During the modernizing period of Thai history (ca CE 1840-1940) the emphasis was on conforming to European rigid binary types, especially for the royal and elite classes. Women’s hair was to be long and men’s hair short. Women were heavily clad from chin to ankles and carried parasols; men wore shirts and jackets and tall silk hats if they could afford them and carried walking sticks. Men had one way of sitting and women another, and these varied by social class and circumstance. Women’s duties and recreation increasingly differed from men’s but heavy scorn was reserved for boys who played like girls.
When King Mongkut, Rama IV, ascended the throne of Siam in 1851 the threat of imposed colonization was rising. European empires were expanding and trouble was on the way for Siam and its vassal states. His Majesty was an avid reader of newspapers, especially those from Singapore where he learned as much as he could about what the British expected of a modern civilization. That was the beginning of an effort to modernize to protect Siam from being forcibly included in the British Empire. The nation’s greatest modernizer was King Chulalongkorn, Rama V, 1868 to 1910. He felt it was both prudent and necessary to expand agriculture from simple subsistence farming into an economic resource to develop funds with which to begin building a modern country. He also wanted the rapidly increasing foreign observers to notice how the county was civil. Railroads, steamships, and modern buildings would do that. Another indicator was how the elite, at least, looked. Westerners of the Victorian Era insisted on rigid gender identities. They commented ceaselessly on how backward Siam was in this regard. Photographs from that time showed that other principles than being modern were guiding such things as hair styles and dress. The King could not mandate changes of style for the population at large, but he had the say with regard to his very large household and those he employed. In the move to modernize, one critical area was law. The king hired international experts to draft a comprehensive code to conform to international codes, but the project stumbled over family law. This issue was to remain unsettled for 70 years with the ostensive reason being that polygamy was considered a unique cultural characteristic and there was no need after a thousand years to abandon it just to conform to European standards and morals. Something about everything should remain Siamese, the argument went. So when Italianate palace buildings were erected they included Siamese roof lines, and when European court dress was adopted, trousers and skirts were Siamese. When King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, ascended the throne in 1910 the issue of legalizing family law was a major matter, and that depended on a decision about polygamy (actually polygyny since only men ever could have multiple spouses). Under Rama VI conformity to standards stipulated by the King became a measure of how Siamese one was. Well into the twentieth century the pressure to modernize did not extend far from the compounds of the rich and royal. But gradually, an element of elitism began to burden the matter of how ordinary people dressed and cut their hair. The elite dressed stylishly modern, and those who did not were clearly socially inferior. Indeed, their ethnic communities were not fully Siamese. This was a matter of growing shame (although under Rama XI [1946-2016] ethnic diversity became a matter of civic pride).
The absolute monarchy was brought to an end in 1932 by a revolution led by “Young Turks” in the military from the middle class who wanted more modernization and less monarchy. One of the early acts of the people’s parliament was to reverse the policy that had defended polygamy as a unique cultural heritage. Right away, Siam’s full-fledged constitution and legal code at international standards and with mostly international nomenclature enabled Thailand to join the community of nations as an equal. All nations lifted their extra-territorial treaties and ended the last vestige of proto-colonization of Thailand.
Ironically, this modernization of family law finally ratified an elitist position that disqualified whole sectors of the population from the sort of full inclusion they had always had. Under family law after 1934, all Thai citizens were one of three types: Mr., Mrs., or Miss. There were no exceptions for people after they came “of age”. Gone were categories of minor wife, temporary wife, secret wife, and slave wife (that had ended when slavery was abolished [about which I shall produce another essay later]), those women were legal nonentities without recourse to justice, as were prostitutes of all types. The end of these types of wife meant that even the King had no minor wives, concubines, or others – most of whom had been acquired for political reasons and to insure a large, loyal cadre of royal sons to assume control of government agencies and functions. Since there was no “Inner City” (wrongly called a harem) behind the Grand Palace there was no longer any need for eunuchs, so these were not mentioned in the new family law code. Eunuchs were perhaps the smallest gender group to be ignored in the law. One of the largest groups suddenly non-legal (but not yet illegal) was kathoeys. Although Buddhist monks were excluded from the list of Mr., Mrs., and Miss they were no legal problem because they were not officially citizens, having no right to vote, own property, inherit wealth or titles, or to live outside the Sangha and its stringent regulations. Nor were they an exception to the sexual binary theory. They were “obviously” all males. The law entitled and protected them as a group. But kathoeys were gender deviates when binary monogamy insisted there were only two sexes.
Before changes in family law began to become a reality, homosexuals of all types were given all rights and access to the type of justice specified for their rank in society. They were simply people scattered within the socio-political levels of Siam. They had their place. But that had little or nothing to do with who they loved or how they lived with them. Members of royal families had duties to perform that took precedence over everything, but being homosexual was less relevant throughout the rest of society. In this system fathers controlled families, princes controlled fathers, and kings controlled princes. There was only one case of a gay liaison among princes being prosecuted, and it was for disobedience. Indeed, Rama VI was tolerant of gay relationships to a scandalous extent, although he finally married in order to try to produce an heir.
It is hard for those of us living in the twenty-first century to realize what it was like to have one’s place in the cosmos become unclear. Theoretically, the modern legal system takes care of all individuals, treating them equally under the law. But under Thai family law there are gaps. The issue today is how these gaps are addressed, whether by the slow process of cultural shift later codified into law, or by the more aggressive means of recognizing the need to have a law even if society may not be uniformly in favor of it.
We hear that the military government of Thailand is anxious to promulgate a new constitution and have elections. The word is that gay civil partnerships (but not marriages) will be included in the new law. That would fill one of the gaps to a small extent. Sexual diversity, however, is a culturally shifting matter. There are now more identifiable categories of gender and sexuality than before. Simultaneously, the whole idea of elitism and exceptionalism is under siege. Twenty first century needs will not be addressed by nineteenth century means. We would not want to go back to the waning feudalism of the post-Ayutthaya era where homosexuals were fully included but endured the same suppression as everyone else in their level of society.
Still, it is fascinating that there was a time when gender diversity was taken for granted.
