June 28, 2012
Ray Bradbury on Censorship
Libertarian Neocon: June 6, 2012
Ray Bradbury, who wrote one of my favorite books ever, Fahrenheit 451, just died at the age of 91. As we mourn his passing, take a look at a piece he wrote after he found out some of his work was being censored back in the 70’s (h/t Cato):
There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches. Every minority, be it Baptist / Unitarian, Irish / Italian / Octogenarian / Zen Buddhist, Zionist/Seventh-day Adventist, Women’s Lib/ Republican, Mattachine/ Four Square Gospel feels it has the will, the right, the duty to douse the kerosene, light the fuse. Every dimwit editor who sees himself as the source of all dreary blanc-mange plain porridge unleavened literature, licks his guillotine and eyes the neck of any author who dares to speak above a whisper or write above a nursery rhyme.
Fire-Captain Beatty, in my novel Fahrenheit 451, described how the books were burned first by minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from this book, then that, until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the libraries closed forever.
“Shut the door, they’re coming through the window, shut the window, they’re coming through the door,” are the words to an old song. They fit my life-style with newly arriving butcher/censors every month. Only six weeks ago, I discovered that, over the years, some cubby-hole editors at Ballantine Books, fearful of contaminating the young, had, bit by bit, censored some 75 separate sections from the novel. Students, reading the novel which, after all, deals with censorship and book-burning in the future, wrote to tell me of this exquisite irony. Judy-Lynn Del Rey, one of the new Ballantine editors, is having the entire book reset and republished this summer with all the damns and hells back in place.
A final test for old Job II here: I sent a play, Leviathan 99, off to a university theater a month ago. My play is based on the “Moby Dick” mythology, dedicated to Melville, and concerns a rocket crew and a blind space captain who venture forth to encounter a Great White Comet and destroy the destroyer. My drama premieres as an opera in Paris this autumn.
But, for now, the university wrote back that they hardly dared do my play—it had no women in it! And the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried!
Grinding my bicuspids into powder, I suggested that would mean, from now on, no more productions of Boys in the Band (no women), or The Women (no men). Or, counting heads, male and female, a good lot of Shakespeare that would never be seen again, especially if you count lines and find that all the good stuff went to the males!
I wrote back maybe they should do my play one week, and The Women the next. They probably thought I was joking, and I’m not sure that I wasn’t.
For it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights end and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent type-writers. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmilk teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. If the Chicano intellectuals wish to re-cut my “Wonderful Ice Cream Suit” so it shapes “Zoot,” may the belt unravel and the pants fall.
For, let’s face it, digression is the soul of wit. Take philosophic asides away from Dante, Milton or Ham-let’s father’s ghost and what stays is dry bones. Laurence Sterne said it once: Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine, the life, the soul of reading! Take them out and one cold eternal winter would reign in every page. Restore them to the writer—he steps forth like a bridegroom, bids them all-hail, brings in variety and forbids the appetite to fail.
In sum, do not insult me with the beheadings, finger-choppings or the lung-defiations you plan for my works. I need my head to shake or nod, my hand to wave or make into a fist, my lungs to shout or whisper with. I will not go gently onto a shelf, degutted, to become a non-book.
All you umpires, back to the bleachers. Referees, hit the showers. It’s my game. I pitch, I hit, I catch. I run the bases. At sunset I’ve won or lost. At sunrise, I’m out again, giving it the old try.
And no one can help me. Not even you.
If the TV went a breast too far, then turn it off
Bangkok Post: June 23, 2012
Ray Bradbury was right: Television destroys culture and makes us dumb. Turn on the blow-torch and burn books, because the mass hypnotism prescribed by TV is the status quo of modern consciousness. Regardless of your race or religion, your colour and your god, your sex or age, everyone has the same altar upon which daily worshipping is proffered, prime-time or otherwise. Every house has the same shrine, flickering, rectangular, sucking the hologrammed gods from space.
The problem is addiction, for we can’t take our weary eyes off it. If television has been such a cause of distress, infamy and national hysteria during the whole month – starting with the “black screen” of European football to the abstract-expressionist breast-painting in Thailand’s Got Talent that would shame the entire modernist canon from Pollock to Richter – if TV is so evil, in short, why don’t we just turn it off? Which god or devil compels us to leave it on? We’re all complicit in this idiocy, enslaved by the airwaves, and the only censorship we need comes from us – not from the state – by closing our eyes and turning off the tube.
It’s even more distressing that the breast-painting shock-show has evoked questions we never thought to discuss, from the meaning of art to media ethics, while puritans seize the day to beat the war drum of censorship and the need to preserve Thai values; the Culture Ministry wants to block the YouTube clip of the show because – music please! – it hurts the image of Thailand. Soon the smell of hypocrisy and cheap moralism grows stronger than fresh paint. And just when we thought Workpoint, the show’s producer, was the villain-in-chief, a newspaper upped the ante by tracking down the family of the bare-breasted woman, Duangjai Jansuanoi, in a tabloidesque dispatch that ended with the woman’s mother apologising to the viewers. Apologies to us? What a fatal blow to cap this shameful affair. Yet if we’re too weak to turn off the tube, it’s time to set the record straight. The giddy point that has accompanied the Thailand’s Got Talent uproar over the past week is whether the whole thing was a set-up. The show was supposed to be “real”, with “real” people performing unscripted acts, with the judges (I can’t stand any of them) unprepared for the “real drama” unfolding on stage. The great myth of modern television – the myth that sustains the billion-dollar industry – is that what happens on screen is a direct transport of reality and truth. Such myth is magnified by the proliferation of the most cynical genre called reality TV, from singing contest to human zoo and Whatever Got Talent, and in effect we’re turned into reality junkies addicted to reality porn.
