Saving Face by Not Losing It


Recently the New York Times could not be printed in Bangkok, for the printer was afraid to leave himself open to prosecution under the country’s Lese Majeste statues, which are frequently invoked to protect the reputation of the Crown. This particular edition of the Times contained an article that mentioned the King was in ill-health, and there were concerns about which of his children might assume the throne. So rather than risk it, he declined to print the paper.

I hadn’t had much contact with Asia before moving to Thailand, though I had certainly tried to read the instruction manuals that came with appliances made in China, and was always amazed by the fact that they had not bothered to consult a native English speaker before printing them. Why not just run it by someone who speaks English and ask “Does this make sense?  Is the meaning clear?”

Here in Thailand, they are very worried about foreigners taking jobs away from Thais, and so the Ministry of Labour issues guidelines concerning the rules. A document issued by that Ministry reads:

Career aliens do not. Not alien to the professional set of career. Professional and not an alien to do. Set in professional video and tea alien life that do not.”

Now this is an edict from a government Ministry, housed in a huge building, with a staff of hundreds, maybe thousands of clerical workers.  Out of all those, why couldn’t they find someone who spoke English, or knew someone who did?

The answer lies in the cult of saving face. Thailand is all about hierarchies. Being quick-witted or original isn’t thought of as a virtue, but knowing your place is. The big boss cannot look bad, and heaven help help the person who puts him in a position to do so.  So if Mr. Important said that his daughter studied English at the University, and when he showed her the document she said it looked fine, it’s fine.

A few years ago, a person in the Thai Defense Ministry  approved the purchase of a million dollars worth of hand-held bomb detectors, to help the Army screen people at the strife-ridden southern border with Malaysia. They were manufactured and sold by a British company. Trouble was, they didn’t work. There was nothing inside the handle but a battery that made an LED light glow intermittently. This British company made a killing selling these to hot spots around the globe, but then the truth came out and people started complaining.

The British government became aware of the problem and legal action ensued.  The British courts started refunding money when possible. But the Thais never asked for their money back. In order to make a claim, they would have had to admit that a high-ranking person had made a mistake.  So they just let it go. The bomb-detectors work fine. No need for a refund.

By the way, people with good government jobs here are never fired. They are “transferred to an inactive post.” That way they still keep their salary and benefits, including a chauffeur, membership in private golf courses and a personal attendant/dresser while there. The big loss of face comes from loss of power and status, for they are now no longer able to accept bribes, which was where the real income came from.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Thailand is a typical Asian country. Young Chinese people love coming to Thailand, for it’s so wide open here, so nutty and exotic. There’s a popular Chinese comedy film, Lost in Thailand, which is sort of like our Hangover series of movies, and Chiang Mai is prominently featured in that film. Every day you can see Chinese tourists taking selfies in front of the locations used.

I once met a Chinese woman in her twenties who was on vacation in Chiang Mai and I asked if she and her friends (they travel in big groups) had gone out to listen to music at a nightclub or gone dancing. “Oh no,” she responded, “I haven’t taken a class in that yet at University.”

I don’t think the next revolutionary change based on risk-taking or entrepreneurship will come from Asia. Nobody here will invent the next home computer in their garage.



YouTube is a treasure trove of nuttiness. I happen to suffer from the dysfunction that allows me to at least temporarily believe any of the zillion conspiracy videos I watch. Instead of having a favorite TV show, I watch YouTube conspiracy videos.

They quickly sort themselves into familiar themes:

Aliens among us, stargate portals
9/11 was a false flag event, Kennedy Assassination was an inside job
The Illuminati run everything
The world is about to end and/or Jesus is about to return
The economy is about to collapse
Everything anyone in charge of anything has told you is a lie

I’m willing to entertain any of these concepts and the more I think about them, the more I think these guys are onto something. Except for the world is going to end videos, as they often have no real script, but are simply as mash of video stolen from zombie movies accompanied by dismal music and interrupted by occasional title cards.

These are not made by impassioned people with a message, but merely are attempts to get the uncritical viewer to stay on the video long enough to register with Google ads and impart the maker some sort of ad revenue.

I think these other people actually believe what they’re saying. Therein lies the amazing part.

As I type this, I’m listening to a reasonable-sounding man say that every new Pope is required to drink the blood of newborn babies, and that this has always been the case, and that the Rothchilds control the Vatican Bank, while the Illuminati were created by the Jesuits and all this is working together to…then the video ended, but that’s OK, in a second or two YouTube will give me another video in the same vein.


conwaylazbom02Vietnam War (20)

I was born in 1950, five years after the end of the Second World War. My country has been at war somewhere in the world for as long as I’ve been alive, with brief time off in the mid to late fifties in order to re-group. Even then, we were engaged in a “cold war,” stockpiling nuclear weapons as fast as we could make them, and the rockets to carry them across the world at many times the speed of sound.

