Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and John Paulos have written best
selling books subjecting religion to the rigors of science, testing, evidence
and logic. The belief in the sky god was never able to withstand such a
compelling analysis. The borders of faith have shrunk inside many people’s
lives. Those who describe themselves in surveys and polls as atheist continue to
remain a minority in most Western countries. It may be that many people
nominally remain under the cloak of religion. Strip away the cloak and the
reality is they have all but in name abandoned faith in the sky god. But the
rituals of faith continue like a steam locomotive. We love the experience of
ritual—the sight, the smell, and the ride with fellow passengers. We temporarily
close our eyes to the fact that other forms of transportation have long ago
What is the evidence for
this covert loss of faith in religion to supply satisfactory answers to the
large existential questions about death? It is found in the rise of government
as an alternative manager of fears. The second bow in the string religion
brought was the fear of being a sinner, doing wrong, angering the sky god. The
old violin has lost both strings. Our existential angst goes unanswered by faith
and no one worries much about being a sinner. Guilt, like sin, is a word no
longer functions to keep anti-social behavior in check.
The old hierarchy of fear
managers—monks, priests, rabbis, ministers—historically have claimed
jurisdiction over ministering to our existential fears for centuries. As
absolute faith in religious answers no longer is comforting to a growing mass of
people, who have switched allegiance to the scientific method, a gap has opened.
Our secularization has brought about a great leveraged buy-out of the fear
business. The private sector has co-ventured with the government in the
acquisition, data mining, storage, and analysis of big information
The new secular clergy are
organized around the language of mathematics as the church once used Latin for
their elite. Mathematicians are our new cardinals. Their algorithms communicate
the sacred and the secret. Outside the inner sanctum of Government, a large,
private group of lay novices are often ex-clergy who shuttle back and forth from
public to private, and vice versa.
In gaining control over
the fear business, governments and their private partners have found an
effective way to expand and consolidate power. The medieval role of the Church
found that fear of the sky god’s wrath was effective to control kings who ruled
under its grace in Europe. History teaches an important lesson about those who
claim the mantle of fear managers—power, whether religious or secular—takes our
fear of the ‘other’ and our fear of death to serve their own interests. Like the
church before our secular age, the population has been excluded from the modern
process of fear management. The new secular priesthood determines, in secret,
what actions work best in the war against fear. Fear needs a face. Fear needs an
enemy. In religious times, it was the devil; in secular times, it is the
terrorist, who have brought us to the edge of the apocalypse; it is these people
who haunt us and make us fearful.
Secular governments have
learnt what large religious institutions have known for centuries—the masses
will abandon claims to civil liberties and rights in return for guarantees that
the enemy, the non-believer, whether within or from the outside. They have no
issue with giving a free hand to officials and private contractors waging this
war against fear. Priesthoods rely on magical thinking. To defeat the enemies
who cause fear, all-out war is necessary. In this worldview, there is no choice
but to permit the authorities to collect metadata, mine it for threats, and
pursue those threats by all available means.
Institutions that work in
the fear business are not only good at data mining—math as the new Latin gives
them a huge edge—they are also adroit at understanding the psychology of the
faithful. The reality is that people are highly vulnerable when it comes to
fear. They want to be cleansed of fear. Churches no longer offer a sanctuary to
repress these destabilizing emotions. We are witness to a great shifting of the
guards as religious institutions are going the way of the manual typewriter. In
the digital age, the amount of fear has increased at the same rate of Moore’s
law for computer speed. Fear increased with our information about the dangers of
the world. The uneasy anxiety of the masses demands something to be done to
contain their fear.
In response to that
demand, we are witnessing the results—a huge, spawning intelligence gathering
empire, one justified and tailored to managing the globalization of fear.
Intelligence agencies in America gather, store and process metadata about
millions of ordinary people’s personal messages hovered from their email,
telephone, social networks who had not been accused of any crime. The majority
of those people have no problem with the government keeping information about
their lives. They feel they’ve done nothing wrong. It is only people who would
harm them or kill them that should be worried.
Don’t tie the hands of the
fear managers, let them mount their steads, draw their swords, and vanquish the
bad people from our existence. In the religious realm, heaven is on the side of
the righteous. For the modern, secular population, heaven requires mass storage
facilities, algorithms to mine the huge amounts of data. This new secular
church, and the vast network of lay novices, operates under the watchful eyes of
hundreds of thousands of the workers with the sacred task of monitoring those
who generate fear. They are our representatives of righteousness—the high
priests who have been granted top-secret clearance—the vanguards to guard us
against the fears once the preserve of sky god and his
Our secular masters have
become the new class of priests and new digital, technology installed as the sky
god who sees all, is everywhere, omnipotent, and watching.
We use our new technology
like prayers, believing that it will allow our secret clergy to acquire
patterns, knowledge about probable associations and outcomes, and prevent a
crime before it happens and identify the criminals before they commit a crime.
In the ancient days when religions played a central role in people’s lives, we
had to wait until a criminal acted, investigated for evidence to catch him, and
extracted a confession after having caught him. In our secular, technological
age that process from the steam locomotive age is no longer
We live in a new age, one
in which fear propels us to allocate resources to identify people who are, or
possess the potential, for violence, aggression, and brutality. We no longer
rest at night knowing the sky god keeps their primitive impulse in check. Just
as we have begun to have serious doubt that the sky god is waiting on the other
side of death. We are alone, troubled, insecure, short-lived creatures and
seeking shelter in a violent species on a rocky planet, trying to get by day by
This new secular regime
has crept up on us. We blinked. One moment it suddenly appeared. We are all part
of the congregation. Dismantling the new clergy, or effectively controlling
their actions, won’t happen easily. And for a reason—we yearn not for freedom or
liberty, but seek security from the terrible uncertainty of meaning to lives
without the sky god, and the oblivion we confront in our death. As with all
great religions, the day will arrive when one among them follows Martin Luther
by challenging the right and authority of the digital Leviathan over our lives.
We wait for that edict as it travels at the speed of light through cyberspace to
offer a secular order where the clergy cedes power to the congregation it
serves. Only then will there be any chance for a reformation.
Theatre since the time of
Greeks produced plays as a mirror to hold up to a society to see the reality of
their existence. We are accustomed to the division of drama into the two
different aspects of our lives—comedy and tragedy. We respond with laughter or
tears as the emotional chords are played on our heartstrings with the virtuosity
of the great dramatist. Not all cultures draw their dramatic heritage from the
Greeks or Romans, nor are all dramas the product of professional stage
producers, scriptwriters and directors.
In Thailand the police
have an exclusive on the right to stage the drama of a criminal reenactment. A
number of times a year it is show time in the Land of Smiles.
The police re-enactment of
crimes has been refined over many years in Thailand until it has reached the
level of an anticipated theatrical event. The reconstructions of actual crimes
might be thought to be closer to carnival or street theatre than Shakespearian
tightly scripted plays. The police having caught the criminal arrange for him or
her (most of the time it’s him) to appear in front of the media and show how the
suspect committed the crime. The police are casted in the role of heroes, the
villain (sometimes there are more than one) is the real-life suspect and
everyone plays their role before news reporters and TV cameras.
This is a different
concept than the TV show like Crime Stopper, where to catch a criminal, the
police reenact the crime in order to engage the public with a request for
information to assist in identifying and arresting the suspect.
In Thailand, the police
arrest the suspected criminal who has “confessed” to the crime. What follows the
confession is a media presentation where the suspect, actors, and the police
stage a reconstruction of the crime.
Reenactments can carry a
light note, a hint of comedy with a suspect who has the media spotlight. That
certainly proved to be the case with Carlo Konstantin
Kohl who escaped
from the airport by a German national where he’d been held in the transit lounge
on his journey from Australia to Germany.
Sometimes the ‘theatre’
moves from the realm of controlled drama produced and directed by the police, to
‘live’ drama, which shows just how badly things can go wrong with a staged
re-enactment of a crime.
In a recent criminal
case, a Vietnamese
national, a suspect in an abduction case was on his way to a crime scene
reenactment, escaped out of the back of a police van.
When a 17-year
reenacted the vicious stabbing of a maid in Phuket—she was stabbed 80 times and
her throat slit—relatives and neighbors tried to beat up the suspect and
the police had to intervene to protect him. As he was a minor his face was
covered by a balaclava.
case of a sexual
assault and robbery of two Russian women, the police had Thai actresses
play the role of the Russians in the reconstruction of the crime.
Obviously a ‘reconstructed’ crime doesn’t actually reproduce all the elements of
the crime. It is more like a power point presentation of how to fly an airplane
than actually getting in the cockpit and taking off.
reported the police rationale for reenactments of crime:
“A Metropolitan Police
specialist said a re-enactment is important for an investigation because each
criminal or each gang behaves differently in committing a crime. Details on how
criminals commit each crime help the police understand the pattern of a crime.
This can help them track down other criminals showing the same behaviour pattern
and help reduce the loss of life and property.”
Reenactments as a police
school teaching tool for crime investigators strikes me as an interesting,
though implausible, heuristic tool. I think the jury is out exactly how such
reenactments expand the range of knowledge about criminal behavior. Watching
Superman in Man of Steel might impart some knowledge about criminal
conduct as well. Crime re-enactments, in my view, touch on a much older idea
about communities gathering to witness a wrongdoer repent, confess his crime,
show his contrition by assisting the authorities in demonstrating what he did.
Reenactments are a ritual, like rituals surrounding birth, marriage and death.
Rituals of cleansing the wrongdoer—with the police as high-priests—are on hand
as representatives of the gods who punish those who do wrong, so that victim’s
family, friends and neighbors can watch the suspect admit his sin.
If the police explanation
is correct, the re-enactments ought to take place in an actual theatre or
classroom. From the photos below, you can see the Thai police staged a
re-enactment of the murder of a well-known and controversial businessman is
being witnessed by only two officers (with one having his interest engaged
Another point, which also
isn’t explained, is why the press is invited to record this piece of theatre,
the large number of police officers who attend such reenactments, or onlookers
who are allowed to watch the whole proceeding up close. Are they training
sessions or workshops? Or is this staged reconstruction more like theatre? May
be it is a ritualized repentance and request for forgiveness as I discussed
earlier. Or could it be an effective way of communicating with the public that
the police not only have solved the crime, protected them, and by locking this
man up they are keeping them safe? As we’ve learnt with recent events in the
intelligence community in America, the desire to feel safe is a license to do
whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal. Reenactments are hatched from a
primordial fear of danger from other people.
A member of the National
Human Rights Commission, Paiboon Warahapaitoon, requested that the police take
into account the human rights implications arising from staging a reenactment of
a crime. Even under Thai law, the accused can’t be convicted solely based on a
confession. A reenactment is no more than a dramatization of a confession that
cannot be used to convict, unless it is supported by independent evidence of
lawyers have come
out to argue that the Thai police reenactments would be illegal in most
Most of the Thai
reenactments are young Thais with little education and from poor families. These
are the faces one sees among the suspects reenacting crimes. The rich and
well-off are not actors in these dramas. They have their lawyers, day in court,
and are usually out on bail, denying the charges against them.
Last week a Thai diplomat
stationed in Cario was involved in an altercation in a luxury hotel. The facts
are yet to be finally established, but the preliminary reports having the young
Thai woman diplomat kicking, scratching and biting an Egyptian lawyer in front
of her husband and other witnesses after a round of insults at Egypt and
Egyptian people . The diplomat has claimed self-defence, but offered no
details as to what caused her to be threatened. The Thai Ministry of Foreign
Affairs has recalled her to Bangkok and said it will investigate the matter.
Whatever is found, one thing you can be assured won’t happen is a reenactment of
If you want to see how the
rich carry on, watch primetime Thai TV lakorn (soap operas) on free TV
channels. They are the next best thing to crime reenactments of assaults and
other crimes the privileged commit. Lakorn is wildly popular amongst a
large segment of the population. This shows there is a popular appetite for
reenactments of crimes, nasty and anti-social behavior which don’t quite rise to
crimes but nonetheless inflict a fair measure of emotional damage to the
For this reason I think it
is unlikely that the popularity of the Thai lakorn will wane any time
soon. And the same can be predicted for criminal reenactments starring members
of the underclasses. All societies need a way of staging drama. Each culture
evolves a set of expectations, roles, producers, directors and media stars. The
Thais give the starring roles to the poor in reality news entertainment in crime
re-enactments, and the rich get theirs in soapy primetime TV dramas. Thai
audiences are as entertained as any member of the old Globe Theatre in London. The show must go on.
And when the price of admission is free, and the villain at center stage
performs his role, for that moment, he achieves a moment of fame. And the police
reinforce their image as heroes, defenders, protectors against the ‘other’ who
are out ‘there’ waiting to kill, maim, rob, rape or assault.
Shakespeare in Richard II wrote: “As in a theatre, the eyes of men, after
a well-graced actor leaves the stage, are idly bent on him that enters next.”
And who enters next may well be someone caught on a video camera. Digital
video recorders in cell phones have the potential, over time, to replace the
police reenactment. The purpose of the reenactment is for the suspect to show
how he committed the crime. In this YouTube clip a Thai man confronts Russian
man with a handgun in Phuket. It is over a woman.
Videos like this eliminate the need for a reenactment.
Bangkok this week has
secured its reputation as the place (to borrow Maurice Sendak’s book title)
the Wild Things Are. Wild things like in wild, feral animals are a good place
to begin a Conrad-like journey into the heart of urban darkness.
Noah, according the myth,
collected a pair of each animal and loaded them onto an arc as he had advanced
warning that a flood would wipe out life on the planet. This week a modern
version of Noah was busted in Bangkok, although no arc was found on the
premises. But that is a minor detail, as no self-respecting face displaying
local would be caught dead shoving animals into a wooden Arc. The new Arc is an
imported luxury cars.
Before we move on to the
animal selection process for filling up an Arc, let’s start with the noise
animals make. Noah must have had neighbors, too. We never heard their side of
the story. Noah didn’t work in silence. He banged nails day and night to
construct the arc, while his animals caged up kicked up a chorus. Never heard
that part of the story? Right. That merely proves that some great background
stories never are told, or if told, are remembered and passed down from
generation to generation.
In Bangkok, after a
drinking session the music is usually turned up … and up … and at some point it
blares through of the neighbor’s walls. The racket Leeches through the floors
and ceiling and sucks you dry. Welcome to the neighbor from hell. The one with
the teenagers who has formed a rock band with his buddies but no one has ever
taken a music lesson. The wannabe rock stars bang away on electric guitars
and drums from midnight to four in the morning. You complain to the police. They
do nothing. As Thailand is a hub of the unconventional story about hellish
neighbors, at last there is a story where the police actually came, saw, held
their noses, and returned with very large trucks to remove the source of the
noise. Only in this case, it wasn’t loud music that caused the
one of the remote neighborhoods in Bangkok, Khun Lek bolted up in bed as he
tries to awake for a nightmare of roaring lions and a distant tingling of pigs
and peacocks. You are awake but the sound of jungle hasn’t disappeared. And then
he smelled something foul as if a hundred sewers have backed up and overflowed
in your bedroom.
The police discovered the
neighbor—a Mr. Montri runs a pet shop at the Weekend Market also known as
Jattujak or JJ Market. He’d previously been convicted of trading in wildlife and
had gone back to his old ways as officials found: 14 white lions, 4 otter
civets, 2 hornbills, 1 oris, 23 meerkats, 1,000 sugar gliders, 12 peacocks, 13
turtles, 6 minks, 4 miniature pigs, 17 marmosets, a number of birds, and some
stuffed animals. It seems the police got tired of counting after the exhaustion
of counting 17 marmosets (those little buggers race around like rats on speed
and all look alike making counting an ordeal) as quantities grow vague when it
comes to birds and stuffed animals. There it is. After the great flood, the
world starts over with this population of animals.
Mr. Montri told the police
that he had the paperwork to legally import the lions from South Africa.
Apparently a lion cost Baht 200,000 wholesale or about $6,700.00. There was a
slight problem with the papers. The import documentation showed 16 lions coming
into Bangkok, and there were only 14 in the cages on Mr. Montri’s land. The
paperwork hasn’t stopped the police from charging Mr. Montri with offenses that
could delay the sailing of the Mr. Montri’s Arc by up to 4 years.
Where were the missing 2
lions? That question is one Mr. Montri’s neighbors are seeking answers to as
they gingerly rush from their front doors, climb into their cars or on to the
seat of their motorcycles and get out while the getting is good.