By this I don’t mean porn as in naked flesh. That is simple, even lucid. But I refer to how mainstream TV shows employ the mechanism of porn: an excess of fake reality, of fantasy disguised as actuality, of vulgar sensationalisation, all aiming to stimulate our basest instincts and to boost ratings. This hysteria about topless painting on national television is not an issue of obscenity, as moralists are shrieking about, but of low media literacy among the viewers, which is a bigger problem.
The authorities, in their typical shallowness, confine the debate to the matter of indecency and “inappropriateness” (televised breasts are obscene, televised coup d’etats are not). What they should do instead is broaden the frame of discussion and take the opportunity to push for the cultivation of media literacy, starting by promoting viewers’ immunity against the manipulation of media corporates, against the greedy masquerade and mercenary ploys executed under the banner of “reality” and “talent”. To promote media literacy is to promote critical thinking. It’s to equip the people with necessary resistance against the frightening flux of information, propaganda, advertisements and consumerism. Media literacy also means the end of state censorship, because we can choose to close our own eyes instead of being blindfolded. Media literacy, let’s hope, is also the backbone of democracy, for it’ll help us realise that a televised coup (and many parliamentary sessions) is more obscene than televised breasts.
I opened with Ray Bradbury, so let me end with another sci-fi hero, Philip K Dick: “Things are seldom what they seem; skim milk masquerades as cream.” It’s time to turn off the TV.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.
Press Trust of India: June 10, 2012
An 87-year-old epic silent film by Indian actor Himanshu Rai on Lord Buddha which was banned in Thailand has been screened for the first time in Bangkok in a movie hall, with a slight modern twist given by a live 15 member orchestra.
As the 1925 black and white film, The Light of Asia [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P8lLuKPsgks], lit up the mega screen at Bangkok’s Scala theatre, one of the very few lone standing cinema halls in the city, the band sitting on either side of the screen played appropriate background music to the trumpeting of elephants, galloping horses and around the main stars, Prince Gautama, (Lord Buddha) played by dashing Himanshu Rai and his wife played by Sita Devi.
As Gautama silently wept, the violin played, helped by the koto’s murmuring melody, when he enters a contest with arch-nemesis Devadatta on horseback, tabla music came to fore.
The highlights were two Indian musicians, Ustad Matloob Hussain Khan on sitar, and Vasi Ahmad Khan on the tabla.
“There’s no problem (for a Muslim to play and sing) in a Buddhist film,” says Vasi, who started by reciting the Gayatri Manta for the films opening shot.
“Musicians have only one religion, and that is music. This is an old religious film, and it will be a special performance,” he said.
Indian Envoy Anil Wadhwa said that the embassy was asked to provide Indian musicians and the sitar and tabla were essential to give the background score since it was an Indian movie.
The fact that this was the first movie on Buddha and there are only two prints in the world gave it special significance, Wadhwa said adding that “close to 900 music and cinema lovers who watched the movie were impressed by the novelty of watching a silent movie with live music by international musicians.”
June 24, 2012
Bangkok Post: June 9, 2012
Amidst the ballyhoo of black-screen TV, broadcast-rights rivalry, football fracas, reconciliation war and constitution horror, we return to visit the most beloved media agency of all: the Cultural Surveillance Office, aka the Rottweiler, the guardian of Thainess, or the Department of Propriety.
Last month, the Culture Ministry made a surprising move: they transferred (“promoted”) Ladda Tangsupachai, the controversial head of the surveillance office whose past record inspires shudders among artists, singers, actors, and anyone who dares test the limits of official appropriateness. Ms Ladda’s new post is analyst and supervisor of the southern cultural policy, an appointment that has sparked an impromptu joke about the South bearing the brunt, once again, of Central prejudices and conservatism.
Whether or not there’s a political angle to this move is a moot point, one can never judge the depths of such a labyrinth. Ms Ladda’s latest involvement was to push for the new bill to drum up the funding for “safe and creative media” – a name that evokes either easy optimism or necessary caution, for “safe”, in linguistic cartwheeling can be a euphemism for censorship. The details of the law, which has been proposed to parliament, are not available, but the earlier draft contains a clause that the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission should inject money into the fund which will be distributed to “producers of safe content”, whatever that means. It was widely expected that Ms Ladda, a senior officer, would supervise the funding once the law had been passed. But now, no more.
While parliament, which has recently adopted the lively bar-room brawl and thuggish tournament style, is embroiled in the reconciliation mess, the “safe media” bill is likely to wait. But let’s make sure we keep an eye on it. Not that we don’t want safe TV, but we shouldn’t confuse precaution with prohibition, and protection with moral paranoia.
