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 socialgroomingas a means to maintain social
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A couple of weeks ago I
wrote an essay about violence. I have two companion ideas I’m developing:
borders and boundaries, hegemony, and the essential role of hierarchy to run a
modern political, economic or social entity.
Understanding how these
three threads are connected—violence, borders and management—opens a portal into
the cultural, political, social and economic source code that computes most of
the reality people experience. A great deal of what goes on around us in our
daily life, from our safety and welfare to opportunities and livelihood, depends
upon the right balance between these three forces. Disruptions through the
forces of instability and random chance are what makes life ‘interesting’ often
in the way Chinese use the word ‘interesting’—meaning chaotic and
refugees, work permits, occupation, red line, occupiers, invaders are among the
terms that rise from the reality of boundaries, the kind that defines a
recognized border, the edges measured, recorded, mapped. A world map is a
visualization of those boundaries. I have a globe with lines etched in for the
boundary lines of countries. What makes other planets and moons in our solar
system so alien is the absence of any recognizable boundary marks? These alien
landscapes go on and on with a tedious, mind-dulling featureless
It seems that you need a
life form that evolves to defend its territory against outsiders. That life form
creates and acts on a mental construct of borders as part of its evolution.
Borders aren’t an organic part of nature. We invent them.
I’ve been thinking during
the past two weeks about boundaries and how they set the human dimensions of
movement, affiliation, and self. What they mean, how we define them, and our
connections to them. Boundaries can be geographic term that we associate with a
nation-state like Canada, Thailand, Australia or Indonesia. The last two
countries are surrounded by water boundaries. Canada and Thailand share land
boundaries with other countries and those boundaries have resulted in disputes
with other countries. Land or sea acts as boundary demarcations. Boundaries are
real, tangible as well as abstract and romantic.
I am a realist as a
writer. The title ‘reality check’ as part of the title of this blog is no
accident. I accept, though, the range of writing expands beyond the boundary
lines of the ancient Roman and encompasses the mythical kingdom of Camelot where
boundaries float in the imagination. Ordinary life is boundary contained and
writers report the activities inside those boundaries, or they might rebel
against boundaries and write about lives outside them.
I am also interested in
other boundaries such as knowledge or experience. There are limits to what we
can know and limits to what we can experience. You can’t experience x-ray
frequency waves. You can’t know the physics that existed before the Big Bang. We
have boundary gaps, although we live our lives as if all information and
knowledge is accessible. That is a delusion that allows us to feel in control of
You were born inside a
boundary. That act of birth plays a role in shaping your identity. You are a
Thai, a Russian, a Canadian, a Japanese, etc. What happens inside those borders
becomes a version of your own personal story. Boundary stories and personal
stories inside a bounded area are something we take for granted when reading a
novel, watching a film or TV drama.
All boundaries have an
element of control. There is nothing in nature that corresponds to a boundary.
Though primates, like our close cousin the chimpanzee, band into small groups to
patrol territories. There border patrols are to chase away intruders, look for
weaknesses in a boundary line where resources might be harvested, and cross the
line into another bands territory. That is our heritage. Boundaries run through
old bloodlines that predate our species. What we’ve managed to do is to use
technical means to create weapons and transport systems that allows us to scale
a geographical space, draw the boundaries (over the objections of others living
there if need be), and install security forces to guard the borders.
Chimpanzee culture of
border patrol shows the evolution of violence as a way of boundary enforcement
and boundary encroachment. When those two collide amongst rival chimpanzee
bands, violence is the likely outcome. Borders come at the cost of blood. The
aggressor who is better equipped, led, organized and more violent, and more
willing to put himself at the risk of death or injury, will likely emerge as
having the upper hand.
Boundaries are never
static for long. This digital
map of Europe shows the changes of borders over a span of 1,000 years.
In less than three minutes you watch a 1,000 years of borders twitching,
receding, expanding, disappearing, in wave after wave of change. The chances are
if you trace your ancestors back ten generations you would discover your
relatives were born within boundaries that no longer existed in the same way
they did at the time of your birth. You have no feeling for that ‘place’ as it
was a location that existed in one time but failed to exist at some stage. May
be it’s not unsettling for most people to view ten generations as not relevant
to their modern life. The point is how boundaries are no more fixed than these
ancestors who also thought their boundaries possessed an permanence which time
proved to be illusory.
Borders are also an
underlying reason for abuse and human rights violations against minorities. A
recent example are the Rohingyas, an ethnic group inside the Burmese border, who
have been systematically persecuted, killed, villages burnt, women raped as the
authorities consider them as not ‘belonging’ inside Burma. What is ‘Burma’? The
answer lies not in nature but in the boundaries drafted by British colonial
mapmakers. There are many other minority groups considered as ‘outsiders’ or
‘aliens’ around the world born inside borders of countries that deny them
identity or nationality. Stateless people are those not accepted by any country
and who have no place to go. They face a dismal future.
The vast scale of
migration around the world over the last 20 years, as people cross borders, is
captured in this chart prepared by researchers atWittgenstein Centre
for Demography and Global Human Capital in Vienna.
connection is a leading piece of information about you.
