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It’s official. No Broken Windows has been adopted as policing policy to be taught in a senior-police training-course offered by the Central Investigation Bureau in Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post reported on the adoption of the No Broken Windows Theory for Bangkok. “The Central Investigation Bureau has sent its senior police back to school in order to learn about what it calls ‘sustainable’ crime reduction.”

It seems from the press report, that No Broken Windows training program for senior cops, as explained to the press by the police, means pretty much whatever the police say it means: stopping three or more people from riding a motorcycle, not using zebra crossings, and, of course, taking broken windows more seriously.

As the senior brass go back to school to learn about No Broken Windows, I have a few suggestions for extra reading on the theory.

No Broken Window Theory overlooks reality that in Thailand routine violation of minor traffic laws (not to mention murder, kidnapping, assault with a deadly weapon, trafficking) by the rich is a significant law enforcement issue. Ever notice those luxury cars speeding up as the approach a zebra crossing? Getting people to use a zebra crossing as a means to deter crime is indeed a challenge for several reasons. The most important of which is a zebra crossing doesn’t carry the same message for Thai motorists and pedestrians. To assume that using a zebra crossing in Thailand is the same as in England is a death sentence.


Zebra Crossing in Bangkok

Nothing quite highlights cultural and historical difference than a policy borrowed from another culture. New York City conceived a policing policy under the name—No Broken Windows. For whatever reason Bangkok is scheduled to adopt this policy. Let’s take a stroll together and talk about what this means, how it works, and if it works.

The No Broken Windows theory emerged from a 1982 article written by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.

The basic idea of No Broken Windows:

“Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a pavement. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of refuse from take-out restaurants there or even break into cars.”


Sukhumvit Road street bar (Courtesy: www.bangkokeyes.com)

After Rudy Giuliani’s election as Mayor of New York City in 1993, he hired a police commissioner to implement a no tolerance policy. Under the umbrella of that policy, NYPD began a strict enforcement program, targeting those engaged in subway fare evasion, public drinking, public urination, graffiti artists and the “squeegee men.”

The theory was also used to support the New York Police Department’s policy of “stop, question, and frisk.”

Having lived in both New York City in the mid to late 1980s, and in Bangkok since 1988, I have observed law enforcement efforts in both cities. The two urban environments are significantly different. For example, is the absence of an equivalent of the vast slums of Klong Toey curled up in the heart of Manhattan.

Typically windowless Klong Toey slum is situated right next to the richest part of Bangkok, Sukhumvit area, sometimes called “The Green Zone”

In the mid-1980s, New York City streets at night would have few people around. Bangkok streets overflow with hawkers and food vendors. CCTV camera coverage is widespread in Bangkok as well (although many of them as I written elsewhere may be “dummies” or fake), the tight-knit social organization in Thai society may have less traction in Bangkok than in the provinces but the bamboo telegraph remains operational and ensures most of the time that staying anonymous is more difficult than in New York.

The No Broken Window Theory rests on a neighborhood’s general appearance. If social norms tolerate a shabby and neglected appearance, No Broken Windows suggests this is an invitation for vandals to increase the chaos. The assumption is No Broken Windows will restore the city to an ordered and clean state and discourage minor acts of crime, which lead to further criminal conduct. It also makes implicit assumptions about the scope and degrees of relative poverty within an urban environment. I like Utopia as much as the next person but accept this state is an idealized fiction that never existed, and will never exist.

The contemporary Bangkok neighborhood scene is better known among foreigners for its glitz high rise towers and shopping malls but along the edges are hard core areas of poverty that you’d be hard pressed to have found in New York City thirty years ago.


Bangkok poverty

The police monitor the disorder in the environment and arrest those breaking windows, littering the streets, painting graffiti on walls, bridges, buildings and train cars. The idea is to reclaim the environment as a clean and ordered place. And put the vandals on notice that they are at risk of being stopped and arrested.


Bangkok graffiti

The central question is whether the New York City policing experience under the No Broken Window police brought about a reduction of crime? The researcher found no benefit resulted from the police targeting petty crime. The causal link between the theory and the dramatic drop in line is also questionable as crime decreased across the United States, and in urban environments like New York, but which had no such policing policy.

Other factors such as the reduction of the number of young men between the ages of 16 to 24, the reduction of the crack epidemic, increase of prison populations, the fall in unemployment rates are more likely explanations for decline in crime rates. The theory hasn’t been supported by the evidence and alternative explanations.

There is another downside to No Broken Window—it allows for an inflation of policing powers. Researchers and scholars have documented the abuse resulting from vesting broad discretion in the police. The main conclusion is it results in repression of minorities within an urban community. (See: Levitt, Steven D.; Dubner, Stephen J (2005). Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. New York, NY: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-073132-X.)

Others have written the theory results in criminalizing the poor and homeless who are mainly racial minorities. The policy was a way to use ‘science’ as a basis to expand the discretionary power of police to stop, frisk and arrest young black and Latino men. The racial divide, and the fear of minority criminals, is never far from the surface in American policing policy formulation or gun control legislation.

With No Windows Broken, the police are issued a free pass to arrest locals “for the ‘crime’ of being undesirable.” The policy becomes a fig leaf to cover racist profiling. In the context of Bangkok, dark skinned natives from Isan and migrant workers from Burma and Cambodia, would be more vulnerable to arrest. Their appearance makes them a convenient target for stop and frisk street operations. And their arrests would have the legitimacy of the No Broken Windows Theory behind it.

Joshua C. Hinkle and Sue-Ming Yang have questioned the methodology used to test the broken windows theory out in the field.

The perception of what is an acceptable level of disorder is not a universally agreed upon. Cultural and class attitudes play a large role in what is an acceptable level of litter on the street. “That is, people with different demographic backgrounds and life experiences might react to the same environment in very different ways . . . social disorder is a social construct, rather than a concrete phenomenon.”


Bangkok motorcycle taxis

Precisely. Not to mention the hiring, training and monitoring of the police and the widespread corruption make Bangkok’s law enforcement light years away from the broken windows in New York City. The culture of New York and Bangkok are vastly different, and that is reflected in street life, the slums, the culture of policing, the social hierarchy and the prevailing kreng jai system where important people are immune from the law. Count the illegal gambling casinos operating in Bangkok; then count the ones operating in New York.


Bangkok traffic police dancing

There are acts of behavior, that after many years seems almost normal, but they stop outsiders in their tracks such as a chorus line of synchronized women police officers dancing in the street. It is difficult imagine this scene in New York. The point being not that Bangkok cops are breaking into dance and song as part of their daily rounds, but from the sub-culture, tradition, uniforms, and training they march to a different drummer than the one that leads the New York band of brothers. Indeed if the dancing scene above suddenly appeared mid-town Manhattan at lunch hour, tourists numbers would balloon, coop prices inflate, and hedge fund managers would spend more time on the street. Markets would suffer. No one would care about a broken window. A SWAT team and snipers dispatched to seal the area. Drones overhead. But I digress.

So how did the Thai police force, which excels in dancing around tough law enforcement issues, conclude that a 30-year-old policy called No Broken Windows, overloaded with baggage, was suitable for Bangkok in 2014? That is exactly the kind of question the authorities hate foreigners for asking. It might be worth asking the instructor at the police training seminar.

Let’s journey a bit down that theoretical road and stop now and again and see what we find.

New York City hired thousands of new policemen in the early to mid-1990s and regular patrols were conducted throughout the city. As a civilian observer in the mid-1980s I rode along with NYPD to see first hand how laws were enforced in tough, crime infested neighborhoods with high-rise slums and illegal immigrants. There was a major crime problem in New York during that time. I witnessed it first hand. New York City has changed dramatically over the last 30 years. Can we say it was the No Broken Windows policy that is responsible for that change? Many experts conclude that wasn’t the case.

As with most social engineering, the knot of complex features working in one environment at a particular time and in a certain culture yield a result. Others want the result and discount that complexity, believing that the policy alone will produce the same result in a radically different environment, culture and time frame.

From the local English press reports in Bangkok, there is no indication that new resources will be allocated to the Bangkok version of No Broken Windows. Given that an expansive and subjective interpretation of that theory as a kind of social control of behavior, i.e., use the zebra crossing (but don’t expect the person behind the wheel to stop) it does fit a cultural inclination to favor the vague over the concrete and fits a certain mindset that underwrites senior police training programs.

Part of Bangkok’s charm has been the crowded, broken pavements, motorcycles driving on the pavement or the wrong way on the street, the pure chaos of food vendors with bottles of gas cooking up Pad Thai to order as dogs beg at tables for scraps of food. Klongs (the canals) in most parts of the city are laced with an evil brew of refuse and sewage. Broken windows? You’ve got to be joking if you think that’s the way to solve the crime problem in Bangkok. Taxi drivers routinely stop along the road to relieve themselves against a wall or a bush.


Bangkok klong

No one denies the big difference in Thai culture inside Bangkok from American culture inside New York City. During Songkran white powder paste is traditionally used as a kind of graffiti to vandalize people’s faces – and sometimes the police are targeted.  Instead of replying with a Taser, they reply with a smile. Songkran is a special holiday where nearly everyone extends tolerance to total strangers who insist on throwing water on them and pasting their faces with white powder.

Bangkok policemen standing behind a banner that reads: “No power play on Songkran holiday. Violators may be found guilty. With best wishes from the Police Department.”

In that case, how did a two-decade old heavily criticized New York City policy called No Broken Window end up as a ‘new policy’ in Bangkok? It is as if Dr. Who arrived in a time machine and convinced the top brass he had a solution to their law enforcement problems. Sometimes things have no explanation. They just happen and you deal with that happening in the Thai way—wait a couple of months before it is shelved and Dr. Who arrives with another foreign policy that promises to make Bangkok streets and canals look like a version of Geneva.

I wouldn’t want to think what would happen to the teenager who rubbed wet powder on the face of a member of NYPD. I am guessing the probabilities are high that he wouldn’t respond with a smile.


Bangkok Cop celebrating Songkran

Summary answer for the final examination in the police training course: Even if New York and Bangkok were identical, a large amount of research that suggests that the No Broken Windows Theory has produced no evidence that it was responsible for reducing crime.

Meanwhile, an alert has gone out for Dr. Who to retrieve a law enforcement plan from the future, one that has gone through all the research and testing phase and produces jaw-dropping reductions in crime. He may come to alert us, as we need the reminder, that some foreign imported political ideas from the past have quietly been abandoned in the place where they were tried out and found to be, well, not to put too fine a point on it, disappointing.

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Posted: 4/17/2014 8:47:35 PM 

 

Everyone has lots of ‘friends’ on social media. Some people you’ve never heard of have millions of followers on Twitter. How can anyone have that many followers as friends. They aren’t really friends. Internet followers are a new and different category of relationships. Before going high-tech, some context is useful to understanding the limitations we all face in accumulating friends. I have under a thousand ‘friends’ on Facebook, and I follow 23 people on Twitter. That’s a large spread and I want to come back to the idea of the maximum carrying weight for ‘friends.’

We are violence prone species when expanding our territory in search of resources and mates. Like other primates, we lived in small groups. The size of our population remained relatively small and stable for 12,000 generations. It is the last 500 generations that a number of events happened that allowed an inflation of population size. And in the last 20 generations the way people clustered together and their lives inside that cluster expanded beyond the initial seed of our universe. In terms of evolution, the human species experienced something like a Big Bang in technological evolution only the brain has stayed much pretty much the same wiring configuration.

We’ve all had moments when tearing out our hair over red tape when we’d vote for anyone who would dismantle bureaucracy. The far right wants to do something like that in America and elsewhere. Getting entangled with bureaucrats makes a revolutionary out of many. Or have you ever wondered why elections, demonstrations and protest need layers of bureaucracy? Given the interconnected age of the Internet why haven’t we figured out a way to leave bureaucracy in the past?

The answer to this riddle is found in what might be called the Dunbar number: 150.   British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, director of the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, discovered that the maximum of our cognitive abilities to keep straight the people we know and their relationship with us and each other. These are the people you know and keep in social contact with.

Our cognitive limitation is found deep in our 250,000-year-old brain structure. It’s a hardware limitation in other words. We evolved to live off the grid.

Others have argued that “the optimal size for active group members for creative and technical groups — as opposed to exclusively survival-oriented groups, such as villages — hovers somewhere between 25-80, but is best around 45-50.” 

The numbers are linked to brain size and grooming habits. What has made our species different from other primates, according to Dunbar, is we used language as a substitute form of grooming. Language, as it turns out, our species found a more efficient and effective grooming kit in words that largely replaced the hours of picking lice and fleas off the hair of our friends.In other primate social groups, 42% of the group’s time is spent on social grooming as a means to maintain social cohesiveness.

Language, as it turns out, is a more effective and efficient kind of grooming. We are in the next stage where digital grooming has replaced face-to-face language exchange. Press the ‘like,’ ‘share,’ ‘retweet,’ or ‘reply’ button, or the thumbs up vote icon act as grooming techniques. There are people grooming others all day on social media. We have our social grooming colonies that share our personal biases online. Rather than 150 groom-mates, many people have a thousand or more and we appear to have returned to a new environment where many spend 42% of their time digitally grooming other primates. Only we don’t think of it as ‘grooming’ any more than we think of ourselves as primates. We are as inventive as we are delusional and biased. We clutch these illusions as reality as we find them useful in making our way through the jungle of everyday life.

For the sake of argument, I am using Dunbar’s 150 as the upper limit on the number for the self-management of effective social relations among people that doesn’t require someone from outside the group to organize resource acquisition or distribution. Inside Dunbar’s world, things are done in-house. The group doesn’t need a manager. It is useful to note that the upper limit is not the same as the optimal number, which hovers closer to 60 people rather than 150 people.

How did we scale from small bands of less to 150 in number to living in cities like Bangkok with 12 million people—all of whom need, as some point, to use transportation, sewers, drinking water, food, hospitals, schools, and jobs. That required creating a ‘grid’ and this work in progress of creating, refining, managing the grid in the face of technological destruction of our history.

This is a massive scaling problem and the experiments to ever larger numbers living in dense, concentrated areas has been going on for the last 10,000 years. But it is the last couple hundred years that management of resources and people with ever better technology, systems, management and logistics has permitted co-ordination needed to feed, cloth, house and control millions.

Bureaucracy has been the backbone of the system that distributes resources and benefits. From the beginning there was a conflict of interest between those governing the allocation of benefits and the people who received benefits. History is filled with slavery and oppression arising out of governing elites who used bureaucracy and threat of violence to domesticate people and use them as a resource rather delivering resources to them.

Why would anyone agree to such an arrangement? Rebellion and uprisings are a constant feature in our culture. Herding large numbers of people into close quarters and demanding that they to do things they’d rather wish not to do often requires threats of violence, a combination of tools such as genocide, displacement, starvation, exile, and territorial expansion through wars. It also leads to rebellion.

The question is who has the whip hand in running the vast enterprise of an entire culture, society, and economy? And how are individuals and groups under control of the whip treated? The elite members seek to give an appearance of grooming the rest of us. Our new social media grooming venues suggests that appearances no longer are sufficient. People want actual grooming. And what does that mean? It translates into demands for justice and fairness and liberties, and rights to participate in the decision-making process. They no longer like the old way of being treated like members of a grooming herd to be managed and culled for the benefit of the rulers. We don’t groom sheep. We sheer them for their wool. Modern economic models have adapted the sheep template to humans and packages it as grooming. A clever, sinister streak runs through our desire to dominate, acquire resources, mates and power.

The problem has been one of legitimacy of bureaucrats coercing people to do or not to do things. The threat of official violence underwrote their order. Originally bureaucrats, in religious or civil organizations, operated under the authority of religious leaders, kings, chiefdoms, warriors, or strongmen. They were sacred and objects of worship; they inspired awe and respect making following orders tied with loyalty, purity and honor.

Once the social setting requires organization that vastly exceeds the Dunbar number there is no going back. Society is organized along very different principles and the values and ethics evolve to reinforce authority and to punish unconformity. Our brain ware doesn’t give us any other choice. Our neocortical architecture is our cognitive prison. The grooming prison is egalitarian, housing everyone despite high IQ, status, birth, or abilities. No one, but no one breaks out of brain prison holding cell.

