Essay #5 on SOCIAL ORDER
During the week of September 20 to 27, 2019 worldwide protests mobilized 4 to 5 million participants in a Strike for the Climate. The figurehead and early instigator of this historic week of activism was 16 year-old Greta Thurnberg of Sweden who began Friday “School Strikes for the Climate” in front of the Swedish Parliament. Within a year the movement has expanded and has now generated a counter-movement determined to establish doubt about Greta personally in order to undermine the effort to stop carbon emissions and global warming. No matter which side is right (and I do think the answer is beyond doubt), everybody agrees we live because the environment supports life as we have it.
This is a striking, current example of how social order exists in a context.
Obviously, there would be no social order if humankind becomes extinct. Social groups, evolutionary theory states, came into existence when the natural environment made it possible for human beings to emerge and survive. Groups clung together for mutual support, and possibly because DNA prescribed social order for our species.
Put another way, more generally, physical existence with all its necessities and conditions is one of the contexts for our having life. An accommodating set of physical circumstances and abilities is a precondition for anything more complicated, such as a social group.
Religion is another context.
It is one of the persistent efforts of religion to describe how optimum social order must also exist in a religious context. Creation stories for all major religions provide metaphors and narrative images that tell how society was conjured up within a state of pre-existing divinity. Usually those stories describe how people were created in the world of the gods and then consigned to a realm sandwiched between divine order and utter chaos. Most of the narratives admit that the divinities were orderly in ways beyond the scrutiny of mortals, and behaved in ways that combined conflicts as much as harmony. But the idea was that something like a heavenly kingdom was the context for the best human life.
Reformation of religious talk about this typically includes objecting to the idea that some sort of divine order existed before human beings thought it up. Buddhism, for example, dispenses with the need to propose a creation narrative with gods being the creative agents, and instructs us that there is a far better way to optimize our human condition than to rely on gods to do it. Even Christianity, which centralizes the role of God, proposes that social order depends on correct social action, in which divine intervention is to provide inspired motivation, unobstructed by such limitations as sin and evil, those having been dealt with by Jesus Christ.
Religion, however it is conceptualized, is one of the contexts for social order.
In fact, every aspect of social order is contextual. Some of our context is from birth: genetic heritage, cultural heritage, civic heritage. Some is subject to change by moving into a new social context or life condition: examples are how we adapt to the way we are seen by others (as when we move from being one of a dominant ethnic group to being a minority), how we change based on new experiences, how our social context changes when we develop a terminal illness. Some of our contexts can change through effort or intervention, as when a person transitions from being male to female, or how we can become urbanized after having been born on a farm. Some of our social boundaries have everything to do with morality, as when a person is imprisoned for a crime; but other limitations of our situation in society may have nothing to do with morality, as with persons on the autism spectrum.
Most of this is so obvious that the question arises, “Why is it important to recognize that social context is a controlling factor in the social order of which we are a part?”
Obvious as it may be when we are thinking about it, when we are not thinking squarely about contextual influences on our social order context fades from view.
Take moral authority for example. I define moral authority as the discursive power that comes from consistently advocating a moral position to the point that the positive results of such a position are obvious and compelling. If a person or a social entity loses their moral authority through some action(s) of their own or through a change in their society, the loss can be devastating. But when we are not considering acquired moral authority as a factor of value, the full consequences of a course of action may not be accurately assessed.
Throughout several decades of the twentieth century the USA acquired moral authority in behalf of democracy. As a result, the USA was able to convince several national governments to make choices for democratic policies, both by its moral example and by offering persuasion or incentives to overcome obstacles those nations faced in the path to democratization. Primary among the democratic principles is that the authority to choose resides with the people, and it is important that all minority voices be heard. The Cold War began with both sides (led by the USA on one side and the Soviet Union on the other) espousing high moral principles, but the moral authority was heavier on the side of the USA because of the subjection that Maoist-Stalinists imposed on free expression and dissent. But in the conduct of the Cold War, which became hot in many spots (Korea, Vietnam, Latin America in particular), moral authority was traded for strategic authority, the power to obscure facts and ignore moral principles in order to gain strategic advantages thought to be necessary in order to attain a greater objective. Assassinations, targeting civilian populations in order to get at guerilla military and terrorist groups, disrupting or corrupting humanitarian activities, and many other actions previously thought to be immoral were justified and then normalized. That erosion of moral authority is now nearly complete in that the USA is no longer considered a shining example and advocate of democracy. It is actually hard to find any nation that looks up to the USA in this regard.
During World War I, as a result of unrestrained barbarity, Europe lost its authority to be the world’s moral leader. The very idea that Europe could show the world how to be civilized was reduced to ridicule. In retrospect the end was a long time coming, considering how Europe dealt with its colonies and subjugated whole people groups to extermination and enslavement.
It is becoming clear that Israel has also lost its moral authority. It was moral authority alone that mandated the creation of the State of Israel by a vote of the United Nations in 1948. The people of the Holocaust needed a home of their own to live free and achieve a future for their children secure from pogroms and genocide. The rights of all people in the region were to be guaranteed, Jews, Christians and Muslims; Semites, Europeans, Palestinians and Bedouins, Africans and sojourners. Israel was to be a secular state with a national religion. Borders with other states were defined. After 5 decades of intermittent war, and the immigration of masses of Jews liberated from the Soviet Union, Israel’s character has changed. It is almost finished subjugating minority populations and appropriating the entire land for Jewish settlement.
