Bangkok’s Rabbit Hole
Power. Grab it. Earn it. Put it to a vote. The tango between power and violence is the stuff of literature. Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined illustrates a dramatic decrease of violence over the centuries. But the world I live in seems extremely violent making such a statement appear counter intuitive. Facts are facts. And “Which way you ought to go depends on where you want to get to…”
In part, this 30-fold decrease in violence means we are historically less likely to be a victim of homicide than our ancestors. But homicide, like the future (to use William Gibson’s clever observation) is unevenly distributed across countries and cultures. Richard Florida in What the Most Violent Nations in the World have in Common, cites three factors that explain why there are elevated homicide rates in some cultures and not others. (1) Social economic inequality, (2) gender inequality, and (3) the macho index based on levels of masculinity, testosterone, and aggression. Florida’s article focuses on private acts of violence that results in death. The question is whether these factors may also explain why some States are more ready to use of violence against their citizen or why protesters in these places resort to violence against State and its security forces.
It is public violence by State authorities and those challenging State authorities that is a common thread in the political struggles in Ukraine, Egypt, Syria, Venezuela and Thailand. Projecting violence has escalated in Thailand since January 2014. What is the cause of this surge in political violence in Thailand? There is no simple answer, though Richard Florida’s three factors are a guide to following precursors of violence. We had bombings and shootings. Twenty-two people are dead. Hundreds have been injured. Four children are dead from bombings and shootings.
What emerges when you drop down the rabbit hole is the world inside offers up a wide variety of possible sources to explain these deaths. It is one thing to describe violence. It is another to explain it. Pundits make lots of explanation that are convincing, plausible argument as to causation. But don’t be fooled. Plausibility and truth are two different matters.
What appears to fuel the current Thai power struggle is a controversy over who has the legitimate right to exercise power. At the heart of the political turmoil is a perplexing issue: On what basis does the caretaker government support its claim to govern in Thailand? Owning power, through an electoral mandate, tribal tradition, military coup, or a strongman, can be traced like bullet wounds in the corpse of empires and nations recounted in political history. Long before The Lord of Rings was written, Abraham Lincoln said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Power means that A can compel B to do or not do an act that B wouldn’t otherwise wish to do. For example, obtain a driver’s license, pay taxes, refrain from drinking and driving. You don’t have the option of refusal. You can be compelled with threat of violence to do something you don’t wish to. Objects of power are taught a script to perform and the best script makers don’t need guns to enforce their power over the actors. The actors patrol themselves for accuracy, which means loyalty.
Power, at its best, safeguards the larger interests of a community and individuals sacrifice a degree of freedom they would otherwise have to accommodate that interest. Power is a river with many streams. Elections are one way power is conferred as a communal agreement, the power holder has legitimacy in forcing others, within the law, to comply with new policies and law. Power also has other rivers where power flows from the barrel of a gun, from a family name, from a reputation for brutality, or according to cultural custom.
Power also means claiming privileges and immunities. Absolute power means the laws of the land do not apply to that person. He or she can bury alive hundreds of public ministers or court officials on a whim. Chinese history has a number of such examples to illustrate the dangers of concentrated power. Less dramatic, but still substantial, is the power that comes with vast wealth, through cartels and monopolies, through the accumulation of data about your private life, through the power to indoctrinate children to the ideology to support the powerful. True power has the capacity to make us fearful, grateful, or to silence us, and the power to use networks to defeat opponents.
Political power needs to be monitored and checked and for good reason. Over time, despite the best intention, the power holder will exhibit autistic behavior. His privileges become entitlements. The attitude spreads like a pandemic infection through the whole ruling class with hubris. Once the unrestrained power virus spreads through agencies, courts, armies and civil servants the capacity for empathy with the governed is destroyed.
The monopoly on violence is fragile. The State is many places is losing control over violence. The danger is that power and violence are being privatized like shares sold in a state enterprise in one of those rigged auctions.
People with power are mindful of those who would challenge their power, compete for it, or question it. Freedom of expression is the one defense ordinary non-powerful people seek; it exists as a peaceful way to limit the powerful. Free speech allows us to voice our suspicion of power abuses and make the powerful accountable. The two most hated ideas of the powerful are accountability and transparency. It means you can’t just shoot whoever you want without some due process preceding the firing of the bullet.
Criminalizing speech is one way the powerful push back to control their challengers. You can read a great deal about allocation of power arrangements from the degree of freedom or repression in the exercise of political speech. The more free the speech, the more accountable power holders are in the exercise of power. The powerful rarely attack the ideal of free speech. The really powerful aren’t quite that stupid. They have another argument up their sleeve. As Christopher Hitchens wrote, “What better way for a ruling class to claim and hold power than to pose as the defenders of the nation?” Thus political speech is restricted to prevent ‘enemies’ from attacking the institutions of State and those who are the face of such institutions.
The powerful need enemies, real or imagined, to give them a mandate.