Notice the costume and hair-style changes from Rama IV to Rama VI, reflecting attempts to conform to Western ideas of civilization without becoming slavish. Notice, also, that the population outside the palace did not much care about that. – Some of the concepts of the evolution of family law are thanks to Assoc. Prof. Tamara Loos of Cornell University in her excellent study Subject Siam: Family, Law, and Colonial Modernity in Thailand published by Silkworm Books in 2006.
“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.” John Milton, Paradise Lost
The town of Paradise, California was burned to the ground on Friday, November 9, 2018. The town of 27,000 mostly retired blue-collar residents was in the path of a hillside brush fire powered by 40 mile-per-hour winds. The mayor thinks maybe 90% of the houses in town are lost. 23 people died, many burned so badly only bone fragments remain, and 100 are missing after 2 days. As of Sunday the fires are burning all the way down to Chico, 8 miles away, and are only 20% contained. It became the most devastating wildfire in California history, expanding to more than 100,000 acres (about 405 square kilometers, more than ten times the area of the Municipality of Chiang Mai). For two days fires spread at a rate of about one football field every 8 seconds. The most poignant images are long lines of burned cars caught in the fires, gridlocked on blocked roads and burned. Occupants abandoned the vehicles if they could and ran for their lives.
Paradise is gone.
Will it return? The human spirit is incredibly strong. But it will take more than a cheer-leading squad from the Chamber of Commerce to restore Paradise. The devastation is so total that the normal knee-jerk response, “Of course we will rebuild,” is strangled. Thousands of independent decisions will tell.
Nature will restore what nature destroyed, but nature has no special regard for the human species. If the next rains are heavy there will be floods and mudslides before green growth covers the hillsides again. Nature is ultimately inexorable.
“Scientists say these fires are worse than ever because of global warming,” the wire services announced. Of the 20 worst fires of this type in California, 13 were since 2000 and the largest was the one we’re talking about. At the same time another hillside conflagration was causing an even greater number of evacuations north of Los Angeles. Up to a quarter of a million were fleeing Malibu and surrounding areas, abandoning stretches of the state’s most expensive real estate and leaving mansions ablaze.
Human agency is accountable not only for the scope of the disaster in Paradise but also for the nature of responses to it.
The first comment from the top man in Washington DC was to heartlessly threaten to CUT funds, declaring the cause of the destruction was poor forest and water management, which, he implied, were none of his concerns. His intent was to divert attention from climate change, which he denies and which his policies are thwarting all efforts to remediate. California officials snapped back that the forests on fire are all owned by the national government or (10%) in private ownership, so Washington DC is the major keeper of these forests which have been subject to serious budget restrictions from on high. The Man’s wiggling reminds me of a predecessor evicted from Paradise who similarly protested, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Who are the keepers in Paradise?
The first to rush in as everyone was rushing out were fire crews. Although they lost the war to save Paradise, they won some battles. A few houses, the high school and the main hospital building remain. When there were no more ambulances, doctors and nurses drove their own cars through the fires lining the road to take critically ill hospital patients to safety as the cardiac care unit was gutted behind them. Churches and public buildings in Chico opened doors to take in refugees. 27 thousand permanently displaced persons is a lot to take care of. Another equal amount is being evacuated there in Butte County as the fires spread and threaten.
But this is no short-term crisis. Paradise is lost. The refugees cannot go back where they came from. They will be hungry day after day. Who will be their keepers next?
Who will keep the promises of Paradise when Paradise is lost?
I was not yet in high school when I began to suspect I had a future in public speaking. In the course of my very long career I have made more than a thousand presentations and speeches (including sermons). Most of them disappeared without a trace. I remember a few, not always because they went well or made an impact. Some were almost disasters and that is why I remember them. Now, at the end of my public speaking and as the holiday season approaches, I am feeling nostalgic, so I will describe nine of my memorable experiences.
1. Dr. E. John Hamlin, principal of the Thailand Theological Seminary, asked me in 1967 to prepare a presentation on a topic of my choosing, based on my very recent years in seminary. I attempted to describe how US churches and theological education were being impacted by the US Civil Rights movement and suggested that there were parallels between the racism in the USA and the sub-culture status of Christians in Thailand. That did not go over well.
2. In 1999 four seminary students and I spent a week in May visiting Christian schools. It was the beginning of a new academic year in Thailand and I proposed to provide an inspirational program for a few of our smallest schools. We visited 5 schools with an hour of “Music and Magic” infused with thoughts about how learning can be magical, too. We were a hit.
3. Of the hundreds of funeral services I have conducted in the USA the most memorable was for a middle-aged cerebral palsy victim who tried to kill her mother and commit suicide. A policeman and I had to break down their front door to get to them. What does one say at the funeral of one who tried to murder her mother?
4. After the first two Harry Potter books came out in Thai translation (at the time the 4th book was published in English), the first movie was released. Grasping the idea that children were reading the books in both Thai and English, and they were all going to see the movie, I developed a workshop for teachers in which one set of supplemental language learning activities was how to produce games based on popular literature. The teachers told me what they wanted was packaged games that didn’t require hours of preparation, so our follow-up workshops went better.
5. For a couple of years in college I worked as a volunteer chaplain’s assistant in the Jacksonville State Hospital for the mentally ill. One of my jobs was to present short worship services in locked wards. One Sunday morning the Lord’s Prayer was a trigger for a patient. “God would NOT lead us into temptation,” he shouted over my, “Deliver us from evil.” Two attendants had to restrain him as he jumped from one table to another trying to get to me.
6. The most memorable funeral service I ever conducted in Thailand was a graveside service for Mr. Silver. More than 800 villagers gathered in the cemetery with machetes, pitch forks and assorted knives to prevent the burial. They didn’t want a moldering body left anywhere in the vicinity. We wisely agreed to a cremation, but subjected the crowd to a sermon on the Christian concept of death and resurrection as we waited for volunteers to bring fuel.
7. I was a periodic speaker at the weekly convocations for students at Christian University of Thailand from 2001 to 2007. One of my talks was “Ethics on the Ban Paew Road,” a highway that runs by the university. I had slides of traffic situations, each leading to the question, “What’s the ethical thing to do?” The summary was, “Ethical driving involves 3 questions, ‘Is it legal? Is it safe? And is it courteous?’ But not ‘Is it convenient?” if any of the 3 main questions should be answered, ‘No.’” It is a principle that applies to a lot of other circumstances as well as traffic.
