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.


  1. Nice use of a racial anti-semitic slur in your title.

    Here's a thought - why do you focus your immense talents and abilities (and believe me they are so huge they quite literally have no beginning) on helping out the families of the people who lost loved ones during the crackdown.

    Regardless of who shot them and why, mothers lost sons, fathers lost daughters and children lost parents - many of them completely innocent.

    Instead, you turn your gaze on foreigners and what they are up to?

    I mean if the white paper is so execrable why even bother with it?

    It seems Somtow, that you're far more interested in Somtow than anything else on the planet.

  2. "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."

    So where's your evidence Somtow? You make lots of statements but offer little in the way of hard fact - just subjective opinion. Which is fine but hardly robust enough to offer any meaningful critique.

    Why didn't you state at the start - "this is just my opinion and what follows is a flowery, verbose rant"?

    Would've saved 10mins of my life, anyhow.

  3. What were you smoking when you wrote this Article?

  4. Anonymous 11:41 pm: I've recently put on a large scale concert that raised a lot of money for the victims of the shootings regardless of political affiliation. In that sense, I've probably done more ACTUAL good for the red shirts than Mr. Amsterdam has.

    The word "shyster" has the primary meaning of a crooked lawyer, not a Jewish one. Those who equate the two (and I am not one of them) are guilty of anti-semitism themselves - as YOU seem to be by making that kneejerk connection.

    Merriam-Webster: Main Entry: shy·ster
    Pronunciation: \ˈshīs-tər\
    Function: noun
    Etymology: probably from German Scheisser, literally, defecator
    Date: 1844
    : a person who is professionally unscrupulous especially in the practice of law or politics

  5. 12:30 - ah, but I didn't inhale.

  6. How many people really know the truth and look far beyond its cover? If it could happened in Thailand, it could happen anywhere in the whole world. Have anyone forgot about September 11, 2001? The feeling before and the feeling after September 11.

    A greedy man will never stop until he/she got all.

  7. Thanks for this Great article.Mr.Amsterdam is a Shyster.I totally agree with this word.

    Thanks again Mr.Somtow.

  8. Not meaning to nitpick (but obviously I am) the interview with on Hard Talk was with Zeinab Bedawi

    Apart from that thanks for not letting this shrill occupy the airspace with his half truths and convenient skewed viewpoint on things

  9. @ the first poster who accused Khun Somtow of using an anti-semitic slur. I'm Jewish and I don't regard the term or Khun Somtow as anti-Semitic.

    Here's a thought: Why don't YOU Mr. Anonymous, focus on helping the victims of the recent violence before spending your time reading blogs, criticizing the bloggers and demanding they do something that you are not doing yourself.

    I guess everyone has to solve all the world's problems before they can have an opinion and comment on them. Get real and grow up.

  10. @ the poster who accused Khun Somtow of using an anti-semitic slur. I'm Jewish and I don't regard the term or Khun Somtow as anti-Semitic.

    Here's a thought: Why don't YOU Mr. Anonymous, focus on helping the victims of the recent violence before spending your time reading blogs, criticizing the bloggers and demanding they do something that you are not doing yourself.

    I guess everyone has to solve all the world's problems before they can have an opinion and comment on them. Get real and grow up.

  11. With all my respect,
    it's very grateful, reading your article.

    Thanks for making this meaningful article, Sir.

  12. Tell you what, Somtow, why don't you go to Tel Aviv and start calling people "Shyster".

    I'm pretty certain you'll get a reaction. Would be interesting to watch. As for the veracity of racial slurs, surely it's those who are being slurred that get to decide?

    But I digress...

    You've helped the Red Shirts more than Robert Amsterdam? Don't they get to decide that?

    You're not one of those over-entitled, over-privileged types who believe in charity but not any real and meaningful change in social conditions are you?

    The Red Shirts have been pretty clear about the kind of change they want - can't they decide what kind of help they want?

    Onto your posting - it's nothing more than your subjective viewpoint and offers no factual or conclusive evidence other than the certainty of your opinion.

    That's it.

    You don't like lawyers. Especially Jewish ones.

    But you do like coups and you seem to hate democracy.

    One final point - why don't you post in Thai? I've heard you can barely write in the language. At least Robert Amsterdam has a Thai language blog.

