The “Game of Thrones” 8-season series produced stunningly by HBO, based on George RR Martin’s books (until the final season or two, which were scripted by the HBO producers when Martin didn’t keep up with his writing), was one of the most successful productions in TV history, and the way the story ended was one of the most controversial, eliciting a campaign with a million signatures to demand that HBO do the ending episodes over again.
Professional critics have pointed to the poor writing and rushed wrap-up as the main problems leading to viewer dissatisfaction. There were gaps in the narrative that were unfilled-in. Things happened that weren’t adequately explained. Characters that viewers cared about were abandoned.
The amazing thing for me, far away here in South East Asia, is how this entertainment industry issue assumed the stature of an important world event on a par with Trump’s impeachment, India’s election of a right-wing government, Theresa May’s resignation as Prime Minister of Great Britain, and the US-China trade war. Assuming that this TV story was at least potentially as important as the commentary about it inferred, I have tried to list the most significant criticisms of the way Game of Thrones ended:
Although I have strong views about abortion (see www.kendobson.asia/blog/abortion), this set of comments is about logical argumentation. It is probably too much to hope for consistency in a debate that is divided between whether to use logic or emotion to talk about abortion. But I think arguments in recent weeks have now gone beyond silly into the area of the seriously absurd, and here are some examples I have collected.
Every fertilized egg is a human life and to intentionally terminate its development is equivalent to murder and should be treated as such under the law. The most recent, controversial, and radical law to this effect was enacted in mid-May by Alabama, where they also declared that thousands of fertilized eggs stored in fertility centers to assist impotent couples are not to be covered by this “protection” because they are not in a woman’s uterus. The law is absurd. It cannot be both ways. Either every fertilized egg is a human life or it is not yet, and some other criteria must apply. Feminists and their allies recognize this inconsistency is to put the onus on women and to leave men free of culpability.
A detectable heartbeat is the signal for protections to begin. There are now some 20 US states that have enacted statutes to this effect. The law is absurd on two bases. First, there is no solid medical grounds to determine exactly when that heartbeat begins. Most of the laws go on to stipulate that the final date for a legal abortion would be six weeks after conception, which is before women know they are pregnant and are considering abortions. Obstetric experts say that a fetus is too undeveloped at six weeks to have a heart, and the sound is merely a flutter detectable only with highly developed equipment. A heart of any sort is never formed before eight weeks after conception. That is still before most women would begin to suspect they might be pregnant. “Detectable heartbeat” legislation is an attempt to prevent abortions.
The way to prevent abortions is to prevent pregnancies. The reasoning is simplistic: no pregnancy => no abortion. But the states and organizations who insist on this are also working to prevent accessibility to the very things that are proven to reduce the call for abortions, free access to birth control and holistic sexual health and education services. Colorado, for example, reduced abortions by 42% when those services were provided.
Abortion is sin. This makes abortion a theological matter. Numerous churches insist on this ex cathedra and additional ones teach that it is up to individuals to know it is a sin. Abortion is contrary to the unborn-child’s right to life, which (it goes without saying) has priority over the mother’s right to life. Until recently this has not been the case. Leaders in many of these same churches were active advocates of the law that legalized access to abortion and stipulated it was a matter to be left up to a pregnant woman and her physician. That law was ratified in the famous US Supreme Court Decision “Row v. Wade”. As the current Pope has pointed out, the theological issue rides on the question, “When does a person become ‘ensouled’?” For centuries this question was important in order to be able to say whether a still-born child, an un-baptized infant, or a miscarried fetus had souls. Even in Roman Catholic parishes these “un-souled” did not need funeral rites. The consensus was that the soul came with the first breath. “Soul” is a contentious biblical term that is intimately connected with “breath of life”. “Recent technology” has provided in utero images of fetuses that have swung the consensus to a belief that the tiny being seen in the ultra-sound scan can be nothing other than a tiny baby. Soul is not the issue. Common sense is convincing. But it is not theological. It sets aside theology, as “common sense” convictions always do.