That last term is what we often attribute to a surveillance agency. Ms Ladda’s transfer ended her long tenure at the cultural watchdog marred by resentment, scandals, and even T-shirts bearing her infamous quote. To be honest, there have been sighs of relief at the news of her move. But to be fair, Ms Ladda, to whom I talked personally on a few occasions, is a steadfast believer in her cause: to protect the nobility of Thai culture and weed out unpleasant surprises, from short skirts to TV bitchfests. She’s a crusader on the eternal horseback to Jerusalem – her war cry is authentic, and her dogmatism is transparent. Her run-ins with the more liberal sections of society illustrate the wider contest to own, or define, the meaning of Thai culture in the 21st century.
It’d take hours to revisit her high-profile outcries at media “indecency’, but here are the two most infamous cases: in 2008, Ms Ladda gave an interview to Time magazine [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1670261,00.html] and described Thai film audiences as “uneducated” and thus needing parenting from the ministry (somebody made T-shirts featuring the quote); then last year, she angered many by speaking out against a hit soap series and the portrayal of its men-lusting female lead, which led to an episode of national hysteria.
Symptomatic though not necessarily emblematic, Ms Ladda is easily villainised, sometimes unfairly. The problem is not her; the problem is the fact that the government blithely believes that something called the Cultural Surveillance Office is even necessary. As if we were a mansion so susceptible to cultural vandalism, or a terminal patient in need of 24-hour vigilance, or an ungodly girl under perpetual threat of demonic possession. The fact that we still need to spend tax money on this agency is an issue worthy of public hearing. And that the government still relies on the watchdog’s (dis) service betrays the feudal mindset that it believes the people are so weak they can’t think for themselves.
Society should be trusted to be its own watchdog. Top-down control isn’t working any more in the new environment of great flux, of rapid advances in technology, and of heady, global interconnectedness that keeps redefining “culture”. Civic bodies, consumers organisations, industry associations – say, TV producers or filmmakers – and the audiences themselves should be encouraged to have the power to control the media’s performance and to decide what’s appropriate and what’s not in an organic way. Governmental parenting is as dated as last week’s football results, and the Culture Ministry is too valuable to spend its time, like East German thought police, carrying out surveillance on the people. It’s a shame that they still don’t realise this at this hour.
Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post
June 12, 2012
Media freedom in South Africa has been receiving bad press recently, although most of the attention has focussed on threats to print and broadcasting freedom. Little attention has been paid to creeping censorship of the supposedly most democratic medium of all, namely the internet.
Over the past ten years, the government has developed a complex web of controls that has made internet censorship much more possible. Many legislative measures lie dormant, only to emerge when they are needed to curb controversial content.
In developing these controls, the government has relied on two of the three most popular reasons for curtailing internet freedom, namely protection of children, national security and protection of intellectual property. Unfortunately, governments often abuse these reasons to legitimise an internet control agenda.
Internet freedom is a hot topic globally. In the wake of the Wikileaks diplomatic cables saga and the North African uprisings, governments are recognising the power of online media and moving rapidly to control it. While portraying itself as a champion of internet freedom, the Barack Obama administration has been leading an assault on Internet freedom at the behest of an entertainment industry that wants express guarantees for its intellectual property.
Private companies are also enclosing the internet, erecting ‘walled gardens’ where users cannot access non-approved content. Social media users’ data is being mined to ‘sell’ them to advertisers, and procedures to opt out are often not user-friendly. These trends are all eroding the free and open nature of the internet. As a result, the internet of today is no longer the democratising, transformative medium that it promised to be ten years ago, in its pre-market formation phase.
Internet freedom has become topical in South Africa too, after the Film and Publications Board – a portfolio organisation of the Department of Home Affairs – used a section in the Film and Publication Act to classify disturbing or harmful or age-inappropriate material for children, to ban ‘The Spear’ painting for children under sixteen year of age. As the Goodman Gallery has taken the painting down, this classification now applies to online versions of the painting.
According to the Board’s judgement on applications for classification of the painting, ‘younger people and sensitive people may find the themes [in the exhibition] complex and troubling’. In announcing the decision to classify the painting, the Board’s Chief Executive Officer, Yoliswa Makhasi, argued that the painting was not being classified simply because of the exposure of genitals, but because the artwork ‘…has forced society to revisit its painful past’.
The painting and exhibition as a whole are not without their problems. The exhibition is an important critique of the growing culture of self-enrichment in the ruling party. But it is also at times didactic, simplistic and flirts dangerously with racial stereotypes. However, even problematic art should have its place in the sun, but the controversies around the painting have worked perfectly to the advantage of South Africa’s internet control proponents.
The Board’s attempt to prevent children from accessing the painting to shield them from South Africa’s social divisions, past and present, is deeply misguided and in fact dangerous. If these divisions are hidden away, then children will be denied important opportunities to understand the true nature of the society in which they live. They will not develop the coping skills necessary to deal with these less savoury aspects of South African society when they experience them in everyday life.
There are also inherent dangers in a government agency deciding what children can and cannot see, as this can easily lead to publications that are critical of the government being censored. The Board reasons for classifying the painting strongly suggest a ‘nanny state’ mentality and an underlying moral conservatism, rather than a legitimate concern with protecting children from harm.