  13. I wonder what the Israeli embassy would make of Somtow's use of shyster?

  14. Somtow and Robert should meet. They are the perfect couple, because they are both distorting apologists, just that they do their jobs from different directions. But as accomplished professionals in this business, they should get along really well. In fact, Somtow should also meet up with Thaksin, because both S. and T. think that they are the centre of the world (at least the small Thai world anyway). Thinking that Somtow makes the Partitur of Mahler's 3 look brownish makes me sick...

  15. I don't understand why people keep mentioning Tel Aviv and the Israeli Embassy. My post was not in Hebrew, and I've already quoted the dictionary definition of this English-language word. So far I haven't had any New York rabbis taking offense, but instead I've received three emails from English-speaking Jews defending my use of the word and stating that they do not consider it a racial slur. One such email comes from an editor at TIME magazine, who probably speaks English well enough to know a slur from a hole in the ground. The Wikipedia article on this word says that "some people" believe it refers to Jewish lawyers, but that is certainly neither its dictionary definition nor the usage to which I put it.

  16. Best response to Somtow's garbage is here -

    "@Somtow's lastest -- I might've misread his piece and he might've been employing deliberate irony by calling Thaksin a "slayer of Muslims" & at the same time accusing Amsterdam of throwing words like "massacre" around too easily...

    First why should we ignore Amsterdam's piece just because it serves an agenda? Shouldn't you, then, also ignore everything that comes out of Abhisit, Suthep or Panitan's mouth since they too have little interest in anything but their self-serving agenda? Especially not truth. Given they're, after all, the ones that maintain that soldiers didn't shoot anyone :P Somtow suggests that Amsterdam's piece serves an anti-Thailand agenda; isn't Somtow here dangerously equating the current government with the state? Or perhaps he wants to tell us something else? If we're supposed to read between the lines.

    "...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."

    Somtow believes Thaksin employed Amsterdam to paint Abhisit as a murderer to somehow protect him from convictions for similar (or for Somtow, worse) human rights abuses. Does Somtow actually believe that Thaksin is afraid he might be found guilty of such abuses (i.e. slaying Muslims and drug dealers) when all of this has already been investigated? War on drugs was investigated by a panel set up by the junta - and the figure of "over two thousand" that Somtow is using is wrong. I don't like defending Thaksin but as a stickler for objective facts, and not misleading hyperbole, I'm duty bound to point this out :P

    Somtow also says Thaksin was convicted for stealing from Thailand. Isn't he actually convicted for "helping" his wife to buy land at above market price? To call it "stealing" seems a little misleading... not to say Thaksin wasn't corrupt, he was. But what he's been actually convicted of doesn't seem much like stealing from the country to me. Shouldn't he point out, in the interests of objectivity, that it's pretty standard for those in the political class or high-rank military to get away with these things? Somtow makes Thaksin sound like a singular evil. His piece serves the defense of a government whose deputy PM is renowned for infamous land dealings, after all.

    So Abhisit presumably permitted the torture of thousands of Hmong refugees and the torture and "slaying" of hundreds of Rohingya? But perhaps these aren't crimes against Thailand? Because after all the subjects in question are not Thai. So maybe they don't count.

    Well, Somtow is basically right but so is Amsterdam. We know Amsterdam is a biased peddler of half truth as he's paid to be so. But what about Somtow, it seems he cannot be objective as he's incapable of examining his own biases (as shown in previous pieces... he tried, though, he tried).

    Obviously Somtow's polemic is against Amsterdam and his client, so I don't expect him to condemn anyone else. But the ignorant observer reading his piece might think the military are basically good guys that resorted to a coup to save Thailand from a Muslim slaughtering murderer that did nothing but rob the country... which isn't even half the truth.

    Maybe Somtow intends that we read Amsterdam's paper then his piece, and by putting both together we'll have a good picture of the truth? Possible. If you're going to try to be objective, you'd have to cast a plague on both the government and Thaksin's houses... and a few more houses too :P "

  17. I'm Jewish and find the use of "shyster" in connection with a Jewish lawyer incredibly offensive.

    Your offhand use of racial slurs to make your point marks you out as either a) an anti-semite b) an idiot.

    And why do you always seem to have all these private supporters who seem to go missing in public?

    It chimes perfectly with the "evidence" you have but never reveal.