The rich in Thailand
apparently have a strong desire to own unusual pets. There is also a dark side,
too, as the delicate bits from some of these animals are also made into
medicines usually to increase the vitality and virility of aging men.
The secret sex lives of
some old men include harvesting organs from rare, large African animals. Others
go for luxury sports cars.
This leads us back to the
on-going investigation by a large number of agencies into the smuggling of
luxury cars into Thailand. The 300% import taxes are staggeringly high for
someone using the normal import channels. That provides an opportunity for
someone who can figure out a short cut. Somehow 2,000 luxury cars were smuggled
into Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri and stored, making it one of the world’s
largest luxury car parking lots in the world. As one would expect, cars began
disappearing from the port as importers began selling them off at bargain
The Department of Special
Investigation (DSI) is looking into 600 luxury cars to see if they were legally
imported. DSI has impounded a 100 luxury cars so far this year.
News reports indicate 90%
of the luxury cars imported into Thailand came in illegally. That is more than
just a little leakage in the system. That’s the sound of Niagara Falls roaring
next to those missing lions. Like prohibition of alcohol, criminalization of
drugs, or 300% taxes on for a luxury item is guaranteed to fuel a grey and black
market, corrupt officials and create a wealthy criminal class of middlemen. In
the case of Thailand, the grey and black markets are the lion’s share of the
luxury car market. The grey market includes luxury cars used abroad by students
and imported into Thailand—just think about it. You come home from year of study
abroad with a half-million car that slides under the tax regulations. Or if you
have a luxury car assembled in Thailand, another free pass. Though the assembly
of such cars require technicians and facilities that rival NASA, and the local
‘assembly’ shops appear to have no more than the usual screwdriver and hammer.
And the luxury car has to be registered. Basically the luxury car market is a
legal mess with many fingers pointing and many more fingers in the
The owners of luxury cars
are a who’s who of Hi-So personalities, senior government officials and even an
abbot. Their sons and daughters also have a taste for the exotic import that
distinguishes them from the lower orders running around town in their government
subsidized locally assembled cars that cost less than the upholstery on a
You need vitality to drive
one of these babies. With a white lion in the passenger’s seat no one, I repeat
no one, is going to have a larger face than the man behind the wheel. Most
people are status obsessed and the Thais are no exception to the rule. Face is
important. What you drive, wear, and the animals you collect, if of the right
sort, can create a face the size of the moon. Capitalism in its full glory has
provided a mechanism to achieve the elevated heights undreamed up in Noah’s day
of mere arc builders.
If we stand aside from the
personalities and the distracting images, we can see more clearly what is at
stake. The lions and the luxury cars are really a story about our uneasy,
troubled relationship with nature and each other. Our problem has caused a
problem with nature once it became apparent that there is vastly more profit in
destruction than in maintenance of natural resources.
We are a species of
Deceptive Apes, Killer Apes, and we are a danger to ourselves and all other
species. Our ancestors passed laws and wrote constitutions to protect us against
ourselves. In the digital age we have found those in power have discovered new
and powerful ways of deception, means far beyond the imagination of prior
We deceive ourselves that
nature can absorb our rapacious behavior. We deceive ourselves that those who
collect information will never use it for their benefit rather than our
We deceive ourselves into
believing that the rule of law will continue to protect us like a dyke against
the rising tide of government intrusion. Apathy is the bedfellow of deception.
We are enablers of the worst excesses that should worry us but don’t. A majority
of Thais accept corruption as part of the system. A majority of Americans don’t
object if their government accesses, stores and analyzes their emails, Amazon
purchases, Google searches, Facebook likes and posts, and telephone
Collectively we’ve fallen
into a state of denial that a price is paid for deception, and we are the one’s
who pay it. Our minds fill with the soma of the media and the government
officials, and we miss the context and the larger issues. Like a great magician,
who knows how to distract his audience, we are easily fooled. We focus our
attention on the slightly amusing personal stories that limit the damage to a
couple of dodgy schemes that the authorities are investigating. Imported lions
and luxury vehicles are a good laugh. Until we realize that we are laughing when
we should be weeping.
We live in a time of great
loss—nature, privacy, freedom, honesty and fairness. One by one, these values
are dying. Like Old English words, one day no one will remember what such words
meant back in our day. The natural habitat of the Deceptive Ape is in
transition. What that new space will look like? Perhaps our descendants will
occupy a mental cage with as much space to roam as the cages that the Bangkok
resident white lions were housed.
We can only guess. Where
the Wild Things Are is just beginning to unfold.
Some weeks provide an
avalanche of events—enough to fill a book of essays. For example, a German
national who’d finished serving a prison sentence in Australia for theft and
drug law violations, escaped his private security guards at the Bangkok airport
and had a two-day holiday in Bangkok before the police caught up with him. Carlo
Konstantin Kohl, a German national, with an Australian accent aged 25 (a
contemporary of Mr. I Am Awesome, the 25-year-old Thai drug dealer
with five wives I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) was being extradited to
Germany. Here’s an account in the Australian:
Kohl’s escorts were two
private security personnel whose job was delayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport due to
bad weather. The security detail had decided to wait for the onward flight to
Germany in the transit lounge with Mr. Kohl. It was a long overnight wait and
the guards fell asleep according to the Bangkok
(although the Australians denied that). Mr. Kohl decided he wasn’t all that
anxious to return to Germany where he was wanted on parole violation charges.
According to local reports he wandered around the airport for hours.
Kohl on his way to a foot massage in Suvannabhumi Airport in Bangkok.
His escape from the
airport confirmed that it has more exit doors than Bangkok’s illegal
gambling casinos—300 doors—and is far less secure. Any one of the airport exit
door, apparently, is easily disabled by snipping an electric wire.
Rumours are unconfirmed
that Immigration—having discovered all of these doors may be in surplus for
emergency use—might convert a half dozen of these surplus exits into Fast Track
lanes for those willing to pay an extra fee. Of course, I made that up, but
anything your can conceive in your imagination just might have a counterpart in
reality in Thailand.
Thais love stories about
handsome young rogue farang giving the authorities in Australia and
Thailand a dual set of black eyes. He was bound to endear himself to a Thai
audience by stopping at the airport for a foot massage before high tailing it to
Soi Cowboy. The local press played the sanuk angle of the story as if Mr. Kohl’s
tour of Bangkok’s hot spots was a blend of Home Alone and Hangover
II. A handsome young rogue for a star, fumbling, sleeping Australians, and
a tour of the hot spots of Bangkok.
Establishing the facts has
been illusive. Like objects in zero gravity, facts in Thailand have a habit of
floating free, bouncing off the shell of reality, untethered they remain fluid
and forever just out of reach. The Thais have a way of dealing with facts that
appear to incriminate someone important—those facts fall into the category of
insufficient evidence. In Kohl’s case no Thai officials of rank were
incriminated (that was news in itself). His romp through Bangkok was an
adventure, and besides everyone was quite happy to lay the blame the Australian
security detail—including the Australians. Falling asleep on the job? That could
never happen in Thailand. What about all of those doors Mr. Kohl rattled? Some
of the doors had been kept open for the convenience of airport staff. A bolt
hole might be useful when the time comes to sneak a cigarette, hide from the
boss, or to find a cozy spot for a quick nap.
Even the circumstances of
Kohl’s capture/surrender/ambush—take your pick—are unclear. He was arrested in
the vicinity of the German Embassy (the exact circumstances of his apprehension
like most other aspects of the story are vague). One press report said Kohl had
applied for a replacement passport two weeks earlier. That was the first clue
that he’d been enjoying himself in Bangkok for some while. And he’d been flying
under the radar.
Hadn’t anyone notified the
Germany Embassy in Bangkok to be on the outlook for him? Apparently not, but
facts like elementary particles in physics apparently only allow you to measure
location or velocity. I’d hazard a guess that Heisenberg’s head would have been
spinning to explain the facts in this case. Was Kohl on his way to the German
Embassy to pick up his replacement passport? Did he suddenly have a pang of
guilt and walked up and turned himself in to a Thai cop he saw on the way to the
embassy? We don’t know those facts. You can’t find them anywhere in the press
In one week, Carlo
Konstantin Kohl managed more front page coverage in the English language
newspapers than the Prime Minister or her brother—the one who was prime minister
when the airport with the 300 exit doors was opened, and the one through which
he exited some years ago. This was exactly the kind of story the local media
love—a Hollywood bankable rogue, keystone private cop foreigners, and no one of
importance had been accused of corruption, thuggish behavior, or displays of
gross arrogance. Allegations of negligence, well, to complain about that is to
complain about the oxygen we breath. Though the Thai press had a report that the
taxi driver that drove Kohl from the airport into Bangkok charged him Baht 3,000
for a ride that normally would cost under Baht 300. It’s not certain Kohl
was aware that he’d been grossly overcharged. I suspect his gave the driver a
hundred dollar bill. Unless after his foot massage Kohl made a trip to one of
the airport exchange booths.
With a bit of time to
reflect, the Bangkok Post ran editorial suggesting that if Kohl could use a coin
to open a security door at the airport, well-trained terrorists who’d been
trained with escape and evasion skills could easily have popped open all 300
doors at once.
Kohl, who was fined Baht
6,000 ($200) and given a two-year suspended sentence for illegal entry, later
conducted what appeared to be a workshop in front of about 50 officials who
watched Kohl show how he had used a coin to open a security door and how he cut
the wire. It was less a reenactment of the crime than the usual photo op the
local papers run of a foreign guest speaker, guru from abroad, holding one of
those seminars at a five-star hotel, lunch included, for the professional
development and the transfer of foreign know-how and technology.
Kohl’s fun holiday in
Bangkok overlooks one or two issues that I’ve not seen raised in the press
accounts. Shouldn’t someone be asking the question as to whether there are
protocols that require foreign police agencies, or private security firms used
by law enforcement to transport prisoners to other countries, to notify local
authorities that a criminal will be passing through as a transit passenger?
Wouldn’t the Thais like to know in advance of arrival of someone like Mr. Kohl
at their airport? Would they have rules to be observed such as don’t fall asleep
in the transit lounge while escorting a prisoner? Can any serial killer show up
in the custody of a couple of sleep deprived private security guards, take a
power nap in the transit lounge, and let their charge take a tour of the city?
What other people or things are going on in transit lounges that Thai officials
might be interested in as a matter of public security and safety?
Or is this the
international transport of prisoners one of those black boxes, like the
renditions the Americans ran out of Thailand for some years, where flights come
and go out of shadowy world with a wink and a nod? Do other countries have
procedures that set out what notices and process must be complied with in flying
prisoners in and out of their country?
The problem with such
questions is they take the fun out of Kohl’s story. Better to keep a lid on the
broader implications of what happened by limiting attention to the official
response which is to send a crew around to rattle the 300 security doors at the
airport. The questions are also embarrassing to both the Australians and the
Thais. By asking why the Thai authorities didn’t receive advance notice of Mr.
Kohl’s arrival raises the uncomfortable possibility that the Australians were
under no obligation to give the Thais any such notice.
Credit must go to Mr. Kohl
was exposing the security problem at the airport. Additional credit is due for
establishing the abiding metaphor whenever an influential person is facing a
‘fact’ that causes a major loss of face and serious criminal charge—he will find
300 exit doors, and one of those door will allow him to escape. Call it the
‘insufficient evidence’ door.
The more interesting story
this week was the explosion and fire that destroyed a carrier lorry loaded with
luxury cars that
somehow had entered the country and avoided import duties, and the parties have
links to major politicians and government officials.
The six luxury
cars have caused a
turf battle between the police, customs, revenue department, and the
anti-corruption agency—that no doubt other agencies will seek to have the cars
and jurisdiction under their authority. Doors. 300 doors, and the question is
which doors will open and close before the mystery of who owned and imported the
six luxury cars. Next week, reading the local press will be an exercise in
observing multiple doors opening and slamming shut like a nineteenth century
prison cell. Could the Australians take the fall for those luxury cars? Did
someone fall asleep again? Somewhere, official wheels are turning, door knobs to
One of George Orwell’s most enduring essays is titled
Shooting an Elephant. In the 1930s George Orwell served as a colonial
official in Burma. He was a sub-divisional police officer. Young Orwell’s hatred
of the idea of empire was only matched by his brutal contempt felt toward the
unfortunate souls who were the subject of the imperial occupation of their
His iconic essay about an
elephant goes to the heart of imperialism—the linkage of the despot with the
expectations of those they exploited. The story begins when the narrator
received a phone call about an elephant on the rampage into a bazaar. He takes
out his old .44 Winchester, knowing it is too small a weapon to down an
elephant, but as a means to frighten the beast. The elephant is in musth and the
mahout has taken the wrong turn ending up twelve hours away.
All the weapons in the
empire are with the authorities. The locals were without weapons and as a result
‘were quite helpless’ against the raging elephant. They could only stand to the
side and observe destruction of a hut, fruit-stalls, the eating of produce,
overturning a van, and killing a black Dravidian coolie who’d been stomped to
death in the mud. And wait for the British colonial officials to handle the
problem. The locals were victims. They were passive. Their alternative was to
wait for those with guns to arrive and save the day.
Having laid eyes on the
dead man, the narrator sent a servant to a friend’s house to borrow an elephant
gun. Once he had the elephant gun, the mood of the crowd changed from
indifference to an expectation of harvesting the elephant’s meat once it had
been shot. A small army of locals followed on the heels of the official to the
paddy field where elephant as found quietly eating bunches of grass.
The danger had gone out of
the situation. The elephant was calmly feeding itself and no more dangerous than
a cow. The official had no desire to kill the elephant. And saw no compelling
reason to do so until he saw the crowd of 2,000 Burmese watching and waiting. It
was not idle interest that drew them to the field. He represented authority. He
had an elephant gun. They had only their hands. “A sahib has to act like a
sahib…” He had no choice but to act out his role; it was impossible not to kill
the elephant not because the elephant was a danger but because an armed man
without resolution was no longer to be feared. He must never show fear to the
natives. A fearful man without resolve no longer projected that he was the
legitimate master of their destiny. He might be despised but he would be feared
and that was the framework on which empire rested.
The killing of the
elephant was a messy affair with multiple shots and great suffering by the
beast, taking a good half an hour to die. Afterwards, opinion was divided as to
whether the official had done the right thing by killing the elephant. What made
him happy was that the coolie had been killed. It had been his death that gave
justification to the death of an elephant that was no longer a danger to anyone.
The shooting had been more of an execution of a murderer. No one could deny that
murder had happened. While an elephant couldn’t form the intention to kill as a
human being could nonetheless having stomped to death the coolie, no one could
say that the shooting had been wrong.
Orwell’s parable about an
elephant can’t be disconnected from the context of empire. A modern version of
the story happened last week in Thailand. A Thai nurse and her husband visited
Lae Paniad Elephant Kraal in Ayutthaya. The nurse had offered an elephant named
Plai Big some food. The elephant grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him,
stomping on her with his foot. Her husband rushed to help his wife. Plai Big
gored him. The nurse died from massive injuries to her internal organs. The
husband was seriously injured.
Like Orwell’s Shooting
an Elephant, an elephant, a 27-year-old 3 tonne male, had killed a local.
In this case, the dead woman was a nurse. She was hardly a member of the coolie
class that featured in Orwell’s story. No one ran to the authorities and asked
that a police official be dispatched to shoot the elephant. The Thai resolution
had a different outcome. A ritual was performed at the elephant kraal. The ends
of the elephant’s tusks were sawed off by 20 centimeters. The purpose of the
ceremony was to free the elephant of the spirit of the dead woman. It was
reported that Plai Big would never work with the public again. . Plai Big fate
will be to spend the rest of his days in solitary confinement.
In Orwell’s story there
was a tragedy. In the contemporary Thai story there was a similar tragedy. When
foreigners occupy another land, the need to maintain fear and authority ruled
out any other option. It was never about the elephant; it had always been about
monopoly to use violence as the means to show resolve. Nothing short of pulling
the trigger to kill could establish such resolve was beyond question. To
maintain order was to show that resolve even though it wasn’t necessary. And
maybe that is the point of Orwell’s story. Indecisiveness in the exercise of
force would have been a sign of weakness. One man in a crowd of 2,000, if weak,
would not survive. He would be laughed at. And the last thing a man with a gun
can allow is laughter at his expense.
