THE SEDUCTION OF EVIL


 

 

All the absurdity and stupidity displayed every day on the news, then amplified and echoed on social media, has the ability to distract us from developments more worthy of our attention. Yes, our government is corrupt, surely everyone is aware of this. We could consider the present state of affairs a crisis, or we could simply acknowledge that there are problems for which we will need to find solutions and move on.  To allow ourselves to be absorbed by horror and anxiety serves no one. Maybe this permanent state of emergency is the plan the tyrants had all along. We can immunize ourselves by directing our attention at things that empower us.

 

I’m not talking about limiting ourselves to “happy news.” Being absorbed by the news in general, just like being too rabid a fan of any entertainment, is a large step on the path to powerlessness. What did people do with their free time before the Internet? Lots of different things that are still available to us now, if we can only look away from the fascinating horror that tempts us online.

 

 

 

 

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DISCOURSE REVIVED


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Social media is not designed to promote debate. The audience one finds there is hand-picked, pre-selected. It’s preaching to the choir. Because Facebook is the way most people interact with others at a distance, its very popularity has come to diminish the role of discourse in what we imagine to be a free society. Indeed, many young people do not understand the role of argument or discourse, imagining that their manufactured beliefs and shopping preferences define them and their peers.

In much of the developing world free speech is at a minimum and a free press almost nonexistent. Democracy can’t function because loyalty is the supreme virtue, and extreme fidelity doesn’t allow much room for divergent opinions.

The country I came from used to pride itself on being a democratic republic, but today most people hate politics and would rather submit to a benign dictator if they could only find one.

Because I’m an expat and far from home, my main contact with others online is via Facebook, which was developed as a way to help college students find like-minded friends. It is all about peer groups, and finding your “peeps.” If you express an opinion that sets you apart from your peers, you will eventually be “unfriended.”

One of the explanations for Facebook’s financial success is that by being structured in this way, it can deliver advertisements to targeted groups, about which much is known because the members volunteer tons of information about themselves with every post and every reaction to a post.

This is fine if that’s all we want from communication, but I suspect that many of us, especially the more mature members would enjoy discussing complicated issues without the onus of being “popular.”

Could Facebook be modified to encourage rational discourse about complicated issues, rather than encouraging superficial and infantile reactions? Maybe this could be done with specific pages that would serve as forums to address specific issues. Politics. Banking. Theater. Literature. Music. Art.

Despite the trivial nature of most Facebook posting, its dominance could be tapped for the greater good. Politics doesn’t need to be a dirty word, and the lowest common denominator in the Arts doesn’t always need to command the greatest amount of attention. Facebook is just a tool, one that could be modified to be more effective for the greatest number of people. It could facilitate real, complex communication instead of simply pandering to the herd.

Same Song, Different Lyrics


Some random notes about Thailand by a foreigner who’s lived here for almost a year.

Most Thais drive like old people do in the States. They drift slowly in whatever direction they want, whenever they want, without looking who’s coming behind them, or first signaling. They simply expect other drivers to watch out for them.

Girls riding on the backs of motor scooters ride side-saddle if they’re wearing a skirt. They never wear a helmet and dangle a flip flop or sandal from the lowest hanging foot, so that the heel of the shoe hangs only a millimeter from the asphalt. They often are absorbed in texting on their cell phone, and seem unaware of their surroundings. Dangerous, surely, but “cool.”

Traffic fatalities in Thailand involve motor bikes seventy percent of the time. Eighty percent of those fatalities could have been prevented if the rider(s) had been wearing a helmet.

Thais who have government jobs get 25 paid holidays a year. Many people take off two or three days before a holiday, so they can journey back to their home town. Banks are closed at least one day every other week for some sort of national holiday.

Thailand has the largest military for a country its size, and has the largest percentage of generals of any military in the world. If you hold an officer’s rank in the military, police or many other branches of civil service, you merit a personal driver and personal dresser, who accompany you on your daily visit to your branch’s private golf course.

Thai airways, the government-owned airline, offers free flights to many government employees. Their board of directors enjoy all sorts of special perks as well, including unlimited free baggage. At least that’s what the Executive Chairman of the Board and his wife enjoyed after an international flight, when they brought 40 bags with a total weight of 500 kilograms, which mysteriously bypassed customs and were delivered directly to Lost and Found.

Thais love uniforms and dressing up in them. Boy and Girl Scout uniforms are a big deal here. Everyone with a state job has a white jacket covered with medals and ribbons, which they wear to special events and to have their official portraits taken.

