Asians and the West, cont.

Below are comments that were sent a week ago for the thread on Asians’ incompatibilites with the West, but were inadvertently not posted until now. The original thread has reached its maximum size so I am posting these in a new entry.

Also in this thread the exchange between Roland D. and Paul C. about Thailand continues, with Paul strongly disputing Roland’s highly negative portrayal of Thai culture.

Alissa writes:

In general Asians have a much greater interest in Western culture than do blacks or Hispanics.

That’s partly because they wanted the status and wealth of the West but also because there’s been quite some interracial European male-Asian female couplings.

A.L. writes:

In my experience, East Asian assimilation and identification with traditionalist America can take multiple paths across a few generations.

The first-generation East Asian immigrant is, without question, a race-realist. Some see America purely as a vast economic game to be played well, and they seek only the greatest material prosperity for themselves. I have an acquaintance who is a very successful real-estate agent. She is kind and generous to all her acquaintances, but she has no love for America, and is flatly pessimistic about the future of America. She is convinced that racial war is inevitable. In the cutthroat years of the real-estate boom, a lot of naive Chinese investors were suckered by “Jewish” (her words, not mine) brokers into buying property that had no hope of turning a profit. She and other Chinese brokers were outraged, both at the lost business, and that their countrymen were being taken for a ride. The battle lines formed quickly, and the word was put out. The Jewish real-estate businesses, who needed Mandarin speakers to conduct the deals with the investors, were frozen out by a virtual boycott. When I asked about white and Hispanic brokers, her anger visibly subsided, and she said in a soft voice that they were generally good people, an a pleasure to do business with, but apparently they simply weren’t contenders in the fight for Chinese money. For people like her, America is a big chessboard. The idea of civic duty is laughable.

Other first-generation immigrants seek to assimilate with the dream of America. My father-in-law is an example. He still retains a strong accent, but he is fluent in English, watches American football, and listens to country radio. He was an NRA member for many years and owns a few guns, although they have fallen into disuse. To these immigrants of the ’70s and ’80s, their America is found in the movies of the ’50s and ’60s, and they loved and dreamed of it. Of course, the America they live in is quite different, but like most people born in poverty, they are practical people who don’t concern themselves with politics. He would be thrilled to have his ’50s American dream, but he can never know if that dream was ever real. He just keeps his head down, stays away from the America he doesn’t like, and enjoys the America that he does.

The second-generation is more problematic. They feel only a vague and tenuous connection with the ancestral homelands, and America is the only home they know. It is impossible not to feel some sense of alienation. The key conflict is contest between family and society. Their first generation parents, however eager to assimilate, will nonetheless revert to the old ways when it comes to the primal matters of raising children. It is only natural to raise your children as you yourself was raised. This creates a cultural gap that most second-generation children spend their entire lives negotiating. Unfortunately, multiculturalism rushes in to soothe this gap. Multiculturalist ideology assures them that they do not need to choose between family and society, and that America is a proposition nation. Furthermore, the second-generation often must face the traumatic truth that they were never as “Asian” as they thought, and that their idealized ancestral homelands are more alien and less welcoming than they had hoped. Faced with rejection abroad, they cling ever more tightly to Multicultural America as their identity. If traditionalist Americans ever regain power, they will be without a home. Others cope by full assimilation … they take White partners, and simply bury themselves in white culture, and don’t look back. (If you detect ambivalence in my voice, you are correct … but simply imagine how you would feel if the situation were reversed.)

Then there are the new first-generation East Asian immigrants, like myself. I am fully trained in the the classical literature and history of my culture, but I also have (I believe) a strong understanding of Western culture. My ex-pat English teachers were gloriously retrograde, and I read all the dead White male classics. In college, I often joked that I knew more about English literature than people who majored in it. My allegiance to the West is of gratitude and aesthetic admiration. My heart is stirred by the impossible bravery and integrity of men like Chamberlain or Lee. I reverently marveled at Trafalgar Square and the Cenotaph at Whitehall. I am one of those young Asians you will see attending classical music and ballet performances. I hope for a spiritual revival of Western high civilization, and for the defeat of multicultural liberalism, which threatens my culture as well, although the disease is not as advanced there. My sincere hope is for our two civilizations to live as peaceful and friendly neighbors, and the Minoans and Egyptians once did.