Democracy, in the modern sense, is a very late arrival—only about 500 years ago—when the sentiment shifted to asking whether the authority to devise and implement the policies that controlled the actions of the bureaucracy ought to come from the citizens. That was and remains a revolutionary idea. All of history had been either people living together in small bands where everyone knew one another or much later, forming into larger agricultural communities that had various degrees of tyranny to compel compliance with the allocation of resources according to the desire or whims of the top leader.

We live in a time where extremists seek to reinstate a council of elders, purists, who are truth believers in an ideology or faith, a strict hierarchy of authority beyond outside challenge or change.  That’s the Taliban model with the suicide bombers, oppression of women, hatred for gays, infidels, or foreigners. Inside the capitalist system: wealth is used to terrorize and control; the wealthy co-opt the bureaucracy like ancient caliphs for their own personal benefit.

Capitalism, in the gilded age mode, has produced a kind of suicide vest destruction leaving the people who most need bureaucracy unable to access it or, if access is allowed, the range of benefits available are reduced. The battles in the United States to expand bureaucracy into the field of universal, public health care in a way that many developed countries have done is a classic example of ideological beliefs undercutting distribution of resources to the wider population.

The old grid our parents were born into, one based on a monopoly of ‘state’ bureaucracy is threatened by a new grid built by the social media. You signal status, wealth, success and power through a registry of ‘likes’. A lot of companies and people pay for ‘likes’. They use wealth to generate authority. It is an illusion that ‘likes’ bought for likes have any meaning. But it is not an illusion that social media is causing a reorganization of how people accumulate into group with shared goals, values and interest. The center of management is returning to smaller groups who define themselves by affiliations to political, economic or social causes, charities, sports teams, or other interest.

Today it is difficult not to question Winston Churchill’s observation that “it is the people who control the Government, not the Government the people.” It is the very wealthy people who are retaking government, meaning the vast management system that runs the machinery of life for millions, and they are doing so with the intention of dismantling it.

It is utopian, as the Khmer Rouge demonstrated, to believe that millions of people living in large cities can be emptied into the countryside and coerced into a social system based on ‘self sufficiency’ or ‘self-reliance’ and survive as their ancestors had done. Such a time never existed, except in a romantic, idealized imagination. The Chinese disastrous Cultural Revolution miscalculated our capacity to form large coherent rural communities without the inevitable brutality, murder and oppression. The villain in both cases was the educated, urban person. Destroy that type and return the population to its roots was the policy. But the roots had died long ago. There is no going back to where we’ve come; that road washed away centuries ago.

We haven’t quite come to terms with the importance of having crossed a system threshold that has allowed more than 7 billions people to exist. How far can we scale before the whole system comes tumbling down? No one knows. Our cognitive abilities can’t take in those numbers. We can’t imagine the implications of that number on the overall population. We have and will continue to experience the collateral fallout from the large population and the economic system that and face the prospects of climate change that may well cause the population to crash.

Our weakness is for the benefits of scaling population, and convincing the population that the government is working for them. As Gore Vidal wrote, “The genius of our ruling class is that it has kept a majority of the people from ever questioning the inequity of a system where most people drudge along paying heavy taxes for which they get nothing in return.”

The ruling class has its own set of grooming rules. When someone within the ruling class is perceived to have violated the elite grooming protocols, there is the risk of huge disruption as Thailand is experiencing. Thaksin’s problem was when he stopped grooming the ‘right’ people and brought in a new grooming tribe. Until the elite grooming system is revised, agreed upon, and implemented, expect more violence, disruption and instability. Nothing makes primates more irritable and insane with anger than having their grooming interfered with especially by another member of their band.

People pay for a system that watches them, controls their lives by pandering to their biases, feeds them propaganda, and uses them for the watcher’s purposes. To transcend our inability to keep track of people and their connections, we have put faith in a system of organization, logistics and management that woke up to its own power, and that is when the nightmare started. We haven’t woken up from the reality, that we’ve been captured, harnessed, domesticated by a system that herds the population and limits their grooming rights. We had a taste of coherence—social media has created the illusion that we’ve busted through the 150 Dunbar number. It has made us unruly, more demanding, more suspicious of authorities outside our grooming stables.

We’ve gone way beyond the 150-group member limit. Our cognitive abilities are flawed by cognitive biases, and have limited carrying capacity, but we are smart enough to look around and understand once we handed the keys to the bus to others they will ultimately drive us to whatever destination they have in mind. It will be a place that suits and benefits the driver. We have no choice but to go along for the ride. We are passengers riding together in one of those double-decker upcountry Thai buses at three in the morning with 150-meter ravines on a narrow road and a driver taking another large slug of whisky.

This is our transport. It isn’t really our choice of how we’d like to travel. It’s the way things turned out as the speed of change started to accelerate about 10 generations ago. There is no evidence that the pressure on our cognitive resources is slowing down. More friends, more data, same meat operating system to process it.

Look out the window, look over the edge into the ravine and ask yourself if the airbrakes will hold on the next hairpin curve. It’s too late to get out and walk. That is a definition of noir to keep us awake at night and force us to flee back to our computer and log on to our grooming station, looking for ‘likes’ and ‘thumbs up arrows’ for coherence, comfort and calmness. This is the source for the Hollywood ending where all that grooming leads to redemption, fulfillment and happiness. Our primate cousins made friends finding and eliminating head lice and ticks. We are trying something to do something similar with our relationship with our digital friends. It makes us feel far superior and worthy. Until you sit back and think about the implications.

After some thought, can I offer you, my friend, a Red pill, or blue pill? The choice has always been yours.

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Posted: 4/10/2014 8:54:38 PM 

 

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 uncertain.

Passports, visas, 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 repetition.

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 our lives.

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 at Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna.

photo credit

Your geographical 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 like.

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 race).

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 regulated.

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 country).

That sense of anything goes, of freedom from constraints happens when our normal borders are erased through travel.

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.

Geographical 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 numbers.

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 so.

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 song.

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Posted: 4/3/2014 8:49:31 PM 

 

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 questions.

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 wrote:

“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 those struggles.

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: Night/Dawn/The Accident:

“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 else’s.”

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 issue.

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 conflict.

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 intensify.

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 unclear.

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 crimes.

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Posted: 3/27/2014 9:13:06 PM 

 

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,

Chimps,

Bonobos,

or

Orangutans

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.

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Posted: 3/20/2014 8:49:54 PM 

 

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 disappeared?

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 soldiers.

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 Committee.

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 disappears?

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.

Disappearing planes, 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 meaning.

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 attention.

The 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 to.

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 steps.

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 organization.

Our hunter-gather 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 worker.

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 notice.

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 don’t.

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 free.

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.

A Hadza Hunter Paying Attention.

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Posted: 3/13/2014 8:45:39 PM 

 

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.

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Posted: 3/6/2014 7:55:03 PM 

 

“Off with their heads!”
― 
Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

Power. Grab it. Earn it. Put it to a vote. The tango between power and violence is the stuff of literature.  Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined  illustrates a dramatic decrease of violence over the centuries. But the world I live in seems extremely violent making such a statement appear counter intuitive. Facts are facts. And “Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to…”

In part, this 30-fold decrease in violence means we are historically less likely to be a victim of homicide than our ancestors. But homicide, like the future (to use William Gibson’s clever observation) is unevenly distributed across countries and cultures. Richard Florida in What the Most Violent Nations in the World have in Common, cites three factors that explain why there are elevated homicide rates in some cultures and not others. (1) Social economic inequality, (2) gender inequality, and (3) the macho index based on levels of masculinity, testosterone, and aggression. Florida’s article focuses on private acts of violence that results in death. The question is whether these factors may also explain why some States are more ready to use of violence against their citizen or why protesters in these places resort to violence against State and its security forces.

It is public violence by State authorities and those challenging State authorities that is a common thread in the political struggles in Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela and Thailand. Projecting violence has escalated in Thailand since January 2014. What is the cause of this surge in political violence in Thailand? There is no simple answer, though Richard Florida’s three factors are a guide to following precursors of violence. We had bombings and shootings. Twenty-two people are dead. Hundreds have been injured. Four children are dead from bombings and shootings.

What emerges when you drop down the rabbit hole is the world inside offers up a wide variety of possible sources to explain these deaths. It is one thing to describe violence. It is another to explain it. Pundits make lots of explanation that are convincing, plausible argument as to causation. But don’t be fooled. Plausibility and truth are two different matters.

What appears to fuel the current Thai power struggle is a controversy over who has the legitimate right to exercise power.  At the heart of the political turmoil is a perplexing issue: On what basis does the caretaker government support its claim to govern in Thailand?  Owning power, through an electoral mandate, tribal tradition, military coup, or a strongman, can be traced like bullet wounds in the corpse of empires and nations recounted in political history. Long before The Lord of Rings was written, Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Power means that A can compel B to do or not do an act that B wouldn’t otherwise wish to do. For example, obtain a driver’s license, pay taxes, refrain from drinking and driving. You don’t have the option of refusal. You can be compelled with threat of violence to do something you don’t wish to. Objects of power are taught a script to perform and the best script makers don’t need guns to enforce their power over the actors. The actors patrol themselves for accuracy, which means loyalty.

Power, at its best, safeguards the larger interests of a community and individuals sacrifice a degree of freedom they would otherwise have to accommodate that interest. Power is a river with many streams. Elections are one way power is conferred as a communal agreement, the power holder has legitimacy in forcing others, within the law, to comply with new policies and law. Power also has other rivers where power flows from the barrel of a gun, from a family name, from a reputation for brutality, or according to cultural custom.

Power also means claiming privileges and immunities. Absolute power means the laws of the land do not apply to that person. He or she can bury alive hundreds of public ministers or court officials on a whim. Chinese history has a number of such examples to illustrate the dangers of concentrated power. Less dramatic, but still substantial, is the power that comes with vast wealth, through cartels and monopolies, through the accumulation of data about your private life, through the power to indoctrinate children to the ideology to support the powerful. True power has the capacity to make us fearful, grateful, or to silence us, and the power to use networks to defeat opponents.

Political power needs to be monitored and checked and for good reason. Over time, despite the best intention, the power holder will exhibit autistic behavior. His privileges become entitlements. The attitude spreads like a pandemic infection through the whole ruling class with hubris. Once the unrestrained power virus spreads through agencies, courts, armies and civil servants the capacity for empathy with the governed is destroyed.

The monopoly on violence is fragile. The State is many places is losing control over violence. The danger is that power and violence are being privatized like shares sold in a state enterprise in one of those rigged auctions.

People with power are mindful of those who would challenge their power, compete for it, or question it. Freedom of expression is the one defense ordinary non-powerful people seek; it exists as a peaceful way to limit the powerful. Free speech allows us to voice our suspicion of power abuses and make the powerful accountable. The two most hated ideas of the powerful are accountability and transparency. It means you can’t just shoot whoever you want without some due process preceding the firing of the bullet.

Criminalizing speech is one way the powerful push back to control their challengers. You can read a great deal about allocation of power arrangements from the degree of freedom or repression in the exercise of political speech. The more free the speech, the more accountable power holders are in the exercise of power. The powerful rarely attack the ideal of free speech. The really powerful aren’t quite that stupid. They have another argument up their sleeve. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “What better way for a ruling class to claim and hold power than to pose as the defenders of the nation?” Thus political speech is restricted to prevent ‘enemies’ from attacking the institutions of State and those who are the face of such institutions.

The powerful need enemies, real or imagined, to give them a mandate.

“What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand. ” ― Leo TolstoyWar and Peace

Sometimes the messy battle to merge democratic and non-democratic power centers spills over into violence. Power now stays stable because the aspirations, economic realities, and technology are constantly shifting and often faster than tradition institutions can adapt. This leads modern political forces to undermine the authority and status of existing power holders. These forces respond by abandoning the legislative assembly and take to the streets. Once in the streets, sooner or later violence surfaces. Violence is a weapon to recover lost power.

The purpose of a modern political process is to provide a mechanism to resolve conflict over the exercise of power within democratic institutions. Democracy is a peacekeeping patrol to keep the powerful forces in society from slitting each other’s throats. The worry is when one faction gets the upper hand and uses that position to put the knife in.

In every political system people have grievances. Not everyone is ever happy. What is sometimes ignored are the grievances of those who once exercised unquestioned power after they lose power in an election. When power is stripped away as a result of an election they are left vulnerable and feeling unprotected and their interest unjustly ignored. Anger and hatred, threats and intimidation, and breakdown of law and order follow. They plot to recover what has been lost. George Orwell in 1984 wrote, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

In the struggle for power that a culture defines itself and the identity of its people are formed.

The never-ending struggle for power is something children need to learn early on. Some of the best books that children read prepare them to understand the nature of power, its dangers, seductions, violations, and corruptions. The Lord of the Rings is a classic for children and adults and the ring of power becomes a symbol for its corrupting influence, and the greed and excesses surrounding power struggles. Plato taught wrote, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.”

If we measure the probabilities of what people will do with power if left to their own devices, it is clear checks and balances are essential to prevent tyranny.

What literary influences have shaped your opinion about power and violence? And what books would you recommend to a child to learn about power? The books I’d recommend are: Alice in Wonderland, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Philip Pullman’s Dark Matter trilogy, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Readers can add their own favourites to this short-list.

Here’s a brief reason for each selection:

Alice in Wonderland is a descent into the madness, capriciousness and arbitrariness of power. There is no better book to illustrate how whim couple with absolute power creates selfish, dangerous monsters. Once you slide down that rabbit hole, you enter an alien world of Mad Hatters.

Lord of the Flies illustrates the tribal nature of power, the symbolic nature of power attached to an object, and the horrible abuses that lead to violence and murder. Stranded on an island boys revert to a feral state where seizing power over others turns into deadly games.

The Dark Matter trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Phillip Pullman is a portal into the corruption of mystical beliefs and ideology by the powerful to enforce conformity and to destroy freedom.

George Orwell’s Animal Farm a parable of power, violence, dictatorship, repression, hatred and injustice.

The best foundation for a crime fiction writer, or any genre of writing, can be found in children’s literature. You don’t need to be a writer to take in the profound insights that will guide your own way through a lifetime of political power plays and public violence. The saddest thing about arriving at adulthood is so many of these classics are tucked away, spine out in a forgotten part of our personal library, gathering dust.

I would like to walk you through the maze of the political power struggle in Thailand. The fact is I set out with a compass and map and a few steps along the path, get hopelessly lost. So I go back and read Alice in Wonderland, and ask how she did what she did? I am curious to know just how far the rabbit hole goes and what I will find at the other end.

Along my Thai journey of 25 years I have uncovered some clues. What I call clues are the things I stop to pay attention to. Do you ever wonder why you pay attention to something things and ignore others? Have you ever thought that just maybe people who live in different rabbit holes, with different culture and language might stop to look at different things? That’s what I seek to do in my books and essays—examine those different things.

I invite you to a journey of discovery of power and violence and ask how and why people pay attention to one thing and not another, and how we share many similarities on this journey but at the same time it is a winding, twisty road and sometimes we find people stop and look at things we’d rush right passed. How they manage love and hate, fear and hope, lying and truth, justice and injustice, and how we all put our nose against the window pane and seek a glimpse of who these people who control our lives and our freedom and liberty, and wonder if they see me, see us as people like them. Or are we invisible?

What happens when we see each other through the pane that separates us? How does it happen that I’m on one side and they are on the other? How can I see and understand what people using different languages in a different culture see? Do I know what deep passages inside their rabbit hole their language leads them? I try to follow but I discover it is hard work understanding life deep under this surface. I try the best way that I can and know that what I witness, describe and shape into words is a rough approximation of the reality.

I look around Bangkok where I live and I feel the pain of the Thais. I see the sadness and worry in their faces. I have heard their rage and frustrations. We all started as those four children killed in the past week. A child wants to be loved and to be free. Carefree. They want crayons and a coloring book. Even a child’s level of Thai fluency opens an expat’s heart to the suffering all of us experience each day.

