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Blog Archive May 2007

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

By Christopher Hitchens

For a large part of humanity mankind’s faith has been shaped by religious text that emerged from tribal desert dwellers who lived around 2,000 years ago. The poison of which Hitchens writes is an old and potent brew. It makes us stupid to the reality of the world and has killed many of us as well. The religious view of the origins of the universe or the nature of man was and remains much closer to the thought processes of Cro-Magon than modern, secular people. Their strange dietary taboos, hamlet raids, child abuse, racial hatreds was only exceeded by their ignorance and untiring commitment to blood sacrifice and violence. But they were clever enough to commit their ugly crimes under the authority of a superior being who they claimed spoke directly to them.

Few people would wish to be operated on by a surgeon trained solely by studying medical text written in the 16th century. A doctor placing a leech on your forehead to relieve your headache would have you screaming out of the hospital to phone your lawyer, who would tell you this procedure isn’t covered by your medical insurance. Yet the same person has no problem with believing with great passion in a set of staggeringly cheesy miracles, sightings, and dogmas ranging from virgin birth to the resurrection of the death. It is in this context that Christopher Hitchens uses his formidable intellect, research and linguistic skills to demolish the tribal rants found in the bible, the Torah, and Koran, --books that have held most people in the world virtual hostages for thousands of years.

The problem with the last enlightenment is that it fell far short of felling the stupidity and ignorance that have made most of the population easily exploited by rulers, endorsed slavery, made women chattels, repressed sexuality, and justified (and often made mandatory) murder. In Hitchens words, “For emphasizing tribe and dynasty and racial provenance in holy books, religion must accept the responsibility for transmitting one of mankind’s most primitive illusions down through the generations.”

Hitchens pounds the drums for a new enlightenment to emerge to demolish this primitive structure of outdated beliefs. We no longer have to rely on a few brave people like Darwin, Hobbes, Hume, Freud and Spinoza (whom Hitchens has a particular fondest for). We have an army of men and women in science who are doing the research and reporting their investigations of the material world that flatly contradict the religious texts of organized religions. They follow in their scientific inquiry and process of testing what Hitchens’ calls the true definition of an educated man was Socrates who was reported to have said (having written nothing himself) that “all he really ‘knew,’ he said, was the extend of his own ignorance. They don’t ask for faith in their findings. They deliver their findings for others to challenge and replicate. Nothing could be more strange to the faith-based mind where time stopped 2,000 years ago and belief is knowledge and heresy evil.

What is galling to Hitchens is the illusion of the religious is that all one needs to learn is from a “holy” text and the veil of ignorance is lifted. Where does the drive to believe in the mad delusions of scribes who lived thousands of years ago as having come from a supreme being? Hitchens believes that Freud answered this question in The Future of an Illusion: it comes directly from our fear of death and the wishful thinking that there is a life after death.

In God is Not Great, Hitchens constantly reminds us that we are another species on the planet; we are mammals who have created silly myths, incredible legends, folktales, and third-rate miracles to push them to a level beyond other species. Story tellers whose most bizarre narratives have chained them to cellars where no light of reason can reach them. “For most of human history, the idea of the total or absolute sate was intimately bound up with religion.” That of course changed in the 20th century with the rise totalitarian states which, in Hitchens view, were in effect a theocracy. Fascism, communism and nazism drank from the same cup which anointed a perfect leader to whom citizens were made to surrender all privacy and individuality. The impulses and the techniques were not much different from those previously used by religious authorities. “The urge to ban an censor books, silence dissenters, condemn outsiders, invade the private sphere, and invoke and exclusive salvation is the very essence of the totalitarian.”

Christopher Hitchens book stands along side Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason and Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In six months, there will be another long awaited title by John Allen Paulos’s Irreligion (due in January 2008). Professor Paulos’ book promises to provide further ammunition to the debate and will like Hitchens, Dawkins, and Harris open yet another important avenue to explore why our notions of God are the old poisons we still insist in dumping in the human well.

