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The Age of Dis-Consent

The Age of Dis-Consent

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On the 15th July 2009 a small group of writers joined together to write weekly essays for this blog—International Crime Authors Reality Check. We were and remain novelists who write essays once a week. In those essays we test notions of ‘reality’ in the context of social and political issues of the day. In these essays, we have patrolled the borderline between good and evil, right and wrong, facts and opinion.

Crime fiction has helped shape our world of ideas about social justice, the way actual legal systems function in other countries, and the way modern technology continues to change the nature of criminal investigations and indeed the nature of crime. Non-fiction is usually thought to be about truth and mirror reality. But often it is fiction that comes closer to the mark in describing truth and reality. That irony isn’t lost on the bloggers who write for you every week.

I’ve logged 214 essays since 15th July 2009, and my fellow bloggers have more than pulled their share of the weight. It takes a special breed of crime writer to consistently produce essays each week. We have a number of distinguished alumni who have written for the blog. It is understandable that other commitments require authors to bow out of the weekly essay routine. There are only so many hours in the day.

Our bloggers who currently write each week are: Barbara Nadel (Turkey), Quentin Bates (Iceland), Jarad Henry (Australia), and myself (Thailand). My writing colleagues essays have often been a detailed examinations of the writing game, politics, social and cultural developments, and insights into the world of police investigations.

Other crime fiction writers who made a significant contribution through their essays during the last four years include: Colin Cotterill (Laos/Thailand), Matt Rees (Middle-East), Margie Orford (South Africa), Jim Thompson (Finland), and John Lantigua (South and Central America). I thank each of them for sharing their insight and applying their talent to the difficult art of an essay.

All of us feel that our essays allow us to give something back to the readers of our novels—a glimpse of the intellectual concerns and interests that can be developed independent of plot and character. We don’t write behind a pay wall. Our essays are our way of giving back to readers what we hope will be of value.

If you have enjoyed our essays, the best way of expressing your appreciation is to buy and read one of our novels, or send it along as a gift to a family member, colleague or friend. On the right hand side is a scroll with a cover of our most recent novel.

To our readers, thank you for your support and we hope to publish more essays from the world of crime fiction writers your way for sometime into the future.

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Posted: 7/11/2013 9:05:45 PM 

 

Author’s photographs fall into several categories. The most common is the best face photograph; the ego shining forth. I’ve had my share of those photographs over the years. There are less common author’s photographs. Among those are ones that tell a visual story about a storyteller writing a story in a setting, which has its own story to tell.

This kind of photograph reminds me of Russian dolls nested together, each a smaller version of the one before it, until the doll is infinitely small and disappears with all of the stories locked inside.

This week, I was at the airport in Bangkok. Physically I was at the airport, but my mind was somewhere else. It was engaged with the latest Calvino novel. Scraps of dialogue, gestures, expressions, body language, and images buzzing around like fruit flies hovering over an open jar of honey. I normally carry a notebook. I left it at home. I knew from bitter experience that unless I wrote down the imaginary and dialogue that it would be lost. There were too many ideas, too many scenes and faces. There is nothing more frustrating than being in the flow of a scene and having no way to pull from that river the treasures floating past.

I went to a counter and asked for a piece of paper and found a place to write. Only later when looking at the photograph could I see that the world around me as rich as an imagination set free. An unattended airport cart filled with various packages. Who had left it? What was inside the packages?

No one but a writer lost to his imagination would miss the huge Mount Blanc advertisement, a brand, a prestige item and a godlike face—all playing out a story about how our world of commodities feeds our desires, focuses our motivations, and guides our deepest hopes. The illuminated ad shone like a mini-shrine, a spirit house, a testament to our wish to elevate our status and to receive the recognition of those around us.

Here I was a writer holding a two-dollar pen, writing, head down, lost inside myself, ignoring our culture’s message as to what is real and important. I wrote in the shadow of a company that sells really expensive, flashy pens—that now also expensive perfume for men to go along with the Mount Blanc pens. The smell, the look, that’s what has pulled us into the dragnet of manufactured happiness. We are suckers who no longer fight the dragnet as it sweeps us along with millions of other little fish trying to swim like outsized, important fish, one that secretly aspires to become a legend. Money is the shortcut to rise out of fishery. That’s how stuff is sold to us. It is the reason we part our money after we have everything else. Who doesn’t want to be a legend and immortal? And to smell so fragrant that the gods weep as we pass, is a feeling that we can’t easily shake.

The escalator leading international passengers to the immigration control, the airport workers with their vests talking to each other, knowing they’d never take that escalator upstairs to clear immigration. They are the fish, which swim in huge schools, the fish, which will never buy the perfume or take the plane to Berlin or London or New York. These local fish stay close to home shore.

I had been writing. I had been paying attention to the flow inside my mind. Everything in the photograph went unnoticed. Focus is the bullet that puts a slug in the heart of distraction. They fall away dead and we don’t notice the bodies until we look at a picture and identify them later.

What we pay attention to and how we pay (or fail to pay) attention defines as much as a tattoo of a dragon on our forehead. As a writer my books and essays form part of the attention focusing business and they compete with all of the other products that attention hawkers hit you with hundreds of times a day. Exhausting, isn’t it? All this money and effort spent to get you to focus your attention on some visual, oral, acoustical experience.

