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.
Fear is one of the basic
emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a
symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion
charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has
equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the
risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it
served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the
threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of
We don’t do a very good
job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like
most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when
threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern
cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of
being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them.
And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram
Yarra Tram in Melbourne
I noticed signs on
platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate
board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from
being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a
tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino
translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.
The sign informs us that a
Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram
tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you
Later I found the “Beware
the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the
scary 30 Rhinos message to life:
There’s also “Beware the
page which has
some 3,000 likes.
I thought about the
message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone
into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I
suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving
people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were
oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research
revealed that the Beware
the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed
at tackling car to tram accidents.)
How can we get people’s
attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne?
That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public
hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency
However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid
of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No
doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as
far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to
creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants,
lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements
over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as
well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.
Whatever political dealing
went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the
rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram
Whether it has reduced
accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly
achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won
“Postcard of the
Year” award for
The Melbourne tram rhino
got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we
like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the
case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an
activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because
citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the
government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30
Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would
you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine
30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and
down like a charging wild animal.
How do you feel about
having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button
even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is
governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become
immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take
vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose
of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our
longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their
audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an
assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and
friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At
There is a second aspect
to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.
Unlike the first case
where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case
fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand
protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an
Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines,
quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the
government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control
is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public
safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an
opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on
The shoe bomber is a
classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes
resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil
liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber,
plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their
pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear,
governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over
citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report
listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline
passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single
shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain
fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear
containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so
difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government
policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of
Once people look to the
government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more
fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded
through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it
has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If
you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern
problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a
high price for our irrationality.
Returning to the fear
creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being
pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in
Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems
that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make
people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it
works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that
makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of
I’ve been told the
authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram
platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at
greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know
one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark,
our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the
best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to
increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind
ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the
night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire.
And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security
at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.
Apophenia sounds like the
name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song
Contest. The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a
psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between
unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful,
abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental
Over the years the
definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be
used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal
believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters.
The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person
to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually
connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the
connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental
In Thailand, when someone
famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number
based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death.
Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both)
for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to
arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia.
Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world,
politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a
behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.
And of course, apophenia
is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A
mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and
literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections
between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those
We experience a scene, a
smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a
story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city.
The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that
time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and
thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same
There’s a middle-aged
woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could
sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from
her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They
have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly
tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve
been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an
argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a
mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers.
They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.
Seated down the car are
three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a
company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late
twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third
woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a
teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They
are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips
from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the
money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who
have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she
has been kept on. In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not
three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by
availability. They haven’t been fired. It is another workday, and they
will be back on the job tomorrow.
That is a simple train
ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the
day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects
that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method
of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental
stuff to be a writer.
There is a bit of insanity
in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination
(except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One
separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from
ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our
beach each day.
Apophenia is our brain
trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We
recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is
a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a
connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free
will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be
‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the
‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole
suddenly are meaningful.
Most people can’t resist
being seduced by such connections.
People who claim to see
images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an
example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this
condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers,
mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality
are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the
Films like the Twelve
Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace
apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is
an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that
apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections
between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of
non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science
fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret
knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected
everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream
of gold light radiated from a fish necklace. Drugs. Did I mention, Philip
K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?
Mystics and religious
figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information
and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is
An epiphany is making a
connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and
underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has
A powerful emotional
experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with
unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut
had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers
fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been
baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of
connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels
danced around that event, drawing from that experience.
What vests a fiction
author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase
just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors
come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks
us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized
in three words: “I was there.”
I bear witness to the
experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and
horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I
connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other
people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the
connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world.
The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt
Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator
aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of
first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float,
collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the
Readers still seek to know
the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling
connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been
violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens
us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way
to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be
false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what
gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the
least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.
We look to the imagination
of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what
it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden
universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of
Next time your financial
advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial
killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in
Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in
Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your
shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in
After you finish this
essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or
flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on
the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of
unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and
offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or
enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher
the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a
cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is
mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the
correct pattern in front of him.
It seems we suffer either
way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols,
events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds
the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has
a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether
you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you
assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and
After all, one thing is
certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in
Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that
space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are
not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had
survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from
his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been
connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back
in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there.
