Persistence is the word that most characterizes the protest movement in Thailand. Events of the last couple of days have made the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Those who read carefully may know more than I do, here where my access to news is limited by the self-censorship of the media and my distrust of them. However, for friends and family who have been wondering, here is my brief interpretation of what is going on.
Beginning with the military-controlled government’s liquidation of the main political party opposing them, students began protests to call for constitutional reform to restore democracy and to call for the Prime Minister to step down. That call expanded to include reform of the provisions in the constitution relating to the monarchy and release of people charged with undermining the monarchy or the government. But movements evolve.
In the past, criticism of the monarchy as an institution and any members of the royal family was against the law, the rationale being that Thai culture rests on three pillars: the state, religion, and the monarch. The previous King was held in high esteem. Criticism of him was quite unpopular. But as of 4 years ago his son has become King. He has not cared for popularity. The protest movement about 6 months ago began the previously unheard of practice of calling for the King to return funds to public control which he had taken over. The movement took the form of large gatherings of students and young adults on a frequent basis, often in symbolic locations. Thai ex-pats began to draw attention to an additional list of grievances including the fact that the King and Queen spent most of their time in Germany without appointing a regent to act when the King is not in the country.
Until this weekend the government has permitted the students to gather and say pretty much whatever they wanted. But the King and Queen have now returned, not just for a brief holiday, but for 7 weeks or longer. They have resumed public activities such as audiences and presiding at university commencement services. The government (meaning the central part that includes the Prime Minister as well as senior military leaders) would like very much for the young people to “go back home and attend to your business.” To underline this demand, twenty or so “leaders” of the student movement were arrested. But the demonstrations have continued.
Crisis times came and passed without violence. Police have kept royalist counter-demonstrators separated.
But it appears that now the government has decided to “up the ante” to use a gamblers’ term. Following an incident yesterday where the Queen’s motorcade was obstructed when it drove unexpectedly onto a street blocked by a group of demonstrators, last night police in riot gear put up road blocks and sprayed the crowd with a high pressure water cannon using water mixed with blue dye and a caustic substance (called tear gas by one source). A “Severe State of Emergency” was declared restricting public gatherings to no more than 5 persons. In defiance, thousands of students gathered Saturday at five locations in Bangkok, and other locations around the country including a packed crowd at Chiang Mai University.
October is a deeply symbolic month. It is the month two previous student movements for democratic reform were put down by the military, killing hundreds (perhaps thousands). Once again it is the young adult generation that is persisting in challenging the powerful elite to include the people. “It’s our money!” the protesters shouted at the royal motorcade. The young people have changed the words of the national pledge, too. It used to be a pledge to uphold “the nation, religion, and King.” Yesterday they were shouting, “Nation, religion, people!”
Here’s a little exercise to see if your vision is 2020.
Insert first pic
1. Make 4 dots at random.
2. Connect the dots with 4 uninterrupted lines.
Insert second pic
3. Find the middle point on each line.
4. Connect the points.
Insert third pic
5. This will always provide a parallelogram.
Does this theorem have any application? I do not know of any, but I do not work with geometry or physics any more than I have to. Nevertheless, I do not think this odd fact should be discounted quickly. I would not be surprised if Pythagoras or Paracelsus has considered this phenomenon. It’s the sort of thing that might have popped into Einstein’s head to open an avenue of thought about space, time, and gravity. Somebody COULD decide that this example of random irregularity resolving into regularity has profound significance.
So far I have only gotten far enough to feel that thinking about this is a relief from almost everything else that 2020 has brought so far.
As the USA gets close to the national election on November 3 the rhetoric has tended to get hot. One Trump supporter appealed for reducing the name calling. He objected to being called a “nationalist” which was equivalent to “supremacist” or “racist”.
He said, “Perhaps people vote for Trump, blacks and hispanics included, that believe: late term abortion is wrong, a strong economy is good, critical race theory is racist and teaches children to hate America, BLM is a radical, Marxist terrorist organization, antifa is more than an idea - they murder burn and loot.”
I’d like to reply to him. I think we can be reasonable.
Let’s agree that some voters are issue oriented. Let’s identify their issues as (1) late-term abortion, (2) economic growth, (3) racism that teaches children to hate America, (4) Black Lives Matter is a radical Marxist terrorist organization, (5) Antifa advocates murder, burning and looting. Let’s even lay aside the notion that those who most fervently hold these concerns are nationalists. These concerns are exaggerated out of proportion to reality. But we can even postpone that debate although that is at the heart of this.
What cannot be so easily ignored is the result of these concerns. The issues lead to actions. The action being supported to address some or all of these is the matter being contended in this US election. What those voters advocate amounts to this: In order to prevent late-term abortions all abortions are to be prevented. In order to permit economic growth almost no limits should be imposed on industries. In order to promote patriotism narratives concerning past humanitarian errors and slavery must be toned down. In order to keep America secure radical black as well as anti-Fascist movements must be seen as organizations and suppressed. As the danger of these things is exaggerated so are the actions in response to them.