Creeping censorship of the internet should be of as much concern as legacy media censorship, as the internet is likely to become ubiquitous in the future. The government’s decision to ensure internet-enabled set top boxes for digital terrestrial television will extend access, as will its plans to ensure universal access to the internet by 2019 via a national broadband network. Mobile internet coverage has also greatly increased internet access, and the licensing of Long Term Evolution networks will continue this trend.
With the passing of the Regulation of Interception of Communications Act, the government developed the capability to spy on Internet users. In the case of content originating outside the country, they can do so without an interception direction, which create space for wide scale abuses of the government’s extensive monitoring and surveillance capacity. Government appointed cyber-inspectors enjoy overbroad powers to inspect any website for evidence of cyber-crime, although this provision has not been enacted yet.
But the most significant setback to internet freedom occurred when the Film and Publications Board was given jurisdiction over internet content. This is in spite of the fact that internet service providers also self-police internet content through a notice and take-down procedure run by the Internet Service Providers Association of South Africa.
A controversial amendment was introduced to the Film and Publications Act requiring any publication, with the exception of a newspaper publisher recognised by the Press Ombudsman’s office, to be submitted for classification if it contains the following material: sexual violence which violates or shows disrespect for the right to human dignity of any person, degrades a person or constitutes incitement to cause harm; advocates propaganda for war; incites violence; or advocates hatred based on any identifiable group characteristic and that constitutes incitement to cause harm.
In the case of hate speech and sexual violence, the provisions are broader than the Constitutional limitations on freedom of expression, which makes them unjustifiably censorious.
The published materials falling within these categories would either be age restricted or banned entirely. Materials that would ordinarily be banned under this section would be age restricted if they were found to contain public interest content, or had artistic or scientific merit. This was a significant departure from the initial Act, which maintained that public interest or artistic content should not be restricted at all.
The main problem with these provisions is that they give the government the power to exercise prior restraint over published material, and even censor material critical of its own performance.
There is disagreement over whether these provisions apply to the internet. What adds to the confusion is that the Board has failed to set out classification guidelines for internet content, which implies that they do not consider these provisions to apply to the internet. However, the definition of ‘publication’ in the Act explicitly refers to the internet, which suggests that these provisions do apply.
If they do, then online publishers have a mess of massive proportions on their hands. These provisions are un-implementable in the online environment, yet failure to implement them is a criminal offence.
For one thing, the provisions would discriminate against online publishers, as the Act would subject them to a pre-publication classification procedure that other media are not subjected to. Broadcasters and newspapers publishers are not required to submit controversial material for classification, mainly because they resisted attempts to make the Act apply to them. If they publish unethical or unlawful material, then they are subjected to post-publication judgements and sanction. This means that the government has the power to censor the internet much more easily than other media.
A further problem is that there is no practical way for online publishers to restrict access to age restricted material, especially material hosted by sites outside the country. Attempts to do so are a fool’s errand, given the distributed and global nature of the internet. Unlike traditional publishers, online publishers cannot wrap their publications in plastic wrappers.
If age-restriction measures cannot be applied easily to the internet, then arguably the Act requires the material to be prohibited outright; even it is of a public interest nature or has artistic or scientific merit. This cannot be allowed to stand in a democracy.
Thankfully, the constitutionality of this section of the Act is being challenged in the Constitutional Court. Public interest law clinic Section 16 has intervened on an amicus curiae basis to make the Internet freedom arguments. Hopefully, they will succeed.
What is the alternative to government control of the internet? An analysis of the take-down procedures and acceptable use policies of major internet service providers reveals that self-regulation is often as, if not more, censorious than government regulation because private companies tend to be risk-averse, implementing terms of service that serve them rather than internet users.
As media theorists James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman have argued recently, ‘… if we are to realise the dreams of the internet pioneers, then we need to challenge the context and demand a fresh set of proposals to empower public oversight of and participation in online networks…[This], then, is a critical moment in the internet’s history … the internet is at a turning point’.
[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: We have been dumbed-down in every aspect, beginning, of course, as children. We become incapable of functioning outside the herd mentality.]
The action-packed Snow White and the Huntsman is less a subversion of an old story than a return to one.
The Atlantic: May 31 2012
“I guess you think you know this story.
You don’t. The real one’s much more gory.
The phoney one, the one you know
Was cooked up years and years ago,
And made to sound all soft and sappy
Just to keep the children happy.”
–”Cinderella,” by Roald Dahl
In the first minute of the trailer for Snow White & the Huntsman, Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna strips naked, sucks the “youth” out of a teenage girl, and plots to rip Snow White’s heart from her chest. Given that most people think of Snow White as an innocent girl twirling through a forest, singing about the someday when her prince will come, this is less a trailer and more a statement of purpose: This story isn’t for children anymore.
Snow White & The Huntsman is, yes, another fairy-tale film adaptation aimed at adults, coming on the heels of this year’s Mirror, Mirror, last year’s Red Riding Hood, and dozens of other works in the past decade. They’re the latest in the long but accelerating trend that’s undoing Disney’s 20th century work of transform horrifying folk stories into genial animated musicals. While such retellings may seem subversive, they’re actually throwbacks, marking a return to what these tales originally were—before, even, the Brothers Grimm got their hands on them.