8. The night Pramote and I got married in Indianola, Iowa I was a presenter at Simpson College. The topic was, “Gender Ambiguity: Case Studies in Thailand.” I have presented variations on that topic several times and it is the basis for a book of anecdotes. That first presentation in the evening, after our court-house wedding in the morning, the champagne reception at Dr. Lora’s home, and a party at a bar-b-que restaurant, is still the most memorable. How could a presentation on a day like that not be memorable?
9. I have fondness for my most recent presentation, which may be my last. It was on “Four Domains of Faith in Thailand.” I have really good pictures to go with the topic explaining that these overlapping domains are orthodox religion (especially Buddhism), supernaturalism, veneration (saints and royalty), and spirituality (self-development programs that maximize one’s potential). I’d say this is a distillation of decades of observation. I gave the presentation once. The audience was small. I’m saving the PowerPoint file in case someone calls with an invitation to present it again.
Over the last few years I have done a lot of thinking about costumes. This season is another time to consider the matter as Halloween is just over and Christmas is coming, with a lot of costumes gathering around the “jolly old elf” and a great many Nativity plays and pageants. Also, a young acquaintance who is a pastor in Iowa became vocal about how a local school had come up with a coloring contest, this past week, offering a prize for the best rendition of Sugar Skulls, a stylized confection and type of face painting used by Latin American ethnic groups on the Day of the Dead, Die de Muertos, now conflated with All Saints’ Eve (Halloween), All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day. She was alarmed that the school was turning something culturally important into a coloring contest, meaning that its cultural significance was being ignored. Her list of things she had learned to avoid, included dressing in Native American attire (a painful but important lesson she had learned when she wore a Pocahontas dress a few years ago), and conducting Christian Sedar Services on Passover.
Confession time: I was once the proud owner of a set of Native American dance costumes that I had taken hundreds of hours to make, and I used them in woodland settings complete with a tipi, to teach little Christian boys to do dances and learn about the Trail of Tears that ran right through our camp. I also once studied how a Messianic Jewish Congregation in Illinois conducted a Sedar service, and our Presbyterian congregation did the same, complete with a meal including gefilte fisch, matzos and Mogen David wine. The decades have passed, and perhaps I would not do those things again, although I will still defend having done them at the time and place we did them.
That brings me to the notion that PURPOSE and CONTEXT matter.
Let’s say that some folks in the USA have a Thai classical dance costume and mask. How wrong would it be to wear it to an event in, say, Los Angeles? (1) Suppose a high school was putting on an international day, as many better schools do. Would it be culturally insensitive to have someone wear the costume and perhaps dance in it? (2) OK, now suppose the event is a Halloween party? (3) Next, suppose the project is a student-produced movie in which the character appears in a nightmare segment to murder a character, as does happen in several of the 125 scenes of the classical dance drama. (4) Finally, suppose the school has a majority of ethnic South East Asian students and they choose that character to be their sports mascot.
None of those uses would be automatically exempt from criticism. Thai classical masked dance drama is a key cultural marker, and it is the symbolic bridge that links Thai culture and royalty to ancient archetypes and divinities. Actors who train to perform these dances are expected to venerate the character they represent and to pay worshipful respect to the unbroken line of inspired teachers. However, we might expect little objection to the first use, as an example of Thai culture in an exposition of international culture. The remaining three would be over the line between respectful and disrespectful. Who, on the other hand, retains the right to draw the line? And what criteria will they use?
As with my friend’s experience this past week, in the USA anybody can claim the right to an opinion about a matter of cultural exploitation. Criticism might come from anywhere and attack any aspect of the issue. But there is a difference between informed and uninformed criticism, as there is between one platform and another.
Here’s how it would work in the cases I have proposed. In effect, the masks and characters as well as the scripts for presenting dance episodes of the Ramakian are owned by the Palace. The Thai Ministry of Culture has an assigned duty to judge and enforce decisions about those things. Certain institutions are authorized to provide training and performances. Movements, musical accompaniment, and costume details are set. But masks are commercially available and export is not restricted in any way. Paintings or photographs of performances are for sale and if you hang one in your family room it will not be considered insensitive or wrong. Still, to find a demi-god racing back and forth encouraging a touch-down would count as a misuse of the character.
Similarly, Thai Boxing is a symbol of Thailand and its culture. It is an evolved form of martial arts adjusted to more closely conform to standard athletic competitions. Some elements of the martial-arts past cling to the bouts, including the ritual invocation dance of the fighters. However, I cannot imagine a circumstance in which a person dressed as a Thai boxer would be heavily accused of cultural exploitation. Any of the four events described above could involve a Thai boxer. The Ministry of Culture has no guidelines or monitors checking on who wears a boxing costume, or who teaches Thai boxing. There is a Ministry of Sports and Recreation that might have strong opinions about events that pass themselves off as Thai boxing championship competitions.
So, what about your Halloween costumes, your plans for Christmas plays, and on to Chinese New Year and Mardi Gras? I believe that if an event is for the purposes of cultural demonstration it will pass if it is reasonably accurate … UNLESS the characters represented were victims of cultural suppression. The right judge would be authoritative members of that culture. You’re going to be safe if you stick to completely fictional characters like Superman, Santa Claus, and Harry Potter … UNLESS they intrude into the wrong realm of presentation. (I can imagine Spiderman hanging over the manger of the Baby Jesus, but I cannot imagine it being right.) The right judge would be authoritative members of the culture being intruded upon. You will probably be as sensitive as necessary if your all-white choir belts out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on Martin Luther King’s Birthday, whereas, it might not go over with the same level of appreciation in a candle-light Christmas Eve service.
Nothing is right about any portrayal of oppressed people that ignores their oppression. Nothing is right about any costume that ridicules a culture.
[For previous essays on related topics I refer to: www.kendobson.asia/blog/black-lives-matter www.kendobson.asia/blog/who-says and www.kendobson.asia/cultural-theft and I invite your comments.]
These two Halloween stories are how I remember them after all these years. In other words, accuracy is coincidental.
