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.
Judging the Judges: Distrust and the Rise of Violence against Courts
Judges are expected to be impartial storytellers, weaving their narratives from the evidence presented to them, considering previous cases with similar facts, and deciding how the law applies to the findings of fact. A judge without impartiality is like a priest without faith. Religion is not an accidental metaphor. Good faith in the judicial system is underscored by a belief in its impartiality.
If you’ve spent time in courtrooms in Canada, England, Burma, and America you’d find the same churchlike devotion to symbolism, ritual, gowns and reverence from those in attendance. Oaths are taken to tell them the truth. Lies made under oath are punished by fines and imprisonment.
Judges sit on an elevated bench looking down as from Olympus at those in the courtroom, and those below look up to them.
Judges are in a business not unlike a mystery author who must tie up the loose ends that explains the story. Unlike most writers they must also be public performers in the ritual of justice.
Edmund Burke wrote, “It is hard to say whether doctors of law or divinity have made the greater advances in the lucrative business of mystery.”
A crime fiction writer may entertain, enlighten, stimulate, provoke or expand our understanding of the psychology of criminal and victim. Judges have the heavy responsibility of knowing their finding of the ‘true’ story has great consequences for the liberty of the people in the courtroom and the society outside of the courtroom. Like all storytellers, judges write decisions that can’t help but reflect their own cultural and personal biases.
Is it reasonable to expect our judges to rise above the prejudices of their history, culture, class, and time?
That is a burning question asked in Thailand where there is talk of a judicial coup to oust the government. Many judicial systems not just in Thailand are bending under the weight of full-scale political conflict. In those parts of the world set on fire with violence and strife, people seek answers about who is judging the authorities inside a political system and who is judging the judges.
Most judges are drawn from the ranks of the ruling elites. They aren’t elected. Judges are vetted and appointed by a narrow spectrum of state officials. They serve for life. During their tenure on the bench, it is fair to ask: are judges main duty to protect the powerful and the system that confers power on them or are judges serving to mediate and protect ordinary citizens who challenge power, conventional wisdom, or dissent from the mythology that power cloaks itself for legitimacy?
“As long as you’re scared you’re on the plantation.” ― Cornel West
To which I’d add, justice cages fear while injustice opens the cage door. Judges act as the gatekeepers, opening and closing the door on the actions of others and state officials who left to their own devices generate fear of among powerless people.
Unlike other storytellers, judges can send people to prison, ban them from civil rights and liberties and political office, overturn laws, regulations and edicts, and select among competing philosophies, norms, and values the ones that become the law of the land.
Judges in many systems exercise by their position considerable power over other institutions of state and over citizens. That is why their role has enhanced importance in times of great dissension and debate about the direction of society.
In the common law countries such as Canada, Australia and the United States (at the state level judges are often elected) and elsewhere in the Commonwealth judges are selected and appointed from the top ranks of lawyers. Lawyers who have proved themselves as not only versed in the law, but who have gained a reputation for qualities of restraint, honor, knowledge, experience, fairness and integrity.
In civil law countries such as Thailand, Japan, and most of Europe, judges enter the justice system soon after law school and work their way under the civil service ladder. The civil law system has a different tradition of recruitment, advancement, and cultural history.
In Thailand, the judges are an important source of power within the context of the political turmoil that has followed since the 2006 coup. A number of decisions on the constitution and laws have created controversy as to the neutrality of the courts to administer justice in light of powerful forces seeking to expel the government. The Thai political system and judicial system are going through a period of credibility crisis.
Distrust of politicians is acceptable if not necessary to ensure that decisions aren’t made for politicians and their cronies but for the people. But distrust of the courts undermines the last resort to monitor and hold the state authorities and those contesting those authorities to resolve their differences within the boundaries of the law.
The players may cheat but the referees are there to keep the game within the rules. If a referee appears, through his calls, to be favoring one side, the game is rigged and a free for all may follow. Thus if a judge is seen to appear at a demonstration protesting for or against the government, he or she has given the appearance of taking sides.
A judge’s authority rests upon the appearance of being neutral. If a member of the federal court in New York had carried a placard at the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, such an act would make it difficult for the judge to appear neutral in a hearing based on the legality of the demonstration and an application for an injunction against the rally organizers.
The quickest way to compromise a judicial system is for the judges to become associated with one faction in a political dispute. The friend of justice is seen as being no friend or enemy of either side to a dispute.
If that appearance of neutrality is shattered, the probability of attacks against the courts rises.
A number of recent stories reporting insurgent attacks on courts suggest they are becoming routine in a number of countries. Courts and court officials are being targeted as combatants on one side or the other in political struggles.
An extreme example of discontent with the court system spilling over into acts of violence is happened in Pakistan on Monday March 3, when a suicide bomber settled scores by blowing himself up in a courtroom, killing eleven and injuring twenty-four people.
In early April 2013, The ABA Journal reported 53 people were killed and 90 injured, including two judges, when suicide bombers attacked a court house in Western Afghanistan.
USA Today reported that in mid-April 2013, in Mogadishu Nine Al-Shabab Islamic extremists in suicide vests and firing rifles attacked Somalia’s main court complex. 16 people including all the attackers were killed
In February M79 the Bangkok Post reported an armour-piercing grenade was fired at the Criminal Court on Ratchadaphisek Road. An earlier this week on Monday 3March The Bangkok Post reported that two M-61 grenades were used in an attack on the Criminal Court in Bangkok by two men on a motorcycle.
It would be mistake to think such attacks are limited to judges and court personnel living in quasi-democratic or non-dramatic countries in the Middle-East, Asia, or Latin America.