Since America is not a pure democracy in which every issue is decided by a referendum, but is a republic where representatives meet to do that, the election is our main recourse. We can ask the candidates what they believe about these issues, and consider how their answers line up with our understanding of justice and sustainable progress. But then we need to ponder how trustworthy the candidates are and whether we believe they will take action when elected that stays consistent with what they say they will do. Our power as citizens is limited. We can do almost nothing but consider the character of the people standing for election and then vote.
I think I will retire from my fourth career now. This career I call, “Trying to make the world a better place through writing.” My previous careers have been ordained pastoral ministry, seminary teaching, and higher education administration. As I was doing each of these careers I thought, “This is what I am all about.” The goal has always been trying to make the world a better place through doing what the career involved. They were overlapping in many ways. I was a pastoral minister while being a seminary teacher, and I was a writer while being a full-time pastor.
Writing has been my default hobby since I was a teenager. In fact, my second salaried position was the summer I was 17 when I was a cub-reporter for the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. My first salaried position at $20 a week, was as caddy-master and golf shop attendant at the Jacksonville Country Club, from which I learned mostly that community leaders are not at their best when they’re playing golf and that I was not born to be a golfer.
Since it is apparent to me that my efforts to make the world a better place through writing are dwindling in effectiveness, I’ll close out this career before people start hinting even more loudly that I should. For my own peace of mind, and for the record, I want to list the accomplishments of this fourth career. These are easier to list than accomplishments in the first three careers. I count it as an accomplishment when I have written something, finished it, and stopped working on it. I admit that it is generally agreed that one should only count things that get published as writing successes. But it’s a blurry line. I was never established on the “noteworthy published author” side of it. I produced a lot, it turns out. Making this list (see below) has helped me feel better about what I’ve accomplished.
I gave it all I had during my fourth career which began long before the other careers ended and continued until now, a decade after I formally retired from the other careers. My output includes several thousand pages divided into book-length writings, essays and articles.
Worship as Celebration of Life (in Thai), 1974, Suriyaban, Bangkok. This was translated into Thai and published as a textbook by the Fund for Theological Education. It was used for more than 20 years by theological seminaries in Thailand.
The Pastoral Call (Lectures in Thai at Payap University, 1986, printed in English in the USA, 1989). This was a formal lectureship sponsored by the McGilvary Faculty of Divinity of Payap University to mark the end of my teaching at the seminary. The lectures were reformatted in print for use in the USA.
Acharn: Pastoral Counseling in Thailand (Doctor of Ministry thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, Princeton, New Jersey) 1987. There was hope that this would be followed by a new approach to teaching pastoral counseling based on the research findings about what makes counseling successful in Thailand, but that project was not enthusiastically received as the seminaries downgraded their basic professional courses. A microfilm version is preserved and available through the archives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
History of the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, Illinois, published as a limited edition of about 200 copies for subscribers by the First Presbyterian Church, Alton, Illinois, 1991. This was written to refresh the memory of members of that church about their history, and also to express appreciation for contributions made to rebuilding the sanctuary after a fire in 1988.
The Lives of Christ, published by First Presbyterian Church, Alton 1992. This is a collection of studies of the Gospels. It was printed for those who participated in an adult class. The conclusion was that a synthesized, unified biography of Jesus is not possible, nor was that the aim of the Gospel writers.
Ten Stories: A Storyteller’s Guide to the Book of Genesis, First Presbyterian Church, Alton, Illinois, 1993. The stories of Genesis are all “gospel stories.” Any other reading of them is a misreading.
Emerald Valley Chronicles, published by the author, 1994. I believe that between 1981 and 1985 our work in village churches with seminary students on weekends was transformative. It helped the students mature and helped the churches meet challenges and accomplish their mission. The book is an anthology of factual accounts about those students and their episodes. I submitted the manuscript to all the denominational publishing houses that had anything to do with Protestant work in Thailand but was told that “nobody is interested in missionary stories anymore.”
English for Professional Nurses, a textbook for nurses’ workshops, Christian University, Nakhon Pathom, 2003. This book was used for more than 20 workshops. It was only available to those who enrolled in the workshops.
English Camp is Easy, a handbook of activities and plans, prepared for the Thailand TESOL Conference in 2004. As a result of conducting several English Camps at schools in central Thailand, this handbook was then provided for participants at the annual national conference for English teachers in Thailand.
Progress Toward Mutual Recognition Through Educational Benchmarking and Quality Assurance, (Reflections on and analysis of a conference on Mutual Recognition: Educational Benchmarking and Quality Assurance at Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand, November 16-19, 2004) with Janjira Wongkhomthong, Christian University of Thailand, presented to the Board of Directors of the International Association of University Presidents, meeting in Bangkok in 2005. The “proceedings” of the conference was printed, and then a synopsis was published a year later.