It doesn’t matter what public space we enter, someone wants us to pay attention to what they have to say. Retreating into a private space provides little protection. Legions of companies, governments and other people want you to remember that you paid attention to their message and for a reason. They want something from you. And in return, they are offering you some reward in return for your attention.

One reason to read is to find a way out of the lamppost light bias. The parable goes like this. A cop on foot patrol comes across a drunk on his knees circling around a lamppost.

The officer asked the drunk, “What are you doing on the ground”

And the drunk replied, “I’ve lost my car keys.”

The cop took pity on the drunk and helped him search for the lost keys. After fifteen minutes of a futile search, the cop asked the drunk, “Where did you lose the keys?”

The drunk pointed to the park in the dark beyond on the lamppost. “Over there,” said the drunk.

The cop shakes his head, “For God’s sake,man, why are you looking here?”

And the drunk replied, “Because that’s where the light is.”

The books l read take me out beyond the light of the lamppost. They take me to the hidden world inside the dark park. That’s where the keys were lost. Not to my car but to understanding about the nature of the world. Truth is camouflaged, out of sight. You won’t find it under a lamppost. That’s where everyone expects to find it. But the right book, in the hands of a master, can light a single candle that reveals what has been concealed. The things not sold on airport advertisements. We have in our power to take that candle and set out on an exploration. Even if truth isn’t at the end, the journey will have illuminated a pathway to worlds that lay just beyond where the darkness begins.

I was in the airport in Bangkok. It was a lamppost and I was inside its light. But my mind was inside another the terrain, time and place, and whether or not I found anything of value, I can’t be sure. But I was pleased to have found strangers who donated paper and pen to take a chance that I might be writing my own ticket to escape from the lamppost circle of light.

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Posted: 7/4/2013 8:56:00 PM 

 

Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and John Paulos have written best selling books subjecting religion to the rigors of science, testing, evidence and logic. The belief in the sky god was never able to withstand such a compelling analysis. The borders of faith have shrunk inside many people’s lives. Those who describe themselves in surveys and polls as atheist continue to remain a minority in most Western countries. It may be that many people nominally remain under the cloak of religion. Strip away the cloak and the reality is they have all but in name abandoned faith in the sky god. But the rituals of faith continue like a steam locomotive. We love the experience of ritual—the sight, the smell, and the ride with fellow passengers. We temporarily close our eyes to the fact that other forms of transportation have long ago overtaken us.

What is the evidence for this covert loss of faith in religion to supply satisfactory answers to the large existential questions about death? It is found in the rise of government as an alternative manager of fears. The second bow in the string religion brought was the fear of being a sinner, doing wrong, angering the sky god. The old violin has lost both strings. Our existential angst goes unanswered by faith and no one worries much about being a sinner. Guilt, like sin, is a word no longer functions to keep anti-social behavior in check.

The old hierarchy of fear managers—monks, priests, rabbis, ministers—historically have claimed jurisdiction over ministering to our existential fears for centuries. As absolute faith in religious answers no longer is comforting to a growing mass of people, who have switched allegiance to the scientific method, a gap has opened. Our secularization has brought about a great leveraged buy-out of the fear business. The private sector has co-ventured with the government in the acquisition, data mining, storage, and analysis of big information business.

The new secular clergy are organized around the language of mathematics as the church once used Latin for their elite. Mathematicians are our new cardinals. Their algorithms communicate the sacred and the secret. Outside the inner sanctum of Government, a large, private group of lay novices are often ex-clergy who shuttle back and forth from public to private, and vice versa.

In gaining control over the fear business, governments and their private partners have found an effective way to expand and consolidate power. The medieval role of the Church found that fear of the sky god’s wrath was effective to control kings who ruled under its grace in Europe. History teaches an important lesson about those who claim the mantle of fear managers—power, whether religious or secular—takes our fear of the ‘other’ and our fear of death to serve their own interests. Like the church before our secular age, the population has been excluded from the modern process of fear management. The new secular priesthood determines, in secret, what actions work best in the war against fear. Fear needs a face. Fear needs an enemy. In religious times, it was the devil; in secular times, it is the terrorist, who have brought us to the edge of the apocalypse; it is these people who haunt us and make us fearful.

Secular governments have learnt what large religious institutions have known for centuries—the masses will abandon claims to civil liberties and rights in return for guarantees that the enemy, the non-believer, whether within or from the outside. They have no issue with giving a free hand to officials and private contractors waging this war against fear. Priesthoods rely on magical thinking. To defeat the enemies who cause fear, all-out war is necessary. In this worldview, there is no choice but to permit the authorities to collect metadata, mine it for threats, and pursue those threats by all available means.

Institutions that work in the fear business are not only good at data mining—math as the new Latin gives them a huge edge—they are also adroit at understanding the psychology of the faithful. The reality is that people are highly vulnerable when it comes to fear. They want to be cleansed of fear. Churches no longer offer a sanctuary to repress these destabilizing emotions. We are witness to a great shifting of the guards as religious institutions are going the way of the manual typewriter. In the digital age, the amount of fear has increased at the same rate of Moore’s law for computer speed. Fear increased with our information about the dangers of the world. The uneasy anxiety of the masses demands something to be done to contain their fear.