The Company of Wolves (British film, 1984)
Based on: “Little Red Riding Hood”
The contemporary idea of the fairy tale can be traced to 1812, when Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm published a collection of folk stories called Children’s and Household Tales—now much more commonly known as Grimm’s Fairy Tales. From “Rapunzel” to “Hansel and Gretel,” from “Cinderella” to “Sleeping Beauty,” and all the way up to “Little Snow White.” By contemporary standards, the Grimms’ original stories are packed with violence and sex: “The Juniper Tree” features a stepmother killing her stepson and serving him to his father in a stew, and “Darling Roland” features a mother-to-daughter axe murder, to name two of many examples. (No word on a Disney adaptation of those two stories yet.)
But despite the often-disturbing content of the stories, the Grimms’ primary contribution to fairy tales was making them tamer. As author and scholar Maria Tartar notes in her seminal book, The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales:
Wilhelm Grimm rewrote the tales so extensively and went so far in the direction of eliminating off-color episodes that he can be credited with sanitizing folktales and thereby paving the way for the process that made them acceptable children’s literature in all cultures.
If the Grimm brothers can be credited with the beginning of fairy-tale sanitation, there’s another man who gets credit for carrying their standard into the 20th century: Walt Disney. When Disney released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs—the first feature-length cartoon by the company, and the 10th highest-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for inflation—it began a genre that would keep the company afloat for decades (and of course, it doesn’t hurt that the vast majority of fairy-tale characters are in the public domain, making them free for anyone to use—that’s how we can get two “Snow White” movies and one “Snow White” TV series within the same year). But it also set the template for the contemporary concept of the fairy tale: a whimsical, animated story appropriate enough for the entire family. In the years that followed, the company released its sanitized animated versions of Grimm stories like “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”—and its take on more recent stories like Alice in Wonderland—to significant critical and commercial success. (There’s a reason, after all, that the colloquial term for sanitization is “Disneyfication.”)
Despite the often-disturbing content of the stories, the Grimms’ primary contribution to fairy tales was making them tamer.
Nothing breeds parody like success, and it didn’t take long for self-aware riffs on Disney’s earnest fairy-tale adaptations to emerge (see Rocky & Bullwinkle’s “Fractured Fairy Tales” shorts for a brilliant example, and Warner Brothers’ “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs” for a particularly awful one). But while the older, un-Disney fairy-tale parodies were intended for children, the newer versions that have come to prominence in recent years are meant for adults.
It’s no coincidence that the adultification of the fairy tale happened over the same time period in which the children who’d originally enjoyed the Disney versions grew up, and surprisingly little needs to be changed to turn a children’s story into an adult-oriented (and adult-rated) film. Despite the best efforts of the Grimm brothers, Walt Disney, and their contemporaries, fairy tales can never be completely separated from their darker origins. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” have barely-concealed themes about violence, sex, and the loss of innocence that can never be fully expunged. All it takes is a filmmaker like Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves) or Catherine Hardwicke (Red Riding Hood) to bring them to the fore.
But there’s a final wrinkle to the subversive fairy-tale trend: From movies like Snow White & the Huntsman to TV shows like Grimm and Once Upon a Time, a twisted fairy tale only works if the audience has enough knowledge of the original stories to appreciate how they’re being subverted—a knowledge that contemporary children are getting further and further away from. From the Shrek franchise to lesser imitators like Hoodwinked! and Happily N’Ever After, and up to Disney’s own Enchanted, contemporary children have grown up with more subversive fairy tales than actual fairy tales. Pixar, the best and most prominent studio currently making animated films for children, has one pivotal difference from Disney: It has never made a movie based on a previously-existing story.
In many ways, the reverse-sanitization of the fairy tale is a return to the origins of stories that were, in their earliest forms, only “related at adult gatherings after children had been put to bed for the night.” As adults turn on an episode of Grimm after reading their children to sleep, or see Snow White & the Hunstman while their kids stay at home with a sitter, they’re embracing a concept of the fairy tale that predates even the Grimm Brothers—a trend appropriate enough for the oldest stories of all.
May 27, 2012
[CJ Hinke of FACT comments: This is a most thoughtful and comprehensive analysis of our current condition in Thailand, ar from democracy.]
How did the one functional democracy in Southeast Asia get so screwed up?
Foreign Policy: May 22, 2012
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, a towering series of spires looking toward the sky, located on the central avenue in the older part of the city, was a lively area for street life. Outdoor vendors selling phat kii maw and other noodle dishes jostled for business with watermelon and jackfruit sellers while yuppies sat at the cafes and fast-food outlets surrounding the monument. Like the events that inspired the monument itself, which memorializes the end of absolute monarchy in the 1930s, Thailand’s political system seemed to be settling down.
From the 1930s to the 1990s, Thailand had essentially been ruled by the armed forces, in alliance with the business elite and the royal family, which still wielded enormous power behind the facade of a constitutional monarchy. In 1992, however, with the Cold War over and a more assertive Bangkok middle class no longer willing to tolerate military rule, massive popular demonstrations ousted the military regime and replaced it with a respected civilian government.