A Bright Future: The Christian University of Thailand Model for Teaching English at the University Level in Thailand, Nakhon Pathom: Christian University of Thailand, 2006. This book-length series of articles describes how to design an English language proficiency program for a university in Thailand. ISBN 974-627-1334
Lands of the Yip: Book One, Velia; Book Two, Exporia; and Book Three, Vitalia, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011. This is a set of 4 fantasy novels for young adult readers. In each novel a couple of ex-pat kids in Northern Thailand and their expanding group of friends are brought into parallel lands to help sort out catastrophes and to have adventures while coming of age.
Spiritual Wellness: the Basis of Holistic Peace, volume 1 Wellness and volume 2 Dysfunction, Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2011. Growth is the main feature of spiritual wellness. When growth stops decay begins with spiritual stagnation followed by profound terror and finally corruption. This collection of 75 essays has gone through three editions. I am sure the concept is sound, but I have not found a way to make it therapeutically useful. One publishing company agreed to publish the book and provide it on demand if I would pay them $11,000.
Ban Den Friends: Gay Experiences in Thailand, Out in Thailand publications, 2012, serialized 2013-2015 in Out in Thailand magazine. The book is an anthology of 67 anecdotes based on true-life experiences of LGBTK people in Thailand I have known. Two international publishing houses considered and rejected it because it was not built around a central character, but was modeled on Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 novel Winesburg, Ohio.
Kiddy Lit: Stories to Grow On, 2013. This book is a retelling and analysis of 25 of the best-known stories for children in cultures that use English as their primary language. As with Bruno Bettelheim’s ground-breaking book, The Uses of Enchantment, the stories all have messages to help pre-adolescents negotiate their basic fears and issues. I submitted the manuscript to a couple of experts in the field but received no encouragement to seek a publisher. A local publishing house also refused to consider the book because it has no local (Thai) connection.
Enchanted Astorwold, self-published in 2016 and reformatted for online publication with help and illustrations by my son Andrew Dobson in 2019. The book is one of a very large number of fan-fiction anthologies based on the Harry Potter novels and movies. As with most of these works, this one introduces people of the next generation after the battle of Hogwarts.
Varieties of Faith: The Thai Case, Payap University, 2016. The book is a set of illustrated essays on 4 Thai faith domains, namely, formal religion, spiritual self-development, supernaturalism, and venerations of saints and semi-divine people. It is available as an e-book upon request, but was never intended to be commercially published.
“Three Types of Theological Education” in South-East Asia Journal of Theology, ca. 1970, Singapore. This was my first professional publication. It was revised and expanded as “Antecedents of Higher Education of Christian Professionals” to be presented at the 2008 United Board Faculty Forum in Indonesia.
“Millennial Challenges to Education” revised for the ASAIHL International Conference, Kota Kina Baru, Malaysia, September, 2003, published in Christian University Journal, Christian University, Nakhon Pathom, 2001. This is a collection of short stories on the theme of higher education.
“Beneficiaries and Benefactors: Who Are the Winners in Thailand’s Income Contingency Loan Scheme?” a presentation at the International Symposium on Student Loan Policy, organized by UNESCO and the Student Loans Fund, March 16, 2006, Bangkok International Trade & Exhibition Centre, Bangkok.
“Theory and Practice: Two Aspects of ESL” Christian University Journal, Christian University of Thailand, Vol. 12, No. 2 (May-August) 2006.
“Anticipating Cognition: Breaking Through from Curiosity to Prescience” a presentation at an international conference on Body and Mind: Science and Spirituality Perspectives, organized by Chulalongkorn University and The Thousand Stars Buddhism and Science Group, December 8, 2006.
“The Unlikeliest Link: Mythic Archetypes as a Means toward Transcultural Theologizing” a presentation at an international conference on Religion and Culture, organized by the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace, Payap University, June 24-30, 2007.
Three essays on being a Buddhist-Christian entitled “The Labels are Falling off the Pickle Jars”, “A Christian Buddhist Option”, and “A Compelling Reason to Chant” published in Thursday-Theology No. 541 and 542, October 2008 by the Crossings Community, www.crossings.org
“Three Red Flags: Why We Should Worry About the Future of Higher Education” presented in the 23rd Inter-University Conference of The Association of Southeast Asian Institutions of Higher Learning at Payap University on September 4, 2009 and published in the ASAIHL-Thailand Journal, Vol. 12, Number 2, September 2009.
“Gender Ambiguity: Thai Village Case Studies” presented October 7, 2009 at the Simpson College Faculty Forum, Indianola, Iowa. The case studies were horizontal studies that tended to demonstrate the Thai preference at the time for maintaining ambiguity about one’s gender. This set of cases has been revised and presented several times since.
“An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Land” presented at a symposium as part of the celebration of the 35th Anniversary of Payap University on February 16. 2010.