When you meet a stranger,
one of the first questions that you ask is: Where are you from? Your answer
supplies a database of assumptions about your education, culture, language,
wealth, religion, sports, and your attitudes about guns, abortion, health care,
schools and university funding, war and peace. One word fills in a library of
pre-conceived notions about what you find funny, sad, and the food you most
Thais are forever asking
me where I am from. Canada. Snow, ice hockey, near America, cold, Neil Diamond,
and Leonard Cohen. I receive responses along these lines as the listener tries
to say something nice about Canadians. Foreigners will hear some Thais say that
a farang doesn’t understand how Thai people think. There is a tacit,
shared feeling among a lot of people that outsiders don’t quite get how they
think, so Thais aren’t alone in this assumption based on geography (and
Of course race and
boundaries have a close connection in the mind of many people. A person born in
Thailand is expected to look different from someone born in Finland or Nigeria.
This ignores the fact of ethnic and racial diversity that unites all members of
the species. But people are raised to think ‘globally’ of a species, but
specifically as a tribe of people coming from a certain location.
Globalization promised to
free trade, commerce and finance of the traditional boundaries that restrained
them. In a way, globalization has allowed powerful states the same kinds of
advantages that empires exercised in the past. Our new ‘Rome’ is Washington,
D.C., where those in control of the forces of violence make decisions about
certain activities inside the borders of other states.
When Russia decided to
size of the Ukrainian borders by assuming control over the Crimea, the reaction
from Europe and America was condemnation. Modern states aren’t supposed to
invade other countries and claim them as part of their own state. That’s the
theory, but the practice, going back to the 1,000-year map shows a long history
of land grabs and border changes. The American
expansion into their western frontier in the 19th century
represented another example of occupying the territory of others, expelling the
occupants into reservations and taking their resources.
When you live in a country
in which you weren’t born, aren’t naturalized, or have a permanent residence in
Thailand, you have regular reminders that you are inside the boundaries of a
place that considers you an outsider with specific duties to perform in order to
remain. For ten years I made 90-day visa runs mostly to neighboring countries in
the region including Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Vietnam or Indonesia.
I had to leave before the expiration of a 90-day visa, get a new visa and
re-enter for another 90-day period and start the process over. I never
complained about this feature of expat life.
I felt the requirement
worked in my favor as it gave me enough time to concentrate on writing a draft
of a book during a 90-day period, left the country, worked on the next draft for
another 90 days, and so on until after 3 or 4 visa runs I had a finished book. I
had a 90-day sword over my neck. I didn’t want it falling before I’d finished a
novel. I convinced myself that this sword was actually a chance for an
international holiday between drafts of a book; it worked like an incentive
plan. I lived with that delusion. It kept me productive, focused and aware of
how much there was to explore outside the borders of Thailand.
With a minimum of 40
international trips in 10-years (I often made trips more frequently than every
90 days), I had a chance to spend time in places where battles over borders were
still fresh in the minds of people living there. Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and
Vietnam provided me lessons of how boundary lines defined much about the people,
and how their civil wars had often turned out identity issues of people who
shared space inside a common border.
Years ago I switched to an
annual visa but still must report my address every 90 days. That takes me back
to where I started. Authorities take notice and keep track of ‘foreigners’
within their borders. There is a suspicion about foreigners that likely comes
from our time in roving bands when a stranger was enslaved or killed.
Crimes such as smuggling
of people, illegal logging, fishing across borders. Trafficking of people,
drugs, weapons, logs, ivory, and other contraband is enticingly profitable
precisely because of laws that control the movement of people, goods and
services across international borders. There are organizations like Doctors
Without Borders or Reporters Without Borders, which are the
exception that proves the general rule of that borders are patrolled and
Life inside every culture
is shaped by a shared heritage of what it means to be born, schooled, and
employed within a certain political boundary. In the physical, geographical
sense of a border that defines space in which authorities and law applies. Step
out of that space and local authorities, local laws suddenly apply. Substantial
difference in legal systems range from women excluded from the right to drive in
Saudi Arabia, to legalized gambling in Macau, to a single payer health care
system in Canada. To cross a border requires the foreigner to be alert as to the
laws of that place.
In Thailand, it is common
to find tourists who having left their country act as if the new space they
occupy has no laws or rules that apply to them. And every year there are sad
cases of foreigners arrested, tried and convicted for breaking Thai law (which
in the vast majority of cases would likely be illegal in their home
That sense of anything
goes, of freedom from constraints happens when our normal borders are erased
We lose our sense of
perspective and comprehension once we are deprived of a boundary marker. It is
strange to contemplate spaces without working out the boundaries that make up
that space. The search for Malaysian flight MH370 gives us a glimpse of failure
to understand the featureless huge expanse of the area in the Indian Ocean where
the search has been concentrated. Or how, with climate change and the melting of
the Northern ice caps, passage becomes possible and countries begin to assert
arguments as to what portions of the geography they can rightfully claim as
coming within their border. But other environmental disruptions caused by
climate change may include mass movement of people seeking water and food who
have been displaced inside established borders.
provide a sense of order, define a finite world that gives a feeling that, for
their problems and arbitrariness, we have a need for boundaries. The infinite
makes us recoil. Without a border the infinite simply has no meaning for us.