The bombs and guns, the hate and the threats are on a page we should turn. Make it go away, a natural child’s request. One that I wish was in my power to grant. But it’s not. Instead we must face the violence as not some remote event out of sight, but as touching our lives, only then can we deal with it, and deal with ourselves.

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Posted: 2/27/2014 7:48:47 PM 

 

The legacy of artists depends on their enduring ability to make succeeding generations pay attention to nature, mankind, humanity, beauty, and the dark, dangerous shadows that surround life. They make us notice things about ourselves, frame them in a universal way. Mozart, Bach, Sibelius, Shakespeare,  Goya, Titian, Rembrandt, El Greco, Lucian Freud (you weren’t expecting that one), Wagner, Dante, Chaucer, Dickens. . . the list of great artists is Borges’ Library of Babel long.

Lucien Freud, the grandson of Sigmund Freud, who along with Francis Bacon are two of the most important painters in England over the past 100 years. They specialized in portraits. They observed people and painted what they saw in others. Some say they painted images of themselves reflected in others. What of those who sat for these paintings? These patient sitters most of whom no one will remember spent many hours. What is their story of being observed? What of their observations of the painter observing them?

Think of these painters as emergency room doctors who took the pulse of their time.  The blood, bone, flesh are inside these artistic works. They embody a range of health and disease. They create an illusion of immortality.

In his brilliant Man with a Blue Scarf: On sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud (2014) Martin Gayford who sat for a period of one and a half years for a portrait painted by Lucian Freud, reminds us that in 1800 there were a billion people on the planet. Each and everyone one of them is now dead. Not a single survivor walks amongst us. Looking over some of the names on the list above to discover the ethics, morality, and temperament of those we will never meet. Our passions and emotions are no different. What moves us to tears and laughter may have changed (though As You Like It still makes us laugh), but the reality of tears and laughter is unaltered.

These artists have taught us how to look, what to look for, and what patterns bring understanding, joy, hope, terror, hate, anger and despair.  Mostly we don’t consult this list. We dart in and out of their worlds like we clean our teeth, and shortly thereafter we are greedily on to our next meal.

They have thrown us a life preserver to someone in the middle of a sea with no horizon but the sky on all sides. We are that dot floating, waiting for rescue.

In the world of noir, that rescue never arrives. We are abandoned inside our lives to struggling to keep our heads above water. We seek not truth, but allies. Others who experience life as we do and share with them a common emotional reaction to life, experience, others, and meaning.

Our looking is an experience of bias management. Like a thirsty wander in an undrinkable sea we search for drinking water. We reject any idea that such a search is futile or that we are going about it the wrong way. Our group feels its way toward the shared goal. Nothing can persuade us that we are deluded or looking in the wrong place.

We are prisoners of these biases. No one escapes from them. They are our black hole. The pull of their gravity is far stronger than reason, which acts as the weak force. What we see is all there is. What we want is confirmation of what we believe and feel. Contrary evidence is misinterpreted so we can maintain our illusions.  We all claim to be truth seekers. What we seek is the truth that makes us comfortable with what we believe to be true. We can’t accept there might be a contradiction. Cognitive dissonance makes us angry and dangerous. Our cure is to back into our corner with our community and turn up the sound and sights of what we know in our hearts to be right, truthful, honorable, and fair.

Our tragedy is we fail to train ourselves to pay attention to the fine details around us. We gain our identity, our selves, our information from instruments and machines. Not from nature or each other. That separates us from our ancestors, their lives, burdens, and social life.

It takes endurance to pay attention, and to seek clarity and definition in what we are attending to. If there is a single reason why I continue to write books and essays, it is to continue on a journey of exploration of what is in front of me, and the expression in words, pictures, and music of what is found along the way as we stopped to take in life.  Those who lived before our birth continue to dwell in our time through art. The presence of these ‘sitters” share our space along the river of time. We look over our shoulder and let them inside our minds. We try to see through their eyes. We seek a glimpse of ourselves in their faces. Mostly, though, I fear we suffer an illusion that we navigate on our own, that we captain our own boat, without much thought for those who lived before us.

It takes a large amount of psychological resources to pay attention. Basically we are lazy. Putting on filters and recharging our biases is our lazy way of idling through life. Imagination fires on distant shores hold no interest. We crave excitement but fear adventure. We take no risk. When our adrenaline rush is over we lose interest quickly. We move on like junkies looking for a new fix. What all great artists teach is the discipline to keep paying attention at those small details we no longer see, and to keep up that concentration for weeks, months, and years. Great art results when the artist channels his or her attention over time and emerges with an artifact that makes us feel larger than ourselves, expansive and connected.


[CAPTION] Lucian Freud, the artist, and his subject, Martin Gayford, “the man with the blue scarf” on the right and on the canvas

We avoid disorder, chaos, ambiguity and uncertainty. These things are unsettling and frightening. The great art doesn’t pander to this fear. Instead such art animates and discloses how our current of charged feelings passes through this invisible, unstable field.  We need an artist’s angle to view our own passage through life. Paintings, music and words are a psychic map to master new landscapes of the world inside and outside us. If we allow them in, we find that they’ve created a bridge between our everyday ‘us’ and the objects that surround ‘us.’ We are in harmony with those objects, and those others, people and animals, when we understand the nature and scope of our connection.

Here’s what Lucian Freud had to say about a visit to the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in Albi:

It is was very interesting, very exciting. That marvelous subject of the whores sitting round a circular pouf, when you look at it you realize that the one thing he couldn’t do was people together. To me, the most touching Lautrec in the museum is the one of the two girls, both whores, in a bed; you just see their heads. It’s so moving. They’ve finally finished their work and there they are; because they actually like each other.

Lautrec captured the most human of all moments: mutual liking of two people, and in a setting, which is commercial and people aren’t thought of as liking each other. It’s a fleeting moment. And it reminds us that liking, love, pain, hate and anger are constantly shifting in and out of our lives. None of this is stable; just the opposite, it is in constant flux. Five minutes later the two ‘whores’ could have been at each other’s throat. But that is not the moment in the painting. We choose our moments like an artist. What to record, what to remember and what to ignore. The two women in the Lautrec painting showed their liking. Now they would click the ‘like’ button on Facebook.

Gayford’s lesson in sitting for Lucian Freud is that we are different every day. Every hour of every day. Our mood, temperament, our interests fade in and out, cancelling one another, and that leaves us with the sinking feeling of unreality. It is not possible for the artist to capture the ‘real’ you because that person is in constant transition. Underneath the mask we wear is someone who is in flux. Persona from the Greeks was a reference to our mask. The one we put on at home, school, office, or inside the car or at a restaurant, or on Skype video calls. We have a certain face for the camera. For looking in the mirror. For displaying to our loved ones and for strangers.

Underneath the face is changing moment to moment. We look at paintings, listen to music and read books to find out what lies beneath the mask, to embrace it, to recoil from it, to recognize it inside us. It is the part of our psychology hidden from our own view. Gayford showed how Lucian Freud, like his famous grandfather Sigmund Freud, was in the business of reading the person hidden behind the mask. He waited, like his grandfather, until the sitter patient involuntarily revealed himself or herself. It might take hundreds of hours. Lucian Freud was a psychologist who diagnosed using paint. Every patient mood recorded deep inside the face as surely as daily notes by an analyst of the mental condition.

Artists pretty much do the same thing, treating their subject as a palimpsest to be decoded. They blend observation, memory, emotion, and imagination, and then find the right colors and shades and tones of paint to recreated these layers onto a flat surface. A writer or composer does something very similar with words or musical notes.  Artists see a wide range of possibilities that most of us overlook in the hurry of the day.

Gayford reminds us that we have 22 muscles on either side of our mouth. The muscles are tattered to our skin and not to bone. They can move like a 44-instrument-orchestra and the number of piece of music that can be played in huge.  Adams was off by two digits away. 44 was the actual number that the supercomputer called Deep Thought in Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy gave as the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything. There is a near infinity of possibilities in the human face, body, attitude, mood, disposition and none of it stable for very long like clouds passing through. How to express the depth of that range? That’s always been the unanswered question. No one knows. The answer may well be in observing the human face.

I also recommend Alan Lightman’s The Accidental Universe. Lightman is an interesting author as he holds a dual position at MIT in humanities and the physics department, as well as a physics and novelist. He’s been on both sides of CP Snow’s Two Cultures.

Where scientist and non-science in the humanities seek to understand each other’s language and premises and to establish a line of communication. This has been a divide as large as any political divide. Near the end of the book Lightman talks about electromagnetic fields crosses a broad spectrum and how we perceive light is a very narrow range inside that spectrum. We know these other ranges not from our sensory system but through our instruments. Unplug the instruments, study them a thousand hours and you will see nothing. They could never painted as various positions of the 22 muscles around the right or left side of the mouth. The physicist in him notes that in the electromagnetic field at the upper range there are more than 10 trillion frequencies and in the lower ranges an excess of a 100 trillion frequencies. Those are number beyond our imagining.

Art is carried inside our sensory range. It is what we share as we pass through time and the electromagnetic fields pass through us. Lightman leaves open the possibility of mortality as a state of perception experienced along a narrow band nestled in a vast of infinity of possibilities that preceded and succeeds our brief experience inside the human band range. It is a comforting speculation. But it’s not provable. It’s a belief. So the debate will never end.

Meanwhile, Martin Gayford has left us with a testament to Lucian Freud’s artistic temperament and way of being that created portraits of the many layers within each of us and they be studied for expression of the many emotions and moods and vulnerabilities a face can hold so as long as there are people to care.

Lucien Freud had a burning need to closely observe, to understand what he observed, to find paints to explore the range of observations. Though as Gayford concludes, he wasn’t a man given to introspection. What an observation meant in the larger scheme of things didn’t interest him that much. He lost himself in that observer’s world where he was in control.

At the end of the book, Lucien Freud’s words make for a perfect closing, a way of making the debate largely irrelevant.

The notion of the afterlife is much he same, giving people the idea that this life – your actual life – is just hors d’oeuvre in comparison with what comes later. As far as I’m concerned, the whole idea is utterly ghastly. I’m not frightened in the slightest of death; I’ve had a lovely time.

This may be the most lasting of legacies. The final obit when wishing to remember a departed loved one or dear friend: “He had a lovely time.”

If you observe long enough, closely enough, Lucien Freud’s life suggests you will find your own key to Number 44. Time passes on this search but it is let go of without regret knowing the full of richness of life comes from observing the fine detail. There lies enduring satisfaction. It’s enough. For a lovely time.

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Posted: 2/20/2014 7:48:23 PM 

 

14th February is Valentine's Day. On this day for winning hearts, protesters remain in the streets of Bangkok. There has been another push from protester leaders to call the masses into the streets to support their anti-government demonstrations.

In war, politics and love winning the hearts and minds separates the victors from the vanquished. I find significance in the traditional word ordering of the phrase. Start with the heart, and the mind will follow. Straight from Hume and every modern psychologists led by Daniel Kahneman. If you can emotionally involve another person the hard battle is won. The mind simply fills in the justification for the heart's decision.

The hearts and minds drama is being played out in the streets of Bangkok. It also has a psych ops patterns worth exploring. If one were clever and devious enough, the best line of attack would be to undermine the populist programs of the Government by turning the recipients of the populist programs against the Government.

Let's talk about Thailand's rice farmers. Any psych ops that would win the hearts of rice farmers might represent a political turning point. This is an interesting story. A brief summary: The vast bulk of rice farmers live in the Northeast and North of Thailand. They are loyal supporters of the Government. The Government draws support from the Reds. The Red movement is committed to representative democracy and elections. Since the election of Thaksin Shinawattra in 2001, rice farmers have voted in super majorities for members of his political party.

The current political turmoil finds his sister, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawattra, who led her party to the polls on 2nd February, and who has faced months of unrest led by ex-MPs of the Democrat Party, who resigned and took to the streets to lead protestors to bring down the Government. The protesters have used various means in their struggle---blocked road, cut electricity and water to government offices, blocked polling stations, 'arrested' and beat up people, threatened kidnapping of the prime minister's son, and ten people have been killed and hundreds injured in violent incidents related to the anti-government protests.

The protest leaders have shifted their reason for attacking the Government from an ill-conceived amnesty bill, and the allegedly illegal attempts to amend the Constitution (the Government wanted a fully elected as opposed to a half-elected, half-appointed Senate) and the usual standby---corruption. The leaders have had their bank accounts frozen by a government agency. They have marched around Bangkok gathering 'donations' to support their protest.

So far the protesters, looking at the dwindling numbers in the streets (sometimes a handful) are not winning hearts and minds of their fellow Thais. But they have a new idea. Having effectively reduced the authority of the caretaker government, it isn't surprising problems are arising. Such as payments which are now due to rice farmers under a controversial rice subsidy scheme, which by all accounts is riddled with problems, including allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The protesters having closed down the ability of the Government to pay the farmers, now blames the Government for failing to deliver the payments. The protesters have powerful allies. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) is expected to bring formal charges against the caretaker Prime Minister for her role in the rice-pledging scheme.

The message is being spread that this heartless Government you voted for is letting you down. They created a bad program. The local English language newspapers, which are heavily anti-government, run stories of rice farmers committing suicide over money worries. They show 500 rice farmers who have come to Bangkok to complain to the government.

The protesters have a new message that goes something along these lines:

Democracy isn't your friend. Your friends pay you. This Government is a false friend. Voting and democracy are unreliable. They cheat you.

If your heart is in democracy, you will only be disappointed.

Join us. Sing with us. Come to our picnics and nightly concerts. Happy Valentine's Day, rice farmers, we love you! Wait for the new T-shirts we've ordered.

Even though we called you water buffalo and said you were stupid last month, that was last month, forget about that. This month, we are your friend, and your savior.

In fact, the objective appears to be an old fashioned psych ops plan to sow the seeds of discontent and doubt in the hearts of rice farmers. It is a cynical ploy (but brilliant at the same time) and given the track record of Bangkok's elite caring about the 'heart' of rice farmers, the chances are high that it won't work.

Still the pitch is being made that if the rice farmers would only return to the traditional Thai values, their betters in Bangkok will take care of them. Just like they always have. People in Bangkok had given ten or twenty million baht in cash handouts to the protest leader who then as the 'big faced man' gives it to grateful rice farmers. That's a photo op anyone heading this psycho op will frame and put on his wall.

There are several problems with this approach. It assumes that rice farmers can't see through the endgame, which is to discredit populist programs, and the Government that sponsors populist programs. At the heart of this Valentine's Day message from the demonstration in the street is one that the protesters and their allies are the one with a true heart. Given the outstanding amount owed under the rice subsidy scheme is in the billions, and the donations in Bangkok handed to a protest leader are a rounding off error in the larger scheme of this mountain of debt doesn't matter.

What does matter in this coded message, sent over the head of the democratically elected government to their main rural constituency that continues to return them to office no matter how many times the elites ban their party and leaders, is that democracy lacks the traditional Thai heart. Walk away from democracy like you'd walk away from an abusive lover. That true Thai heart is found in the ancient concept of kreng jai system, where the good people aren't elected (a concept that can go so very wrong) but are known by their rank, position, name and status. They decide what is right, moral, fair and just. Trust them. Trust their heart---their nam jai, 'water heart'. They have shown their good intentions by collecting donations for them. Has the government done that?

Here's their story: Heartless government. Overflowing heart of protesters.

The battle of hearts and minds of Thailand's rural voters will continue. The idea is these donations to rice farmers will pay several dividends., The rice farmers are then expected to return a respectful wai of gratitude for the handout and more importantly will turn their back on the unreliable Government and democracy. It remains to be seen whether this will happen. I suspect that very few people who labour in the rice fields of the North or Northeast are betting the farm on the protesters looking after their long-term interest. The seeds of democracy have been planted and yielded too many good crops for the supporters to return to the days of waiting for a coin to be dropped in their rice bowl.

Happy Valentine's Day.