The most haunted house in Chiang Mai is gone. I noticed a big plowed field the other day where the house had been since I arrived in the city 53 years ago. As it happens, Google Maps’ street view still has a picture of the old colonial house. It has been vacant and for sale since I first laid eyes on it pedaling my bicycle from language school. It is one of several built when wealthy foreigners and patrons came to town. There was a disaster that few spoke of, that decimated the original family. After a while new owners took over, although they had trouble recruiting domestic staff because the place was famously haunted. Accidents, a fire, disease and then two more suspicious deaths and a horrible hanging added to the ghosts. No one has dared to move in since. Twice the property changed hands and went on sale. It is in a prime location and was of sturdy classic stucco on 3 layers of bricks. It was the sort of place that had historical value, except it was deadly. It was too haunted to inhabit. We’ll see what is planned for the vacant lot.
Probably the most expensive piece of derelict haunted property in Chiang Mai is the former Poi Luang Hotel. It still stands, gutted and forlorn, as well as perpetually for sale. The hotel was constructed during the first wave of the tourist boom. It sits on the corner of the highway to Bangkok and Sankampaeng Road which was being developed to attract tourists and showcase Chiang Mai’s amazing handicraft industry – silk weaving, wood carving, traditional umbrellas, silver craft, celadon pottery, bronze ware, gems, lacquer ware, basketry, teak furniture, and much more. The hotel had a revolving restaurant on top that revolved about twice and couldn’t be coaxed to do it again. Sometime in the late 1980s there was a tragedy, resulting in deaths (or maybe I’m confusing that with the Chiang Inn where Legionnaires’ Disease killed a bunch), anyhow, guests began reporting ghosts in the hallways and registrations fell way down. No amount of exorcism could get rid of the ghosts. The hotel was sold to a consortium of physicians who began to convert it into a hospital. As the hospital-to-be was encased in bamboo scaffolding a storm tore some of it down taking a couple of construction workers to their deaths. It was one thing after another. Then the 1997 Asian financial crisis bankrupted the consortium. The building has been vacant ever since. The hotel was briefly attractive for clandestine trysts. The last one of those ended in a murder, adding still another ghost. Graffiti enthusiasts gave up shortly afterward, telling tales of ghosts they encountered. I understand the estimated cost of tearing the building down is still more than the property is worth. So the ghostly hotel remains, haunted.
This Halloween blog marks the end of our sixth year. This is our 312th posting, for an average of exactly one per week. At present we have about 2500 “hits” a week by 400 of you. Next week we will begin year seven on the same eclectic range of current events, LGBT issues, Northern Thai village life, and Thai Buddhism and Christianity. Again, thanks to our intrepid webmaster for his skill and persistence. Blessings to everyone as we maneuver through trying times.
Nominating Sirisak Chaited as THAI TRANS HERO OF 2018.
Evidence that Sitisak (nickname Ton) is our most forthright advocate of gay rights is Ton’s own postings on social networks. [Pictures above and permission to use them and say nice things about our hero were obtained in an interview October 23, 2018].
Sirisak has smashed barriers and defied boundary markers more boldly than anyone in Thailand this year. He has rebranded himself as the bald binary bomber. Sirisak’s identity is fluid. “Now she’s femme … now he’s not!” Always both. Sirisak is so “Teflon” nothing sticks. Lately, Ton has been attracting attention wearing nothing but a couple of conflicting gender signals and holding a sign or two warning against a range of conceptual wrongs.
Nobody attracts attention like Sirisak.
Sirisak Chaited is a Chiang Mai resident. He graduated 15 years ago as a German language major from Payap University. He has been a gender rights advocate for nearly two decades and has been an activist volunteer since 2545 (CE 2002). He spends much time with M+, Chiang Mai’s best known HIV-AIDS prevention and education organization. He is owner of two businesses in Chiang Mai, from which he still manages to take time to respond to invitations all over the country to represent gender-rights causes.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe we hear a memo of the Trump administration has been leaked to the New York Times in which the US government is proposing to re-define transgender out of existence. The idea is to make it definite under the law that one’s sexuality is exclusively and unchangeable the one assigned at birth. That would make “Transgender” as well as “Intersex” legally impossible, and pave the way for still more oppressive actions against the rest of us on the LGBT spectrum.
Backlash and furor have been immediate.
I have doubts about this flash. Every time some outrage has been ignited by Trump-Pence in the past two years, it’s served to deflect attention from something wretched being concocted by Ryan-McConnell-Pence a few blocks away. At the moment, it occurs to me they’re afraid the election in 3 weeks may be trouble for them. What better way to get their homo-hysterical voter base agitated than to have them inflamed with pictures of angry people massing in front of the White House with pink and powder-blue flags?
We are so manipulated.
It is a delicate time in both Thailand the USA (not to mention Taiwan, Malaysia, Russia, and scores of other countries). Basic human rights incorporated in national laws are being acted upon. In Taiwan, a national referendum about marriage equality is coming on November 24. In the USA a national election on November 6 may help restore power to balance decisions on gender issues upset by recent Supreme Court appointments. In Thailand, committees are gathering opinions about how to expand civil rights to persons, regardless of gender. It will make a big difference if individuals get to designate their sexuality in the forthcoming Thai constitution expected before national elections next February.
Here in Thailand political activism is suppressed, but for the time being the door is again open for human rights advocates to raise consciousness on issues and help generate positive public opinion. Sirisak has turned himself into an icon, and now that he is a celebrity he is even being invited to lead training sessions for novice advocates. Internet social networks provide a forum, to which Sirisak’s protégés, followers, and target audience devote hours a day; but he has the courage to be fabulous enough to grab their attention. He is recognized, but he is brilliant at turning his recognition into advocacy for every form of gender diversity.
I wish we had more heroes like Sirisak Chaited.
There has been a lot of talk during the last couple of weeks about how dangerous it is for boys (and men) these days, because if they are accused of being predatory they are guilty until proven innocent, which is next to impossible. Although I agree with the #Me Too movement, I am reminded that this issue is certainly not new. Peter Pan comes to mind.