Following the military’s withdrawal in 1992, many Thais and outside observers thought the country would become a solid democracy. Thailand passed a progressive constitution in 1997, which guaranteed many rights and freedoms, created new national institutions to monitor graft, and strengthened political parties at the expense of the traditional unelected centers of power — the palace, the military, big business, and the elite civil service. It also set the stage for elections in 2001 that were probably the freest in Thailand’s history. Meanwhile, the Thai media utilized its new freedoms, along with new technologies such as the Internet and satellite television, to explore formerly taboo topics like political corruption and labor rights. The Thai Army’s leaders vowed that they would respect civilian control and never engage in politics again. In its 1999 report, the international monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” country — one of only a handful of Asian countries receiving this designation.
Over the past six years, however, Democracy Monument and the area around it have come to look far different. As protests and riots have incessantly plagued the Thai capital, outbreaks of violence, and military repression of demonstrations, around the monument have, at times, left dead bodies lying just in front of it, blood splattered on the nearby pavement, and angry demonstrators armed with Molotov cocktails laying waste to the surrounding streets. An informal shrine has sprung up in a place where the brains of one protester were splashed after security forces shot him two years ago. Meanwhile, all the political instability has had a serious long-term impact on Thailand’s economy, though in the short term the economy has struggled through. Tourism is critical to the Thai economy, and the violence scared off visitors. Many foreign investors are rethinking their plans for Thailand as well.
If Thailand can collapse, it suggests that nearly any developing country’s transition is less secure than it often appears. Since 2006, Thailand, once a poster child for democratization in the developing world, has undergone perhaps the most rapid and severest democratic regression in the entire world — despite having achieved middle-income status and, prior to the reversal, having held multiple contested elections. Now Thailand’s never-ending cycle of street protest, with the middle class and the poor pitted against each other in a fight for political power, paralyzes policymaking, hinders economic growth, and deters investment at a time when the country is losing competitiveness compared with neighbors like Vietnam. The military has retaken enormous political power and constantly threatens another coup, while draconian new media laws have clamped down on a press and blogosphere that were once the most freewheeling in Asia. “It’s only going to get worse from here now,” one Thai official told me in December. “Either another coup or all-out war in the streets.”
How could this have happened? How did one of the world’s most promising democracies melt down so quickly? And what does Thailand’s regression tell us about the strength — or lack thereof — of democracy in many developing countries? Indeed, Thailand suffers from several of the problems that have plagued other emerging democracies, such as Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, and Venezuela, and have led to their regression over the past five years — a period that monitoring groups like Freedom House have marked as a global rollback of democracy.
Thailand’s meltdown actually started a decade ago. In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, a billionaire populist former telecommunications tycoon, was elected prime minister, primarily by the country’s poorest citizens. Despite his goofy, gap-toothed smile, Thaksin was a savvy, mercurial, and powerful speaker, probably the best in Thai history, and he was also an Oscar-quality actor, capable of turning on his “listening mode” at any meeting, just as easily as he could scream at underlings.
Thailand’s nascent judicial and bureaucratic institutions were too weak to control Thaksin’s ambitions. He took advantage of his popularity to neuter the news media, undermine the independence of the judiciary, and viciously punish political opponents. When Thaksin was charged, early in his tenure, with concealing assets, he was acquitted by Thailand’s top court in a very close decision. Following the verdict, several justices alleged that they had faced intense pressure from Thaksin’s allies to acquit him.
Like other elected autocrats including Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Thaksin’s friend, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Thaksin viewed democracy as merely a series of regular votes, after which the victor could use his electoral victories to crush all other challengers. “Thaksin was not a democrat. He might have held votes, but he didn’t care at all about anything else that makes a democracy,” said Surapong Jayanama, a longtime Thai official and diplomat. Thailand’s media increasingly became more servile, and according to Human Rights Watch, Thaksin launched a “war on drugs” (Thailand has a major methamphetamine problem) that provided a convenient pretext for attacks on his opponents and that wound up with some 2,500 dead, often killed in staged shootouts or other suspicious encounters.
Still, Thaksin remained extremely popular among the Thai poor, the majority of voters in one of Asia’s most unequal countries. Before him, no candidate had ever directly tried to empower the poor or provide them with voter education. Most of Thailand’s elitist politicians had traditionally ignored or diluted the votes of the poor by vote-rigging and vote-buying, installing cabinets dominated by a small group of Bangkok-based technocrats.
Thaksin’s government passed a universal health-care program that, according to World Health Organization studies, has saved at least 80,000 Thai families from bankruptcy. He enacted a program to provide loans to every village to start microenterprises, and he increased spending on primary education. Income inequality began to shrink under Thaksin’s tenure, and domestic consumption grew as well.
For all his flaws, Thaksin’s policies did resonate with the poor, and he succeeded in fundamentally transforming Thailand’s political culture: After Thaksin, the country’s poor majority was no longer willing to simply let a small group of elites run the country. In rural Thailand, village radio stations sprung up to capitalize on growing voter empowerment, while rural Thai farmers increasingly used the Internet and social media to become engaged in politics during Thaksin’s time. Many reclaimed the word phrai — meaning peasant or serf — and proudly began calling themselves that. They began referring to Bangkokians as amart, or elite. When I visited one northern town this year, vendors lined the streets selling pictures, T-shirts, and bumper stickers of the populist billionaire’s face, but nearly all residents told me that their cause was not about Thaksin alone, that he was just a symbol of the new force of the phrai.