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Posted: 2/13/2014 5:56:58 PM 

 

The New Statesman had an article titled “Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state” by Reiner Stach.

While the familiar rallying cry against government oppression is drawn from George Orwell’s 1984 or Animal Farm or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, it is Kafka who in The Trial might best lay literary claim as godfather to the modern noir fiction movement. Stach reminds us that while we don’t particularly like Josef K, the doomed protagonist in The Trial, we can’t stop ourselves being drawn to following his downward spiral into oblivion.

Josef K is you. He’s me. He’s done something along the way. What that something is remains vague like a fog that obscures and terrifies. It is that foreboding, that sense of the gravity of terror pulling one headlong into a dystopia and that is the heart of noir fiction. Josef K is a victim. But when that victimhood is traced back to the source, Reiner Stach concludes that the tormentor is to be found by looking into the mirror. We are, in other words, without our personal complicity with surveillance state we wouldn’t become a victim.

We are partners in our victimhood. We work alongside the surveillance state feeding them our most private thoughts, fears, desires, and we confess our transgressions. We do this in public. We post our confessions daily. No need to go to church to find a priest. Our surveillance overlords are our new confessors. We know this is happening and we do nothing to stop it. Not only do we do nothing, we can’t stop ourselves from exposing the details of our life.

This passage from Reiner Stach’s article struck me as relevant to understand something about the current political turmoil in Thailand.

“Kafka was deeply sceptical of the therapeutic promises of psychoanalysis but he was captivated by the way it described the propagation of power, which chimed with his own experiences. Someone who keeps getting told that he is incapable, inferior or guilt-ridden will have to expend a good deal of energy to resist such a self-image and not make himself guilty in his own eyes. He has to struggle not because the forces of power have violated or diminished him but rather because he has been infiltrated by those forces. The poison lodges in his own body.”

The elites and their supporters in the streets of Bangkok are a minority who have pushed back against mass political power. They want to suspend election. They view representative democracy as the enemy. To delegitimize the governing party, they demonize and belittle the common, ordinary upcountry voter who have consistently elected a majority to Parliament, one that fails to preserve and advance their interests. They refer to the ordinary voters from the North and Northeast as uneducated, stupid, easily bought, misguided and their votes ought to count less as a result. They wish to shutdown Bangkok, throw out the election, the prime minister and supporters and seize their assets.

In the last 25 years, the ordinary non-urban voter has carried this baggage. And everywhere he or she looks, from TV dramas, to movies, to novels, magazines, newspapers and TV news, these negative images act to diminish and belittle. It infiltrates the mind and heart. The effect is to blunt a movement to expand civil and political rights. The minds of the diminished, like that of Josef K, feels under constant pressure, watched, excluded, an object of suspicion.


Thai man prevented from voting by Anti-government protesters

With a broad-based message from the media, schoolrooms, the better educated, and politicians, people aren’t just influenced; the operating system of their consciousness is set along perimeters that aren’t questioned. It is difficult to reset the mental operating system of a mass of people who are marginalized. For example most Americans don’t believe the government storing metadata from their phone calls and email accounts is a problem. They have, they say, nothing to hide. Neither did Josef K. That’s the way it starts. Believing one is innocent as if that is sufficient when the shadow of authority falls over their path. The reality the politicians are the front stage for an invisible civil service that expands into the private sector, merging bureaucratic procedures in a seamless web.

Like a fly, Josef K fell into the invisible web long before there was an Internet. It is what makes The Trial relevant and undated. Our personal fascination with the fly hitting the web, sticking to it, struggling, protesting, and slowly resigning himself to his fate. He blames himself and not the web. That is the irony of this dystopia where the structure of the web is such that no one is responsible.

One morning people wake up and find that they are caught in the web. They panic. Who to turn to? There is no hot line to phone for rescue. There is no possibility of rescue. There are no courts or other institutions that remain impartial and work to restrain power; instead they come to represent another aspect of absolute power. Evidence is always insufficient to bring one of the overlords to justice. There is no justice. And in The Trial, no one hears Josef K’s cry for help. His protests of innocence have no meaning once caught in the web. He’s there because he put himself there. He’s a victim and he’s to be blamed for being a victim.

The vast majority of Thai people in Bangkok and the countryside continue to believe in elections as the solution.

Would have representative democracy have saved Josef K? The answer to that question is the big issue of our time. Not just in Thailand, but elsewhere, there is evidence of growing discontent in the wide spectrum from dictatorship to democracy. The belief in government as protector of personal safety and welfare has collapsed. The rich withdraw into gated communities with private security forces, their children in private schools, their wealth in offshore private banks. The poor are left to fend for themselves on the scraps.

What is left is escape. Hit the road. Unplug from the grid. That is easier said than done.

Escaping from the grid—that is steering clear of the web—has a few people making a run for it. They won’t get far. The surveillance system grows until ultimately there is no place to escape. At that point, we are all guilty of something. We wait and plead our innocence, we rail against the injustice of it all. And so did Josef K. When the end came he no longer objected, to shout his innocence, he condemned himself, he was both victim and executioner. The State remains hidden, faceless, without responsibility. They no longer need to pull the trigger.

They’ve infiltrated our consciousness, installing an operating system that works on automatic pilot. Once in place, we are programmed to carry out on ourselves their dirty work. It’s how the new governing system was designed and organized to work. What has changed from Josef K’s time is the role of technology is making the State’s goal of infiltration vastly more efficient. We file daily status reports on ourselves through social media. We are our own parole officers. It works because it all appears so benign and friendly. All these digital communities ask of you is to ‘like’ them and to feel mistrust and guilt that you have private thoughts and feelings that they may not like. Those ‘likes’ are harvested, stored, analyzed, and cross-referenced.

That’s enough big data to clone a population who process patterns like Josef K.

The Police State broke George Winston inside Room 101. But Josef K needed no Room 101. He broke himself.

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Posted: 1/30/2014 7:45:17 PM 

 

The price of looking the other way by state officials has a new measurement: the Rhino Horn Index. Like a Hollywood list for actors and directors, those in the know can scroll down and find out the asking price and from their contacts establish the actual price. But establishing market price of officials is getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s first examine the transition of organized crime. Organized crime adapted to the industrial age, and it is now adapting to the digital age.

We draw our knowledge about criminals and their activities from TV shows like the Sopranos, the newspapers, films like the Godfather and Good Fellas, novels, and plays. The Mafia is a cultural object that people feel they know.

The Mafia has a code. And they have their iconic philosophy such as “Money is Power.” Or “It is a good person that sees and keeps silent.”

The Mafia was associated with families and operated locally.

Like any other business model, the modern criminal organizations wishing to scale to global reach have had to modernize to keep with the times. Tony Sopranos’s world is already in the past.

Leaving aside murder, kidnapping, rape, assault, burglary, and robbery that involve an individual or maybe a few individuals in a gang, the big-money crimes are in stolen art objects, animal products, security swindles, counterfeit goods, credit card fraud, tax and benefit scams, and, of course, trafficking of people, weapons, drugs, and illegal wildlife. The criminal kingpins like their counterparts in finance, banking, big corporations have reduced their risks by finding flaws in the existing law enforcement system and exploiting them to their benefit.

The name of the game is not to get caught.

The digital highway robbers are surfing the big data wave. With the best lawyers, accountants, and consultants, they can find new and better opportunities for making money and figure out the probability of detection.

With large cash washing through their hands, the criminals succeed by creating networks of police, politicians, customs and immigration, bankers, lawyers, CPAs, who are rewarded for their assistance. The international crime payroll is likely one of the biggest in the world. The CEOs of these hugely profitable enterprises do not appear on the Forbes list of the richest. They are hidden out of sight.

The global criminals are drawn from many nationalities. The list would include: Russian, Chinese, American, Indian, English, Macau, Madagascar, Brazilian, and many more. The old idea that crime is ‘organized’ never contemplated the full extent that the modern digital economy could improve organization.

The Economist, January 18th 2014, ran a story “Earning with fishes” that indicated the illegal wildlife trade was worth ‘as much as $133 billion annually.’ That’s a lot of exotic birds, elephant tusks and rhino horns. As rhino horns fetch up to $50,000 per kilo you have a product significantly more profitable than cocaine or gold and if you get busted, the sentence is closer to 14 months than 40 years in the big house.  The question in the mind of an international criminal is how many rhino horns in pay offs are required to complete the transaction?

A lot has been written about money politics and how the rich use lobbyist to influence Congress to pass legislation to protect and advance their economic interest.

In the criminal world, they cut straight to the chase and pay off the prosecutors, witnesses, customs inspectors, the cops, and anyone else hovering near the criminal justice system. One kilo of rhino horns buys a cop or a district attorney. Four kilos and you have a judge finding insufficient evidence. A small herd of rhinos should be enough to buy an entire congress.

The biggest source of corruption isn’t the politicians filing phony expense accounts, or giving a contract to a relative or friend, or taking a golf holiday paid for by a big pharma company. The real action is in the world of illegal transactions where the players know the price of those monitoring and regulating the law enforcement system. They use money to control that system.

And they do it every day of the week to the tune of billions of dollars.

Organized crime has discovered what the DOW 500 CEOs have figured out: borders are your best friend—just like cross-borders is the new mantra for international crime. Divide your business into component parts: Your buyers are in country A, your sellers are in country B, your money comes from country C, your mules from country D, your transportation from country E, and your residence is in country F. Payments flow across multiple borders, from multiple bank accounts, in multiple names.

Each jurisdiction has its own laws and regulations and officials to take care of. Choosing the right location for a part of the overall transaction slows down the official process as the officials only see the part that takes place inside their borders. It’s pulling all of the pieces of the puzzle apart. The criminal caught is the mule, the flunky, the ‘worker’. The crime bosses are at sitting beside their swimming pool drinking a cool drink. Their connection to the criminal activity has disappeared as the trail ends in an offshore company with nominee shareholders and directors.

What is the reaction of governments to the scaling of international criminal activity? The Economist says without any irony: “Governments are reacting by getting law-enforcement agencies to work together. America is trying to improve the flow of information between them.”

What this means is the government has no plan. It is too busy fighting terrorists, and that fight sucks all of the resources into a battle that lets the criminal class clean up. International criminal activity is layered with complexity. Take money laundering as the cash rattling around the system won’t fit in a suitcase. It needs a banker.

“Between 2006 and 2010, some of those criminal networks laundered $881 millions dollars through a single legal bank inside the United States. In fact, in 2012, the Criminal Division of the Department of Justice pointed out that the same Bank ‘failed to monitor’ $9.4 billion dollars during that same period.”

This amount comes from gangs in Central America and Mexico. Wrap your head around the amounts from all criminal activity internationally, and you start to understand the dimension of the problem. This year on The Edge, the question asked is: What scientific idea is ready for retirement? And Eduardo Salcedo-Albaranchose recommended that “Crime is only about the actions of individuals” should be retired.

In its place we turn to data mining tools to make predictions from the vast sea of information to get a handle on how the networks are constructed. Once the design emerges, the players’ roles understood, the parts of the puzzle are reassembled. The idea is to use big data to establish an overall picture of the full extent of the components (including the gray areas of officials, politicians, banks, lawyers, and accountants) who play a role in the criminal organization. The process goal is to make the illegible legible.

This assumes that major criminal organizations are keeping one step ahead with their workforce of specialists who can encrypt communications and set up alternative means of funneling money. Given the huge resources available to international criminal syndicates, the chances are finding a person’s price in kilos of rhino horns will extend the immunity they currently enjoy. There are companies that provide seminars on how security teams can use web intelligence for effective threat intelligence analysis.

The reality is government is either too distracted, has different priorities, or enjoying the fruits of kilos of rhino horns to make significant headway into the tangled web of organized international crime. The best and the brightest minds might find an alternative to working on Wall Street. And the rest of us might wake up to discover there is another .1% working the system, who are untouchable and too big to fail.

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Posted: 1/23/2014 7:47:25 PM 

 

My generation remembers when this Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western was released in 1966. It was the time of the Cold War. Good guys on our side, bad guys on the other side. They were also ugly. The idea of ugly is an old one. Wikipedia has only one sentence to define ugliness: “a property of a person or thing that is unpleasant to look at, listen to or contemplate.” That’s it. A word so revolting the editors of Wikipedia don’t want to spend time contemplating in its presence.

While beauty has multiple entries that goes on and on. Wiki explains beauty as follows: “The experience of ‘beauty’ often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being.”

Ugly and Beauty are words for a certain sensation, a feeling, how our gut instincts act with our rational deliberative mind shunt down. Ugly brings to mind feelings of disgust, revulsion, and avoidance while beauty is a feeling of being uplifted, admirable, desirable.

In the recent anti-government demonstrations in Bangkok starting on 13th January 2014, under the slogan “Bangkok Shutdown,” I spent some time at Asoke intersection on Sukhumvit Road checking the crowd and their banner with slogans slagging the government. In the photo below, I found a Thai woman holding a sign that read:  “YINGLUCK you are SO UGLY.”

I had found my replay of childhood Cold War fear and hatred. It was like a 1966 version of Clint Eastwood had appeared squinting and chewing a cheroot his hand over the gun in his holster.


Photo credit: Christopher G. Moore

The banner was aimed at this woman: Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Maybe I am shallow but I’d be very hard pressed to describe the woman in that photograph as “ugly” or to understand how anyone else could think that the word “ugly” and this woman could be used on the same sign. But there it is.  My filter for beauty sees something the protesters don’t. What explains this divergence in perception?

This wasn’t an isolated banner. Here’s another female anti-government, protestor holding a Thai sign: “I am beautiful and smart to boot. The bitch Pou is hedious and STUPID to boot.” (‘Pou’ is PM Yingluck’s nickname.)


Photo credit: @P4ikunG

Aristotle taught that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I understand the point that beauty and ugliness are perceptions seen through filters. What you think is beauty is just you filtering that image through a cultural lens. We all wear this lens every day of our life. It is impossible to slip on someone else’s filters and see the world through their lens. All you can do is find evidence that explains how the filters works for those who have them implanted from childhood.

This got me wondering what Thai cultural alchemy has the power to turn  (to my eye) a stunningly beautiful into an ugly woman. Let’s start with the old, well-used stand-by: abject hate. If there is a person, a group, a nation or state that you hear and hate, your subjective experience in visual images and contemplating of such images will stir strong negative emotions. Blacks, homosexuals, women, Jews, and peasants have a history of being the object of hate, made ugly, undesirable, less than fully human.

It is a rare modern political culture, which doesn’t have negative campaigning against an electoral opponent.  You defeat the enemy by dehumanizing him or her, turning the person in an object of scorn and ridicule, reduced to the perceived state of being incompetent, corrupt, stupid, or unpleasant. Who would want to elect such a person?

When you dissect our filter for processing good and bad, beauty and hate, you learn something about the relationship between programming and emotions. Our emotional, irrational side is tuned into an easily programed subjective experience into the binary code of either good or bad. A series of one’s and zeroes, on-off switches, propelling us to evaluate a person, event, or policy as good or bad. We are programed to search and capture the good and to avoid and punish the bad.  Nothing has changed much in the way we process values of what a group we identify with has decided is good and bad.

In the world of emotional rage there are no fifty shades of grey. There are no shades. Period. You have your basic pitch black (ugly) and pure white (good).

What smears and mud-slinging seek is to destroy the element of trust in another. We trust the ‘good person’ and distrust the ugly one. The systematic use of hate language is condemned by the press in most countries and is unlawful in a number of countries, though not in Thailand. It is gasoline poured onto a fire. Hate, in politics, is a call to war. Think of the killing of half million Indonesians in 1965 to 1966 to understand the potential scale of damage and death. Hate is a poison well. Reform drawn from a well filled with hate leads to a road of slaughter.

What makes the anti-government protest in Bangkok more like the Cold War than political posturing is that the leaders are seeking to disconnect the Bangkok middle-class and traditional elites from the democratic system of one-man one-vote. Prime Minister Yingluck represents the face of electoral democracy and the protesters and the Democrat Party, which has given the appearance that they are  political arm of the Peoples Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), has failed to win an election in two decades.

