Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Banality of Coups

Dictatorships breed oppression, dictatorships breed servility, dictatorships breed cruelty; more loathsome still is the fact that they breed idiocy. Bellboys babbling orders, portraits of caudillos, prearranged cheers or insults, walls covered with names, unanimous ceremonies, mere discipline usurping the place of clear thinking... Fighting these sad monotonies is one of the duties of a writer” -Jorge Luis Borges

Thursday, the 22nd of May 2014 was looking to be another uneventful day. Martial law had been declared a couple of days earlier, but the effects had been minimal. A few military vehicles on the expressways, a few bored-looking soldiers, by and large 18 and 19 year old farm kids with guns and cheap cigarettes, milling around strategic points.

I got home, reheated some Indian food, turned on my computer, and discovered that the government of Niwatthamrong Boonsongpaisan, having been in power for a mere 15 days (and whom my 500 baht says most Westerners in Bangkok never even bothered to learn the name of), had been deposed by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, a man who always reminds me on television of Imelda Marcos with a combover.

Media are seized. A military curfew is called in. Government and opposition ministers are called in, rather like a high school principal trying to ferret out who spraypainted a penis on the wall of the gym.

The Bangkok Post and Nation websites fall eerily silent. Banner ads move back and forth noiselessly, advertising luxury watches and condos in dull, suburban neighborhoods.

A few anti-coup editorials appear. Commenting is briefly disabled (no tragedy there, the Post's comment threads are the lowliest form of expat bottom-feeding). The head of Thai PBS, when ordered to stop broadcasting, moved over to Youtube, before being called in for a talking to as well.

The television broadcasts military music. The beautifully Orwellian phrase “National Peace and Order Maintaining Council” appears on the screen. The song they're playing sounds like the Horst Wessel Lied as sang by the Siamese cats from Lady and the Tramp.

This is all, of course, to “prevent misinformation.” And so the people of Thailand can “love each other again.” Love and honesty, are of course, best assisted by keeping people in their homes, in the dark, with opaque processes happening behind locked doors with multiple security gateways.

Matichon, it turns out, had a man in on the talks leading up to the takeover. Niwatthamrong, it turns out, refused to resign. So General Prayuth decided that power needed to be seized. Much like a child who won't hand over his milk money to the playground bully peacefully, so he gets punched in the gut.

Notice the second comparison to schoolyard behavior in less than 400 words. That should tell you something about the intellectual and ethical standards of the halls of power in Thailand at the present juncture.

On Sunday, the ruling junta released a statement to be submitted to foreign embassies and international organizations, listing its three reasons for its coup. I present them all in their delightfully oblique, unedited, really shit English below. You'd think they could at least afford a copy editor.

  1. Thailand has different situation and political environment to other countries.
  2. The military has clear evidences and reasons to seize power. The evidences and reasons will later be shown to the international community.
  3. Democratic ruling in Thailand has caused a lot of lives.

Did you see any argument there, or anything approaching reason? I'm especially fond of number 2. We have clear evidence, but we're not telling you. But we'll tell you later. Pinky swear!

Back in 1961, when covering the trial of Adolf Eichmann-- a man with a knack for bowling and vacuum cleaner sales, among other things-- for the New Yorker, Hannah Arendt deployed the wonderful German word sprachregelung. An affliction in Germany during the nation's dalliances with Bismarck, Hitler, and Honecker, this is the reliance on euphemism and talking points to cover up the truth of the situation.

Monday arrives. I can't get home. Every metro stop between Ratchathewi and Aree is shut down. “Overcrowding,” the announcer says in English. “Maintenance,” the sign says in Thai. The reality of it is a vista of riot shields and sirens below in the vicinity of the Victory Monument.

They called in journalists from the Bangkok Post and Thai Rath to stop asking “aggressive questions” and asking why they weren't showing unqualified support. The more of a rhetorical wall they build, the more insecure at heart the generals seem.

To use a phrase from Arendt again, the critical word in describing the whole coup process is banality. The banality of military officers who rely on nationalist blunderbuss. The banality of a city turning inside at 9:00 p.m. The banality of a governmental organization that shields criticism with vague notions of love and unity, as if it's writing Christmas cards. The banality of a desire to return to a previous, idealized Thailand that never existed outside a television screen. And it's a banality engendered by men whose professional lives revolve around obedience, authority, and hollow ritual. Without evidence, without program, politics becomes a simpering sentimentality made all the more repulsive by its degraded claims to masculinity.

And to that end, it is my "sad duty," as Borges would have it, to raise my middle finger.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

By the Sea

My first sight of the ocean was of a desolate stretch of coastline in Southern Mexico, just north of the Cancun costa del date rape. Where the tourists hadn't yet arrived in the early '90s, a stretch of beach towards a ferry port ran amid assorted wreckage. Where empty concrete lots, stained with the accumulated rust of a few hurricane seasons ran down to the beach.

On the beach lay the hulls of fishing boats. In retrospect, they were probably simple fishing boats or small ferries. But they seemed to me, as a small child without any experience of boats or the sea or the adult world in general, to be great ships. And here they were, laid out and tipped over, rusted, torn apart, encrusted in alien lifeforms, as if chewed apart by monsters, their skeletons laid out like a horror movie set.

And there was the smell, not only unique, but vast and pervasive, an unfamiliar range of metallic ions atop rotting marine life. There were of course similarities to the chilly lakes and streams of the Upper Midwest I was used to swimming and fishing at, but to compare the two was like porterhouse and hamburger, two things made of the same substance but one infinitely richer than the other.

Years later, I stumbled upon Kunstformen der Natur, published in 1901 by the German biologist, philosopher, and artist Ernst Haeckel, whose stony positivist outlook was counterbalanced by the wild flights of fancy of his drawings of sea creatures. In Haeckel's book, the natural world was cut apart, stylized, turned into elaborate spires and quincunxes, monstrosities of radial symmetry, creatures like nightmare genitalia. Animals that I recognize as animals, that have the evolutionary patterns of animals, that seem uncannily neither animal nor plant nor fungus, slippery and primal things.

Not long after, in college, I learned a term for such things-- abject-- those things that seem to evade our symbolic notions of what reality should look like. Things like a corpse, like a weeping sore. Things that seem to come from some deep and amorphous primal space. Lots of Lacanian psychoanalysts, thinking they were thinking, wrote about this in dense, allusive treatises, and lots of French feminists, with little basis and a lot of essentialism, somehow equated the abject and the feminine.

The depths of the sea somehow lurked at the background of everything, the formlessness that appeared in dreams, at the edges of everyday life.

I stepped into a pristine tropical cove, fringed with waving palm trees. Underneath, the rocks swarmed with a thousand olivine-black sea cucumbers.