In response to that demand, we are witnessing the results—a huge, spawning intelligence gathering empire, one justified and tailored to managing the globalization of fear. Intelligence agencies in America gather, store and process metadata about millions of ordinary people’s personal messages hovered from their email, telephone, social networks who had not been accused of any crime. The majority of those people have no problem with the government keeping information about their lives. They feel they’ve done nothing wrong. It is only people who would harm them or kill them that should be worried.

Don’t tie the hands of the fear managers, let them mount their steads, draw their swords, and vanquish the bad people from our existence. In the religious realm, heaven is on the side of the righteous. For the modern, secular population, heaven requires mass storage facilities, algorithms to mine the huge amounts of data. This new secular church, and the vast network of lay novices, operates under the watchful eyes of hundreds of thousands of the workers with the sacred task of monitoring those who generate fear. They are our representatives of righteousness—the high priests who have been granted top-secret clearance—the vanguards to guard us against the fears once the preserve of sky god and his representatives.

Our secular masters have become the new class of priests and new digital, technology installed as the sky god who sees all, is everywhere, omnipotent, and watching.

We use our new technology like prayers, believing that it will allow our secret clergy to acquire patterns, knowledge about probable associations and outcomes, and prevent a crime before it happens and identify the criminals before they commit a crime. In the ancient days when religions played a central role in people’s lives, we had to wait until a criminal acted, investigated for evidence to catch him, and extracted a confession after having caught him. In our secular, technological age that process from the steam locomotive age is no longer convenient.

We live in a new age, one in which fear propels us to allocate resources to identify people who are, or possess the potential, for violence, aggression, and brutality. We no longer rest at night knowing the sky god keeps their primitive impulse in check. Just as we have begun to have serious doubt that the sky god is waiting on the other side of death. We are alone, troubled, insecure, short-lived creatures and seeking shelter in a violent species on a rocky planet, trying to get by day by day.

This new secular regime has crept up on us. We blinked. One moment it suddenly appeared. We are all part of the congregation. Dismantling the new clergy, or effectively controlling their actions, won’t happen easily. And for a reason—we yearn not for freedom or liberty, but seek security from the terrible uncertainty of meaning to lives without the sky god, and the oblivion we confront in our death. As with all great religions, the day will arrive when one among them follows Martin Luther by challenging the right and authority of the digital Leviathan over our lives. We wait for that edict as it travels at the speed of light through cyberspace to offer a secular order where the clergy cedes power to the congregation it serves. Only then will there be any chance for a reformation.

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Posted: 6/27/2013 8:53:10 PM 

 

Theatre since the time of Greeks produced plays as a mirror to hold up to a society to see the reality of their existence. We are accustomed to the division of drama into the two different aspects of our lives—comedy and tragedy. We respond with laughter or tears as the emotional chords are played on our heartstrings with the virtuosity of the great dramatist. Not all cultures draw their dramatic heritage from the Greeks or Romans, nor are all dramas the product of professional stage producers, scriptwriters and directors.

In Thailand the police have an exclusive on the right to stage the drama of a criminal reenactment. A number of times a year it is show time in the Land of Smiles.

The police re-enactment of crimes has been refined over many years in Thailand until it has reached the level of an anticipated theatrical event. The reconstructions of actual crimes might be thought to be closer to carnival or street theatre than Shakespearian tightly scripted plays. The police having caught the criminal arrange for him or her (most of the time it’s him) to appear in front of the media and show how the suspect committed the crime. The police are casted in the role of heroes, the villain (sometimes there are more than one) is the real-life suspect and everyone plays their role before news reporters and TV cameras.

This is a different concept than the TV show like Crime Stopper, where to catch a criminal, the police reenact the crime in order to engage the public with a request for information to assist in identifying and arresting the suspect.

In Thailand, the police arrest the suspected criminal who has “confessed” to the crime. What follows the confession is a media presentation where the suspect, actors, and the police stage a reconstruction of the crime.

Reenactments can carry a light note, a hint of comedy with a suspect who has the media spotlight. That certainly proved to be the case with Carlo Konstantin Kohl who escaped from the airport by a German national where he’d been held in the transit lounge on his journey from Australia to Germany.


The Bangkok Post

Sometimes the ‘theatre’ moves from the realm of controlled drama produced and directed by the police, to ‘live’ drama, which shows just how badly things can go wrong with a staged re-enactment of a crime.

In a recent criminal case, a Vietnamese national, a suspect in an abduction case was on his way to a crime scene reenactment, escaped out of the back of a police van.


Phuket Gazette

When a 17-year drug addict reenacted the vicious stabbing of a maid in Phuket—she was stabbed 80 times and her throat slit—relatives and neighbors tried to beat  up the suspect and the police had to intervene to protect him. As he was a minor his face was covered by a balaclava.


Pattaya One

In the case of a sexual assault and robbery of two Russian women, the police  had Thai actresses play the role of the Russians in the reconstruction of the crime.  Obviously a ‘reconstructed’ crime doesn’t actually reproduce all the elements of the crime. It is more like a power point presentation of how to fly an airplane than actually getting in the cockpit and taking off.

