A couple of weeks ago I
wrote an essay about violence. I have two companion ideas I’m developing:
borders and boundaries, hegemony, and the essential role of hierarchy to run a
modern political, economic or social entity.
Understanding how these
three threads are connected—violence, borders and management—opens a portal into
the cultural, political, social and economic source code that computes most of
the reality people experience. A great deal of what goes on around us in our
daily life, from our safety and welfare to opportunities and livelihood, depends
upon the right balance between these three forces. Disruptions through the
forces of instability and random chance are what makes life ‘interesting’ often
in the way Chinese use the word ‘interesting’—meaning chaotic and
refugees, work permits, occupation, red line, occupiers, invaders are among the
terms that rise from the reality of boundaries, the kind that defines a
recognized border, the edges measured, recorded, mapped. A world map is a
visualization of those boundaries. I have a globe with lines etched in for the
boundary lines of countries. What makes other planets and moons in our solar
system so alien is the absence of any recognizable boundary marks? These alien
landscapes go on and on with a tedious, mind-dulling featureless
It seems that you need a
life form that evolves to defend its territory against outsiders. That life form
creates and acts on a mental construct of borders as part of its evolution.
Borders aren’t an organic part of nature. We invent them.
I’ve been thinking during
the past two weeks about boundaries and how they set the human dimensions of
movement, affiliation, and self. What they mean, how we define them, and our
connections to them. Boundaries can be geographic term that we associate with a
nation-state like Canada, Thailand, Australia or Indonesia. The last two
countries are surrounded by water boundaries. Canada and Thailand share land
boundaries with other countries and those boundaries have resulted in disputes
with other countries. Land or sea acts as boundary demarcations. Boundaries are
real, tangible as well as abstract and romantic.
I am a realist as a
writer. The title ‘reality check’ as part of the title of this blog is no
accident. I accept, though, the range of writing expands beyond the boundary
lines of the ancient Roman and encompasses the mythical kingdom of Camelot where
boundaries float in the imagination. Ordinary life is boundary contained and
writers report the activities inside those boundaries, or they might rebel
against boundaries and write about lives outside them.
I am also interested in
other boundaries such as knowledge or experience. There are limits to what we
can know and limits to what we can experience. You can’t experience x-ray
frequency waves. You can’t know the physics that existed before the Big Bang. We
have boundary gaps, although we live our lives as if all information and
knowledge is accessible. That is a delusion that allows us to feel in control of
You were born inside a
boundary. That act of birth plays a role in shaping your identity. You are a
Thai, a Russian, a Canadian, a Japanese, etc. What happens inside those borders
becomes a version of your own personal story. Boundary stories and personal
stories inside a bounded area are something we take for granted when reading a
novel, watching a film or TV drama.
All boundaries have an
element of control. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to a boundary.
Though primates, like our close cousin the chimpanzee, band into small groups to
patrol territories. There border patrols are to chase away intruders, look for
weaknesses in a boundary line where resources might be harvested, and cross the
line into another bands territory. That is our heritage. Boundaries run through
old bloodlines that predate our species. What we’ve managed to do is to use
technical means to create weapons and transport systems that allows us to scale
a geographical space, draw the boundaries (over the objections of others living
there if need be), and install security forces to guard the borders.
Chimpanzee culture of
border patrol shows the evolution of violence as a way of boundary enforcement
and boundary encroachment. When those two collide amongst rival chimpanzee
bands, violence is the likely outcome. Borders come at the cost of blood. The
aggressor who is better equipped, led, organized and more violent, and more
willing to put himself at the risk of death or injury, will likely emerge as
having the upper hand.
Boundaries are never
static for long. This digital
map of Europe shows the changes of borders over a span of 1,000 years.
In less than three minutes you watch a 1,000 years of borders twitching,
receding, expanding, disappearing, in wave after wave of change. The chances are
if you trace your ancestors back ten generations you would discover your
relatives were born within boundaries that no longer existed in the same way
they did at the time of your birth. You have no feeling for that ‘place’ as it
was a location that existed in one time but failed to exist at some stage. May
be it’s not unsettling for most people to view ten generations as not relevant
to their modern life. The point is how boundaries are no more fixed than these
ancestors who also thought their boundaries possessed an permanence which time
proved to be illusory.
Borders are also an
underlying reason for abuse and human rights violations against minorities. A
recent example are the Rohingyas, an ethnic group inside the Burmese border, who
have been systematically persecuted, killed, villages burnt, women raped as the
authorities consider them as not ‘belonging’ inside Burma. What is ‘Burma’? The
answer lies not in nature but in the boundaries drafted by British colonial
mapmakers. There are many other minority groups considered as ‘outsiders’ or
‘aliens’ around the world born inside borders of countries that deny them
identity or nationality. Stateless people are those not accepted by any country
and who have no place to go. They face a dismal future.
The vast scale of
migration around the world over the last 20 years, as people cross borders, is
captured in this chart prepared by researchers atWittgenstein Centre
for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna.
connection is a leading piece of information about you.
When you meet a stranger,
one of the first questions that you ask is: Where are you from? Your answer
supplies a database of assumptions about your education, culture, language,
wealth, religion, sports, and your attitudes about guns, abortion, health care,
schools and university funding, war and peace. One word fills in a library of
pre-conceived notions about what you find funny, sad, and the food you most
Thais are forever asking
me where I am from. Canada. Snow, ice hockey, near America, cold, Neil Diamond,
and Leonard Cohen. I receive responses along these lines as the listener tries
to say something nice about Canadians. Foreigners will hear some Thais say that
a farang doesn’t understand how Thai people think. There is a tacit,
shared feeling among a lot of people that outsiders don’t quite get how they
think, so Thais aren’t alone in this assumption based on geography (and
Of course race and
boundaries have a close connection in the mind of many people. A person born in
Thailand is expected to look different from someone born in Finland or Nigeria.