A male perpetrator of rape has rights of paternity. Absurdly, this is actually part of the legislation being enacted in some states. It has the appearance of legal consistency, horrible and unconscionable as it is. Since, the argument goes, a male inseminator is a contributor to the fertilization and genetic composition of the fetus he is equivalent to the father. This gives this despicable male right to a role in the life of both the child-to-be and its mother-to-be, even though he has raped the woman, destroyed part of her life, and is subject to legal prosecution as a criminal for having done that. Recent court decisions (being challenged at the moment) have agreed that the male has the right to disagree with any termination of the pregnancy, in states that still permit abortions. I submit that this is the level of absurdity to which this whole topic has sunk.
TAIWAN AGREES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGES
On Friday, May 17, 2019 Taiwan made history and international headlines by becoming the first country in Asia to take legislative action to establish durable partnerships for same-sex couples and have them recorded as marriages by departments of the government. Going into the legislative session it was anything but sure. The Executive Yuan had drafted a proposal with more than two dozen articles in an attempt to conform to the Council of Grand Justices’ (Supreme Court) mandate two years ago to either draft a law stipulating in what way same-sex couples could be married or on May 24, 2019 the law governing hetero-couples would automatically apply to all couples. [See our blog essay of May 31, 2017: www.kendobson.asia/blog/taiwan-wins.] Last year conservative political groups and Christian organizations proposed ways to stop this from happening, by putting it to a national referendum, not binding on the Legislative Yuan and not in conflict with the legal ruling. The people overwhelmingly rejected the idea of same sex marriages by a 2/3 majority in November 2018. That put the majority party in a bind. But with the deadline looming the executive branch of government drafted a modified plan for recognizing same sex marriages without certain rights to claim children through adoption or surrogacy. Those gaps can be fixed later, LGBT supporters told one another. Two conservative plans were also tabled for the vote on May 17. As the day wore on one after another of the articles proposed by the Executive Yuan were passed by the Legislative Yuan, including Article 4 specifically ordering governmental entities to begin “marriage registration.” More than 200 couples have applied to be married on the first day the law comes into effect. By 4 p.m. the law as a whole passed.
This makes Taiwan the first in Asia to agree to same-sex marriages.
There was celebration in the streets of Taipei as the votes were reported, where 25,000 people gathered in the cold rain to show support for the legislation being voted on inside. [Thanks to the BBC for the splendid picture, above.] International news organizations interrupted their speculation about whether the USA would start a war with Iran and how Brexit was being mishandled to tell the news.
The idea that Taiwan is a leader in progressive human rights is being noticed by people of Chinese ethnicity, especially in Hong Kong where a large minority would like to join the movement toward marriage equality, in Singapore where they want to look progressive but can’t manage to act accordingly, and China (the PRC) where they would like to keep the news about anything like this from spreading.
For this weekend, we’ll be content to say this is an important victory for human rights and a great event to have happened on IDAHOT, the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. Later we’ll consider how religious pressure failed to actually have an effect in this one country, and what that might mean for other countries where small religious minorities try to wield a whip in the name of morality and retarded culture. But in the end we will have to agree that each country in Asia is its own case. The outcome in Taiwan will probably not have much effect on South Korea, Vietnam or Thailand where same-sex rights are being espoused. [See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/taiwan-or-thailand.] Religion will dominate the discussion in the Philippines and Indonesia. [See: www.kendobson.asia/blog/indonesia-moving-backwards.] Brunei scores as the worst case in Asia, even with the Sultan’s comment that they will not yet start stoning gays to death.
Note: Check out Forum Asia's succinct summary of Taiwan's struggle for same sex marriage in this short 8 minute video: "Stories of Change - LGBTI Movement in Taiwan"
The coronation of HM King Vajiralongkorn [in full: His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun, Rama X] held a large portion of the Thai population fascinated last weekend, May 4-6, two and a half years after he became the tenth king of the Chakri Dynasty upon the death of his father. Extensive news coverage and tens of thousands of pictures appearing on-line have recorded what happened. [See picture 1] But I think most of the news media failed to address the deeper question, “What did the coronation accomplish?”
