Archive for 2011


23 November 2011

I’ve been spending a lot of time in airports lately.

The Thais Have Always Been United

4 November 2011

Each day at 6pm, life pauses momentarily in the Kingdom of Thailand. As I sit in Kamphaeng Phet’s bustling night market, enjoying my daily bowl of noodles, machetes fly, chopping pork, plates of rice hit the steel tables, people squeeze past each other in the narrow lanes between stalls, and the vendors chatter with their regular customers as they ladle curries green and brown into plastic bags. At six o’clock sharp, out of otherwise undetectable speakers, a burly voice makes a brief, brusque announcement, and then, marking the end of another day in the Kingdom, the Thai national anthem begins.

The commotion halts and it’s as though someone pressed pause on the market’s activity. The customers stop their perusal and stand still, the cooks stop serving up dishes. The volume drops and the soaring chorus of the anthem fills the lull.  There’s nothing weird or oppressive about it: nobody sitting stands up, nobody bursts into song; the man at the grill keeps turning his squid, and conversations continue in quiet tones. And it helps that the song itself is merciful: a brief 45 seconds of stirring patriotic ardor, and then it’s over, and everything starts moving and making noise again.

The TV stations all take this 6pm pause, too, and before any movie is shown in a cinema, the audience stands to hear the anthem. When I’m in Bangkok on a Sunday afternoon, I’ll regularly make my way to a Thai army base, where the military is so generous as to let a group of foreigners play frisbee on their playing fields. At 6pm sharp, though, the game comes to an abrupt halt, the flag is lowered, the anthem is played, and only when it’s all over does everyone start running again while the officers fold the flag.

It’s a nice observance, I find. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to the endless, maudlin Star Spangled Banner every evening, but I appreciate the momentary pause Thais take each evening to reflect on the great good fortune to be born a Thai. Though I can’t help but wonder if, while they’re at it, they’re also delivering a coded threat to people like me, right there in the lyrics:

Every inch of Thailand belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty,
Because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving, But they are no cowards at war.
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up every drop of blood
For the nation’s safety, freedom and progress.

David Brooks: Red Herring in Sheep’s Clothing

3 November 2011

David Brooks wrote a column this week in which he describes two kinds of inequality in America. He’s got your “blue inequality”– evident in big coastal cities, this is the difference between the top 1% and everybody else– and then he’s got your “red inequality”– to be found in the heartland, where people with college degrees do just fine, and people without college degrees get, basically, dick.  Then comes the argument:

If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to expand opportunity, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.

I’m not going to dwell on Brooks’ ridiculous geographic delineations– non-college graduates living in Manhattan aren’t living the high life compared to non-college graduates in Scranton.  Nor am I going to waste too many pixels on the sneering tone he adopts elsewhere in the article, implying that the wealth of the 99th percentile is getting publicity because the “liberal arts majors” in percentiles 93-98 are jealous. I’m just going to rewrite those two sentences another way:

If your ultimate goal is to reduce inequality, then you should be furious at the doctors, bankers and C.E.O.’s. If your goal is to stop global warming, then you have a much bigger and different agenda.

Indeed I would.  Because they’re two different problems. Two totally different solutions. And what Brooks has done, in classic Brooksian style, is throw a big fat liberal red herring: You’re a piddling bourgeois if you’re focused on income inequality when there are more important issues out there, he says. As a matter of fact, I will gladly acknowledge that there are bigger, deeper issues than the spiraling incomes of top 1%– indeed, the very issue that Brooks raises is one of them. But that doesn’t mean income disparity isn’t an issue:

What that chart (cribbed from MoJo) is saying is that in the past 30 years, the top 1% have tripled their income, while everyone else has made, at best, a modest gain. In the past decade, incomes for the bottom 90 (nine-zero) percent of workers have actually dropped, while the super-rich have prospered.  And many of those same super-rich– I’m thinking of those in the employ of certain  large financial institutions– actually contributed to the very real economic pain suffered by everyone else.

This is an issue, and being furious seems like a pretty rational response.  Of course, being furious isn’t the solution– the solution is more tax brackets and higher rates at the top– but being furious, and, yes, taking your fury to Zucotti Park where you can put it on public display has proven a reasonably productive step in putting this issue on the table.

And Brooks casually acknowledges that it is an issue, but uses his platform on the Times Op-Ed page to undermine and obfuscate it by pointing to another issue altogether, one liable to pluck at the consciences of his bourgeois liberal arts readers. In the words of HAL 9000: Don’t do that, Dave. It’s disingenuous.

Halloween in Kamphaeng Phet

31 October 2011

After a bowl of noodles at the night market, I stopped off at one of my favorite watering holes (cafe by day, patio bar by night) for their Halloween party, advertised by a whole bunch of orange balloons and waiters wearing multicolor blinking devil horns. It turned out those were about the only “Halloween” aspects to the evening– otherwise it just seemed like the usual sparse Monday crowd gathered for dinner and a bucket of Chang beers.  That is, until an elephant showed up. And I’m not talking about a fat man in gray spandex, I’m talking about an honest-to-betsy five ton pachyderm that took a bowling ball-sized poop right there on the patio and proceeded to obliterate the tastefully landscaped greenery abutting the road in search of something delicious before his mahout managed to coax him on down the road.  Not a minute later, the (hands down, no question) most beautiful woman in Kamphaeng Phet (who, it so happens, is a man… a little secret that doesn’t reveal itself until she starts talking in her gravelly tenor) arrived in full costume (she dressed up– get this– as a man) with a toolbox full of cosmetics to do everyone’s makeup.

And that’s about when I left.  Happy Halloween!

My Name is Farang

26 October 2011

The hospital where I go to work every day is sandbagged in. Big vinyl rice bags decorated with dancing elephants, filled with sand, tied off with twine, and piled two feet high against the fence around the hospital. They don’t look serious enough to hold back much, and, fortunately, it doesn’t look like they’ll have to. Prime Minister Yingluck has declared a five-day emergency holiday, and certain of the doctors– those with elderly parents in the suburbs Bangkok, mostly– walk around all day looking nervous, but the River Ping has fallen fifteen feet from its peak three weeks ago, revealing the islets that disappeared a few months ago, and the water’s surface has resumed its glassy meander by the town, after a few long months of swift, choppy water lapping at the banks.

Still, the highways to Bangkok are underwater; I only made it up the river on a marathon 13 hour bus journey, tiptoeing along narrow, rice paddy roads, trying to stay dry (with mixed results: at one point the driver was ankle-deep in sloshing brown floodwater). So I, like most people in town, consider myself more or less stuck: here I’ve been for two whole weeks, and here I’ll be for two more, uninterrupted.

Kamphaeng Phet is a pleasant town. A city, it should be properly called, as capital of its eponymous province. Think of Kamphaeng Phet as a cousin of Des Moines: the small provincial capital in the heartland, politically moderate, off the tourist circuit, where bulky women roast nuts in honey and dance to country music at the annual festival. A bit more history, here, perhaps: Kamphaeng Phet means “diamond wall” and the crumbling city walls faintly remind visitors that centuries ago, this was the northwestern-most outpost of the Sukhothai empire charged with the solemn task of fending off Burmese invaders. When I tell a fellow prisoner of the Bangkok-to-Chiang Mai bus where I’m headed, he responds with what I gladly interpret as a look of steely significance. “Ah, Kamphaeng.” The wall. (more…)