Thailand isn’t a third-world country, but it’s not exactly Switzerland, either. The ruling party uses the State’s resources to buy votes. The current Prime Minister is a proxy, the sister of her older brother who wields the real power. He was deposed by a military coupe a few years ago. He’s a troll, but she’s quite cute, and seems like a spokesperson for an airline, or high-end shopping mall.

He was found guilty of billions in fraud, so he fled the country, and is currently in self-imposed exile, circling the borders of Thailand like a coyote circling a campfire, his eyes glowing hungrily in the darkness. He has hopes to return home, but on his own terms.

All shaky democracies with relatively uneducated populations behave in this way. In Latin America, it’s de rigeur. Take Nicaragua, for example. Daniel Ortega, Sandanista Jefe Commandante and President for Life, uses state money to promote himself as the friend of the little guy. Since the vast majority of Nicaraguan little guys are illiterate, they are easily taken in by omnipresent huge posters of Ortega spouting revolutionary slogans. He’s immensely popular and nobody objects to the fact that he’s hijacked their nascent democracy. Well, the people who publish and read La Prensa, the thinking person’s newspaper do, but they’re way outnumbered. Most people read the other newspaper, the one that publishes full page spreads of busty young women with plenty of eye makeup and skimpy bikinis.

Dan’s buddies Hugo Chavez of Venezuala and Evo Morales of Bolivia subsidize commodity prices as a “gift” to the poor. That kind of gift is always paid down the line by somebody unlucky enough to get elected after the giver retired to Miami with as much of the nation’s treasury as he could steal.

Here, in Thailand, the masses are being fooled by two transparently absurd vote-buying schemes, one involving a free laptop for every grade-schooler, and the other a rice subsidy that promises to help poor rice farmers at the cost of one percent of GDP, but has only made rich growers even richer and severely distorted the commodities marketplace. The problem with these schemes is they discourage international investment, because no self-respecting international corporation wants to invest in a house of cards.

But the people who dream up these policies will be long gone by the time the bill comes due. They’ll be writing their memoirs, or having them ghost-written, lazing their days away on an island paradise, or in a Swiss Chateau.

An Endemic Lack of Accountability


RULE OF LAW

Sixty Minutes commentator Andy Rooney once did a piece describing how he sat at a red light late at night near his home in rural Connecticut, waiting in the middle of the night for the light to change, even though there was no other car in sight. He said he did it because he had respect for the law. If you respect the law, he said, you don’t make exceptions just because you’re not likely to get caught.

In order to respect the law, you have to feel part of a social contract. You have to feel that you have a say in the making of laws. If you complain to a policeman about the unfairness of a law he’s enforcing, he’ll advise you to write your Congressman. Police don’t make laws, they just enforce them.

In America, the police and courts have found it necessary to fill our prisons with a disproportionate number of people of color. Caucasians are a distinct minority in jail. The police will tell you this isn’t because of bias in policing, but rather because people of color are committing most of the crimes.

If so, then it’s obvious that more people of color disrespect the law more often than do white people. They feel left out of the social contract that makes laws in the first place.

I spent a great deal of my youth acutely aware that a bunch of old, white men, whom we conveniently called “The Man,” were willing to send us to Viet Nam or incarcerate us for doing recreational drugs. When I was nineteen I drove from Columbia, Missouri to Juarez, Mexico, and our car was stopped three times in one day by Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico state troopers looking for marijuana and demanding to see our draft cards. The sign at my local barber shop said “Love it or Leave It,” but the Man wanted to make sure we weren’t leaving.

So I have some sympathy for people who don’t feel as Andy Rooney did, that we’re all in this together, that our laws deserve respect.

Here, in Thailand, nobody respects traffic laws. It also doesn’t seem like most elected officials view their positions as anything more than a license to dispense favors to rich people. Recently, the Transportation Minister’s house was robbed while he was attending his daughter’s wedding. The police apprehended the culprits, who had about a million dollars worth of cash and gold. The burglars confessed that they had left much more behind. Huge sacks of money, more than they could possibly carry.

It turns out that there was about thirteen million dollars in cash in the house. When asked about it, the Minister said he had no idea where it had come from. One of his functions as Minister was to approve road construction projects, but he suggested that maybe his house keeper might know where all the money came from. He has been transferred to an inactive post. Not fired, mind you, just transferred.

Recently, the Thai military purchased a whole lot of hand-held bomb detectors from a small company in England. They paid quite a bit for them,but they don’t work. They’re little more than dowsing rods. The English police say they’re ready to make an arrest as soon as the Thai military files an official complaint, but that’s not going to happen, because then the Thai military would have to admit that they spent an obscene amount of public money on something they didn’t even bother to first test. They would have to say they made a mistake. And that would mean that somebody would lose face. So the money is gone and lost forever.