This essay will attempt to answer that question in three steps: (1) The mega-narrative in support of royalty, (2) specific actions in the coronation that reiterated that narrative, (3) the rationale for such an extravagant production.
THE MEGA-NARRATIVE: the Thai perspective
The world we live in was created by eons of physical and chemical processes, of course. But to discern the MEANING of the world and our place in it we resort to symbolic narratives we have inherited from ancient India. Over long centuries, sages meditated on these narratives and developed sub-narratives. One important such story that has much to say about social order is the story of Rama, the rightful king of Ayutaya, and his beloved Sita, and how their relationship was challenged by demonic Totsakan. In order to retrieve Sita, whom Totsakan had abducted, Rama had to enlist the gods and the powers of nature centered on the world mountain in the Himmapan Forest high among the mountains of eternal snow.
All rulers who would have their kingdoms prosper should follow the principles that Rama exemplified, but certain kingdoms are blessed to be heirs of the Kingdom of Ayutaya and its Divine Lord Rama, seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu. This heritage includes a treasure of sacred lore and rites.
In time the wisdom of the sages was expanded, never more importantly than by another Prince of India who was (according to Hindu narrators) another avatar of Vishnu and Rama, Gautama who became the Buddha, the Enlightened One.
It took about a thousand years from the time of the Buddha for migrating people to move among earlier natives and settle into city states in fertile valleys of mainland South East Asia. During that time the legacy and lore of Rama and Sita were passed from the Empire of King Asoka of India to the lands of Lanka and Java, and from there to the Khmer lords who built Angkor Wat and the Khmer Empire. Throughout these years Buddhist teaching and practices expanded and gradually replaced the sacrificial ceremonies of the Hindus, but the intricate links between the royal households and the Kingdom of Lord Rama were cherished. Direct blood links were unnecessary, but as long as the heritage was preserved through sacred cultic rites the succession was legitimate.
The time came when the Khmer kingdom weakened and the legacy passed to the lords of Ayuthaya, another city named for the one ruled by King Rama. Ayuthaya had previously been an important vassal of the Khmer Empire built on an island between branches of the Chao Phraya River (in the rice plains of present-day Thailand). Ayuthaya also superseded the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai, located still further upstream from Ayuthaya, considered the first full-fledged kingdom of the Thai (Tai) people. For nearly 400 years the kings of Ayuthaya kept the religion of the Lord Buddha strong, and also the culture of the Khmer court. Kings of Ayuthaya maintained the literary heritage, arts, and esoteric mysteries extending all the way back to Lord Rama, and beyond that to the mythic world mountain, the center of creation.
In 1767 Ayuthaya was sacked by the Burman armies of Ava. Rather than continuing to hold onto Ayuthaya and its vassal city-states, however, the Burmese turned their attention to an expected invasion from China, and then were taken over in two phases by the British. So, in a very short time, the defeated people of Siam reorganized and built a new capitol city (first in Thonburi and then across the river in Bangkok, on Rattanakosin Island) as the successor to Ayuthaya and Angkor.
Insofar as possible, all the wisdom, language, rites, and royal protocols of Ayuthaya and Angkor were maintained, despite the disastrous loss of written records when the libraries of Ayuthaya burned. The most important of the old court customs had to do with the birth, coronation, and death of the kings, in order to preserve the chain of royal succession back to the dawn of creation.
CORONATIONS PRESERVE THE HERITAGE
The birth of an heir to the throne of Thailand is potentially a connection to the divine Rama and his divine ancestors. It is, in fact, the coronation of the king that ratifies that connection and validates the king’s legitimacy. Although King Vajiralongkorn became King immediately upon the death of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, on October 13, 2016, in mythic terms his reign was tentative until his coronation. One set of rites enacted that connection.