This ignores the fact of ethnic and racial diversity that unites all members of
the species. But people are raised to think ‘globally’ of a species, but
specifically as a tribe of people coming from a certain location.
Globalization promised to
free trade, commerce and finance of the traditional boundaries that restrained
them. In a way, globalization has allowed powerful states the same kinds of
advantages that empires exercised in the past. Our new ‘Rome’ is Washington,
D.C., where those in control of the forces of violence make decisions about
certain activities inside the borders of other states.
When Russia decided to
size of the Ukrainian borders by assuming control over the Crimea, the reaction
from Europe and America was condemnation. Modern states aren’t supposed to
invade other countries and claim them as part of their own state. That’s the
theory, but the practice, going back to the 1,000-year map shows a long history
of land grabs and border changes. The American
expansion into their western frontier in the 19th century
represented another example of occupying the territory of others, expelling the
occupants into reservations and taking their resources.
When you live in a country
in which you weren’t born, aren’t naturalized, or have a permanent residence in
Thailand, you have regular reminders that you are inside the boundaries of a
place that considers you an outsider with specific duties to perform in order to
remain. For ten years I made 90-day visa runs mostly to neighboring countries in
the region including Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam or Indonesia.
I had to leave before the expiration of a 90-day visa, get a new visa and
re-enter for another 90-day period and start the process over. I never
complained about this feature of expat life.
I felt the requirement
worked in my favor as it gave me enough time to concentrate on writing a draft
of a book during a 90-day period, left the country, worked on the next draft for
another 90 days, and so on until after 3 or 4 visa runs I had a finished book. I
had a 90-day sword over my neck. I didn’t want it falling before I’d finished a
novel. I convinced myself that this sword was actually a chance for an
international holiday between drafts of a book; it worked like an incentive
plan. I lived with that delusion. It kept me productive, focused and aware of
how much there was to explore outside the borders of Thailand.
With a minimum of 40
international trips in 10-years (I often made trips more frequently than every
90 days), I had a chance to spend time in places where battles over borders were
still fresh in the minds of people living there. Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and
Vietnam provided me lessons of how boundary lines defined much about the people,
and how their civil wars had often turned out identity issues of people who
shared space inside a common border.
Years ago I switched to an
annual visa but still must report my address every 90 days. That takes me back
to where I started. Authorities take notice and keep track of ‘foreigners’
within their borders. There is a suspicion about foreigners that likely comes
from our time in roving bands when a stranger was enslaved or killed.
Crimes such as smuggling
of people, illegal logging, fishing across borders. Trafficking of people,
drugs, weapons, logs, ivory, and other contraband is enticingly profitable
precisely because of laws that control the movement of people, goods and
services across international borders. There are organizations like Doctors
Without Borders or Reporters Without Borders, which are the
exception that proves the general rule of that borders are patrolled and
Life inside every culture
is shaped by a shared heritage of what it means to be born, schooled, and
employed within a certain political boundary. In the physical, geographical
sense of a border that defines space in which authorities and law applies. Step
out of that space and local authorities, local laws suddenly apply. Substantial
difference in legal systems range from women excluded from the right to drive in
Saudi Arabia, to legalized gambling in Macau, to a single payer health care
system in Canada. To cross a border requires the foreigner to be alert as to the
laws of that place.
In Thailand, it is common
to find tourists who having left their country act as if the new space they
occupy has no laws or rules that apply to them. And every year there are sad
cases of foreigners arrested, tried and convicted for breaking Thai law (which
in the vast majority of cases would likely be illegal in their home
That sense of anything
goes, of freedom from constraints happens when our normal borders are erased
We lose our sense of
perspective and comprehension once we are deprived of a boundary marker. It is
strange to contemplate spaces without working out the boundaries that make up
that space. The search for Malaysian flight MH370 gives us a glimpse of failure
to understand the featureless huge expanse of the area in the Indian Ocean where
the search has been concentrated. Or how, with climate change and the melting of
the Northern ice caps, passage becomes possible and countries begin to assert
arguments as to what portions of the geography they can rightfully claim as
coming within their border. But other environmental disruptions caused by
climate change may include mass movement of people seeking water and food who
have been displaced inside established borders.
provide a sense of order, define a finite world that gives a feeling that, for
their problems and arbitrariness, we have a need for boundaries. The infinite
makes us recoil. Without a border the infinite simply has no meaning for us.
Take the decimal points of pi 3.14, which are both infinite and random. A
universe where there is an endless roll of the dice, with no winner or loser, or
with no point or meaning. The infinite might have a ‘sound’. A
mathematician/musician created a hauntingly beautiful piece for piano using the
decimal points of pi a taste of the infinite nature of these random
I hear the music written
from pi decimals when I read a news story about the search operation for MH370.
It has become a substitute for the dark feelings that descend. I am forced to
concede that borders are phony constructs I’ve been taught. Borders have always
defined who I am and how I experience the world and will continue to do
As land and resources are
finite and scarce, defining, guarding and defending a territory defined by
borders will remain a natural part of political, economic and social life. We
can’t imagine a life where borders are irrelevant except in a utopian fantasy.
