A NOTE FROM THIS SUBSCRIBER
The Economist (11 July 2020), attempted to figure out the reason why Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam had surprisingly succeeded in fighting off the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of infected cases and fatality rates have been extraordinarily low in these countries. It could have been because of degrees of authoritarianism in their systems of government which may have effectively helped push the population in the direction desired to contain the virus. Or it could have also been the Buddhist way of life which helps contribute to a healthier lifestyle, together with more open-space living in rural communities. Only small number of people in Thailand live in flats or apartments where they would be cooped up between four walls.
The Economist, however, did not have much to say about the Buddhist factor other than giving it an enticing headline and a mentioning of a Thai word 'Wai', a Thai (as well as Hindu) greeting with two enclosed palms, thus avoiding the western-style physical handshake. (It could not be called ‘Wai-five’ as suggested by The Economist since it uses two hands - ten fingers. A ‘Wai-ten’ will not be fashionable either. A plain ‘Wai’ would be just fine, thank you!)
The focus is more on various governments' effective measures and the population's willingness to comply with government directives. Their proximities to China, in terms of physical borders and flow of tourists, somehow keep the countries well informed and better prepared. As for Thailand, in spite of a 'sham democracy overseen by generals', The Economist attributes Thailand's success to 'the quality of its health care' that 'makes Thailand a popular destination for medical tourism', and that the Thai 'government was quick to set up a vigorous covid-fighting task-force'.
It's nice to hear good news about Thailand from The Economist once in a while. I'm sure those generals will be happy to allow the circulation of this current issue of The Economist in their 'sham democracy'.
By the way, The Economist Intelligence Unit categorizes Thailand in 2019 as a 'flawed democracy'. Now in 2020 it probably is downgraded to a 'flawed democracy in shamble'.
It's OK with me, as long as I get my weekly printed copy of The Economist on time!
12 July 2020
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▶️ THE ECONOMIST
In all my life I have never been identified by the color of my skin. I am only known by my name and my works. In Thailand, skin color does not matter. The thought of myself having some kind of color on my natural skin never entered my mind. Thai people are just like that - not skin-color conscious. Perhaps it is Buddhism. Buddhism preaches classless society long before Karl Marx. It has converted hundreds of thousands of Hindus fleeing their hierarchical Varna (color of skin) system for years since the days of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar was the the first famous untouchable Chandala under-class Hindu who was converted into Buddhism. He was the president of India’s Constitutional Assembly, or the father of the Indian constitution. Ancient Indian Varna system later evolved and formed a more complex caste system, the social evil beyond control of the constitution in post-colonial India. The Indian constitution prohibits caste system and racial discrimination, but failed miserably in practice. Caste prejudices and racial discrimination continue on even today with no end in sight. To be rid of it, a good constitution could not help much. People resorted to measures of their own by changing names, speaking with new upper class accent, adopting high class social manner, converting to classless religion - such as Buddhism, getting higher education, embracing Marxist idea of classless society, moving out of the village, and even migrating abroad. Many found new and better lives in the UK, USA, many European countries, and Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand. Still, racial discrimination follows them like a shadow.
Chinese immigrants came to America long before sub-continental Indians. They helped build the great American railroads, but white Hollywood recognised them as the ‘Chinaman’ doing white men’s laundry. Following the days of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads, many Asians of various ethnic origins from the vast continent of Asia flocked into the USA, chasing their American dreams. Modern-day Asian immigrants make up the complex racial demography in America. While Black Americans have been renamed ‘African Americans’, Chinese, - once conveniently called ‘Orientals’ - are , by the Act of Congress, to be called Asian Americans. Other immigrants, from India, the rest of Asia, and the Middle East, are also called Asian Americans. Japanese immigrants who, like the Chinese, had come to America early, suffered more humiliation than any others during the Second World War. Modern-day racism in America is more complex than any period of history. It’s not only out on the surface. It’s hidden deep in subconsciousness. It is systemic.
