Wednesday, February 24, 2010

STOP ROCKING THE BOAT

We live in age of political extremism. It's not necessarily a reflection of the tough issues of the day; there have been tougher times to be sure, and it's not just bad manners; politicians have probably always been street fighters at heart, despite their grinning photo-ops, and their groomed appearances to the contrary.

Today's noisy 24/7 media overload may be part of the problem inasmuch as bad news sells better than good; discouraging scandal entertains more than encouraging statistics, and misinformation on the internet has a life of its own.

But there is something about the uncompromising vitriol of the current age, perhaps magnified by the paradigm shift in digital communication, that is ripping the social fabric to shreds and threatening the health, safety and resilience of entire nations as a whole.

The worst thing about the morass of politics today is the myopia of spoiler politics; if one side fails to get its way, it responds to no higher calling than to ruin it for the other side. It's like two people fighting to get on a raft, each pulling the other off, willing to risk drowning rather than cooperate with a rival.

US Senator from Indiana, Evan Bayh, recently announced he will step down next year rather than seek another term, given the unpleasant, polarised environment the US Congress has become. He poignantly laments not being able to be friends with Republicans, to dine together, socialise together and work out compromises with the other half of Congress, as was normal operating procedure in the good old days when his father, Birch Bayh, was senator.

Thailand, like America, is currently going through a rough patch in its national politics, in which rude trumps polite, violence is seen as a viable option and might makes right. The national dialogue has declined to the point where communication and compromise are almost impossible.

Unlike America - which has been "muddling through" for over two centuries with a system of government affectionately known as the "worst" system of governance except for all the other systems which are even worse - Thailand is a post-1932 democracy with a predilection to coups, vulnerable to both chaos and strongman politics.

The Thai media is full of talk of overthrowing the government and blood in the streets. There are whispers of coups and counter-coups and coups to provoke coups. Bombs and grenades go off, innocent lives are threatened, the business climate declines. Where is it going? Where will it end?

Though violence has not been part of the equation, the sorry state of the US Congress and the mean machinations of US politicians are likewise cause for concern; when the US screws up big, whether it be the economy or military adventures, the world trembles.

Despite the relatively minor policy differences between the two mainstream parties, Republicans and Democrats now slug it out in public for all to see, as if politics were entertainment, a contact sport.

Each side is always looking to score a point and, failing that, at least inflict a foul on the other guy.

In Thailand, as in the United States, political squabbles - which, properly understood, are power games among the elite - have become conflated with cultural wars.

Thaksin Shinawatra is said to have a huge upcountry following but is hated in Bangkok.

Yellow shirt leader Sondhi Limthongkul has a solid support base in Bangkok but not in rural areas.

The polarised social worlds these two men have come to symbolise is not so much an impassable social divide as it is a manufactured split, born of political posturing and populist agit-prop.

Both men have changed their positions many times. Both men are members of the wealthy elite, both are well-connected and so fundamentally similar in outlook that not too long ago they were political allies and business confidantes.

Those "halcyon" days hark back not to a less divisive age; one need only invoke the memory of Black May 1992 to be reminded of that, but things were divided up in such a way that put them on the same side of the fence.

Tragically, an even earlier generation of activists, the so-called October generation, who in the height of their youthful idealism were willing to risk life itself in order to refute and reform, if not revolutionise, the corrupt body politic, are now split almost evenly, and thus rendered impotent as a unique generational force, by the shifting tides of allegiance along the red shirt/yellow shirt divide.

Red and yellow street actions may bear a physical resemblance to revolutions past, what with the headbands and megaphone speeches and folk songs and daredevil defiance, but today's street theatre makes a mockery of the genuinely democratic sacrifices of Oct 14, 1973 and Oct 6, 1976.

Nowadays, self-promoters hijack the paraphernalia and street tactics of the people's struggle in service of elite establishment types and militant tycoons.

Don't the old comrades care anything about the ordinary people any more? Can't people with different views talk anymore?

PM Abhisit Vejjajiva shares with Thaksin and Mr Sondhi a background of wealth, hi-so status and a Western education; but he stands apart from his two elders, not so much in class status as in temperament. It would appear he lacks the unbridled ego, the blinding ambition, the instinct for the jugular and the Machiavellian talent for getting things done by hook or by crook.

Indeed , Mr Abhisit is not unlike Barack Obama in that both men share a rare unflappability. Both men possess first-rate temperaments that allow them to remain remarkably calm and even-keeled at a time when everyone is rocking the boat.

This deep-plumbed geniality does not suffice to successfully steer the ship of state in a good direction - both men have disappointed their followers in droves because of their amiable inaction - but at least they may prevent it from capsizing until other talents can be brought on board.

Indeed, keeping the peace so that the centre may hold is so critical to the equitable functioning of society, and so important to the interests of ordinary citizens, who have no desire to become collateral damage in someone else's war, who just want to earn a living and enjoy their free time and get on with their lives, that having a leader who is polite, thoughtful, reflective and just plain riap roi trumps political genius.

BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM

(published in the Bangkok Post, February 23, 2010)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TWO TIGERS, ONE MOUNTAIN

US-China relations have gotten off to a less than roaring start in the Year of the Tiger, but the venom of mutual incrimination can be avoided if both sides engage in some retrospection and put things in an historical perspective.

Indeed, the positive achievements of the world's most important bilateral relationship are so numerous, profound and complex, that it has become part of the landscape and second nature to younger generations who never experienced the frigid depths of the Cold War and the polarizing antipathies in which the global East and global West defined one another as the quintessential enemy.

While there's no space to enumerate the many people-to-people initiatives that made today's peaceful economic integration of two great economies possible, it is worth reminding ourselves that the rich and constant exchange of people and goods across the Pacific that we take for granted today was almost beyond imagination just a generation ago.

Because the mutual gains of economic interdependence and intellectual and cultural exchange have been such game-changers the accomplishments and sacrifices of previous generations may be obscured from view. Those who have contributed to US-China amity have built so sturdy an edifice that we find ourselves standing on a foundation of good deeds and accomplishments so massive that it is almost impossible to view as a whole.

The big picture is basically good, but because politicians are ruthlessly competitive and the drumbeat of the 24x7 media needs conflict to thrive (and sell more ads) we live in an age of angry nitpicking.

The tone of US-China argument is at times strident and acrimonious, full of false bravado and over-wrought nationalism. But in practical terms, we are talking about bumps on the road rather than insurmountable obstacles. The actual conflict has been on the level of a teapot tempest that vents more heat than light and rattles us today only to disappear tomorrow.

Speaking of tea, there is a link between the intransigence one sometimes sees in US-China relations and the "tea-parties" of domestic politics. When frustrations mount, raw emotion sometimes wins the day and ridiculous, counterproductive things are said and done. All this would be funny if it were not for the fact that such hyped-up "manufactured dissent" distracts from serious dialogue and deters the search for joint solutions to important problems such as degradation of the environment and global warming.

China-bashing, from the US side, and America-bashing from the Chinese side, are to global harmony what tea parties are to American democracy. Goodwill is frittered away and the foundations for dialogue dismantled in the quest to score points and snag some short-term gain.

The breakdown of dialogue in the US Congress is so severe that respected lawmakers are quitting just to get away from the mudslinging. In China, as in the US, jostling for power and prestige, rather than working devotedly in service of the people, is a recipe for self-inflicted disaster.

The peace and prosperity we enjoy today, a heroic accomplishment built on the backs of less fortunate ancestors, is threatened by a lack of cultural humility and historical perspective.

A quick review of some current contentious issues underscores the value of putting things in a historic perspective, with introspection enough to consider how others might view the same problem.

How can we talk about Tibet without referring to the region's sorry feudal past, interventionist US and British political machinations, CIA funding of the Dalai Lama and so on?

How can we talk about US arms sales to Taiwan without referring to a half-century of US weapon sales, set in motion by a well-oiled anti-China lobby, without considering its divisive influence, not to mention the corruption and military profiteering involved?

On the question of Iraq, China proved to be on the right side of history. China did not join the trumped up "Coalition of the Willing" that cheered the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, setting in motion a long, dirty war based on lies, deception, vendettas and opportunism.

Given the precedent of Iraq, how can the US and Britain chastise China for not chastising Iran when the US and British have a documented history of meddling both in Iraq and Iran, including the overthrow of governments, installation of pro-West puppet governments and exploitation of oil?

How can the US State Department and NSA, in cooperation with Google, assume the high-ground in complaints about mail-prying and information control in China when Google itself has become one of the world's biggest invaders of personal privacy and human rights with its Orwellian surveillance capabilities, aggressive data-mining and creation of individual files and advertising profiles, based in large part on the science of reading other people's mail?

How can the US lecture China on the proper way to handle militant Muslims in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, when it is bombing and shooting militant Muslims on a daily basis in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan?

What about human rights? History shows that every nation has at times been callous in its treatment of its people. There are human rights problems and judicial injustices both in China and the US that need to be addressed.

But the US, which incarcerates more people for longer prison terms than any other country in the world, including jail for non-violent offences, is not in a good position to do the talking. Nor do anti-communist agitators and National Endowment of Democracy funded groups promote honest dialogue. Instead, the neo-conservative noisemakers use their phony high-dudgeon righteousness as a needle to prod China.

But human rights are important, and independent groups not attached to the US government such as Amnesty International and Duihua, as well as lawyers and lawmakers in China, have a role to play. More to the point, over-aggressive policing and unfair judicial decisions, whether in the US or China, are national problems, even a matter of national shame, but not true bilateral issues.

Good foreign policy, like a good human rights policy, starts at home. The US and China both would be well advised to engage in some introspection and reflection, attending first and foremost to problems of their own making, problems in their own backyards, before pointing fingers at one another and spoiling the peace and prosperity that so many worked so hard at so much cost to achieve.

(published in China Daily, February 22, 2010)

The author is professor of media studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Doshisha University, Japan.