“What is the cause of historical events? Power. What is power? Power is the sum total of wills transferred to one person. On what condition are the wills of the masses transferred to one person? On condition that the person express the will of the whole people. That is, power is power. That is, power is a word the meaning of which we do not understand. ” ― Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
Sometimes the messy battle to merge democratic and non-democratic power centers spills over into violence. Power now stays stable because the aspirations, economic realities, and technology are constantly shifting and often faster than tradition institutions can adapt. This leads modern political forces to undermine the authority and status of existing power holders. These forces respond by abandoning the legislative assembly and take to the streets. Once in the streets, sooner or later violence surfaces. Violence is a weapon to recover lost power.
The purpose of a modern political process is to provide a mechanism to resolve conflict over the exercise of power within democratic institutions. Democracy is a peacekeeping patrol to keep the powerful forces in society from slitting each other’s throats. The worry is when one faction gets the upper hand and uses that position to put the knife in.
In every political system people have grievances. Not everyone is ever happy. What is sometimes ignored are the grievances of those who once exercised unquestioned power after they lose power in an election. When power is stripped away as a result of an election they are left vulnerable and feeling unprotected and their interest unjustly ignored. Anger and hatred, threats and intimidation, and breakdown of law and order follow. They plot to recover what has been lost. George Orwell in 1984 wrote, “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”
In the struggle for power that a culture defines itself and the identity of its people are formed.
The never-ending struggle for power is something children need to learn early on. Some of the best books that children read prepare them to understand the nature of power, its dangers, seductions, violations, and corruptions. The Lord of the Rings is a classic for children and adults and the ring of power becomes a symbol for its corrupting influence, and the greed and excesses surrounding power struggles. Plato taught wrote, “The measure of a man is what he does with power.”
If we measure the probabilities of what people will do with power if left to their own devices, it is clear checks and balances are essential to prevent tyranny.
What literary influences have shaped your opinion about power and violence? And what books would you recommend to a child to learn about power? The books I’d recommend are: Alice in Wonderland, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Philip Pullman’s Dark Matter trilogy, George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Readers can add their own favourites to this short-list.
Here’s a brief reason for each selection:
Alice in Wonderland is a descent into the madness, capriciousness and arbitrariness of power. There is no better book to illustrate how whim couple with absolute power creates selfish, dangerous monsters. Once you slide down that rabbit hole, you enter an alien world of Mad Hatters.
Lord of the Flies illustrates the tribal nature of power, the symbolic nature of power attached to an object, and the horrible abuses that lead to violence and murder. Stranded on an island boys revert to a feral state where seizing power over others turns into deadly games.
The Dark Matter trilogy (The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass) by Phillip Pullman is a portal into the corruption of mystical beliefs and ideology by the powerful to enforce conformity and to destroy freedom.
George Orwell’s Animal Farm a parable of power, violence, dictatorship, repression, hatred and injustice.
The best foundation for a crime fiction writer, or any genre of writing, can be found in children’s literature. You don’t need to be a writer to take in the profound insights that will guide your own way through a lifetime of political power plays and public violence. The saddest thing about arriving at adulthood is so many of these classics are tucked away, spine out in a forgotten part of our personal library, gathering dust.
I would like to walk you through the maze of the political power struggle in Thailand. The fact is I set out with a compass and map and a few steps along the path, get hopelessly lost. So I go back and read Alice in Wonderland, and ask how she did what she did? I am curious to know just how far the rabbit hole goes and what I will find at the other end.
Along my Thai journey of 25 years I have uncovered some clues. What I call clues are the things I stop to pay attention to. Do you ever wonder why you pay attention to something things and ignore others? Have you ever thought that just maybe people who live in different rabbit holes, with different culture and language might stop to look at different things? That’s what I seek to do in my books and essays—examine those different things.
I invite you to a journey of discovery of power and violence and ask how and why people pay attention to one thing and not another, and how we share many similarities on this journey but at the same time it is a winding, twisty road and sometimes we find people stop and look at things we’d rush right passed. How they manage love and hate, fear and hope, lying and truth, justice and injustice, and how we all put our nose against the window pane and seek a glimpse of who these people who control our lives and our freedom and liberty, and wonder if they see me, see us as people like them. Or are we invisible?
What happens when we see each other through the pane that separates us? How does it happen that I’m on one side and they are on the other? How can I see and understand what people using different languages in a different culture see? Do I know what deep passages inside their rabbit hole their language leads them? I try to follow but I discover it is hard work understanding life deep under this surface. I try the best way that I can and know that what I witness, describe and shape into words is a rough approximation of the reality.
I look around Bangkok where I live and I feel the pain of the Thais. I see the sadness and worry in their faces. I have heard their rage and frustrations. We all started as those four children killed in the past week. A child wants to be loved and to be free. Carefree. They want crayons and a coloring book. Even a child’s level of Thai fluency opens an expat’s heart to the suffering all of us experience each day.
The bombs and guns, the hate and the threats are on a page we should turn. Make it go away, a natural child’s request. One that I wish was in my power to grant. But it’s not. Instead we must face the violence as not some remote event out of sight, but as touching our lives, only then can we deal with it, and deal with ourselves.