Liberalism versus Democracy: Round 1

A lot has been written recently about the decline of democracy and the the crumbling of the liberal world order.

It has indeed become something of a commonplace to set the election of Donald Trump beside the success of the Leave campaign leading to Brexit, then go on to point to the electoral shock of the AfD entering the Reichstag in Germany and the steady rise of Marine LePen and the National Front in France, and conclude that if the sky isn’t precisely falling, it certainly is clouding up.

Add a dash of Hungary and Orban, the Poles and PiS, and even the plucky Czechs leaning to the right, and we are forced to recognize that a hard shift to the right is threatening the status quo of the Pax Americana, that  understated version of imperialism that has soothed the world’s liberals into a profound sense of righteousness and absolute certainty in the justice of the overweening power they have wielded ever since WWII ended.

The hierarchy of significance of these offenses against the world order is clear: liberalism is the hallmark of the Anglosphere and for right-wing illiberal populism to gain such power as to elect a goon like Trump in the imperial metropole and to have the sidekick Brits kick against the pricks of the European Union is almost unbelievable. These two nations have after all been running the world on the “liberal imperialism” plan for centuries now.

Next in order of importance are the two continental champions, the erstwhile co-leaders of the EU, who have struggled so long to pretend that the Bundesbank (aka Germany) has not actually taken control of the European project, even to the extent of ignoring directives issued by Washington. France and Germany, whose rivalry was central to the most murderous wars of the 20th Century and possibly all human history, are drifting to the right and that is almost as scary as having l’Orange in the Oval and the UK mounting one long racist rally and calling it Brexit.

Almost as an afterthought come the former Warsaw Pact nations and their ugly fascist-leaning governments that seem to be inexorably pushing their peoples back to the authoritarian past, apparently just because they really really don’t like Muslims. And as was the case when the Balkans exploded less than a decade after the death of Tito, many western commentators point to the history of these former East Block nations as an explanation for this descent into nationalist xenophobia. They are, after all, not part of “the West”, not really.

It is usually the case that very little time is spent on laying out what is meant by ‘democracy’ or what the ‘liberal’ in the “liberal world order” really signifies in these articles. We are assumed to know and, sure enough, most people in the west are quite willing to throw around the term ‘democracy’ without ever giving a moment’s thought to what it is, outside occasionally quoting Churchill’s reluctant approval.

One way to think about the ‘democracy’ and ‘liberalism’ that are usually mashed up into our beloved liberal-democracy is to recognize that each plays the role of limiting the possible excesses of the other in a modern state. Democracy is rooted in the notions of consent of the governed and majorities as the measure of what might be called the will of the electorate. Liberalism, as the ultimate expression of individualism, acts to limit the tendency of majorities to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms of minorities and individuals who deviate from the norm.

Many of the institutional hallmarks of liberal democracy are more liberal than democratic per se. Rule of law, equality before the law, the full panoply of human rights, civil rights and individual rights: any or all of these might be dismissed as irrelevant or contrary to custom and belief by a majority of citizens in a modern state. Conservative polities in Muslim-majority countries may not accept the equality of women in certain legal contexts or the right of gays to engage in either sexual congress or marital union. Nationalist majorities in Europe may cling to a preference for “nation-states” as they were originally created in the bygone 19th century as “imagined communities” of people sharing a language, a culture, and a historical tradition, thereby rejecting immigrants and immigration, and denying them the liberal rights and privilege that are assumed to belong to citizens.

As Kathy Smits says in her discussion of Duncan Bell’s Reordering the World: Essays on Liberalism and Empire:

     “… it is virtually impossible to step outside liberalism in contemporary politics and political thinking.  In its protean expression as ideology, normative philosophy and discursive field, liberalism ‘virtually monopolizes political theory and practice in the Angloworld'”

Put another way, for most westerners liberalism is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on and the lingua franca of all our conversations about values. Or at least it has been up until relatively recently. Keats caught the overwhelming power of the liberal worldview when he said

            ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –- that is all                                                                         Ye know on earth, and all ye need to  know.’

A slightly less respectful expression of what liberalism means to the vast majority of people in  western countries would be something along the lines of “Everything I need to know I learned in kindergarden”. Hence we have the poignant irony of a thought leader like Ben Affleck defending the Islamic world from the Islamophobia of bigots everywhere by declaiming that a billion Muslims just “want to go to the store and have some sandwiches”, to which Egyptian-American Muslim scholar Shadi Hamid replies:

This is why the well-intentioned discourse of “they bleed just like us; they want to eat sandwiches and raise their children just like we do” is a red herring.* After all, one can like sandwiches and want peace, or whatever else, while also supporting the death penalty for apostasy, as 88 percent of Egyptian Muslims and 83 percent of Jordanian Muslims did in a 2011 Pew poll.13 In the same survey, 80 percent of Egyptian respondents said they favored stoning adulterers, while 70 percent supported cutting off the hands of thieves.                     *

And that is without asking the obvious question. “How popular are sandwiches among the world’s Muslims, especially among those living outside the sandwich-eating west?”

For a democracy to be democratic there needs to be some mechanism for majorities to choose those who will govern in their names. The usual mechanism for this is to hold elections to send representatives of specific groups to a parliament or congress where laws will be made and national initiatives debated and approved. Corollary to this requirement is a politically aware, preferably active, electorate.

At this point in the defining of what constitutes a democracy, a western liberal will almost always add something about either human rights or rule of law or both. That is, westerners usually reflexively define democracy as liberal-democracy and find it near-impossible to understand how that undermines the very basis of democracy if democracy is understood to involve the expression of the values and beliefs of the people who make up the demos.