The Nation reported the police rationale for reenactments of crime:

“A Metropolitan Police specialist said a re-enactment is important for an investigation because each criminal or each gang behaves differently in committing a crime. Details on how criminals commit each crime help the police understand the pattern of a crime. This can help them track down other criminals showing the same behaviour pattern and help reduce the loss of life and property.”

Reenactments as a police school teaching tool for crime investigators strikes me as an interesting, though implausible, heuristic tool. I think the jury is out exactly how such reenactments expand the range of knowledge about criminal behavior. Watching Superman in Man of Steel might impart some knowledge about criminal conduct as well. Crime re-enactments, in my view, touch on a much older idea about communities gathering to witness a wrongdoer repent, confess his crime, show his contrition by assisting the authorities in demonstrating what he did. Reenactments are a ritual, like rituals surrounding birth, marriage and death. Rituals of cleansing the wrongdoer—with the police as high-priests—are on hand as representatives of the gods who punish those who do wrong, so that victim’s family, friends and neighbors can watch the suspect admit his sin.

If the police explanation is correct, the re-enactments ought to take place in an actual theatre or classroom. From the photos below, you can see the Thai police staged a re-enactment of the murder of a well-known and controversial businessman is being witnessed by only two officers (with one having his interest engaged elsewhere).


The Nation

Another point, which also isn’t explained, is why the press is invited to record this piece of theatre, the large number of police officers who attend such reenactments, or onlookers who are allowed to watch the whole proceeding up close. Are they training sessions or workshops? Or is this staged reconstruction more like theatre? May be it is a ritualized repentance and request for forgiveness as I discussed earlier. Or could it be an effective way of communicating with the public that the police not only have solved the crime, protected them, and by locking this man up they are keeping them safe? As we’ve learnt with recent events in the intelligence community in America, the desire to feel safe is a license to do whatever is necessary to accomplish that goal. Reenactments are hatched from a primordial fear of danger from other people.

A member of the National Human Rights Commission, Paiboon Warahapaitoon, requested that the police take into account the human rights implications arising from staging a reenactment of a crime. Even under Thai law, the accused can’t be convicted solely based on a confession. A reenactment is no more than a dramatization of a confession that cannot be used to convict, unless it is supported by independent evidence of guilt.

Western lawyers have come out to argue that the Thai police reenactments would be illegal in most countries.

Most of the Thai reenactments are young Thais with little education and from poor families. These are the faces one sees among the suspects reenacting crimes. The rich and well-off are not actors in these dramas. They have their lawyers, day in court, and are usually out on bail, denying the charges against them.

Last week a Thai diplomat stationed in Cario was involved in an altercation in a luxury hotel. The facts are yet to be finally established, but the preliminary reports having the young Thai woman diplomat kicking, scratching and biting an Egyptian lawyer in front of her husband and other witnesses after a round of insults at Egypt and Egyptian people .  The diplomat has claimed self-defence, but offered no details as to what caused her to be threatened. The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs has recalled her to Bangkok and said it will investigate the matter. Whatever is found, one thing you can be assured won’t happen is a reenactment of the incident.

If you want to see how the rich carry on, watch primetime Thai TV lakorn (soap operas) on free TV channels. They are the next best thing to crime reenactments of assaults and other crimes the privileged commit. Lakorn is wildly popular amongst a large segment of the population. This shows there is a popular appetite for reenactments of crimes, nasty and anti-social behavior which don’t quite rise to crimes but nonetheless inflict a fair measure of emotional damage to the victims.

For this reason I think it is unlikely that the popularity of the Thai lakorn will wane any time soon. And the same can be predicted for criminal reenactments starring members of the underclasses. All societies need a way of staging drama. Each culture evolves a set of expectations, roles, producers, directors and media stars. The Thais give the starring roles to the poor in reality news entertainment in crime re-enactments, and the rich get theirs in soapy primetime TV dramas.  Thai audiences are as entertained as any member of the old Globe Theatre in London. The show must go on. And when the price of admission is free, and the villain at center stage performs his role, for that moment, he achieves a moment of fame. And the police reinforce their image as heroes, defenders, protectors against the ‘other’ who are out ‘there’ waiting to kill, maim, rob, rape or assault.

Shakespeare in Richard II wrote: “As in a theatre, the eyes of men,
after a well-graced actor leaves the stage, are idly bent on him that
enters next.” And who enters next may well be someone caught on a
video camera. Digital video recorders in cell phones have the
potential, over time, to replace the police reenactment. The purpose
of the reenactment is for the suspect to show how he committed the
crime. In this YouTube clip a Thai man confronts Russian man with a
handgun in Phuket. It is over a woman.

Videos like this eliminate the need for a reenactment.

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Posted: 6/20/2013 9:01:23 PM 

 

Bangkok this week has secured its reputation as the place (to borrow Maurice Sendak’s book title) Where the Wild Things Are. Wild things like in wild, feral animals are a good place to begin a Conrad-like journey into the heart of urban darkness.

Noah, according the myth, collected a pair of each animal and loaded them onto an arc as he had advanced warning that a flood would wipe out life on the planet. This week a modern version of Noah was busted in Bangkok, although no arc was found on the premises. But that is a minor detail, as no self-respecting face displaying local would be caught dead shoving animals into a wooden Arc. The new Arc is an imported luxury cars.