Take the decimal points of pi 3.14, which are both infinite and random. A
universe where there is an endless roll of the dice, with no winner or loser, or
with no point or meaning. The infinite might have a ‘sound’. A
mathematician/musician created a hauntingly beautiful piece for piano using the
decimal points of pi a taste of the infinite nature of these random
I hear the music written
from pi decimals when I read a news story about the search operation for MH370.
It has become a substitute for the dark feelings that descend. I am forced to
concede that borders are phony constructs I’ve been taught. Borders have always
defined who I am and how I experience the world and will continue to do
As land and resources are
finite and scarce, defining, guarding and defending a territory defined by
borders will remain a natural part of political, economic and social life. We
can’t imagine a life where borders are irrelevant except in a utopian fantasy.
We listen to the music that pi writes, with its promise of infinite decimals,
but without our geographical and psychological maps with the borders colored in,
our sense of self disappears. That may be one definition of enlightenment. Or it
may be the refugee where grief and madness write their own eternal
No one wants to get in the
middle of a fight between opponents who wish to knock out the other. Everyone
has a theory of how to stop a fight once it gets started. A neutral party
intervenes and tries to separate them. If the emotions are running high, the
chances are they will turn their anger on the intervener.
There has been a great
deal of public discussion about the merits of an appointed ‘neutral’ prime
minister to end the current political impasse. In Thailand there is a public
discussion going on about a list of men (no women on the list) who might qualify
as a candidate for “neutral PM” by the anti-government side. As expected this
generated heat and political controversy. The Thai word for ‘neutral’ is
à»ç¹¡ÅÒ§ /pen klang/, which literally translates to “being in the middle,”
synonymous with ‘nonpartisan’ (according to Thai social commentator Kaewmala). Whether that middle is defined
as geographic, ethnical, psychological or ideological raises a number of complex
The news reports tend to
orbit around speculations and rumors focused on personalities. Discussions on
social media have begun to examine the idea of what it means to be a ‘neutral’
person appointed to high political office in a representative democracy to
resolve a constitutional crisis. An examination of neutrality as a political fix
in circumstances in a climate where the possibility of civil war is openly
discussed may help shed light on whether is a way out or a deadend.
Howard Zinn, an American
historian, had grave doubts about the possibility of being neutral in the midst
of a struggle over the political forces to be trusted in the allocation and
exercise of power and writing and implementing policy priorities. In
Declarations of Independence: Cross-Examining American Ideology, Zinn
“Why should we cherish
‘objectivity’, as if ideas were innocent, as if they don’t serve one interest or
another? Surely, we want to be objective if that means telling the truth as we
see it, not concealing information that may be embarrassing to our point of
view. But we don’t want to be objective if it means pretending that ideas don’t
play a part in the social struggles of our time, that we don’t take sides in
Indeed, it is impossible to be
neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power
are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way
things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace,
nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy
against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be
neutral in those conflicts.”
Howard Zinn’s skepticism
about neutrality is shared by Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel who said in his
Nobel acceptance speech and later included in The Night Trilogy:
“We must take sides. Neutrality
helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never
the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered,
when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become
irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race,
religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the
center of the universe.”
On a more basic level
Laurell K. Hamilton writes in Narcissus in Chains:
“Personally, I think neutral is
just another way of saving your own ass at the expense of someone
Neutrality means a
country, a leader, or a person of influence does not takes sides in a dispute,
conflict, war or disagreement between parties waging battle. That battle may be
armed conflict or ideological battles that spill over from social media, TV, and
the press to demonstrators and protesters in the streets. Such a person is seen
by both sides as having no affiliation with the other party, group, tribe or
faction to the dispute. Neutrality means no shared ideology that prefers one
side’s principles and political values to the other sides.
The problem in some
quarters in the Thai political debate, neutral is conflated with savior. That is
an unreasonable expectation to arise from neutrality. The idea of a savior takes
us back to the core problem of personality-centered politics. One person’s
prophet is another’s heretic.
Neutrality is a
distraction from the central problem, and one shared by other countries in the
region including Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam is the
weakness of rule of law and the corresponding strength of a culture of impunity.
To possess true power translates into an immunity that rolls through the system
from human rights violations, corruption, disappearances, extra-judicial
killings, imprisonment or exile of critics. That makes the struggle for power an
existential one. The winner, his friends, families and associates are elevated
to life above the rule of law line that catches the rest of us. The loser slings
off to exile, prison, assets taken, name blackened, disgraced.
In a culture of impunity,
heretics are dealt with severely. Neutrality is difficult to take root in the
thin soil of a culture with a strong tradition of granting the powerful immunity
for their actions.
It is one thing for a
country to declare neutrality in a war between two other countries and quite
another for a person to emerge from a highly divisive domestic political ground
where emotions are high, battle lines drawn, and a consensus amongst partisans
as to whom they believe fits the bill of being ‘neutral’.