In Indonesia, the nation presently wearing the crown for SE Asian “beacon of democracy” now that Suu Kyi and Myanmar have lost that title after such a short reign, there are politicians and Islamist civil society representatives who label “liberalism” a foreign ideology along with communism, socialism and religious radicalism. According to Pew, something like 93% of Indonesians reject homosexuality, more than in one-party authoritarian Malaysia or even Pakistan with its revolving door democratic and military dictatorships. And yet, unlike those two nations, Indonesia has no law criminalizing homosexual behaviour or relationships between consenting adults. Only in Aceh does a sharia-based regional law applying only to Muslims criminalize homosexuality.

When politicians and civil society spokespersons call for a rejection of LGBTQ++ rights and for laws to criminalize homosexual acts, they are speaking for a very large majority of Indonesians. Nevertheless, it is a journalistic and academic commonplace to see these politicians and these groups as “threats to democracy”. That is, to represent the values and beliefs of the majority of an electorate that does not share liberal values as they have evolved over the past 2 or 3 decades in that tiny region of the planet known as “the west” is to be “anti-democratic”, whereas to uphold the values of, among others, the former colonial powers in the region, is to safeguard “democracy”.

It really doesn’t take much imagination to understand why it is that electorates around the globe are turning away in droves from this conception of “democracy”, seeing how it is little more than a version of the kind of liberal cultural imperialism that Kipling celebrated and that Winston Churchill was willing to defend with war crimes and genocide, those markers of the liberal-democrat venturing outside her own democratic backyard.

When Madeleine Albright suggested that the sanctions that killed half a million Iraqi children were “worth it” and Hillary Clinton crowed “We came. We saw. He died.” in celebration of the death by ritual sodomization of Gaddafi, they were speaking for liberal internationalists everywhere. Unfortunately for those who would see liberal-democracy spread to the vast tracts of the globe that are yet to come under its sway, the great majority of people outside the liberal-democratic west find it much easier to imagine themselves in the place of those Iraqi children and a man like Gadaffi than they can see themselves reflected in plutocratic psycho-killers like Albright and Clinton, neither of whom is easily imagined sitting down and having a sandwich with the world’s billion Muslims.

*Hamid, Shadi. Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World (p. 13). St. Martin’s Press. Kindle Edition.

 

 

 

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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.

Islamic Exceptionalism: Challenging Liberal Universalism

I

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

51qwSfB3NBL._SY344_BO1204203200_-198x300.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII

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

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

It’s just mine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narcissus and Echo indeed.

The Way We Are: Creating Our Own Realities I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fascists, or what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leaving the EU: Goodbye To All That?

Although the journalistic winds are beginning to shift a little after the hurricane of abuse that was initially unleashed on “stupid bigoted” Leave voters, there is still a steady breeze of lament from those who apparently see the EU as a bastion of human rights, liberalism and all that is decent and good in this world.

The view from SE Asia suggests that this may be a form of selective vision.

The EU has recently acquiesced to the demand of the newly elected “democratic” government of Myanmar for the word ‘Rohingya’ to be erased from polite discourse while Aung San Suu Kyi and the Generals find a (final?) solution to the problem of “the Muslim community in Rakhine province”, which is their preferred designation for the Rohingya.

The decision to support Suu Kyi’s call for the Rohingya to be denied the right of self-identification was announced one day after the UNHCHR, Zeid Hussein, reported on the possibility of crimes against humanity being committed against the Rohingya. The EU decision stands in sharp contrast to the American refusal to deny the Rohingya the right “to decide what they are going to be called“.

The EU, which has been threatening Thailand with a “red card” over its inadequate approach to the problems of human trafficking and slavery, has been negotiating on various fronts with Myanmar to open the floodgates of investment, which might go a long way toward explaining the EU’s decision to deny the Rohingya the right to self-identification.

Ironically, although not untypically, Thailand has recently graduated to Tier 2 in the annual TIP rankings while Myanmar has been relegated to Tier 3, along with North Korea and South Sudan. It will be interesting to see how the EU responds to Myanmar’s well-deserved placement at the bottom of this particular league table. Unlike Myanmar, which is a potential goldmine for new investment for EU corporations, Thailand’s economy is far more mature and therefore less attractive to a certain kind of investment.

The EU has also indefinitely suspended free trade talks with Thailand as a result of Thailand’s most recent coup. In what is apparently standard EU hypocritical style, around the same time that the Thais were slapped for their failure to be “democratic enough” the Egyptians were rewarded with opening of talks to expand free trade with the EU.

The military coup that saw the murderous Sisi regime installed in Egypt apparently somehow meets the EU’s definition of “democratic enough”,  not to mention the reticence  of the EU to “yellow card” Egypt for its failure to protect children from abusive labor practices in the industries involved in trade with the EU. There is no question that the Sisi-led junta is a far more violent and oppressive regime than the Thai equivalent.

The real question is why the EU would pretend its trade negotiations are contingent on democracy and human rights when this is just so obviously not the case.

The point here is not that the EU is hypocritical. All modern states, beginning with the very model of hypocrisy itself, the USA, and continuing down to petty despotisms like the Prayuth regime in Thailand with its blatantly false claim of being “99% democratic”, engage in this sort of hypocritical clinging to the “universal” values of democracy and human rights.

The point is that all the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth over the perception that Brexit marks a definite UK shift toward illiberalism and bigotry, and over the Leave movement’s  leaders’ obvious hypocrisy, is itself shot through with falsehood and hypocrisy at best, and brainwashed ignorance at worst. There really is nothing to this image of the EU as a stalwart of liberalism and human rights, especially as it interacts with the wider world.

Just ask the Greeks. Or the people who supported Morsi’s democratically-elected government. Just ask the Rohingya.