With advances in neuroscience, evolutionary biology, quantum physics, cosmology, cloning, geology, archaeology, and artificial intelligence the old style religions with the squalid tribal myths and Disney-like legends will be increasingly more difficult to sustain. As the frontier of understanding and knowledge advance it become apparent to everyone that a bright 14-year-old knows infinitely more about how the world works, its origins, the origins of the species, and the nature of the universe than all living beings who occupied the planet 2,000 years ago. The question Hitchens raises is how much longer can we endure social, economic and political systems that pay homage to religions one step removed from witchcraft, magic portions, and ritual stoning? He has no answer, because there is no answer to be had. And whether a new enlightenment can finish the job started by the first is a premise that only will emerge in the fullness of time as to whether people will take the cure for this poison.

Half-baked confections cooked up by primitive desert mystics from recipes revealed to them (so they say) by a divine being, has been swallowed by generation after generation, as the entire truth of the world, life, and the universe. It has been feasting on this diet that has not evolved, and by definition cannot evolve, that has inspired and given courage to spear throwers in the ancient desert right up to the modern day suicide fanatics who hijacked planes to fly into the World Trade Centre which lies at the root cause of Hitchens’s discontent with religion. What was being swallowed was arsenic specifically designed to kill the intellect, free thought, free speech, and free will. There was only one recipe and it needed no updating, and anyone bold enough to have suggested that these conjuring acts were illusions conceived and performed by the early predecessors to Penn and Teller would have been burnt at the stake. It is only recent times such dissent could be voiced and in many parts of the world it is still dangerous to suggest so-called revealed truths are man-made. What gets both Hitchens and Dawkins to spit the dummy is the way many parents feed this man-made confection of half-truth, myths, contradictions and fables to children as the foundation for knowledge of the world.

Posted: 5/29/2007 11:46:15 PM 


Laughter and the Novel

A recent essay has suggested that novelists have lost their way by moving away from the comedy aspect of life and plunging instead deep into tragedy. Julian Gough in his essay on Divine Comedy has argued: “Yet western culture since the middle ages has overvalued the tragic and undervalued the comic. We think of tragedy as major, and comedy as minor. Brilliant comedies never win the best film Oscar. The Booker prize leans toward the tragic.”

What caught my attention was his spot on description of what happens when a novel is done right:

“The novel, when done right—when done to the best of the novelist's abilities, talent at full stretch—is always greater than the novelist. It is more intelligent. It is more vast. It can change your entire internal world. Of course, so can a scientific truth. So can a religious experience. So can some drugs. So can a sublime event in nature. But the novel operates on that high level. Sitting there, alone, quite still, you laugh, you murmur, you cry, and you can come out of it with a new worldview, in a new reality. It's a controlled breakdown, or breakthrough. It's dangerous.”

Satire is one of the most effective political instruments. Societies where satire is censored or otherwise underdeveloped are far easier to control and manage. The worst thing that a dictator fears is not death: but to be subject to ridicule. One might argue that one of the co-factors to the development of democracy is satire, irony and humor; an opposition without these arrows can never effective hold those in power to account.

Posted: 5/21/2007 10:03:11 PM 


Gathering news, opinion and analysis

Keeping a pulse on political, economic and social developments in Thailand is never an easy task even if you live in Thailand. A certain skill is needed to read between the lines of not only what is said but what has not been said. I have another purpose. Often I will come across an article about a place or person that sends me out the door to investigate for possible material to be used in a novel. Many of my novels also have a political angle and it is good to have a wide source of opinion and information about the fault lines that characters seek to avoid. Often news from the political world reads like noir fiction and that makes it all the more compelling to form part of a crime novel.

The leading English language newspapers are:

The Bangkok Post

The Nation

But if you are looking for alternative points of view and independent voices, I would recommend the following blogs:

For a line by line (or blow by blow) analysis of one person’s take on the quality of analysis and reasoning by members of the local press Thailand Jumped the Shark is a provocative, edgy and frequently insightful website.

If you like satire and parody, then Siam Sentinel takes on the sacred cows. Irony isn’t a natural part of the Thai political tradition where it is often seen as a personal assault. Sometimes the cross-cultural perception, especially when expressed as satire can cause amusing misunderstandings. The posting are often very funny.

Two other blogs worth checking out are Bangkok Pundit and for a more scholarly blog New Mandala

Posted: 5/21/2007 1:03:42 AM 


Gathering the Numbers and Gathering the Facts

Who The Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence War, C. Michael Hiam, Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press (2006), 326 pages, biblio., index.