Peter Pan was domesticated the night of December 27, 1904 when the curtain opened at the Duke of York’s Theater, London on the first night of “Peter Pan, or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.” The character of Captain Hook on stage was so commanding that when Peter was victorious he was a hero. This is not what J.M. Barrie had in mind when he wrote the play. To Barrie, Peter was a shadowy character, reflecting Barrie’s own ambiguous relationships with adults and peers. Peter had a vivid fantasy life which blocked his ability to come back home from one of his flights of fancy (that and his mother’s fickle affections which she transferred to a new sibling). From then on Peter was locked out of his home and stranded in Neverland where he was chief of a gang of boys whom he had enraptured, captured, bullied, sometimes killed, and constantly controlled through mind-games.
Neverland, as Barrie conceived it, was no idyllic playground, but was a prison island where the inmates battled for their survival simply because war-games were what they knew. Barrie’s conception was that the boys handled their survival struggles by treating them as childhood play, rather than face the grim reality that it was actually about life and death, as all life is. In Neverland it is the trickster, the conjurer of fantasy, who is in control and who is fulfilled by consigning his prey to perpetual childhood.
That, and only that, is the central fact about Neverland, although a century of gossip mongers have persisted in projecting their comparatively pale, pedophiliac phobias onto the lords of Neverland, the asylum for boys who wouldn’t grow up.
It might be a stretch for us, after decades of indoctrination and consciousness-raising about the latent debilitating effects of sexual child abuse, to agree that there are worse things than can happen to a boy.
The court of public opinion has been swayed by testimony from his boys who wouldn’t grow up and his biographers, that Barrie was probably sexually impotent, that he never made sexual advances, and that his guilt was different than suspected.
It now seems clear that James Matthew Barrie “did a ‘Peter Pan’” and engineered a complex scheme to abscond with a couple’s boys, capturing them for himself, and in the process gestated the story of “Peter Pan and Wendy”, as he entitled his book finally written in 1911. The boys in question were the five sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn Davies. In 1897 Barrie loved to walk through Kensington Gardens, where nursemaids aired their charges in prams and children cavorted. Barrie loved to play with them, games of imaginary pirates and Indians which he acted out energetically and embellished with magic tricks, accompanied by his shaggy St. Bernard. That is how he became acquainted with the Llewellyn Davies family, at length managing an invitation to a social event with them. Over time Barrie became a close friend and then a virtual relative affectionately called “Uncle Jim”. When the boy’s parents died of cancer Barrie adopted them with the concurrence of the other relatives and on the strength of a handwritten letter in which Sylvia appeared, as Barrie had altered the document, to transfer her sons to Barrie rather than to her sister. Barrie was close to the clan; it was Sylvia’s own brother, Gerald duMaurier, who played Captain Hook and Mr. Darling in the performance that launched Peter Pan into mythic status and made J.M. Barrie rich and famous.
What was sinister about that was that Barrie’s love of the boys was possibly predatory. If Piers Dudgeon is right, as his exhaustive study concludes, Barrie had been scripted by the death of his brother, David, his mother’s favorite. Only when David died of a skating accident was the way open for little Jimmy into his mother’s arms. Anthony Lane says this taught Barrie that “…a perfect child who dies on the eve of his fourteenth birthday will be spared the degradation of growing up, and…the boy will seem scarcely to have passed away at all.”
So Sir J.M. Barrie came to power. He had sons he wanted and he was a widely acclaimed playwright on his way to wealth and glory as a baronet and OM.
Dudgeon is convinced and convincing that Barrie filled his own sexual vacuum with these little boys he had stolen from their family. Tony Rennell refines that estimation, “…his thrills came from the power dynamics of relationships and playing mind games with people, at which he proved a master. That was what made Barrie a dangerous man to know, particularly for children.” The strongest evidence that this was pernicious is culled from surviving letters and corroborated by the tragic deaths of the Llewellyn Davies lost boys, one of whom died in World War I, a second in a drowning (double suicide?) wrapped in the arms of his boyfriend, and a third finally succumbing to the relentless pressures of life identified as a “lost boy in Neverland” by committing suicide, throwing himself under the wheels of a subway train when he was 60. Dudgeon configured that as evidence that the Llewelly Davies boys were undermined by Barrie’s own emotional issues by which they were entombed in eternal, inescapable childhood where Barrie needed them to be.
J.M. Barrie is doing better as time goes by. A 2004 bio-pic about Barrie, starring Johnnie Depp, is kind. And now, serious scholars are daring to depart from the curious idea that Barrie caused the suffering and deaths of the Llewelly Davies boys he loved by life-casting them as little lost boys who can never grow up.
It is not politically correct and it is professionally dangerous to come to the defense of an accused pedophile these days. “They should just be ‘put down’ like a mad dog,” one Internet posting suggested. But Justine Picardie re-examined the evidence about Barrie and concluded, “I remain…uncertain about J.M. Barrie who seemed not to be out to corrupt boys with adult desire, but for himself to rejoin them, in the innocence of eternal boyhood, in a Neverland where children fly away from their mothers and no one need grow old.”
Picardie, J. “How Bad Was J.M. Barrie?” The Telegraph 13 July 2008
Lane, A. “Lost Boys” New Yorker Nov. 22, 2004
Rennel, T. a book review of P. Dudgeon, CAPTIVATED: J.M. Barrie, the duMauriers and the Dark Side of Neverland. Chatto & Windus, 2008
Once upon a time there was a prophet named Jonah. God said to him, “Do your duty. Go to Nineveh and prophesy.” But Jonah hated those people, so he got on a boat going the opposite direction as far as it would go.
Not so long ago a preacher was told, “Go to the Capitol and tell them what Jesus said.” But the preacher thought those old boys were doing great. So he went on TV to tell the world how God loved what was going on.
Out in the middle of the sea a great storm blew up. It grew stronger and stronger, threatening to tear the boat apart. The ungodly sailors, however, caught on that this storm was telling them something.
Tumult began to ravage the land, as historic hurricanes beat upon its cities, and illness went untreated because of huge costs. People everywhere began to worry something had to be done quickly.
Jonah confessed, “Throw me into the sea and you’ll be spared.” The godless sailors hesitated to be so cruel just to save themselves but finally they yielded. The last they saw of the prophet, he was being swallowed by a huge fish.