As Thaksin increased his power, many middle-class Thai men and women — who had traditionally been the focus of reform efforts — came to doubt the value of democracy. Some genuinely feared that Thaksin was running roughshod over the foundations of the institution, subverting a free press and denying rights for criminal defendants — freedoms that they had fought hard for under years of military dictatorships. Others clearly worried that Thailand’s poor simply were not educated or smart enough to make informed choices in elections.
Thaksin did little to assuage these fears, as some other, smoother populists like Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva might have. (Lula maintained his enormous popularity by combining programs to fight poverty and hunger with solid macroeconomic policies and personal assurances to the wealthy that he would not attack their holdings.) Thaksin failed to assure Bangkok’s middle class and wealthy that he would uphold the rule of law or that he would refrain from attacking their economic holdings — whether to actually redistribute money to the poor or (more likely) to line his own pockets and bolster his family’s powerful telecommunications company. But Thaksin never did this, and as a brash outsider to the country’s traditional elite, he was an intensely threatening figure.
This middle-class fear of the poor played on old stereotypes in one of the world’s most stratified countries. Crude cartoons in Bangkok newspapers showed the rural poor as water buffaloes (a major insult in Thailand) pulled by the nose by Thaksin. Some middle class and elite protest leaders called for a “new politics” in which the number of elected members of parliament would be sharply reduced, essentially a return to the elite, oligarchic control of the Cold War era. Or as one prominent Thai diplomat, who had gained fame for advocating for political reform in neighboring countries like Cambodia and Myanmar, told me, “Perhaps we can have democracy some time far in the future, but not now. We need good people, good voters, to have democracy.” He left unsaid who the “good people” who could handle the vote were.
Unfortunately, instead of trying to defeat Thaksin from within the democratic process, the middle class and elites opted out, striking a blow that may ultimately have killed Thai democracy. In 2006, middle-class and wealthy groups launched anti-Thaksin street protests that paralyzed parts of Bangkok; several years later, the same group of protesters, led by the same men, would take over the main international airport and the prime minister’s house, seriously wounding Thailand’s international image and again paralyzing the government. By the middle of 2006, many of the demonstrators were openly calling for the military, once thought to have returned to the barracks for good, to intervene to “save democracy.”
The middle class’s conservatism was not unique. Far from being the force for change envisioned by Samuel Huntington and other advocates of modernization theory, the middle class in many young democracies is now actually acting as a brake on change. In the Philippines, middle-class men and women throughout the 2000s rallied in Manila to try to evict an elected government. In Pakistan, the middle class has increasingly called for a return of army rule after years of inept civilian government. In Bangladesh in the late 2000s, middle-class citizens supported a return of army rule, angry about the corruption of civilian politicians and fearful of the power of these elected populists. And now, one year after the Arab uprisings began, many middle-class and elite Egyptians, who a year ago joined protests to end Hosni Mubarak’s regime, are publicly calling for the military to retain a sizable role in politics in order to dilute the power of democratically elected Islamist parties that enjoy widespread support among the poor. In Syria, meanwhile, the middle- and upper-class citizens of Damascus have continued staunchly backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even though its security forces have massacred thousands of civilians.
But in Thailand, the anti-democratic wave seemed to happen the fastest and become severest. In September 2006, the armed forces launched a coup, and Thaksin fled into exile. Thailand’s meltdown was gathering pace.
The King’s Speech
Unlike most other young democracies, Thailand has a unique institution that, during the worst periods of conflict, was supposed to serve as a neutral mediator, a means of resolution as a last resort. Although Thailand ended its absolute monarchy in the 1930s, the constitutional monarchy that remained had far more informal power — and respect among the public — than constitutional monarchs in Europe. And because the current Thai king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, has sat on the throne longer than almost any other monarch in history, he has amassed enormous quantities of goodwill among the Thai public (though any real survey of Thai opinion toward the monarchy would be impossible, since harsh lèse-majesté laws make criticizing the king and his family a serious crime.)
The king rarely intervened directly in public, but through a network of allies and advisors he indirectly wielded power, shaping governments and the country. Usually, he favored conservative governments run by an oligarchy, the military, and big business. During the Cold War, according to his biographer, Paul Handley, when King Bhumibol saw communists taking over neighboring countries and killing their royal families, he saw clearly that allying the palace with military dictators was the best way to save the throne and protect the country’s development. When the Cold War ended, however, the Thai military badly bungled a takeover of government in the early 1990s, resulting in shootings of middle-class Bangkok protesters, and the king’s position seemed to shift. He called both the protest leaders and the head of the Thai Army in front of him in May 1992 and publicly shamed them. The Army backed down, paving the way for civilian rule and the expansion of democracy in the 1990s. The king’s reputation was only enhanced, but because he had helped solve this crisis so well, Thais felt little impetus to build any other institutions (a supreme court, for example) that could serve as the ultimate arbiter of disputes. After all, they had the king.
In the early 2000s, the king’s more conservative side once again showed itself. Thaksin was the first politician who could potentially compete with the king’s popularity among the poor, and the monarch also may have feared that when his son, a man far less beloved than he, eventually took over the throne, the palace would no longer have the same influence, especially because it was widely believed that Thaksin had cultivated a close relationship with the prince. This time, when the Thai Army launched a coup in 2006, the king quickly took sides. He gave the coup-makers an audience and essentially proclaimed their government legitimate.