“Creation of a Creation Myth: Steps Towards a Promethean Age” with Arthur Saniotis of the University of Adelaide, accepted for publication in Prajina Vihara Journal of Philosophy and Religion of Assumption University of Thailand in 2011.
“The End of Christian Civilization” 2012 also called “1922” in 2020. This research article is the one I consider my most original and insightful article. The thesis is that prior to World War I there was a consensus that Christian morality was the basis for the advances of Christian civilization as evidenced by the industrial revolution. After the war that consensus evaporated. Four of the greatest works of Modernist literature were published in 1922. They were written by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, TS Eliot, and Sinclair Lewis. They unanimously rejected the concept that Christian Civilization was superior, and even the Church dropped the idea.
“After Baal and Christ” 2013. This series of essays traced the development of the Judeo-Christian idea of God through several distinct phases. The present consensus is that God and Jesus are synonymous and interchangeable terms (thus “after Christ” whom the Church has held to be one person of the Holy Trinity). The key essay was edited as “The Quest.”
“The Quest” published by Thursday Theology, the Crossings Community. Oct. 23, 2013. http://www.crossings.org/thursday
“Dragons: Myth and Cosmic Powers” by Kenneth Dobson and Arthur Saniotis. Prajna Vihara Journal of Philosophy and Religion, Assumption University of Thailand. Vol. 15, No. 1, Jan-June 2014.
“The Future of Institutional Christianity in the Postmodern Era”, April 18, 2014. This essay is an attempt to assess how popular culture, which is overwhelmingly postmodern, will have an impact on institutional Christianity. The project began with a description of postmodernism. I believe the essay was prophetic as it applies to the USA and parts of Anglo-European dispersion (Canada, Australia, New Zealand in particular).
“Vanishing Village Culture” is a series of 18 descriptions of how life is carried on now in villages around our house compared with the past. The essays were published as blogs on “Ken Dobson’s Queer Reminiscences from Thailand” in 2015 and 2016.
“10 Challenges to Christian Higher Education” presented at the ACUCA Management Conference, October 2017. The essay was printed in the proceedings in summary.
“What Makes Thai Buddhism So Strong” was first a PowerPoint “Payap Presents” program on July 4, 2019. Then it was reformatted as an illustrated article to be available online. The analysis of Buddhism’s strength is based on a description of several key events that coalesced participation and were important.
“Social Order, Five Essays” are a discussion of what makes society sustainable. The essays are entitled, “Social Bond”, “Social Contact”, “Social Ethic”, “Social Media” and “Social Context.” The essays were published online in 2019.
BLOG ESSAYS and SHORT MAGAZINE ARTICLES
James Barnes made a valiant attempt to produce a high-class magazine for gay readers in Thailand. He had gifts as a publisher and contacts that got him exclusive interviews with the likes of Hillary Clinton and Anderson Cooper. I provided occasional 800 word articles on a variety of subjects. James also liked Ban Den Friends, which I began with the thought of writing 7 stories for him. The 7 grew to 67 as he encouraged me to write more. His editorial talent was compromised, however, by a combination of health issues and a disability as a financier. His health and finances collapsed in June 2015 and he fled the country.
In addition to major articles for particular occasions and publications, my fourth career has been devoted to a constant output of short works that began as I reflected on my past as an author of an average of two sermons a week when I was a full-time pastor.
Beginning on Halloween in 2012 a colleague and I purchased a web-domain which I called “Ken Dobson’s Queer Ruminations from Thailand.” I have averaged an essay a week for a total of some 430 blogs. We will continue the blog for at least another year.
CAREER ENDS – HOBBY CONTINUES
I am calling this the end of my 4th career as a writer. As with the other three careers I am on call but expect the phone to rarely ring. It is best to know what stage one’s in.
I think, as a whole, I was a preacher in a time that preaching was still a high-profile, effective way to make an impact. I was helpful to move the two universities I served as administrator forward. As a pastor I was valuable to a substantial number of people going through crises and transitions. Those roles have been handed over to a younger generation, and in several instances relinquished by them to a still younger generation.
This is the era of social media and short attention spans. My talent for long essays of cultural and philosophical reflection is in short demand. I will still write. It just won’t be “what I’m all about” anymore. I’m trying to figure out how to do memes and photo essays.
THERE IS NO VERIFIABLE CASE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH
I was disgusted this week to read that a conservative Christian theology teacher in the USA had posted online, “I morn for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. A Jew called by HIS name who did not receive her KING. She is in ETERNAL torment. ‘Rest in peace’ she will not be doing. … This is a hard core fact. There is NO other way to enter heaven but by Jesus Christ.” She went on, “…she will burn in hell for the sin of rejecting Jesus.”
I was shocked into reconsidering two questions: (1) what has happened to Christian theology? (2) Is it respectful to admit that Justice Ginsburg’s physical life has ended?