Appointing a ‘neutral’
person to lead conflicting parties to resolve their difference is a general
problem that runs through all political systems. Who would be a neutral person
for Sarah Palin and the Tea Party on issues of abortion or teaching creationism
in public schools is likely a different person than one who would fit Al Gore’s
definition. Which raises another question: can one be ‘neutral’ on certain
issues like abortion or creationism?
Beyond these ‘social
issues’ there are genuine disagreements over the allocation of resources between
transport, social security, health, schools, and public safety. If one decodes
the anti-government side, the neutrality argument is an alternative to
democracy. If a neutral person can be found, someone fair, justice, honorable,
wise and compassionate, what reason can justify the cost an election when there
is a high risk of people elected that powerful people distrust? Elections, in
Thailand, and most places choose a politician who isn’t neutral, never pretended
to be neutral and ran on a party platform that promised benefits weighted toward
the interest of those living in his riding. The purpose of an election isn’t to
test the neutrality of a candidate. It is to test whether his or her views and
opinions appeal more to the voters than his opponent.
The central purpose of
representative democracy is to resolve the disagreement through a parliamentary
process, which represents the majority view of voters. Voting is not a neutral
act. It is a partisan choice. People are voting, in theory, out of their own
self-interest as well as the larger interest of the country.
This analysis, you rightly
say, is well and fine in a functioning democracy, but what happens when the
parliamentary system comes to a standstill? There are a couple of answers. The
most obvious one is that democratic systems are chaotic, messy and uncertain.
That isn’t a bad thing. It means a politician who takes a position on an issue
must persuade others that his or her policy or plan is rational, timely, and if
implemented, with advance the interest of the people. It is utopian to believe
any policy will coincide with the interest of 100% of the people.
Also, if the parliamentary
system is paralyzed and becomes dysfunctional through actions launched by
opposition forces seeking to remove an elected government, a larger issue is
raised as to the nature and scope of democratic principles accepted in the
system. If there is a systemic issue with the nature and process of governance,
it is difficult to see how a neutral person can be chosen, and by whom, and if
chosen, how such a person can proceed in resolving such a deep, structural
Neutrality is another way
to express ideas such as evenhandedness, fair-mindedness, impartiality, and
nonpartisanship. Neutral is the opposite of biased, one-sided, partial,
prejudiced or affiliated with a partisan side in a dispute. Power has a public
face but there is also a deep power hidden like dark matter out of view that
shapes and channels the flow of government activity.
Headhunting such an
individual to fill the role of so-called neutral prime minister is difficult if
not impossible to succeed. Who chooses such a person and who sets the terms of
reference for neutrality? Who judges what records, private and public, are
relevant for an assessment of neutrality. If that were easy, then those judging
the neutrality issue would be neutral themselves and that doesn’t seem like an
outcome anyone would be happy with.
What person with
sufficient stature to break a deadlock between mortal enemies rises to that
position without leaving record of public service, writing, speeches, or
connection with the deep power? It is quite natural that even the most respected
people have signaled their preferences about process or policy. Anyone
distinguished enough to have the necessary gravitas will have taken a position
or made a commitment that takes one side or another in an earlier policy debate.
The point of democracy is to take a side and defend a policy position and
seek to attract public support for that position.
Ultimately politics is
about making choices. Who makes the hard decisions? And how transparent the
decision-making process is, and how accountable are the decision-makers for bad
decisions. How do we get rid of leaders who make bad decisions is a question
that is resolved by ballots or bullets. Neutrality is not a means of conflict
resolution. It is a way of avoiding conflict and rallying cries for the neutral
savior rises to the surface when people are seduced by the prospect of an easy
way to kick the can down the road.
One of the recurring ideas
one hears in Thailand is: Thais seek a middle-path to resolve problems. To take
that metaphor in another direction, if those in conflict are playing a game
of chicken, each on collision path, neither willing to blink or give way, the
neutral person is unlikely to persuade both sides to park their ideological
vehicles and shake hands and put their conflict behind them. There will
ultimately be a way out of the current crisis in Thailand. It is unlikely though
to be through the appointment of a ‘neutral’ prime minister.
The public democratic
process must be re-engaged, minority rights secured against oppression, and
government actions subject to restraint and accountability. And there needs to
be an open discussion on how the tradition of impunity has thwarted democratic
development and what needs to be done to end that tradition. This article in
Prachatai is an excellent examination of Thailand’s
long record of extra-judicial killings, disappearance of lawyers and activists,
mistreatment of minority groups, shakedowns, and corruption. No constitution to
date has reigned in these abuses and no neutral person has been able to stop
them from happening again.
The architecture of all
institutions in a democracy must be designed to work not just for the good times
but are resilient to turbulence when geology of political expectations and power
start to shift. If the institutions are weakened, break down, and the parties
refuse to talk to one another, one of the first casualties is the rule of law.
Violence accelerates as the rule of law recedes and this loop further undermines
institutions until instability become evident for all to witness.