When I was a child, we were told that our country observed certain “rules of war,” because we were the good guys and always took the moral high ground. We didn’t target civilians and we took prisoners of war and treated them humanely. By the way, I’ve heard of German prisoners of war, but never Japanese. Did they all commit hari kari?

Maybe we observed the Geneva Convention sometime before World War II, but it certainly wasn’t our experience or intention after we invented napalm and firebombed many Japanese cities and a few German ones. They weren’t military targets. We were trying to kill as many civilians as possible, in order to demoralize our enemies so they’d surrender.

It worked, we won. Then we took the same strategy to Vietnam and it didn’t work. In case anyone still believes the bullshit that we spun and resulted in Kissinger being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the North Vietnamese finally won the right to live in a Communist country. After twenty years of fighting foreign invaders, they unified their nation. It cost them millions of lives but they won.

So we learned our lesson. No more boots on the ground. Air attacks are the way we prosecute war now, and we no longer pretend that civilian deaths are “collateral damage.”

We no longer carpet bomb countries from 30,000 feet, we engage in “precision bombing,” often using unmanned drones. The accuracy rate has improved dramatically. Sure, we still take out a funeral procession or wedding party by mistake, but in general it’s no longer a mass slaughter. But we’re still bombing people. We’re still telling other people what they can and cannot do with their own countries. This hasn’t changed.

Bombing is a lousy way to persuade other countries to change their ways. Even though there’s a good chance we bombed ourselves in 9/11, we certainly didn’t learn any lessons from the experience of being bombed. One delusional Muslim teenager fashioned a shoe bomb for himself on an airplane and the rest of us are still taking off our shoes in airports ten years later.

We have fashioned a police state so large it may be impossible to dismantle it. That seems to be the main lesson we learned from being bombed.

When General MacArthur was in charge of our forces in North Korea, he suggested we drop fifty nuclear weapons along the border of North Korea and China. Truman fired him, but the next year General Curtis LeMay was ready to drop even more nuclear weapons. Truman never gave the order to do so.


To this day the North Koreans hate us with an almost unimaginable intensity.

I spent some time in Nicaragua, which is a socialist verging on Communist country. They endured a civil war that lasted from the late seventies to the eighties, finally overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship. The Sandanistas who emerged victorious were not to Reagan’s liking, so he and his cronies cooked up a scheme to sell arms to Iran in order to finance an illegal backing of contra-revolutionaires, or “Contras,” mostly the remnants of Somoza’s highly corrupt national guard. This prolonged the Nicaraguan civil war by several years, but the Contras were eventually defeated as well. When I traveled the country I half-expected the common folk to hate Americans, but most of them had no memory or experience of that time.

Their struggle for independence was fought by citizen soldiers, some women, committed to freedom from Somoza and the U.S. Here’s a picture of one of them nursing her baby while dutifully carrying her carbine.



hiding from bombs

I live in Thailand, a country with bombings going on, especially along the border with Malaysia. I suppose living in a country with bombings doesn’t make me unique, because bombings are going on in lots of places in the world, even America, though not routinely. Nobody knows who planted the bomb at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok a month ago. We do know who’s dropping the bombs on Syria, and who did the same to Iraq and Afghanistan. It was us. We still don’t really know who brought down the Twin Towers in New York City, but as time passes it becomes more and more apparent that it wasn’t our allies the Saudis under the direction of Osama bin Laden.

We’re looking at a long-term and maybe never-ending worldwide War On Terror, and maybe half the world’s population is affected by this war on a daily basis. That’s no small thing. There have been wars before, but they seemed more defined, with beginnings and ends, but this war is so amorphous and chronic that most people don’t seem to notice we’re even at war. Has it always been this way?

When I was a child I grew up terrorized by the Soviet Nuclear Threat. Such a threat had pre-dated by arrival on the planet, for I was born in 1950 and the Korean War was a direct result of our fears about the Soviets and their recently acquired H-bomb. General MacArthur was all for using nuclear weapons in Korea. Later, in Viet Nam we seriously considered their use in Laos on the Ho Chi Minh trail, but realized it would be largely ineffective because the terrain was no thinly populated. All we would have managed to do is contaminate a large portion of the country in order to kill a few thousand people.

But when I was a child and couldn’t get to sleep at night, I imagined scenarios of Red Chinese soldiers interrogating me about my belief in Jesus. Would I have the nerve to confess my allegiance to Christ under torture? Our neighbors had a fallout shelter in their backyard. Why didn’t we?