Every religion insists there is life after death. Sometimes the argument is based on testimony from those who have experienced “near death.” A previous generation was fascinated with the new science of parapsychology about messages from beyond. Before the Age of Enlightenment the declarations of Christian theologians and of authorities on the Bible were sufficient. Something about us is still alive after we die – that is the nearly universal testimony of the most profound thinkers in history and of the wisdom keepers of every ethnic community ever studied.
So, it is with considerable care that I propose one of several arguments that when we die we stay dead forever. The purpose of this is to consider its potential effect on theology and religion because I contend that it need not be the ultimate purpose of religion to prove we are immortal.
If CONSCIOUSNESS IS AN ELECTRO-CHEMICAL PROCESS consciousness ends when our electro-chemical processes end. That is, consciousness has no independent existence.
All contemporary world religions postulate that something goes on after a person dies. This “thing” is usually called a soul. Twentieth century theologians began to identify “soul” with mind or personality. Many contemporary religions invest this soul with a capacity to continue after death. Based on Persian concepts, theistic religions describe realms of existence after death as heaven and hell. In those places the deceased are conscious of their past actions and understand their present states are a result of those deeds. Popular Buddhist faith perpetuates vivid concepts of hell. Popular Christian faith has largely consigned those ideas to antiquity in favor of the notion of an ongoing consciousness and ability to be reunited with predecessors in an afterlife.
These results would be impossible if all consciousness is thought, all thought is a function of brains, and brains function through electro-chemical synapses. It is now believed that those electro-chemical sparks continue for about ten minutes after a brain ceases to receive necessary oxygen through refreshed blood supply. First, stimulation ceases from sensory sources (sight, sound, touch, etc.). But then all thought ends, even (as in deep dreams) that which is independent of the senses. That is the end for a person.
If this materialistic view of human life and consciousness is true, religious views of life-after-death are false.
If there were SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE FOR LIFE AFTER DEATH, that would, of course, settle the matter in favor of “going on.” After all, “The human race as a whole has refused to believe that when the brain ceases to function the mind ceases to exist.”
On the whole, the argument for life after death has been along the lines “we so much want it to be so that it must be so.” Emerson declared, “The blazing evidence of immortality is our dissatisfaction with any other solution.”
My first encounter with this discussion was about 60 years ago when I obtained a copy of You Will Survive After Death, by Dr. Sherwood Eddy. He was probably the most internationally distinguished person in my home town at the time. He had completed an illustrious career with the Student Volunteer Movement and the YMCA, first in South India and then throughout South Asia, the Middle East and Russia. After he retired he lived right up the street from our house. Toward the end of his life he compiled his scientific research about life after death. He was clear that he meant it literally.
“When I speak of life beyond death, I mean the survival of individual, personal consciousness, with memory of the past and a personality that shall be spiritually recognizable to my friends, past and future.” [p. 3]
Eddy first argued philosophically, “Because of the testimony of science to a rational and trustworthy universe I believe I shall survive physical death.” [p. 5] Then he turned to the “new science” of parapsychology. One by one he summarized the “scientific” findings of scientists in this new field. This, it turns out, was his scientific evidence.
Parapsychology, briefly, was a fad during the early twentieth century based on experiences of mental telepathy, séances involving conversations with those who have died, psychic healing, and teleportation of material objects. This has been labeled a pseudoscience by various scientific societies after 1950, the year Eddy’s book came out.
Many other authors have written about theories explaining why it is scientifically probable that some form of life goes on, sometimes with memory of past lives and sometimes without, as when one “merges with the cosmos” or enters the body of someone just beginning life. The end result is that none of these theories is verifiable, and they are supported largely on the assumption that due to the immense number of galaxies and universes the likelihood is there, somehow. It is tantamount to saying “Nothing is impossible so everything is possible.”
One does not have to believe “nothing goes on.” Believe there is a going on if you want (as I do), or if you have experiences that convince you to believe it. But my point is “It’s not the end of any current faith system if our physical bodies just quit.”
That brings us back to the only scientifically verifiable thing we know for sure: “When we die, our electro-chemical processes stop and the systems in which they operated begin deterioration that nothing can reverse.”
IF THIS IS THE CASE, RELIGIONS NEED TO BE DOING SOMETHING ELSE THAN PRESCRIBING CONDITIONS FOR IMMORTALITY. There’s plenty to do.
Solastalgia is the sense that the place where one belongs is threatened.
The neologism, solastalgia, conflating “nostalgia, solace, and desolation” was coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht. I understand it first appeared in the February 2007 edition of the journal Australian Psychiatry in an article entitled “Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change.” My attention was drawn to this by an article in a September 13, 2020 edition of the Los Angeles Times by Julia Wick that explains, “There’s actually a word for the climate-change-induced despair you’ve been feeling.” Wick’s editorial came in the midst of catastrophic wildfires all along the West Coast of the USA and as far inland as Colorado, and in the wake of twin hurricanes that ravaged the Gulf Coast (before Sally hit Alabama just days later).