There is no short cut to a
Constitution that establishes institutions that can govern, co-ordinate their
powers, and check and restrain one another. David Streckfuss, in a recent
Bangkok Post opinion piece titled The Risky Road in Avoiding Civil War, recommended a
referendum to ask voters whether they wish to revert to the 1997 constitution
(annulled by the 2006 coup), with reforms leading to amendments or stick with
the 2007 constitution. The problem is that an opposition that obstructs
and blocks elections would also likely see a referendum as another kind of
existential threat to their view of the ‘correct’ or ‘righteous’ political path
for Thailand. Just as an election, in theory should be the mechanism to resolve
a political impasse, a referendum offers such a possibility. At this dark time,
it is unlikely that the traditional mechanism will function to contain the
Sooner or later, the way
forward likely will be leaders who are forced by circumstances to address the
issue of what process is appropriate for constitutional change and the
substantive nature of such change. Stripping the powerful of their unofficial
immunity won’t be an easy task. Both sides want immunity and the ability to act
with impunity for their interest while denying that right to its opponents. Not
surprising, given what it is at stake, there has been a drastic polarization of
political forces in Thailand. Meanwhile, one can expect political strife to
If there is to be a new
constitutional framework, it will need widespread consensus among the powerful
and the restive electorate caught in the middle of a power struggle. How that
constitutional framework will deal with the culture of impunity remains
Political conflict, at
this stage, is fueled by fear, anger and hatred, and that is no climate to write
a constitution. The architects of the new legal structure will need to wean the
players from their addiction to high emotions, easy slogans and learn an
important lesson in designing a political system—it will need to install shock
absorbers to survive future political earthquakes. The political geology of our
times promises to deliver substantial seismic activity ahead. And sometimes the
health of a system is when a powerful person isn’t able to subvert the course of
justice with money and influence but must bear the full weight of the law like
an ordinary citizen. That’s not going to flow from the words of a new
constitution. When this does happen, something will have first changed in the
mindset and culture. We are a long way from reaching that point not just in
Thailand, but in the region and large parts of the larger world. Meanwhile, we
remain hostages to personalities who will never be expected to pay for their
Crime authors deal in the
currency of violent behavior. Every society has violent actors. Mostly they play
the part of villains, except when they are portrayed as heroes. The shifting
role is confusing.
Crime novels are filled
with guns, victims, criminals, police, prosecutors, judges, and prison guards.
Flip through the pages of a crime fiction novel and you tune into some point in
the continuum of violence. Crime fiction readers process violence through the
vicarious experience of following the characters and story. Books, TV, and
movies deliver the planning, execution, conspiracies, corruption and lies that
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
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
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
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
None of our closest
cousins the Great Ape,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
We are finding our limits.
When we can’t find a 250-ton plane with 239 people two weeks after it
disappeared, we are learning a lesson in humility. For all of our advanced
technology, we have large blind spots. It is only a matter of time before
machine intelligence eliminates the blind spots and decides a general culling of
the population would restore our primate species to the proper order from which
we evolved and broke free on our journey out of Africa.
Unless you are sleep
walking, you are noticing things as you move around. You might ask yourself
about you daily motion. How many steps do you take each day? Do you know that
there is a close correlation between what you pay attention to and number of
steps you take every day?
If you are reading this
essay, you aren’t in motion. I have (so far) your attention. Along the way you
pay attention to what you see coming and what find along the path. There is
something deeply unpleasant in the way I pay attention. The shallowness robs me
of not only depth but also ignores an opportunity. I noticed things that most of
you also noticed like the disappearance of the Malaysian Air Flight MH370 less
than two hours into a KL to Beijing flight. Like a missing person, it had
vanished. The world watched officials who said nothing in the matter of robots
programmed to avoid hard questions. I paid attention to officials who were cross
that I along with millions of others were paying attention to a performance to
distract from the existential questions of why and how something nearly 70
meters long with that many people and many tons of steel can just disappear?
What child or adult wouldn’t pay attention to something that big that
Airline and government
officials squirmed, shifted, blinked as they stared into the TV cameras. When we
pay really close attention to what someone says, especially if they are
powerful, they become very, very careful. Officials in government, teachers, and
employers all are in the attention paying business. It is a monopoly they’ve
long controlled, nurtured, protected and lavishly funded. The powerful have a
huge stake in what you pay attention to. Like all great magicians, they are
masters of distraction. Most people fall for sleight of hand. We can’t help it.
Our brains are easily distracted. Our attention easily bought and sold without
stopping to think that attention shouldn’t be just another commodity.
But it is. All of the time
this week, you sold your attention (if you had a job and wanted to keep it),
handed it over to a pundit, or politician who gives you certain emotional awards
in return for your attention. I was thinking about how this week the vision of
the military bunkers set up throughout Bangkok—about 176 bunkers and checkpoints—are manned with
In most places, people
would pay attention to the appearance of military bunkers throughout the capital
city. The photographs reveal that the freshly decorated bunkers fall somewhere
between a shrine, spirit house or spa. So far no one has suggested a contest for
tourists to submit their decoration ideas to the Bunker Decoration
People might well asked,
who ordered that to happen? What are the orders given to the soldiers inside the
bunker? Are they supposed to go out on patrol? Or do they just sit there and pay
attention, observe and write down what they see? But pay attention to who and
what, and if by paying attention, they see someone with a gun, what are they
under orders to do? I don’t know, I am merely asking how bunkers are organized,
staffed and instead most of the press reports have described how some of the
bunkers have been decorated. We’re not told where the decoration budget comes
from for the potted plants or flowers (perhaps they were donated) or whether
each unit is allowed to decorate their bunker guided by their own ideas of good
taste and beauty. But the flowers and potted plants have drawn international attention.