Who the Hell Are We Fighting?
is a biography about Sam Adams, an intelligence operative who fought to convince his superiors at the early stages of the Vietnam war that the number of Viet Cong were two to three times greater than the politically inspired MACV figures. Sam’s story illustrates how domestic American politics and the narrow vision of generals and politicians became the driving force. Their determination was enough to dismiss contrary evidence based on Sam Adams’ in depth knowledge about culture, history and nationalistic feelings in Vietnam. Denial of the truth, as we have seen in Iraq, is guaranteed to produce a disaster.

The larger message of the book is beyond Vietnam. It applies to what happened in Baghdad and continues to happen on a daily basis. You simply cannot defeat or begin to change the attitudes, expectation, and desires of a people you don’t know, refuses to know simply because you believe what you are bringing to them will be good, wise and improve their existence.

There is a tendency for most people to start with a set of assumption and then look for facts that support what they already believe. We all know this kind of person. He or she has weaved a platform from newspapers, magazines, gossip, and people who otherwise share their opinion. The problem is went politicians use this technique in the preclude to go to war.

What Who The Hell Are We Fighting? illustrates is how the intelligence services, military and White House, with a wink and nod, their attitudes shaped by World War II and the Korean War, already had decided the kind of war they wished to fight. The problem was these attitudes were not sufficiently tempered by the motivation, aspiration and expectations of the people on the ground in Vietnam. Adams dug deep into the actual facts on the ground, and when he had evidence that many of the assumption the policy maker had made were based on unreality, no one wished to listen.

There is a collateral point of Sam Adams story. Most of the fiction that is set in Southeast Asia by outsiders has the same reality as General Westmoreland’s figures on Viet Cong troop concentration, determination, and willingness to fight while absorbing enormous losses. A novelist could learn something useful Sam Adams’ dogged commitment to dig deeper, to go beyond the conventional wisdom and into the field where wisdom can be most unconventional. When a writer chooses a subject, he or she should devote careful attention to the underlying assumption of his or her story, the characters, the history of their place, the restrictions or limitations of their culture, the way their language shapes the way they express themselves, and the factors that create identity. Gathering good intelligence is one of the most important goals for any writer. Disastrous wars and books are built on bad intelligence, and no matter how pure your intentions, if the intel is wrong, everything else along the path will fail.

One problem is that many publishers are like those in the Beltway. They have a vague idea about Asia and when they read a manuscript they just assume the author has his facts straight. Often that is not the case. Publishers don’t pick up the errors, neither do readers or reviewers. Of course with a novel – this is not life or death, a question of war – there is a lot less at stake with howling errors getting through.

A review by Richard Sinclair of Who The Hell Are We Fighting? reveals this illuminating story:

“The turning point in the numbers story came with the 1967 national estimate that settled on a narrow definition of the categories to be included in our order-of-battle estimates.[5] Hiam, citing documents and interviews, makes the following case: MACV, following implicit or explicit guidance from Westmoreland himself, would not accept a number that exceeded a certain limit. The fundamental tenet of US policy was that we were wearing down the enemy—that at some not-too-distant point, the communists’ attrition rates would exceed their replenishment capacity. MACV, in fact, was claiming in 1967 that we might be approaching this “crossover point.” Sam’s notion that communist numbers should be pegged higher by a factor of two or three was politically out of bounds by several miles. Hiam, quoting a member of Westmoreland’s staff who agonized over the issue, says that at one point Westmoreland’s own intelligence chief came up with a higher estimate. Westmoreland allegedly reacted by asking, “What will I tell the president? What will I tell Congress? What will be the reaction of the press to these higher numbers?” The intelligence chief was soon sent packing.”

Posted: 5/18/2007 1:12:29 AM 


Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Sui Kyi

Perfect Hostage: A Life of Aung San Sui Kyi, by Justin Wintle, Random House (2007) 450 pps, with photographs. Available at all bookstores in Thailand through amazon.

On Monday evening 14th May, Justin Wintle’s political biography of Aung San Sui Kyi was launched at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. The author said Aung San Sui Kyi had been influenced by her mother, by Buddhism, by the principle of non-violence, and her time working in the UN. All of these factors had shaped her worldview. A ten-minute documentary was showed. The documentary was about Aung San Sui Kyi’s brush with death in 2003 when her motorcade was attacked by a hired mob in Burma. Many people were killed in that confrontation. Though the exact figure remains a subject of controversy. There never has been a government inquiry into the clash.