The career politicians who are leading the street demonstration are election losers. They blame democracy for returning a majority in Parliament to govern the country. They distrust democracy. To justify distrust we need to bring in hate, and to hate democracy isn’t going to bring out a large mob. You need a face or a number of faces for that. Like Russia was America’s existential fear during the Cold War, Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Prime Minister Yingluck are, for the PDRC faithful, feared and hated for their existential threat. A threat against what the PDRC believe is Thainess and traditional alignments in the political, economic and social life.

Yingluck is transformed into an ugly person for the protesters as she represents the face of what they fear most—a new political arrangement that pares down their 76% share of the pie will confiscate what has always been their cut. Even if you have more than half of the pie, you are going to have less than before. Khrushchev was the face of the evil Russia. He was bad. Khrushchev was ugly. And his banging his shoe at the UN suggested he was unstable and crazy enough to make us fearful.

Unless you can put on those lens that let your hatred a full reign to feel revulsion at how ugly that person who threats us is. How could anyone trust anyone so ugly? If you can’t trust someone, then they should be kicked out of office, their assets seized and they expelled into exile. The way to get rid of a problem is to assign a leader with the ugly label, rally a mob to take to the streets, demanding she resign and her entire clan leave the country. Protest leaders have suggested this avenue for Khun Yingluck.  Living in Bangkok during the past few weeks has been like returning to the ancient past.

Once we commit to a group, our subjective experience of beauty, good, bad, and ugly has a group setting, one that plays on survival. Life and death. Never compromised. Defeat your enemy. Make those horrible ugly people grovel at your feet.  This works on a number of levels. We wish to belong, to receive approval, to be accepted, and a shared subjective experience is the membership card. We also suffer from many biases.

One of the most common is What You See Is All There Is (Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow) Here’s a good example of WYSIATI. Susan Boyle who appeared in 2009 before a large audience and a panel of expert celebrity judges at Britain’s Got Talent.

Most people who saw her (including me) would not have thought she was anywhere close to a description of beauty. Our minds recoiled at the very idea that she would sing. We held our breath. And then Susan Boyle sang and the camera panned the faces in the audience and the judges. They were dumbstruck. People were crying. I was crying. The whole world cried as WYSIATI has biased us to judge her before we heard her.

Our biases don’t normally allow us to hear beauty coming from the ugly. But at that evening people around the world subjectively adjusted to a new way of perceiving beauty.

Perception can change quickly.  The Susan Boyle incident is a lesson in overcoming bias. It helped that we knew nothing about Susan Boyle the first time we laid eyes on her. We’d never seen or heard of her before. Suddenly she was on our TV screen. That first moment was our only cue to hang our bias—her appearance. Her appearance carried no other baggage. But in politics, whether the Cold War or the Street of Bangkok, people are subject to non-stop hate programing on cable TV and radio, they sign up for social media enclaves of hate sharers, and read the literature and newspapers of hate. Hate becomes a 24/7 cycle filled with cherry picked information to confirm and deepen the hatred. Orwell in 1984 had Big Brother’s 2 minutes of hate. Yingluck is on the other end of 24 hours of hate every day. You want to know how strong filters and bias are? Here’s your case study: Yingluck appears to the anti-democracy demonstrators through their filters as a Susan Boyle lookalike standing on the stage at Britain’s Got Talent, on that they would never open their ears to hear Yingluck sing.

The anti-government protesters don’t have a monopoly on hate. On the pro-government side, you don’t have to go far to find those who live in alternate hate universe. Inside this place you’ll find lots of images where their opponents are seen as ugly. In the photograph, you can witness the extreme of that hatred with a noose around the necks of Former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban.

The current protest and demonstration has been a battle between beauty and ugly, good and bad. As I wondered among the demonstrators, I saw many of them taking selfies.


Photo credit: Christopher G. Moore

They marveled at their own beauty and the beauty of their friends. Everywhere along the Asoke and Sukhumvit Road intersection I witnessed this scene repeated many times.

The beautiful and good people on the night of 13th January  2014 turned out in large numbers in front of a stage erected at the Asoke and Sukhumvit intersection.


Photo credit: Christopher G. Moore
Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 1st day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 13, 2014)

By the fourth day of the so-called Bangkok Shutdown, the same intersection looked different.


Asoke-Sukhumvit Intersection, 4th day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 16, 2014) Photo credit: https://twitter.com/threefoldutopia/status/423626828947804161

The good and beautiful people had gone back to work.  They needed to recharge their cellphone batteries, shower and eat. You can’t really sustain a high pitch of hatred unless you are unemployed, dirty, hungry and hopeless. Once you have your SIM card filled with selfies and a cool office to work in, the hate switch is turned off. At least until after work, with recharged cell phone, a new and cool outfit with patriotic accessories, and fresh makeup, they can return to the streets to demonstrate.

No question that Thailand’s political system is at a crossroad, and no question there is genuine anger and fear. No question that there is a real need for reform. Thailand one day could have a half-dozen mega-cities. Yet, it is doubtful that the existing Bangkok elites and power structure would co-operate politically for a system that expanded the possibility of additional rivals. They want things to be the way they’ve always been, despite new and much changed reality.

I also have grave doubts whether a centralized democratically elected government would be the system of choice that would govern a country with multiple mega-cities. A new political arrangement would be required. One where the existing sense of space and location experienced as a physical place is superseded by a digital space, where voting every few years is replaced with a more calibrated system representing consensus about extracting wealth from some citizens and distributing it to others, a new political system, in which the notion of citizens, rights, and benefits are finely tuned to ride the rapids of large scale change.  At the same time, it will take a democratically elected political system under rule of law to allow for the next transition. That’s how I see electoral democracy, an incubator to give birth to a new way of governing when our current perception of space and time and change are fundamentally upended. In that new world the idea of ‘reform’ will be built into the political system to allow for continuously updating. I am not certain if we are quite ready for that reality but several generations down the road will likely have a very different opinion.

Imprisoned by my own filters and biases, I know that they prevent me from experiencing anything more than a subjective reading. These psychological filters don’t reach far into the future. That, however, is the future that is at stake, and how coalitions of people, powerful institutions and leaders can put in place a democratic system that will prepare the country to walk free of the good, the bad and the ugly and into a place where they hear Susan Boyles’ voice and for the first time feel themselves inside a world where they know What We See Isn’t All There Is. There is much, much more.

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Posted: 1/16/2014 8:02:39 PM 

 

Consent, or the absence consent, is a crucial concept that runs like an operating system inside politics, criminal justice and social systems. In a democratic system, consent of the governed allows for a co-operative basis to co-ordinate the administration and distribution of governmental services. Only dictatorship can ignore the consent of those it rules. And, instead of consent, the population is managed with weapons, prisons, and gulags to process those who demand consent.

Consent is important. So what does it mean in a political and social context?

Their is a minimum age before a person can ‘consent’ to having sex, to being contractually bound, to marrying, and to voting. Below a certain age the person’s consent is irrelevant. The theory is such a ‘young’ person lacks the capacity to form consent. The assumption being that until a person reaches a certain age they can’t judge for themselves matters of importance. There consent is void in a number of areas, including voting. The age for each of these categories shifts across cultures. How we structure consent is a cultural construct and a social construct that is shared by people who are born and raised and live inside that culture.

Our idea of consent is restricted to the age at which we say a person is capable of giving consent; it also applies to what groups are included (and those excluded) from participation in the political process. It isn’t limited to age. For example, blacks in South Africa, regardless of age, were excluded from voting in South Africa under apartheid. Criminals and the insane are commonly excluded from voting. So are non-citizens such as immigrants. Such a category exclusion is significant. An immigrant physicist or heart surgeon can’t vote, while a citizen with no education, job, and low mental ability can vote. Deciding who is in and who is out, is itself a political decision—one that every country makes.

If your consent is embedded in the political process, you have a channel to shape and influence the officials who make and enforce the laws that affect the lives of citizens. Consent in a democracy is egalitarian. Consent in a non-democracy could mean that many citizens have no more political status to influence government than an illegal immigrant.

The current political impasse in Thailand, in my view, is largely an argument about who gives consent, how consensus is formed, and how dissent is allowed along the road to judge the legitimacy of government to make public policy, allocate funds for such policies, and the legal frameworks that create the institutions of government. Battles of expansion of consent is found in a recent ruling by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission), an independent agency, which found a prima facie case against 308 MPs who voted to amend the Constitution to make the Senate a wholly elected body. At present under the constitution, it is half-elected and half-appointed. As a result, the 308 MPs may be banned from politics.

The decision should be put in context. Under the 1997 Constitution, the Thai Senate was wholly elected. The selection process was changed to a half-elected body in the constitution that followed a military coup that toppled a popularly elected government in 2006.

The traditional cultural system in Thailand is based on patronage and a hierarchy of ranks and status. Consent of the larger population is not part of such a system. Patronage was never designed as an egalitarian system, or a system based on equality. A patron will take care of those who rely upon his position and authority even if it means abuse of power. Benefits and privileges in a patronage system are not allocated in a transparent, public way. Large, mass-based consent is not how the patronage system works. But Thailand is also a fledgling democracy that overlays the more ancient patronage system. The problem has been the two systems work off a different playbook. The democracy pulls to an expansion of consent as the basis of legitimacy and that means winning elections. The patronage system rests on notions of loyalty, unity, authority, status and rank that provide an alternative to consent obtained by an election. A patronage system has its own internal checks and balances to monitor cheating and deception and a patron who is too greedy will suffer from lack of loyalty.

Each political system has a founding myth and set of metaphors. The metaphor that describes a patronage system is the family. The father (the patriarch), mother (the matriarch), children and extended family make decisions based on their status and authority. Children don’t have the right to withhold their consent to go to school or do their homework. The father’s decision is the law, but as he’s benevolent and loves his family, consent isn’t (in his mindset) needed as he’s always motivated to be fair, justice, kind, and decent ensuring that the family’s needs are met. When this metaphor is scaled up to run a modern nation state problems emerge.

There is an uneasy tension between the forces of domination and those on receiving end of rules, regulations and restrictions who demand a voice. Absolute political domination is the unrestricted power to use education, threats, censorship, imprisonment, exile or force to dominate the lives of others without the consent of the dominated. At various times in the past, in the West whole classes of people had no way to offer or withhold their consent to political domination. Blacks, women, non-property owners had not right to vote. Their opinions, interest, desires and needs might have had indirect influence but without consent their political expression was faint and easily ignored. The expansion of political consent has been a slow process over hundreds of years in advanced democracies such as the UK and the United States. The population granted political consent gradually expanded but over a long time to replace the simple idea of the family unit as the model for decision-making.

What makes democracy an unusual political system is that it is premised on consent of all citizens. Other systems of government hoard consent for a few, the elite, the good people, or those inside a networked, narrowly defined ruling system. It is often said democracies don’t declare wars on each other; they trade with each other and have economic interests that would be harmed by warfare. Another reason is a democracy with a draft ensures that everyone’s sons and daughters are at risk and consent for sending them to war is a restriction on the military’s decision to go to war. War is a political decision. Going to war requires, at least in a democracy, the consent of the majority of the citizens. It is their children, fathers and husbands who will be killed and injured, and they think twice when it is their own kin who is ordered to patrol inside a killing zone.

The idea of consensus comes from a commonly shared consent to a course of action, a policy decision, an investment, an expansion or contraction of programs. Forming consensus is rocky, unpaved road, and conflict is the norm.  Agreement by all whose interests are involved is unusual. Only in a Utopia is there no conflict. In the political sphere, democracy allows these conflicts to be worked out with concessions until a consensus is reached. That is why democracy has the reputation of being messy; finding a common consensus amongst millions of people is a messy process.

Dissent is the withholding of consent or contesting that the authorities making a new policy, implementing an old policy, or distributing benefits has acted without consent. In a democracy, there is an acceptance that dissent is part of the deal. Not everyone will agree to the consensus on an issue. Those in the minority are left to register their dissent in a number of ways. Demonstrations, protests, boycotts, public petitions, referendums, recalls, social media campaigns are common examples as those in the minority seek to undermine the consensus and substitute a new consensus in its place. Dissent is difficult to accept in a system that demands unity and conformity. Dissent can also be the response to dictatorial governments that either ignore or minimize the group of citizens that consent is extended to. Criminal defamation and other laws work to keep dissent within pre-defined boundaries and to punish those who exceed those bounds.

In the heat of the current political turmoil much has been written about corruption. In a patronage system, it is no surprise that nepotism and cronyism are widespread. It is, after all, little more than a scaling up of arrangements made inside a family. Of course, members of the family help out each other and their friends. When the family is nearly 70 million people, the limits of scaling from the family to a large population from different regions, ethnic backgrounds, local customs and which has become aware of its diversity.

That gift of cash to the family friend who helped little Lek get into a highly competitive elite school isn’t seen as corruption in a patronage system. It is how the system is designed to work. As power is in a few hands, the common consensus is that appointing friends and relatives to official positions, or helping a friend to avoid arrest and imprisonment for a criminal offense, or colluding in distributing under the table payments oils the patron-client relationship. Such activities are not flaws in the system. They are a feature of the system and how and why the system works and remains stable. Personality cults arise from the patronage system and the powerful use laws as weaponized ordnance designed to defeat opponents who challenge the patriarch. Like drones, the enforcement of laws isn’t about justice, but efficiently eliminating challengers who threaten the system.

In a democracy inevitably there will be corruption but it is at the margins, and is more difficult to conceal and justify. If voters are promised universal health care, some might say that is ‘corrupt’ as the candidate and ruling party are ‘buying’ votes and a bought vote doesn’t represent true consent. A bought vote is not counted because a ‘genuine’ vote requires ‘true’ consent. The government’s legitimacy, in this way of thinking, means the motives of those giving consent must be examined as well as the political intentions of those who receive the consent from the voters.

The nature of voting is for a political party to promise voters that electing them to office will return a range of policies that serves their interest. Cynics argue that most of the policy decisions are too complex for ordinary voters to understand, and they are easily manipulated by sleek political TV advertisement campaigns, appealing to emotions.

At the same time when a patron acts to advance or protect the interest of those who shelter under his power umbrella, it begins to look like a prototype of vote buying.  A patron who can’t protect his charges will find his power and standing diminished. In a face culture, the patron is aware that if he fails to protect, his reputation is tarnished. Patrons (in theory) fight hard to protect their luk nong  (the Thai expression for those under the charge of the patron). Unexpected switching of roles does and can happen. In the case of a Thai beer empire heiress, the daughter was requested by the father to lower her public profile in participating in street demonstrations to limit voting rights. She refused. There is irony in the refusal by one in the younger generation who demonstrated alongside with others in the streets of Bangkok to, among other things, impose limits on the voting system, to keep the old system.

The problem for the old system in Thailand is that once the idea of consent is expanded, creating a wide spread expectation that voters can influence policy and reward politicians who exercise power under a regime of consent, withdrawing consent is difficult. Once the Americans freed the slaves, what if a majority of American voters voted to reintroduce slavery, would this be a legitimate expression of majority consent? Or the majority vote to withdraw the right of women to participate in elections?

The reality is that once political participation through consent has been enshrined, there may (and likely will be) a fringe of people who will work to undo that decision. Another reality is taking away consent once given is going to be a bloody event. It would be viewed as an enslavement by default, and a return to a purely patronage system where relationships to power are based on concepts that devalue consent as the measuring stick for legitimacy.

On January 7, “Respect My Vote” on a hand-written sign held up by a middle-class, educated Bangkok Thai man occurred at an event organized by the Democrat Party under the titled: “Eradicate Corruption, Committed in Reforms.” When pointed out from the stage by former Prime Minister Abhisit he was someone sent by a rival, the protester replied, “I am not your rival. I am the people.” A reply that echoed the ancient cry, “I am Spartacus.” The words “Respect My Vote” cropped up on T-shirts and posters during the 2012 US presidential election. And now “Respect My Vote” has gone viral on Thai social media.