Before we move on to the animal selection process for filling up an Arc, let’s start with the noise animals make. Noah must have had neighbors, too. We never heard their side of the story. Noah didn’t work in silence. He banged nails day and night to construct the arc, while his animals caged up kicked up a chorus. Never heard that part of the story? Right. That merely proves that some great background stories never are told, or if told, are remembered and passed down from generation to generation.

In Bangkok, after a drinking session the music is usually turned up … and up … and at some point it blares through of the neighbor’s walls. The racket Leeches through the floors and ceiling and sucks you dry. Welcome to the neighbor from hell. The one with the teenagers who has formed a rock band with his buddies but no one has ever taken a music lesson.  The wannabe rock stars bang away on electric guitars and drums from midnight to four in the morning. You complain to the police. They do nothing. As Thailand is a hub of the unconventional story about hellish neighbors, at last there is a story where the police actually came, saw, held their noses, and returned with very large trucks to remove the source of the noise. Only in this case, it wasn’t loud music that caused the misery.

In one of the remote neighborhoods in Bangkok, Khun Lek bolted up in bed as he tries to awake for a nightmare of roaring lions and a distant tingling of pigs and peacocks. You are awake but the sound of jungle hasn’t disappeared. And then he smelled something foul as if a hundred sewers have backed up and overflowed in your bedroom.

The police discovered the neighbor—a Mr. Montri runs a pet shop at the Weekend Market also known as Jattujak or JJ Market. He’d previously been convicted of trading in wildlife and had gone back to his old ways as officials found: 14 white lions, 4 otter civets, 2 hornbills, 1 oris, 23 meerkats, 1,000 sugar gliders, 12 peacocks, 13 turtles, 6 minks, 4 miniature pigs, 17 marmosets, a number of birds, and some stuffed animals. It seems the police got tired of counting after the exhaustion of counting 17 marmosets (those little buggers race around like rats on speed and all look alike making counting an ordeal) as quantities grow vague when it comes to birds and stuffed animals. There it is. After the great flood, the world starts over with this population of animals.

Mr. Montri told the police that he had the paperwork to legally import the lions from South Africa. Apparently a lion cost Baht 200,000 wholesale or about $6,700.00. There was a slight problem with the papers. The import documentation showed 16 lions coming into Bangkok, and there were only 14 in the cages on Mr. Montri’s land. The paperwork hasn’t stopped the police from charging Mr. Montri with offenses that could delay the sailing of the Mr. Montri’s Arc by up to 4 years.

Where were the missing 2 lions? That question is one Mr. Montri’s neighbors are seeking answers to as they gingerly rush from their front doors, climb into their cars or on to the seat of their motorcycles and get out while the getting is good.

The rich in Thailand apparently have a strong desire to own unusual pets. There is also a dark side, too, as the delicate bits from some of these animals are also made into medicines usually to increase the vitality and virility of aging men.

The secret sex lives of some old men include harvesting organs from rare, large African animals. Others go for luxury sports cars.

This leads us back to the on-going investigation by a large number of agencies into the smuggling of luxury cars into Thailand. The 300% import taxes are staggeringly high for someone using the normal import channels. That provides an opportunity for someone who can figure out a short cut. Somehow 2,000 luxury cars were smuggled into Laem Chabang port in Chon Buri and stored, making it one of the world’s largest luxury car parking lots in the world. As one would expect, cars began disappearing from the port as importers began selling them off at bargain prices.

The Department of Special Investigation (DSI) is looking into 600 luxury cars to see if they were legally imported. DSI has impounded a 100 luxury cars so far this year.

News reports indicate 90% of the luxury cars imported into Thailand came in illegally. That is more than just a little leakage in the system. That’s the sound of Niagara Falls roaring next to those missing lions. Like prohibition of alcohol, criminalization of drugs, or 300% taxes on for a luxury item is guaranteed to fuel a grey and black market, corrupt officials and create a wealthy criminal class of middlemen. In the case of Thailand, the grey and black markets are the lion’s share of the luxury car market. The grey market includes luxury cars used abroad by students and imported into Thailand—just think about it. You come home from year of study abroad with a half-million car that slides under the tax regulations. Or if you have a luxury car assembled in Thailand, another free pass. Though the assembly of such cars require technicians and facilities that rival NASA, and the local ‘assembly’ shops appear to have no more than the usual screwdriver and hammer. And the luxury car has to be registered. Basically the luxury car market is a legal mess with many fingers pointing and many more fingers in the pot.

The owners of luxury cars are a who’s who of Hi-So personalities, senior government officials and even an abbot. Their sons and daughters also have a taste for the exotic import that distinguishes them from the lower orders running around town in their government subsidized locally assembled cars that cost less than the upholstery on a Bentley.

You need vitality to drive one of these babies. With a white lion in the passenger’s seat no one, I repeat no one, is going to have a larger face than the man behind the wheel. Most people are status obsessed and the Thais are no exception to the rule. Face is important. What you drive, wear, and the animals you collect, if of the right sort, can create a face the size of the moon. Capitalism in its full glory has provided a mechanism to achieve the elevated heights undreamed up in Noah’s day of mere arc builders.