In the back of the preacher’s mind was concern that those old boys in Distant Capitol were trashing all the values the preacher and his crowd had stood for, but they hated the same things and feared all those people of different colors. The preacher said, “What’s a little wind and rain when we’ve got such fine old men making things great again.” But some were watching in amazement, “OMG! The preacher’s been swallowed whole!”
Down in the deadly deeps, Jonah was wrapped in seaweeds as he succumbed to despair that led to confession. Even in the deadly deeps God was paying attention to Jonah, and God ordered the fish to puke the prophet out back onto the beach where he had started.
The preacher grappled desperately trying to figure out how to be both true to Jesus and loyal to the good old boys thumping each other on the back as they piled up their profitable deals. At last the preacher found himself right back where he’d started
Jonah made it to the huge city of Nineveh, home of the horrible people Jonah hated most. He vowed to do the absolute minimum. Getting himself barely inside the vast city he announced, “You’re done for, three days from now.” Then he turned around and left.
“Well, these days of high-tech, one doesn’t have to really GO to Distant Capitol to have one’s voice heard there,” the preacher decided. So he went on TV again, waved his hands comfortingly and crooned, “Remember Jesus.” Well, that wasn’t so hard
Word spread throughout Nineveh. Panic resulted. The king himself tore his royal robes, put on a burlap shirt and wailed repentance sitting in ashes. The whole city fasted and prayed. Nineveh turned to God. God spared them.
The tousle-headed Good Old Guy was congratulated by his wattle-chinned prime mover. PM declared, “It’s a wrap. We got’em now.” The city was in their hands court, capitol, commerce, and all.
Jonah was livid. “I knew you’d do that!” he railed at God. Poor Jonah wanted to see Nineveh in flames, but all that happened was his own shelter was eaten by worms so it was he who suffered from the heat. He heard that dreaded voice again, “Jonah, Jonah! You’re pissed off at me for saving these millions? Get a grip. Think!”
Outside the city, millions were no longer listening to the preacher. They hadn’t heard him say a word from Jesus for so long that they no longer expected to hear any. They had heard from Jesus directly, however, and they were on the move.
Integrity is the integration of a person’s parts into a contiguous whole, particularly the intellectual and ethical aspects. Integrity means that beliefs and actions, values and expressions, are consistent. One comes to a sense of self-identity by the development of this capacity.
Jean-Paul Sartre was a spokesperson for this way of thinking, and the most fascinating expressions of his rigorous and courageous point of view were in his stories, novels and plays, for which he became world famous, a Nobel Prize recipient for literature, and that rarest of phenomena for philosophers, a popular celebrity. In story after story, Sartre describes how, among our range of options, we choose that which we value most to express who we are.
In his story “The Wall” three prisoners are sentenced to death. They are held in a coal cellar to await their execution the next morning. As the night wears on the prisoners begin to lose their sense of being normal human beings and begin to die.
In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave me my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm – because of my body; my body, I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me; it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn’t recognize it any more. I had to touch it and look at it to find out what was happening, as if it were the body of someone else. At times I could still feel it, I felt sinkings, and fallings, as when you’re in a plane taking a nosedive, or I felt my heart beating. But that didn’t reassure me. Everything that came from my body was all cockeyed. Most of the time it was quiet and I felt no more than a sort of weight, a filthy presence against me; I had the impression of being tied to an enormous vermin. Once I felt my pants and I felt they were damp; didn’t know whether it was sweat or urine, but I went to piss on the coal pile as a precaution. [Sartre, p. 182]
What Sartre is describing, with eloquent pathos, is a sense of disintegration, of fragmentation, and of losing touch with physicality (as well as transcendence, of which Sartre is unremittingly contemptuous).
Finally, the narrator, Ibbieta is isolated, with 15 minutes to live. He can tell his captors where the revolutionary leader Ramon Gris is hiding or Ibbieta will be shot. It is the critical moment of the story.
I…knew that I would not reveal his hiding place. …All that was perfectly regulated, definite and in no way interested me. Only I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct. I would rather die than give up Gris. Why? I didn’t like Ramon Gris any more. My friendship for him had died a little while before dawn at the same time as my love for Concha, at the same time as my desire to live. Undoubtedly I thought highly of him: he was tough. But it was not for this reason that I consented to die in his place, his life had no more value than mine; no life had value. They were going to slap a man up against a wall and shoot at him till he died, whether it was I or Gris or somebody else made no difference. I knew he was more useful than I to the cause of Spain but I thought to hell with Spain and anarchy; nothing was important. Yet I was there, I could save my skin and give up Gris and I refused to do it. I found that somehow comic; it was obstinacy. I thought, “I must be stubborn!” And a droll sort of gaiety spread over me. [Sartre, p. 185]
“I would have liked to understand the reasons for my conduct,” Ibbieta says, and finally concludes, “I must be stubborn!” It boiled down to that, nothing more noble or patriotic for Ibbieta than simple stubbornness. However, for Sartre, there is a great more about it that can be said. All of philosophical existentialism, in fact, is behind Ibbieta’s stand and, Sartre contends, our stands as well. In his essay “Choice in a World Without God” Sartre says:
“If, however, it is true that existence is prior to essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely on his own shoulders. And when we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men.” [Sartre, p. 187]
Sartre was certainly aware that the philosophic background for this position is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Kant’s famous Categorical Imperative that we should “act only according to maxims which you can will also to be universal laws.” In itself, the categorical imperative is not a revolutionary concept, being found virtually everywhere from the so-called Golden Rule attributed to Jesus to Confucian dictums. It was existentialism’s contribution, to insist on this as its “first effect” and to attribute to this ethical principle the role of defining one’s entire destiny.
Of all the actions that a man may take in order to create himself as he wills to be, there is not one which is not creative, at the same time, of an image of man such as he believes he ought to be. To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen; for we are unable ever to choose the worse. What we choose is always the better; and nothing can be better for us unless it is better for all. [pp. 187-8]
Put in more facile terms, “In a Godless world we have no alternative but to choose, and in that sense create, our own values. Yet in doing so we are laying down the ground rules of our own lives. And in doing that we are determining how our own personalities develop: we are creating ourselves.” [Magee, p. 217]
It is a frightening responsibility to be the creator of one’s self. Some forms of Christianity would relieve us of that by having us be compliant to the benevolent plans of a loving God.