We listen to the music that pi writes, with its promise of infinite decimals,
but without our geographical and psychological maps with the borders colored in,
our sense of self disappears. That may be one definition of enlightenment. Or it
may be the refugee where grief and madness write their own eternal
Neutrality as a Remedy for Political Stalemate in Thailand
No one wants to get in the
middle of a fight between opponents who wish to knock out the other. Everyone
has a theory of how to stop a fight once it gets started. A neutral party
intervenes and tries to separate them. If the emotions are running high, the
chances are they will turn their anger on the intervener.
There has been a great
deal of public discussion about the merits of an appointed ‘neutral’ prime
minister to end the current political impasse. In Thailand there is a public
discussion going on about a list of men (no women on the list) who might qualify
as a candidate for “neutral PM” by the anti-government side. As expected this
generated heat and political controversy. The Thai word for ‘neutral’ is
à»ç¹¡ÅÒ§ /pen klang/, which literally translates to “being in the middle,”
synonymous with ‘nonpartisan’ (according to Thai social commentator Kaewmala). Whether that middle is defined
as geographic, ethnical, psychological or ideological raises a number of complex
The news reports tend to
orbit around speculations and rumors focused on personalities. Discussions on
social media have begun to examine the idea of what it means to be a ‘neutral’
person appointed to high political office in a representative democracy to
resolve a constitutional crisis. An examination of neutrality as a political fix
in circumstances in a climate where the possibility of civil war is openly
discussed may help shed light on whether is a way out or a deadend.
Howard Zinn, an American
historian, had grave doubts about the possibility of being neutral in the midst
of a struggle over the political forces to be trusted in the allocation and
exercise of power and writing and implementing policy priorities. In
Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Zinn
“Why should we cherish
‘objectivity’, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or
another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we
see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of
view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t
play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in
Indeed, it is impossible to be
neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power
are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way
things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace,
nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy
against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be
neutral in those conflicts.”
Howard Zinn’s skepticism
about neutrality is shared by Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel who said in his
Nobel acceptance speech and later included in The Night Trilogy:
“We must take sides. Neutrality
helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never
the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered,
when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become
irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race,
religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the
center of the universe.”
On a more basic level
Laurell K. Hamilton writes in Narcissus in Chains:
“Personally, I think neutral is
just another way of saving your own ass at the expense of someone
Neutrality means a
country, a leader, or a person of influence does not takes sides in a dispute,
conflict, war or disagreement between parties waging battle. That battle may be
armed conflict or ideological battles that spill over from social media, TV, and
the press to demonstrators and protesters in the streets. Such a person is seen
by both sides as having no affiliation with the other party, group, tribe or
faction to the dispute. Neutrality means no shared ideology that prefers one
side’s principles and political values to the other sides.
The problem in some
quarters in the Thai political debate, neutral is conflated with savior. That is
an unreasonable expectation to arise from neutrality. The idea of a savior takes
us back to the core problem of personality-centered politics. One person’s
prophet is another’s heretic.
Neutrality is a
distraction from the central problem, and one shared by other countries in the
region including Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam is the
weakness of rule of law and the corresponding strength of a culture of impunity.
To possess true power translates into an immunity that rolls through the system
from human rights violations, corruption, disappearances, extra-judicial
killings, imprisonment or exile of critics. That makes the struggle for power an
existential one. The winner, his friends, families and associates are elevated
to life above the rule of law line that catches the rest of us. The loser slings
off to exile, prison, assets taken, name blackened, disgraced.
In a culture of impunity,
heretics are dealt with severely. Neutrality is difficult to take root in the
thin soil of a culture with a strong tradition of granting the powerful immunity
for their actions.
It is one thing for a
country to declare neutrality in a war between two other countries and quite
another for a person to emerge from a highly divisive domestic political ground
where emotions are high, battle lines drawn, and a consensus amongst partisans
as to whom they believe fits the bill of being ‘neutral’.
Appointing a ‘neutral’
person to lead conflicting parties to resolve their difference is a general
problem that runs through all political systems. Who would be a neutral person
for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party on issues of abortion or teaching creationism
in public schools is likely a different person than one who would fit Al Gore’s
definition. Which raises another question: can one be ‘neutral’ on certain
issues like abortion or creationism?
Beyond these ‘social
issues’ there are genuine disagreements over the allocation of resources between
transport, social security, health, schools, and public safety. If one decodes
the anti-government side, the neutrality argument is an alternative to
democracy. If a neutral person can be found, someone fair, justice, honorable,
wise and compassionate, what reason can justify the cost an election when there
is a high risk of people elected that powerful people distrust? Elections, in
Thailand, and most places choose a politician who isn’t neutral, never pretended
to be neutral and ran on a party platform that promised benefits weighted toward
the interest of those living in his riding. The purpose of an election isn’t to
test the neutrality of a candidate. It is to test whether his or her views and
opinions appeal more to the voters than his opponent.
The central purpose of
representative democracy is to resolve the disagreement through a parliamentary
process, which represents the majority view of voters. Voting is not a neutral
act. It is a partisan choice. People are voting, in theory, out of their own
self-interest as well as the larger interest of the country.
This analysis, you rightly
say, is well and fine in a functioning democracy, but what happens when the
parliamentary system comes to a standstill? There are a couple of answers. The
most obvious one is that democratic systems are chaotic, messy and uncertain.
That isn’t a bad thing. It means a politician who takes a position on an issue
must persuade others that his or her policy or plan is rational, timely, and if
implemented, with advance the interest of the people. It is utopian to believe
any policy will coincide with the interest of 100% of the people.