In Thailand, the dynamic
was different. By not shooting an elephant, no official would not expose to
belittling laughter. The elephant didn’t have to die to maintain authority
and the right to use force. Rather than violence as a response, a ritual as held
to free the elephant from the spirit of the dead woman. A metaphysical
resolution rather than physical violence ruled the day. Also in the Thai story,
the elephant had a name, an age, and an identity. In the Orwell story, the
elephant, like the locals and the dead coolie were nameless as was the
The tragedy of elephants
isn’t that they sometimes kill people but the aftermath of the survivors, what
they expect to happen and who is in charge of the weapons. The elephant in both
cases acted out of hormonal heat, a moment of rage. Compare that with the choice
given the very human foreign armed policeman who when pressed by size of the
crowd around him killed the elephant in cold blood. It is the premeditation, the
thought process, the politics that are disturbing and haunting. The elephants
shame us by showing how we calculate in our killings, and the rituals of healing
is only available once a community draws upon its own traditions without
interference from the outside.
From Syria to the West
Bank to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, the expectation that killing the
elephant is required has not changed from Orwell’s Burmese Days. The
lesson is clear occupiers use terror and fear to maintain control over local
populations. It is also clear that the lesson hasn’t been learned as the forces
of imperialism are tested just as they were Orwell time, and those who are
occupied welcome the raging elephant because he provides thousands to judge for
the first signs of weakness to embolden themselves to take up weapons against
the elephant killer who are not one of their own.
In Bangkok and New York,
Barney Rosset told me many stories about Henry Miller. He’d published
Miller and knew the author personally. My views about Henry Miller have been
shaped by Barney’s recollections over the years. Richard Seavers also had a long
history with Barney. A friend gave me a copy of a memoir written by Henry
Miller’s Paris friend and contemporary, a photographer named Brassaï.
Henry Miller The Paris
Years was published in 1995 by Arcade Publishing, a press run by
Richard Seaver. I’d met Richard Seaver in New York at Barney’s loft in the East
Village and again at Barney’s table at the National Book Foundation award
ceremony in 2008 when Barney was given a lifetime achievement.
With those connections, I
was the right audience for Henry Miller: the Paris Years, having know a couple
of the people who were close to Miller for years. You can be close to someone
without knowing the interior layers that go deep, where stuff is hidden,
forgotten, fractured into a prism like mystery. Even when you know them
well, years later when you seek to recall what was said and done, the memory can
play illusive games.
I am weary of memoirs
written by the friends of famous people. It is natural that they will put
themselves in the center of the famous friend’s life. That is a danger. I
wondered if Brassaï fell into that trap.
Brassaï was one of Henry
Miller’s friends. The one result of fame is that an author’s friends have their
memories and correspondence ready for a memoir about the author, his life,
habits, attitudes, weaknesses, ticks, and philosophy.
The book titled Henry
Miller The Paris Years ends with, “Henry left France without tears, without
regret, and without looking back, as if the ten years he’d lived there had
simply vanished.” I wish that Barney were still around to ask if that was his
take on Miller’s years in France. His time in France had made Henry
Miller’s reputation; it has established him as a writer, a genius, and a
literary tiger. I have been around expats a large portion of my life—it is very
rare to find someone who has lived in a culture as Henry Miller did in France
would discard the place like an old sweater.
Henry Miller’s Tropic
of Cancer, and his other major works, were written out of experience that
was processed through a hyperactive imagination. His reality was the result of
this creative process. The boundaries of fiction, make-believe, became the raw
ingredients of life in Paris and cooking up an exotic confection. His books were
not just exotic, they were—according to the Americans—obscene. The Tropic of
Capricorn was banned. But for the efforts of Barney Rosset who spent a
personal fortune on court battles (only stopping at the Supreme Court of the
United States) started in the 1960s. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn
had established himself as a writer that upset officials who decided what could
be read in the United States.
Miller’s Paris experience sheds light on his views on relationships, sexuality,
identity, memory and imagination. Pornography is largely the legal conclusion
from the conservative elites that the combination of those elements must stay
within strict boundaries of propriety.
Henry Miller, according to
Brassaï, a person was lucky or unlucky on whom they met. For a writer, who
needed the constant input of new experiences, Paris brought him much luck in
companions. If experience was fuel, the high-octane stuff came from two
women. Anaïs Nin, born in Paris, American by nationality, a Spanish father, and
Franco-Danish mother—the original globalized woman before anyone used the term
globalization. She kept a diary that by the time Miller met her ran to 48
notebooks—but she dismissed them as ‘bloody ejaculations.” It was a relationship
of conflicting attitudes toward literature, a writer’s role, and the nature of
reality. Anaïs Nin believed that a writer should stay bound into the moment of
truth, not to filter it through imagination, which changed the reality to
something no longer true. Henry Miller was at the opposite pole—where reality
until processed and transformed by imagination would never become ‘real’ and
fiction and myth were the techniques of this transformation.
Anaïs Nin was Miller’s
intellectual muse. Brassaï writes that during the two-year period that the
Tropic of Cancer was put on ice by a publisher in Paris anxious about
possible legal problems, Anaïs Nin guided Miller through multiple rewrites. It
wouldn’t have been the book that made his reputation without her tireless,
patient pushing him to make changes.
Another woman, June, was
Miller’s sensual muse. She walked on the wild side. A woman filled with a huge
amount of energy, men were attracted to her, and she exchanged sexual favors for
money. As June’s husband, Henry Miller didn’t ask where the source of her money
was coming from. It was no surprise to learn that Henry Miller admired the pimps
who gathered at Chez Paul near the offices of the Chicago Herald Tribune, 5 Rue
Lamartine, in the heart of Paris’ red light district. He admired their power of
women, their lack of shame, their sales banter and their disdain for ordinary
work. They had a life style that Henry Miller idealized as one route to take in
the rebellion against culture and those in authority.
June had, in Brassaï’s
view, a superabundance of life; she was one of those people with ten times the
intensity and energy of ordinary mortals. If one is writing out of experience,
hooking one’s star to such a woman as June propelled Henry Miller into dramas
that most writers would never dream possible. Her betrayals and lies
created a stormy relationship. At the same time, passive women bored him. Such a
woman was an open book. Miller didn’t want that kind of woman.
Brassaï writes that Miller
married June without knowing the basic like place of birth, name or family
background He wanted mystery, someone who was unpredictable, unreachable, whose
life and background remained vague and unknown. June was not just a siren, she
was a cypher—one that Miller tried with his imagination to break the code. He
failed in that goal, but his failure to decode June nonetheless set him on a
journey that inspired him to write two brilliant books: Tropic of
Cancer and Tropics of Capricorn. June felt committed to Miller;
though he was a genius, and for her, he was the one true love of her life. For
Miller, June was part of his expression of open rebellion against his Brooklyn
upbringing. They were both displaced spirits seeking to escape old lives
and create new ones.
One detail of Miller’s
writing habit concerned his daily routine of walking the streets of Paris. He
was a great observer. He could only think on his feet. And that meant walking
around examining buildings, people, activities until some thought—the
Voice—would come into his head and he’d rush back to his room and sit in front
of his typewriter as the cascading images, ideas, and expressions tumbled out of
his mind and onto paper. He was less interested in the truth—thus his arguments
with Anaïs Nin—then in stories he drew from observations. For Brassaï Miller’s
casual relationship with the truth was ‘bewildering’. In Tropic of
Capricorn, June emerged as a character filtered through imagination to the
point she was no longer recognizable from the flesh and blood woman he had
In the end the well of
Henry Miller’s experience drifted away. He left Paris without a backward glance.
Anaïs Nin drifted away. He slipped away from June. Having lost the city and two
women who had inspired him, brought him the Voice that defined him, there is a
lesson to be learnt for an author. If your work is dredging experience arises
from the lucky strike of a gold mine of life, like all resources, sooner or
later the gold runs out. The mine is an empty shell, a hole in the ground, and a
hole in the heart. Only a few writers are lucky enough to find the perfect match
of time, place, and companions that put him in touch with that Voice—the one
that moves and touches not just the author but readers for
In a book titled
Chairs, I wrote about Barney Rosset’s Henry Miller connection in a
story called Star of Love. I had asked Barney if Henry Miller had discovered
Bangkok would it have changed his life. Barney replied, “Totally. Absolutely.
How could it have not influenced him?” In the end, Barney said that Henry Miller
holed up on top of a mountain in the Big Sur. He had a security guard at the
bottom where there was a dirt road. The guard’s job was to stop anyone going up
to bother Henry.
This was the author who
roamed the streets of Paris searching for the Voice. The oyster had closed its
shell. No more pearls would emerge. Brassaï set out how he saw Henry Miller’s
reality. Too bad there’s no chance to ask Anaïs Nin if Henry Miller The
Paris Years was filtered through the imagination factory—part illusion,
part hallucination. Or does the author give the reader the unfiltered,
unmediated truth. But the person I’d really like to ask is June. What would she
have thought of this version of the truth? All these people are dead. Whatever
the truth of their reality will continue to slip into the recycle bin of their
reimagined lives once created for succeeding generations. A literary life that
has the capacity for self-generating truths by those who knew the author is
rare. We are reminded that truth rung through the active imagination of
writers like Brassaï is part of what keeps Henry Miller alive in the minds of
readers today. Oblivion is the alternative.
After finishing Brassia’s
memoir, and thinking about the big picture, the reader could say that Henry
Miller was a lucky man.Luck has a great role in a writer’s life. As I put the
book aside, I felt I had been lucky to have discovered Bangkok when it was the
Paris of the 1930s, a place where Barney Rosset, Henry Miller’s friend,
discovered my existence, making me a small piece in the chain of people who have
written about Henry Miller.
Miller had Paris, while I
had Bangkok pretty much to myself for the early years, and it was a place where
I walked, explored, learnt a language and culture and the place where I found my
Voice. Unlike Miller, I couldn’t imagine leaving Bangkok for the isolation of a
mountain top or, at the very least, not without stopping and looking back one
last time to say a final goodbye to all of that.
Your mother, Susan, who is
a long-time reader of my books, asked me to suggest a reading list for your
16th birthday. What books would I recommend for a 16-year-old? Every
author and reader would suggest a different list of authors and titles. Choices
such as these will be contentious. No list is ever complete. What I’ve
recommended are a dozen authors as your son’s first steps of the long-term
journey into the world of creativity and imagination.
Some authors combine ideas
or thoughts with creativity to create works of pure imagination. Other authors
draw upon their experiences processed through a vivid, compelling imagination to
create art. Others still like Orwell found political ideology and expatriate
life the source for his imagination to take hold.
I’ve included a number of
expatriate authors who have found that life inside another culture has given
them a creative space for their imaginations to take flight. I pass along a list
of recommended authors and titles with a warning: any attempt to create
categories is a risky and dangerous business. The dangers have much in common
with the idea of considering books according to genre. In that ghetto, books are
confined to categories, for example, literary, crime, science fiction or
In reality, works of
genius transcend literary categories. As you can see from my recommended list,
Orwell and Miller are found under more than one category—illustrating my point
that genius refuses to be pigeonholed.
My categories, in other
words, are broad guidelines, and aren’t to be taken too seriously. They are
rough signposts and signal my own personal taste and development as a writer.
When I was 16 years old, I would have liked a nudge as what to read during my
teens. You will no doubt find your own favorite authors and books along the way.
Read them, too. Avoid, if you can, the latest fashion or trend. Books come and
go. Only a few have the staying power to be read by another
The works below have such
staying power. The list isn’t meant to be definitive. The list is a start; not
the end. It is also eccentric and personal reflecting to my own biases,
interests, values, and experience. Given that limitation, over the next year of
your life, you might set aside time for reading each of them. Each of the works,
deserves to be read at 16-years-old, and again at 26-years-old. Read them and
reread them as you grow older and through this process, you may discover ideas,
images, thoughts and visions that you missed in the earlier readings. And you
will discover new things about yourself that life has bestowed.
If I had read them in the
sweathouse of my youth, I can only wonder what impact that might have had on my
life. As a birthday present, I send this list with the hope that your life long
pursuit of books will benefit from this early start.
Jorge Luis Borges: The circle of Ruins, The
Immortals, and The Library of Babel
Jose Saramago: Blindness, The Year of the Death
of Ricardo Reis
Isaac Asimov: The Foundation Series
Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of
Henry Miller: Tropic of
George Orwell: Down and Out in
Alice Munro: Runaway
George Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm, The Hanging,
Homage to Catalonia
Margaret Atwood: the Handmaid’s Tale
Henry Miller: Tropic of
Graham Greene: The Quiet
Lawrence Durrell: The Alexander
Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Six Pence, Razor’s
journalists in Southeast Asia is like the person walking point into a jungle
filled with booby-traps, snipers and ambushes. It takes a very special person to
volunteer for walking point.
Bopha Porn is such a
She is a reporter for the
Cambodian Daily. She is also a very brave journalist. Recognition of that
bravery came this week with the announcement by the International Women’s Media
Foundation of 2013 Courage in
Journalism Awards. Three awards were given for
courage to three women from around the world. Bopha Porn was one of the three.
She is the first woman in Cambodia to receive this award.
The citation that comes
with the award reads:
“In [April] 2012, Phorn
narrowly escaped with her life when the vehicle in which she was traveling came
under heavy fire. Phorn was investigating claims of illegal logging in a
protected area of the Cambodian jungle with another journalist and an
environmental activist when gunmen with AK-47s sprayed the car with shots. The
activist, Chut Wutty, was killed. Phorn’s reporting on land and environmental
issues, as well as her stories about criminal activity and human rights abuses,
have made her the target of other life-threatening attacks.”
I had an appointment with
Bopha in Phnom Penh in April 2012. I arrived a day after Chut Wutty had been
killed. I didn’t know at that time the circumstances of his death or that Bopha
had been next to him Chut Wutty when he was killed. We were meeting to go over
final edits of her short story, Dark Truths, for the anthology
Phnom Penh Noir.
When I rang her, Bopha
said she couldn’t make the meeting. She said she wasn’t in Phnom Penh. She asked
if I could meet her where she was staying. I asked where she was, and she
replied, “Near the Vietnamese border.” Then she told me the entire story and how
she was concerned that returning to Phnom Penh might be risky as she’d witnessed
the killing of Chut Wutty, who was attempting to expose illegal logging.
Twenty-four hours later, she was back in Phnom Penh. She couldn’t stay away from
her job at the Cambodian Daily. Hiding out wasn’t in her nature. We had lunch
and she told me her story.
In this part of the world,
where illegal logging is often linked to government officials, witnesses to the
murder of environmentalists, human rights activists, and others seeking to
expose official wrongdoing are danger. She was absolutely right to find a
temporary shelter away from officials who might seek to clean up the loose
We talked several times
that day and Bopha decided to return to Phnom Penh. The news of Chut Wutty’s
murder had gone out on the wires. It wasinternational
Following an extrajudicial
killing, officials in this part of the world don’t normally issue an order to
kill a journalist who witnessed the murder once the eyes of an international
audience are watching. If that possibility isn’t open, other options present
According to Asian
the Cambodian legal system found that “Rattana was accidentally shot by a former
employee of Timbergreen. The employee was sentenced to two years in jail on
October 22, 2012 with 18 months of that sentence suspended. He walked free less than two weeks
local NGOs called it a “mockery of justice”.”
Bopha Porn has continued
her investigative reporting from her base at the Cambodian Daily in Phnom Penh.
Her courage makes her a role model for journalists throughout Southeast Asia.
Reporters find themselves in situations where powerful vested interest with
impunity from the law intimidate, bribe, or threaten the most brave of them. No
one is ever paid enough money as a journalist to take a bullet for justice,
freedom and fairness.
For someone like Bopha
Porn, it has never been about the money. It has been about exposing those who
have accumulated wealth at the expense of their nation, murdered others to
increase that wealth, and destroy the natural resources along the way. Asia
needs heroes in this struggle.
Some criminals start out
young as they embark on a life of crime. Many reasons can be found to explain
why someone turned ‘bad’ and adopted the life of an outlaw. One of those reasons
is financial. The criminal wants a certain life style that takes money. He has a
choice—find a job, save up for the car, the condo, the holidays, to support his
partner and dependents. Or if his plans are grand, then no regular job will
finance the structure of a life that only the wealthy are able to
Occasionally, there is a
criminal who has a broad vision of his future. His life plan could only be
financed by winning a super lottery or by crime.
the photograph and story by ace reporter Sunthon Pongpao about the arrest of
Saichol (in Thailand
people are referred to by their first name) was cornered in Wang Noi district,
Ayutthaya by the police in a drug sting. The suspect opened up with his .357
hand gun at a number of police officers. The spent shells indicated he fired 5
times (keep that number in mind, we will come back to it).