And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his
What does an author do
when he sees a secondhand copy of his book in a bookstore? I have been thinking
about this having recently seen a secondhand copy of The Wisdom of
As I can’t cover all
second hand bookstores, I’d like any reader who finds a copy to feel free to
write a dedication in the book on my behalf. I understand that after exhaustive
studies, academics have concluded that a book dedicated to a famous person by
the author fetches a much higher return on the second hand market.
In a time of bookstore
closures worldwide, I’d like to help the bookstore owners increase their
revenues. They should encourage customers to form a self-help group to write
those special dedications for The Wisdom of Beer (or any other book you
might find of mine).
I have a few suggestions
for dedications to be inscribed in random, dog-eared copies of The Wisdom of
I am positive that you
will come up with much better material.
The Wisdom of
Beer dedication list might include the following:
my dear friend, Donald Trump,
Thanks for the napkin from
A60 Club with your hand-written essay on the Kenyan birth certificate. I am
sorry it arrived too late to include the appendix as you suggested. Should
The Wisdom of Beer ever be reprinted I will urge the publisher to place
it in the new edition.
Former New Yorker, Vincent
my personal mentor, Cesar Millan,
Thanks for writing to tell
me that The Wisdom of Beer has become the Dog’s Whisperer’s bible.
Sorry your show has been cancelled. But I can’t really change the parrot in the
book to the Boxer mixed breed. But I appreciate your idea.
Best wishes from me and
all of my pack of six, CM
Your probation officer
gave asked that I send you TheWisdom of Beer to help keep you
out of jail. I am proud to know the book will guide you to a new and better
You can reject beer or
wisdom, but if you throw out both you can’t expect the Republics to ever win a
majority. Please keep The Wisdom of Beer as an alternative bible to
rebuild your shattered life.
Peace, Fairness and Love
bring huge dividends, CGM
I won’t ever forget our
night together in Paris. Congrats on being chosen the sexist woman alive for
2012. Of course it is 2013 and you probably won’t win again. Still, I hope you
will always keep this copy of The Wisdom of Beer to remember our
special time together.
General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping,
I know you are new to the
job. The Chinese invented beer and I’ve written the first book ever to bring
that accomplishment to the world. You should celebrate with pride this gift to
mankind by translating The Wisdom of Beer and requiring every party
member to purchase a copy. My publisher promises a volume discount for all
orders over one million copies. They also offered to put a red cover on the
Your Comrade in Suds, C.
You’ve made “The Cable
Guy”, “Liar Liar” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Me, Myself & Irene” all quite
intellectual films. They were too serious for a true comic genius like your good
self and these films may have hurt your A-list ranking. Why not try something to
showcase your unique humour like starring in The Wisdom of Beer?
The Wisdom of Beer film would give your movie career a needed boost.
Face it. You need that. Have a beer.
The first reaction to a
threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default
and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s
duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath.
When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the
State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce
That is the story the
State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much
democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of
protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at
heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as
the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution
merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new
operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they
become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.
Criminal laws regulate
conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or
‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to
protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and
imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws
broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person
whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of
prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The
State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and
received by users.
The State is an intangible
entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional
outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your
feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.
The functionaries and
officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some
are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture
that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs
within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who
do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech?
Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite
that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?
In the new Orwellian
world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of
prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty
citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is
nothing they can do and no one to turn to.
Placed in the situation of
being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought
to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old
computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic
data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest,
questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.
The best piece written on
why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years
Orwell said that the
subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer
Context is what matters.
Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when
you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like
this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our
context that determines how we think about books, each other, information,
security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and
hospitals. We think of them in the now.
Commentary like this
essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context
where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political
things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It
is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the
distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of
us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are
overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity
increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we
Those employed by the
State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State
actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of
doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that
we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of
their broad, vague powers and discretion.
We filter the
justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that
shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its
citizens. Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State
manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative
patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the
official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.
The best writers
communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between
intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s
distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate
thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately
shape and distort the way we think about reality.
The best books embody the
way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord
in the reader that seems true.
The best books reflect
emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the
context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger,
hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.
Crime novels embrace these
negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to
escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how
fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and
even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that
follows that moment.
Orwell wrote that authors
have four reasons or motives to write:
egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after
death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious
authors are vain and self-centered.
enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior
word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good
story that carries you along.
impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and
prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
purpose. To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to
shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that
society is fundamentally just and fair.
Psychology has advanced a
fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection
between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale
mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive
resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of
Our impulses war against
one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even
when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron
Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core
beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the
nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit
Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the
distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to
emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our
mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being
asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?
In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel,
Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett,
Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary
Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of
power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to
justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to
the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high
price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this
questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists,
essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is
difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these
people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow
away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly
creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of