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.

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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.

Narcissus and Echo Do Thailand

narcissus-and-echo-500x280

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Gonzo Sean vs Real Journalists

The recent kerfuffle over Sean Penn’s execrably written bit of gonzo in Rolling Stone is illuminating.

“Real journalists” are all over Twitter attacking the article for its horrible prose and obvious lack of editorial oversight; both criticisms are more than valid. Sean needs to keep his day job and Jann Wenner should be glad he didn’t have to pay for the writing.

But what is also happening is something quite different from the expression of a professional’s justified disdain for a clumsy amateur’s foray into her area of expertise.

Penn is being accused of whitewashing El Chapo, of condoning murder, and of insulting the memory of those Mexican journalists who have died trying to expose the reality of the brutal drug lords and their ongoing war with the equally brutal US-backed Mexican state security forces.

This is coming from the keyboards of people whose jobs might better be described as “group think status quo government amanuensis” than anything implied by the phrase “real journalist”. What they are accusing Penn of is a failure to insist on highlighting El Chapo’s evil in spite of the fact that he makes it clear that that is exactly the sort of cartoon journalism he intends to confront by presenting El Chapo as a human being.

Not something “real journalists” are comfortable with, I guess.

And that is precisely how not to honor those who have died trying to expose the truth rather than resting content with the official version out of Washington or the DF.