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All the less reason

It’s been a deadly winter for British comedians.  John Fortune died on New Year’s Eve, alas, and this week comes news of the death of Roger Lloyd-Pack.  So nostalgia has us flipping through some of the best clips and lo and behold, there’s the clue to Thailand’s political problems.

Lloyd-Pack’s best role was, in the opinion of many, as the road sweeper Trigger in Only Fools and Horses.  In one episode he explains to Del Boy, Rodney (Dave) and others that he has been given an award by the council for saving them money.  He has used the same broom for 20 years.  But in the same period, he adds, his broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.  So how can it be the same bloody broom? asks one of his listeners.

‘Well here’s a picture of it.  What more proof do you need?’

And I was taken back to the beginnings of the Bangkok bourgeoisie’s public protests.  They were wearing yellow at the time but the focus then, as now, was on allegations of corruption.  These included the claim that then Prime Minister Thaksin had spent millions on an overly luxurious refurbishment of the Prime Ministerial jet.  Since I didn’t even know there was a Prime Ministerial jet to refurbish, I asked how they knew about this corruption.

‘Well here’s a picture of it.  What more proof do you need?’

It’s a punch line that brings laughs in a British sitcom and tears to anyone with hopes for Thailand’s future.

Thailand is faced with a polarization of views that screams out for some form of communication and what we have is not so much a dialogue of the deaf but a discourse of the rationally deficient.

Now when I talked to the yellows in 2008 and the reds in 2010, it was not impossible to hold a reasoned conversation.  There was a minority whose repertoire was restricted to the more memorable of the sound bites they’d heard repeated ad nauseam from the stage and even with the more eloquent, I would cringe at the bloody-minded belligerence of some of their standpoints.  But at least we could talk.

Attempts at engaging members of the current mob in an exchange of information and opinions have proved far more difficult.  Those who haven’t simply turned their backs or blown their whistles in favour of the gift of human speech have descended to a level of argumentation that is, well, what you might expect from the better-trained products of the Thai educational system (and they are the system’s success stories as they will proudly tell you).

Their reasoning tends to rely on a set of axiomatic facts (Thaksin and all his family and minions are irredeemably corrupt; rural folk sell their votes; elected politicians are all evil; etc.).  And facts, as they have learned through long years of Thai schooling, are incontrovertible.  Any attempt at caveats or nuance is shunted down a ‘yes it is’, ‘no it isn’t’ cul-de-sac.

You can try broadening the debate.  You can, for example, question whether corruption really is the greatest problem facing a country where an all-but-ignored 10-year-old armed conflict is tying down half the army and yielding 50 corpses a month with no end in sight; or where lord knows how many millions of desperate foreign workers are exploited to varying degrees of ruthlessness (probably by the some of the people I’m talking to); or indeed where inordinate amounts of government budget are shovelled into an education system that simply doesn’t produce the goods (i.e. the people I’m talking to). 

But don’t expect much beyond a gaping mouth, a few puzzled blinks and a quick return to ‘Thaksin is corrupt, blah blah blah’.

But what really worries me is the consummate ease with which the wilting but still whistling ‘great mass of the people’ can swallow the blatant lies, slanders and fabrications that get spouted from the stage.  Any groundless speculation that would, in the unlikely event of it being true, strengthen their view of the world immediately becomes holy writ.  Any grossly offensive smear against their demonized opponents is roundly applauded.  (And PDRC speakers who revel in this slime include doctors, the minor deities of today’s middle classes, so they must be right.)

They seem to be completely bereft of any critical faculty, any way of identifying for themselves what is impossible, implausible or just plain revolting, or what Hemingway said was his most essential gift – a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector.

Which is exactly what their sit-down-shut-up-and-memorize-what-I-say system of schooling was careful not to give them.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).



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