In summary, this week I’ve
paid attention to a disappeared airliner flight MH370 flying from KL filled with
passengers and crew and the appearance of military bunkers in Bangkok. What
appears and disappears, like the 0s and 1s of digital language, communicate
events, incidents, and movement that causes us to wonder about agency. What
caused it? And meaning? How does one thing suddenly appear while another
The mystery of life is in
these disappearance and appearances. The unscheduled events that evolution has
wired us to respond automatically and quickly such as an elephant appearing out
of nowhere. Six people and an elephant
died this week in Thailand when the elephant suddenly
appeared on the road causing a three vehicle crash. Evolution hasn’t
equipped us to react to elephants while driving cars on highways. We aren’t
paying attention to elephants.
decorated bunkers, and elephants knock us out of our routine as we move through
life processing our reality along the way. We shared this paying attention
experience collectively this week. But sharing something only partially tells
you how the attention was processed. We shouldn’t assume there is a
one-size-fits-all processing for attention. For instance, the anti-government
protesters’ attention more likely processes the Bangkok military bunkers in a
different light than the pro-government supporters’ attention would. Each will
argue the other side isn’t paying attention, or at least not paying proper
attention. This kind of attention processing difference underlies social
discontent, alienation and revolt as the agreed upon patterns, shaped by
culture, language and history, lose their grip to define agency and
Airport security experts
and authorities have taken our plastic bottles of drinking water and made us
take off our belts and shoes. At the same time, in many places, it seems the
authorities hardly glance at a boarding passenger’s passport. Given there are
nearly forty million entries for passports lost in the
vortex of global tourism which shares an airlock with global crimes, illegal
smuggling, illegal immigration and terrorism, suggests that the
authorities haven’t been paying attention to a potentially lethal flaw in
the system. This large database of stolen passports is evidence a country-sized
population with phony identities floating around planet earth. It took MH370 to
go missing before we shifted our attention to this hidden nation in a database
that no one but the Americans, British a couple of other countries regularly
consult. Most don’t bother. That Interpol database simply doesn’t have their
Guardian writes that Thailand has been
a hub for stolen passports. Incompetence, corruption, lies, lack of training and
supervision, and laziness within responsible authorities are all candidates to
explain why attention is not paid to the stolen passport database. They also
explain why only now after MH370 disappeared with two men who boarded with
passports stolen in Thailand (though it seems neither man was a terrorist but a
couple of illegal immigrants on their way to what they thought was a new life
with a fake identity) we are turning our attention to the matter of those
stolen, fake or forged passports. Like the missing airplane, no one seems to
have a handle on where they’ve disappeared.
A couple of years ago, a
close friend and his wife arrived in Bangkok on a flight from London. They
managed to mix up their passports. When my middle-aged friend, who is bald and
wears glasses, presented a passport at immigration he was stamped in. The stamp
was in his wife’s passport. I can assure you his wife isn’t bald and doesn’t
wear glasses. When it came to the wife’s turn, the immigration official through
a masterly of detective work looked at the husband’s photo in the passport and
at the middle-aged lady in front of him. A conference was held. The supervisor
finally sorted it out. The weak link is the lack of attention paid by those who
are paid to give their attention to identity of others. It doesn’t always work
out that way.
The business of authors,
painter, mathematicians, and musicians to offer alternative ways of paying
attention through words, images, numbers, and sound. They might even be so bold
as to suggest that the State is wrong, lying, stonewalling or otherwise
dishonest in diverting our attention to matters of grave importance. This
explains why the State likes to be, if possible, the sole or most important
sponsor of the arts. The money flows to those who fall in line with what the
government wishes people to pay attention to. Censorship is the State’s way of
warning artists and citizens to restrict the range of the ideas, events,
personalities and institutions that may be paid critical attention
Sometimes those stories
are contradictory to official stories and when challenging power, as Voltaire
once suggested, is a dangerous activity. Artists, who tell the safe story, or
one supportive of power, are rewarded and invited to give speeches, interviews
and lunch. At some point, every author makes a decision on which side of the
attention paying line he or she will patrol while seeking to tell the story of
what has disappeared and what has suddenly appeared.