The report said that the
police were unharmed as they wore bulletproof vests. But there was no mention as
to whether the fired shots by Saichol struck anywhere near the vicinity of the
arresting officers. If they’d bounced off the bulletproof vests, I have a
feeling the vest with the holes would have been displayed for the
Saichol’s shooting skills
are a valid subject of inquiry, as one of the 5 rounds (remember the number 5,
we are getting there) resulted in a self-inflicted wound to his left
In other words, the
suspect shot himself in the left leg resisting arrest by a small army of
That degree of accuracy
doesn’t suggest he was a trained marksman or professional gunman. In the
photograph accompanying the article (you’ll have to go to the earlier Bangkok
Post link to see it, as it is copyrighted, and we wouldn’t want to breach a
copyright), Saichol is seated at a table, a crew of non-smiling Thai police
officers standing behind him and at his side, the .357 handgun on the table and
box of shells spread out so everyone can see exactly what a .357 round looks
Saichol was photographed
wearing a T-shirt with the words—I Am Awesome. That may seem
like a young man’s bravado. It would have been quite wrong had the T-Shirt
said—I Am a Crack Shot. Awesomeness is something few people can
rightly claim at any age, while anyone can learn to shoot a gun.
What did the police
discover in their investigation of the suspect’s background?
First, he’s quite young–25
years old. I know I said that before. How much living did you have behind you at
25? I’d wager a bet it doesn’t come close to Saichol.
Second, he’d done 5 years
in prison for attempted murder, as well as drug dealing and theft (as also
reported by Thai-language newspapers). Matichon reported that Saichol confessed
that he had been to jail 5 times. The fact he’s a lousy shot may
explain the prior attempted murder conviction.
Third, his ability as a
drug dealer rivals his shooting ability. He sold yaba (‘crazy drug’),
the Thai phrase for methamphetaimes pills.
Fourth, and here comes
that most auspicious number 5 in Saichol’s young life, he has 5 wives. The wives
live in 5 different households. 5 houses. 5 rice cookers, 5 TV sets, 5
dental/medical bills, 5 motorcycles/cars, 5 wardrobes. That takes some serious
cash. Economies of scale aren’t in his favor. Note to Ministry of
Education—mathematical courses ought to teach scaling, power laws, and how to
buy food and other stuff in bulk.
Fifth, there is no mention
as to which one of the five shots hit his leg. Was it the first shot? That may
explain why he squeezed off 4 more shots without hitting any of the cops. Was he
trying some kind of fast draw and pulled the trigger before removing the .357
from his holster? Or was it the 5th shot, and that ended his shooting
Odds makers in Saichol’s
hometown are offering higher odds for the self-inflicted shot coming from rounds
2, 3 or 4. Was he left handed or right handed? If the cops are standing in front
of you, how do you shoot yourself in the left leg? It’s these kind of questions
you’d think someone would put to the suspect. Perhaps they were but answers are
never reported. Why is that? Maybe the sequence of the round will come out in
evidence at his trial. Though he will likely cop a plea and there will be no
trial and the mystery of the number of the round that hit his leg will
Let’s summarize what we
know so far: Saichol is a high testosterone 25 years old, who is a bad shot.
His left leg suffered a self-inflicted .357 hole from one of 5 rounds he
fired. He was nabbed red-handed with 1,000 yaba pills.
On his earlier conviction
Saichol spent 5 years in the monkey house. He supported 5 Thai wives in 5
different households. He’s been in jail 5 times.
Karma and the number 5 are
finely woven into Saichol’s life.
One would have to
begrudgingly concede that Saichol has earned the right to wear his T-shirt in
his meet the press with the police glowering in the background.
Rumor has it that all of
the underground lottery tickets in Ayutthayawith 555 were quickly snapped up
after the news of his most recent arrest broke. There has been no word on how
his 5 wives will support themselves as their common husband returns to prison.
Note to the Press: Visitation rights should be an interesting story to follow
up. Will the gang of 5 wives have to draw straws or can they visit as a group?
The BBC, CNN and others would follow like a pack of hungry wolves should they
appear together wearing T-shirts—He’s Awesome.
The question is whether
Saichol will again get another 5-years stretch in the big house, and at age 30
emerge a changed man. Can he go straight? Will he have learned his lesson? Which
of the 5 wives will be waiting to greet him upon his release? Can this be turned
into a Reality Show?
As for that
T-shirt—I Am Awesome—it might be the one shirt that he doesn’t
want to wear inside the big house. He might think about a tattoo.
Spirit Houses are a common
sight in Thailand. They appear in front of factories, rice fields, houses,
condominiums, restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, high-rises—just
about anywhere you venture, the likelihood is you’ll find a spirit house. Like
the tuk-tuk and muay Thai, it is part of Thai identity to believe there
are spirits who reside on the land require appeasement with offerings and the
gesture of a wai.
A problem arises when a
spirit house is erected on land outside of Thailand.
In Burma, Violet Cho
authored a piece for The
Voice disclosing a
conflict between Italian-Thai Development Company, one of Thailand’s leaders in
the construction business, and local people in Burma.
The Burmese have their own
set of spirits that they pay homage to; they are called ‘Nats’ which have been described as
supernatural Burmese elves.
There are 37 Nats in the Burmese belief system. Among them are Thon
Ban Hla, The Lady of Three Times Beauty, Maung Po Tu, Shan Tea Merchant,
Mahagiri, Lord of the Great Mountain, and Yun Bayin, King of Chiengmai. It
appears some of the Nats have jobs. Others are royalty, and I am not certain if
the Thais are generally aware that one of the Burmese Nats is King of Chiang
In Missing in
Rangoon I explore the supernatural world. Each time I’ve been to
Burma, some new and different aspect of spirituality emerges for
examination. Indeed it would be difficult to write a novel about Burma
without touching upon this belief system as it is and remains central to the
identity of the Burmese.
The clash between the
Thais and Burmese over the Thai spirit house is a collision between different
supernatural belief systems that lie at the core of national identity. The world
news offers up a constant, daily stream of the aftermath of such conflicts.
Often it leads to violence, the full program—pogroms, burnings, looting, maiming
According to Violet Cho’s
account, the problem arose over villager in Nabule who claimed a holy Buddha
footprint had a sacred claim on the mountain, and that erecting a Thai spirit
house was an affront to this object as well as to various ancient pagodas on the
mountain named Mayingyi Paya.
The Nabule villagers
claimed the Thai company had not consulted them before installing more than one
spirit house on the mountain. There are spirit houses in front of the
company office, and other spirit houses at various project sites. The article
makes it sound a bit like a spirit house invasion and occupation. The locals
noticed the appearance of these structures to ‘foreign’ spirits. And foreigners,
in spiritual form or otherwise, aren’t always that welcome especially if it
looks like they have moved into the neighborhood, plan to stay, and drive out
the local Nats.
It is unclear whether the
local villagers mounted protest, demonstrations, letters sent or other
means—perhaps spiritual—of expressing discontent, before locals destroyed one of
the spirit houses.
As Nabule is scheduled for
development in a project involving the Thai and Myanmar governments, it is
difficult to know whether the motives might be more than bruised feelings over
the local spirits being occupied and displaced by Thai spirits. In this part of
the world, when something murky happens, the question usually asked is who might
be the ‘third hand’—who is really behind the incitement and what does that
person(s) want. And usually it is money, says that little cynic that perches on
the shoulder of people who’ve lived in Southeast for too long.
Violet Cho quotes a senior
leader at Ba Wah Village justifying the spirit house destruction by the locals.
“We can accept it if the project does not destroy our environment but if it is
threatening our people, culture and religion then we will surely have to be
against it,” said U Hla Shain.
This being Southeast Asia,
it is no surprise that U Hla Win, the vice chairperson of NLD for Dawei district
would call for negotiations. U Hla Win pointed out the conflict was spiritual.
What he didn’t point out is that the rest of the world since recorded history
has been trying to figure out how people with different supernatural beliefs can
live in peace and harmony in line of site of other believers who erect their own
shrines and perform their own set of rituals that pay respect to alien
On both sides of the
border, both the Burmese and Thais suffer their fair share of cognitive
dissonance between animist and Buddhist beliefs. The incongruity is never quite
resulted as both sides claim they are Buddhist and animist. The Burmese won’t
negotiate away their rituals involving the Nats anymore than the Thais will
cease to erect spirit houses containing a wide range of deities from various
spiritual and religious origins, from local and ancestral ghosts to assortments
of Hindu gods.
As an example of the
straddling of spiritual balance beam, this analysis pretty much sums up why
negotiations between locals who support their local team of Nats and the
visiting team with their imported team of spirits—or even more alarming, the
spirit house are awakening the local spirits who have been oppressed by the
“We do believe and worship the
village’s nat but now seeing Thai spirit houses in the area, it is like a guest
is taking forced residence in our house. We do not want spirit houses in a
religious Buddhist area like this. There is a possibility for cultural mixing
and I am concerned about our culture being threatened by another culture,” said
U Aung Ba, member of the Nabule Spiritual Group.
We will keep an eye on the
2,000 households and 10,000 Buddhists of Nabule as they learn that the opening
up of globalization has a cost. Consumers are given new choices. Foreign
businesses bring in their own culture and belief systems. What locals are never
told until it is too late is the idea of choice means locals are given an
expanded menu of spirits to worship, and the new businesses bringing in their
expertise, technology are not leaving their local gods at home.
Local gods need
accommodations. Spirit houses, like drones, are a metaphor for what it means to
have invisible forces watching you; the locals lose their historical isolation
and the remoteness of the mountain life vanishes. Village life begins to change
as new ways, ideas, and beliefs appear with people from neighboring
This is only the beginning
for the villagers of Nabule. Starbucks, McDonalds, and 7-Eleven are not far
behind the spirit house invasion. The Nats will have new immigrants from the
spirit world as neighbors. The locals will resist these intruders. Yet
what can they do? Globalization, like the Borg, has one motto that fits all:
Resistance is futile. Development means the bargain you make is to yield up your
old belief system. The deal with the devil of development is the new spiritual
dimension brings prosperity and happiness. The true enemy of the local
supernatural belief in Nats isn’t the Thai spirit houses, it is shift to
reinvention of identity.
Nabule has had its welcome
to the big game played out in thousands of villages. The Thai company with the
installation of spirit house has merely softened them up for the final assault
on their mountain. It is only a matter of time before the big artillery open up,
blasting them into the modern, secular age, which has no place for local gods.
Only then will the villagers of Nabule feel nostalgic for the time when all they
had to worry about was the conflict over their belief in Nats against the Thai
spirit houses. The dignity of local deities is in for a rough ride.
There’s a reason that the
military, police and professional criminals use a 24 hour clock to co-ordinate
ambush, surveillance, or other operations with a team of people who must act in
unison if they want to be successful and accomplish their goal.
The 24 hour clock is
perfect for making certain everyone shows up at the same time to knock over a
gold shop or surprise a group of insurgents planning an attack.
Catching an international
flight is another example of exact timing co-ordination. You need to know when
the flight departs so you can be at the airport in time to board the
The least ambiguous
measure of time is the military 24 hour clock. 24.00 (twenty-four hundred) hours
is midnight, and 12.00 (twelve hundred hours) is noon. Unlike the decimal
system, time has a number of different ways of being expressed depending on
language and culture.
What made me examine the
issue of cultural timing was a call I received from a good Thai friend. I was in
the middle of dinner.
“Khun Chris, are you
“Never too busy for your
call Khun Chai.”
“My travel agent is making
“My flight to Berlin
leaves at 12.30 a.m. and he is trying to tell me that is a night flight. I keep
telling him a.m. means it is an afternoon flight. I mean, I’ve been on that
flight before. It leaves in the afternoon. How can he say it is night
“When the sun is high in
the sky and it is noon, is that a.m. or p.m.?
He paused as if I’d asked
a trick question.
“I told him a 12.30 a.m.
flight is a day time flight.”
“So noon is
“That flight leaves during
“And midnight? Is that
a.m. or p.m.?”
“But he’s wrong, isn’t he?
I knew you that you’d know.”
In the Thai language this
confusion doesn’t exist. Noon is tien. And Midnight is tien kuun. The kuun part
means ‘night’ eliminating any argument. But near a.m. or p.m. have any reference
to day or night. The problem is when we see only 12.00 a.m. or 12.00 p.m.—this
twilight moment which seems—well, confusing.
This confusion comes from
the Latin. A.M. is an abbreviation for before noon or midday, while P.M. is
It is the 12.30 a.m. and
12.30 p.m. designations that confuse people who show up at the airport twelve
hours early or twelve hours late for their flight. If you concentrate on
12.30 a.m. you can remember this is the beginning of the new day which in this
case is Monday 1st April.
So 12.30 a.m. on
1st April is what we’d think of as night even though a new day is
born. It is, in other words, not Sunday 31st March any longer. But it
feels like an extension of Sunday night of 31st March to our senses
(especially if we’ve been drinking). We are fooled by our senses which tells us
that it is still some time on Sunday before the sun rises on Monday which was
already born at 12.01 a.m. 1st April.
And 11.59 p.m. is the
ending of a day—in our case a Sunday ends.
One problem we have is
when we fix out mind on a certain formula we cling to the idea our understanding
of the formula is correct. When someone gets the time wrong, you can gently
explain by saying your watch is slow or fast. Over the phone people don’t time
check in the same way. They can read each other’s facial expression. If Khun
Chai could have read mine, he would have know that I had tried to explain that
magical moment 23.59 hours when the 31st of March becomes the
1st April at 00.01 and counting. When someone makes up his or her
mind in Thailand, it is hard to change it without a loss of face. When it comes
to knowing what time it is—Thailand has been in many ways having this debate,
and many are as confused about the current as Khun Chai is as to the departure
of his flight.
There is one big
difference, on the issue of a.m. and p.m., I suggested that Khun Chai ‘google’
the question and see if what he finds supports his belief that 12.30 a.m. is
thirty-minutes after noon or thirty minutes after midnight. Knowing the
time has a political dimension. In this case, it isn’t whether it is morning and
evening, but what century we are telling time in. If you need to check which
century you are living in you might discover that your Google search has
been blocked by the authorities, who have already decreed you are living at the
dawn of a new age.
What controls Extremistan
authors, what keeps them off the grid is an effective system of censorship
backed by punitive laws. Unless you’ve lived outside of North America or Western
Europe, you won’t have experienced the ‘eye’ of authorities (and their true
believers or paid for shills) monitoring all communications, including books for
possible breaches of national security or other equally vague, open-ended
phrases designed to preserve an image. The broader the better for purposes of
chilling the kind of expressions that question, criticize or challenge
authority, institutions, dogma or beliefs.
The mere presence of a
censorship regime induces self-censorship. Authors are never certain where the
authorities will draw the line. Monday it is one place, Tuesday it has moved
somewhere else and the week is only two days old. This makes sense as the
authorities in charge of enforcement rarely speak with one voice as to where the
boundaries of permissible and impermissible meet. To be on the careful side
means authors error by staying as far away from the border as possible. As a
result with speech stifled, the creativity writers in such regimes are given a
couple of choices—either write hagiography, historical epics of glory or
Alternatively, they can
circulate their poems, stories, novels and memoirs under a pen name with
photocopied handouts or, if they have access to a secure Internet line (that is
difficult in most cases), have access to a computer, have the technical skills
to use word processing programs, they can ‘publish’ their work on the Internet.
We have seen the Internet being used to upload video footage from protests,
repressive actions by military and police, and the aftermath of bombings and
It is time to recognize
that ‘crime fiction’ and the reality of life upon which fiction emerges are no
longer separate. The idea of ‘crime fiction’ as contained in a book needs
broadening as well. Uploaded images from Extremistan communicate graphic, brutal
noir stories as powerful and haunting as found in a crime novel by Hammett or
For centuries censorship
has largely been local. Each culture identifies the ‘sacred cows’ that can’t be
touched. There hasn’t been agreement on a universal sacred cow and it is
unlikely to be one any time soon. Going through the unmapped parts of
Extremistan the ‘sacred cows’ are often quite different beast. What is common is
that the guardians have used censorship to protect and defend the local herd
(there are often a number of sacred cows as it turns out). The chief herdsmen
use whatever force may be necessary to keep the herd in a stable state of
unquestioned worship, respect, and awe.
