There are funerals and there are anti-funerals.
The funeral this week of the late US President, George H.W. Bush, reminded me of three narratives that emerge when famous people die. There are celebratory eulogies, recollections, and recriminations. These discourses are delivered in two types of forum. One is the familiar funeral, and the other is a kind prominent in our time that counters the eulogies being presented.
Eulogies are formal remarks ostensibly memorializing the deceased. George HW Bush’s son, ex-President George W Bush, delivered a passionate and memorable eulogy, as did 3 others. Eulogies try to verbalize what will help everyone attending the funeral be satisfied that the deceased person is being properly remembered. Eulogies “work” when they celebrate the life of the person being laid to rest. The goal is for those closest to the deceased to agree, “Yes, that covers it.” Now they have done all they are supposed to have done for their loved one and they can move on with their lives.
Meanwhile, countless others are recalling times or events when the deceased made an impact on them. The memories might be as trivial as, “I was standing on the platform when his campaign train passed through and he waved.” Or as impersonal as, “His highway expansion program transformed out town.” The recollections of those with close connection or expertise might be data significant enough to record and keep track of, to be sifted when historians in the future begin to analyze not only the biographical record but the outcomes that have turned out to be significant. That, part of which is legacy, takes at least fifty years to become clear, and needs to be reviewed periodically as data troves or new methods of study become available. It is one of the mistakes of those talking about famous people to believe that historians can begin valid work any time they choose, and a funeral is one such time. One of the speakers at HW’s funeral was a “presidential historian.” When a historian purposively selects only laudatory topics or buffers troublesome issues, the result is not history but eulogy. It’s the right thing for a funeral, but it’s not history. Frequently, historical reflection will reverse an initial consensus after a full range of primary source material and analysis of long-term results of actions are seen in light of relevant factors not apparent at the time.
Occasionally a person has created enough sharp divisions of opinion and effects from their actions to incite an anti-funeral – a protest or outcry against the narrative that cultural norms would prescribe for a funeral. GHW Bush’s death created this sort of second discourse. Individuals and public media felt constrained to try to correct the record, or balance the accounts, by pointing out Bush’s failures and his negative impact. They have things to say, now, while the topic is current. Those anti-funeral messages are more significant when they are, or when they make clear reference to, valuable primary sources.
At first, I thought this negativity toward Bush was peculiar to our time of politicization and cultural division, but it is not. True, we are politically divided in the USA and this is becoming strident and intrusive. Also true, the funeral of a celebrity or national leader tends to urge that arguments be deferred. This is a cultural value, for all funerals, actually. Negative comments are counter-cultural. The pressure to celebrate the positive creates a climate for exaggerated favorable regard for the deceased, and this is actually what the protest is trying to restrain. Critics don’t want a movement to gain momentum that whitewashes important aspects and flaws of their dead hero. But most of the time the funeral does its job of laying the person to rest, soon to be remembered, if at all, by things mostly incidental.
Immediate negative response is not new, nor peculiar to our time. When King Leopold II of Belgium died in 1909, so angry was the public at his atrocities in the Congo, they lined the funeral route and booed. Shakespeare reminds us that Julius Caesar’s cremation was intended to be a mere formality following the assassin’s prior anti-funeral until Mark Anthony turned it into a revolution. Joseph Stalin’s lavish state funeral in 1953 (during which 109 people were crushed in a stampede) was such that the anti-funeral, as it were, was delayed until Aleksandr Solzhenitzen’s works published from 1962-1971 at about the time that Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana defected to the West (March 6, 1967).
[I call Solzhenitzen’s recriminatory writing “anti-funereal” because it was a direct protest against the official adulation at Stalin’s funeral and afterward, but The Gulag Archipelago was not written as history; its refutation of Stalin was implicit.]
The fact that a person has a funeral is an accomplishment not all major public figures achieve. Hitler fell so completely that of the millions who would have attended there were none left to hold one when he shot himself.
RACE TO BE FIRST WITH THE LEAST
Now it is again possible that Thailand will be the first nation in Asia to legalize same-sex partnerships.
In Taiwan on Saturday November 24, nation-wide referendum proposals passed by the overwhelming margin of 2 to 1 to urge the government of Taiwan to block same-sex marriages or civil partnerships. Referendum issues to express public opinion had been pushed by conservative religious and social groups to try to get the legislature to take action opposing same-sex unions before a high court ruling comes into effect next May which would mandate such partnerships. [See our celebration of the court’s decision in May 2017: www.kendobson.asia/blog/taiwan-wins. Our celebration was premature.] The “anti” forces resorted to devious, illegal tactics and used mountains of money from homophobic Christian churches in America, while the “pro” forces attempted to impress the people and the government through mass rallies and public debates. This has to be a set-back for LGBT groups in Taiwan, and for all of us who were hoping the right minority would win the votes on Monday. Indeed, the anti-same-sex-rights groups are a small minority, and LGBT folks and their friends are another minority, while the majority in the middle can swing either way. For the time being, and a critical time it is, the middle is heavily on the side against anything but marriage between one man and one woman.