If we stand aside from the personalities and the distracting images, we can see more clearly what is at stake. The lions and the luxury cars are really a story about our uneasy, troubled relationship with nature and each other. Our problem has caused a problem with nature once it became apparent that there is vastly more profit in destruction than in maintenance of natural resources.

We are a species of Deceptive Apes, Killer Apes, and we are a danger to ourselves and all other species. Our ancestors passed laws and wrote constitutions to protect us against ourselves. In the digital age we have found those in power have discovered new and powerful ways of deception, means far beyond the imagination of prior generations.

We deceive ourselves that nature can absorb our rapacious behavior. We deceive ourselves that those who collect information will never use it for their benefit rather than our own.

We deceive ourselves into believing that the rule of law will continue to protect us like a dyke against the rising tide of government intrusion. Apathy is the bedfellow of deception. We are enablers of the worst excesses that should worry us but don’t. A majority of Thais accept corruption as part of the system. A majority of Americans don’t object if their government accesses, stores and analyzes their emails, Amazon purchases, Google searches, Facebook likes and posts, and telephone calls.

Collectively we’ve fallen into a state of denial that a price is paid for deception, and we are the one’s who pay it. Our minds fill with the soma of the media and the government officials, and we miss the context and the larger issues. Like a great magician, who knows how to distract his audience, we are easily fooled. We focus our attention on the slightly amusing personal stories that limit the damage to a couple of dodgy schemes that the authorities are investigating. Imported lions and luxury vehicles are a good laugh. Until we realize that we are laughing when we should be weeping.

We live in a time of great loss—nature, privacy, freedom, honesty and fairness. One by one, these values are dying. Like Old English words, one day no one will remember what such words meant back in our day. The natural habitat of the Deceptive Ape is in transition. What that new space will look like? Perhaps our descendants will occupy a mental cage with as much space to roam as the cages that the Bangkok resident white lions were housed.

We can only guess. Where the Wild Things Are is just beginning to unfold.

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Posted: 6/13/2013 8:28:56 PM 

 

Some weeks provide an avalanche of events—enough to fill a book of essays. For example, a German national who’d finished serving a prison sentence in Australia for theft and drug law violations, escaped his private security guards at the Bangkok airport and had a two-day holiday in Bangkok before the police caught up with him. Carlo Konstantin Kohl, a German national, with an Australian accent aged 25 (a contemporary of Mr. I Am Awesome, the 25-year-old Thai drug dealer with five wives I wrote about a couple of weeks ago) was being extradited to Germany. Here’s an account in the Australian:

Kohl’s escorts were two private security personnel whose job was delayed at Suvarnabhumi Airport due to bad weather. The security detail had decided to wait for the onward flight to Germany in the transit lounge with Mr. Kohl. It was a long overnight wait and the guards fell asleep according to the Bangkok Post  (although the Australians denied that). Mr. Kohl decided he wasn’t all that anxious to return to Germany where he was wanted on parole violation charges. According to local reports he wandered around the airport for hours.


Mr. Kohl on his way to a foot massage in Suvannabhumi Airport in Bangkok.

The Bangkok Post:

His escape from the airport confirmed that it has more exit doors than  Bangkok’s illegal gambling casinos—300 doors—and is far less secure. Any one of the airport exit door, apparently, is easily disabled by snipping an electric wire.

Rumours are unconfirmed that Immigration—having discovered all of these doors may be in surplus for emergency use—might convert a half dozen of these surplus exits into Fast Track lanes for those willing to pay an extra fee. Of course, I made that up, but anything your can conceive in your imagination just might have a counterpart in reality in Thailand.

Thais love stories about handsome young rogue farang giving the authorities in Australia and Thailand a dual set of black eyes. He was bound to endear himself to a Thai audience by stopping at the airport for a foot massage before high tailing it to Soi Cowboy. The local press played the sanuk angle of the story as if Mr. Kohl’s tour of Bangkok’s hot spots was a blend of Home Alone and Hangover II. A handsome young rogue for a star, fumbling, sleeping Australians, and a tour of the hot spots of Bangkok.

Establishing the facts has been illusive. Like objects in zero gravity, facts in Thailand have a habit of floating free, bouncing off the shell of reality, untethered they remain fluid and forever just out of reach. The Thais have a way of dealing with facts that appear to incriminate someone important—those facts fall into the category of insufficient evidence. In Kohl’s case no Thai officials of rank were incriminated (that was news in itself). His romp through Bangkok was an adventure, and besides everyone was quite happy to lay the blame the Australian security detail—including the Australians. Falling asleep on the job? That could never happen in Thailand. What about all of those doors Mr. Kohl rattled? Some of the doors had been kept open for the convenience of airport staff. A bolt hole might be useful when the time comes to sneak a cigarette, hide from the boss, or to find a cozy spot for a quick nap.

Even the circumstances of Kohl’s capture/surrender/ambush—take your pick—are unclear. He was arrested in the vicinity of the German Embassy (the exact circumstances of his apprehension like most other aspects of the story are vague). One press report said Kohl had applied for a replacement passport two weeks earlier. That was the first clue that he’d been enjoying himself in Bangkok for some while. And he’d been flying under the radar.