Thailand is stuck in the transition between patronage and democracy. The difference distills to a sound bite-size distinction between Respect My Authority and Respect My Vote. And it won’t be resolved until the idea of consent can be reconciled with the governing system and mutual respect based on equality gains acceptance by all parties.

In Thailand, the scope, nature and power of consent as the way to judge legitimacy is at the heart of the current political storm. The thing to remember: this storm never blows over. There are never clear skies politically or economically. The old generation and the rich cling to what they have and resist changes that are a threat. They don’t consent to change. The patronage system has worked for them. But a new generation and the poor have come to see giving their consent by voting is normal. Taking that right away or diminishing it with a thousand tiny cuts will not be the solution going forward.

Patrons don’t let go of their children easily. And children once they’ve left home aren’t happy to be forced back to live under their father’s house rules. As a civilian observer in the 1980s riding with NYPD in the early hours, I learned first hand from the police a couple of lessons. First, both sides in a domestic argument believe that right is on their side. They become highly emotional. Kitchens are full of knives and other possible weapons. People are drunk. They are enraged. They are armed. And that’s why cops everywhere, not just in New York, hate taking a domestic violence call. Because they know from experience there is a high chance someone is going to get hurt. The equivalent of police dispatchers in Thailand are calling in a domestic dispute that is just about to get out of hand.

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Posted: 1/9/2014 7:50:59 PM 

 

Inside the world of crime fiction, a story starts with a murder.

Nothing has changed since ancient days that people murdered one another.

What has changed is how modern society investigates a murder. While the ancients incorporated the supernatural or other irrational into their explanation of a murder, it was the Enlightenment that enshrined reason, logic, and scientific proofs as the basis for detection.

Wikipedia  picks up the Enlightenment cognitive thread from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which was used to create the modern detective narrative with “all of the central characteristics and formal elements of the detective story, including a mystery surrounding a murder, a closed circle of suspects, and the gradual uncovering of a hidden past.”

Four hundred years later, building upon the thought processes constructed by the Enlightenment, technology has provided a wide range of detective tools. Just as important as the tools are the accessibility to such tools has passed from the hands of government officials and professional investigators and into the hands of intelligent, interested, and knowledgeable amateurs.

There is great political power in maintaining a monopoly over the narrative flow that detects and solves crimes in general and murder in particular. An essential part of the social contract between citizens and their government is the trust that the government’s narrative is truthful. When a government lies about a murder or a disappearance, they close the door to truth. In times of civil unrest, street protest and demonstrations, the intensity of emotional rage threatens to return us to the pre-Enlightenment era where gossip, speculation, the supernatural, biases, and radical beliefs evolve narratives to solve the mystery surround a murder.

Our ancestors consumed a diet rich in official narratives slanted to suit the interest of the powerful. The tension between power and authority and truth and justice is the rope pull contest, which in the past the authorities, with police, armies and guns, mostly won.

In 2014, in circumstances of political turmoil, we are going to see far more citizens going over the head of government officials, investigative experts, and mob leaders who are less interested in solving a murder than spinning a narrative that advances their interest.

Thailand’s political troubles has produced murder victim in 1976, 1992, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2013. The probabilities are there will be more murder victims in 2014 arising from the political activities in Bangkok streets and upcountry venues where demonstrations occur. It is human nature that both sides will blame the other for a murder. Whether the victim was one of their own or on the opposite side, the standard trope is the other side pulled the trigger.

Though in Thailand, the tradition of both sides blaming a ‘third hand’ is popular. A third hand is an anonymous player, usually in a tight band or group, with powerful friends and allies and seeks to gain advantage through violence. In Thailand in recent times they are called ‘the Black Shirts.’ The murky third hand, dressed in their black shirts, plays the role of the supernatural in the ancient narratives. It is anti-Enlightenment, anti-evidential, secretive phantoms, who like all characters in a good ghost or superhero/villain stories appears, on the surface, a convenient and plausible explanation.

The third hand is also a good excuse for the authorities to limit their investigation or to sidetrack it on a wild goose chase for the elusive third hand. Like a supernatural story the third hand player acts as a wonderful piece of distraction.  After a while people, forget about the person who was murdered as everyone is baying for the third hand to be revealed.

The house of cards is about to fall.

There are several reasons for this kind of stonewalling and distraction to become increasingly more difficult to work in the near term.

First, the visual evidence is often overwhelming, graphic, and damning. The video evidence is from a rainforest of CCTV cameras ringing every street and alley, government and private, and the hand-held devices everyone carries. With the emergence of drone technology, you can expect another layer of visual surveillance to capture the moment a murder is committed.

You’ve likely seen on YouTube and elsewhere citizen video footage uploaded from the scenes of demonstrations from around the world. Political acts of violence are also on the increase. This increase correlates with the rise of video images of acts of political violence. A case in point, was the horrific murder and beheading of an off-duty solider in the streets of London.

In the case of the murder of Lee Rigby, a British soldier, in London concern has been raised as to whether showing the video footage will mix hatred and disgust into the volatile cocktail of moral rage. There is no little irony that the most advanced products of our technology are causing a pre-Enlightenment irrational emotional reaction to the images captured and displayed in a courtroom.

It isn’t just the jury or those inside the courtroom that responses emotionally to visual acts of graphic violence, the ripple effect swiftly flows through the larger community. After the Rigby murder there was a surge of anti-Muslim hate crimes in England.

Second, official deniability is curtailed with visual records that suddenly go viral, and in minutes people around the world are seeing with their own eyes an act of violence. The jury is no longer confined to a courtroom. The jury is now in the millions and it is convened twenty-four hours a day. There are many YouTube videos showing abuse of power of authorities.

On New Year’s Day the Bangkok Post reported along with a video of a policeman slapping a Russian tourist across the face leaves little room for the old standby: this was a misunderstanding. Constable Nop was swatting a mosquito when the Russian woman rushed in front of the insect at the last moment to rescue it from death.  This doesn’t do much for the official version of welcoming tourists to enjoy Thailand, and no doubt damage control will spring into action. Someone will be dispatched to give the Russian woman flowers, a basket of cookies, and free tickets to the crocodile farm. She might want to think twice about using the latter.

Third, is the emergence of online Sherlock Holmes who gathers and analyzes the forensic evidence that can be acquire by searching Google Maps, having a knowledge of firearms and ammunition, and eye witness accounts from the ground.  If you have a reasonable level of online research skills you can apply those skills to a murder.

A good example of such an online investigation that asks the question: Who shot and killed the Thai policeman on 26th December 2013 near Gate 3 of the Japanese Stadium at Din Daeng. Anti-Government protesters were at the stadium to block and disrupt registration of political parties for the 2nd February elections. Those on the side of the protestors pointed the finger at the government as the killer, saying the fatal shot came from the top of a government building.

The Philip Marlowe who conducted the murder investigation explains his motivation for the investigation:

“I write this not to answer wider questions about the rights and wrongs but to try to clarify a narrower question of whether a policeman was killed by mysterious gunmen stationed on top of the Labour Ministry, which is – obviously – under the control of the government. The protesters claim that these men were most likely hired by Thaksin to shoot both protesters and police alike in order to paint the protesters as violent. To my knowledge, the government have yet to clarify who these men were, but have accused two protesters of firing down at police from nearby flats.” (The police have confirmed that the men in black on top of the Labour Ministry building were policemen.)

In the fog of street demonstrations and violence there are bound to be multiple perspectives and not everyone will agree that the evidence presented support the conclusion offered. Some media and citizen reporters reported, for example, that black-clad men were on top of the Labour Ministry, and that police attacked a protester’s vehicle smashing the windows. In the heat of street battles, the lines shift, the roles of attacker and victim shift causing confusion. Emerging from the confusion are conflicting reports.

Our online Philip Marlowe provides a detailed investigation into the gunman’s location, the height from which the shot was made and distance from the shooter to the spot where Pol Senior Sgt. Major Narong Pitisit was killed. Our online investigator presents his case to us, the jury, to decide whether given the trajectory of the entry and exist wound, the position of the body, the reports of the direction of other gunfire at the same time, that the killer, whoever he or she was, had not fired the shot from the top of the Labour Ministry.

The chaos of violence in a street demonstration makes detection of a precise killer more difficult. With multiple gunmen firing shots from various locations, and masses of people in and around the turmoil, it is often easier to conclude who couldn’t have fired a fatal shot than to pinpoint the actual gunman.

The private citizen investigation into the murder of the police officer Narong by using informational online resources has shaped a credible scenario that eliminates the rooftop of the Labour Ministry as the location of the gunman. Because something is credible and plausible doesn’t mean it is true or the final word. But it does put pressure on the authorities to either confirm or repudiate the scenario from the evidence they’ve gathered. The result is the creation of a new kind of courtroom for the digital age. Courtrooms and judges, prosecutors, police and witnesses are evolving into something new. Like the monopoly of information, the monopoly of justice is being disrupted by new technology.

The fourth reason for the house of cards to fall is that worldwide millions of people are aware that political, economic and social life is being disrupted. These hugely powerful institutions appear fragile, vulnerable and weak. Like high-rise buildings following a powerful earthquake, the question is whether they can be repaired before they collapse. The elites with the most to lose take to the streets to demand governing systems that leave them in control. They wage conflict against those they fear will demolish what has given them identity, privilege, wealth, status and power. Murders committed inside this landscape have significance as the identity of the gunmen effect the legitimacy and credibility of the government and the anti-government forces. Each side wants the other side to have pulled the trigger.

The citizen detective, armed with investigative skills, is entering a hotly contested political realm where murder is the collateral damage of that conflict.  Or it may be that murder is part of the theatre of the absurd to discredit and topple the opposition. In other words, pinpointing the killer is driven less about the truth of the murder as to the political fallout from arresting a person associated with one of the political sides. Political killings appear on the surface to be like all crimes of passion. The reality is a cold-blooded calculation is made about the merits of violence to achieve political ends. That is the classic definition of war.

We head forward with new and powerful tools of detection, and with skilled and dedicated online detectives, but none of this changes the fundamentally irrational nature of man. We are predictable in our capacity for unpredictability, driven by deep-seated forces of language, culture, indoctrination, and biases. The reality of our lives, is when the house of cards falls; there is no evidence modern technology will do much to reduce murders in the political arena, or to detect the killers. Lee Rigby’s killers knew they were being filmed. They performed the gruesome murder in front the camera.

What is happening in the streets of Bangkok are mirror in many places around the world as 2014 witnesses a continuation of a battle waged between those allied with pre-Enlightenment forces who are pushing back hard against forces of the Enlightenment. The anti-democratic movement wants the benefit of all the technological advantages which have emerged from the Enlightenment while maintaining a medieval political structure and a belief system that sidetracks science to the margins. It is an old war that flares up in intensity as the technology accelerates social and economic change.

What is it about that philosophy of the Enlightenment that ignites the flames of politic conflict? The answer takes us back to David Hume, who famously wrote “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” Our blood lust and self-interest have traditionally trumped appeals to evidence and reason. The slave can’t be allowed to use evidence and reason to control the master. As a result we are left with moral outrage and when the elites lead a mob to jump the fence of reason, we return to a pre-Enlightenment political era. We will have to look into a deeper future before this flaw in the human software can be patched. Only then will the slave have a chance for genuine freedom. Meanwhile, we will look to the citizen detective to bring images and voice to the slave’s case. 2014 may give birth to the online Spartacus who adopts the tools of the Enlightenment to break the chains of enslavement.

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Posted: 1/2/2014 7:39:45 PM 

 

The reality check idea is we need to be mindful of how we find information, where we find it, how we analyze it, and finally how we act on it. Along with my fellow bloggers in 2013 we expanded our essays beyond the limit of the law enforcement sphere.

Barbara Nadel, Quentin Bates, and Jarad Henry, my fellow bloggers, have added an international element to the joint enterprise, covering the UK, Iceland, Turkey and with me adding Thailand. We sent to each of you our very best wishes for the New Year 2014. And we hope that you will return in 2014 to read our latest take on crime, courts, justice, language, culture, politics, economics and technology.

This will be my last blog for 2013 and I’ve thought whether to strive for something memorable until I thought for a moment—that never works. If something is memorable we almost never know it when we see it. It is only later with the engine of memory that certain things stick, and most things are blown out the back of the large harvester as so much chaff.  That is an introduction to the topic of this essay.

The big story is the sheer, unimaginable quantity of information that we process each day.  When this blog started in July 2009 we had a glimmer of this happening. The idea was to zero in on a social justice or law enforcement story at issue, and examine the reality of the events, causes, connections, and outcomes. The idea, in one way, now seems quaint as a social gathering in a Jane Austen novel. Edward Snowden’s revelations showed how every dance floor, every dancer and their cellphones were being processed into a vast, secret system.

How does a democracy deal with the capacity to collected unlimited information about everyone? Or do we have to accept that information of this quantity, with the capacity to exploit it, means another form of government will emerge?

I started International Crime Authors Reality Check with several goals in mind. Since the Enlightenment, rationalism and empiricism have been urged as reliable tools to discover reality through experience and evidence. Were the facts knowable, testable, and true? What were the limitations on what we know? What (and whose) interests were being served? Were outcomes consistent across class, ethnic, gender, age or sexual identity groups? I am beginning to think that I had it wrong—at least with so much information it is possible to say the information, and those who control it, is the force that drives and shapes our perception of reality.

Those perceptions are also a product of emotions and traditional morality. Neither logic, critical analysis, evidence nor experience have tamed or limited our capacity for rage, anger, or hatred. What is being called the Age of Endarkenment evidenced by the emergence of neo-reactionary forces who wish for a pre-enlightenment world and are active in engineering that return. David Hume in the 18th century identified the tension: that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”. It follows that people who are vested in the traditional rules of morality are mostly likely to co-operate in efforts to ‘kettle’ the assault forces of reason.

In a more information scarce world the events close to home were the ones we paid attention to—and I suspect the ones most of us still pay attention to. We have a horse in the local race. We can cheer or boo from afar at some foreign race being waged with attack helicopters, mines, drones, tanks and small arms, but we are wired to care (as a general rule) about how those races are played. Unless our government claims there is some immediate stake to protect, then we have a dog that enters the foreign race.

The government collects big data; corporations collect it has well. Most of this data we freely hand over each time we go online or make a phone call or walk down a street lined with CCTV cameras. We are watched, tagged; our preferences, biases, choice, medical and family histories recorded in words and images. We not only consume huge amounts of data; we leave a large data trail behind us every day.

We are, by nature, tribal. Whether the locus of the tribe is a football team or a research department of Google, we co-operate with other members of our tribe and that means we can compromise with them to keep the co-operation intact.

The world of big data has spawned thousands if not millions of new digital tribes. Whatever your belief system, hobby, obsession, fantasy, dream, or talent, you can join a tribe that thinks, believes, shares, and promotes your worldview. We take the ladder down the echo chamber that replays our thoughts in other voices. And suddenly our tribe culls through the large data and finds those parts that are supportive of tribal affiliation and loyalty.  Because there is so much data to mine, random chance alone guarantees a steady stream of self-serving data will enhance the core beliefs of the tribe.

That becomes a problem as tribes are manufactured with big money to colonize the political, economic and social spheres. The top 1% has the resources and technical knowhow to have ushered in a new era of colonialism where they are the colonial masters. The very rich stand to gain even more wealth as they occupy and exploit the thoughts of vast numbers of data consumers. In prior colonial times, the colonials felt the oppression. In the new colonies, political, entertain and consumer choices merge into the artificial reality that consumers are free to choose.

Big data, if it is one thing you can count on, is the pathway to loss of personal freedom. I suspect that freedom has always depended on limited information possessed by rulers. People could slip between the cracks. Now even people who supposedly live ‘off the grid’ are profiled on social media. And no one seems to notice the irony.

There is another important side to information overload. It has played hell with the censorship regimes that have kept elites as the only source of information. That enormously powerful ability to control communications from phones, radio, and TV is over. The Internet has shot it in both knees and it continues with a brave face to struggle ahead as if nothing has happened. Like the scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian when the knight’s arms, one at a time, and then legs one at a time, are hacked off and still he continues the fight.