There’s a threshold all of
us cross everyday as we explore our world. I was struck by Albert Sun’s “The Monitored Man”.
in the New York Times. The
author tested a number of tracking devices that register motion and activity
with readings on perspiration, heat rate, muscle heat, calories burned, skin
temperature and level of movement or activity. The idea is the state of your
health is connected with the nature and duration of your movement. Then came the
bombshell. On weekends, the author’s tracker disclosed that he took 16,000
Compare that with the
weekdays spend working at the office and the commute back and forth, including
the time spent at home. Sun’s workday shrank his weekend movement from a high of
16,000 (which approaches a half-marathon in distance) to 6,000 to 7,000 steps,
and most of that attention occurred inside the dome of an office. Someone pays
him to concentrate on a task that benefited the employer. People assume this is
natural or normal. But it is bizarre and weird that two-thirds of what we pay
attention to in life is a product someone more powerful than us controls. And we
find ourselves defining ourselves as an adjunct of our employer’s
ancestors had a much larger range of motion. In modern Africa, the Hadza have a hunter-gather lifestyle and the men on
average walk 11.2 kilometers a day (more than 14,000 steps). The Hadza men are
paying attention in a much different way from the modern office
Company uniforms or
military uniforms are good ways to keep the attention focused in a unified,
conforming range of motion. That is the life of most people. How they notice and
how they hand over what to notice to others. Our attention is filtered, fracked,
pipelined so that we hardly are aware that we’ve been socially engineered to
channel certain types of information, form that information into a range of
acceptable patterns, and to repeat that activity until further
When I paid close
attention to the story about trackers, I found another story buried under the
surface, one that raised much larger issues about the range of our daily motion
spectrum and where we fit in that spectrum will likely define how our attention
paying is mortgaged to pay the rent and feed the family.
Employers are buying
attention from their employees. The most effective employees not only
readily sell their attention, their identity is indistinguishable from the job
to which all of their attention is vested. I’ve talked to lawyers who are rich
enough to quit their law firms but couldn’t image what identity would be left
once they were no longer practicing law. This state of enforced non-identity
happens to many when they retire. Their motion is returned to them. Every day is
a weekend of possible motions. Do they grab that opportunity? Some do, many
Paying attention is like a
muscle. Use both or they both atrophy. The strength required to pay attention
without the handrails of indoctrination, propaganda, or work rules is great.
It’s you at the controls. If you can find that ‘you.’
After a lifetime of paying
attention we have grown comfortable with outsourcing the edit feature of our
reality through the filter of family, neighbors, teachers, officials, and
employers. We use this edited version of our reality to form this fragile thing
called identity. The fact that it is largely built by others doesn’t
seem to concern us too much. We don’t really think about how those filters
distill patterns from an unfathomable jumble of events, things, and motions
washing over us.
We’ve been on an attention
paying glide path from early school through a life time of employment, in early
old age that glider lands on a park bench with a batch of memories that seem
ours but are mainly off the rack memories shared by many others. The struggle is
to understand new stories outside the context we’ve spent our entire lives. We
seek a way to occupy all of that 66% of the lost time for our own movement. But
it may not be that easy. If you’ve lived a lifetime in a circus, being freed in
the wild is more terrifying than liberating. The jungle is an uneasy, dangerous
place. The lion cage door is open. But the lion no longer wants to leave. He
couldn’t make it in the wild. Outside the cage door, big airplanes disappear for
days and days, military bunkers decorated with flowers and potted plants litter
the city, as 40 million lost passports data entries circulate like El Niño
racing along the surface of the planet.
We try to make sense of
these mysteries. We seek a way to move through the world, which is stranger and
more alien than the one we’ve left behind. What makes the old sad is the
dangerous idea they were duped; there were other things in life they should have
paid attention to and didn’t. We regret that we sold most of our attention in
the name of love, faith, doctrine or profit. We didn’t have enough motion
to break free of the gravity of all of those filters. As there were so many
other possibilities, and we envy those who kept in motion and managed to break
But it’s never too late.
You don’t need to steal a passport. What you need is a plan for accelerating
your current rate of motion and let it carry you across expanded boundaries you
wish to explore. Fire the old script editors who have been running your
performance. Take off on a journey where the editors no longer direct how and
where and to what you can pay attention. This possibility of freedom may not
survive the cyberworld a decade into the future. While social relations and
political control will be less geographically bound; what comes next may impose
even greater filters. The number of daily steps may continue to plunge. Our
forward motion that brought us to this point in civilization may stall. The
controls over how we our minds pay attention may define our brave new world
where the Hadza, with their 11.2K daily walk, will take pity on us.
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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 Tolstoy, War 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
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
Here’s a brief reason for
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
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 Mattertrilogy (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.
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,
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
[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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
have a new message that goes something along these lines:
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
The vast majority of Thai
people in Bangkok and the countryside continue to believe in elections as the
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
Photo credit: Christopher G.
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
4th day of “Bangkok Shutdown” (January 16, 2014) Photo credit:
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
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.
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A good example of such an
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
“The poor have objected to being
governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”–G.K.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Worldin 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.
Barbara Nadel has made her
international reputation with her Istanbul set Inspector Ikmen Mysteries. What
is outstanding about the Istanbul novels is her adroit weaving of cultural
attitudes and values into the social and economic world of her characters and
her considerable ability to breath life into Istanbul as a city. She makes
Istanbul come to life.