Sartre recommends that we always choose that which is better, but he does not say that the better is always, in all circumstances, the ideal. Existentialism is far from idealism. Sometimes the operational principles a person uses are mundane, as when Ibbieta decides to do what he does for no lofty reasons, but because he is stubborn. In another script Sartre would have Ibbieta agree that stubbornness in such circumstances would be recommended for all of us.
If, moreover, existence precedes essence and we will exist at the same time as we fashion our image, that image is valid for all and for the entire epoch in which we find ourselves. Our responsibility is thus much greater than we had supposed, for it concerns mankind as a whole. [p. 188]
That, then, is existentialism’s basic social philosophy. Existentialism’s individualism avoids social chaos by a deft delegation of responsibility, which is based on the premise that human beings are rational.
When a man commits himself to anything, fully realizing that he is not only choosing what he will be, but is thereby at the same time a legislator deciding for the whole of mankind – in such a moment a man cannot escape from the sense of complete and profound responsibility. [p. 188]
Of course, Sartre, of all people, was aware that much of modern history, and contemporary European history, 18th and 19th century French history in particular, bear witness to an irrational, chaotic bent to human social behavior. What of those who are not apparently upset by the greed, sadism, depravity and conceit that their characters and their behaviors exhibit?
There are many, indeed, who show no such anxiety. But we affirm that they are merely disguising their anguish or are in flight from it. Certainly many people think that in what they are doing they commit no one but themselves to anything: and if you ask them, “What would happen if everyone did so?” they shrug their shoulders and reply, “Everyone does not do so.” [p. 188]
Sartre’s argument is not that all people do act responsibly but that they ought to.
But in truth, one ought always to ask oneself what would happen if everyone did as one is doing; nor can one escape from that disturbing thought except by a kind of self-deception. The man who lies in self-excuse, by saying “Everyone will not do it” must be ill at ease in conscience, for the act of lying implies the universal value which it denies. By its very disguise his anguish reveals itself. [p. 188]
This anguish and regret is a burden that existentialism puts back onto human shoulders and removes from God’s. Existentialism never asks whether God is cruel to allow sinful behavior and natural calamity, or just unable to do anything about it. Kant, refused to deny the existence of God, and insisted instead, “It is thoroughly necessary to be convinced of God’s existence, it is not quite so necessary that one should demonstrate it.” Sartre avoids the temptation to shed the blame for human moral failures by denying that God has any role in human affairs. Faced with rising anarchy that came to its peak in the socialist and communist revolutionary movements, Dostoevsky argued that it is God and divine moral law that form the only dependable barrier to the collapse of civilization. Sartre argues that this felt need for something like God does not mean that God exists. He put it this way:
Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn [i.e. in despair and anguish at “abandonment”: Heidegger’s favorite term], for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. [p. 190]
As was the ironic hero Ibbieta, Sartre is also stubborn, obstinate in his insistence that human beings are responsible for their actions and the consequences of them. God cannot be blamed. Frightening as this might be, that’s the way it is.
Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimize our behavior. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free. [p. 190]
“Many people find this freedom and this responsibility too terrifying to face, so they run away from it pretending that they are bound by already existing norms and rules,” one interpreter of Sartre explained. Sartre said these people were acting in “bad faith” and lacked “commitment.” Thus he threw the terms back into the face of the French church.
How, without God, does one achieve this type of stability (or stubbornness) and this level of commitment? One of the most ancient prescriptions explains a way:
55 O Partha, when a man relinquishes all the desires of his mind, and when his spirit delights in itself, then is he called a man of steady wisdom.
56 He whose heart is unperturbed in the midst of calamities and free from longing in the midst of pleasures, from whom attachment, fear and rage have departed, is called a sage of steady reason.
57 He who is unattached in all things, who neither exults in nor feels aversion for any good or evil that befalls him, is said to be steady in his wisdom.
58 When a person withdraws his senses from the objects of sense on every side the way a tortoise draws in its limbs, his wisdom is steady.
59 The objects of sense abandon the man who abstains from feeding on them, but the longing for them does not cease. But even this relish ceases when he has experienced the Supreme.
60 O Son of Kunti, these turbulent senses lead away by force the mind of even the wise man who is striving [for control].
61 Having acquired self-control, he should sit in yoga and meditate on Me [Brahman] alone. He whose senses are thus controlled is steady in his wisdom.
62 A man who contemplates the objects of sense develops an attachment to them; attachment gives rise to desire, and desire results in anger.
63 Anger gives rise to confusion, confusion to loss of memory. Loss of memory destroys intelligence and, once a man’s intelligence is destroyed, he perishes.
64 But the man whose mind is disciplined and whose senses are under control is free from attachment and aversion though he moves among the objects of sense, and such a person attains serenity.
65 And in that serenity, all misery is destroyed; because the intelligence of the man of serenity is also steadied immediately. [Bhagavadgita, ch. 2]
Anyone familiar with the Bhagavadgita is aware that the writing is theistic in its orientation and might not fill the bill as a guide for stability free from God. Yet, anyone that familiar with the Bhagavadgita would also know that the advice is shared in common with atheistic and agnostic Hinduism and with Buddhism. It is yoga and meditation that Sri Bhagavan recommends to control attachment and desire, the causes of human suffering. In the Bhagavadgita it is relinquishment of all desires that is the basis of steady wisdom, whereas in the Bible it is fear of (or reverence for) God that is the beginning of wisdom. On the surface the Bhagavadgita has the final word to say about human integrity and responsibility, including the way to achieve it.
In actual practice, that may not always be the case.
Our friend Linda called yesterday morning from her sister’s house in Virginia. She wanted to hear a friendly voice, she said, “to have a little light in the day.” Linda has come home from the hospital, and is recovering from her second operation on her neck, where they have removed a tumor that was attached to her spinal cord.
A month ago she was driving from California to take refuge at her sister’s, after her money ran out, and while she was driving through Texas her left arm went numb and the fingers on her left hand “just went limp.” She got as far as Nashville before she had to pull into a hospital and call friends.