In Thailand, there are many reasons for the current political unrest. But among those reasons, one should include the social media, computers, and cellphones. Everyone is plugged in. On the BTS or MRT (the two public modern train systems in Bangkok), you find more than half of the passenger absorbed with their cellphones. Few of them are using them to make phone calls. They are playing games, checking Twitter, Facebook, or email. Keeping in contact with their tribe. What is remarkable is how the various sides of the political divide have herded their followers in cattle pens on Facebook or Twitter. They feed on the emotional hay thrown to them. Though it looks like information it is actually misinformation, disinformation, opinion, gossip, sprinkled here and there with source information that shares their bias.

Big information is making it very difficult to govern a large group of people. The use of myths to create a designer identity for the group worked when the government was the sole author of stories, the source of facts, the fountainhead of reality. When reality can be fact checked, the weaknesses, lies, deceit, and misinterpretation can be exposed. That causes conflict. Challenging an official version of a founding story has always been dangerous and dealt with swiftly. That approach worked when critics could be picked off one at a time. It works less well when the critics are clustered in small tribes, scattered around the world, interconnected in ways that picking off one person only incites more people to replace him or her. The old state monopoly over violence was always its Ace up its sleeve. Like the information monopoly, the violence monopoly is fractured. In Thailand, for example, it appears the police are unable to arrest demonstrators who have committed acts of violence, or otherwise broken the law. In fact, the demonstrators have even held the police inside police stations in what looks like custody for hours.

Big data is breaking down how we are governed, what the notion of government means, and how to factor in the consent of the governed. Once the veil of government-controlled messages was lifted, even slightly, the whole governing enterprise became unstable.  Appealing to tradition is one way of responding to the challenge. The tradition paradox becomes evident as the most conservative and traditional members of the society are also the ones that benefited the most from the explosion of wealth unleashed by a full-blown global consumer-based society.

Consumers, whether in the city or the provinces, want pretty much the same thing. They want something new.  They have grown accustomed to leaving messages, having a voice, being counted and participating in the way that their parents and grandparents never had.

To try and reset that consumer mind to value old traditions, beliefs and mindset is a large challenge.  Consumer culture fed by limitless digital information and shaped by tribe membership has been overtaking political culture.  In Thailand, that conflict of mindsets is scheduled into the New Year. The new identity is shaped by this new culture and way of thinking. That’s what makes the divide in Thailand so dangerous. Neither side will compromise—or perhaps the gap between them is too great for that to happen—as they want and value different identities and no longer respond to the threats, structures of authority, or nostalgia.

For the first time in my memory in Thailand the Thais are no longer avoiding confrontation and the possibility of conflict. They seem resigned to it happening. No one is fact-checking reality. When that capability is switched off, a cold darkness shoots through as you realize all of those Hollywood endings where everyone shook hands and kissed were a delusion. In 2014 the world will, now and again, check in on the Thailand story. People should pay attention and here’s the reason why—how things go down in Thailand will have implication elsewhere.

Thailand’s politics is like the ancient Greek Oracle—tell us the future of how a divide between the traditionalists and those seeking broader participation in the process of governance can be resolved peacefully or spin into civil war.

In 2014 remember that great noir philosopher The Joker, who had some advice for Batman:

“Don’t talk like one of them, you’re not! Even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak–like me. They need you right now. When they don’t…they’ll cast you out. Like a leper. See, their morals, their code: it’s a bad joke. They’re dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. You’ll see, when the chips are down these civilized people will eat each other. Ya see I’m not a monster, I was just ahead of the curve.”

For a weekly update of what gets dropped, what is broken, what can be salvaged and the costs of the whole enterprise, we hope that you will drop in at International Crime Authors Reality check if for no other reason than to see if 2014 will be the year of the Joker.

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Posted: 12/26/2013 7:52:14 PM 

 

Selfie is an ugly word that conveys what we’ve let ourselves become. At Nelson Mandela’s funeral, the President of the United States is taking a selfie with the Prime Minister of Denmark. Smiling, self-absorbed faces removed from the place, time and mood of the funeral for a great man.

Remember that moment. A funeral. Technology seducing our sorrow. The seduction is just beginning. This is an essay on where it is leading us.


Global Post

In Thailand, the political turmoil, the time of great discontent and violent, hateful speech demonstrators in the street also took pictures of themselves. We are on display for ourselves, in love with these selves, and can’t wait to share ourselves through vast digital networks.

Selfies are our gateway out of paying attention to those around us. Once we no longer pay attention, finely tuned attention to the details of those around us, we retreat further into our own world. Technology has found our sweet spot of narcissism and imprisoned us with our own smiling faces.

We are in the midst of a grand succession. We are the first intelligent species to engineer our own replacement as the most intelligent life form. AI (Artificial Intelligence), stimulations, emulations, or machine intelligence—the name of our successor isn’t settled. But it will be. And it won’t be taking selfies of itself. We are close to inventing a technology that will ultimately render its own intelligence  an obsolete, low grade system constricted by inferior, slow, unpredictable and biased filters, and degraded search, storage, access and low level information capture and conversion. We won’t understand what means. But we’ll get the hint we’ve fallen behind. Once that succession takes place, we will find ourselves in a race we can’t and won’t win. We are harnessing the tools of evolution and building new technology at the same time. This evolution is accelerating at a rate that Darwin couldn’t have predicted.  It’s only a matter of time before this process blows past us like the Roadrunner.

We aren’t there. Yet.

We are in transition. That selfie by President Obama may be the defining moment years from now, as others look back and wonder what happened to us on the way to our second-class status. We were so worried about our status, our power, our wealth that we forgot that we were one species that had so much in common. That our differences, as great as we perceived them, were minor compared with our position in a world where a form of intelligence slipped out of our control.

The evidence for this transition is everywhere. But we are too blind to put the pieces of the puzzle together. The advances in robotics, the algorithms, advances in nanotech, and physics are reported as small, isolated steps within a particular domain. One day these domains will merge. At that point, whatever grievances we have with one another will pale in comparison with an intelligence that dwarfs our ability to understand and comprehend.

How will we know when that day comes? We will have advance warning: we will have long since stopped paying attention to each other in the analog world of the restaurant, living room, subway, or the street. Our attention will be focused on our place, our face, traveling inside the digital world, linking into that network on its way through an intelligent universe. We hitch a ride and find that journey is the only one that provides pleasure. Our endorphins rush through our bodies as we plug into the grid. Like a flea on a dog we will we will one day owe our very existence to another species. This is how it starts. The most powerful man in the world snapped a selfie at the funeral of a great man who endured years of imprisonment to achieve an ideal for his country. Think for an undistracted quality one minute what that means for you.

When Nelson Mandela died, an age, a feeling, an attitude and a way of living died with him. Had he lived in a world of selfies would he have had those admired human qualities that allowed him to rise above his sacrifice? Look around at our world with Mandela no longer amongst us, and ask yourself, and see the trend line. Selfies define the stage we occupy. We are cut off from our surroundings, from the past, from the greats who brought diagrams of our lives fit together as families, neighbors, friends, and strangers. And how we struggled to understand their body language, gestures, and words, and attribute meaning. Our lost art is paying attention to people in our presence. We filter them out. We erase them from our days and nights as we go for our digital fix.

We are addicts of the worst kind. Machine intelligence will know best how to feed that addiction. Look around you. How hard would be? Not very. And like all junkies we will do whatever it takes to hear that magically ‘bing’ noise as someone, somewhere, ‘likes’ our selfie.

And what does that mean for you and for me, or our children and grandchildren?

After the great succession takes place, it means their future will no longer be in your hands. They will likely have enhanced intelligence and have infinitely greater resources at their disposal. We will be small part of their overall digital relationships, and like an icon they would send a message as and when needed. But we will no longer control the encryption keys. It is open to question whether our signal will be lost in the noise of the system. That will also be a transition period of short duration. The future won’t be in our hands or our children’s.

Look at the way we have treated each other. Look at the way we’ve treated other species. How can we expect a super-intelligent entity to treat us any differently than the top 1% treated the bottom 99%. The elites will have the toughest time adjusting to joining the species and in a place as they never assumed was possible—a world without them at the top of the food chain. We will spend more and more time in the cloud chasing after selfies, those butterfly like moments, forgetting the fields of flowers have changed hands.

The selfie is our new expression of ‘self’ and in our mirror we find ourselves bewitched by this most seductive of all illusions—the reality of self, its unity, coherence, and permanence.

Others have written similar pieces. You will find them nailed them on digital lampposts . In fifty years, what appears here, and lodged in a few other places, will be evidence that we had an inkling of what was coming. But we largely ignored the warning signal framed in the famous presidential selfie. That image will be defining moment when we celebrated rather than questioned our central vulnerability. Once we no longer define our identity through our relationship with others but through our own mirror, we will hardly notice AI will upgrade that mirror until we disappear inside it. By then we will have forgotten how empathy was at the heart of what we once were, and what was required to claw back this principle that defined our humanity. Not that long ago, it was normal to pay attention to those around us.  Empathy worked best face-to-face and once it is gone, no intervention of a technological will bring it back. In the end we will have surrendered our humanity as the last selfie is posted in the cloud.

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Posted: 12/19/2013 7:51:51 PM 

 

I like this quote:

“The poor have objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”–G.K. Chesterton

When I posted it on Twitter this week a lot of other people liked and retweeted it. The reason G.K. Chesterton’s quote resonances today in Thailand and many other countries is it sums up the class dissatisfaction that both the rich and the poor feel about being governed.

Let’s face it. Government is a necessary evil we need in order to find a way to live with each other. Anarchy as an alternative creates a dystopia more bleak, dark and dangerous than just about any political system (unless you have the misfortune to live in North Korea or Somalia). Most other systems are in various degrees of crises, revolution, or civil war. Government is a tough racket to keep from running into the ditch.

In Thailand, on the political front, no one is happy with the current impasse. Two polarized sides blame each other for every failure, problem, or mistake over the last dozen years. Now it has all come to a head. The last couple of weeks saw an increase in strong emotions on both sides and once that happened, finding a way to lower the temperature inside the political cauldron has proved elusive.

Over the last few weeks, the traditional elites and their middle-class allies in Bangkok have taken to the streets. Their initial action was in the best traditions of a democracy where people march and give voice their objections to Government policy and decisions. The right to demonstrate is healthy for a democracy. Like freedom of expression, protest demonstrations are an essential part of the democratic process.

The initial goal of the most recent round of demonstrations was to pressure the government to drop an amnesty bill that would have cleared criminal and civil actions against former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that goal was achieved. Success didn’t stop the protest but embodied it to moved on to pressuring the government to accept the validity of a questionable decision by the Constitutional Court that effectively bars the government from amending the Constitution.

The controversial constitutional amendment passed by the Government would have returned the partially elected Senate into a wholly elected body it was before the 2006 coup. And finally the protest demanded that the prime minister and cabinet resign and a caretaker government be appointed. A house dissolution and election were insufficient. The protesters demanded a “People’s Council” to take over governing. But who elects the People’s Council?

There lies the rub. Elections. Thailand’s urban Bangkok elites, who mainly support the Democrat Party, have failed to out vote their upcountry cousins in the North and Northeast who consistently walk away with an electoral majority for the Pheu Thai Party headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted Thaksin’s sister. The last time the Democrat party formed a government they had the assistance of the military to lever them into the driver’s seat. Following the 2006 coup that tore up the 1997 constitution and removed the government, the Democrats replaced the government, which had won an election mandate to govern.

The demonstration leadership under ex-Democrat MP and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban, having tasted success and had the Government on the run, saw an opening to implement his plans to radically alter the existing constitutional and political system and install a wholly new system. It is no longer an anti-government demonstration; it was a strange bird, part-coup, part-revolution, part-rock concert with portable toilets, tents and bamboo matt and a well-stocked mobile kitchen. It turns out the real complaint is not just the Government but the political system enshrined (irony alert) in the 2007 Constitution written under the careful eye of the military. How can we put it—the military inspired constitution proved too much on the side of a liberal democracy for the Bangkok elites.

A couple of metaphors might be helpful to understand evolving political handbook the opposition wishes to replace the one in the Constitution. Although I am aware that arguing by metaphor presents dangers and distortions and this attempt will be no exception—especially when the metaphors are “corporations” and “food”.

Despite the polarized political divide in Thailand, both sides are pro-business, pro-capitalists. No one is arguing the free-market economic system in Thailand (where there is full-employment) needs to be destroyed and replaced with a different economic model. It’s not that kind of revolution.

The political issue arises because of a fundamental disagreement of who should be in charge of economic and political systems. Like a large company, Thailand’s resources are spread over a large number of people. Call them voters, or stakeholders, or call them shareholders. In a company, the dividend paid out depends on the earnings and the Board of Directors determine the amount of the distribution to the shareholders. Also the members of a company board of directors stand for election and the shareholders vote. In a parliamentary system, the government acts as the board of directors. Citizens, like shareholders, they choose with their votes among those competing for positions of authority and power.

Political systems also distribute dividends and that is why the stakes are so high and elections are so important. This is where the food metaphor kicks in. To add another layer to the metaphorical cake, think of a buffet. Everyone demands a big share of the buffet and for someone else to pick up the check at the end of the meal. The buffet isn’t unlimited. As the number of chairs around the table expands, it is viewed by the original diners, that these new people are threatening to eat them out of Bangkok condo and holiday house.

The problem for the opposition in Thailand is the new diners feel they’ve had enough of the traditional Bangkok elites who offered them crumbs and leftovers. They had started demanding their fair share of the main course and the pie, cigars, and brandy. Competition comes into play. Like in the corporate world, in the political world those who have a monopoly see no reason to give it up. What we witness in this drama is a page out of the human nature newsreel as people fight over a place at the table, one of the chairs, the food, and the bill. Greed rears its head, talons and fangs appear, and fat cats and skinny cats circle each other around the table. Voters choose candidates for all kinds of reasons, but an important one is they will fairly distribute that buffet to them. Another way of looking at populism is the buffet line becomes much longer.

To return to the idea of political system having similarly with a corporate governance system, it is important to understand the purpose of a stock market, which  is to raise capital. Capital formation depends on convincing shareholders to invest in shares. The democratic political process operates on a similar idea. Politicians need to raise political capital and are willing to pay hard cash to do so meaning that political capital is more than an ego trip. A company raises capital on the financial markets by persuading investors to part with their money. Politicians raise political capital by promising voters benefits so they will vote for them. And in Thailand that can often involve a cash transaction (and no side has clean hands in vote buying). A political system also needs to raise political capital. We judge the legitimacy of a political system by the ways it sets the rules as to how politicians are required to raise political capital sufficient to send them to parliament. Once elected many of those promises may be compromised or forgotten but sooner or later a politician knows that he/she is answerable for an accounting at the next election.

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban, has a plan to restructure the political process, which would result in eliminating a citizen’s right to vote. Viewed from a company standpoint, the effect is to replace the ordinary shareholder with the preferred shareholders. Other than calling them the ‘good people’ these preferred shareholders are entrusted with the right to vote, and they will vote for the board of directors of ‘good people’. In other words, the minority calls the shots and there is no mechanism for voting the minority out of office. Back to food: The buffet line is closed. No more chairs at the table. The newcomers are shown the door.

This suspicious looks like a backdoor, hostile privatization of a public company. It is more like an old-fashioned nationalization of shares without compensation for the loss to the ordinary shareholder. In the capitalist world, throwing shareholders out of the buffet room is viewed with suspicion. Drones were built for that eventuality. No ordinary shareholder is going to except the excuse that their interests are better served by the preferred shareholders.

In the case of Thailand, should a trial balloon to suspend election become a reality and should the appointment of a self-governing People’s Council come about, the effect would be to annul general elections. And perhaps be the spark for considerable violence. Inside this, the newly privatized political process, the preferred shareholders, call all of the shots, including the suspension of ‘populist’ policies tricks that anti-democracy proponents believe are the heart of the problem.

