Thursday, July 29, 2010

Don't Shoot the Shyster!

Once again I've been dragged, kicking and screaming, into political punditry.  For the past week now, friends of mine in America and elsewhere have been emailing me a document which appears to be by the controversial lawyer-apologist Robert Amsterdam.  The header reads "The Bangkok Massacres: A Call for Accountability:  The Thailand White Paper Final by Robert Amsterdam".   These emails to me invariably include comments like "Do something about this!" Though what I am supposed to do, I am not quite sure.   Procrastinating as long as I could — after all, I did have Mahler 3 to conduct — I finally got around to double-clicking the icon today.  It was then that I learned that the document is seventy-five pages long.

As I started to read it, I realized that this document has something in common with a novel by my friend Norman Spinrad called The Iron Dream.   In this book, Spinrad used novelistic license to alter one tiny moment in our past.  He takes a real-life historical figure, a mediocre artist named Adolf Schickelgruber, and instead of leaving him in Europe, causes him to emigrate to the United States where he becomes a mediocre science fiction writer.  The book, then, is the "award-winning novel" that might have been written by this person — and it's a bizarre epic fantasy about blonde, noble Aryans conquering evil, quasi-semitic lower orders of humanity to bring about a shining future.  It's the Lord of the Rings version of the Third Reich.

Now, in real life, Schickelgruber didn't emigrate to America, but did change his surname to Hitler.  The rest you know.

Mr. Amsterdam's White Paper has a great deal in common with Norman Spinrad's novel, although it doesn't purport to be a novel.   Both pieces change a little bit of history and extrapolate an edifice of the imagination from that little change.  The White Paper is, in its own way, as much of a masterpiece as The Iron Dream, but to understand why, one must first consider what it is that a novelist does, and what it is that a lawyer does.

Both novelists and lawyers build houses of cards.  But although a novelist may invent anything that he likes, he is only successful insofar as the foundation he builds on is one of truth.  A novel only truly speaks to the reader if in that novel the reader can recognize himself.  As the Dutch novelist Gerard Reve said, "Ik lieg de waarheid."— "I lie the truth."

What a lawyer ostensibly does is very similar.  He builds up, through what is hopefully an overwhelming preponderance of evidence, a viable, sequential story — a sort of novel, if you like.  But a lawyer's primary loyalty is not to truth.  It is to the client.  His sole motivation is convincing the jury — you, the reader in this case — that whatever it is his client is supposed to have done, he didn't do it.  The cards from which the house of cards is built may all be "truths" ... but the foundation of the house need not be the truth at all.

In other words, a novelist must use invention to reach a truthful conclusion ... whereas a lawyer may well use truth to get to a conclusion that is pure invention.

Of course, truth by itself seldom leads to untrue conclusions.  This is where the lawyer must have recourse to the most important weapon in his armoury: the half-truth.

Recently, when some journalist (I misremembered her as Amanpour, but they all look the same without my glasses) was badgering Mr. Abhisit on Hard Talk, she tried to ambush him with the challenging statement "You weren't elected."  Our prime minister decided to respond by giving an elaborate explanation of Thailand's parliamentary process.  This was not the ideal way of dealing with her.  Although everything that the prime minister said was true, his interviewer did not make the statement in order to elicit the truth.  It was to provoke drama, and the proper response should have been something like, "What a stupid statement: in a parliamentary democracy, the prime minister is never directly chosen by the electorate.  Didn't you learn that in school?  And you call yourself British!"  Our journalist uttered a half-truth as though it were a whole one; she should have been called on it.  To start explaining, to start justifying, is already to concede the validity of the half-truth.  You're letting the other side choose the terms of discourse.  You're agreeing to fight on their turf.

Let's not start by falling for this.  

If I were to take every half-truth in the 75-page treatise and respond to it, I could probably win every single argument; but by then the war would have been lost.  And that is, of course, what Mr Amsterdam wishes people to do.    If he can set a few dozen officials in the Thai government to work denouncing his arguments and dredging up the facts, no one will notice what all this is actually about.