“Last time the radiation didn’t work,” she reported. “They say this in incurable. The terrible thing is knowing that in a few months it will be back. It is the pain that gives me the most fear. They give me such heavy doses of medicine to keep down the pain that I live in a blur.”
She paused and signed, “I have such morbid thoughts.” Her view of her condition has a right to be morbid, I felt, but I just listened as she changed the subject to her former husband, Ben. He left her and the five girls four years ago to go live with another woman and her 17-year-old heroin addict son. Ben took all the good stuff when he left including the piano and the car, and she had to sue him to keep him from canceling her medical insurance and child support.
Now that the girls are grown and the divorce is final, she has nothing. She’s not bitter about being homeless and broke, but bitter that their twenty-year marriage, and even their five daughters, meant nothing more to Ben than they turned out to mean.
Then she thought about what she was saying to me, “But you know what I’ve been remembering?” she asked rhetorically. “All those old songs are coming back, ‘Count your blessings, count them one by one,’ ‘Safe in the arms of Jesus,’ ‘I walked in the garden alone,’ songs like that.”
Integrity is a product of two fields of energy, so to speak. Concentration, focused attention, or meditation, empowered by energy from the core of our souls in the form of intuition responds to a growing sense of maturity and creativity emanating from our silent center, our unconscious deep within. This maturity comes as freedom from ontological concern, selflessness. Where those two fields of force intersect, there our integrity emerges.
Thirty years ago Elizabeth O’Connor penned it this way in a collection of calligraphy:
To be a liberating community – the New Community –
is to touch not only an individual quiet center,
but a corporate quiet center,
and to drink as a people out of wells of living water.
Out of us
People will begin to marvel at what they see,
but that which is happening flows out of an inner life.
What is seen is visible as a result of this inwardness –
an inwardness that must always be
protected, nurtured, and tended.
Bhagavadgita, The translated by V. Nabar and S. Tumkur, 1997. Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth Editions Ltd.
Magee, B. 1998. The Story of Philosophy. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
O’Connor, E. 1976. The New Community. San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Sartre, J-P. “The Wall” and “Choice in a World Without God” in The World of Short Fiction edited by R. Albrecht, 1969. New York: The Free Press.
Corporate memory often frazzles. Institutional memory is a fragile and devious thing.
Institutions often last much longer than individuals who establish, maintain, and inherit them. Educational institutions can outlast even governments and dynasties. Institutions are sustained by successfully including an influx of new leaders. This is best when it is incremental, allowing new leadership to absorb the accumulated knowledge and unique traditions, as well as the memories of trends, events and people in the past. Meanwhile, institutions need to keep up with the times. An incoming CEO or president has a delicate line to walk between aggressively pursuing change that may have been delayed and alienating significant persons whose commitment has been refined to focus on institutional aspects the new leadership is marginalizing.
In pondering my status in the institutions with which I have been involved over the past 70 years, it is clear that I am now largely irrelevant to most of them now. Whenever I contact them or even show up on their campuses I am initially a stranger. Only the buildings feel like I might belong there, and usually not even them. Since I am outside those institutions, for all intents and purposes, I feel free to offer some advice.
Few events that an institution experiences are dramatic. Institutions are developed one tiny increment and one decision at a time. In fact, spectacular events tend to be destructive ones that threaten the institution. Recovery is then the institutional task, and that means getting back to the tedious tasks of making little decisions. Those rarely restore what used to be.
I remember one day after we re-constructed and re-dedicated the First Presbyterian Church of Alton, IL. The wife of the long-time former pastor was invited to visit as a chapel was dedicated in her husband’s name. She was not appalled at the changes we had brought after the fire had destroyed everything, but she let me know this was no longer the same church of which she had been a key member for a quarter of a century. The building was strange to her eyes, even if many of the people were not. Now most of those people are gone, too, as is she I understand. A couple of years ago I went back to that church after nearly a quarter of a century and the building felt the same, but the people, for the most part, were not. The programs were also different.
Payap University, with which I have been associated in one way or another since 1965, has had 5 fully installed heads with the title president. Each brought a clear vision about what the university might become. Those visions were of Payap being a leading liberal arts institution, then as a new president took over the goal was for the university to develop into a comprehensive university, and more recently the president’s vision was for Payap to be the best international university in the region. None of those visions was fully achieved before perceived realities prompted it to be abandoned in place of a new vision. In the process, of course, a vast amount of institutional knowledge was rendered obsolete. Some of that wisdom stood in the way of progress.
Last month I had lunch with a long-term university insider. His conclusion is that there is an institutional bias against change. Many universities and colleges stay with whatever they have always done even when it is no longer working, and spiral into oblivion (that is, usually, into economic un-viability). In other words, a large institution is too unwieldy and settled to adapt to change.
On the surface, that seems to contradict my contention that institutions have trouble retaining institutional memory. However, I have noticed that resistance to change is not the same as institutional memory. The source of institutional conservatism is usually the collective will of institutional operatives to retain the positions and conditions they have worked to acquire. What is a German language instructor to do if German language courses are dropped from the curriculum? It is only natural that the instructor will try to avoid that. The institutional visionary, on the other hand, is exerting equal energy in proposing some bright alternatives to operations that have become unproductive or obsolete. The institutional historian is neither of these. The historian collects and remembers specifics, dates when decisions were made and reasons for those decisions, the gestalt of key moments in the institution’s history, the names and methods of operation of individuals who got major objectives achieved, and most of all what is the institution’s heart and soul.
It is not unusual for each one of those three functionaries, conservators, innovators, and historians, to see the other two as obstructive. Of course, each of them is valuable if they work together. How to get that happy compatibility is a challenge. Conservators are not simply interested in self-preservation; they are institutional ballast without whom the institution would founder whenever it encounters sufficient turbulence. Innovators are most effective when they can demonstrate that new initiatives have already worked, and can incorporate the aspirations of the institution as well as the wider community and customers (by whatever name). Historians must be narrators who are so skillful that when they speak the institution listens, so they need to be the ones most often in the pulpit or on the platform when the institution gathers to ponder itself.
It is by the cumulative weight of countless decisions that the institution has gotten where it is. It will take countless decisions, each one of them of little apparent consequence, to get the institution to where it is going to be.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.