Authors in Extremistan—at
least the risk-taking ones—like to slip through the thought net cast by the
authorities and raise questions about the grazing rights of sacred cows. That
often ends in unpleasantness of the extreme kind.
Censorship is not going to
stay confined to remote areas of Extremistan. Authorities are developing
technology that will make censorship of the past as quaint, remote and
inefficient as the quill and ink. In even the most impressive regimes, it has
been possible for courageous men and women to challenge authority through books
circulated underground. The old regimes are basically inefficient clap-trap
machines that used flaw intelligence to repress free speech. That is about to
Here is what I see one
possible future for authors living inside Extremistan.
First, the authorities in
the West are developing the capability to monitor in detail large areas. Every
person, vehicle, dog, bird to within a 6” radius can be clearly observed within
a fifteen square mile corridor. Have a look at this chilling segment from the
Second, the authorities
are on the brim of creating powerful identification software that will allow
them to identify every person on the ground, given name, age,
nationality, associations, ID numbers, date of birth, known associates, medical
health record, list of ‘likes on Facebook, articles read, books bought, consumer
items purchased, school and university records. The ID system will run on
fine-tuned algorithms as the amount of big data would vastly exceed an army of
people filtering for signals. Authorities are end users of targeted
information—they know who is where and when they are were in a place, and who
are their friends and associates. Such information is incredibly
Third, the authorities are
developing a new generation of drones. The censors’ goal is to cull the dissent
within and without. A carrot is good. But a big stick is better. Why not adapt
the existing drone technology? One limitation is controversial—drones fire
rockets that blow up innocent children and women and old people leaves the
authorities a bad reputation. Authorities seek ways to burnish their reputation
and to reduce information that tarnishes it. That’s difficult to explain away
when killing insurgents but quite another to explain for an enemy who is using
only a pen. Technology continues to improve, and some projections as to what
might be in store may increase the censors’ arsenal.
The chances are high that
advanced drone technology systems will be created to eliminate the stigma of
collateral damage. This requires surgical isolation of damage to a single
target. With the new technology outlined above, finding that target will become
infinitely easier. Moving targets will be not present a challenge. And it will
be infinitely easier to persuade most would be dissenters that yielding to
silence is the only alternative.
Let’s call the new drone
Aerial Reconnaissance Sniper or ARS—which is also Hebrew slang for a
low-class male. It turns out that in Arabic ars also is a term
cuckold, a man whose wife is unfaithful to
• A man
who pimps his wife
wicked or contemptible person, a “bad guy”
bastard, an illegitimate child
If there is any agreement
in the Middle East, it is that ars is a term used for someone no one is
going to mourn once he’s dead. Before ARS we called them terrorists. Language
like technology evolves; in this case, in tandem.
The innovation of the new
generation of ARS arms the drone at 17,000 feet to deliver with absolute
precision a bullet to the, well, let’s be honest, what the authorities have
concluded are a low-class male, a bad guy, who has through his conduct
sacrificed his right to live. This “bullet” will be a tiny guided missile the
size of a 50Cal round with video camera. The bullet guidance system locks on and
tracks the target. You can run but you can’t hide. One less Ars the new reports
will say. The video footage will confirm the kill. Call this elimination program
an example of national security interest gone global.
The authorities in
Extremistan will trade resources for those controlling ARS technology to take
care of their local ‘bad guys’ who just so happen to be writing books that
ridicule or challenge the role of sacred cows or put them in an unfavourable
We are the last of the
free men and the last of the free women. Those who follow after us, if they read
our books will marvel at how much freedom we had. Or maybe they won’t. In all
those vast stretches of Extremistan where authors seek to put a message of hope
in a bottle casting it into the sea of the future, and trusting it will wash up
on some beach, will likely find the beach empty. People will no longer walk
along such beaches. They no longer find such bottles and the messages hidden
inside. The sacred cows roam will be left unmolested by writers. Words and
images will extol the virtue of the authorities.
The fields and pastures
belong to them and from 17,000 feet trespassers will find themselves in the
cross-hair of ARS. There will be nowhere to hide. Freedom will be transformed in
Arsdoom. And there will be no one left standing who is able to question the
herdsmen as to why, how, and when that new global state came into being. In the
future, our successors in the writing life will write and live in a version of
What is the limit of our
knowledge about the library of crime fiction novels written, published and read
each year inside Extremistan? There are no shortage of people claiming knowledge
about a library that may not be Borges’ infinite library, but a library with
shelves filled with books that are inaccessible to most readers.
The point is we are having
a debate where there is a vast body of work that is unavailable for analysis.
When what is essential to an argument is largely unknown or missing, it is a
caution that we must exercise humility in making grand statements about the
direction or trend of crime fiction. I can draw inference from what I know about
Southeast Asia but event those are flawed, as I can’t read the work in the
Whenever the debate of
crime fiction occurs, the question of who are the best crime fiction authors
arises. And usual names appear. Here’s Gunter Blank’s list:
James Ellroy: LA
Confidential, Dashiel Hammett: Glass Key, Jim Thompson: Pop
1280, Raymond Chandler: The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My
Lovely, George V Higgins: The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Richard
Stark: The Hunter (Point Blank), Charles Willeford: Miami
Blues, Elmore, Leonard: Freaky Deaky, Marcel Montecino: The
Crosskiller, Edward Bunker: No Beast so Fierce, Chester Himes:
Blind Man With a Pistol, Ted Lewis: GBH”
As list go, I’d agree with
many of these selections. I know this neighborhood and have lived in it, been a
part of it as a writer and reader. But I’m also aware that by the very act of
preparing such a list I am placing my own cultural and availability bias on
display. Would someone from Latin America, Africa or Southeast Asia believe this
list is relevant to his or her experience? Such lists appear to be delivered
from a Western cloister, insular, confined, and narrowly clustered. There is a
much larger world excluded and that should be the one we ought to be seeking to
understand. They are the missing names from the headliner list.
Who has gone missing? The
answer is a lot of crime, detective, and mystery authors are hidden under the
veil of inaccessible languages.
Here’s a list of African crime fiction
writers who are likely not familiar to even the most well-read English, German
or Swedish language crime fiction reader. In Latin
translations from Spanish are hit and miss. For every Roberto Bolaño there are
many Ramon Diaz Eterovic and Santiago Gamboa whose novels haven’t been
translated into English.
The Japanese had the first
crime books (though they were non-fiction accounts of court proceedings) before
authors in England and the USA came along. Saikaku Ihara’s 1689 title Trials
Under the Shade of a Cherry Tree pre-dates Edgar Allan Poe 1841 Murders
in the Rue Morgue and Wilkie Collins’s 1868 Moonstone. The
Writers Club of Japan has 600 members, and I’d bet
a first edition of the bible that only a fraction of them have been translated
into English. Every year in Bangkok the Southeast Asia Writers
since 1979 has announced the winning author from each country of the ten
countries in Southeast Asia. Scroll down the long list of authors and ask
yourself how many of the names you recognize.
Richard Nash’s What Is the
Business of Literature is worth reading. A point that
emerges from Nash’s article is that we fall into the trap of equating the value
of literature with the commercial success of a book. If the crime fiction novel
is a best seller, and you are a reader of crime fiction, the chances are you are
aware of the book. You’ve heard about it from friends in the analogue or digital
communities where you spend time.
The publishing industry in
North America and Europe has had a freedom to publish quite unlike most other
places. Hundreds of thousands of English language books enter the marketplace
Books are part of the
entertainment-corporate-profit centered industry in these places. They cater to
the taste of consumers who have many other entertainment choices. There is
little risk of imprisonment, exile, or torture from the authorities from authors
who challenge beliefs inside the Western publishing industry. The risk is the
book will be failure and the author’s next book won’t be published. In
neighborhoods in the unmapped neighborhoods, a different fate other than
commercial failure needs to be understood. Authors who are successful in
revealing a truth about a country’s institutions or challenges an established
dogma risks a prison term. It doesn’t stop at prison. Authors in the unmapped
neighborhoods face extrajudicial remedies as kidnapping, disappearance, torture
or death. In English speaking neighborhoods, a nasty review may be felt like a
bullet to the chest. But in non-English unmapped neighborhoods writers know that
the critics use real bullets.
One of the major
differences between the Western publishing industry and other places is the
sheer number of books pumped into the system. Nash quotes Clay Shirky who writes
that “abundance breaks more thanks than scarcity.”
My first novel His
Lordship’s Arsenal was published in New York in September 1985. That year
the number of USA titles published by traditional print publishers numbered
80,000. By 2010 the number of published titles had mushroomed to 328,259 titles
in one year. In this world of abundance, the moderately gifted author
writes a book with little prospect of financial reward. Writing inside such a
publishing system, where commercial success means value, these writers are
discarded not so much as worthless but as offering an economic justification to
read them and take them seriously.
Authors are writing and
trying to survive inside a business empire where profit not only matters; it is
basically all that matters. Competition in the publishing industry, like other
areas of the entertainment industry, is often presented as another business
story with the emphasis on the size of an advance, the best seller ranking, the
volume of sales, and movie deals. Reviews have withered in most places in the
print media. Discussions revolve around money, which has become the primary
benchmark, the ruler that measures success. Thumbs up or thumbs down is an
accounting decision. No one is put against a wall and shot.
Books written for money in
a society where money is the measurement of value has created an impoverished
class of authors who like idealistic slaves believe that a lotto-like win will
allow them to escape their fate and joint the ranks for Dan Brown and J.K.
Rowling. Much of our English language crime fiction library is money
Outside of the world of
money, there is another Extremistan. It isn’t created from account ledgers. In
this Extremistan, the crime fiction author chronicles the systemic changes in
class, politics, and social relationship through the lens of criminal law
enforcement. To stay alive and out of prison is a measure of success. To have a
voice and influence in the debate of how to modernize and allow a society to
change without falling apart is a measure of success. The fiction writer as part
of the political process, using the vehicle of crime fiction to deliver a
challenge to authority invites a level of danger and uncertainty. It is, in
other words, not about the money.
Thomas Wörtche is one of
the very rare editors (and I can’t think of another one) who had the vision of
searching for and publishing such writers. His imprint called Metro,
Unionsverlag was the publishing house, was known throughout Europe. I admired
his determination to dig deep and find authors either ignored or little known by
the mainstream publishing industry in the West. Metro published writers as:
Jean-Claude Izzo, Nury Vittachi, Garry Disher, Leonardo Padura, Celil Oker,
Pablo De Santis, Bill Moody, Jorge Franco, Gabriel Trujillo Muñoz, José Luis
Correa. (Disclosure: I was also an author on Thomas Wörtche list.) Metro was a
window into Extremistan.
Unionsverlag, there has been no editor like Thomas with the experience and
knowledge of crime fiction to explore Extremistan for the new generation of
writers who remain largely lost to international readers. That is regrettable.
The crime space inside Extremistan has receded from international readers and
has become as inaccessible as the dark side of the moon. We know that it is
there every night but what it looks like and what goes on out of sight is left
to our imagination. The purest form of noir is absolute
Writers like Ali
live in regions such as Iraq where the blast from the violence like jackhammers
pound their days and nights, are cut off from the rest of us. Yanick
who writes of Haiti. These are two of many voices who require a cultural
detective to find. For each one Ali Bader and Yanick Lahens, how many are lost
to us? We are less rich in the depth of our understanding without their
clarifying commentary from their crime space frontlines.
The controversy started
with an exchange at the South African blog Crime
with crime fiction reviewer Gunter Blank who views crime fiction in the USA,
Sweden, Germany as having gone into a recycling phase where nothing but
repetitive motifs and themes are appearing. What is emerging, in his view, are
political thrillers or chronicles from “[T]urbulent or haunted societies,
societies that are trying to find out who they are – there are still hundreds
and thousands of lives and experiences to tell.”
The debate was picked up
by my friend and blogger Peter Rozovsky at his not to be missed website:
Beyond Borders. Peter’s readers have added their
views in comments.
Nash sums up the
fate of contemporary authors in America and Europe and other places,
“Books, like most
entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicolas
Extremistan, a place with vast amounts of commercial failure and spectacularly
high and extremely infrequent success.”
As I have a horse (or a
dog if you like) in this race, I’d like to give my perspective on the
metamorphosis of crime fiction inside Extremistan, examining the borders and how
the territory has been traveled, mapped, and reported. While Nassim Nicolas
Taleb coined the phrase Extremistan to talk about the huge disparity of failure
compared to success in the book industry, I am expanding the concept to use
Extremistan to talk about the huge disparity between the awareness of crime
fiction in English and all other languages.
Taleb uses the ratio of
.05% (authors who receive 99.95% of the money and are commercially successful)
to 99.95% (who divide the few crumbs of the .05% revenues leftover). Something
like this ration, I believe, also applies as a rule of thumb across the range of
languages with English language crime fiction authors receiving 99.95% of the
critical review attention, money, status and opportunity, and non-English crime
fiction authors living hand to mouth.
Extremistan is a monetary
idea and it is also a geographical, cultural and political one. My Extremistan
is a kind of map of worldwide crime fiction. On that map we know with confidence
where English language crime fiction exist. But 99.95% of the map is uncharted
areas. Crime fiction is written in these unknown parts but as they aren’t
mapped, they are outside of awareness. As a result, we largely ignore their
A good definition for
these purposes of metamorphosis comes from wikipedia, which defines it as “a biological
process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a
conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure through cell growth and differentiation.”
Over the last two decades
there has been a growth in what is described as crime fiction in many different
countries and cultures. The idea of crime fiction is a cultural lens borrowed
from English and American authors including Hammett and Chandler. Under the
surface, the cultural aspects have brought a change in texture and form. While
the external appearance may (unlike true metamorphosis) remain to the untrained
eye the same, underneath the impulses, imperatives, and purposes are filtered
through a different set of beliefs, histories, languages, traditions, rituals
and customs—and these elements matter when it comes to the kind of story that
can be published.
This cultural lens has
been fitted to new glasses in other cultures in the remote parts of Extremistan.
Many of these places are off the usual map of crime fiction neighborhoods. Crime
fiction is illegible in these places. Our speculation about what goes on inside
the hidden world doesn’t make them more legible.
And that leads me to ask
what goes inside these missing areas on the crime fiction map, and can we act
like good detectives to find out what goes on inside beyond our normal
What is left unexamined in
the debate started by Gunter Blank are the forces causing the turbulence or the
haunting in societies outside of Sweden, Germany and the USA. In countries like
Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma—the turbulence of globalization and the
Internet has kicked up a firestorm in fairly rigid, traditional, and highly
controlled societies. This has happened not just in Southeast Asia but also in
Latin America and the Arab world. Crime fiction has become a window into the
chaos that disruptive change has brought, threatening institutions, vested
interest, and authority structures.
A murder investigation, on
the surface, is similar in many places around the world. But a murder
investigation in a turbulent society, which is in the metamorphosis stage,
brings in to focus the tensions, competing interest, and repressive forces that
give a political dimension to the case. To understand the behavior, reactions,
and emotions requires a cultural map. The best crime fiction operates like a GPS
system guiding you through the winding byways, local alleys, and little known
hills. Think of them as “belief, taboo, faith” landmarks. What governments and
people believe to be true and how they process their reality is central to
reading crime fiction from these neighborhoods.
You might say that the
USA, Germany and Sweden are also societies in transition as they respond to
similar pressures from the new world of telecommunications and global trade.
That is to miss the paradigm change caused by the Age of Reason and
Enlightenment in having over a period of 500 years eroding traditional authority
and belief structures from the church to the aristocracy. Our neighborhood was
torn down in many places and rebuilt. In the new Western places on the map, we
live in a version of the future. As William Gibson famously said, “The future is
already here but it is unevenly distributed.”
In many parts of the world
outside of Europe and North America, the Age of Reason and Enlightenment have
existed outside the great wall of authority patrolled by a combination of
censorship, repression, custom and tradition. This system worked for many
centuries, preserving the neighborhood and the attitudes about what is a crime
and who is a criminal. But most of these old, traditional neighborhoods are also
doomed. Like the Berlin Wall, these traditional regimes all looked so solid and
impenetrable until the moment it is pulled down.
Crime fiction written in
these parts of the world track investigations into crime as the walls are
collapsing around the authorities, exposing them, implicating them, leaving them
in the spotlight mostly reserved for criminals. This is what international crime
fiction brings to the reader—society in the midst of transition, access to a
part of the fictional map that isn’t widely known or understood.