The National Chief of Police recently flew to Hong Kong to visit with Thaksin Shinnanatra, the deposed prime minister who fled the country after being found guilty of billions of dollars worth of graft. When it was suggested that it was the Police Chief’s sworn duty to arrest a fugitive from justice, he laughed and said “what can I do? He’s my brother-in-law.”

Bangkok police recently decided to stop issuing so many traffic tickets and simply issue warnings after drivers complained the tickets were hurting their finances. One motorcycle taxi driver told the Bangkok Post reporter that he gets several tickets a day for driving the wrong way down traffic-clogged streets, and it’s hard for him to support his family and pay the fines. Never was it mentioned that maybe he should stop driving the wrong way.

Here in Chiang Mai, they’ve installed walk lights and zebra-striped crosswalks at certain intersections, but they’re just a sick joke. Pedestrians foolish enough to trust that traffic would stop for them deserve to be hit.

Gone here are the days of girls on bicycles holding parasols. During a simpler time, it probably didn’t matter as much if one respected traffic laws, or not. But now that traffic is the major factor in public life, it matters a lot.

Post from Myanmar (Burma)


LETTER FROM MYANMAR

I had only been here for a few hours when I noticed that our apartment, which we share with our hosts, smells like phenol. I hadn’t smelled phenol since I visited the Soviet Union, in 1968. It must be the Communist disinfectant of choice.

My first impression of Yangon is that it’s dark and steamy. As the flight from Bangkok landed, I couldn’t believe we were landing in this country’s main city. Where were the lights?

Our hostess, Hla Hla, had her students meet us at the airport, and then we all packed into a taxi, which had seen better days, and drove into town. They drive on the right side of the road here, but the steering wheel is on the right, as it is in places like Thailand, or England, where they drive on the left. The driver drifted from lane to lane, seemingly oblivious to any road markings.

Our apartment building is newish, and a soldier with an AK-47 guards the front gate. It looks to me like a Soviet apartment complex, only a little nicer. No graffito. Our windows are open because of the heat, so mosquitoes come and go as they please. Someone has been banging away on a rock or a pipe all night long, rhythmically, as if they were working, but dispassionately, as if they were working for hire. When dawn comes, the paths are full of people shopping for breakfast ingredients. There are also a lot of cut flower vendors.

The night we arrived, we walked along a lake, which is apparently the nicest spot on town, and Hla Hla pointed out the house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the most famous person in Burma, winner of the Nobel peace prize and one who has emerged after fifteen years of house arrest to engage once more in political life. This is the same lake that a psychotic American swam a few years ago on a delusional and self appointed mission to rescue Aung San Suu Kyi. With some intervention from the Americans, he was eventually set free. When I asked if the lake was swimmable, my hosts replied that the water was not clean.

Since I don’t speak the language, I can’t tell if people here are as friendly as they are in Spanish-speaking countries. As we walked down the path that rims the lake, we passed several couples trying to eke out a place for romance, and they didn’t greet us on the way, but I forgave them for their preoccupation.

So far, if I had to compare Burma to a place I’ve already visited, I’d say it reminds me of Nicaragua. I’m probably just getting that impression from the similar lack of development. I don’t know if “poverty” is the right word, because poverty implies a severe lack of something needed, and although this country is certainly less developed than say neighboring Thailand, here the common citizen may be not really that much poorer.

Here, people smear something that looks like pancake batter on their cheeks before they go out in the morning. Almost all young women do it, and many young men, as well. It’s supposed to be good for the complexion, but it’s not something you wash off. They think it looks good and keep it on all day.

Many men wear wraparound skirts, tied in the front with a big not over the navel. If they have a wallet, they tuck it in the back, where it looks dangerously perched to fall. I don’t know if they wear underpants. I haven’t been bold enough to ask, and besides, I don’t speak the language.

Just when I thought I had the country and the city of Yangon pegged as hopelessly backward, I visited a fancy shopping mall in the center of town. There, in a camera and computer store, I saw three Buddhist monks, clad in crimson robes (unlike their Thai brothers who wear saffron) and debating the pros and cons of an Iphone. Beneath them, in a glass case, stood a tiny statue of Steve Jobs, who had his arms stretched upward, imploring them to join the wave of modern computing.

There’s no McDonalds or Burger King in Yangon yet, but “yet” is the operative word. The nicest part of town is that which surrounds a huge, golden temple, which sits like a burnished Hershey kiss coated in pure gold. It’s not just painted gold, it’s made of gold. In this humblest of nations, that’s one big chunk o’ patrimony baking in the sun, surrounded by a lush park. I imagine McDonalds will opt to place the golden arches as close to this landmark as possible.