We will take Mr. Amsterdam at his word when he says that he is Mr. Thaksin's lawyer.  But it may seem a little odd for him to be defending someone who has already been convicted.  Nevertheless, Mr. Amsterdam has a history of doing just that.  While one of his previous clients, Mr. Khordokhovsky of the Yukos case, was already in jail, he went on a international whitewashing binge.  He was, in effect, Khordokhovsky's lobbyist, not his lawyer.  His efforts were not entirely effective, however.  There is no reason his methods would work any better now, unless we allow them to.  Nevertheless, there is a real danger that Thailand's government will miss the point, rise to the bait, and waste a lot of valuable time trying "handle" Amsterdam's posturings.

I'm not a lawyer.  Therefore, I see no reason to answer point for point, as a lawyer would.  Rather, I would like to respond as a novelist.  Because Amsterdam's White Paper is as fictitious as any novel.  But if it somehow manages to illuminate some fundamental truth, it may still be considered valid.  And that is the question we need to answer: is it valid?  is it necessary?  or are we simply being distracted from what we should be looking at?

So let's start by cutting to the chase.  Who is Mr. Amsterdam working for, and what is the actual purpose of this so-called White Paper?  The answer, of course, is that his employer is Mr. Thaksin, and Mr. Amsterdam has been employed to rehabilitate his boss's reputation with the eventual goal of returning him to Thailand with his wealth intact and without having to suffer any prison time.

Once we understand that the White Paper is not actually a serious call for this government to come to account, nor a genuine, balanced analysis of the political situation in Thailand, but simply one of the tools Mr. Amsterdam has fashioned in order to realize his employer's goals, it will all make very much more sense.

Let us examine this piece of Mr. Amsterdam's arsenal for what it is.  You are the jury.  Cutting through the PR and the rhetoric, Mr. Thaksin is, at present, a condemned criminal on the lam.  The governments of the major powers have accepted the findings of Thailand's legal system.  And by hiring Mr. Amsterdam, Mr. Thaksin himself has acknowledged what the terms of discourse are.  It is up to Mr. Amsterdam to shift the war back to more congenial turf.  

What are the methods by which a lawyer gets a rapist, corrupt politician, or mafia don off the hook?  Well, there are several main ones, and the White Paper uses every single one of them. 

(a) Put the victim on trial.
(b) Overwhelm the jury with irrelevant facts and figures.
(c) Construct elegant arguments from flawed premises.
(d) Use emotionally-charged "power words" to alter the jury's perspective on events.
(e) Engage the jury's sympathy for the perpetrator
(f) Try the case in the court of public opinion and the media.

Once the White Paper is examined from the point of view of its author's motivation, most of its blandishments become irrelevant.

I'd like to discuss how the White Paper adheres to the classic rulebook.  

We'll start with (a): Put the victim on trial.  Well, here's where the fun begins.  "She made me do it" is the rapist's first line of defense and the white paper's title makes it quite clear that this will be the main thrust of Amsterdam's argument.  A historically selective introduction soon leads to an equally selective rundown of the events we all lived through this year, culminating in the chapter heading "crimes against humanity" in which Mr. Amsterdam makes much of the legal definition of such crimes.  He then tries to link this definition with the Rajprasong events, but by using the phrase "appears to be present", he manages to let himself off the hook.  Indeed, the phrase "appears to" is a constant mantra here, because he's not really accusing the government of a perpetrating a massacre.  He is saying that there is an appearance of a massacre.  This legalistic hairsplitting allows him be as sensationalist as he wants, while affording himself deniability every turn.

When I say that Mr Amsterdam is putitng the victim on trial, I am not saying that the victim is the government, the democratic party, or Mr. Abhisit.  The victim is Thailand.

Mr Thaksin has been convicted not of stealing from the democratic party, but of stealing from Thailand.  It is the judiciary system of Thailand that has convicted him, not the yellow shirts and not the elite.  When Mr Thaksin's government ordered the extrajudicial killing of thousands of alleged drug dealers, when it permitted the torture and slaying of Muslims in the South of Thailand, these were crimes against Thailand.  He has not yet been convicted of these latter crimes, but by painting Abhisit as a vicious murderer, Mr. Amsterdam is launching a preemptive strike against against the bringing of such charges against Mr. Thaksin.

As a lawyer Mr. Amsterdam knows perfectly well that the springtime violence does not rise to the level of a crime against humanity as defined by the laws he himself cites.  If this were true, U.S. presidents would have been on the dock for Kent State and Waco.  These were terrible tragedies — but hardly the Killing Fields or Buchenwald.  Surely Mr Amsterdam knows better than to equate an attempt by a recognized government to restore order, when a city has been held hostage by lawless ruffians for months, with the Holocaust.  