New York lawyer writes:

The commenters observe that the Asian immigrants they know don’t identify with America, although they are good citizens. Based on the Orthodox Jews that I know, I think the same could be said of them, although they are white (and not immigrants themselves, although generally the children or grandchildren of post-WWII immigrants). They support law and order, and are quite happy to enjoy an American standard of living, and to have the United States support Israel (although they are understandably anti-Obama, for the most part), and are often quite hawkish, but they do not viscerally identify with the United States. I would speculate that the same could be said of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children who live here now (Jewish, part Jewish, and otherwise), even though Russian-Americans generally vote Republican. (As you know, I am Jewish.) But really—the destruction of a sense of American nationhood has proceeded so far that I suspect most upper middle class, college-educated whites under 40 or so don’t really feel themselves part of the historic American nation. If you ask people like that what American means to them, they will probably refer to establishment-left totems like “tolerance,” “diversity,” being open to immigrants, taking care of the disadvantaged, protecting the environment, “choice,” etc. In other words, nothing that distinguishes the U.S. from the EU. I remember seeing on C-SPAN a few months ago some feature that I think was about the teaching of U.S. history in high schools today. A white girl was asked about her ancestry, and she said, shamefacedly, that her ancestors were nobody special or interesting, just white Americans.

James P. writes:

After reading CO’s remarks about his Nepalese in-laws, I thought I would provide an anecdote of my own. When I was a boy in the 1970s, we rented a house for a year from a Taiwanese immigrant. Not sure when he had arrived. His house contained evidence of a determined effort to assimilate—including framed exhortations in the den like “Think American” and “God Bless America” and numerous flags, eagles, and what have you—as well as a bookshelf that reflected genuine interest in American history and culture. I am not sure if Taiwanese immigrants are still like that or not, but that’s how one of them was 35 years ago.

Meanwhile a good many of the native-born Japanese-Americans I went to college with in the 1980s had a conception of history that centered on two racial grievances: the wartime internment of the Japanese-Americans, and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Like blacks, they only seemed to care about what happened to their group.

May 10

Paul C. writes:

Thanks for posting my comment. I see that Roland D. has posted a followup, to which I cannot help but reply. I don’t want to go too much into the details of Thai politics, about which most of your readers will have no interest, but Roland demonstrates a clear affinity with the Red Shirt protest movement when he urges you to “remember the Thai military action in 2010 which officially resulted in the deaths of 91 Thais armed with nothing more sophisticated than slingshots and a few flare pistols.” This refers to the Red Shirt protest that took over a large part of inner Bangkok in 2010. They put up barricades, burned down the Central World shopping mall, stormed Chulalongkorn Hospital and forced its evacuation/closure, as well as used weapons to shoot at the army. After several weeks, the military moved in and shut down the protest. What do you think the response would have been if a similar scenario had played out in Washington D.C., London, or Paris? Would those governments have waited several weeks and negotiated with the armed camp? It is commonly known, although unreported in by CNN and the BBC, of course, that the Red Shirts were being paid up to 20,000 baht by the fugitive former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, to take part in the protest. By the way, some may note that it is the sister of that same Thaksin, Yingluck, who is the prime minister of Thailand today. The Shinawatras, not coincidentally, are also billionaire Thai-Chinese, or, as Roland prefers, the “Sino-Thai elite.”

Elsewhere, Roland writes that my “comments about there being little violence in Thailand and in Southeast Asia in general are a joke.” Here is what I actually wrote: “with all the strife,conflict, and jealousy that permeates Thailand, it is [a] far more peaceful and, yes, inventive, place than is today’s America.” I still stand by that statement. Nothing like the black flash mobs and terror gangs attacking whites in America can be found in Thailand. Nonetheless, there is also some truth to be found in what Roland says. With a brush as broad as his, he was bound to be accurate in some instances. There are places, such as Pattaya, for example, which have become sordid spots of violence towards farangs (or Westerners). But if you looked a little closer at what those farangs are up to in Thailand, you might also see that they put themselves in dangerous circumstances, engaging in prostitution (surprise! you’ve just brought two vicious ladyboys back to your hotel room), drugs, pornography, illegal businesses.