A trip to Viet Nam


IS COMMUNISM REALLY JUST ANOTHER LIFESTYLE CHOICE, OR IS IT CREEPY AND EVIL?
I know it’s a loaded question, perhaps a false dichotomy, but my purpose is to get us to think about the vast and fundamental difference between communist and capitalist governments. Some people in China, Russia and Viet Nam certainly enjoy some of what capitalism offers, but the story stops suddenly when it comes to freedom of expression. And the poor saps who grow thinner by the year in North Korea or Cuba know first-hand what total dependence on a centrally planned economy can mean.
Here, in Vietnam, the communists won the war, and in 1975 the Hammer and Sickle were proudly raised over Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City. To a cacsual observor, things seem OK here. But I read newspapers more carefully than most. Following find two news articles from the July 17, 2012 issue of the English-language Viet Nam News.
Saboteurs get 13 years in jail
Three people were sentenced to a total of |3 years imprisonment by the People’s Court of Bac Gaing, for conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam.
According to the indictment, the three had repeatedly lodged complaints to the authorities, and had established contact with other local people who had protested against the State. It was also claimed that they had contacted foreign newspapers and radio stations and provided incorrect information against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam. The three men prepared documents, gave interviews, collected and stored libellous documents that smeared the Party and the State leaders and caused division between the People and the Party. The three were also accused of inciting protests that affected political security, social order, and safety.
National Theater festival begins in Hue.
The 2012 National Theater festival is open to plays related to revolutionary heroism, patiotism, and socio-economic achievements.
Gee, how do I get tickets? I’d better remember to applaud heartily at the end of the show, or I might be charged with causing a division between the People and the Party.
Sure, capitalism isn’t perfect, and the resentment we have over the bailout of Wall Street while the rest of us watch our incomes slide is a perfect example of the flaws built into that system, but capitalism doesn’t enforce complicity with quite the heavy hand that Communism does.
I found I wasn’t enjoying myself or prospering in the States, so I moved across the world to Thailand. I spend my free time online encouraging others in my position to do the same. I don’t fear for my life or property for daring to say what I see and feel. The landowners who faced firing squads commanded by Che, Fidel or Lenin might have once enjoyed my freedom, but they lost it when the Hammer and Sickle replaced their former flag. And the last thing they heard was “ready, aim, fire!”

But the revolution that’s underway now in Viet Nam seems to be of the “a rising tide raises all boats” variety. People are getting richer faster than ever before. The millions of bicycles that crowded the streets ten years ago have been replaced by tense of millions of motorscooters. In five more years, half of them will have turned into automobiles, and then there will be gridlock and the lack of parking will have turned the streets into clogged arteries.

Here in Vietnam, all drivers of any vehicle beep their horn every five seconds. The motorscooter riders drive like fish in a school. Anything and everything is tolerated, cutting across all lanes of traffic, going the wrong way…but it’s all done slowly and smoothly. Here, the center line isn’t even a concept that’s being disregarded.The notion of right of way doesn’t exist. They’re all driving and trying not to hit one another. Period.

Most streets are fronted with broad sidewalks, but you can’t walk on them because they are being used as parking lots for millions of motorbikes.

One of the most visible remnants of our ten year misadventure in Viet Nam lies in the gene pool. Our waitress at lunch looked Caucasian. We asked her if she was Vietnamese. She glared at us and said yes, she was Vietnamese. I figure she was in her early forties. That would make her the probable daughter of a GI involved with a Vietnamese woman. I’m probably the age of her father.

Vietnam has a population of 89 million, yet is the size of Montana, which has a population of just under one million. This is to give an idea of just how crowded Indchinese countries seem to the average American. Over half the populace is under the age of thirty. Just ten percent are over the age of sixty.

Maybe in a few years I’ll visit again, and if I do, it will be interesting to see if my predictions about the horror of future traffic come true.

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Musings


As I write this it is much hotter back in the Midwest than it is here in Chiang Mai. Not that it’s cool here. I can’t imagine what it was like to live in Thailand before air conditioning.

Most of what motivates us was implanted in our psyches back in early childhood. My visions of Asia came from the black and white TV coverage of the Viet Nam war. I remember seeing lots of slim girls on bicycles, holding parasols in one hand and steering with the other.

Nowadays, in living color, high-def and 3-D, I see lots of girls on motor scooters, either driving or riding sidesaddle as passengers, non-chalantly texting on their cell phones while their boyfriends navigate their way around cars and trucks, just barely missing knocking his passenger’s sandels from her protruding feet.