From there, the monarchy further inserted itself directly into politics and, by so doing, deprived Thailand of the last potentially impartial institution it had. The queen publicly appeared at a memorial service for an anti-Thaksin demonstrator, while the king gave public messages to the judiciary that were interpreted, by Thais and foreign observers alike, as telling them to use their power to go after pro-Thaksin officials.
When, a year after the coup, the armed forces allowed another election, another pro-Thaksin party won a majority in parliament, sweeping the votes of the poor. (Thaksin remained in exile, though still possibly pulling strings.) But the judiciary then came up with tortured ways to ban this party from politics, eventually paving the way for an army-backed, pro-elite party, the ironically named Democrat Party, to take over in 2008, in a backroom deal sculpted by the armed forces. The Democrat Party and its allies quickly began ramping up use of the lèse-majesté laws to absurd proportions as a weapon against dissent. According to scholar David Streckfuss, the number of lèse-majesté prosecutions grew nearly one-hundred-fold between 2000 and 2010. In recent months, the government sentenced an elderly man, sick with cancer, to 20 years in prison for allegedly sending four text messages critical of the king, though the court could not even prove that he sent the messages or knows how to use text messaging. This month, the man died. The government also sentenced a U.S. citizen named Joe Gordon to jail for translating portions of a biography containing some critical analysis of the king. Most recently, it has launched a lèse-majesté case against a girl for allegedly defaming the monarchy while she was in high school, the youngest person charged yet.
While theoretically protecting the monarchy, this increasingly hard-line policy has actually had the reverse effect. For the first time in decades, Thais are beginning to question the influence of an aging and clearly very ill king once viewed as all-powerful, benign, and even divine, and promoted by a propaganda campaign just short of Kim Jong Il levels. Meanwhile, the king rarely leaves the wing of the hospital where he has lived for several years, and he is known to have lived a separate private life from the queen for more than a decade. According to journalist Andrew MacGregor Marshall, who followed several public rallies in 2010 in Bangkok, he found participants yelling foul anti-king and anti-queen slogans, unthinkable just a few years ago. Online, in certain forums that evade the censors, such criticisms are common, and when I traveled over the winter to the north of Thailand, the heartland of the poor, I was shocked by how willing many ordinary Thais were to offer subtle put-downs of the palace to a foreigner they had never met before.
Rise of the Rural Poor
In the 1960s, or even possibly in the 1990s, Thailand’s military, palace, and elites might have succeeded in taking back control of the country following a coup. (Thailand has had 18 coups or attempted coups since the end of the absolute monarchy.) But in today’s era, Thailand’s poor no longer gives in so easily. And so, in the Rashomon-like puzzle of trying to figure out just who is pushing this once-vibrant country over the brink, the poor too have now begun playing a destructive role.
Thailand’s poor, furious that their votes seemed to have been overthrown, organized themselves to fight back and adopted many of the aggressive, undemocratic, and violent tactics of the middle class and elite protesters who had toppled Thaksin in 2006. Some groups of the poor, called the “red shirts” for their trademark color, did not want to employ violence or tactics that could paralyze government, but they were repeatedly stymied by hard-liners in their own red-shirt movement.
Like the Bangkok media that demonized the poor, red-shirt radio stations and publications in the north and northeast primarily began to demonize Bangkokians, calling for attacks on them and killings, as well as comparing urbanites to homosexuals and deviants. Groups of red shirts attacked the Democrat Party prime minister in 2009, shutting down an Asian regional summit and seriously embarrassing Thailand, which had to cancel the meeting. The clashes spread that year to Bangkok, where protesters and residents fought pitched battles on several streets. Rather than trying to get his supporters to cool down, from abroad Thaksin egged them on, essentially calling for all-out war and providing financing for many of the red-shirt groups.
After hundreds of thousands of red shirts descended on Bangkok in the spring of 2010, a smaller, harder-core group of them settled into a more permanent encampment in the center of Bangkok, where they blocked traffic and shut down part of the central business district. They refused to leave; the Thai Army and the pro-elite government refused to use basic, well-tested nonviolent means to clear the streets, instead turning quickly to soldiers firing high-velocity live bullets throughout the downtown, even hunting down unarmed protesters and ambulances. Eventually, the clashes between the protesters and the government resulted in the death of at least 90 people in May 2010 and arson attacks on many buildings in downtown Bangkok. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of protesters who survived were then detained by the security forces, often without charge.
Ultimately, in July 2011, another election was allowed, won again by a pro-Thaksin party — led by his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the current prime minister. Still, the election has solved little, and today Thailand sits on a precipice, with all sides prepared for more violence. Yingluck has made an informal truce with the armed forces and, apparently, the palace, but her red-shirt supporters will not live with a truce for long. By all accounts, Thaksin, now feeling his oats, is preparing to return to Thailand this year in order to probably play an even larger role in politics again. This spring, he held a large rally in neighboring Laos and pronounced that he would be returning shortly, sending his backers into ecstasy. Meanwhile, according to several articles by writers close to the military, the armed forces — whose leadership is intensely royalist — is preparing for his return by removing anyone seen as potentially pro-Thaksin, shoring up its senior officer corps, and essentially preparing for a possible coup. And so, Thailand’s deadly cycle could begin again.