As the weekend approaches in Bangkok, there are many unanswered political questions being raised in Thailand. Voters, like ordinary shareholders, like the buffet spread that Thaksin Shinawatra’s political parties have delivered to them. Taking away their plates, spoons and forks and chase them from the table won’t be an easy task. What price will the preferred shareholders, the Bangkok urban elite, pure capitalists in their hearts, be prepared to pay to take back the buffet room for themselves? The answer is unclear.

What is more clear is that many anti-democratic protestors unite around the idea that political capital is only raised from the ‘good people’ and ordinary shareholders aren’t clever or educated enough to be considered ‘good’ and are excluded from direct involvement in the political process. That idea underestimates them. Once you’ve been to a good buffet no one can take away that memory. To be tossed out the door not because you’ve lost an election but because an elite thinks you’re stupid is the kind of argument that won’t win a lot of friends.

The opposition argument isn’t about winning friends; it’s about defeating an enemy. And at the end of the day, a basic complaint by conservative forces is that liberal democracy helps ‘bad’ people obtain political power over the ‘good’ ones. The assumption is that ordinary people should be happy that the good people, the preferred people, are committed to running the system according to old values, traditions, and customs as to running the ‘company’ and the ‘buffet’.

But you other lot—you go back to your bowl of sticky rice, fish sauce and som tum. And this is your karma, actually it is your own fault we are protesting. You, the ordinary shareholders, with your upcountry snout in our Bangkok buffet are enablers of an evil, corrupt family that abuses political power. Besides you are trying to sit in my chair and eat off my plate!

It is doubtful that members of this group of anti-democratic elites would ever go to the capital market to raise funds for one of their companies with such a policy statement set out in their prospectus. But when it comes to the political buffet, in Thailand people are debating the idea in the streets as to when the good people will once again have the authority to decide menu and decide who gets to stay at the head table and second helpings.

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Posted: 12/12/2013 7:54:32 PM 

 

A series of political super storms has hit Thailand in recent years—in 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2013. That’s a lot of bad weather. The turmoil and fallout have occurred with the frequency of super typhoons, with each bringing more damage than the last. At the moment a number of commentators in Thailand and abroad, like weathermen, are trying to forecast the political weather in the days, weeks and months to come. Most are finding it difficult to make predictions with any degree of confidence.

Political predictions in Thailand suffer from limitations comparable to those of weather forecasting. The political climate involves complex systems that constantly change, reassemble, merge, expand or shrink in ways that are uncertain until they happen. I’d like to examine one feature of the ongoing turmoil—the cultural world of kreng jai—that may partially explain the political instability of Thailand’s recent past.

Some years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, which reviews the large (seemingly limitless) Thai language vocabulary about the heart. The Thai expression kreng jai has the longest entry in the book and was the most difficult to explain in English. I wrote: “The phrase reflects a rich brew of feelings and emotions—a mingling of reverence, respect, deference, homage and fear—which every Thai person feels toward someone who is their senior, boss, teacher, mother and father, or those in powerful positions such as a high-ranking police officer.”

What is driving the political turmoil, in my view, is a breakdown of this ancient kreng jai system that has until now been the bedrock of the political establishment. The patronage system, the pii/nong—older and younger person system and the automatic deference to rank, uniform and position were built from the stone and cement of kreng jai. Even voting has been fenced in by the unwritten rules of deference.

There is much talk recently of vote buying, talk that is aimed at undermining the legitimacy of a popularly elected government. The historical record indicates that the exchange of gifts and benefits for votes has long been a feature of Thai politics and is another example of the kreng jai tradition. Poor villagers deferred to the educated, well-dressed “betters” with more power and money because that was how the system worked. Gift giving was the oil that lubricated the system.

In the kreng jai system it was inappropriate, rude and unforgiveable to question or criticize people in power or who hold positions of authority. From a policeman to a village head man to a schoolteacher or civil servant—the status was sufficient to guarantee compliance without worry of being asked to justify an action or a policy or a belief.

Until recently there was a widely accepted faith that an older person would take care and protect a younger person. That those with power, in return for deference to them, would keep the poorer, “powerless” people from harm’s way. What has happened in Thailand is that the faith in this grand bargain promised by kreng jai has been broken—with a new political consciousness arising from a fledgling system of electoral politics.

Once the general population of voters understood that they had power in their vote, they started to wonder about the role of kreng jai in a world of newly empowered voters. This modern, new power to elect officials promised to secure for them a better life than the one they had traditionally received under a pure kreng jai system. What happened next? Pretty much what you’d expect—people’s previously unshaken belief in the old faith that had driven the political process was replaced by doubt and skepticism. In response, both anti-government and government officials have attempted to reinforce the kreng jai system by taking advantage of the legal tools of criminal defamation as defined by Article 112 of the Criminal Code (lèse majesté) and the Computer Crime Act.

A yawning political divide has opened up between those who wish to institutionalize a political system based on the old notion of kreng jai and those who wish a substantial modification of automatic deference as the appropriate attitude toward the political elites. To this extent the elites on both sides of the current political impasse share the same interest. It shouldn’t be overlooked that a separate kreng jai system operates inside the class of elites. In fact, the more one investigates kreng jai, the more one starts to see that, like the weather, it quickly becomes very complicated.

Thailand’s anti-democratic forces are embracing the idea of kreng jai to preserve their world. That means a code of conduct based on deference within the elite class and between the elite class and everyone else. The Bangkok elites rail against Thaksin Shinawatra, who comes from a Chinese political/commercial family in Chiang Mai, with the kind of deep, committed hatred that can be understood as emerging from their existential fear of his growing power. Like the Israelis’ hatred for the Iranians, nothing and no one is going to change the emotional voltage.

Thaksin Shinawatra’s mistake was to play the popularity card to trump the informal kreng jai code among the elites—one that kept a rough parity of power so no one was hugely more influential than the others. The Bangkok elites saw Thaksin’s political agenda as a betrayal of the long-standing elite power arrangements. He refused to honor those informal arrangements in a way that made them feel threatened. The Bangkok elites had every reason to support the 2006 coup against this internal kreng jai violator and encourager of the upcountry voters’ growing inclination to seek political power rather going through the old patronage system.

Of course, it might be said that Thaksin created his own personal kreng jai system, perverting the original one for his own personal profit. Another view is that Thaksin saw an opportunity to ride a wave of cultural and social change. He hadn’t created that wave that threatened to wash out the old temple walls of kreng jai. But he found clever political ways to tap into the power of that wave through health-care programs and other populist policies that kreng jai had never delivered.

The start of the current round of turmoil began when the government tried to enact a grand bargain among the elites. The idea was to pass an amnesty bill that would have absolved Thaksin and the opposing Bangkok elite side of all crimes since the 2006 coup.

The opaque nature of power arrangements and agree-ments on the informal side of Thai politics hints without any solid evidence that a deal was struck and provided cover for the government’s push to enact the amnesty bill. Whatever the deal was (assuming there was one), it excluded the possibility for justice for the people who had gone into the street to protest against the regime installed by the 2006 coup. a number of whom had been shot, injured or killed. Those responsible for the camage would be let of the hook. No one would be made responsible for any of the wrong doings. The stark reality sent a clear message—the “little” people would have to accept their karma. It was a deal by, for and between the elites only.

The political struggle over amnesty ironically ignited the current turmoil. What went wrong? A couple of factors fall into the category of miscalculation. The Bangkok elites have traditionally enjoyed the type of immunity that normally extends to foreign diplomats. The traditional elites had no real fear of criminal prosecution for their activities. Why would they need an amnesty bill when they already enjoyed virtual immunity? Thaksin had, in their view, betrayed them, and he was allowed to go and remain in exile. No one tried to stop him from leaving Thailand. For his betrayal, he’s hated at a distance. So for Thaksin, living in exile to use Skype and other high technological means, to go over their heads with an amnesty bill was intolerable. They perceived, from a distance, he’d found yet another way to overrule the traditional elites. His continued influence was an insult, another thumb in the eye and a display of power to force them to acknowledge his right to run the show.

What is interesting was the uproar the legislation caused. The hatred among the elites and their supporters for Thaksin’s betrayal intensified as they saw the amnesty bill as another attempt by Thaksin to pull the strings to overrule the verdict of exile and asset confiscation by the unofficial power structure. To add insult to their injury, he pointed to his legitimate right to have his way as he had gained the popular vote from what are, in their view, the “uneducated,” “stupid” and “unwashed masses.” The non-Thaksin elites were livid—how could these people who historically owed kreng jai to them ally with Thaksin to undermine their position and power?

Those same unwashed masses who delivered Thaksin his power also felt betrayed. They turned on him. For a brief moment the shared hatred of the traditional elites and the upcountry masses gave them a rare glimpse of solidarity. That didn’t last long. The elites might have funneled that joined hatred into meaningful political reform. But no, they seized the opportunity to go in for the kill by scotching a constitutional amendment to allow for a wholly elected Senate. While the little people felt let down by the amnesty bill, the proposed amendment would empower them to extend their political voice to the upper house. The traditional elites saw the extension of the voting franchise to the Senate as another power grab by Thaksin.

With the amnesty bill Thaksin managed to alienate his friends and supporters and bring them in common cause with his old rivals. It would have been his weakest political moment. He was vulnerable. The traditional elites saw an opening to root out what they’d started to call the “Thaksin Regime” and to return Thailand to the pre-Thaksin political era. That was a far bridge to cross. How to get from the present to that ideal past? The big idea was for a government ruled by an unelected “People’s Council” which would complete the job of destroying the remaining elements of the “Thaksin Regime.”

The government’s and Thaksin’s miscalculation on the amnesty bill showed that they had not read the hearts and minds of the Thai masses very well either. This mistake gave the traditionalists an opening to attack the government, democracy and elections. The government is only lucky in that, as disappointed and betrayed as its supporters had felt with the bill, they understood a much higher cost would be paid if they were forced to return to the old full-blown kreng jai system enforced by edicts of the People’s Council, handpicked by the elites.

The yearning for the stability of a strong kreng jai underpinned the calls for the government not to dissolve parliament and hold new elections but rather to put democracy on hold. The elites have not quite caught up with the rank and file who have opted to leave their feudalistic deference behind. Kreng jai hasn’t vanished. It remains a value for many Thais. But the nature of deference is changing.

Globalization, social media, cheap travel and the Internet are forces that have chipped away at the Thai kreng jai system. Once exposed to the crosscurrents of ideas, thoughts and images, kreng jai begins to have a dated, worn and artificial quality. The ritual wai remains. I remember years ago buying a poster at the Weekend Market that showed more than a dozen different wais. This was a poster used in schools to teach students the intricate but meaningful differences in the kinds of wais and who was entitled to which kind. The wai a tourist receives, for instance, is part of the hospitality industry; it is a commodity, a product, one that makes foreigners feel special. It comes with a warm smile.

These political storms mask a greater change in the cultural atmosphere. The jet streams have shifted in the way most Thais perceive their relationships. It would be premature to say that kreng jai is gone. Indeed the kreng jai aspect will remain for a very long time. That said, the core faith has evolved from a kind of quasi-religion to a secular position that honoring and respecting people is a good thing—only they should earn that respect. That’s a big change. And that those with rank and status should be accountable to the masses is a full frontal assault on an ancient system that continues to resist, protest and posture.

Can a self-governing non-elected “People’s Council” of “good” people reinstate, defend and protect this cultural cornerstone of the political establishment? Think how long it has taken for Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to change minds and hearts, and how incomplete that process is, and you start to have an idea that great shifts in belief systems happen over many generations. We live in a world where change has accelerated. Information is widely available and information is empowerment. So long as the schools and universities, the civil servants, the military and the courts draw ranks to retain the kreng jai system, the political turmoil will continue.

There are certain to be more political super storms as the existing elites have put their finger into the air, and they don’t like way the wind is blowing. It isn’t the government or the constitution that is the problem. It’s that Thais are changing a key feature of their hearts. The political climate is complex. There are hidden forces we can only guess at. There are connections and undercurrents that we are only vaguely aware of. No one element, in isolation, is ever the whole story. Shifts inside Thai culture are part of the political instability matrix. But there are other elements, such as technology, social media and the values and ideas flooding in from all directions.

To return Thais to the old system of kreng jai would require sealing off the country and imposing re-education camps. There are voices, here and there, that suggest such an alternative, but the reality is that going back to an idealized state of deference would be like speeding backwards on a moonless night on a mountain road without guard rails. It would no doubt end in a terrible accident. The question is, what will the new rules of the road be? That’s like asking what the weather will be next month. We can only guess at the most probable outcomes. No one knows.

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Posted: 12/5/2013 7:55:27 PM 

 

There is has never been a time with more sources of information available for little or no cost to billions of people. An Internet connection puts you into a sea of information that your grandfather’s world would have found astounding. There is a dark side to the information revolution: misinformation, lies, fraud and deception like a magpie laying eggs in the information nest. The same can be said with the dissemination of opinion. It is no surprise that opinion, information, facts and evidence can appear like a rugby scrum on a muddy playing field. You can’t tell one player from another.

The first question to ask someone who makes a statement is to ask the source upon which it rests. Take a statement such as: “Vitamins are good for you. They will help you live longer.” Is this information reliable, supported by scientific research, and without qualification? In this case, recent studies indicate that vitamin taking correlates with a higher rate of mortality.

If someone is getting most of their information from the TV news or local newspaper, and accepting this ‘news’ as factual, reliable and tested, the chances are they are forming opinions based on actual knowledge and reality but upon the biases that the news sources wish others to share.

A reality check on bias is to take any news story and run a background check. Make yourself into a reality check detective and the news story is a suspect that may or not have anything to do with the opinion of the evidence you are evaluating.

Not only is theere a flood of information, there is also a tsunami of misinformation. There are political and commercial reasons to pass off misinformation in the high stakes game of making a profit or gaining and retaining power. Facts and information take high casualty rates in this struggle. Foundations, institutes, TV stations draw large audience with misinformation.

True ignorance is allowing oneself to be trapped in a narrow information zone because the views and ideology have a strong emotional appeal. Cults are built on faith. Information within a cult flows from faith, loyalty and authority and is to be defended against any contrary information. The bad blood in many countries, including Thailand, is caused by failures of information access, processing, discussing and evaluation.

Freedom of expression includes the right to consider all information and facts. In restricted political expression systems, censorship and threat of imprisonment is used to confine and narrow the sources of information.  Open access to all information is threatening to entrenched elites who have a monopoly over information channels and content. It is only with the channels gone global and people able to access them from their office and home has the possibility of challenging the old information monopoly arisen.

But the possibilities of access aren’t enough. Many people are lazy thinkers and are happy to let others ‘bake that pie’ and they’re happy enough to eat it without asking too many questions about ingredients or the kitchen where it was prepared let alone the goal of the owners. The Hume distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ makes their eyes glaze over. Pass the popcorn. The idea that information requires intellectual work on their part is not popular. For many so long as the news is ideologically consistent with their worldview or entertaining, that is sufficient to ‘believe’ it is true. There is no independent reality check.

Education means teaching students that ‘what you see is all there is’ is a bias. An inquiry needs to be made as to what is missing or absent from a study, survey or opinion. It also means teaching students that information is messy by nature. Most of the time there is uncertainty and doubt about agency and causation. We can’t predict outcomes in the future. We can come up with probability of outcomes understanding that ‘dark’ horses sometimes win a race.

Consumer society has been a great success because of its ability to create a vast population of docile, passive and status-seeking consumers. Huxley’s Brave New World  in 1932 long before the advent of computers and the Internet warned that these characteristics of the new man/woman would allow state sponsored repression of the truth to go unnoticed, unchallenged. Soma. The mental state of artificial well-being that covers lies and deceit.

We live much of our lives online where bit-by-bit we give up for free our social networks, our private thoughts, medical history, doubts, books, TV shows and films, and political positions. This information is shoveled into the great maw of surveillance systems to track those with deviant connections, thoughts or ideas; to create better soma for consumers to fall into a deeper sleep. In this brave new world, information independence becomes a crime. Those who dig too deep find that they are digging their own graves.

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Posted: 11/28/2013 7:45:23 PM 

 

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