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The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

It can feel very uncomfortable to stand alone.

That’s why people are so eager to join things – as long as it doesn’t mean actually doing much.

You wear a uniform correct to the last detail (and then some) even though you’ve been in the university barely a week or two. You’ve had hardly any chance to do anything for the institution bar scream yourself silly with freshman chants.

You put on your replica shirt and cheer goals loudly (or claim offside just as loudly, as the situation requires) when in fact all you’re doing is sitting in front of a TV screen and your personal contribution to your favourite club is zilch (your shirt is a Pratunam knock-off so there’s not even a penny of royalties involved).

And you feel pleasantly warm inside when someone wins a medal in the name of the nationality you share, although your personal contribution to national prowess in martial arts or mathematics or marching bands is perfectly non-existent.

It doesn’t matter. You have a bunch of people out there who think of you as one of ‘Us’. Just as long as you go through largely symbolic gestures of allegiance. The process of belonging may be completely painless. The big ones, like religion or nationality, you’re born into.

And it’s nice to feel part of a larger group. The Thai horror of being alone is kept at bay, for one thing. You can feel proud and noble and other nice things when one of Us, who you may not know from Adam, achieves something that is recognized by the world at large.

But the slippery slope is remarkably easy to slide down. If it’s better to be part of your group than not, then it’s a small step to saying it is better to be part of your group than any other. Because you must, in some indefinable way, be better. And if the objective knowledge of your senses can’t quite see anything that proves that your lot is better, then the easy alternative is to say the other lot is worse. And when the verifiable proof of that is also lacking, then your imagination has to take over. The Others out there are what are because they are pathetically misguided, or inherently evil, or even completely inhuman.

So even though you feel cosy being part of your group, at the same time you feel threatened by those outside the group, by the irrational otherness of the Other. So Man United supporters start cracking heads at the sight of a pale blue football shirt. Boko Haram (whose name means ‘western education is a sin’, a potential motto for a good half of Thailand’s education system) blow up anything Christian. And supposedly educated, civilized and moral populations, like that of the US, decide it is educated, civilized and moral to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age.

And the vice could just as easily be versa, of course.

One of the most comical ethnic prejudices I ever came across has to do with the name of one of the native peoples along the lower Colorado, the Chemehuevi. As with many other tribes, the name by which they are known is not the name they use, but was given to them by some other tribe who were first to ingratiate themselves with the missionaries who did all the initial ethnography.

And it turns out that the word ‘Chemehuevi’ is not to be found in the Chemehuevi language, but is Mojave for (at least to some Mojave) ‘people who do unspeakable things with fish’. And when, with visions of what happens in upstairs rooms on Patpong, you probe further to find out exactly what these unspeakable acts may be, you are disappointed to discover that it means the Chemehuevi eat fish. The Mojave also eat fish, of course, but the Chemehuevi, being Other, do it in an unspeakable way.

All good fun, but it has led to war and death and the kind of visceral hatred and distrust that ensures more of the same for generations to come.

The badge of being Us or Them rarely hinges on fish-eating manners. Invented physical symbols like flags and uniforms seem to be important in many societies. Find an American politician these days who does not wear a Stars and Stripes pin and I’ll show you a loser in the next election.

In the UK, Norman Tebbit decided the true loyalty of immigrants could be established on the basis of sport. The ‘Tebbit test’ asked who they supported when the Indian or Pakistani or West Indian cricket teams came to play. Which is a bit rich because they were playing not the UK but England. (Though to be fair the England cricket team has included Scots.) (And South Africans.) (And Australians.) (And …)

And in Thailand? Well in one famous case, an admirably straightforward ‘Are you Thai?’ questioned the patriotism of one subject. And what had he done? Failed to show the expected deference and respect to the Supreme Institution.

The years in institutions of indoctrination (aka schools and universities) on the glorious past, present and future of the Thai have inextricably twinned being patriotic with being royalist. And all that this entails.

But of course, being Prachatai readers, you all know this already. Not like those mistaken fools who read the Bangkok Post. Or the wilfully ignorant subnormals who read The Nation. Or the neanderthals who rely on TV news. Or …