006, the Bangkok middle class repeated its performance of 1991, relieved that the corrupt regime was ended, if a little uncomfortable with the way it was done, and eager to see a return to “real” democracy.

By “real” democracy of course was meant one that would not be overly influenced by “the people”, who had somehow managed to circumvent the restrictions on their participation enshrined in the People’s Constitution.

This typically middle-class equivocation led to the adoption of the long-since-discredited song mai ao position that in one form or another still characterizes much of middle-class discourse in both the mainstream and social media; “good” Thais are all for democracy but against Thaksin and against the return of military government. What this means in reality is that they reject the options the real world offers and prefer to “talk” as if something else were possible, thereby retaining their self-concept as “good people”. But it hardly matters in any democratic sense because the Thai electorate has evolved its own understanding of what democracy means and has voted its understanding and its preference consistently now for over a decade and through four national elections.

And that, not Thaksin, and not the “anti-democratic” tilt of the middle class protestors, is the “new thing” in the present repeat of all the old patterns in Thai politics.

It remains to be seen whether the majority of Thai voters will finally be integrated into the democratic system or whether the pretense of “democracy” is to be abandoned altogether, in favor of some system that will reinforce the sense of Bangkok’s middle class as part of the “good people” without their having to kill too many of those who will undoubtedly lack the understanding of “democracy” that would see them yet again disenfranchised and oppressed by their betters in the City of Angels.

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