Also, if the parliamentary
system is paralyzed and becomes dysfunctional through actions launched by
opposition forces seeking to remove an elected government, a larger issue is
raised as to the nature and scope of democratic principles accepted in the
system. If there is a systemic issue with the nature and process of governance,
it is difficult to see how a neutral person can be chosen, and by whom, and if
chosen, how such a person can proceed in resolving such a deep, structural
Neutrality is another way
to express ideas such as evenhandedness, fair-mindedness, impartiality, and
nonpartisanship. Neutral is the opposite of biased, one-sided, partial,
prejudiced or affiliated with a partisan side in a dispute. Power has a public
face but there is also a deep power hidden like dark matter out of view that
shapes and channels the flow of government activity.
Headhunting such an
individual to fill the role of so-called neutral prime minister is difficult if
not impossible to succeed. Who chooses such a person and who sets the terms of
reference for neutrality? Who judges what records, private and public, are
relevant for an assessment of neutrality. If that were easy, then those judging
the neutrality issue would be neutral themselves and that doesn’t seem like an
outcome anyone would be happy with.
What person with
sufficient stature to break a deadlock between mortal enemies rises to that
position without leaving record of public service, writing, speeches, or
connection with the deep power? It is quite natural that even the most respected
people have signaled their preferences about process or policy. Anyone
distinguished enough to have the necessary gravitas will have taken a position
or made a commitment that takes one side or another in an earlier policy debate.
The point of democracy is to take a side and defend a policy position and
seek to attract public support for that position.
Ultimately politics is
about making choices. Who makes the hard decisions? And how transparent the
decision-making process is, and how accountable are the decision-makers for bad
decisions. How do we get rid of leaders who make bad decisions is a question
that is resolved by ballots or bullets. Neutrality is not a means of conflict
resolution. It is a way of avoiding conflict and rallying cries for the neutral
savior rises to the surface when people are seduced by the prospect of an easy
way to kick the can down the road.
One of the recurring ideas
one hears in Thailand is: Thais seek a middle-path to resolve problems. To take
that metaphor in another direction, if those in conflict are playing a game
of chicken, each on collision path, neither willing to blink or give way, the
neutral person is unlikely to persuade both sides to park their ideological
vehicles and shake hands and put their conflict behind them. There will
ultimately be a way out of the current crisis in Thailand. It is unlikely though
to be through the appointment of a ‘neutral’ prime minister.
The public democratic
process must be re-engaged, minority rights secured against oppression, and
government actions subject to restraint and accountability. And there needs to
be an open discussion on how the tradition of impunity has thwarted democratic
development and what needs to be done to end that tradition. This article in
Prachatai is an excellent examination of Thailand’s
long record of extra-judicial killings, disappearance of lawyers and activists,
mistreatment of minority groups, shakedowns, and corruption. No constitution to
date has reigned in these abuses and no neutral person has been able to stop
them from happening again.
The architecture of all
institutions in a democracy must be designed to work not just for the good times
but are resilient to turbulence when geology of political expectations and power
start to shift. If the institutions are weakened, break down, and the parties
refuse to talk to one another, one of the first casualties is the rule of law.
Violence accelerates as the rule of law recedes and this loop further undermines
institutions until instability become evident for all to witness.
There is no short cut to a
Constitution that establishes institutions that can govern, co-ordinate their
powers, and check and restrain one another. David Streckfuss, in a recent
Bangkok Post opinion piece titled The Risky Road in Avoiding Civil War, recommended a
referendum to ask voters whether they wish to revert to the 1997 constitution
(annulled by the 2006 coup), with reforms leading to amendments or stick with
the 2007 constitution. The problem is that an opposition that obstructs
and blocks elections would also likely see a referendum as another kind of
existential threat to their view of the ‘correct’ or ‘righteous’ political path
for Thailand. Just as an election, in theory should be the mechanism to resolve
a political impasse, a referendum offers such a possibility. At this dark time,
it is unlikely that the traditional mechanism will function to contain the
Sooner or later, the way
forward likely will be leaders who are forced by circumstances to address the
issue of what process is appropriate for constitutional change and the
substantive nature of such change. Stripping the powerful of their unofficial
immunity won’t be an easy task. Both sides want immunity and the ability to act
with impunity for their interest while denying that right to its opponents. Not
surprising, given what it is at stake, there has been a drastic polarization of
political forces in Thailand. Meanwhile, one can expect political strife to
If there is to be a new
constitutional framework, it will need widespread consensus among the powerful
and the restive electorate caught in the middle of a power struggle. How that
constitutional framework will deal with the culture of impunity remains
Political conflict, at
this stage, is fueled by fear, anger and hatred, and that is no climate to write
a constitution. The architects of the new legal structure will need to wean the
players from their addiction to high emotions, easy slogans and learn an
important lesson in designing a political system—it will need to install shock
absorbers to survive future political earthquakes. The political geology of our
times promises to deliver substantial seismic activity ahead. And sometimes the
health of a system is when a powerful person isn’t able to subvert the course of
justice with money and influence but must bear the full weight of the law like
an ordinary citizen. That’s not going to flow from the words of a new
constitution. When this does happen, something will have first changed in the
mindset and culture. We are a long way from reaching that point not just in
Thailand, but in the region and large parts of the larger world. Meanwhile, we
remain hostages to personalities who will never be expected to pay for their
Crime authors deal in the currency of violent behavior. Every society has violent actors. Mostly they play the part of villains, except when they are portrayed as heroes. The shifting role is confusing.
Crime novels are filled with guns, victims, criminals, police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards. Flip through the pages of a crime fiction novel and you tune into some point in the continuum of violence. Crime fiction readers process violence through the vicarious experience of following the characters and story. Books, TV, and movies deliver the planning, execution, conspiracies, corruption and lies that propel violence.