I’ll even admit that Roland is correct about the undercurrent of violence that is present in Southeast Asia. But there are strong social conventions that do try to keep it in check—and are largely successful. Probably the worst thing you can do in Thailand, or elsewhere in Southeast Asia, is lose your temper publicly. People who do so shame themselves and cause those around them to be embarrassed by the incident. Westerners, in general, sometimes tend to become frustrated and explode when dealing with the Thai bureaucracy, Thai manners, or the Thai pattern of “consensus” at work. Once you do so, it is almost impossible to recover from the reputation you earn. I learned the hard way about this, and it caused me to re-evaluate my own behavior. The fact is that in America, not so long ago, we once had the same attitude towards uncontrolled emotional outbursts, which were regarded as childish and selfish. In the past forty years or so, of course, many things in America have become excusable—especially if you are “passionate” about your concern.

Roland also takes East Asians to task because “they are uninterested in any sort of equitable civil polity—indeed, they are hostile to it, as they each wish their family/tribe/clan/region/racial sub-group/national/racial macro-group to dominate, in descending order of priority.” Those values are not too far from the ones also practiced by Americans a half a century ago, before “equality” and “justice” and the rise of hedonistic, self-centered mankind took control of public and private life. [LA replies: I disagree entirely. America has never been amoral-familial and amoral-tribal in the sense described by Roland.] I know the immediate response to that statement is to refer to the sex trade in Thailand. It does exist. And it tends to cater to European and American men visiting a few city blocks in central Bangkok. It is also a fact that several expats relocate here for that reason, too, with the majority of English speaking expats being British pensioners who cannot afford to live at home on their meagre savings and welfare checks. They occupy the bars, argue with tuk tuk drivers, tend to get in fights, and pay for sex with a string of teenage Thai girls. This is the picture Asia is getting of the West, an aging, exhausted, impoverished, spiritless lot of egotistical joyriders. Meanwhile, Thai society itself, at least the Thai society I know, is actually very formal and very conservative, politically and morally.

Finally, what is best about Thailand is that I enjoy more freedom of thought here than in America. As long as I don’t insult the king, I can pretty much express whatever idea I wish without being fired from my job (and it is the type of job that would absolutely forbid heretical thought that veered from political and social orthodoxy in the U.S.) or suffer physical assault. The fact that I do fear revenge on people and property associated with me back in the U.S. is the only reason I feel the need to keep my name withheld on this blog.

LA replies:

Paul’s account of the the Red Shirt protest—that they “burned down the Central World shopping mall, stormed Chulalongkorn Hospital and forced its evacuation/closure, as well as used weapons to shoot at the army”—could not be more different from Roland’s. Paul describes them as a violent insurrectionary movement that the state had to put down by force. Roland describes them as a bunch of harmless protesters victimized by a violent and tyrannical government: “remember the Thai military action in 2010 which officially resulted in the deaths of 91 Thais armed with nothing more sophisticated than slingshots and a few flare pistols.” Are Paul’s facts correct? If they are, then Roland’s account of this incident was tendentious, which would tend to throw into question his highly critical account of Asian cultures generally. What does Roland have to say in reply?

May 10

Roland D. replies:

The Thai political issues to which Paul C. alludes (and the Thai military action to which I originally referred) are a clash of elites—Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister ousted in a coup, is the Asian equivalent of Huey Long, with all that implies. The other major power center in Thailand is the traditional elite, who wanted to oust Thaksin because they saw him as a threat to their power and revenues (which he was; he wanted to obtain those things for himself and his extended family and social network, under the guise of populism). But I was there when the military went in to clear out the protestors, not with riot gear a la Occupy Wall Street, but with armored personnel carriers and automatic weapons—and the military were indiscriminately shooting on full-auto when they went in, and not a single shot was fired by the protestors in return.

Here’s a photo I took of a soldier blazing away full-auto when there was no weapons fire at all from the protestors.

You can clearly see a spent cartridge being ejected from his weapon, one of a single burst of about 10 shots, followed by several more at the same target. I was there, and there was no weapons fire from the protestors—none, as they had no firearms. The soldiers were laughing and joking as they received their orders and began firing.