People, too, lose moral authority. Clergy come to mind. It is mainly a pastor’s moral authority that validates the pastor as leader of a group. But that can be lost.
I read, today, of a pastor who reported, "I do not currently have a congregation because I was deemed to be ‘dangerous’ to couples during and after my divorce.” And another clergyman was suddenly without his position in a mega-church the very day he admitted he was gay. Stories are piling up about priests whose moral authority and their ability to function in their pastorates has been undone by their moral turpitude, and bishops have been exposed as co-conspirators, sending the entire church into thundering decline.
But moral authority which is social power in one context can be unlike powerful moral authority in another. I lost my moral authority to serve as a religious leader in the Christian Church in Thailand when I was open about my relationship with my spouse (not, I contend, because the relationship was immoral but because the church consensus was against it, and so my social context prevented its being openly acknowledged), but I slowly gained a new kind of moral authority through insightful and consistent dealing with subordinates and officials in university circles.
That concludes this series of essays on SOCIAL ORDER.
Our status in society is determined by several factors. My right to be in a group depends on how the group conceives of itself and what it requires of members. It also depends on how rigidly the group enforces those requirements and whether there is room for adjustment and change. Membership in a family is widely considered a matter of birth or adoption, but many homeless gay and lesbian young people know the family can be capricious. Love and hate coincide and rotate. Immigrants are loved at one time and despised at another.
The right to be in a group resides with the social contract the group has adopted. Some societies opt for authoritarianism and others against it. But there are consequences and those can be hard to predict. On the whole, authoritarianism breaks down, but giving ultimate authority to all the people is hard to manage and sustain. Authority tends to gravitate toward the top and must constantly be shaken down again, or society begins to disintegrate.
Communication is essential to society. When conversation becomes devious with hidden agendas or other willful disregard for dialogue, what remains is some form of self-reflexive expression on both sides. Once we have agreed to expression rather than conversation the outcome is division rather than consensus. Society cannot be sustained without honorable dialogue.
That brings me to little Pen.
Pen is 5½ years old. She was born with a rare congenital condition that prevents her muscles from developing. She lacks muscles to move around, to grasp anything, or even to chew. She barely has muscles to breathe and must rely on continuous oxygen enhancement equipment. She is fed through a tube. She can whimper and whisper a few words. She watches TV cartoons and sleeps. She is, in short, totally and completely dependent on others. Fortunately, she has a family that has dedicated itself to whatever support she needs. They have assistance from the medical authorities, which includes experts in this rare syndrome who have access to equipment which is donated to Pen’s family. There is no aspect of little Pen’s place in society that is “normal”. She is utterly unique. She is a little girl without most of the attributes of other girls. She is Thai with only the bare minimum of cultural accomplishments. She is a member of the family unlike any other member. She is a member of the community and wider society without prospect of contributing to it, or of benefitting from it in more than the most elementary ways.
Pen is utterly marginal to the social order. But she is a test. As long as the social order takes care of Pen adequately, however it does so, the social order is legitimized. The very moment society turns against Pen and decides she is extraneous, society is doomed.
Next week Payap University will turn over 68 rai of land to the Church of Christ in Thailand (CCT). [On the right side of the highway in the view from above.]
Let the celebration begin. Payap University is EMERGING. “It’s a miracle.”
These are comments being made as it was announced that Payap University is on the move toward goals of reducing debt and recovering initiative, in only two months after Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae and his interim team took over leadership of the university on August 1.
On October 7, leaders of the Church of Christ in Thailand Foundation along with some 30 other church leaders and Payap University personnel will attend the signing of a historic memorandum of understanding that will potentially save the university and expand the ministries of the church at the same time.
“It’s a win-win situation,” Dr. Amnuay quoted the CCT’s legal negotiator as saying. [See Dr. Amnuay going over information about the deal.]
“Bear in mind that the CCT Foundation is the actual owner of all this property anyway, which was developed when Payap had prospects of being a large comprehensive university of 25 thousand students, it was thought. Our current size is about 2500. We are over-extended. Now the church will get this great tract of land to use in new ways while the university will still be a partner in its use,” an adviser to the president commented.
The deal is to transfer 68 rai (about 27 acres) of a total of 200 rai of underutilized land on the east side of the university’s main campus to the CCT along with all the buildings. They include the Faculty of Law’s “Leviticus” building and large assembly hall, the Paradonparp International House, Alpha Women’s Dorm, and Omega Men’s Dorm. In return, the CCT will compensate the university with enough money to cover its potentially devastating debt, as well as take over rehabilitation of the dorms to convert them into facilities at modern hotel standard. The Leviticus building will become the church’s main headquarters in the north and the center for all the church’s conferences and large meetings.
The law faculty will move into rooms in the Sirindorn Learning Resource Center where the law library is already located.
This will be a major step in helping Payap, the first private university in Thailand, rebound from declining enrollment, declining infrastructure, and declining status. Once the red ink of accumulated debts is removed, two tasks remain. One is to balance the annual budget by reducing spending on salaries and operational costs, and increase income through expanded traditional and non-traditional programs. Second, is to reorient the university toward current demographic realities and strengthen our unique position as the only university in our area that is truly international. “We are a Thai University with international degree and non-degree programs,” Dr. Amnuay explains. But we offer degree programs with instruction entirely in English which others are not doing. “We have a competitive edge.”