It is a different
challenge to make Muslim life inside a London come to life. An Act of
Kindness rises to his challenge and creates a part of London most of us
have never witnessed and have no first-hand knowledge.
In this new mystery
series, the stories take place in the marginal neighborhood of East London where
immigrants and local poor live. Both communities fall prey to organized
criminals who circle like vultures over the vulnerable robbing them of their
dignity, respect and security. An Act of Kindness has the same cultural
preoccupations as the Inspector Ikmen Mysteries—to open the psychological and
emotional arrange of a self-contained community with different traditions,
beliefs and attitudes. In the novel, the Muslim worldview—especially the
one of Muslim women—seek to find an uneasy co-existence with English values and
attitudes. There are compromises, uncertainty, confusion, doubt, and fear
written into the lives of the women who form the story.
PI Lee Arnold and his
assistant Mumtaz Hakim, a widowed Muslim working mother, work out of an office
in East Ham. The private investigation business isn’t making them rich. The
Arnold Detective Agency is headed by an ex-cop, and his policeman skills and
continued contacts bring a law enforcement structure to the story. The PI office
is up a flight of stairs at the back of a rough alley behind Green Street, Upton
Park. In the case of Mumtaz Hakim, who after her abusive husband’s death, is
saddled with a large mortgage and secretly each month has pawned what remaining
items of value she has to meet the payment. Her employer, Lee Arnold plays a
smaller role in the overall story—when he appears it is as protector, comforter
Mumtaz takes on a new case
involving a Muslim woman named Nasreen whose husband Abdullah has received a law
degree from the University of Manchester. It appears to be a traditional Muslim
marriage. The novel starts with Nasreen discovering an ex-serviceman (he’d
served in Afghanistan) living in a wooden shelter in the back garden. Nasreen
hasn’t told her husband about the homeless man named John, who she has secretly
been giving food. She fears her husband’s wrath. Abdullah, who is easy to anger,
has more than his fair share of secrets from his past in Manchester and the
place and name of the law firm where he tells his wife that he’s
Abdullah is abusive and
controlling, and his wife is afraid of him—and with good reason—he has no
hesitation using physical violence. It is her fear of his explosive rages and
demands that haunts her throughout the novel. She reaches out to Mumtaz, another
Muslim woman, but steps back as her traditional values make it difficult for her
to accept that her husband may have secrets of his own about his employment that
he wishes to keep from her. Nasreen has a crisis of denial. This is a common
link she shares with Mumtaz who is in denial (though for different reasons)
about her economic prospects. Only Mumtaz has the perseverance to ultimately
break through Nasreen’s failure to see what was in front of her all of the
The mystery unfolds as
John Sawyer, the ex-vet is murdered, his body was dumped in an adjacent Jewish
ceremony, and Abdullah takes a wrecking hammer to the walls of the newly
acquired house. He tells his wife not to ask questions. That he’s renovating the
house himself to save money. The house holds a crucial secret connected to
Abdullah’s history. Each day he arrives back from work and sets to bring down
another bit of wall. His wife believes he works as a lawyer for a firm of
solicitors. As his entire life is built upon a foundation of lies and
deceptions, he may have the right morality for legal work but it does make his
biography difficult to take at face value.
As Mumtaz works the
Nasreen case, she also has another client who wishes to find out if her sister
Wendy Dixon is on the game. The sub-plot opens up the world of powerful and
dangerous gangsters who are running a number of illegal rackets in East Ham.
Sean Rogers, the head of the local mafia has the police, judges and other
powerful people under his thumb. They along with wealthy men attend sex parties
that Roberts hosts, supplying the escorts. No one has the courage to stand up to
Rogers for fear of the violence that he’s capable of inflicting against anyone
challenging his authority.
The central issue is one
of coming to terms with cultural identity by Muslims in London. Abdullah’s
secrets are caught up with his childhood and the deathbed secrets of his father
that haunt him. In seeking to claim his cultural legacy, Abdullah will spare no
one and no cost even though it will destroy others.
An Act of Kindness
is a parable of chasing dreams of one’s father until they slowly turn into
nightmares from which darkness claim the dreamer and all of those around him.
The relationship of Nasreen and Mumtaz as Muslim women struggling with abusive
husbands and debt sharing a bleak future reveals the emotional lives of
culturally displaced women in London. Like a coming across a terrible road
accident, your first reaction is to look away, and then you look, and you can
stop seeing the pain and suffering.
And you wish the world had
a way to sing a lullaby to those like Nasreen caught in the car wreckage of a
life, one that comforts those who are inconsolable. Nasreen’s fate, like that of
Wendy Dixon, an escort girl working in Sean Rogers’s sexual fantasy world, is
determined by men like Abdullah and Rogers. Their fear freezes them. They are in
the orbit of men with frightening power and whose careless brutality and
violence acts as a gravity, bending, folding, distorting their futures.
Finishing the novel, I felt a lingering sorrow, a cry from the heart, as the
helplessness overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the lives of several
There is little redemption
in An Act of Kindness. Instead, the reader finishes the novel with a
sense of real despair as the unfairness of what happened to each of these women
was as irreversible and permanent as a cold, unmarked grave.