Albrecht explained in 2004 that solastalgia is “manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in an erosion of the sense of belonging (identity) to a particular place and a feeling of distress (psychological desolation) about its transformation.” In short, it is “a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at home.”
Although solastalgia has apparently been mainly used to label the anxiety people have internalized about the climate and environmental crisis, I would like to suggest it manifests itself in relation to other threats as well.
An open letter I read on social media yesterday contained a passionate plea for schools to again provide socialization opportunities for young children. The mother was clear that exclusive on-line education was not working. My take-away from that letter and many similar expressions about what schools should do as they reopen, is that lots of people are waking up to the shock that COVID-19 may be with us for another school year and that even when the pandemic abates “school” will never be the same.
Many things will never be the same. Church services are undergoing change. Even as in-person services more-or-less safely resume some churches have decided they need not turn off the cameras and cut off worshippers they have been serving at a distance. Some Sunday assemblies are even greater on-line than they have been in-person before the pandemic. At the same time, I think “solastalgia” describes the distress others feel at the disorientation which means “no more covered-dish dinners” when that is part of the way the church is changing. I’m on firmer ground, to say that church, school, and home are a three-part set for a lot of people; so when any of them is gone and will never be replaced, part of where one belongs has been destroyed. Solastalgia would, in such cases, be a name for the type of grief one feels.
Clearly, the concern one feels about most change is milder than the anxiety one experiences when some essential part of one’s place and identity is utterly gone. It is also different from the shock one feels about one’s own impending death or the onset of a permanent disability. Solastalgia is not about one’s changing, but about one’s remaining pretty much the same in circumstances that are changing.
I would like to hear from someone knowledgeable as to whether it is solastalgia that is the psychological basis for the Make America Great Again response to Donald Trump’s slogan. Is it a deep-seated fear that the country is no longer the same? Is it essentially solastalgia to feel alarmed that the country is not going to belong to “us” any more, or is that different from feeling that we no longer are going to belong to the country?
No matter. It’s something deep and psychological that motivates a fight-or-flee response when a neighborhood undergoes racial change, when industrial capacity shifts and cities turn to rust, and when it seems better to exit from international alliances than to put up with losing control of one’s national sovereignty. Can some change be too large to create personal grief?
Actually, “solastalgia” was coined to cover just those kinds of distress.
As we enter the final quarter of 2020, a year that has been full of unexpected shocks, I have been surprised by eventualities closer to our valley behind the mountain. I say only that I had not expected these five things that have happened since September began.
§ People wanting liquor delivered with their food order have joined the student protests against the Thai government. It was surprising that the student protests have kept going, but who would have imagined that a government decision to prohibit delivery of alcoholic beverages as part of the COVID-19 directives would incite this whole new segment of the population to join the demands for a new election and constitutional reforms?
§ Two soldiers from one of the Myanmar Army factions testified that they had been ordered to shoot every living human being (“anything that moves or anything you hear”) when they attacked Rohingya villages. This is damning evidence of what is being called genocide of this Muslim ethnic population in Myanmar. Such testimony is so rare as to almost take one’s breath away.
§ The Thai Prime Minister is not one to keep his feelings bottled up (rather like other heads of state in that respect), but he has been doing better lately. So it was surprising when he retorted “Go home! Go home!” to a reporter who asked him to comment on rumors of the Thai Army preparing for a coup against the PM and his government. My, my! He was touchy about that. One wonders why.
§ A boycott movement against a Walt Disney film is surprising, especially if it is a new release. But the Chinese action-film “Mulan” generated calls to protest the film when Yifai Liu, the lead actor, made public statements against student activism in Hong Kong and supportive of the police crackdown and Beijing government’s new laws limiting forms of protest in HK. An international student movement called the Milk Tea Alliance (named for a drink students in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand have in common) with LGBT people prominently in leadership, has gained attention. So it surprised me that, despite the controversy, the movie is turning out to be a hit even among our LGBT protégés.
§ It seems this week the Thai government has decided not to buy two submarines, and not to dig the Kra Canal across the southern peninsula. Nor is there any progress on building a high-speed rail line connecting Beijing to the Gulf of Siam. Any of these projects would benefit China and would help Xi fulfill his grand plan for turning China into the main actor in this century. I thought that the Thai Navy had really sewed-up the deal.
In retrospect, none of these things should have been surprising.
The government’s irrational and largely ineffective campaigns against alcohol have a long history. In order to nod toward conservative Buddhist prohibitionists without actually impacting liquor sales and the tax revenue it brings, laws have often been enacted, such as the ban on liquor sales between 2 and 5 p.m. (supposedly so children don’t drink on the way home from school). For a while liquor sales in bulk were permitted so retail deliveries wouldn’t be inconvenienced, but that loop hole was stopped for no obvious reason, even though no school children ever bought beer by the truck load. One should not expect rationality beyond the penchant for making a show of cooperating without actually being bothered to make a difference.