Crime of the violent kind appeals to some desire or need deeply embedded in our nature. The fear of and fascination with violence are keys, which unlock the mysteries of our true nature. Hobbes built a philosophy on this cruel feature of the human psyche. He wasn’t alone. David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher, argued there was no justice, equality, or fairness in nature. People invented these ideas, taught them with parable, myths, foundation of culture and people stories incorporating them as sacred text. We cling to these ideas as a shield against violence and conspire to maintain the illusion that they are innate rather than they are made up by people just like you and me.
Crime writers tap into a long tradition of writers and thinkers who chart the pathways of violence and the safe byways to block those paths. The noir writer, like Hobbes, believes nothing short of holding people’s true nature hostage by ceding authority to one powerful representative who maintains the peace to contain violence in society.
We are in the midst of a modern story of violence reported in many places, which shows how fragile our defenses have become. Social justice, fairness and equality need a political structure to have meaning. Without a structure, brute central force is the substitute offered to guarantee a certain level of peace.
When faith in a democratic structure loses its grip on a substantial minority of people, we lurch to non-democratic alternatives to keeping the peace in densely populated areas.
Such repression does little to prevent or contain violence. The bonds that bind begin to fall apart. Has Thailand reached that point? My answer is not yet. The fact remains, despite the increase in violence and the instability of the political process, we enjoy a mostly peaceful existence in most places.
Around the world, we find cities that have or in the process of collapsing into the black hole of violence as well as countries which have fallen into the category of failed state. These are isolated events. In Thailand we are a substantial distance from a failed state. But the potential for a rapid, uncontrollable expansion of violence remains.
In general, we should be worried about the early warning signs that our great experiment in domestication and huge, dense concentrations of people may fail. In other words, is the world doomed to become a massive crime scene?
Before I discuss weapons (essential instruments along with drills, routines, propaganda in the domestication process), I want to talk about the scaling of large concentrations of people.
None of our closest cousins the Great Ape,
scale population concentrations beyond a small community. There are (no have there ever been) no cities of apes where thousands or millions lived side by side.
Our history is recorded in evolution allowing us to trace our mental and psychological roots to other primates.
Unlike our cousins in the primate world, in less than seventy years our population of 2.5 billion following WWII has exploded to over 7 billion in 2014. Millions of people shelter, feed, bath, play and kill each other in cities. Given our genetics that is an amazingly difficult thing given the density of cities, there isn’t more killing. It is evidence that domestication has been largely successful.
If you shoved one hundred chimps into a Sky train (BTS) carriage in Bangkok, closed the door and ran the train from Siam to On Nut and opened the doors, you’d find clumps of hair, blood, ripped-off testicles, missing eyes and noses, multiple wounded and dead bodies. And these chimps weren’t fighting over the merits of a political system. They have no political system or abstract ideals, or process for controlling anger, rage and violence when clumped together in a train. They revert to natural instinct and the lid comes off the bottled violence. These chimps were bad. They simply displayed their chimp-like nature. One that is very close to our own primate nature.
Civilization and modern big cities wouldn’t have risen without a number of other essential features such as fire, language, and tool making. But without a way to control our violence-prone species, the chances of scaling cities to populations of 12 million like Bangkok would have been impossible. My theory is that the big bang that drove that inflation in numbers and density was the role of the sacred and technological advance of ever increasingly powerful weapons.
The feeling of transcendence makes it possible for a person to feel part of a much larger collective or community. The experience of a sense of awe of the ineffable lifts a person beyond narrow borders of his or her own day to day life. Religion saw the opportunity to fill this space. In close quarter living, the goal is to strive for a domesticated species that believes that it is part of something larger than itself and fears exclusion from the community where this collective communion takes place.
One of our most powerful social constructs learnt from an early age is fueled by the strong desire to belong and fit in, to the family, the neighborhood, the school, and the church. The sacred through religion provided the stories and rules for such belonging to a larger whole. The early sense of the transcendent has decoupled from religion and found voice through the arts, music, literature, dance, and painting. The same mechanism is at work run by a sprawl of sacred creators, who are our unofficial, unorganized secular priesthood. Celebrities and other snake oil sellers mingle, offering their visual and aural cathedrals.
No matter how widespread the sacred is, it isn’t enough to stop our inclination to use violence. It has never been zero. The idea of zero tolerance for violence is Utopian. It remains at the margin everywhere. When a political system halts through gridlock, an uptick in violence is one of the first things to notice. In Bangkok, as the government is under siege, there are scattered acts of violence.
The isolated shootings and bombing are absorbed in the day-to-day living. In Bangkok, we read daily news reports of violence. We read about them on the Internet or in the Bangkok Post, or watch them on TV. The sound of gunfire, the pictures of bullet holes in windows of cars and houses, or images of beat-up people remain outside of our direct experience. Life in Bangkok goes on pretty much as usual with trains and restaurants packed, offices filled with workers, and traffic jams along Sukhumvit Road. The general calm of the vast population indicates the increase around the edges of violence has not panicked the population.
For the domesticated animal there isn’t a clear and present danger sensed when going out the door. Bangkok remains far away from the levels of violence found in Bagdad, Kabul, Caracas, Nairobi, Cape Town, Peshawar, Sana’s, Ciudad Juarez or other cities on the top ten most violent cities.
One of the common threads that run through the list of violent cities is the breakdown of domestication especially of young unemployed men; the ability to control violent people, armed and ready to use their weapons, isn’t working in these cities. The danger is greater as the ability for fast, cheap communication and alliance building through social media creates instant communities fueled by anger and hatred. It is hard to have mass violence without those emotions infecting a significant number of people.