Hadn’t anyone notified the Germany Embassy in Bangkok to be on the outlook for him? Apparently not, but facts like elementary particles in physics apparently only allow you to measure location or velocity. I’d hazard a guess that Heisenberg’s head would have been spinning to explain the facts in this case. Was Kohl on his way to the German Embassy to pick up his replacement passport? Did he suddenly have a pang of guilt and walked up and turned himself in to a Thai cop he saw on the way to the embassy? We don’t know those facts. You can’t find them anywhere in the press accounts.

In one week, Carlo Konstantin Kohl managed more front page coverage in the English language newspapers than the Prime Minister or her brother—the one who was prime minister when the airport with the 300 exit doors was opened, and the one through which he exited some years ago. This was exactly the kind of story the local media love—a Hollywood bankable rogue, keystone private cop foreigners, and no one of importance had been accused of corruption, thuggish behavior, or displays of gross arrogance. Allegations of negligence, well, to complain about that is to complain about the oxygen we breath. Though the Thai press had a report that the taxi driver that drove Kohl from the airport into Bangkok charged him Baht 3,000 for a ride that normally would cost under Baht 300.  It’s not certain Kohl was aware that he’d been grossly overcharged. I suspect his gave the driver a hundred dollar bill. Unless after his foot massage Kohl made a trip to one of the airport exchange booths.

With a bit of time to reflect, the Bangkok Post ran editorial suggesting that if Kohl could use a coin to open a security door at the airport, well-trained terrorists who’d been trained with escape and evasion skills could easily have popped open all 300 doors at once.

Kohl, who was fined Baht 6,000 ($200) and given a two-year suspended sentence for illegal entry, later conducted what appeared to be a workshop in front of about 50 officials who watched Kohl show how he had used a coin to open a security door and how he cut the wire. It was less a reenactment of the crime than the usual photo op the local papers run of a foreign guest speaker, guru from abroad, holding one of those seminars at a five-star hotel, lunch included, for the professional development and the transfer of foreign know-how and technology.

Kohl’s fun holiday in Bangkok overlooks one or two issues that I’ve not seen raised in the press accounts. Shouldn’t someone be asking the question as to whether there are protocols that require foreign police agencies, or private security firms used by law enforcement to transport prisoners to other countries, to notify local authorities that a criminal will be passing through as a transit passenger? Wouldn’t the Thais like to know in advance of arrival of someone like Mr. Kohl at their airport? Would they have rules to be observed such as don’t fall asleep in the transit lounge while escorting a prisoner? Can any serial killer show up in the custody of a couple of sleep deprived private security guards, take a power nap in the transit lounge, and let their charge take a tour of the city? What other people or things are going on in transit lounges that Thai officials might be interested in as a matter of public security and safety?

Or is this the international transport of prisoners one of those black boxes, like the renditions the Americans ran out of Thailand for some years, where flights come and go out of shadowy world with a wink and a nod? Do other countries have procedures that set out what notices and process must be complied with in flying prisoners in and out of their country?

The problem with such questions is they take the fun out of Kohl’s story. Better to keep a lid on the broader implications of what happened by limiting attention to the official response which is to send a crew around to rattle the 300 security doors at the airport. The questions are also embarrassing to both the Australians and the Thais. By asking why the Thai authorities didn’t receive advance notice of Mr. Kohl’s arrival raises the uncomfortable possibility that the Australians were under no obligation to give the Thais any such notice.

Credit must go to Mr. Kohl was exposing the security problem at the airport. Additional credit is due for establishing the abiding metaphor whenever an influential person is facing a ‘fact’ that causes a major loss of face and serious criminal charge—he will find 300 exit doors, and one of those door will allow him to escape. Call it the ‘insufficient evidence’ door.

The more interesting story this week was the explosion and fire that destroyed a carrier lorry loaded with six foreign luxury cars that somehow had entered the country and avoided import duties, and the parties have links to major politicians and government officials.

The six luxury cars have caused a turf battle between the police, customs, revenue department, and the anti-corruption agency—that no doubt other agencies will seek to have the cars and jurisdiction under their authority. Doors. 300 doors, and the question is which doors will open and close before the mystery of who owned and imported the six luxury cars. Next week, reading the local press will be an exercise in observing multiple doors opening and slamming shut like a nineteenth century prison cell. Could the Australians take the fall for those luxury cars? Did someone fall asleep again? Somewhere, official wheels are turning, door knobs to power tested.

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Posted: 6/6/2013 8:54:13 PM 

 

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 homelands.

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 elephant

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.

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Posted: 5/30/2013 9:05:17 PM 

 

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.

Understanding Henry 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 married.

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 generations.

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.

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Posted: 5/23/2013 7:23:46 PM 

 

Dear Hunter,

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 historical.

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 generation.

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.

Thought and Imagination:

  

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

 

Experience and Imagination:


Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of Night


Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer


George Orwell: Down and Out in Paris


Alice Munro: Runaway

 

Politics and Imagination:

      
George Orwell: 1984, Animal Farm, The Hanging, Homage to Catalonia


Margaret Atwood: the Handmaid’s Tale

 

Expatriate Life and Imagination


Henry Miller: Tropic of Cancer


Graham Greene: The Quiet American


Lawrence Durrell: The Alexander Quartet


Somerset Maugham: The Moon and Six Pence, Razor’s Edge


James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son

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Posted: 5/16/2013 8:52:38 PM 

 

An investigative 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 journalist.