On the first morning of three days of coronation events, the King took a bath. This purification ritual signified his participation in the divinity inherited from Rama and Vishnu. First, clad in a white bathing robe with one shoulder bare, the King was abluted to wash away his imperfections that might be an obstacle. [picture 2] He was also anointed with water collected from throughout the kingdom as well as (most significantly) from the sacred rivers of India which flow mythically from Mount Himmapan. [picture 3] Then he was fit to acquire the symbols of office.
In Europe a crown signifies royal status, although sometimes those are augmented by other regalia. In Thailand the regalia includes a robe made of gold thread with the King’s monogram braided throughout, a 16 pound crown [picture 4] that now has diamonds after the King’s ancestor (Rama IV) realized European crowns held jewels, and a sword said to have been rescued from lake Tonle Sap after the fall of Angkor. [picture 5] Other items of regalia have symbolic significance, including golden slippers recalling Hanuman’s worship of Rama by holding the king’s foot, a yak-hair whisk to swipe away evil, a fan and scepter, and (separately) a medallion of office to add to medals already received. These were handed to him by Brahman priests, preserving a tradition that extends back to Persian priests in the Court of Ayuthaya. Their first presentation was a gold plaque inscribed with the King’s astrological reading. The King received each of these items while seated on a throne reserved for ceremonies of this level of significance under a nine-tiered umbrella (for the first time, since only consecrated kings have that right).
Immediately, the King made his first declaration, “I shall continue, preserve, and build upon the royal legacy and shall reign with righteousness for the benefit and happiness of the people forever." [picture 6] This will be remembered and repeated as a sacred promise about his duties.
Buddhist ceremonies followed, scattered over all three days, including the King’s second declaration in office, to be the protector of Buddhism in Thailand, made in the Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. [picture 7] The chapel and the chapel compound, which are part of the Grand Palace, actually symbolize both the Buddhist legacy and its mythic precursors. The King listened to the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch chant a sermon outlining 11 precepts for a righteous king to follow.
The first day ended with a ceremonious move into the Royal Suite of the Grand Palace, which he will occupy with his new (fourth) wife of three days, whom he married and proclaimed Queen. [picture 8] Throughout the coronation this marriage reflects the final chapters of the Ramayana story, wherein Rama and Sita are reunited to rule Ayutaya. A king may reign in Thailand without being married (Rama VI married late), but the symbolism of the Rama narrative is incomplete without a queen. [picture 9]
The second day began with visits by all members of the royal family, [picture 10] although the King’s Mother, Dowager Queen Sirikit was unable to attend and the King’s youngest sister is also seriously ill as is his first wife [see picture 24] (although both of them made brief appearances). Later in the day the public at large was treated to a grand spectacle in which HM the King was carried on a palanquin to various temples and past important places in the heart of Rattanakosin Island. [pictures 11, 12, 13] Symbolically, this was to impress on the population that they had a new sovereign. The procession included military units garbed in uniforms of various eras of the Chakri Dynasty. In the background cannons were firing throughout the celebrations. [picture 14]
The main coronation event of the third day was an appearance on a balcony of the Grand Palace [picture 15] to be seen and heard by a massed assembly of the people. [picture 16] Audiences were held in which delegations presented gifts and assurances of loyalty, including leaders of all the non-Buddhist religions in the country. [picture 17]
WHAT THE CORONATION ACCOMPLISHED
1.The coronation completed the traditional consecration of the King. A key event was his being presented with a 9-tiered umbrella by his Brahman priests. Only consecrated kings are allowed a 9-tiered umbrella. [picture 18]
2.The ablution with water from all 76 provinces of Thailand, administered by a Buddhist monk [picture 19] and poured by the King himself in a pavilion from which women were excluded, together with anointing with water from the sacred rivers of India whose headwaters are high in the Himalayas where the mythic Himmapan Forest and seven seas originated, was the sacramental way of elevating the King to the symbolic status of a demigod.
3.The coronation events reasserted the power of unity between the three primary institutions that support Thai culture: the monarchy, the Buddhist religion, and the Thai state (including all the civil, political and military apparatus). [picture 20] It is an important trope that all Thai people are loyal to those three institutions, without which Thai culture would cease to exist. In fact, it is occasions like this that reinforce the concept and make it as real as it is.