Life is hard and the living is unfulfilling for non-whites in America.
For a foreign non-white Asian visitors to the US, it’s like living a life of an Asian American, at least for a brief period of stay.
I ought to know. I am a Thai, an Asian who have visited the United States many times, and will continue to do so. It is a great country with great natural beauties.
“O Beautiful For Spacious Skies … ”,
I always hum along during my 15 visits to the US national parks, “America’s best idea”, according to Ken Burns.
In the United States I would automatically be branded 'a yellow-skin Oriental'. This is all wrong. Scientifically and culturally, that is. No human being has yellow skin. No-one has real white skin either. And I am not an Oriental. I am just a Thai, a citizen of a country called Thailand. As for 'Oriental', in my own context, it is just the name of a Japanese watch, a Thai airline, a first-class hotel in Bangkok frequented by Joseph Conrad during his Lord Jim's colonial days sojourn in 'the Orient'. In fact, by classic literary tradition, the term 'Orient' or 'Oriental' is beautifully romantic. 'Orient' is a French derivative from Latin, meaning "That region of the heavens in which the sun and other heavenly bodies rise, or the corresponding region of the world' (The Oxford English Dictionary). For white Europeans and Americans who live far away to the west of heaven where the sun goes down, they are 'Occidental'.
I have been observing racism in America since I was 18, attending a senior year at Park Hill High School, Kansas City, (Missouri, of course). I never sensed any kind of racial prejudice at Park Hill High, or anywhere else in Missouri. Life of an Oriental student in an American high school, in a former slave state, was all fun — just plain fun! I was inducted into the school’s National Honor Society, given a role in the school play, invited to give talks in broken English to local social clubs. My water color won a Gold Key Award from the Kansas City’s own Hallmarks card company, and went on to receive a merit award form the National Scholastic Arts Awards. My American host family looked after me and loved me like their own child. They are my second Mom and Dad, brother and sister, forever. There was no racism around me in Kansas City of 1967-67.
I spent another five years in Philadelphia in the 1970s attending the same Ivy League university as the man in the present White House. Frank Rizzo was then the Mayor of the 'City of Brotherly Love'. The Hmong refugees were a new addition to the already under-privileged class of blacks in West Philly. Clint Eastwood's Grand Torino was not stolen then. And "Doctor J - Julius Erving" who was not a real doctor, but somehow managed to heal all wounds in the Spectrum.
The Amish immigrants still said, ‘throw the cows over the fence some hays”.
After my years at the University of Pennsylvania I visited the United States many times, as a tourist, academic, journalist, and a parent visiting his son in a Boston music school.
What I had seen in Kansas City and Philadelphia then gradually transgressed into what I see today. My Park Hill High added new buildings, and students more racially mixed. I had a brief talk with them in class the last time I stopped by in 2004, during my on-the-road presidential election news report for Thai television. In Philadelphia, the Spectrum was demolished, Doctor J and the 76ers moved on after their 1983 NBA championship.
Recent police brutalities against African Americans started nation-wide fires of protests against systemic racism. Adding fuel to the fires is Donald Trump himself. Ignoring the plight of people in the mid of COVID-19 pandemic, Trump ran a campaign against the protesters and openly gave amoral support to the police and white conservatives through frequent interviews and campaign speeches. Mocking the new corona virus ‘Kung Flu’, an expression offensive to Asian Americans, Donald Trump keeps the fire blazing. His anti-minorities speeches and actions are nothing new. Only he kept doing it without shame, as if never wanted his supporters to forget the supremacy of white caucasian Americans.