People are emotionally driven and our communication breakthroughs have enabled them to amplify anger and fear over vast numbers of people, and to organize and deploy angry people. We look around at the world, and there is no shortage of fronts where people attack each other, or strike out against neighbors who happen to accept a different view of the sacred, or come from a different tribe or ethnic group. Another feature of widespread violence points questions of legitimacy of authority, or lack of fear of the authorities.
In the top ten most violent cities, the legitimacy of the government is openly questioned by force of arms. Those challenging the authority aren’t deterred by any credible threat of state violence to stop them. A small minority that can create enough chaos to make a city impossible to live in and drives refugees to cross border destabilizing their neighbors and exhausting resources of international humanitarian agencies.
In my first novel, His Lordship’s Arsenal, I created a story about the invention of the Thompson sub-Machine gun and how that weapon changed the way violence was projected and distributed in a way that revolutionized the world. The idea of weapons and their capability was based on assumptions about the relationship of soldiers and officers and the State on the Eve of WWI. Modern weapons toppled political systems in Europe collapsed like a house of cards. I explored the theme of this technical/political change. The grunt with a machine gun capability had a weapon that could kill hundreds of the enemy, including their officers, heroes, and officials. Their trigger finger represented more power than any previous warrior who’d ever gone to battle. No longer did an officer distribute rounds to his troops in the field. The troops in the field had their own supply ammo fed by belts in to rapid firing weapons. A generation of young men, well-bred and lowly-bred, in Europe died in WWI trenches felled by other young men manning machine guns.
One hundred years later another technological change threatens to change power arrangements between those with a monopoly over violence and the domesticated populations who bow to these overlords.
Hovering above the future event horizon is another leap in weapon technology. Drones. What is in store for us is beginning to take shape. There is a window for the state authorities to retake control of violence and neutralize the egalitarian nature of automatic infantry weapons. The elites equipped the infantry with such weapons and feared that such weapons could be turned on them. If one could keep the firepower with the elites as in medieval times, this elite fear could be more easily managed.
Nuclear weapons and guided non-nuclear missile systems are overkill for this purpose. But a drone that can stay over head for hours, watching, waiting, for the digital command from an operational center 10,000 miles away is another kind of weapon entirely. The new infantry sits behind computer monitors thousands of miles away in ordinary cities, goes home at night to spouse and children, goes to school plays, shops at the mall, sees the latest film at the cinema. They don’t carry an automatic weapon home at night.
An essay that examines the implication of new drone-robotic weapon systems and concludes this generation of weapons represents a game changer. Why? Because a drone means the 1% no longer needing the 99% as muscle in the violence business. Owning the software and hardware does away with the need for heavy lifting by troops in the field. Weekly meetings to agree upon the kill list, expansion of surveillance to detect the violent troublemakers, and using, in essence, white-collar computer workers to pull the trigger creates a new weapons/violence paradigm. The idea is the 1% can use drones to subdue the 99% who are no longer essential as frontline troops. This not only reverses the equality earned through the use automatic weapons in WWI, it upsets the whole notion of projecting violence and re-domesticating the population with instruments to instill genuine fear.
If this premise turns out to be true, no matter how much oppression we feel from the authorities that administer the current state of weapon technology, 2014 will appear to be the end of the golden age of freedom and liberty enjoyed by billions of people. Policing, administration of justice, the process of controlling criminal conduct would be thoroughly disrupted. Crime novels would be an oddity from the distant past and read with the survivors by a degree of awe and disbelief.
The struggle over violence containment has inevitably called into balance the golden mean, the sweet spot between just enough tyranny to keep our primate violence in check so large populations whose members are competing for scare resources and mates can live in peace, but not so oppressive as to allow for outliers to convince the average person it was in his or her interest to risk life, limb, family, and property in order to turn violence against his neighbor or combine with his neighbors to challenge the authorities.
There are other possible outcomes. As autonomous robotic system integrate with artificial intelligence, it is likely that overtime the 1% may find the weapon systems pointed at them. The newly grouped 100% will have an overlord to ensure not the survival of the fitness but survival of the most domesticated human and once again the term ‘drone’ will apply to people rather than smart weapons.
Our social constructs will no longer be programmed by the 1%; they will be programmed by a machine world that will know better than us our biases, our weakness, and our primate nature. Such knowledge drawn from big data will be more effective than codes, stories, myths or sacredness penned by any ruler, philosopher, historian, psychologist or the smartest person working at Facebook or Google. Our sacredness will evolve into ways we can’t quite imagine. Our overlords will program our faith.
Past wars have had the collateral effect to cull the legions of angry unemployed young men. Artificial Intelligence may decide it is more efficient to cull the populations down to historical size where violence prone primates needed less managing.
Realistically, we have to face the fact that an AI system might question the wisdom of feeding, housing, controlling 7 billion people, large numbers of whom act on violent impulse. These numbers create a big management, logistical and environmental problem.
No country or leader has shown the resources or ability required to resolve conflict between and inside such large groups. At the same time, the population shows no signs of stabilizing.
We are finding our limits. When we can’t find a 250-ton plane with 239 people two weeks after it disappeared, we are learning a lesson in humility. For all of our advanced technology, we have large blind spots. It is only a matter of time before machine intelligence eliminates the blind spots and decides a general culling of the population would restore our primate species to the proper order from which we evolved and broke free on our journey out of Africa.
Unless you are sleep
walking, you are noticing things as you move around. You might ask yourself
about you daily motion. How many steps do you take each day? Do you know that
there is a close correlation between what you pay attention to and number of
steps you take every day?