4.Similarly, the elaborate coronation events, extensively televised and with public participation, were meant to demonstrate the loyalty of Thai people, and especially their love of the Royal Family and devotion to the King. [picture 21] It goes without saying that this is also meant to counter rumors of public disaffection. In fact, the massive show of people attending the spectacles of the coronation showed a more complete picture of the King whose absences from Thailand have been extensive, and created a wave of appreciation for him.
5.The coronation, requiring the painstaking work of countless experts, coordinated to the last detail, signified that the Palace is still the guardian of Thailand’s sacred cultural traditions. It strongly implies that the Palace knows best when it comes to issues related to royalty and cultic state practices, as well as the controversial lèse-majesté laws prohibiting criticism of Thai Royalty. [picture 22]
6.The nationwide effort to support the coronation, including especially the heightened need for security and demands put on all civil organizations, gave the government the opportunity to show its effectiveness, and coincidentally justified effort which had effects on such diverse functions as the national election (delay of publishing election results) and traffic (streets closed in the heart of Bangkok). [picture 23]
7. Actually, the less official aspects of the coronation as conveyed on the media, including the social media in which members of the Royal Family participated, clarified the status of each and every member of the Royal Family. [picture 24] I believe observers were relieved to see rumors of conflict dispelled.
8.The coronation, displayed Thailand as a major unique culture. In comparison to other nations, including those with monarchs, Thailand’s way of doing such spectacular events and the rich culture behind it is unrivaled. [picture 25] The question, “Why spend so much money on an event like this?” is never raised by most Thai people. Such splendor is a matter of great pride. The publicity value alone, from the government’s point of view, is priceless.
9.To this list of accomplishments, it must be added that the coronation reiterated that the Royal Family is the paragon of the social elite in Thailand. It was very important, and not widely seen, that the social and political elite were rewarded with a whole range of favors during this three-day schedule of events.
RUMINATIONS ABOUT GREATNESS
Kings are provided. It is not in the nature of kingdoms to have the people’s wishes play an important role. One of the ways to identify a kingdom is by whether the people get to pick their kings and queens, or if the voice of the population is evaded. But in the end the people count, one way or another.
I’ve been thinking about that this week as armies move from Winterfell to Westeros, as the Emperor of Japan relinquishes his throne to his son, as the King of Thailand gives the country a queen and is crowned, and as the US Congress mumbles about the President’s erosion of the Constitution that prevents him from being sovereign as he wants to be.
We hardly know anything important about our new kings, so it is generally just as well we have little real say in their selection. It takes an inconveniently long time for people’s attitude about their kings to congeal, no matter what the king’s title may be (and those titles tend to be creative and precise). Nor does it matter much whether the monarch or pretender arrives on a dragon, is carried on a palanquin, flies in jet #1, or walks the few steps to the Chrysanthemum Throne, the people have very little voice in the matter, even in these modern times. Inaugural ceremonies proceed with 21-gun salutes and pompous transfer of symbols made important by generations of narrative saying they are significant.
In most cases it is care given to people at the margins and in crises that win people’s admiration for their king. To do that, kings must cross the gap between palace and people. The late King Rama IX of Thailand rode trains, jeeps, and horses to get to those living beyond the range that Siamese sovereigns had ever gone. The Emperor of Japan defied his counselors to kneel with families taking refuge from the tsunami that made them homeless. It was untraditional for these kings to do that. Actually, it was in defying tradition that they were esteemed.
Some who are enthroned perceive this elusive and ironic truth about greatness and many do not, or do not care about moral greatness. Fame is fickle, but so are the famous. Retrospect is a privileged vantage point. It is often hard to tell at the beginning of a reign what a monarch will be like. Years later, long after it is too late, people’s minds will usually become clear about what was important rather than simply impressive. On the other hand, we can sometimes see early clues about our kings’ characters by how hungry they are for the title and why it matters to them.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.