It is this irony, this
strange juxtaposition—the blurring of criminality—that makes crime fiction from
the emerging world compelling to the readers in those places. We are watching
the future pass into societies as if the walls no longer exist, and we have a
frontline seat to the forces pushing back, trying to build new walls, put the
screws in, enacting repressive laws to create fear in order to silence those who
see that the walls are falling.
Most of storytellers
inside these old regimes that exist off the English reader’s grid aren’t given
attention. It is as if these unmapped areas don’t exist except as a ‘bad news’
story about an earthquake, flood, revolution, assassination, starvation, refugee
camps, and genocidal authorities. The storytellers in these places are unlikely
to be on your top 13 authors’ list. But that doesn’t mean their voices are
unread or unheard inside their cultures. It more likely there absence is
evidence of our availability bias. We make our decision on the evidence that is
available to us. We don’t ask what is missing.
As Daniel Kahneman has
noted in Thinking,
Fast and Slow we are prone toward believing what we see is all that
While the USA, Germany,
and Sweden and similar cultures may be suffering from redundancy; crime fiction
authors in other cultures suffer from obscurity and isolation. These novelists
write in languages that aren’t easily accessible for readers of English. Thai
writers are a good example. Thailand has its share of talented authors who write
in Thai but who haven’t been translated into English. You will never read them
unless you learn Thai. The same applies to other cultures where the language
issue traps the authors inside their own locked room without an exit door. In
reality very few novels are translated into other languages. As a result they
are marooned on the desert island of obscure languages forever lost to those
Using what we know about
the universe is a convenient analogy for our map of crime fiction. The universe
is comprised of a bit less than 5% atomic matter, and the rest is dark matter or
dark energy. When you read about crime fiction publishing in English I suggests
that you are inside a reading space that vastly less than 5% of the total space.
It may be Taleb is right. This is the realm of a .05% world of crime fiction
that is mapped. The rest is dark matter and energy in the crime fiction
We need to be cautious
about making broad statements about the best crime fiction novelists, the trends
in crime fiction, or the role crime fiction plays in literature, culture and
political life. The reality is we only have a vague idea of this unmapped
landscape, the writers who live there, and the role crime fiction plays in
chronicling the dynamics of fundamental change to political and social
Next week in Part 2, I
discuss the evidence from my detective work to find out more about who are the
crime fiction writers in African, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. The idea is
to start crime fiction readers on an exploration of crime fiction in the
unmapped neighborhoods where the word ‘noir’ isn’t quite dark enough to describe
the lives of authors and readers.
You’ve decided to write
that crime novel. The one book once released into the world will liberate you
from the day job, put you on Charlie Rose, the NYT bestseller list, interviewed
by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and stacks of invitations to
the best parties in New York, London and Paris. You’ve heard that international
settings are in vogue for crime fiction. But you’re not quite certain, looking
at the world map, which country might be the best place for your noir caper.
Besides, you can write off the expense of research in finding out.
Let me give you some
unsolicited advice, look for a place with danger—not too much, but enough to
create tension and risk—political instability is good—again so long as there
aren’t bombs going off in the streets, and an exotic culture with interesting
taboos, customs, language, history, rituals and artifacts—though not so weird
that they can’t be understood without long, drawn out descriptions.
A convention of the crime
fiction genre begins with a murder. Central to the novel is a killing. When
researching your crime novel, you might have a look at murder statistics. The
homicide statistics indicate the prime crime fiction locations are the
mini-states in the Caribbean or Central America. In these places there are lots
and lots of murders as a percentage of 100,000 of population.
accumulate in these countries at an alarming rate. You can add Columbia and
Venezuela to the high rate of homicide list, too. Frankly, you can write off
Europe with the possible exception of Russia and Albania. The Europeans simply
have stopped murdering each other at statistically significant rates. Germans
seem to have stopped murdering each other in significant numbers a long time
ago. Fantasy and romance novelists would do much better in Europe than crime
The ten countries with the
highest murder are included in this chart:
From these homicide rates,
there isn’t enough raw material for a short crime story set in one of these
countries. Though fellow blogger Quentin Bates who bases his crime fiction in
Iceland, suggests that noir isn’t always reflected in the numbers.
The numbers don’t tell you
everything. Swedish crime fiction is a huge success internationally but the
Swedish murder rate is among the lowest in the world. Yet we have a feeling
reading Nordic crime fiction that murder is common in Sweden. That Sweden is a
dangerous place. None of that is true. Sweden has a very low homicide rate.
Those facts didn’t stop Stieg Larsson from hitting the jackpot (though he had
died of a heart attack before the big money came in).
The definitive chart on
the international murder is done on a country-by-country basis annually by the
UNODC. Looking at the most recent
figures from UNODC (2002 to 2011) on Thai murder rate has been in decline. If
this trend continues, it seems that soon I may be out of the crime fiction
business in Thailand.
In 2003 the Thai murder
rate was 9.8 per 100,000; and in 2011 it had dropped to 4.8 per 100,000. Do
Thais feel 100% safer from being murder given this corresponding drop in actual
homicides? I don’t have hard evidence to answer this question. There’s plenty of
antidotal evidence to suggest no decline in the fear of being a murder victim.
State authorities feed the fear and offer comfort as noted by Bangkok
Why the disconnect between
the declining murder rate and our sense of fear about murder? Our feelings are
subjective, irrational, and difficult to predict or control. And fear of death
and injury is one of the most compelling emotions, triggered not assuaged by a
UNODC excel file that presents cold, hard numbers.
I take the position that
Thais are no less concerned, fearful and watchful about murder in 2013 than they
were in 2003. There is little political opportunity and advantage in reducing
this unreasonable feeling of fear. In political life, money and fear correlate.
More resources can be demanded by and allocated to the police and other state
officials charged with protecting an overly fearful public. If our perception of
the risk of murder is updated, then state officials stand to lose budgets,
training, new employees, and better equipment. Actually, you can spend a lot of
that money in ways that have little but public relations impact because the
level of homicide is already happening. You can pocket some of that money and
still be seen as doing a great job.
Bottom line—our emotional
reaction to homicide hasn’t been updated with the latest statistics, which show
a substantial lowering of the probability of murder. The state has no incentive
to focus on the lower risk of homicide. The press will always have enough
murders (even at statistically low rates people are still murdered just as
people still win a lottery) to keep the flame high enough to keep fear at the
When it comes to murder,
we react out of fear and that closes the door to a more rational and deliberate
assessment based on the actual risk as shown through the UNODC statistics on the
rate of murder. Murders of foreigners make for dramatic news that reinforces the
sense of fear. This happens in Thailand as in many other countries.
The media manufactures a
false sense of risk with emotionally charged photographs, statements of
witnesses, family and friends in mourning, angry letters to the authorities, and
so on. If the murder victim is someone you love, care about or know, then UNODC
statistics aren’t going to mean much to you. But if you are reading about people
you don’t know, there remains a high possibility of identifying with them, and
you will be fearful. Emotions distort your ability to assess the actual
When it comes down to
writing that crime novel, it may not matter whether you live in a country with a
high or low murder rate. The rate of homicide appears to have little connection
to the perception of risk as it is assessed through fear. As long as your novel
creates a the personal setting between the killer and the victim, and does a
credible job in following the police or private investigator through the
evidence, your reader won’t likely write you an angry letter saying that
statistically the murder you’ve written about is as rare as a rose in
But as people love roses,
if you can convince them to overlook the improbability of a rose growing in the
wild in winter weather, they will follow you down the corpse laden garden trail
and believe this exceptional act could happen in the world. Indeed it could
happen to them. Yet you can be assured there will in the fullness of time an
Amazon Reviewer, who will give you a one-star review that goes along the lines
that everyone knows that only white roses grow in winter and this author had the
color wrong. He said the roses were red. And that, my friends, is more likely
than the wall cash your book will earn liberating you from your desk
I stumble upon artifacts,
small information packets from the past and wonder why I’d not seen this,
thought of this, or whether everyone else except me had reached that milestone
years ago. A case in point is the BBC series titled The Trap. The
series aired in 2007. I didn’t see it in 2007. Six years later a good friend
(thank you, John) said The Trap was something that I had to see. He was
The Trap is also
something you should see. You owe it to yourself to watch all three parts.
Unless, of course, you saw it six years ago, and have a six-year head start on
assimilating what it means.
I am just starting out on
that journey. Forgive me if I am taking you down paths that are old and
Our emotions and the range
in which those emotions are allowed to express themselves are cultural. The past
couple of months I’ve been investigating ‘fear’ and ‘anger’ the evil twins that
kidnap us, forcing us to do and say things we later regret. What The
Trap brilliantly does is provide the ideological framework erected during
the Cold War. Once the Cold War ended in a victory for the Americans, the battle
What emerged from that
struggle was the notion of Game Theory. Developed by Nobel Prize winner, John
Nash, Game Theory assumed that all people were by nature selfish,
self-centered-interested, and highly suspicious of other people and acted
rationally to maximize their advantages against others. This is the amoral
landscape where each person tries to outwit the other and will betray the other
to obtain an advantage. It is a bleak, paranoid vision of humanity. John Nash
was treated for mental illness, and later pulled back from the nature of
humanity assumed in the Game Theory he had created. His struggle with paranoid
schizophrenia was dramatized in the Hollywood movie A Beautiful
Never mind that the
theoretical framework of Game Theory was woven by a mentally unbalanced mind,
the dose of insanity did not prevent others from embracing this noir
vision of humanity.
This vision of humanity
spread like a virus from the geo-political contest between the Cold War
superpowers infecting psychology and economics. The role of the State was to get
out of the way. There was no belief in ‘public interest’ as a guide. This
position was taken up by Reagan, Blair and Thatcher in the 80s and 90s as the
basis for downsizing the State and outsourcing to private company functions
traditionally performed by state officials.
I wrote about Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma and how the 600 Billion dollar
pharma industry has been able to establish the new ‘norm’ or new ‘standard’ for
acceptable behavior, attitudes and conduct. Game Theory was a natural ally with
its bleak view of the human condition, Pharma promised to bring medical relief
to those who were ‘abnormal’ and who better but Pharma to rewrite normality. If
Game Theory predicts humans as highly rational and deliberate in their actions,
drugs like Prozac could take the edge off irrational feelings or emotions that
get in the way of the robot-like approach to life.
In the Neo-Noir Era
populations are seen as anxious or depressed. Big Pharma has made a hugely
profitable industry in exploiting the Game Theory exponents desire to ‘improve’
the rational mind, and to neutralize the irrational thoughts. Doctors have
redefined mental health in a way as to narrow the margins of where emotions are
allowed a role. Outside the narrow bands, drugs are prescribed for people whose
emotions fall outside the diagnostic register that has been put in place in the
last 30 years. This isn’t about medical necessity; it is about political
necessity to control the emotional lives of people.
The elite of the
rationalist sit on a mountain where the people below are feared for their
emotions. Big Pharma could not have re-engineered our notion of mental health
and brought in a new vision of normal without the consent of the ruling class
that saw major benefits in a sedated population.
Neo-Noir Era Big Pharma has prescribed Soma. It is being swallowed around the
world to cure the anxiety of living inside the Walmartization of both the local
and international political, cultural and economic systems. It is the remedy for
discontent, frustration and anger as the master game theory players pick the
flesh from the bones of society.
Huxley’s Brave New World predicted
a world in which a drug called Soma is administered to the general population.
The soma of fiction and the real life new soma like drugs expand mental health
intervention, making citizen patients who are docile, malleable and useful
tools. In Huxley’s 1932 novel he foresaw an American in the early twentieth
century where the State provided a drug induced comfort to self-medicating
The other visionary in literature
who saw decades ahead was Stanislaw Lem. In The Futurologists Congress, which was
published in 1972 (forty years after Brave New World) mind-alteringdrugs our hero finds drugs have been
in the tap hotel water. He drinks it without knowing he’s being drugged. In this
future utopia, money and lending lose all meaning. Banks lend whatever amount
you request and no one bothers to seek repayment.
The State uses multiple
kinds of psychological drugs to create all kinds of mental states, some bring
transcendence, others pride and high status, and other bliss. Everyone in the
delusionary condition can win a Nobel Prize, owns Renoir or two, drives a Rolls
Royce, wins millions in Las Vegas at blackjack, and plays the piano like Mozart.
The fact it is all illusion doesn’t matter because the mind reads it as real.
Life inside Lem’s Psych-Chemical State is all in the mind controlled by drugs. A
movie based on Lem’s classic novel is in the works for 2013.
In the last segment in the series,
The Trap explores the meaning of freedom, and how forcing people to be
‘free’ became the new mantra of the neocons. The Orwellian notion that freedom
can only exist as a by product of a cleansing, a tyranny of ‘freedom fighters’
who wipe the slate of those with incompatible ideas of freedom. Freedom requires
a certain mental state. Big Pharma has eased people into this space and the
government assures them that now they are ‘free.’ Freedom is an abstract state
of mind that is imposed by force or chemical substance, and the newly freed
people are happy with their condition and place in life. Having achieved freedom
they want for nothing else.
Only it hasn’t quite worked out
In The Trap we confront directly the idea
that the State has been quietly dismantled; better metaphor—dismembered and
reassembled as a private enterprise tool of in the interest of the ruling
In the Neo-Noir Era governments
have given way to private interests. Before that can be successful there needs
to be a pacification program as citizens–deprived of the safety nets, falling
down infrastructure, dysfunctional health, safety, and educational system–rely
on the assistance of Big Pharma to keep them pacified.In the BBC special The Trap visits a landscape made
popular by a number of novelists. Fiction has been our early warning system, the
canary in the mine.
In the area of crime fiction, the
Neo-Noir Era—while Lem and Huxley left their notes in the bottle and threw them
into the river of time, they are finally drifting to shore. Go back and read Brave New World and The Futurologists Congress. Both of these two novels could have been
In our time, science fiction has a
new ally in this attempt to call attention to the realization of prophecies—it’s
called noir crime fiction. The main difference is that we are gradually entering
the world foretold by Lem and Huxley.
In Missing in Rangoon, I have a look
inside the brave new world of Burma. A place of magic, illusions, and cascading
greed as private corporate interest have fond a virgin market to apply Game
Theory and to bring ‘Freedom’. It takes loads of Soma widely distributed before
there is transition from one political/economic system to another. Freedom is on
the lips of people. A word they once knew and thought they understood. It has
gone muster color, opaque, and tattered. The last of the free men and women
exist here and there, isolated, dwindling in numbers, knowing they have reached
an intellectual and cultural dead end. In time the memory of them will be
extinguished. As people who lived inside a dream before Big Pharma acquired the
exclusive monopoly. Be mindful of the hotel drinking water in Rangoon. Like the
good professor in The Futurologists
Congress, you may find that you wake up in a different time and
As a crime fiction writer,
anger is an emotion that figures into the emotions of the characters in a
narrative where people are threatened, intimidated, disrespected, frustrated, or
their worldview/belief system is attacked or challenged.
Anger is on the A-list of
negative emotions. If anger were an actor, he would never be out of
work. Drama is basically what authors and film directors use to keep the
audience on the edge of their seat. When someone goes postal with anger, people
pay attention. It is hard to take your eyes off someone who is truly angry.
Volatility in stock markets may cause an unsettling experience, but when the
personal volatility closes in, the situation becomes tense and fraught with
Years ago when I rode
along as a civilian observer with members of the NYDP in the 1980s. That New
York is long gone. My memory of that time is connected with a particular kind of
anger. The one job the police hated was call to investigate a domestic
disturbance in some high-rise slum or bad neighborhood in Brooklyn. When they
arrived, they found a couple, a husband and wife fueled by pills and booze and
still screaming at each other. The same shrill, loud threats, the sound of glass
being broken that caused their neighbors to phone for the police.
By the time the police
arrived everyone is at an emotional, irrational peak. It is precisely at that
point that is most dangerous—for the parties involved and for the cops who
arrive to calm things down. I suspect police in most cultures equally fear an
out-of-control, angry domestic situation.
