Monday, April 12, 2010

Myths for Sale

It's a pity that there isn't a news organization that doesn't have something to sell.  I'm getting a lot of furious calls from my friends here who have been watching CNN's bizarrely skewed account of the happenings in Bangkok.  But the news story doesn't surprise me.  The idea that this is Bastille Day, that the disenfranchised peasants are rising up to topple an evil empire, is an idea that fits well into the way western culture has mythologized its own history.

The conception by most people in Bangkok, which is that a gang of illiterate, hired thugs has invaded the city and is in the process of tearing down the country's most cherished institutions, is also a kind of mythologization.

We need myths.  If it were not for myths, I would not have a career as a novelist; indeed, novels wouldn't exist.  The underlying myth can be more important, in the end, than facts, logic, and evidence.  One has only to look at any major established religion to see that.

The mythmakers on both sides are spinning overtime in order to establish their myth as the prevailing one.  It is as divorced from reality as the 4th-century battles over gnosticism and the monophysite heresy.  But that doesn't mean it's not important, because whichever myth wins will become gospel.  (I did not say "truth.")

As I write today, the red shirts have commandeered my street and are about to march past with 2 dead people and a larger number of empty red coffins.  The bodies were stolen from the morgue before proper autopsies could be done, so their value as evidence has been nullified.  We're waiting for autopsies on 11 other people whose bodies were not stolen.  But the autopsy announcement has been delayed for 30 minutes because the doctors cannot agree (reading between the lines).  I would think that, with 2 red shirt doctors on the committee, unanimity is probably unlikely.

Abhisit's announcements have been in every case away from mythologization and in the direction of common sense and the realistic.  This is why people think he is weak.  Today, he did use the t-word for the first time.  And the footage, much of it from the media, including international media, would seem to back up the idea that there is a Machiavellian, third interpretation of the facts that has some chance of being true.  That interpretation is that in order to manipulate the situation towards bloodshed and to ensure chaos, someone has embedded "ronin" amongst the redshirts who were charged with making that bloodshed happen no matter what.  In other words, terrorism.

Conspiracy theorists will be delighted to learn that whereas a Reuters journalist was killed, it is also Reuters footage that apparently shows armed people working from the red shirt side.  Here is the link:  The footage was shot by whom?  By the same journalist killed by a clean and professional bullet through the chest.  So — stray bullet, or martyrdom to the cause of truth in journalism?

One channel reporting on the autopsies mentioned something about how some of the victims appeared to have been shot in the back, though no other channel mentioned this.  The actually press had no sound, only a voiceover.  This could mean the red shirts were running away (though from the footage it seems unlikely) or that embedded mercenaries didn't care about hitting their own people.

I think this is too complex a theory for the average joe to get passionate about.  Therefore, even it is true (and some pundits' analyses of all the footage are pretty convincing) it cannot sell as well as the idea of innocents storming the Bastille, or hooligans desecrating all that is Thai.

Abhisit's only chance to sell the story is make it, too, a myth.  And the myth most readily available, I would submit, is the myth of the trickster — Loki, in Scandinavia, and any number of names in the Native American mythos.  He would have to succeed in identifying Thaksin as the "trickster" figure in the story.

His worst enemy is his own intelligence and powers of reason.  They make him think that others, too, are reasonable.  He thinks that people have only to be shown the evidence, and they will change.  It won't happen.  If evidence were all that mattered, religion wouldn't exist.  We want to feel bigger than ourselves, to belong to a huge story, a collective destiny.

Many people in Bangkok are probably praying for a coup.  That is one of the worst things that could happen, though whether it's worse than anarchy is arguable.  I personally would pray for a return to the democratic process, which will not happen as long as people in rural areas haven't been taught what that process is.

As one of my colleagues said to me today, "Democracy will work in this country, as soon as everyone can read and write."  I'm afraid that is the root of the problem.  I pray for the day when people are too well-informed to be led astray, and too well-off to be bought.  Fix this first, and a proper democracy will follow.

Then again,  what is a proper democracy?  In classical Athens, there was a proper democracy.  Everyone could vote.  Well ... as long as you weren't a slave, a woman, or from out of town!  Is this the model we want?  Thomas Jefferson knew well that uneducated people might screw things up.  That's why the U.S. has the electoral college ... it's a holdover from a time when most people couldn't read and write.  Should we go with that model?  Britain has no written constitution.  Maybe that's the way to go: no more referendums or endless amendments.

Still, everyone can agree on one thing.  The Roman Empire was not a democracy — though the Republic was, in its way.  But when we look at how Imperial Rome operated, what do we find are its two pillars?  The Army, and the Mob.  Well, here we are!   Should we go with that model?   Why not?  It lasted longer than Thailand has, so far.

1 comment:

  1. A great commentary. Your reference to the Federalist Papers and also the the Athenian democracy also to the point. Who is qualified to be a citizen and WHAT is the nature of constituted authority? Democracy is the answer to tyranny - that's what it was in Athens. The division of power among many to prevent it's capture by few. What is the alternative to some version of democracy in Thailand seems the real question at the moment. A Peronist popular leader (AKA Taksin) or the structural and developmentally flawed facts on the ground which are going to be what any moment? Who and what is going to rule here? These are the Thai people you have, not the ones one would wish for. It seems the great rural and urban masses of the poor have either been manipulated into the world of "citizens" or are following the democratic impulse latent in all human beings. Which is it? I ask and not to your reasoned opinion, I just ask. I find it very moving, despite reservations such as the ones you expressed. No moment in history wasn't riddled with egoists and sociopaths, factions and crude wrangling about tiny details such as "who fired first". I would contend with you that being on the "wrong side of history" isn't just mythological state in a foggy narrative, but a danger reasoning people are error to. Thanks again for you commentary. I look forward to more...