“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” -- This was the headline quote on the world’s mass media within minutes after Greta Thurnberg emotionally addressed the United Nations “action summit” on climate change, September 23, 2019.
It has been a remarkable couple of weeks for 16 year-old Greta. After sailing across the Atlantic on a sailboat to avoid carbon emissions (and to make headlines), Greta spent her time going from one TV appearance to another, and then spoke at a US congressional hearing where she boldly presented Congress with copies of a UN scientific report on climate change which she suggested they read, as they should already have done, and then act. On Saturday as many as 4 million people in 150 countries joined the “Global Climate Strike” billed as primarily a young people’s movement, at least to begin with. Greta was the impetus for this worldwide “strike.” Greta addressed the crowd of 250,000 in New York City telling them, “Our house is on fire … it’s time to act.”
Greta began her activism a year ago by skipping school on Fridays and sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign “Strike for the Climate”. She was joined by a few other students some Fridays, and then other students in other cities across Europe began to “strike for the climate”. Greta began to get world attention when she was invited to speak at the UN COP24 Climate Summit in Poland in December last year (2018). “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago,” Greta told leaders at the summit. “We have to understand what the older generation has dealt to us, what mess they have created that we have to clean up and live with. We have to make our voices heard.” Her speech was remarkable in that she commanded climate change facts combined with strident assertions that it was time for the next generation to arise and act since the older generations were stubbornly refusing to do so. Shortly after that 3 Norwegian Members of Parliament nominated Greta for a Nobel Prize, to be awarded in December.
A number of things can be said about Greta Thurnberg, and they have been said by countless commentators. But I wish to highlight a few:
“Greta! Greta! Greta!” the throng of youthful strikers chanted in New York last Friday. A person has made it to the level above front page headlines when they are known around the world by their first name.
THE BINARY IS DEAD BUT DOESN’T KNOW IT YET
Every time I make a presentation about gender-inclusiveness in Thailand the question comes again, “But nature is divided into male and female. How can you deny that?” Of course nature is not divided strictly into male and female, but that’s usually not a satisfying reply. What we need to talk about is, “In what respects is gender and sexuality ‘both-and’ or ‘neither one nor the other’?”
Rather than defining the terms exclusively with words, I would like to present charts and illustrations, as I did in recent presentations at the university.
FIRST, SEXUALITY IS ABOUT PHYSICAL FACTORS
The factors include: chromosomes, hormones, genitalia, and secondary sex characteristics.
In a significant number of individuals these physical factors are misleading, and in others the factors are ambiguous. Most physical factors, of course, are clear and indicative of a birth sex, either male or female, and they become more pronounced when individuals reach sexual maturity.
SECOND, GENDER IS ABOUT MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL FACTORS
The factors include: fantasies, fascinations, self-understanding, preference for sex and romance.
It is commonly misunderstood that these mental and emotional factors are or can be controlled in accordance with social or religious requirements. Notice, please, that none of these factors are describing actions in response to the factors. Depending on circumstances, one can and often must refrain from certain actions. On the other hand, as psychologists know, sometimes when inconsistency between emotional conditions and social-physical action is resolved, obsessions disappear. On the whole emotional health is enhanced by correctly discerning “what is” and being at peace with that reality.
The spectrum is a continuum between Homosexual and Heterosexual. Increments along the continuum include, at the one pole, GAY (exclusively same-sex oriented for sex and romance), QUEER (very clearly same-sex oriented or definitely different in that regard), DARING (willing to explore options in search of excitement and satisfaction), CAUTIOUS (willing to deviate from narrow confines under very limited conditions of safety or anonymity), CURIOUS (open to the ideas that alternatives suggest while regarding those as uncommon), and STRAIGHT (exclusively oriented toward sex and romance with persons of the “opposite” sex).
THIRD, SOCIAL RESISTANCE IMPACTS ONES CHOICES
The spectrum extends from persecution to affirmation
In some societies it is a capital crime to be gay or to act contrary to the sexual mores assigned by society. At the other side of the spectrum are societies that value the unique perspectives and contributions of LGBTQIK members of society.
How we present ourselves depends to some extent on the freedom societies give us to express ourselves as we discern ourselves to be. Dangerous, oppressive societies often foster denial to such an extent that individuals dare not admit, even to themselves, their diversity.
The spectrum goes from PERSECUTION to PENALTIES to TOLERANCE to ACCEPTANCE to INCLUSION to AFFIRMATION
We who are LBBTK in Thailand experience these forms of social reaction as: PERSECUTION is sustained efforts to eliminate us through various sorts of suppression. This is rare and counter-cultural in Thailand, although some religious and ethnic sub-cultures exercise control that could swell into persecution. PENALTIES for being LGBT are imposed in the name of cultural normality. The most frequent are job ceilings in certain professions, or punishment for refusal to fulfill family obligations (such as producing heirs). TOLERANCE of sexual and gender diverse individuals is widespread. It is experienced as “being put up with” while those who put up with us are not pleased to do so. ACCEPTANCE is a milder form of tolerance, meaning in most cases that there has been compromise to achieve the absence of rancor and discord. INCLUSION involves the absence of all barriers to full participation in the social group. AFFIRMATION is active recognition of our unique perspectives and relationships. It is rare in this and most other societies at present.
FOURTH, SOCIAL IDENTITY
Social identity, how people are identified by society, is the conclusion that the majority of casual observers will draw based on two factors: the personal presentation choices the individual has made, and social sensitivity to their conclusions about what they see.