If you are reading this
essay, you aren’t in motion. I have (so far) your attention. Along the way you
pay attention to what you see coming and what find along the path. There is
something deeply unpleasant in the way I pay attention. The shallowness robs me
of not only depth but also ignores an opportunity. I noticed things that most of
you also noticed like the disappearance of the Malaysian Air Flight MH370 less
than two hours into a KL to Beijing flight. Like a missing person, it had
vanished. The world watched officials who said nothing in the matter of robots
programmed to avoid hard questions. I paid attention to officials who were cross
that I along with millions of others were paying attention to a performance to
distract from the existential questions of why and how something nearly 70
meters long with that many people and many tons of steel can just disappear?
What child or adult wouldn’t pay attention to something that big that
Airline and government
officials squirmed, shifted, blinked as they stared into the TV cameras. When we
pay really close attention to what someone says, especially if they are
powerful, they become very, very careful. Officials in government, teachers, and
employers all are in the attention paying business. It is a monopoly they’ve
long controlled, nurtured, protected and lavishly funded. The powerful have a
huge stake in what you pay attention to. Like all great magicians, they are
masters of distraction. Most people fall for sleight of hand. We can’t help it.
Our brains are easily distracted. Our attention easily bought and sold without
stopping to think that attention shouldn’t be just another commodity.
But it is. All of the time
this week, you sold your attention (if you had a job and wanted to keep it),
handed it over to a pundit, or politician who gives you certain emotional awards
in return for your attention. I was thinking about how this week the vision of
the military bunkers set up throughout Bangkok—about 176 bunkers and checkpoints—are manned with
In most places, people
would pay attention to the appearance of military bunkers throughout the capital
city. The photographs reveal that the freshly decorated bunkers fall somewhere
between a shrine, spirit house or spa. So far no one has suggested a contest for
tourists to submit their decoration ideas to the Bunker Decoration
People might well asked,
who ordered that to happen? What are the orders given to the soldiers inside the
bunker? Are they supposed to go out on patrol? Or do they just sit there and pay
attention, observe and write down what they see? But pay attention to who and
what, and if by paying attention, they see someone with a gun, what are they
under orders to do? I don’t know, I am merely asking how bunkers are organized,
staffed and instead most of the press reports have described how some of the
bunkers have been decorated. We’re not told where the decoration budget comes
from for the potted plants or flowers (perhaps they were donated) or whether
each unit is allowed to decorate their bunker guided by their own ideas of good
taste and beauty. But the flowers and potted plants have drawn international attention.
In summary, this week I’ve
paid attention to a disappeared airliner flight MH370 flying from KL filled with
passengers and crew and the appearance of military bunkers in Bangkok. What
appears and disappears, like the 0s and 1s of digital language, communicate
events, incidents, and movement that causes us to wonder about agency. What
caused it? And meaning? How does one thing suddenly appear while another
The mystery of life is in
these disappearance and appearances. The unscheduled events that evolution has
wired us to respond automatically and quickly such as an elephant appearing out
of nowhere. Six people and an elephant
died this week in Thailand when the elephant suddenly
appeared on the road causing a three vehicle crash. Evolution hasn’t
equipped us to react to elephants while driving cars on highways. We aren’t
paying attention to elephants.
decorated bunkers, and elephants knock us out of our routine as we move through
life processing our reality along the way. We shared this paying attention
experience collectively this week. But sharing something only partially tells
you how the attention was processed. We shouldn’t assume there is a
one-size-fits-all processing for attention. For instance, the anti-government
protesters’ attention more likely processes the Bangkok military bunkers in a
different light than the pro-government supporters’ attention would. Each will
argue the other side isn’t paying attention, or at least not paying proper
attention. This kind of attention processing difference underlies social
discontent, alienation and revolt as the agreed upon patterns, shaped by
culture, language and history, lose their grip to define agency and
Airport security experts
and authorities have taken our plastic bottles of drinking water and made us
take off our belts and shoes. At the same time, in many places, it seems the
authorities hardly glance at a boarding passenger’s passport. Given there are
nearly forty million entries for passports lost in the
vortex of global tourism which shares an airlock with global crimes, illegal
smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorism, suggests that the
authorities haven’t been paying attention to a potentially lethal flaw in
the system. This large database of stolen passports is evidence a country-sized
population with phony identities floating around planet earth. It took MH370 to
go missing before we shifted our attention to this hidden nation in a database
that no one but the Americans, British a couple of other countries regularly
consult. Most don’t bother. That Interpol database simply doesn’t have their
Guardian writes that Thailand has been
a hub for stolen passports. Incompetence, corruption, lies, lack of training and
supervision, and laziness within responsible authorities are all candidates to
explain why attention is not paid to the stolen passport database. They also
explain why only now after MH370 disappeared with two men who boarded with
passports stolen in Thailand (though it seems neither man was a terrorist but a
couple of illegal immigrants on their way to what they thought was a new life
with a fake identity) we are turning our attention to the matter of those
stolen, fake or forged passports. Like the missing airplane, no one seems to
have a handle on where they’ve disappeared.
A couple of years ago, a
close friend and his wife arrived in Bangkok on a flight from London. They
managed to mix up their passports. When my middle-aged friend, who is bald and
wears glasses, presented a passport at immigration he was stamped in. The stamp
was in his wife’s passport. I can assure you his wife isn’t bald and doesn’t
wear glasses. When it came to the wife’s turn, the immigration official through
a masterly of detective work looked at the husband’s photo in the passport and
at the middle-aged lady in front of him. A conference was held. The supervisor
finally sorted it out. The weak link is the lack of attention paid by those who
are paid to give their attention to identity of others. It doesn’t always work
out that way.