The most heavily bombed place on the planet is poor Laos. We conducted a bombing raid on that small, undeveloped country every eight minutes for eight years. They had the misfortune of being next door to Viet Nam, a country we also bombed, though not as extensively. We also dumped agent orange on large parts of that country, and there are still thousands of people suffering the after-effects of being doused with dioxin.

Here’s an interactive graph of our bombing of Laos.









And unlike what the Mormons think, it’s not in Missouri, but Northern Thailand, just west of Doi Pui, on a little road that doesn’t show up on Google maps. So I guess I found the back door to the Garden of Eden, which is even better, because now it’s a secret that only I can show you. Come visit and rent a scooter. It’s only about eight miles from my front door here in Mae Rim.



Lately I find myself compelled to share every thought or impression I have the moment I have it.  This itself is an addiction, which exhausts my Facebook “friends” and leads to a chronic waste of time. In doing so I send a message to myself that I cannot concentrate long enough to produce anything that isn’t a “flash,” and that no insight I might have will matter in the long run so I might as well share it now. Implicit is the hope that maybe someone with a longer attention span will be able to value or remember it for me.

I no longer read, I skim.  I no longer aspire to create great works, but hope only that my dabbling will be considered clever.  I am an adult with the emotional maturity of a pre-teen. I have adopted the modus operandi of pop culture, hoping to stumble across the next new thing that can be mass marketed. Failing to monetize my activity, I ape the business model of others, much as a cargo cult devotee speaks into a bamboo microphone hoping to contact the gods and summon more cargo.

In 1948, New York art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote

“. . . the producer of mass culture has no use for experience, his own or another’s, which cannot be immediately shared. What is endured by one human being alone seems to him unreal, or even an effect of madness. The ‘alienation’ of the artist, his characteristic neurosis, which we hear so much about today, is an essential axiom of mass-culture thinking: every departure from the common experience appears to be an abnormality requiring some form of explanation—medical, sociological, etc.”

I was born in 1950, so I can see how I’m a product of my times. When I was a kid watching TV in the Midwest I wanted to be Maynard G. Krebs, not Dobie Gillis.  When the sixties came along, I didn’t need to be persuaded to grow my hair long and take drugs.  I saw the hula hoop come and go, figuring it was only a matter of time before I stumbled across an idea that would take me on a ride to easy street.

“Work!” Maynard exclaimed. “Not for me,” I agreed.Social media gives the impression that it’s the same as broadcasting, but it’s not.  Back when Citizen’s Band radio was the craze, you could still be assured of talking to at least fifty people within a populated area, even though you were limited to a five watt signal.  I might have over a thousand Facebook friends, but it seems that I’m talking to the same fifty ones over and over again. No matter how hard I pump my blog by linking to it on Facebook, I rarely get more than fifty visitors. When my Dr. Science show ran on public radio, for a while there it had hundreds of thousands of listeners.

More people will watch a Shakespeare play on television than have ever seen a Shakespeare play performed in live theater since the moment the Bard wrote it. Mass communications feeds mass culture, and mass marketing monetizes it.

If the sort of recognition and monetary rewards that come from traditional broadcasting and publishing is what I aspire to, then at least so far my experience of the Internet has been largely delusional.  A trivial pursuit. Would my Facebook addiction be less of a trivial compulsion if I had five million viewer/readers rather than fifty?  What if I made money from it?  It would then be a noble occupation, right?

If I really want to succeed as an artist or writer, as a “content creator” I have to suppress the compulsion to share my output on a minute-by-minute basis.

Probably anything worth doing, or sharing, is going to take concerted effort and a substantial investment of time.

The Problem That Never Goes Away

berkeley homelessHomelesspolice-by-Ted-Friedman-720x480

I’m visiting my brother who lives in Berkeley, California, and I’ve noticed that there’s a war going on here between the people who can afford to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and those who can’t. I’m not sure who’s winning this war, though the most obvious combatants are the homeless, who line the streets, slump on sidewalks and lean against buildings, occupy any bench, sleep on any lawn, and browse through any dumpster. Their clothes are dirty.  They smell bad.  But most of all, they need to use the bathroom.

All establishments jealously guard their bathroom.  Usually a customer needs to procure a key from the person operating the cash register. Places with large homeless populations smell strongly of stale urine. These people who live on the street don’t appear to be temporarily disadvantaged computer programmers, so I suspect that many a city less liberal that Berkeley offers their homeless free passage west, to where you can bask in the sunshine or fog from public sidewalks free from shame.