Presentation choices are of two types:
Sex markers (physical): facial features, breast and crotch, voice quality.
Gender markers (behavioral): clothing and accessories, vocabulary, movements / posture / gestures.
The stronger the social resistance to gender nonconformity, the fewer the markers that will arouse hostile reaction.
The more permissive the society, the more radical the markers must be to evoke a reaction.
The goal in establishing one’s gender identity in society is:
Either to pass unnoticed in society OR to elicit responses
A person’s satisfaction with their gender and status in society depends on how much effort (of all kinds) it takes to achieve satisfaction, and how much satisfaction is achieved.
There are four quadrants on the satisfaction grid.
The SOCIAL QUAD includes family, friends, and community primarily, but also the wider society where interactions take place.
The EMOTIONAL QUAD includes one’s internal turmoil or serenity, how one’s needs for appreciation are being met, and general happiness versus stress. One’s gender status is only one set of factors that impact emotion, of course.
The ROLE QUAD includes one’s labor, contributions to society, provision for those for whom one is responsible, and measurable accomplishments. If one’s gender has a negative effect on one’s role it takes more effort to achieve role satisfaction.
The PHYSICAL QUAD includes health and physique, as well as ability to function sexually. In some cultures physical development is a valued accomplishment or even a requirement for a satisfactory status and relationships. Health and freedom from disease and accidents aside, physical satisfaction comes from the ability to do what one wants to do. Therefore, it varies with age and circumstances as well as with such emotional factors as urges and goals.
What I have tried to illustrate is how nothing with regard to one’s gender, sexuality, and functioning in society are fixed or cut and dried. We are all somewhere along a number of spectrums.
[Thanks to Sirisak for providing a constant stream of advocacy for better understanding of gender diversity and ambiguity. Sirisak is the most photographed and recognizable LGBTIQK advocate in Thailand. Thanks also for the pictures above that Sirisak starred in.]
Essay #4 on SOCIAL ORDER
Expression vs. communication
“OMG this is awful” she exclaimed in bright red letters on Facebook. That was it, no explanation of the exclamation. No clue about what was awful. Within an hour 20 friends were sympathizing mindlessly and wanting to know more. For a day she refused to reply. I began to wonder whether she was just getting a kick out of messing with us, but I think something was messing with her. Compassion aside, what she was doing was not communication, although it is what passes for it these days of communication deterioration.
Internet Communication Technology (ICT) has changed the parameters of speech.
Expression was contained: private, personal, privileged
Communication was conversational, conventional, conciliatory
Media were moderated, managed, modulated
Everybody is the owner of their media
The right to express is being aggressively asserted (under the banner of “free speech”)
The effects of expression on communities (e.g. hate speech) are denied
The difference between expression and communication is blurred
How did we get into this loss of meaningful communication?
Not surprisingly modern philosophers have dedicated a lot of their speculation toward the subject of communication. The move to consider language as the basic philosophical issue began with Bertrand Russell, of England.
Bertie insisted, “a statement that purports to be about reality but whose truth or falsehood makes no observable difference to anything has no content, no meaning – it is not saying anything.” Only statements that are empirically verifiable are empirically meaningful; and the actual meaning of any given statement is revealed by the mode of its verification. The tool to sort this out is logic, a field in which Russell had excelled.
For example, using logic, we can sort out the truth or falsehood of the following statements, and if we cannot, then the statements are meaningless.
All the statements are in some sense false, but the reasons are different. The English throne is wooden, not iron (if by that is meant the “Coronation Chair with the Stone of Scone”). It is factually erroneous. There is no such thing as an American throne because the USA does not have any form of monarchy, so the statement is ridiculous. The Pope has a number of thrones, and any chair upon which he is seated is a throne if the Pope is performing official duties, but none of them are principally made of iron and, more importantly, the term “Papal throne” refers not to a chair but to the office. The throne in Kings Landing in George R.R. Martin’s books Game of Thrones, does not exist in reality and everything about the Iron Throne refers to a fictional object in a fantasy realm. However, within the realm of literature, the phrase would be true until the last episode when the throne was destroyed by dragon fire. The English throne can be metaphorically said to be made of iron, being durable as England is enduring. When an entity being discussed does not really in any sense exist, any statement about it is meaningless.
This distinction was picked up by Ludwig Wittgenstein, Bertrand Russell’s student and successor as the major philosopher of England, having moved there from Austria when the Nazis took over Austria. Wittgenstein was renowned as the founder of the philosophical school of Logical Positivism, a rigorous type of analytical philosophy. What the Logical Positivists sought to analyze was not the logic that Russell thought to be the key to what can be said to be true or false, but the content of the words being used. Wittgenstein insisted that words have only the content assigned to them. Words mean what the users intend for them to mean. Moreover, words derive their meanings ultimately from whole forms of life.
For example there is a whole world of scientific activity and scientific terms derive their meaning from the way they are used within the scientific world. There are whole worlds of military, political, religious, musical and countless other activities within which a term may have a specific meaning it does not have in another context.
For example. “head” in the world of fresh produce draws to mind something like a cabbage. “I’ll take that head,” she said to the green grocer. The head of a social structure would be the appointed leader. “The chairman is the head of this company.” In the world of physical anatomy the head means a complex part of the body. “Use your head,” his mother shouted. Whereas, for a sailor, the “head” most commonly means the toilet.