The police hate domestic
violence calls. And for good reason. When two people living together uncork,
work themselves up into a highly unpredictable negative emotional state inside
their own homes. They become temporarily insane. They are literally out of their
minds. In this state, cops walk into a place where angry people know where the
knives and guns are hidden. It is, after all, their home. Couples beating each
other up don’t like outsiders coming into their lives. They want to inflict pain
on each other. Cops get hurt in these domestic situations. That’s why they hate
Emotions come with up or
down ratings. Joy, hope, love, generosity, and relief are positive emotions. But
anger is a bad boy and hangs at the same saloon where you find alarm, panic,
fear, sorrow, hate, and cruelty. That’s a tough crowd. Anger counts as his
relatives some nasty first cousins: outrage, wrath, hostility, scorn, spite,
vengefulness, resentment to name a few.
beatings, and killing I would speculate have a heavy anger bias as the emotional
state that prevailed at the moment of the crime. Add drugs and liquor and you
can explain a fair amount of crime. “Criminologists estimate that alcohol or
drug use by the attacker is behind 30 to 50 percent of violent crime, such as
murder, sexual assault, and robbery.”
In the past, anger and
angry people, were mainly contained by the police. One of the reasons that the
violent death rate is historically (looking at large periods of time) low is the
State became gradually much better devising institutions, which deterred,
captured, punished violent anger. For a detailed analysis see Steven Pinker’s
The Better Angels of Our
In England the statistics
indicate that young males especially those visiting pubs should be carefully
watched. That is to be expected we should expect from young men. What is more
interesting are the statistics for those who have been either an offender or
victim of violence.
The 2002/03 BCS shows
that over four-fifths of victims were emotionally affected by the incident
(83%). This is an increase from the last set of results (2001/02 BCS).
Twenty-six per cent were ‘very much affected’, and 24 per cent ‘quite a lot’, a
further third were affected ‘just a little’.
Victims of domestic
violence and mugging were most likely to be emotionally affected, as shown in
all recent survey years. Latest data show that victims were very much affected
in 40 per cent of domestic violence incidents, compared to only 17 per cent of
stranger violence incidents. In around one-fifth of incidents of acquaintance
and stranger violence the victim was not emotionally affected.
The most common
reaction to violence was anger (51% for the 2002/03 BCS). This is also
a recurring finding from the survey. Shock, annoyance, fear, loss of confidence
or feeling vulnerable are also fairly common experiences.
No one is arguing that all
emotions—positive and negative—are webbing that we process a lot of daily life.
Anger, like fear, is a natural state. Living in close proximity only works if
anger can be contained. The size of Bangkok—estimated to be as high as 12
million people—is a good illustration of a system that keeps down anger-fueled
violence. And yes, there are news reports of someone going jai rawn and
hacking up a relative or friend. It happens. But it is also relatively
What has changed is the
arsenal assembled against the anger emotion expressing itself. Anger has been
undergoing a substantial taming process. In this case there are more than one
lion tamer under the Big Tent—psychiatrists, scientists, chemists, neurologists,
and Big Pharma. The old
political/criminal justice system that worked together to build more
prisons and to hand out much longer sentences has worked to curtail the
First, give anger a
medical label. Give it over to the white coats that everyone admires and
respects. Science and Big Pharama will solve the problem. This assumes that
containing anger becomes the role of medicine in general and psychology
specifically. By sending anger into the medical camp the solution is come up
with a medical condition like Intermittent Explosive Disorder, one said to be
“characterized by persistent, uncontrollable anger attacks not accounted for by
other mental disorders.” Science
reported a study which found one out of 12 young people (in the USA)—close to
six million adolescents” meet the criteria for IED. The emotion of anger another
form of mental illness. It shouldn’t be crazy to feel anger; that is a normal
Second, scientists have
split the emotion of anger apart like a particle shot at near the speed of light
inside one of those huge accelerators but this time to discover not the secrets
of the universe but the chemistry of anger. That is found in the mix of
underlying hormones—low serotonin, high dopamine and high noradrenalin.
With this knowledge, the next step is to test people for their hormone levels
and medicated to adjust them. Research on the genetic elements that form
patterns that shape the boundaries of temperament and personality are leading
closer to a DNA explanation.
Third, there is a large
and profitable anger pill industry. Google: “anger control medication” it comes
up with more than 18 million pages. We live in a medical era of
pharmaceutical designed emotional restructuring. The rush has been on to create
a new class drugs to modify or subdue the behavior caused by effects negative
emotions like anger. To achieve the perfect emotional state with drugs has
opened up big opportunities for pharma industry. It has large political
implications, too. The teenager becomes docile. Nothing bothers him or her.
The drug takes away the emotional equipment to respond. Here’s some of
the antipsychotic medication circulating in the
marketplace: Risperdal, Haldol, Depakote
The size of net of angry
people continues to expand. That Science Daily report also said, “Nearly
two-thirds of U.S. adolescents have experienced anger attack that involved
threatening violence, destroying property or engaging in violence toward others
at some point in their lives.” Big Pharma product developers aren’t overlooking
the size of this market.
There are significant
problems arising out of first three point outlined. Bad Pharma by Ben
Goldacre is a detailed examination of the crooked game played by all of the
players in the medical establishment. From the industry paid researchers,
scientists, and journals that use cherry picked data to show effectiveness to
the culture of burying negative news. Most of the negative trials that show
drugs don’t work, cause harm, or are no more effective than a placebo or any
other drug currently on the market are buried. That’s right, negative studies go
missing. The basic truth is there is no easy way to get good information over
what medicine works, what psychological categories are accurate. Whether a drug
company, government regulator or professional body, the outcomes are distorted,
misleading and often wrong; the missing data on negative trials are more
difficult to document than war crimes.
Fourth, with a largely
non-angry and medicated population it becomes much easier for economic and
political manipulation to pass without angry people to take into account. We
are—at least in theory—safer from categories of physical violence by
medicalization of anger. The political class gains part of its power by
acting out the anger of a medicated voting population. Politicians are
surrogates for anger. Political campaigns in many places—Thailand is no
exception—are a kind of theatre, the political consultants act as generals
fighting in the trenches of fear and anger. This spectacle, along with the
medication, keeps people from noticing how they’ve given over anger to the
medical and political establishment, and big business now found a way to make a
profit from this transfer.
Lastly, make anger into a
We are, in other words, in
the safest most secure period of human existence. We pay the price for this
safety. We’ve corralled anger—this negative emotion—as if it were a beast in a
cage. Not that many years ago we called people with strong views and feelings
eccentric. Some of them were angry people. We often celebrated such people, but
now they would be so uninteresting, being medicated, subdued, and watching the
latest YouTube offering or video game. Anger is defined as IED in such a way to
bring in a lot of young men. If anyone has any right to be angry examining the
real state of the world and their place in it, the young unemployed men in
Spain, Italy, Egypt and many other countries should be angry. And they don’t
like the medicine that’s been prescribed. They should be angry with a
medical/pharma system that distorts evidence and medicates them on dubious pills
and psychological analysis. The system based on controlling anger, as it turns
out, is a hugely profitable game.
IED reminds me of the
acronym for UO for unexploded ordnance. Anything dangerous hidden under ground
or temporarily caged by drugs is an explosion waiting to happen. Anger will
continue to shape and define crime fiction. The medical battle is yet to be
assured of an easy victory. Watching the anger management industry unfold may be
a good opportunity for a crime novel.
I am trying to make sense
of an impression that Thais are becoming angrier, and with more violent results
than a quarter of a century ago. Stories in the news, from first hand
observations and from friends can distort reality. What I have confidence in is
the idea that levels of anger correlate with crime. Anger rarely brings out the
best in us; quite the opposite, it is likely to lead to a rash, irrational
response against the object or person responsible for triggering this emotional
state. Laws are part of the security shield the state provides to protect us
against the violence ignited by anger.
The union of anger with
crime makes for an unhappy marriage right around the world. Every week there are
reported cases where some became angry and punched, slashed, shot, kicked or
shoved another person. Parker, the criminal in Richard Stark’s series drew an
audience, in part, because the character had no discernible sense of fear. If
Parker had been fearful but lacked a sense of anger, we would have a quite
different criminal personality. It is likely that emotionally wired Parker would
never throw a punch. Such a character would be more like Mr. Bean than Parker–an
object of amusement. We laugh with our heroes, not at them.
When reading a crime novel
it is an interesting exercise to ask how the author handles emotions such as
anger, how anger has explanatory power, and whether anger satisfies the reader’s
sense of fairness, justice, and equality.
A lot of criminal novels
are built on characters who are angry and that emotion feeds and motivates their
Anger is the opposite of
Anger is the subjective
experience of mind. It is pure emotion and short cuts off access to rational
thinking. It’s physiological and neural. Insults, threats as well as physical
violence are common reactions anticipated from an angry person.
Frustration, resentment, cheating are three examples of events that trigger
Looking at the building
blocks of anger, one that stands out is scarcity. Most of life is a competition
for mates, examination marks, jobs, promotions, honors, reputation, and status.
Such resources are scarce and unevenly distributed among a community. Excluding
or denying someone what they believe is their entitlement, or removing something
they already have can lead to anger. And anger leads to revenge and
I started the essay with
an assertion that I thought Thais are angrier today than they were in the late
1980s. It is not based on good statistics so the observation is subject to being
modified if not rejected with solid statistical evidence. That caveat stated, my
impression is with the vast increase in cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the
relatively slow building of additional modes of transportation alternatives,
road space has become more scarce. Drivers are no better trained or skilled than
before but there are more of them, and they compete for the same lanes on jammed
roads. Nam jai or ‘water heart’ is a Thai expression used when someone gives way
as a courtesy to another, a small act such as waiting and allowing someone else
caught in a blocked lane of traffic to enter the moving lane in front of you. I
still find acts that qualify as nam jai when driving but like a rare form of
wildlife, it is becoming rarer and on the road to extinction.
A couple of cases—one from
December 2012 to February 2013 illustrate circumstances where anger leads to
“Man killed for jumping
queue” – A Shan-Burmese man and his wife went to a temple in Chiang Mai for free
food. The food he had gone to obtain for his child. The Burmese man saw a queue.
Rather than join the queue, he cut in front, causing two teenagers to blow up
with anger. One of the pair used a broken beer bottle to slash the man’s throat.
The man died at hospital. The police are gathering more evidence before seeking
arrest warrants, according to the Bangkok
Anger flaring in road rage
has been more commonly reported in the Thai press. A couple of recent cases
serve to make the point that the emotion of anger is a dangerous thing, an
instrument looking to inflict violence to dissipate the emotional rage. This
kind of anger leaves the person without self-control and thrust him into fight
A YouTube video circulated
in Thai social media caught a 48-year-old man claiming to be a law lecturer
beating up on a small young woman after their cars were stuck in a small soi.
Frustration erupted as neither would give way. A Thai newspaper Thai Rath reported graphic
(with pictures and the video which was taken by a bystander) that the young
woman had picked up her girlfriend and was driving out of the small soi when a
black Mercedes Benz came in.
She could neither pass nor
go back. The young woman felt that the Benz driver might have a bit of nam
jai as she saw he had a bit of room to move, so she asked him to squeeze in
the lane and let her pass. He refused and insisted that it was she who had to
move. She said she couldn’t and he threw the car key at her face and stalked off
to his friend’s house. The young woman returned to her car and called her
relatives for consultation as to what to do. In the middle of the phone
consultation the Benz driver returned in rage, shouting, ordering her to reverse
her car, while slapping, pushing and shoving her. The young woman’s girlfriend
came out to intervene and was shoved. Now fearing the escalation, the two women
ran back to their car and started driving in a long reverse to let the Benz go
to its destination. The confrontation captured on video has been circulated for
days in Thai social media.
Recent reports are the
lecturer was fined Baht 1,000 for the assault and he apologized to the woman he
assaulted. End of case.
In another incident, the
Post reported two
women were in a car accident. A Thai man between 30 to 35 years in the other car
got out and repeatedly struck the 36-year-old woman who appears to have been the
driver of the first car. One car hits another. The occupants of each car
apparently got out to inspect the damage and became angry at each other. In this
case the anger boiled over into physical violence—the Thai man knocked out the
other driver. He left her unconscious on the scene. And in the time-honored
tradition of people who do bad, he fled the scene.
Anger and rage in crime
becomes more interesting when someone in uniform spits the dummy (Australian for
blowing one’s stack, eruption of Anger with a capital “A”).
Post reported a
story involving a military officer was unhappy with the driving of the car in
front of his, saying later that the car was straddling two lanes, so he couldn’t
pass. He flashed his high beams at the car ahead to move into the slower lane.
But the car stubbornly refused to move into the slower lane. Finally the officer
seized an opportunity passed the car, and then apparently positioned his car so
as to stop the car he’d passed. When he saw three people inside, he took out his
gun and fired three shots. Self-defense. He was outnumbered and felt
The event in this case was
also captured on video and later uploaded on the internet, and that caused the
person uploading the video to receive a number of threatening and hateful
comments. It seems a video was viewed as twisting the truth. That’s the problem
with a netizen videos, they capture a moment of anger, snatch from the jaws of
reality, and those involved have little room for the usual defense of
‘misunderstanding’ or ‘it didn’t happen that way, they pulled a gun first’ or
‘who me, someone else in another car fired a gun.’
A day ago in Phuket, the
driver of a mini-bus followed a car driven by a woman. She had made an illegal
turn. She had braked suddenly, causing the mini-bus driver to brake as well. He
became angry and raced after her in his bus. After he caught up (the traffic was
moving slowly) he jumped out of the bus and ran up to her car and pointed a
handgun at her. He returned the mini-bus, drove on, phoned his office to say he
has other pressing business, and they should send another driver. The driver left
the bus and
disappeared. The police said, “We have a warrant for his arrest and
he faces multiple charges relating to attempted murder, criminal damage,
carrying a gun in a public place, and issuing threats. We believe we will catch
him soon.” The police are continuing to look for him.
Such stories are appearing
more frequently in the Thai news. Road rage has been imported into street and
highway system in Thailand. The physical confrontations are pretty much
recognizable to someone from another culture. It seems that anger—while its
triggers and reactions have a cultural component—has a common, universal aspect
that is transcends cultural difference. In Thailand, like elsewhere, the
road rage cases are increasing and if you were to substitute Bangkok, Phuket or
other cities appearing in datelines for news stories and inserted either
Chicago, Toronto, or London, little else would need to be changed to localize
You can draw your own
conclusion on what cultural biases make it permissible for men in the heat of
rage to physically attack a woman. Beating up women deserves a closer
examination as an extension of dysfunctional behavior in the land of anger. I’d
start with the theory that in any political/social system which provides
extensive impunity for members of the elite class, those deemed inferior in that
society such as women, immigrants, handicapped, or peasant class are the object
of violence because their failure to acknowledge another entitlement means the
other person must automatically yield.
The insults, threats, and
violence attributed to the angry person create a universal
brotherhood/sisterhood—road rage, domestic violence, pub brawls, or that moment
when your computer hangs and you lose a week of work that should have been
backed up but wasn’t. We’ve all experienced such moments.
There is a correlation
between anger and criminal conduct. Acts of violence are outlawed. The criminal
and civil laws patrol the emotional borders to deal with angry people whose
emotional fuel motivates them to commit acts of violence.
Anger is the father that
begets much violence. When the flash of anger leads to a squeeze of the trigger.
Each culture tries to control that space. To diffuse the anger, to teach
self-control, and to provide substantial punishments and other disincentives for
the angry whose emotion causes them to harm others.
The lack of capacity to
control anger is a major reason to carefully restrict gun ownership. Anger,
alcohol and guns are a lethal combination. In big mega cities as resources
become scarcer be prepared for more violence generated by angry
Emotions like anger are
human behavioral stuff that will ensure that crime writers in material for
several life times. It is one thing to write about anger, it is another to
experience anger whether exploding inside your own head or inside the head of a
person charging at you with a handgun because you stepped on his foot and caused
him to lose face in front of his face.
If you think that escaping
into the digital world you can avoid anger, think again.
Hate is an offspring of
anger. You can find him in many places on the Internet. Online expressions of
hatred are the digital equivalent of a handgun waved in your face. Next time you
want to know if someone is angry with you on line, check out
The digital world has
emoticons for anger: :- | | :@
Richard Stark a.k.a.
Donald Westlake started a series only after his editor convinced him to change
the ending of the first novel. In the original ending, Parker was
Apparently, so the story
goes, Westlake’s editor changed literary history and crime fiction hasn’t ever
been quite the same since that first novel was published. Parker changed the
face of crime fiction for many readers and authors who later came down the
Parker is a
professional thief. Thug. Gangster. A killer. You get
a glimpse of each persona as you read the series. Crime is his business, it is
how he supports himself. He doesn’t have friends. He has associates he works
with on a specific job. He lives outside of society. And he’s forever planning
where to leave a stash of money, and finding that his money is running low and
it is time to return to plan a job. In the early books, Parker lives alone but
he doesn’t work alone. His women often come to a violent end. He carefully hand
picks members of a team for each job.