The business of authors,
painter, mathematicians, and musicians to offer alternative ways of paying
attention through words, images, numbers, and sound. They might even be so bold
as to suggest that the State is wrong, lying, stonewalling or otherwise
dishonest in diverting our attention to matters of grave importance. This
explains why the State likes to be, if possible, the sole or most important
sponsor of the arts. The money flows to those who fall in line with what the
government wishes people to pay attention to. Censorship is the State’s way of
warning artists and citizens to restrict the range of the ideas, events,
personalities and institutions that may be paid critical attention
Sometimes those stories
are contradictory to official stories and when challenging power, as Voltaire
once suggested, is a dangerous activity. Artists, who tell the safe story, or
one supportive of power, are rewarded and invited to give speeches, interviews
and lunch. At some point, every author makes a decision on which side of the
attention paying line he or she will patrol while seeking to tell the story of
what has disappeared and what has suddenly appeared.
There’s a threshold all of
us cross everyday as we explore our world. I was struck by Albert Sun’s “The Monitored Man”.
in the New York Times. The
author tested a number of tracking devices that register motion and activity
with readings on perspiration, heat rate, muscle heat, calories burned, skin
temperature and level of movement or activity. The idea is the state of your
health is connected with the nature and duration of your movement. Then came the
bombshell. On weekends, the author’s tracker disclosed that he took 16,000
Compare that with the
weekdays spend working at the office and the commute back and forth, including
the time spent at home. Sun’s workday shrank his weekend movement from a high of
16,000 (which approaches a half-marathon in distance) to 6,000 to 7,000 steps,
and most of that attention occurred inside the dome of an office. Someone pays
him to concentrate on a task that benefited the employer. People assume this is
natural or normal. But it is bizarre and weird that two-thirds of what we pay
attention to in life is a product someone more powerful than us controls. And we
find ourselves defining ourselves as an adjunct of our employer’s
ancestors had a much larger range of motion. In modern Africa, the Hadza have a hunter-gather lifestyle and the men on
average walk 11.2 kilometers a day (more than 14,000 steps). The Hadza men are
paying attention in a much different way from the modern office
Company uniforms or
military uniforms are good ways to keep the attention focused in a unified,
conforming range of motion. That is the life of most people. How they notice and
how they hand over what to notice to others. Our attention is filtered, fracked,
pipelined so that we hardly are aware that we’ve been socially engineered to
channel certain types of information, form that information into a range of
acceptable patterns, and to repeat that activity until further
When I paid close
attention to the story about trackers, I found another story buried under the
surface, one that raised much larger issues about the range of our daily motion
spectrum and where we fit in that spectrum will likely define how our attention
paying is mortgaged to pay the rent and feed the family.
Employers are buying
attention from their employees. The most effective employees not only
readily sell their attention, their identity is indistinguishable from the job
to which all of their attention is vested. I’ve talked to lawyers who are rich
enough to quit their law firms but couldn’t image what identity would be left
once they were no longer practicing law. This state of enforced non-identity
happens to many when they retire. Their motion is returned to them. Every day is
a weekend of possible motions. Do they grab that opportunity? Some do, many
Paying attention is like a
muscle. Use both or they both atrophy. The strength required to pay attention
without the handrails of indoctrination, propaganda, or work rules is great.
It’s you at the controls. If you can find that ‘you.’
After a lifetime of paying
attention we have grown comfortable with outsourcing the edit feature of our
reality through the filter of family, neighbors, teachers, officials, and
employers. We use this edited version of our reality to form this fragile thing
called identity. The fact that it is largely built by others doesn’t
seem to concern us too much. We don’t really think about how those filters
distill patterns from an unfathomable jumble of events, things, and motions
washing over us.
We’ve been on an attention
paying glide path from early school through a life time of employment, in early
old age that glider lands on a park bench with a batch of memories that seem
ours but are mainly off the rack memories shared by many others. The struggle is
to understand new stories outside the context we’ve spent our entire lives. We
seek a way to occupy all of that 66% of the lost time for our own movement. But
it may not be that easy. If you’ve lived a lifetime in a circus, being freed in
the wild is more terrifying than liberating. The jungle is an uneasy, dangerous
place. The lion cage door is open. But the lion no longer wants to leave. He
couldn’t make it in the wild. Outside the cage door, big airplanes disappear for
days and days, military bunkers decorated with flowers and potted plants litter
the city, as 40 million lost passports data entries circulate like El Niño
racing along the surface of the planet.
We try to make sense of
these mysteries. We seek a way to move through the world, which is stranger and
more alien than the one we’ve left behind. What makes the old sad is the
dangerous idea they were duped; there were other things in life they should have
paid attention to and didn’t. We regret that we sold most of our attention in
the name of love, faith, doctrine or profit. We didn’t have enough motion
to break free of the gravity of all of those filters. As there were so many
other possibilities, and we envy those who kept in motion and managed to break
But it’s never too late.
You don’t need to steal a passport. What you need is a plan for accelerating
your current rate of motion and let it carry you across expanded boundaries you
wish to explore. Fire the old script editors who have been running your
performance. Take off on a journey where the editors no longer direct how and
where and to what you can pay attention. This possibility of freedom may not
survive the cyberworld a decade into the future. While social relations and
political control will be less geographically bound; what comes next may impose
even greater filters. The number of daily steps may continue to plunge. Our
forward motion that brought us to this point in civilization may stall. The
controls over how we our minds pay attention may define our brave new world
where the Hadza, with their 11.2K daily walk, will take pity on us.