Logical Positivists rejected the idea that anything can be meant by a term unless its context is known, which provides the most important clue to what the term means to the person using it.
Michel Foucault followed Wittgenstein and went a step further to propose that the reason people use terms, whatever their world of discourse, is that the user wants to manipulate or control the recipient. In fact all narratives do this, but mega-narratives do it in a mega-way, by which those with social power seek, through the invention of stories and myths, to extend their influence and control. Foucault advocated the deconstruction of those cultural artifacts, and insisted that the smaller the narrative the less it needed to be mistrusted.
Foucault’s discursive analysis theories have the potential to revise the major political structures of the Enlightenment. At the same time the post-structuralist movement, until recently called post-modernism, has become the prevailing tone of voice of our times. Installing doubt about the intentions of all speakers -- without a positive counter-force -- has led to cynicism and a “me-mindset.” Doubt has morphed into suspicion and fear. The fragmentation of empires has led to the break-down of nations, the establishment of enclaves, and the embellishment of protectionism by ever-smaller socio-cultural units.
Enter the era of EXPRESSION rather than conversation. If all words are contextual and infected with manipulative intention, the words do not contain anything that matters. What is left are effusion, expostulation, and effect. That is now amplified by the development of technological ways of storing data and disseminating it. The local newspaper gave way to television which then relinquished its main purpose of broadcasting information in favor of entertainment. Even the “news” must be entertaining. Newsmakers must be valuable as attention-grabbers. Boring politicians is an oxymoron, or will be at the next election. Absurd and ludicrous are preferable to bland and rational. ICT has made possible hundreds of “channels” of TV, and every individual with a smart phone can be a producer.
In the domain of private discourse, too, meaning is not validated by content having a specific, consistent reference. Children learn this as an early survival strategy. Crying from hour one is just expression. By about day one it becomes more often expression of felt need. By year one the clever child has developed diverse ways to communicate felt needs. By year ten, mother, too, has acquired (or remembered from ancestors) skills in which “it’s not what she says but what she means.” “I’ve made your favorite dessert,” she says; but she means, “Congratulations on making it through that difficult patch, or passing that landmark.” Threats, as well, rarely mean what they say.
So we grow up and move on to become part of the social order. We belong to different groups, and we mean different things in each one. It can be confusing. It tends to be challenging. It can, at times, be exhilarating to be Grandpa in one context, pastor in another, community elder just outside the gates, and author of essays. As we grow toward senility, or at least some form of advanced aging, we have more stories to tell, but they mean less and less. Once, our story might have suggested a course of action. Then later, that same story could have been a cautionary tale. Now it is a nostalgic recitation.
But for every listener in this time in which we live, the task is to sort out what is true from what is meaningful. That is how our social order is kept from destroying itself and from deteriorating into irrelevance.
VANISHING VILLAGE CULTURE
Rice planting has been a back-breaking labor for millennia, but the harvests have fed billions of people. In every aspect of planting and harvesting irrigated rice there has been progress away from muscle-power by animals and human beings to mechanical power by machines. Here in our valley the last bit of rice production still largely undertaken by men and women is planting and transplanting the rice.
This year, for the first time, I believe, one of the farmers in our village hired mechanical transplanting machines to do the job. I got pictures that evening when the machines were transplanting seedlings. It took them about half an hour to do one patch with a team of 2 supplying the labor. That compares to a neighbor who hired a team of 8 workers to do the same job in about an hour and a half in the next field the next morning.
Today, exactly two weeks later, I took pictures of the side-by-side fields. The results do not look promising for the new mechanical innovation. Farmers tell me, no matter how the ripe rice fields look (I may get pictures of that in about 100 days), it’s clear that the loss of productivity will more than eat up the savings on the cost of transplanting.
No matter how this initial foray into mechanized transplanting turns out, rice will have to be produced in new ways. The old rice culture is unsustainable. Reasons for that are piling up. For one thing, the new generation of young village men and women are unwilling to work the family farms. They want jobs with dependable salaries, which also come with easier working conditions. In the second place, the price of rice barely equals the cost of growing it, and that is without figuring in the value of the farmer’s own labor that does not have to be hired. This week the staple for Northern Thailand, sticky rice, was selling for 15 baht a kilo, and it would be cheaper to buy rice at that price than to grow it. The clincher is that as more and more farmers transform their rice fields into orchards or plant better cash crops, the thousand year old irrigation infrastructure is breaking down.
The government has pronounced its development policy in behalf of high-tech industry. That’s two steps removed from agriculture, with high-tech industry slowly replacing heavy industry as the developmental goal. No matter whether the government’s policy is an unattainable pipe-dream or not, HM the late King’s lifelong interest in promoting agriculture through diversified crops and agricultural research institutes as well as better land utilization, is now officially replaced.
We’ve just had another week of rancorous arguments about conversion therapy. In brief, conversion therapy is a term invented to describe a wide variety of techniques to help people get over being gay. Some of the techniques are exclusively religious using such things as prayer and meditation, but other techniques are borrowed from psychiatric treatments (many of them long since discontinued by psychiatric medicine). The word therapy is meant to cast an aura of scientific validity. But medical and psychiatric associations have denounced conversion therapy as both ineffective and destructive. So far 18 states in the USA have passed laws declaring conversion therapy illegal, as have a handful of other countries.