During the question period, the author was asked a number of questions, including whether given the minority and ethnic groups and the history of those groups, whether Burma was governable as a nation-state. There was no simple answer to that question, though Wintle came down on the side that Burma could find an accommodation with the minorities.

Wintle reviewed the division between the idealists and the realists. The idealists have long supported a boycott on tourism to Burma. The Lonely Planet was singled out as “brand” and the idealists called for the boycott of all its publications because of its volume on Burma. Wintle asked whether people should learn about the country only from official government publications.

The realists on the other hand have long argued that a large number of tourists would have been a positive force for Burma and ordinary Burmese people as their influence couldn’t be easily contained by the government. He also suggested that the policies of the idealists had helped push Burma further into the sphere of influence of the Chinese. Moreover sanctions had failed to deliver any tangible result as Burma had trading relations with China, Singapore, Japan and Malaysia.

Wintle also questioned whether Aung San Sui Kyi’s belief in non-violence was the right one for Burma. He asked whether if the people had taken to the streets after the 1990 election to protests the military’s decision to ignore the overwhelming victory by Aung San Sui Kyi’s party, whether the military might have stepped down.

There were more questions than answers; and that is the usual conclusion with most discussions about Burma.

Posted: 5/15/2007 6:22:42 AM 


Tabloid Tokyo 2

101 Tales of Sex, Crime, and the Bizarre from Japan’s Wild Weeklies, Tabloid Tokyo 2, (2007) pp. 286 complied by Mark Schreiber For anyone who thinks that globalization has made the world flat Mark Schreiber has a surprise for them. He has brought together a rich tapestry of strange happenings in offices, homes, trains, streets and bedrooms of modern Japan. The tales are plucked from weeklies like Sukhan Shincho, Shukan Bushun, Flash, Friday, Tsukuru and Shukan Gendai. For those who fear the erosion of the divide between the East and West, Schreiber has substantial evidence of the void between the two. The collected articles are recent (2002-2006), short and to the point.

Here are some of the article titles:

“Air Sex” Champ Goes for KO
Tantric Menu Sparks Sexual Appetites
Shibuya’s Love Hotels All Spent
Feral Women on Prowl for Profit

In Pornstars’ Secrets of Longevity, Mayu Obara, a 30 year old veteran of more than 300 xx-rated films explains how she prepares for a film. “My job, for what it’s worth, is to show acts of sex,” she reflects. “Even if my male counterpart has skilled techniques, I don’t feel right unless I put my heart and soul into my work. So I always study the script carefully before each shooting, really concentrate on what I’m doing. Then I can let myself go.”

In Girls Go Gaga over Goodfellas, we learn how Japanese women love the tough guy gangster approach. One ex-gangster giving advice is 67 year old Ishihara author of Yakuza Love Techniques cites his qualifications to give advice on mating ritual as having gone with a couple hundred dames and married a few of them. His catchy advice includes, “Even if she catches you playing around on the side, never admit it. See, that’s a way to show her respect. But if she keeps hassling you about, give her a good smack.”

Yeah, right. Try that in New York, London or Vancouver and see what happens. From predatory women lurking in cocktail bars of Tokyo hotels to mixed communal baths, Schreiber has opened a world on loving, living, and getting along; his selection of articles add a large range of material about the mystery of sex and life and along the way are large dabs of humour and wit.

Posted: 5/11/2007 6:45:54 AM 


Readers Review of A Haunting Smile

Robert Roberts has sent along his review of A Haunting Smile.

“What with Thailand in the news recently for a pedophile, a military coup, a monetary misstep and having an ability to reverberate far beyond its borders one could do a lot worse than read this book for an understanding of an important country often misunderstood and maligned. Though it is a work of fiction A Haunting Smile deals with the 1991 military overthrow of democratically elected government and subsequent violent suppression of the popular broad-based response to it by the Thai people.

Throw in a Abbie Hoffman type bonking the protagonist's daughter, a Milo Mindbender of the sloganed t-shirt industry, a gunrunning St Germain, the licentious atmosphere of Bangkok's sex industry and you have the makings of a very fine novel with a mature author well-acquainted with Siamese ways.