It’s tough to be ethnic minorities in America. African Americans are the main target of systemic racism. Asian Americans - white, dark, brown and yellow - and Latinos, are next in line. And the line is long and winding. Asian Americans usually keep a low profile and mind their own business. It’s eastern Asian culture to keep the pressure to themselves. ‘Just keep calm and carry on’ as some people on the other side of the Atlantic would say. They had followed their elders’ traditional advise to just work hard, get good education, and success will come. But this advice is beginning to wear down on the new generation. Young Asian Americans now start to question their parents’ social and work ethics. Hard work is not a problem. But Asian Americans would have to work many times harder than white kids to get to an almost equal economic status. As for social equality, there is no hope as long as the ‘Kung Flu’ pandemic keeps spreading from that egoistic white man in the White House. Work harder, much, much harder, many times harder, and you will still be unlikely to achieve your dream. That is life of minorities in ”White America” today.
The skies are still spacious, though not so beautiful.
What I see today is a different America, a country under the not-so-good a governance by an uncultured, poorly educated, and a truly bad man in the White House. (And I am under constraint with my language.)
It's amazing how the world's greatest democracy can produce such disappointing result.
I am the product of a culture where skin colour is not noticed and races play no part in social discrimination. I do not pretend to understand racism in America, at least not enough to help solve the two-centuries-old social conflicts, but I take comfort in reading more, trying to understand, and sharing the pain with Americans I love. I'm certain a long-term and sustainable solution will be found.
The Greatest country on earth and leader of the free world will not fail humanity.
For the immediate future, the man responsible for the current crisis must be rid off and driven far away from the 'swamp' he has never attempted to clean up as promised. Instead, he made it more polluted. It is increasingly looking more like the kind of 'hole' he, not long ago, attributed to countries in Africa and the Caribbean.
As embarrassing as it is now to the world, America can still be rescued.
It doesn't need a second revolution, or another civil war.
It just needs a new election,
and that is coming this November to the polling stations near you,
MAKE THE UNITED STATES GREAT AGAIN.
SO THE WORLD CAN BREATH!
7 July 2020
THE FOUR FACES ON MOUNT RUSHMORE
I have visited Mount Rushmore trice, the first two times in the summer while a student at the University of Pennsylvania, and the third 25 years apart when on a family driving tour of the US national parks in 2004. Like any curious foreign tourist, I just wanted to see interesting places along scenic road trips around the United States. In South Dakota tourists need to stop at the Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. To me, Mount Rushmore is just a monument of four US presidents carved out of the stony mountain top, and it was done without respect for the mountain and natural beauty of the surrounding Black Hills.
American history is full of stories of environmental destruction - cutting down trees, clearing lands for settlers, heavy logging industries, etc. But that was done in the name of economic development and human settlement, and modern America has redeemed themselves by championing environmental protection with innovative ideas such as the creation of national parks and large-scale reforesting. The sin of early environmental onslaught can be forgiven though not forgotten. But to carve four gigantic human faces out of a towering mountain top, and destroyed the sacred beauty of the mountain, is not to be forgiven nor forgotten, certainly not by the Oglala Sioux native American nation who own and worship the sacred Black Hills.
What about the faces of the four great white men on top of Mount Rushmore?
Beginning from left to right: George Washington, a slave-owner who led the great American revolution into victory; Thomas Jefferson, also slave-owner and a racist who wrote ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence; Theodore Roosevelt, the man who was no friend of native Americans in his early public career; furthest right is Abraham Lincoln, the man who won the civil war and emancipated slavery, united the country, and made it truly ‘the United States’ of today. These four men of history were not responsible for having their faces carved out leaving a big ugly scar on the mountain. They had died long before the Mount Rushmore National Memorial project started in 1927.
What about the native Americans of the Sioux Nation who own and worship their sacred mountain?
In their book 'The National Parks: America's best Idea, An Illustrated History'* Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns talks to Gerard Baker, a native American who was the first American Indian to be the superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Baker, who is of the Mandan-Hidatsas tribe, has this to say:
Question: And now you're the superintendent at Mount Rushmore. That would seem to represent a big change from those earlier times."