While this was going on in Taiwan, in Thailand the military government was holding public hearings on the question of same-sex civil partnerships to be included in a new constitution being fine-tuned leading to elections for seats in a new parliament to be convened early next year (maybe). Some announcement about the matter of civil partnerships could be made before the New Year. The machinery is moving things forward in the direction of civil partnerships, which would be the first national legalization of such a thing in Asia.
In Thailand as in Taiwan LGBT activists are hoping for more than legalized partnerships, which would create a new category of relationship under the law, and open a can of worms as countless cases crawl to courts. It would be so much more sensible to just abolish the mention of “between a man and woman” from the marriage provisions of family law, and say “between two people.” Politics, as we have always known, is the art of the possible. If 100% is not possible we will take a smaller percent and work toward a better percentage. In the push toward inclusion of “partnerships” in the new Thai constitution, late reports are that a couple of key provisions are back into consideration (to quiet some of the opposition). It is suggested the new law will satisfy most advocates if it includes the right for same-sex couples to adopt children, have tax benefits similar to married couples, and for partners to have a legal voice in medical decisions regarding an incapacitated spouse.
Meanwhile, gay news sources in Taiwan are reminding disappointed advocates of marriage equality that all is not lost. The legislature may do nothing (although one interpretation of the Taiwan referendum law is that if 25% of the voter population expresses an opinion the legislature must take action to reflect that). LGBT legal advisers argued against the referendums that were held last Saturday, on the basis that it ought to be up to the courts to settle the legal rights of disempowered minority groups, rather than leaving it up to the public at large. If the legislature gets away with doing nothing between now and next May, marriage equality will become law, with the implications and nuances still to be determined. However, it is very likely that legislators have noticed the large margins of public dissent, and that will prompt them to take defensive action to minimize equal rights.
Lawmakers in both Taiwan and Thailand are now in the mode of trying to determine just how little they can get away with.
Note: The Taiwan Alliance to Promote Civil Partnership Rights (TAPCPR), the main LGBTQ legal defense team that brought the May 2017 case before the Supreme Court of Taiwan, has sued the Central Election Committee of Taiwan for allowing this "unconstitutional" referendum to proceed. You can read their public statement (English translation) via this link: TAPCPR STATEMENT
A rampant infection is widespread among us. It’s a virus of the mind. It has a couple of recognizable symptoms you may be able to diagnose in yourself. Do you feel exhausted by the news? Are you “sick of it all” and just want to stop caring and take care of yourself? Then you may be coming down with this virus.
This week my attention was drawn to a New York Times' investigation of one of the causes of our condition. You can see the 15-minute dramatic video here: Meet the KGB Spies Who Invented Fake News
What the video talks about is a Soviet project that ended when Mikhail Gorbachev met with Ronald Reagan a year or so before the Berlin Wall came down. In that meeting Gorbachev apologized for a phenomenally successful Soviet disinformation campaign that spread the entirely spurious idea that the worldwide AIDS epidemic was the result of a leak of virus developed by US biological warfare scientists to target African and Gay populations.
In brief, the Soviet secret police (KGB) got an article into a paper in India that first mentioned this lie in 1983. Then after a couple of years they revived the article in the Soviet press, using their own planted story from India as the source, and they invented a pseudo-scientific substantiation of the idea written by two scientists who were a husband and wife team in East Germany. The story then became what we’d now call “viral” spreading through hundreds of newspapers in Africa and from there into mainline media in scores of countries. Americans from coast to coast got word of the idea on the evening of March 30, 1987 when Dan Rather talked about it on the nightly news. US State Department investigators pieced together how the campaign worked, and exposed it, leading at last to Gorbachev’s apology in December 1987. When the Soviet Union collapsed two years later the State Department concluded “problem solved.”
But now we know more.
The AIDS story was not an isolated action. Soviet agents who defected describe a concerted effort with a very extensive purpose: “To change the perception of reality of every American to such an extent that despite their abundance of information no one is able to come to sensible conclusions in the interests of defending themselves, their families, their community, and their country.”
This was a campaign to spread DISINFORMATION.
Disinformation is “deliberately distorted information that is secretly leaked into the communication process in order to deceive and manipulate.” Those defectors have mentioned scores of stories, including the one that the CIA was behind the shooting of JFK.
When the USSR was dismantled, the State Department concluded, “The formidable Soviet … disinformation apparatus which has manipulated world opinion for decades has disintegrated. But many large fragments of their apparatus continue to exist and function, for the most part now under Russian rather than Soviet sponsorship.”
There is not the slightest reason to doubt that this same disinformation program is continuing in this time of radically de-centralized communications media. Nor should we fail to see it has been very effective. The science behind disinformation was pioneered by Pavlov. What we cannot yet know is the exact extent of Soviet involvement in particular stories now that disinformation has thrown us into doubt about everything we hear. It does not matter to the disinformation disseminators whether we accept a story that the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11 was an inside job, whether we believe that vaccines cause autism (or where that myth originated), or whether the CIA is hiding what it knows about extra terrestrials. We are now conditioned to bewilderment and fatigue. As the stories grow ever more bizarre we want to just be somewhere else, away from the idiot ranting that the California wildfire is God’s punishment, and that migrants from Honduras are coming to rape our children.
We are almost beyond doubting and disbelieving the news. We are now entering the time when we don’t want news at all.
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
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.