As for genocide or ethnic cleansing to rid Myanmar of Rohingya settlers (resident on the western rim of Myanmar for more than 2 centuries), getting rid of them was decided upon long ago. Hope prevailed, briefly, that Aung Sang Suu Kyi would moderate the militant loathing that the Burmese majority has for this ethnic group. This was always a hope too far. As atrocities continued, sooner or later the United Nations or somebody was going to find a whistle-blower and then it would be a new game.
The question is, “What IS the Thai military up to?” Internal shifts in its power and options have placed things back in the shadows where the elite prefer for them to be. For a while it looked as if the military had become the government by buying off the royal elite. That is, by raising no objections to expropriation of funds and employment of a small private army as the only army units inside Bangkok. This sort of opaque military power in uneasy control of government is how it’s been for almost a century. The last thing any Thai Prime Minister has ever wanted to do is to talk about it.
Clearly, the Milk Tea Alliance didn’t get its allies all on board. It is forever difficult to expand a politically-based movement to include the population as a whole, even when cooperation might be to everyone’s benefit. Our gang of LGBTK friends hardly cares about who Yifei Liu is off-screen or what she says.
It would always be a mistake to underestimate China. 55 years ago when I arrived in Thailand for the first time I was told, “Remember, the great fact of Asia is China.” It’s probably complicated, but my guess in the meantime is that this submarine deal is another example of how Thailand makes a big show of doing something huge with China, but then needs to back off. The COVID-19 economic slow-down was mentioned as the need to delay buying the subs. The fact that Laos made news this week for having realized it is now hopelessly in debt to China for deals it made, and that China is attaching strings to turn the country into a puppet, may have something to do with postponing the submarine deal. Or the widespread public reaction to the idea that submarines are more important than public welfare could have been a factor. China will have to wait. But China is very patient when necessary.
Thai Halloween is today, wan-pen duan sip-song – full-moon of the 12th month. The reason it is called “Halloween” by those familiar with the Western holiday is that folk-tradition says that on this day ghosts of ancestors (and others) are “released” to wander the earth. The eternal torment of ghosts is hunger. On this one day a year they can come looking for sustenance. It would be a terrible thing if one’s mother or father were to come looking for something to eat and no one had provided anything for them. Dutiful children could not bear the thought. But how is this food to be provided?
Around here it is customary to prepare a traditional northern Thai meal built around sticky rice, a steamed meat and herbal dish, chili paste (green or red), pork curry, and a sweet something such as sticky rice with boiled peanuts inside. The older generation cannot do without mian (fermented tea leaves to chew with crystallized salt) and a cigar.
This is brought to the local temple to be first presented to the monks, who accept it with a blessing and then pour water to transfer the blessing to the ancestors. The sacks of food are left at the temple, having been divided between the monks and the ancestors.
We do what we can. That is the best that can be done.
How this fits into Northern Thai Buddhism is a bit complicated. First, the actual status of ancestors is uncertain. When someone dies their “spirit” or “ghost” tends to be disoriented, but the funeral rituals are to insure that the ghosts “depart” to their destiny. That would be a blissful-heavenly state for those whose accumulated merit warrants such a reward, or punishment in narok which is usually imprecisely translated “hell” but is more like purgatory where accumulated demerit is purged. Then the departed ones are reborn, which is a continued opportunity to acquire merit worthy of being able to achieve the spiritual break-through into the egoless state of enlightenment wherein one breaks out of the endless cycle.
Everyone who went to the temple this morning did so in behalf of ancestors who are possibly not yet reincarnated. The ancestors are “working out” their accumulated demeritorious past lives. We cannot be sure about what’s going on with them. It is possible that somehow something done this morning is a help. The food is a contribution to the monks in the temple. That is meritorious. The merit is symbolically transferred to the departed ones. That might hasten things along for them. (Merit transfer is controversial. Strict Buddhism has no room for it. But on this inauspicious day if mother and father are wandering forth ravished with hunger, well, their favorite meal awaits. They may be unable to actually eat it, for such is the punishment of those in narok. But there may be comfort from knowing they are remembered. Or maybe there is some mysterious way they can benefit from real food on this one day of the year.
This annual event is one of the best examples of how Buddhist religion and supernaturalism overlap. They are based on entirely separate narratives which at one level are incompatible. But they have been accommodated by each other in a way that satisfies people. One could “feed” the ancestors without involving the temple. Some folk traditions in the region do that. One could provide food for the monks without thinking that ancestors derive any benefit or even still interact with this realm of existence. Providing food for monks is the most significant indicator of one’s participation in Buddhist customs and beliefs. But food in Northern Thai Buddhism is the most meritorious offering one can make. (I think that whereas folks back in Illinois bring flowers (to church on memorial occasions or to funerals) people here in Chiang Mai bring food.)
Filial piety is more than obedience out of necessity or duty, or even because of gratitude. On a day like today the element of devotion can be glimpsed. This is not a devotion in which one can “take refuge” and find protection or salvation. This is the sort of awe-struck sense that “something beyond human understanding” is being perceived here.