Still, conversion therapy is clung to tenaciously by those who feel a need for hope. It was the “Hope for Wholeness Network” that made headlines last week when its founder, McKrae Game made his last and most definite denunciation of the therapy and announced that he was also gay, meaning that not even the founder of the largest Christian network had found “freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ” (which is the slogan of the Hope for Wholeness Network). “I was a religious zealot that hurt people. People said they attempted suicide over me and the things I said to them.” Among those things were that they were going to eternal Hell. It is uncertain, of course, how many people actually succeeded in committing suicide because of the shame heaped upon them by Game and the Network. Last week he wrote on Facebook, “The very harmful cycle of self shame and condemnation has to stop.”
McKrae Game joins a lengthening list of conversion therapy enthusiasts who have declared the therapy is a fraud (misadvertizing, Game called it). In 2013 Alan Chambers, the former president of Exodus International shut down the organization. At the time, Exodus International was the largest alliance of organizations advocating the possibility of changing one’s gender orientation.
Meanwhile, also last week the results of a massive study were published about the search for a “gay gene”. It concluded that there is no one gene that determines a person’s sexual orientation, but genetics – along with environment, play a part in shaping sexuality. The August 29 issue of the Washington Post reported that Andrea Ganna, lead author and European Molecular Biology Laboratory group leader at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Finland said that the research reinforces the understanding that same-sex sexual behavior is simply “a natural part of our diversity as a species.” The study was published Thursday in the journal Science. It was based on interviews with 470,000 people in the UK and USA. In total, 5 genetic patterns account for not more than 32% of the factors while environment and other circumstances must account for the rest. Not only is there no gene that causes us to be gay, there is no way to find out who is genetically gay by looking at all the genes. Being gay is simply too complicated.
Even though we knew that, LGBTQ critics of the study feared that the mere fact there was a lack of convincing evidence that being gay was completely genetic would give fuel to conversion therapy advocates. Sure enough, the ink wasn’t dry on the newspaper reports before claims began to appear that “now we have science on our side that environment is what causes people to think they are gay.” If environmental factors are the main ones in people being gay, then changed environment that eliminates and counters those influences should bring about change, conservatives in government and evangelicals in Christianity were swift to explain.
The question that sustains conversion therapy advocates is, “Does it EVER work?” The answer is that there are people who swear they have been cured. There is no convincing response to such testimonies. Not even the fact that leading personalities like Martin Duberman (1991), Alan Chambers and McKrae Game have renounced conversion therapy will wipe out the conviction that it can work and has worked for some people.
The question that motivates conversion therapy opponents is, “Is it harmful?” Isn’t it just like certain diet fads which one may try and see for themselves? At the extreme, are conversion camps where under-age children are sent and subjected to horrible punishment. One of those cases came to light in the media a week ago, too. Documentary movies and books have exposed those extremes. But even verbal abuse can be damaging, and physical restraints are not the most common form of imprisonment. Family and social prisons are very real. As Game said, suicides have been attempted because of the religious bullying and intimidation. Medical societies have denounced conversion therapy not only because it is based on spurious science (and just doesn’t work) but because it damages vulnerable patients who despair that they are failing to be cured.
That is the danger. When you promise someone that they will get results they desperately want, but then they fail to get those results and it is because of their own inadequacy and weakness, you set them up to try something desperate. As a growing number of states and countries now see it, providing conversion therapy to minors is not a matter of religious freedom, it is a criminal offence.
Alfred Redl’s impact on World War I, which ended 100 years ago, and his effect on homophobia as official policy, has been understated, and because he was gay and un-heroic, he has been almost forgotten. But his impact on world history has been profound.
World War I was “the war to end all wars.” It was supposed to straighten out the tangled mess of European empire building that had developed. Instead the war began the process of imperial collapse and changed the way the world was organized. At the heart of the conflict between nations was a web of alliances, secrecy, nationalism, revolutionary movements and spying. At the heart of the spying was Col Alfred Redl, head of spies for Austria-Hungary and on the inside of Prussia’s spy system as well. He was the most trusted spy in the Central Powers.
But since 1902 he was also in the pay of Imperial Russia. The Russians found out that young Redl frequented the homosexual underground, beginning in 1889 when he went to Moscow to learn Russian at age 25. In 1901 the Russians began supplying Redl with young men for sex, and in 1902 they presented him with a choice: work for the Czar as a counter-spy or be exposed. They also offered him lucrative stipends for military secrets. The threat of blackmail and the promise of rewards were persuasive to the former villager whose recreational tastes far exceeded his income. He had a young Czech lover at that time, whom he began supplying with luxurious gifts.
With strategic help from Moscow, Redl exposed Russian spies to the Austrians and then set up Austrian spies to be discovered in Russia. This way he rose to the top desk with access to all of Austria-Hungary’s military contingency plans, as well as those of the Kaiser.
It was Berlin that discovered Redl’s counter-espionage activity. When he was positively identified, the Germans informed the Austrian High Command. The panic and consternation that their entire diplomatic and military plans had been compromised cannot be exaggerated. Their first reaction was to keep everything a secret. The High Command sent a squad to arrest Redl in his apartment. “I know why you are here,” he told them. They laid a loaded pistol on the table and filed out to wait in the street. A while later a shot was heard. Another version says that he stood nude before a mirror for 5 hours before he shot himself. Redl had written a note that indicated suicide, and he was given an appropriate funeral.