So let's return to the rapist analogy.  What is Mr. Amsterdam's point?  It is this:  "Okay, so maybe my client raped Thailand.  But Thailand was a bad girl.  She brought it on herself."

Let's look at (b) now, the irrelevant facts and figures.  I've already shown how Mr. Amsterdams quotes masses of legal data, makes it look as though it's relevant, then squirms out of the whole thing with the phrase "appears to."  His second chapter, a reductionist summary of the history of Thailand's constitutional development, is full of indisputable facts, but for real analysis one might want to read the commentary of a genuine historian such as David Wyatt.  This is the icing without the cake, and it's there to provide a cloak of verisimilitude to Mr. Amsterdam's specious arguments.

The flawed premise (c) is evident from the very opening sentence of Mr. Amsterdam's thesis.  "For four years," he says, "the people of Thailand have been the victims of a systematic and unrelenting assault on their most fundamental right ... self determination through genuine elections."

Powerful stuff.  But it is a half-truth.  The entire logical thread of the White Paper leads outward from this half-truth. and as the truth gets halved again and again, recursively, we finally end up what I would call a near-lie.   It is only the constant repetition of the word "appears" that prevents the paper from being actual lies.

You see, Mr. Amsterdam is protecting his client, but on a deeper level, he is protecting himself.  Proud as he is of the elegance of his constructed arguments, he is forced to tell us, in the small print, that it's a house of cards.  

To tell the whole truth version of this opening sentence would be to try to understand both sides of the issue, to comprehend not only that some people's rights were violated in the last four years, but that the reason they were violated may have been a reaction to similar, in many cases more egregious, violations during the Thaksin era.  This is not about an evil military elitist monolith clamping down on a noble, pro-people regime.  Rather it is the story of a regime that began with great optimism and with the highest of hopes, supported by almost everyone as a breath of fresh air ... a regime that moved steadily away from its professed principles towards repression, darkness, and corruption, until the only mechanism that could be found to stop the country's self-destruction was the unpopular and outmoded strategy of the military coup — a strategy that the military itself realized, almost immediately, was not working.  That military came to its senses and restored an elected government almost immediately and has so far in fact resisted the temptation to have another coup — though it has been at times needlessly meddlesome.  It is the story of groups of people, yellows and reds and others, unable to accept that a democracy thrives on diversity of opinion, and that in a mature democracy, when you lose an election, you don't seize airports or burn down shopping malls — you try to win the next one fair and square.  It is also the story of a leader having to choose on a daily basis between unacceptable alternatives, and finally coming up with a plan that has pleased no one — and which is therefore almost certainly the only correct one.

To tell the whole truth would be to describe this last year as only one of a series of dramatic milestones in an arduous journey towards democracy that has had reverses in the past, but is still clearly, inexorably, moving in the right direction.

He may or may not be a lawyer in this case, but a historian he's clearly not.

Mr. Amsterdam does not have a responsibility to tell us the whole truth.  His responsibility is to the source  of his paycheck.  His reasoning, by the very nature of who he is and what he does, is necessarily tainted.  

Semantics are Mr. Amsterdam's stock in trade and this falls into category (d).  Words like "dictatorship" are bandied about with reckless abandon.  His use of the word "truth" in his conclusion (that there can be no reconciliation without truth) is positively Orwellian.  And as this farrago of half-truths is destined to provoke conflict, his paper in fact proves his point.

Point (e) — to engage the jury's sympathy for the perpetrator — Mr. Amsterdam takes care of right at the beginning by trotting out our "rapist" in a nice clean suit, smelling like a rose.  He has instructed his client, slayer of Muslims, to speak of inclusiveness.   "We must renounce all violence", says the man under whose watch over two thousand alleged drug dealers appear (yes, I'm using legalspeak here too) to have been murdered to fulfill a quota requirement that could lead to a declaration of victory in a "drug war".   I think we're also supposed to feel sorry that the coup took away Mr Thaksin's right to vote, but of course in countries like the U.S., criminals in many states lose that right.

My final item in my catalog of the shyster's arsenal is the "court of public opinion."  In this case, it is the only court that matters, because the conviction has already taken place.  