In each of the 24 novels in the
Parker goes through a process of selecting the members for his team, matching
their skills to the demands of a particular heist. He runs the team like a
military commando unit officer. A job sometimes is brought to him by an insider,
and this stranger, a non-professional—his head dancing with riches—finds his way
to Parker. He or she is usually a small time non-professional motivated by greed
and handicapped by an overweening ego. Most of these heists go sour. Violence
Parker has had conflicts
with organized crime members and bosses who have tried to cheat him out of owed
because he was a ‘little’ unconnected guy. Big mistake. They underestimated
Parker, his determination, a kind of post-human persistence in a mission, and
the lack of fear in pursuing his goal.
I like Parker. Sometimes
I’d like to be more like Parker. I suspect that Parker makes lots of people wish
also they could live without ever feeling a cold steel blade of fear touching
the back of their neck. There is something compelling about his absence of fear
in situations where the vast majority of people would be pale, speechless,
paralyzed. Not Parker. But I’ve been asking myself lately whether Parker’s lack
of fear should cause us to feel revulsion. Here’s the case against liking
Parker. After you’ve read a half-dozen of the Parker novels there is a pattern
of reality that fits into the category of pocketbook fascism.
Parker is never
Parker is a deliberate,
calculating, logical, analytical planner. He’s not snatching gold chains or
mugging old ladies on security check days. Parker thinks big. The heist he
chooses share a common link—they present large risk of failure but a
corresponding large payoff if successful. Parker carefully chooses his team for
their experience, competence, and trustworthiness. He’s often worked with them
before on prior heists.
But Parker can’t always
control new members—often the insider who brings the idea to Parker—and all the
planning can come undone when an incompetent, cheating, and lying member of the
team threatens the operational goal or the dividing up of the loot after a
Parker has no
sentimentality. When some double-crosses him, he has no hesitation to kill them.
Not out of hatred or anger, but out of a violation of his conduct for doing
business. Never double-cross Parker. It is a line drawn in the sand. His regular
team members understand the code. For those who violate it, there is no learning
curve for the next job. There is no next job. They are dead.
Killing people is Parker’s
way of controlling destiny, punishing those who are disloyal. Fascists show no
emotion in erecting kill paths and demand absolute, unqualified loyalty. You
find a similar mindset in men like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and McNamara. Violence and
body count is their way of exerting authority and control. Violence shows who is
the man, who deserves respect, and who must yield. Violence and intimidation
flash the signal—you are either for us or against us, and either way we aren’t
afraid to take the fight to you. There is no neutral ground.
Removing the emotion of
fear in a mindset produces a powerful, relentless and brutal force that becomes
an object of fear and hatred for others. And where the person who uses
deliberate violence lacks fear, such a person unbounded by fear becomes an
existential threat. This is doubly troubling—we admire Parker’s qualities, but
find ourselves uneasy that absence of compassion and empathy rob him of his
Parker is a deliberation
machine dedicated to planning successful criminal ventures. Instead of blood, he
has sequence algorithms running through his veins. Parker is anti-hero who never
suffers from doubt.
Parker’s game depends on
detailed planning and ruthless execution of plans and loyal team members define
his personality. The emotional side of Parker is held in check—or it may be
non-existent. Parker never has sex when in the planning stage of a heist. Sex,
friendship, drinking, fun are all distractions and they are sidelined until the
crime is committed. Then Parker, off screen—as the novel has ended—spends the
next six months spending the money before finding a new heist.
Parker might fit into a
CEO position to run a Forbes top 100 company, a Wall Street investment banker,
or slip into high level government position—though most of these people would be
hard pressed to remove sex and fun from their lives to achieve their
Parker sees emotions as an
enemy of forward planning. They are a distraction, a nuisance, and can get a man
killed. Parker, as a survivor, spends a great deal of time planning the details
of the heist, assigns the specific jobs to members of the team, and gathers the
materials and resources, scouts the location, looks for getaway cars,
untraceable guns, hideouts, and alternative exits. He’s thorough, cold,
calculated and when the plans hit the unpredictable forces of reality and fall
apart; he is quick to find ways to shore up the broken scaffolding. It is
Parker’s steadfastness, his belief in keeping promises, and his workarounds when
plans come unstuck, that are part of his appeal.
Parker is a man who can
control and overcome his emotions. Secretly many of us wish we had this ability.
As we don’t, Parker gives us the vicarious thrill of inhabiting a character that
is a sociopath. When we enter Parker’s mindset, the feeling evokes a sense of
admiration and power and we can forget that Parker’s cognitive abilities are
dangerous and deviant.
The heart of the Parker
novels is his ability to meet the challenges of the uncertain, unpredictable
world of crime where all planners must face the reality the plan isn’t working,
the outcome is in doubt, and an inventive alternative plan must be created on
the spot. Otherwise Parker gets arrested. Or he is killed.
Back to the Parker persona
as an example of fascism, he employs whatever means, including violence, to
achieve his goal. Nothing or no one who signs on can expect mercy if they fall
short of Parker’s expectations. Parker’s heart never does anything other than
pumping blood. It’s never soft. Until he gets his money, nothing short of death
will stop Parker from coming after someone who has cheated him. He kills not out
of hate. He kills people without feeling. Killings are simply part of his job.
Plans don’t call for a murder, but circumstances may make it necessary for the
plan to succeed. This is the way Parker thinks; how he perceives the world.
Parker is like a drone, hovering for hours in the air, observing, calculating,
seeking his best shot for a direct hit. Collateral damage is unfortunate.
Planners have bigger fish to fry. The little ones blown out of the water is just
one of those things that happens on the way from the kitchen to the dinning room
Parker is a man of
deliberate violence. He has a steel rod for a spine. A man who hasn’t shared a
beer with a man named regret. Parker represents that most human urge for control
over others and reality. Like good poker player, Parker figures the odds of his
hand, looks at the cards on the table, the other players seated around him and
makes a calculated gamble. If someone is cheating, they’re dead. Parker plays
for keeps. There is no fun in the winning or losing. Getting the job done, the
money, getting out and back to a good hotel, somewhere warm, in his swimming
trunks, a drink in hand, he finally looks at a woman and decides it is time. The
24 Parker novels continue to sell, and 8 Hollywood
have been made from the books. It seems the original editor had a scent of
something special about a Parker series.
Richard Stark a.k.a. Don
Westlake had the right instinct when he wrote the first Parker novel. Kill off
this guy. Parker’s death would be applauded by the reader who’d spent hours with
inside his head. But Richard Stark’s editor saw the opportunity for a series and
that required keeping Parker alive. Economically, politically and socially the
decision-makers elect, like Richard Stark’s editor, decide to hire and keep
Parker alive. They think having a Parker running things is useful. Such a
planner can be relied on to ensure the outcome happens. They also think such a
man (or woman) can be kept on a short leash. But a man who knows no fear can
never be controlled. He takes control, and when that happens, what comes
Read a newspaper, watch
the news on TV, walk down your street, look around you and you find that you are
living in a world where Parker has become the model of success. It’s too
late to kill Parker off. He’s on automatic pilot. And he’s in your future for
years to come.
Galileo has much to teach
us about the nature of fear. He found out the capability for suppression and
intimidation that an alternative worldview can be brought to bear on the
messenger of such a possibility. Belief systems rest on a unified, consistent,
and cohesive set of ideas. Galileo, the Wikileaks front man of his age,
championed the theory that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The idea
originated with Copernicus twenty years earlier and it was a revoluntionary one
of its time—the sun was at the center of the universe and the earth and other
planets revolved around the sun.
In 1633 Galileo was
charged with heresy. No doubt that beyond his scientific knowledge, Galileo knew
a thing or two about the kind of torture that his heresy might unleash if he
failed to repudiate his view. He had a choice—continue to advocate the
Copernicus heresy or face torture. Love of knowledge and the emotion of
fear of pain and suffering must have dueled inside Galileo’s mind as they have
inside the minds of countless men and women ever since.
He endured the Inquisition
and was found guilty of having been “vehemently
suspect of heresy” for his support of the Copernicus view of the
universe. The verdict required Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” Copernicus
view. After he recanted, his sentence of imprisonment was commuted to life long
house arrest. His book Dialogue was banned and he was forbidden to write
anything in the future. That ban wasn’t lifted until 1718.
heliocentric view of the universe, the Christian belief system and the
institution of the Church had not been destroyed. The fear of the alternative
theory of the cosmos had been irrational. But that is the nature of
Last week I wrote about
the campaign in Melbourne, Australia by government authorities to use the image
of a rhino to provoke a sense of fear of people driving and walking near the
tram system. What does Galileo have to do with the rhino campaign in
What links the concept of
fear when authorities such as the medieval church sought to preserve a belief
system about the nature of the universe and the intention of authorities to
manufacture a belief of fear when none naturally exist?
The answer is existential.
In the case of Galileo, the church feared that if an alternative to its
worldview would be allowed to go unchallenged, its authority, status, and role
might be not just undermined but destroyed. Suppression and intimidation by
authorities to preserve a worldview is their way of signaling that there is no
legitimate alternative worldview allowed. Belief in the absolute view is the
only legitimate way of understanding, explaining, and accepting the universe,
political, social and economic life. As Galileo discovered that while science
looked at objective facts and if those facts led to a conclusion that the
worldview required revision, which crossed an official line and demolished a
central tenet of the belief system, something had to give. And it wasn’t going
to be the true believers.
Galileo support of the
Copernican universe caused church authorities to experience an existential
crisis. To the mind of the official church Galileo’s view was intolerable. There
were a couple of reasons for this fear. First, was the loss of control over
describing the cosmos. That had been a Church monopoly and cartels don’t easily
open up to competition to outsiders. Second, the possible acceptance of this
alternative view of the universe made them fearful their beliefs and Church
would be destroyed. Allowing Galileo to proceed with his Copernican logic caused
the fear of something like the meteorite that stuck the Yucatan Peninsula 65
million years ago, causing massive extinction. In the face of the
potential oblivion of their belief system, its institutions, the rituals, the
priesthood and the community founded upon belief and ritual, the Inquisition
turned to repression. When faced with loss of controlling the message turning
the screws on the thumbs of the messenger is a time-honoured
The threat, the fear is in
the alternatives to any belief or institutions resting on a set of assumptions.
There might be a better explanation in the alternatives to an existing belief
system. Established institutions found their legitimacy on beliefs that are
static, eternal and absolute. That is a dangerous game. It means someone,
somewhere, whether Galileo or someone like him, may ultimately succeed in
presenting compelling evidence contrary to the established
The conflict between old
beliefs and new evidence exposing flaws or overturning the old beliefs entirely
is a mortal battle. In this struggle, the existing authorities have the
advantage of power which are used to defend to the death the old beliefs and
When institutions and
their infrastructure of beliefs are under attack, their back to the wall, and
with a sense of survival of an entire system at stake, there is no surprise that
brute force and threats are in the short run effective to silence the Galileos
and their information, data and evidence.
Galileo must repent. Or
Galileo will be imprisoned, tortured, exiled, murdered, disappeared, or sent to
Room 101 and strapped into George Winston’s chair.
Officials who patrol the
borders of belief system based on absolutist principles looking for the next
Galileo aren’t pluralists or open-minded—such qualities of thought are not
suited to finding and eliminating all ideas that represent existential threats.
They scan the Internet like astronomers scanning the horizon for the killer
meteorite on a head-on collision course.
True power rests with
those who have authority to characterize an idea and label the messenger an
apostate. Once the patrols appeal to the necessity of protecting their
beliefs, and most people go along, it is only a matter of time before it becomes
apparent that those on patrol are difficult to control or restrain—as any hint
of criticism, dissent, questioning, or challenging brings the Galileo
Fear us. Fear our ability
to make you change your mind about the alternatives you have proclaimed to our
beliefs. It is up to you. After all, it is your big, new idea or the water board
(which by medieval torture methods would have been viewed as benign). History
has been hard on Galileo for his submission to authority, his official
recanting. Would you have gone to torture chamber for an alternative vision of
the universe? Would your reservoir of courage have drained as your saw what
waited for you inside that chamber?
The larger question is why
fear triggers this existential threat and the terrifyingly strong and powerful
emotional reaction against who feel threatened? My theory is evolution equipped
us with a basic, if not primitive (just good enough) response system to deal
with what in our early environment were indeed existential threats. Predators
saw us as part of their food chain. Mistakes in dealing with predators and
strangers often proved fatal. Outsiders, strangeness, unusualness, all triggered
a fear response. We inherited this alarm warning system. Unfortunately it hasn’t
been upgraded from its original purpose and imported into the world of ideas and
In modern times,
governments employ an assortment of laws to monitor, identify, and suppress
modern Galileos—including censorship, blasphemy, computer crime laws and
lèse majesté or its equivalent. The common thread is based on the
existential fear that unrestricted exchange of information or data will
undermine and fatally wound the belief system, which may have remained unaltered
for centuries. The longer the duration between updates of beliefs to match the
current state of knowledge and information, the more repressive the laws and the
response of authorities enforcing the laws.
Technology has brought
more information, more channels to disseminate and access information, more
people connected, rendering geographical location largely irrelevant. Innovation
and technology is disruptive. It threatens to replace existing institutions.
People inside and outside of institutions are fearful. Their lives have never
been less certain. Control over new information used to create alternative
theories and principles remains unresolved. One side promises answers from their
belief system to all questions, the other side makes no promises and demands an
acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as the nature order of
We are in the midst of a
new Inquisition in many cultures. Like medieval European elites who processed
Galileo, their successors are playing out their hand in a last ditch effort to
suppress alternative information messengers from challenging the official belief
system. There is fear on both sides of the knowledge equation as each side seeks
to draw supporters to its reality-based bias. Those with a vested interest in
absolutes butt heads with the modern probabilistic thinkers. In this tango along
the edge of the event horizon of fear, it is unclear who will blink
Controlling who has access
to gathering, assembling and disseminating information and knowledge are crucial
in a belief system seeking to preserve itself. The more out of date the
worldview becomes, the more likely that more and more resources will be devoted
to suppression and intimidation. At some stage, the main preoccupation is
reduced to internal fear management.
As an example of resource
allocation to patrol the digital borders where belief systems are challenged by
access to vast quantities of information, Chinese authorities have mobilized a
“At yesterday’s municipal
propaganda department meeting in Beijing, Vice Mayor Lu Wei implored 60,000
propaganda workers ‘in the system’ and over two million ‘outside the system’ to
‘use Weibo.’ According to official records, Beijing has a population of more
than 20 million–from Lu’s statement, one out of every ten Beijingers is a
With new advances in
software, it is much easier for regimes to track the modern Galileo’s, shut down
their websites, charge them, and imprison them. The essence of fear which began
as an individual response to survival in a hostile environment where most were
relatively defensively has morphed into an institutionalized fear monitoring
system to preserve existing societal arrangements, beliefs, and customs against
possible alternatives other might find more equitable, transparent, and fair.
Most governments wish to avoid that discussion. Room 101 will likely not be
closed any time soon. Nor has the last Galileo been forced to recant his
alternative worldview vision.
It is said that fear is
our friend. But when fear is scaled to institutional size, it has every tendency
to the same emotional, intuitive, gut feeling that all alternatives are
existential threats. As George W. Bush famously said, ‘you are with us or
against us.’ And here lies a key point. Old belief systems lasted because of
their commitment to an absolutist view of the worldview. We have moved into an
era where probability analysis rejects absolute outcomes as automatically
flowing from existing beliefs.
That idea is as dangerous
as Galileo’s heliocentric universe. As it leads others to hold all beliefs as
tentative possibilities open to better questions and better information. It
assumes we are likely to find that we change our minds about all kinds of
arrangements and relationship as we sift through information, finding new and
novels patterns and explanations in information and altering patterns of
existing beliefs along the way.
For now, we are at a stage
not much different from the one of Galileo’s day. New information is the cause
of fear. We experience certain events, activities, and signals as an existential
threat. Scaled to the institutional dimension, fear mongers will likely continue
down the time-honored path that worked on Galileo.
I have a feeling Galileo
would recognize much of repression that routinely occurs in various countries
today in the name of national security or preservation of the faith as variation
of the age-old desire to maintain the earth at the centre of the universe. We
are some ways from the day when Room 101 is converted into a computer room with
an Internet connection to anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the
nature of the cosmos and our place in it.