Fourteen years ago, in a report titled Safe and Secure: Protecting Judicial Officials violence in the American judicial system was detailed. The report illustrated the rising threats and actual violence against judges, judicial personnel and others working in the court system. Measures such as designing the court building as a ‘harden target’ and the use of of metal detectors and x-rays to detect weapons, alarms, and CCTV cameras were installed as a response to the potential of an attack.
It is one thing to survey and describe the attacks on judges and court personnel, it is quite another to explain why such attacks appear more frequently and with substantial causalities.
One explanation is illiberal, traditional tribal forces are taking their insurgencies to the place where captured insurgents face justice. In Thailand, some have argued that the illiberal, traditional non-democratic forces are protected by applying a double-standard supported by the courts.
In other words, violent attacks on judges and their personnel may originate from deep-seated political conflicts in a society and judges find themselves in the cross-hairs as warring factions demand that court favor their interpretation of justice.
Another explanation is the absence of perceived fairness and impartiality of judges. Seneca confirms this is an ancient issue. “Auditur et altera pars–The other side shall be heard as well.” If one side to dispute believes their side is systematically, as a matter of policy, not being heard along with a perception the judges are automatically siding with the powerful, violence may well follow.
There is, in the Western tradition, a notion that courts, like free speech, are part of the safeguards needed to secure democracy.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
Courts are places where people in conflict go to obtain justice. And justice is in the quality of the assessment of what story most plausibility emerges from the competing stories told by the parties through witnesses, forensic evidence, and expert testimony.
In time of political chaos, the judges in a political system are called upon to resolve issues arising from the constitution or other laws. The problem is that what is argued as a ‘legal’ issue may have a significant political dimension and that draws the judges into the fray.
Each side of a political conflict seeks to convince the judges of the merits, fairness, common sense and justice arising from the assembly of facts, time lines, and role of actors in the political drama.
What is at stake isn’t found in the ordinary civil or criminal case. State authorities often have a horse in this race. Judges are by their nature also state authorities. The theory has been, while judges are state authorities, part of their job is to keep those authorities in check and to enforce civil liberties on behalf of those challenging what may be abuses of authority.
There is considerable gallows type humor about the courts that goes back many years. Judge Sturgess wrote, “Justice is open to everyone in the same way as the Ritz Hotel.” Raymond Chandler would have agreed as well as any noir fiction writer.
Ignzio Silone said, “An earthquake achieves what the law promises but does not in practice maintain – the equality of all men.”
None of this jaundice about political systems or courts that are an essential part of a functioning political system is new. Tacitus reminded us, “The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.”
It wasn’t just the Roman who had this view, the author of The Art of War, Lao-Tzu wrote, “The greater the number of laws and enactments, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”
And our cultural view of judges goes from admiration to suspicion as the often-quoted phrase indicates: “Good lawyers know the law; great lawyers know the judge.”
When it comes to the character of judges, one finds a range of opinions, including this one by David Dudley Field, “Judges are but men, and are swayed like other men by vehement prejudices. This is corruption please.”
Corruption, a word that swarms around the hive of anti-government protesters in Thailand, has more than one sting in the tail. As Horace wrote, “A corrupt judge does not carefully search for the truth.” Even if that truth may discredit the actions of the powerful.
That raises the awkward question of what is the ‘truth’ and who is to be trusted with find the truth amongst factions each claiming the prize for themselves?
Even judges of American justice Benjamin Cardozo’s standing recognized the issue: “There is in each of us a stream of tendency, whether you choose to call it philosophy or not, which gives coherence and direction to thought and action. Judges cannot escape that current any more than other mortals. All their lives, forces which they do not recognize and cannot name, have been tugging at them—inherited instincts, traditional beliefs, acquired convictions; and the resultant is an outlook on life, a conception of social needs. … In this mental background every problem finds it setting. We may try to see things as objectively as we please. None the less, we can never see them with any eyes except our own.”
Cardozo isn’t along, Felix Frankfurter wrote, “No judge writes on a wholly clean slate.”
Each age recreates its own justice system and selects the judges and other personnel to run it. And in each age, the status, reputation, and standing of the judges is reinvented to suit the purposes of the day. Much in our world has been disrupted by technology. Including the courts.
America has a secret court with judges deciding on the scope of government surveillance of its citizens. Thai courts sometimes hold closed sessions in Lèse-majesté cases. Michael Ponsor wrote in The Hanging Judge, “If you want the best evidence of just how strong our democracy is, come into the courtroom.” That’s hard to do if it meets in secret.
Novelist George R.R. Martin had his own idea about the connection between a judge and the justice he administers, “The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword.”
History suggests that once the courts are drawn into political conflict, the seeds of doubt and suspicion are easily sown and fall on the fertile field of doubt in government institutions.
The search for truth, justice, and impartiality is difficult in the best of times, and at the worst of times, hard men take justice into their own hands, sometimes with the tacit approval of the courts, and sometimes for revenge for the suspicion of such back channel signals of approval.
In Thailand, all eyes are on the courts to deliver judgments on a host of legal cases with large social and political implications. In a judicial system where judges have the power to remove prime ministers, sack MPs, and dissolve political parties, the perception of good faith is essential.
Whether the Thai judges, through their decisions in fact-finding and legal reasoning clear a path that appears fair and reasonable is a question on the minds of many. Whether any court of law can be designed or recruit judges capable of making such political decision acceptable to most citizens is another question altogether. Go to Google and type in Thai courts and click on images. This visual montage tells a story about conflict, power, justice, anger, fear and hate, and in the midst of this narrative are the courts seeking a legal way out.