Meanwhile, the Austrian authorities wanted to investigate his mansion in Prague. It was Sunday and locksmiths were closed. The investigators commandeered one to open the mansion, and inside they found a full set of sadomasochistic equipment, pornography and pictures of cross-dressing by many people in high positions. Quite by luck a newspaperman heard of the discovery and knew of Redl’s suicide. He interviewed the locksmith and quickly put the story on the front page.
From that moment, it was obvious to those in officialdom that being gay made one vulnerable. Doors banged shut to men seeking careers in sensitive positions who were suspected of being gay. The discrimination was not only because sodomy was so horrendous in those days, but because exposure was so apt to compromise a person keeping governmental secrets. The policy swept through the KGB, MI5 and the FBI in due time. Redl’s influence was profound. We have not overcome it yet.
Furthermore, through Redl, Russia learned about Austria-Hungary’s invasion plans for the Balkans, should war break out. The Central Power’s plan was to make quick work of the war. The whole rationale for the war, waiting for a spark to set it off, was to achieve objectives in the course of a few weeks at most. Thanks to Redl, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo in the Balkans on 28 June 1914, Russia and its allies in the Balkans knew the plans and inflicted an unexpected defeat on Austria-Hungary in the battles of Cer and Kolubara beginning on 12 August. What was to be a quick victory turned out to be a humiliating defeat that held an important part of the Central Powers’ army in the Balkans for the duration, rather than making those forces available for the war on the Eastern Front against Russia. The long war in France and the indecisive 5-year agony in the East spelled disaster for all involved, including the victors who had to fight a Second World War to address the unresolved issues of the First, and then a Cold War as a result of the “solutions” agreed to at Yalta at the end of the Second.
According to many historians of the Hapsburg Empire as well as the CIA’s Allen Dulles and Soviet General Mikhail Milstein, Redl was an arch-traitor. The final collapse of the Hapsburg Empire can be traced to the defeats at Cer and Kolubara. Thus began the toppling of empires: Prussia, Russia, Ottoman, and then World War Two which led to the end of the French and British empires. Meanwhile, a century of suppression of gays led to thousands of losses and misplacement of talent, none more tragic than the loss of Alan Turing or more bizarre than the twisting of J Edgar Hoover. Lest we think this era of exaggerated suspicion has passed, we need only click on the Internet to see the rationale for Trump’s continuing campaign to eliminate transgender persons from the military and to prevent same sex spouses from getting diplomatic passports. It’s always “for security.”
Just when you think Donald Trump can’t be more absurd with respect to friends and neighbors of the USA, he tops himself. Who would dream of insulting the Queen of Denmark? What could Trump have been dreaming? “Ah, there’s the rub,” as Denmark’s most famous prince once ruminated.
As I understand it, US President Donald Trump was due to make a state visit to Denmark in less than two weeks. The state visit was, like the recent one to England, to include a state dinner on September 2 hosted by Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark. This was to have been the first such visit since President Bill Clinton visited Denmark. Denmark is one of the USA’s most stalwart allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Then, for some reason, probably to add an agenda item to the talks that go on at occasions like this, Trump floated the idea of discussing a purchase of Greenland. Greenland is the largest island in the world (if you consider Australia a continent). It is an autonomous Danish territory, with its own government. Apparently, Trump has been serious about buying Greenland and thought Denmark might be ready to get rid of it since it costs them a lot to maintain. With Arctic ice melting and shipping lanes opening and with Greenland rich in unexploited minerals, Trump supporters have scurried to defend the purchase as timely and smart. However, the Prime Minister of Denmark was astonished when Trump’s idea reached her. She called the notion “absurd” and mentioned that Greenland’s government was not interested in having a new landlord. So Trump cancelled the visit with just days to go. He was not going to Denmark if they couldn’t talk about a real estate sale, and then he Tweeted that he was insulted, that the entire United States of America was insulted, by the Prime Minister’s rude reply. Most people, including me, thought it was all a joke at first. But it turns out it he was serious and in a fit of temper he insulted Denmark and the Queen. Trump was just rebuked. He hates that.
So this is how US foreign affairs are being handled. The present US State Department and the White House aggravate and show contempt for our historic friends. Almost every time this happens it is because Trump has had a tantrum. Early in his administration the President had a Secretary of State who could handle most of the chaos that resulted when the boss flew off the handle or made some outlandish deal with a party determined to destroy our influence. But Trump fired him, and now has a Secretary of State to his liking.
What this means in the long run is that the moral influence of the USA as a defender of democratic principles and world development is being eviscerated. It is no longer important that the USA lead, as long as the USA can have its way. The word “bully” comes to mind. So far, during the past 3 years, US foreign policy has been highlighted by creating a crisis or creating fear of one, and then solving the crisis while blaming others. US domestic policy has been steered toward the dissolution of the middle class and the increasing of wealth for the elite. It is US foreign policy, however, that will be our first permanent defeat. When it is safe to ignore the USA, rest assured the USA will be ignored.
It will be possible to manage the mess that Trump has made of US relations with Denmark. But some of the destruction in international relations will not be remediable if Trump keeps throwing temper tantrums.
Image above © Metro News UK
What do I as a white, Christian, male, American know about racism?
I have been told that I can know nothing about racism. My white male privilege blinds me to the reality. It’s impossible that I could understand it, so I should keep quiet and make whatever pathetic repentance I can muster.
Allow me to decline the full extent of the indictment, before beginning an indictment of my own about how alarming WORLDWIDE RACISM has become.