    Your musings are just that - they should not be taken seriously by anyone seriously engaged with helping resolve Thailand's problems.

  18. Did you actually watch Hard Talk?

    You've got the presenter wrong and the channel.

    Maybe you just dreamt you watched it while you were wet-dreaming of the army staging another coup?

  19. One thing I know from life is that when someone talks too much, they have something to hide. That goes to Amsterdam and you, Somtow. Don't treat everyone as a buffalo. Most Thais have a pretty good understanding of the situation.

  20. 3:58 - Yes, I did. And yes, I forgot who the interviewer was. and I've already made the correction and thanked the person who pointed it out. I'm always happy to correct such errors.

    3:34 - one of the anonymous "private supporters" has posted right above you, with his real name. At least one other, also with real name, may be seen to have commented on my Facebook page. A perfectly good word with a perfectly clear meaning that can refer to a person of any ethnicity doesn't become a racial slur just because a person of that race says it is. It has to be generally agreed that it is a slur first. In the case of this word, there is no such agreement. I'm sorry you've taken offense, but you'll just have to take my word for it that none was meant. What does a dumb shegetz have to do to prove it? Why don't you invite me to shabbes and I'll do a perfect recitation of the blessing over the bread? No less a figure than Isaac Asimov once told me that I'm "really" a Jew underneath!

  21. Your definition of what constitutes a racial slur is pretty much the same given out by racists everywhere.

    I know of plenty of non-Chinese or Asian people who think "Chink" is not racist.

    I also know of plenty of non-Pakistani people who think "Paki" is not racist.

    However, I do know plenty of Chinese/Asians who think Chink is highly offensive and plenty of Pakistanis who think Paki is a nasty slur.

    You see, on this occasion (I know it's difficult for you to get your head around the idea that other people may base their interpretations on troublesome things like facts), you don't actually get decide whether the use of "shyster" is offensive.

    I find it offensive.

    You are, in this context and given Mr. Amsterdam's racial background, using it as a racial slur.

    If you don't remove it I will consider you an anti-semite.

    And, to be quite honest, I don't care at all what Isaac Asimov said.

    Go and name drop with your trashy hi-so pals in Bangkok - it will appeal to their tastes more.

  22. This comment has been removed by the author.

  23. 5:14 - Dear Mr/Ms Offended One: The word "shyster" is not a racial slur. If I had intended a racial slur, I would have used one. Words like kike, yid, hebe, etc. are racial slurs. You may have noticed that I did not elect to use any of those words.

    The word "shyster" means "a crooked lawyer or politician". Your point about non-Chinese not thinking "chink" is racist is irrelevant. Mr Horn (above) and other Jews who have written in my support are NOT non-Jews. They are Jews who happen to be familiar with the English language and who happen to know the meaning of this word.

    No, I don't get to decide whether it's offensive. You have been offended. I didn't decide that.

    Conversely, you do not get to decide what this word means. Its meaning, as given in Webster's dictionary, quoted above, does not appear to include a reference to Jews.

    I doubt that my removing the word will make you stop being offended. My very existence seems to offend you, as previous anonymous posts in your exact style and with your distinctive choice of insults would seem to indicate.

    I think the best way for you to cease to be offended is probably to stop reading this blog. You are a free person. You do have that option. I suggest that you exercise it.

  24. This line of defence that "I have some Jewish friends" is so weak.

    I'm almost expecting you to dig up some random quote by some 18th Century literary figure as "evidence" - not sure of what though.

    Maybe your pretensions to verbosity and intellectually inadequacy?

  25. Hi,

    I wrote the comment that someone pasted at 3:31 - thanks for saying it's the best response but I hadn't finished it. I actually deleted it from twitter because I didn't think it was very good! Anyway, I don't think this piece is "garbage" but I do think it's guilty of what it accuses others of being guilty of. Namely being one sided and loose with the facts - and sinking into all too easy hyperbole. Though I'm not sure Somtow wasn't intentionally using highly charged emotive language to highlight Amsterdam's use of such? Might've just been a rhetorical ploy.