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.

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 ends.

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 was international news

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 themselves.

According to Asian Correspondent 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 afterwards. While 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.

I can’t think of a better one than Bopha Porn.

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Posted: 5/9/2013 8:50:33 PM 

 

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 afford.

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 Bangkok Post carried the photograph and story by ace reporter Sunthon Pongpao about the arrest of Saichol Mailuan.

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 media.

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 leg.

In other words, the suspect shot himself in the left leg resisting arrest by a small army of policemen.

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 like.

There are more pictures of him here.

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 spree?

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 remain.

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.

Just saying.

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Posted: 5/2/2013 9:01:23 PM 

 

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 Mai.

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 and murdering.

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 supernatural beings.

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 Nats.

“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 lands.

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.

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Posted: 4/25/2013 8:51:37 PM 

 

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 flight.

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 busy?”

“Never too busy for your call Khun Chai.”

“My travel agent is making me crazy.”

“How so?”

“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 time?”

“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 a.m.?”

“That flight leaves during the day.”

“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 afternoon.

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.

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Posted: 4/18/2013 8:55:42 PM 

 

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 vacuous entertainments.

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 shootings.

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 Chandler.

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 change.

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 program Nova:

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 powerful.

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 associated with:

•    A pimp in general

•    A cuckold, a man whose wife is unfaithful to him

•    A man who pimps his wife

•    A wicked or contemptible person, a “bad guy”

•    A 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 light.

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 North Korea?

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Posted: 4/11/2013 8:49:32 PM 

 

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 original language.

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 America, 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 Mystery 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 Award  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 every year.

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 driven.

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.

Since leaving 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 silence.

Writers like Ali Bader, who 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 Lahens  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.

Two great sites to visit for developments in Extremistan are Detectives Beyond Borders and Words Without Borders If you want to find a new author, visit these websites.

To paraphrase William Gibson, “The vast majority of writers live inside unmapped neighborhoods of Extremistan, where the measure of their value is unevenly understood.”

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Posted: 4/4/2013 8:56:22 PM 

 

This is the first of a three-part series about Crime Fiction’s Extremistan.

A discussion has started at Detectives Beyond Borders about the future of crime fiction.

The controversy started with an exchange at the South African blog Crime Beat  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: Detectives Beyond Borders. Peter’s readers have added their views in comments.

Richard Nash sums up the fate of contemporary authors in America and Europe and other places, too.

“Books, like most entertainment media, live in what Nassim Nicolas Taleb  calls 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 existence.

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 borders?

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 there is.

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 sailing past.

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 universe.

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 system.

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.

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Posted: 3/28/2013 9:00:04 PM 

 

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.

Homicide victims 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 fiction authors.

The ten countries with the highest murder are included in this chart:

Top Ten Countries with Highest Murder Rates

Country Murder Rates (Per 100,000) Year
Honduras 82.1 2010
El Salvador 66.0 2010
Cote d’Ivoire 56.9 2008
Jamaica 52.1 2010
Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of) 49.0 2009
Belize 41.7 2010
Guatemala 41.4 2010
Saint Kitts and Nevis 38.2 2010
Zambia 38 2008
Uganda 36.3 2008

Link: http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/countries-with-highest-murder-rates.html

If you want to write a noir crime fiction novel, then Honduras or El Salvador might be a place to go.

Places to avoid as a noir crime fiction writer are on this list:

Countries With Lowest Murder
Rates in World

Country Region Murder Rate
Monaco Europe 0
Palau Oceania 0
Hong Kong Asia 0.2
Singapore Asia 0.3
Iceland Europe 0.3
Japan Asia 0.4
French Polynesia Oceania 0.4
Brunei Asia 0.5
Bahrain Asia 0.6
Norway Europe 0.6

Link: http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/countries-with-lowest-murder-rates.html

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 Pundit.

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 boil.

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 risk.

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 winter.

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 job.

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Posted: 3/21/2013 8:53:29 PM 

 

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 right.

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 familiar.

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 turned inward.

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 Mind.

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.

The first in the series titled F**k You Buddy (11 March 2007)

We are thirty-years into the Neo-Noir Era. The Trap illustrates how our political, economic, cultural and social institutions have fallen like dominos under the weight of Game Theory.

The second in the series: The Lonely Robot (18 March 2007)

Last week 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.

In the 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.

Aldous 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 citizens.

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-altering drugs 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.

Third in The Trap Series is: We will Force You to Be Free.

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 that way.

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 elites.

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 written today.

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 age.

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Posted: 3/14/2013 9:07:19 PM 

 

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 danger.

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 these calls.

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.

Physical assaults, maiming, 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 Nature.

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 Home Office reported in 2009:

  • 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 rare.

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 anger/violence connection.

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 Daily  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 emotion.

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 Hollywood comedy.

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.

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Posted: 3/7/2013 7:58:07 PM 

 

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 actions.

Anger is the opposite of fear.

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 anger.

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 reprisal.

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 physical confrontation.

“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 Post.

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 mode.

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 Bangkok 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”).

The Bangkok 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 threatened.

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 it.

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 people.

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 emoticons.

The digital world has emoticons for anger: :- | |   :@

               

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Posted: 2/28/2013 7:55:01 PM 

 

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