I am Caucasian, of European extraction, blue-eyed, and male. What’s more, I am American (of the prairieland type) which means I have privileges that were build on deprivation my ancestors inflicted on others, and advantages I take for granted. But I have been a recipient of enough racism to know about it existentially, after 36 years of residency as one of a tiny minority in Asia.
To be clear and fair, racism in Thailand tends to be so non-confrontational many insist it does not exist. As recently as 1967 the dean of an institution of higher education here declared flatly, “There is no racism in Thailand.” That was the year, however, that biracial babies began to be born to US servicemen and their wives. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation had to find adoptions for many of them because inter-racial children were unwanted. (I hasten to add that has completely changed to such an extent that recent Miss Thailands have been proudly biracial. The shift began with biracial models in advertising campaigns and on TV.)
Long-term residents in Asia testify to scores of assumptions made about us, based solely on our appearance. These assumptions make it difficult for us in many ways, every day. The difficulties include double-pricing based on the belief that all foreigners are rich. More subtle and pervasive is the assumption we are incapable of accurate insight into the heart of this culture, language, or religion. Recent opinion has developed that we are rude, arrogant, and insensitive. On the ledger of advantages, we will treat property with respect, we will cause little or no legal trouble, and we are worth having around in limited numbers.
Personally, I love being in Thailand, and I feel quite accepted and unharmed. But the point is that there is racism here in Thailand and throughout Asia. Skin color matters. It is not something I am too privileged here to know anything about.
Racism varies from culture to culture. In some parts of East and South East Asia it is assumed, based on my race, that I am culturally inferior. There are serious consequences to that if I were to try to live in one of those areas. In other parts of this continent I would be considered a cultural equal, but unquestionably an outsider. In some regions it would be taken for granted that I am culturally advantaged, and feared for that.
How real is race? A popular trope is that “there is just one race … the human race.”
But superficially race is real enough to be immediately recognizable. It shows up as skin color, eye shape, hair texture. It shows up in DNA. The other ways race may manifest itself are cultural signals like costume, language, and sometimes body treatment, or cuisine. These distinctions do not hold up under scrutiny, of course, because they are artificial indicating some set of characteristics that apply to only a fraction of those assigned to any particular race.
Assignment to one race or another might be imposed, inadvertent, or voluntary. Tiger Woods with African-American father and Thai mother chose to be American and therefore Black. That is, he integrated into American culture. He could have been Thai (he wouldn’t have been alone here as a bi-racial Thai person) and he would not have been thought of as Black. On his first trip back here as a sports hero he disappointed his sponsors and Thai fans by paying almost no heed to his Thai heritage. Barack Obama is Black, too, with a white mother and African father from Kenya. In the USA, the choice is not entirely free. In Australia there is a substantial group of mixed-race citizens who are oblivious of their distant aboriginal ancestor. Others know and are bemused or nonplussed by it; recently it has become a matter of pride. Mongol blood runs in the veins of a lot of Central and East Europeans.
Assignment may be calculated or capricious. “Red and yellow, black or white, we are equal in His sight…” so goes the Sunday School song. But the fact is almost nobody is really any of those colors. Almost all of us are some shade of brown, with tinges of pink or pallor. Hair color is more dramatic, and entirely unreliable as a racial indicator these days. Indeed, racial assignment is so haphazard that pseudo-races are simply invented. It is a red-flag warning when one of these terms emerges into acceptance. “Jewish” has been used for millennia, but when “Jewish race” began to be bandied about trouble was close at hand. When 19th century anthropologists began to try to differentiate types of Caucasians as separate races, they described the Alpine, Dinaric, Iranid, East Baltic and Mediterranean races. The Nordic race, they thought, was superior. Eugenics and racial harvesting were on the way. Just recently the term “Mexican race” has made its way back into the US national discourse. That will not lead to anything good.
This morning I was reminded of racism at its worst.
President George W. Bush's chief speechwriter, Michael Gerson wrote, “… I made the mistake of pulling James Cone’s 'The Cross and the Lynching Tree' off my shelf — a book designed to shatter convenient complacency. Cone recounts the case of a white mob in Valdosta, Ga., in 1918 that lynched an innocent man named Haynes Turner. Turner’s enraged wife, Mary, promised justice for the killers. The sheriff responded by arresting her and then turning her over to the mob, which included women and children. According to one source, Mary was 'stripped, hung upside down by the ankles, soaked with gasoline, and roasted to death. In the midst of this torment, a white man opened her swollen belly with a hunting knife and her infant fell to the ground and was stomped to death.' God help us. It is hard to write the words. This evil — the evil of white supremacy, resulting in dehumanization, inhumanity and murder — is the worst stain, the greatest crime, of U.S. history. It is the thing that nearly broke the nation. It is the thing that proved generations of Christians to be vicious hypocrites. It is the thing that turned normal people into moral monsters, capable of burning a grieving widow to death and killing her child.”
That’s what racism will do, and it’s on the rise. It occasionally rises to that crescendo, as in the pogroms in Russia, the riots in Nazi Germany, rampages in Bosnia, and the unfinished elimination of Palestinians in Israel. That’s what is at risk when US politicians play the race card in the run-up to the national election in 2020.
Racism is a cultural invention. It includes acts of appalling atrocity, beguiling paternalism, absurd disrespect, and sometimes abject neglect. But it is subject to cultural intervention. What a culture does it can stop doing, although it takes the power of a mass movement of almost consensus proportions to stop it. That or a catastrophe.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.