    Anyway, it's natural to feel emotional about a cause you believe in very strongly. Taking sides and robustly expressing what you believe in is important. But people should remember that their world view and the importance of things within it is very likely to be shaped to an extent by the position they've taken. It's up to cool headed outsiders to sift reality from fiction - which is why the international press is so important. I feel that Somtow isn't capable of speaking from "outside" his own interests (class interests as some people call them) and biases - not capable because he doesn't appear to think he's biased. He accuses Amsterdam of bias - and any outsider would know he's paid to be biased, not like he makes a secret of being engaged by Thaksin - yet his narrative (which nevertheless a half-truth of its own) is as one-sided as Amsterdam's.

    I'd also suppose that though Somtow thinks Amsterdam's work is in the interests of Thaksin only and against Thailand, a number of Thais feel that he's working in their interests too and the paper is a good representation of how they see things. Perhaps this is a good a reason as any to take a serious look at the paper and refute it where it's demonstrably false. Of course their best argument at the moment is that Robert Amsterdam is a farang. So perhaps they'd better ignore it...

    See, you come back to Somtow's bias. I think Somtow takes it axiomatically that a select few know what's better for Thailand and have more of a right to speak for it and decide its future than the majority. Somtow obviously thinks the coup was in the interests of Thailand - whereas the millions of Thais who voted for Thaksin in his landslide election victory surely disagree... and what right do unelected bodies - guilty of crimes and corruption at least equal to that of Thaksin - have to overrule the electorate? Back to square one :P

  26. Somtow,

    I'm often quite supportive of what you've written in the past but I think "Anonymous" has a point.

    The term "shyster" is usually used for Jewish lawyers only. This is confirmed on several websites now least the Racial Slur Database (under a different spelling) -

    I think you've made yourself look quite bad here.

    Best wishes

    Jeff French (Pattaya)

  27. Dear Jeff: I really appreciate your concern. No irony.

    Admittedly Wikipedia is not the most reliable source in the world, but this is what it says.


    The etymology of the word is not generally agreed. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it to be based on the German Scheißer (literally, defecator),[1] but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as "of obscure origin", possibly deriving from a historical sense of "shy" meaning disreputable.[2] Various false etymologies have proposed an anti-Semitic origin, and some people continue to regard the word as referring particularly to Jews or Jewish lawyers.

    in other words, just as I have always gathered in over five decades of living (a) among lawyers and (b) among Jews and (c) among speakers of standard American slang, the idea of the word being fundamentally anti-Semitic is not a standard usage.

    Here's what Mr. Horn, who is Jewish, and an editor/writer, and a speaker of standard American, wrote to me:

    I tried to post a comment on your blog but don't seem to be able. maybe there is some sign up process i'm not seeing.

    In any case, what I wanted to post, and let you know, is that I'm Jewish, and I don't regard your use of the word shyster as anti-semitic at all.


    Jeff, I appreciate your concern about how I might look, but the thing is, I'm NOT using the "but some of my best friends are Jewish" defense. I know what to say at a shabbes, can understand some Yiddish if spoken nice and slowly, and am frequently the only shegetz at a bar mitzvah. I was recently the only non-Jew to be invited to contribute to a fantasy anthology of kabbalistic stories. I am extremely, extremely confident that I'm not an anti-Semite. Only someone unfamiliar with my writings and my ardent championship of the music of Jewish composers would make such an accusation.

  28. James: While I don't agree with you, I want to thank you for making substantive statements and raising valid points. Most responses here seem only concerned with red herrings.

    Elsewhere in this blog, perhaps a year or so back, you'll find the blog entry where I try to come to terms with my own biases. At the very least, I know they exist, and I'm trying to handle them. I want to say that I do not believe that the rule of the few is axiomatic. My view is somewhat closer to that of the Federalist Papers in that regard.

    Thank you for disagreeing so thoughtfully and intelligently.

  29. I may end up closing the comments page on this entry. Perhaps later on I can have a separate discussion on the semantics of racism.

    Today, I received an email from the Secretary-General of ASEAN. He said "Your style reminds me of philosophical debates of the enlightenment...stimulating, entertaining and illuminating at the same time. The part critical to the PM ... is particularly effective and fundamentally correct. It is powerful in that sense."

    Not everyone sees my attempt to understand Mr. Amsterdam as fascist demagoguery. Nor do they all see this note as toadying to the government.

    Still, those whose opinions are already formed will inevitably see everything I write as a confirmation of those opinions.