Answer: "I'm the first American Indian to be the superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and I was told, 'There's ('re?) not many Indians going to be there, because they have a different feeling about the place.' And so the first week I was there, I was out walking around, looking at the visitors and asking them questions, just viewing everything, and I saw an American Indian family, I was so excited, I went up there, shook hands with them, we had a very good discussion--who they were, where they were from--and then they asked me, 'what do you do here?'
And I said, 'Well I'm the superintendent.' And they all burst out laughing. They didn't believe me at all. They thought I worked in maintenance or they thought I was a groundkeeper or something. And I said, 'No, really, I am the superintendent.' And they all started laughing again. I actually had to take them back in my office and prove to them that actually, yes, I am an Indian and I am in charge of Mount Rushmore. And they were so proud of that fact.
And it opened their eyes, as well. We started talking about their daughter, who can come into the Park Service and who can be a ranger and who can work her way up and so forth."
Question: "What about Mount Rushmore and its unique place in the complicated story of America?"
Answer: "There were two places in my career that I told my family that I would never work. One of them was Little Big Horn and the other was Mount Rushmore. And I have been superintendent at both of them now. Coming to Mount Rushmore--it was very challenging to accept the job, because for Indian people it means the desecration of the sacred Black Hills; it means the losing of the Black Hills; a lot of negative things.
But I'm proud of the fact that I am the first American Indian to be superintendent there, telling the freedom that America has to offer and the democracy that we have in America. When I first came, I'd go out in the park and I would watch people. They would look at those four presidents and they would get teary-eyed. This place draws emotion. And it should. But we were only telling half the story.
We need to look at all the stories, not only talk about those four presidents and what they did as far as freedom is concerned. we also have to start talking about what happened to everybody. Mount Rushmore gives us that opportunity. We're promoting all cultures of America. That's what this place is. For goodness sake, this is Mount Rushmore. It's America.
I'm talking about all of America because that's what we represent. The parks don't belong to me. They don't belong to you. The parks belong to America. And what is America made up of? So in order to tell our story, we need to do a better job of getting the multitude of cultures into our story. We need national parks to have people--especially our kids--understand what America is. America's not sidewalks. America's not stores. America's not video games. America's not restaurants. We need national parks so people can go there and say, 'Ah, this is America.' "*
From the point of view of native Americans, Mount Rushmore is sacred land not to be desecrated, but it had been by those who defaced the sacred Black Hills and made it a monument of the four great white men who spoke with forked tongue. And today the sacred Black Hills is only a place for curiosity for tourists who have no time to probe deeper to the history of discontent America.
From the point of view of being a National Memorial which is part of the National Park Service, Mount Rushmore is a place specially for Americans of all colours and ethnicities to come and contemplate deeply into the heart of America, travel back in time into the early days of Crazy Horse, leader of the Oglala Sioux, and General George Armstrong Custer of the Seventh Cavalry, to search for the true spirit of the great vast land--from sea to shining sea--the big country that is home to all immigrants who came to make different histories of America, and in the process, induced suffering over the natives who had lived and tilled their lands long before the discovery of the so-called 'new world'.
In contemporary political context, Mount Rushmore is not to be the place to sow the seeds of disunity within the united states. It is not the place for political campaign against one another. Particularly, not on the 4th of July!
Since the completion of the project in 1941 Mount Rushmore has been a place to see and a must-tourist-stop for everyone. However, the full history of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills was never properly conveyed to students of history and general tourists alike.
Human being is a flawed species, and the four great men in American history are no exception. The four faces on Mount Rushmore have different stories to tell and passing-by visitors can not possibly know by just looking up the mountain and snapping a picture. They all have prominent roles, good and bad, in American history. But they do not need to show their sculptured faces on the sacred mountain. Their stories should be told in history books and discussed in classrooms and in public discourses.
4 July 2020
Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns,
The National Parks: America's best Idea, An Illustrated History,
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010, pp.58-59
"Opinions without knowledge and understanding are shameful and ugly" (Socrates)