On Wednesday 26 August, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha warned, “…just wait, everybody will be on fiery land, engulfed in flames,” if student protests keep going. He was responding to a month of entirely peaceful student rallies protesting his authoritarian regime. So far the action his government has undertaken is to arrest a few young speakers (since the student movement does not have an identifiable leader). The government has also resorted to banning more than 1024 anti-government URLs online, including Facebook. Facebook has declared it will use its considerable resources to fight this.
How this is going to lead to the nation in flames is impossible to imagine unless the PM sends out his military incendiaries.
Just a few hours earlier Belarus’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, wielded an assault rifle as he arrived in Minsk by helicopter with his 15-year old son in battle gear and also carrying an automatic weapon. It was a photo-op moment. Lukashenko recently “won” a “fixed election” having banned or jailed all viable opposition candidates to insure continuation of his quarter-century reign. People began to protest, with a Sunday rally on August 16 drawing 100,000 peaceful participants, a historic amount up to that time.
Lukashenko warned his people not to do that again. Anyone joining an opposition protest against the election results would be treated as a terrorist. “We will wring their necks, as one might a duck.”
Apparently the Belarus citizenry was not intimidated. The next Sunday more than 200,000 people came to the rally. That would have been a lot of necks to wring. The military resorted to playing martial music and making demands that the crowd go home. The crowd drowned out the music with chants for Lukashenko to resign. They went home at 6 p.m. as they had planned to do, cleaning up their own debris as they left. Such order by such a large crowd makes it hard for an authoritarian to hit back.
Those were two incidents this week of authoritarian rulers threatening their own citizens. So far the threats have not led to violence on any large scale. That has not been the case everywhere in the world, as we know unless we’ve been living in a cocoon for the past decade.
The authoritarian(s) in the USA have sent armed troops (actually “mercenaries” is the accurate term) against protestors in Portland and several other cities. Hong Kong has now succumbed to the same martial order as the rest of China, following unsuccessful police action against citizen protest rallies. In the Philippines, President Duterte is continuing his war of threats against various segments of his population, but his actual shooting war against Muslims in the South and his license to kill whoever might be involved with narcotics seems to have ended in cease fires.
So far in this year of raging forest fires, worldwide pandemic, and civil unhappiness, threats against one’s own citizens has not worked. For it to work the citizens have to be manipulated into sharp divisions with a targeted opponent agreed upon by overwhelming consensus by one side. Then the threats can be real.
Last Sunday a crowd of mostly young people filled Bangkok’s “main street” at the Democracy Monument. Reports at night when the crowd was at its peak counted at least 25,000. It was the largest gathering since the 2014 military coup displaced a freely elected government. Everybody held their breath. The history of large gatherings at that site by young people has been bloody. The event went ahead and then concluded without major incident. Everybody still held their breath. Aftermaths of past rallies have led to arrests. But it now is beginning to seem that something basic is different this time.
On Monday, in schoolyards as the national anthem was played during “opening exercises” (as we used to call them) students raised the 3-finger salute representing “revolt” in the “Hunger Games” films, which has been adopted as the protest signal by the young. A few years ago kids were arrested for doing that. It was different this time.
Before 2014 there were two huge factions in Thailand, one wearing red shirts and one wearing yellow shirts. The red shirts were supporting the populist movement of “the people” who elected large majorities in the Thai Parliament three times – they were unstoppable. The yellow shirts were called “royalists” but they were mostly metropolitan business people and the urban elite. The young people at rallies these days wear white shirts; if they want to show their loyalty it’s to “none of you who got us into this mess.” White shirts, white bows, the young folks are creating their own insignia as they arise.
There are, naturally, a plethora of suggestions on the internet about what’s behind the unprecedented restraint being shown by those with guns and uniforms, large prison trucks, and water cannons (being kept well back on side streets). Some say members of the royal family have ordered and advocated letting the young people speak, even if the things they say are strictly illegal. Others say there must be “something going on” among the ultra-elite, because they surely still run things.
Nobody knows where this is going to end.
The young people have arisen to demand constitutional reforms back to the levels provided by previous constitutions (the present one is the twelfth since the democratic revolution of 1932 which replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch is also “under the law.”) The speakers and singers at this spate of rallies, of which the one on Sunday was the latest and largest, were openly advocating reductions in powers being taken by the monarch as well as the government. Even vague suggestions like that a little while ago would have been quickly smashed. The fist may still strike, but it has not done so yet.
Even if there is a retaliation as the elite fear losing control, the arising of the young people with their undisguised unhappiness about the way things are being done at the highest levels is now a historic precedent. This, above all, has caught the attention and ignited the imaginations of people all over the country and even out here in our end of the valley tucked between the mountains.
When it comes to a showdown between the power of the people and the power of authoritarianism, in the end the people will find “the odds are always with you.”
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.