You may wonder why this long review doesn't actually take apart Mr. Amsterdam's arguments piece by piece. It is because, by and large, the arguments are perfectly sound —they are just based on incomplete or selective evidence.  

Yes, of course, Mr. Amsterdam, there should be accountability.  Yes, of course, the government has made some missteps, and the clumsy handling of internet censorship is one of them.  Yes, of course Thailand has a duty to investigate and prosecute.  Of course, actual accountability and actual investigation might land Mr. Amsterdam's client in more hot water.  So why not turn off the hot air for a moment and think about what would really be good for your client?

In short, this seventy-five document is a waste of our time, and a bad use of Mr. Thaksin's money.  It's unlikely to convince anyone except the already convinced.  It fails to connect the dots.  It's a failure as a logical construct, and it's a failure as fiction.  It is, however, like Norman Spinrad's novel, a triumph of the imagination.  Not only have the people of Thailand been had, but I fear that Mr. Thaksin has as well.

If Mr. Amsterdam cared a little more about his client and a little less about his paycheck, he would give him the following advice:  Mr Thaksin, bend a little.  You're not in exile, you know.  Stop pretending that you were "kicked out of Thailand".   Come home and do your time.  Everyone will forgive you if you show just a little contrition.  If you want to be a real saint, and not just "play one on TV", you must be prepared for a little real suffering.  You did a lot of good things for this country, but you got greedy.  You got careless.  But the Thai people are actually pretty good at reconciliation — it's built into their culture.  Put away your wallet and start trusting them.  

In the meantime I will try to think of a practical use for this White Paper.  I can only think of one so far, but it's not going to stay white for long.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Sneak Preview

This video shows the orchestra sight-reading the first movement at the first rehearsal.  So .... in three days, the Thailand premiere of one of the world's most spectacular symphonies is going to happen!

Go here for tickets:

FOR ENGLISH, please go to:

FOR THAI, please go to:

Don't miss....

Mahisorn Hall, July 21 at 7:30 pm!
More info: (02) 231-5273

Saturday, July 10, 2010

China (continued)

Sorry to tell all these stories in the wrong order, but I think I should go back and continue the tale of the China summit while it's still relatively fresh in my mind.

The day after the curious production of La Traviata, the Chinese planned a long day of speeches in which all of us had to talk for 20 minutes about the state of opera in our countries. Interestingly enough, they had a lady with a bell to go "bong" when the minutes were up, but most speakers seemed to ignore her.

Some of the stories people had to tell were far removed from our experiences.  Many of the European houses wanted to tell China to find its own voice, develop its own style, rather than spending this kind of money in imitating the west ... with the unspoken implication that no matter what the east does, it will never be the west.  Which is of course quite true; insofar as opera companies attempt to be neo-colonial imitations of European companies, they will have little to contribute to progress in the arts.

Eventually the time came for my speech and I did mention some of the interesting things I had learned over the last few hours, including the fact that our annual budget is only 0.75% of that of our equivalent in Japanese, the New National Theatre of Tokyo's budget.

Our experience in Bangkok has been quite different from those of China on the one hand and Singapore on the other.  China has made a concerted effort, deciding that it needs parity in opera to get international respect.  Singapore, in its post-colonial way, has been slowly evolving its way towards a national opera, but in a more commercial perspective.  Both countries have mostly been mounting "top ten" works, but China has also produced some of its own operas, though I cannot tell if these are sort of assigned by committee or whether they spring from a single person's vision.

As a person with a European sensibility myself in most ways I am more drawn to seeing the operas composed by Chinese composers.  I don't want yet another Traviata.  This is I suppose how the Bangkok Opera differs as well; we keep trying to exercise a uniquely Asian perspective.

Later came the signing of the "opera treaty".

It was amazing to be on this document, which pledges mutual cooperation between instiutions like the Deutsche Oper, La Fenice, and little old Bangkok.

Amazing, too, to be taken to the restaurant where Peking Duck was invented, though I must admit I found it a little dry.

Most fun of all — the sitting around at the bar when it was all over.  A lot was achieved in terms of cooperation there.  I discovered that Korea is producing Lulu.  I'm going to organize a mass tourist trip to see it ... a weekend of Berg and Bulgogi sounds like just the thing ...