Eerily the time lag between the coup and the violence of that time mirror the present situation. Let's hope the bloody events recreated graphically and emotionally in this book are not repeated.”

Posted: 5/9/2007 11:07:08 PM 


Watch list for New Novels set in Thailand

Tim Hallinan’s new book A Nail Through the Heart will be released in the United States by William Morrow (July 1, 2007). You can read a sample chapter free by going to Tim’s blog:

He also has advance praise from well-known novelists, including:

A Nail Through the Heart is a haunting novel that takes place way out on the fringe of the moral landscape. It’s fast, bold, disturbing and beautifully written. Hallinan is terrific.” --T. Jefferson Parker

I had lunch with Tim in Bangkok a few weeks ago. He’s been writing novels and screenplays for many years and he’s well traveled in Asia.

Posted: 5/9/2007 4:29:39 AM 


Hora Cero en Phnom Penh

Every year for the past 19 years there has been a festival in North Spain to celebrate crime fiction and thrillers. Along with Henning Mankell, Donna Leon, Christopher Priest, Peter Berling, Petros Markakis and Bob Reiss, I have been invited to attend. It is also know as “Black Week” of Gijon. The ten-day festival includes, concerts, films and exhibitions as well as books. Over a million people attend the festival each year. I have been invited to talk about the Spanish edition of Zero Hour in Phnom Penh. Paidós, my Spanish publisher released Hora Cero en Phnom Penh in April.

There is “black Train” that arrives to kick off “black Week.” It takes writers and journalists from Madrid to Gijón. The festival promoters say, “It is without a doubt the only occasion in which the writers have been able to feel like heroes, received in the platforms of the station by the multitude and the municipal band.”

Posted: 5/8/2007 12:25:47 AM 


Creative Inspiration

One of the challenges in writing fiction is to create good characters. It is not uncommon to meet someone and think that would be an interesting character. What makes a character standout from the crowd? (Of course there are very good novels where the character is lost in the crowd, and that is a different kind of novel.) Usually there is a personal tic or quality in a character that draws my attention.

A friend recently suggested that he may have found the ultimate character for a novel. The novel is about the man who loves cats and is trying to kick a drug habit. One day, though, he’s in the midst of withdrawal and the straw comes out of nowhere and before it knows it, the cat doesn’t stand a chance.

Posted: 5/4/2007 3:47:18 AM 


Chiang Mai Expat Club

On Saturday 26th April I spoke before about 100 members of the Chiang Mai Expat Club. I talked about the history of how Vincent Calvino was created. This took me back to the mid-1980s when I lived in New York City and had the chance to ride with NYPD as a civilian observer. The late night shifts in Brookyln and Harlem laid the foundation for Calvino's world. Setting a private eye series in Southeast Asia with a New York lead character was another subject of conversation. I believed in 1990 when I started writing Spirit House, that the fundamental qualities of a private eye required a sharp eye for dealing with social injustice, abuse of power, corrupt politicians, and influential mafia figures. It is always the small guy without influence that is trapped in such a web and the reader turns the pages to find out how such a person fights overwhelmning odds.

Posted: 5/1/2007 11:05:16 PM 


Film Rights

Again the distant drums are beating a coded message: "We are interested in your books."
At least that is the way I have decoded the message. It is possible what the real message is: "We are fishing in every pond and stumbled across your tiny puddle and are having a good laugh."

An outline for a film for Waiting for the Lady is in play.

Posted: 5/1/2007 11:03:51 PM 


New Calvino novel

Slowly the basic elements are coming together for the 10th Calvino novel. The process is not unlike planet formation in the universe. There is a lot of dust to gather into a ball. The problem with creating planets is most of them are big balls of gas. The same applies to most ideas for a novel. Creating a planet or a novel that can be inhabited easily is a rare, random act. The main difference is that we would like a couple of million other planets exactly like our own. No one wants to keep reading the same novel over and over again. The reality is that none of the writing gets any easier from book to book. If anything, the process becomes more difficult. At this point, I am still working through some new ideas that will bring a new character and point of view to the 10th novel.

Posted: 5/1/2007 11:01:41 PM 



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