The protestors definitely should have been removed—in point of fact, they should never have been allowed to occupy the commercial center of Bangkok in the first place. Gross incompetence is another general characteristic of Asian culture. But tear gas and riot shields and bulldozers and tasers, which the Thai military have, would have done the trick.

Now, I don’t actually care who runs the government of Thailand, as I am not Thai and have no say in the matter. But facts are facts, and it’s important to face reality.

As with the protest issue, most of the violence in Asian societies has nothing to do with foreigners, it’s internal. See this, this, and this.

This is just a tiny sample, and only of murders, not of beatings, extortion, rape, etc.

The Thai society Paul C. knows is that of the elite—and again, they have one another murdered, kidnapped, beaten, extorted, etc. with regularity, typically through lower-class henchmen (it only costs the equivalent of $800 USD to have someone killed in Thailand). The concept of “face” and keeping one’s emotions always in check leads Thais—and other Asians, in other Asian countries—to end up snapping at some point, and reacting quite disproportionately, to real or perceived insults, not to mention physical confrontations, actual injustices perpetrated by others, etc.

What Paul C. doesn’t seem to grasp is that he is not Thai, and that he will he never be viewed as a full member of the family into which he’s married. If his Thai wife were to end up in a situation in which she had to choose her relationship with or the well-being of her foreign husband vs. her relationship with that of even a distant relative or an important non-related Thai, she would drop him into the soup in a nanosecond. After all, he’s only a foreigner, and there are plenty of those lying about to be picked up, later. Paul C. has bought into the Asian cultural system, believing himself to be a part of its elite, when in reality he’s viewed by his adopted Thai extended family at best as a barbarian to be tolerated, at worst as a subhuman to be prised out of the family one way or another, if the opportunity arises.

This is the reality of Asia. Asians typically do not view Westerners as fully human and do not deal with them fairly, because to do so would be to surrender an advantage to their side, which would equate to betrayal within their cultural system. Nor do they deal with one another fairly.

I deal with the elites in all Asian countries in my work, including those in Thailand, and have done so for many years; I like and respect many of them, and they like and respect me, in context. But I also know the reality of where I stand as a foreigner and I comport myself accordingly. I also interact with members of the lower classes, and thus have a more comprehensive window into Asian culture than that of Paul C., in my opinion.

Roland D. continues:
One more telling anecdote about how Asians treat with foreigners.

This hotel was in the center of a Thai military officially declared free-fire zone, and the hotel staff disabled Internet access and hid newspapers so that Western hotel guests would not know that they were in danger and check out of the hotel.

Think about that. Can you imagine any Western-owned-and-operated hotel doing something similar, in the West? And if one did, can you imagine the outcry?

There was not a peep about this in the Thai press, and the hotel was not sanctioned.

LA replies:

To sum up Roland’s reply. Paul said that the Red Shirt protesters “burned down the Central World shopping mall, stormed Chulalongkorn Hospital and forced its evacuation/closure, as well as used weapons to shoot at the army.” Roland does not deny that the Red Shirt protesters “burned down the Central World shopping mall, [and] stormed Chulalongkorn Hospital and forced its evacuation/closure.” He does deny that they “used weapons to shoot at the army.” His point is that the “protesters” (who were not protesters but rioters) were unarmed and could have been suppressed by ordinary anti-riot measures, not by tanks and automatic weapons killing 91 people.

Paul C. writes:

Just for the record, here is a news story about the aftermath of the Central World fire and the army’s move against the Red Shirts, the arson, the gun battles, and the burnings of other buildings in and outside of Bangkok. And here is a story about the storming of Chulalongkorn Hospital.

And regarding whether the “protesters” had guns and used them, here is another quote and link, from the Guardian:

“I saw protesters armed with assault rifles firing on troops as the soldiers made their way north up Ratchadamri Road.”

There is a great deal of heat and anger in Roland’s posts. But it’s not that different from what I read by a lot of dissatisfied expats in Thailand.

By the way, for someone who has no idea about me or my personal life, Roland continues to make blanket assumptions that are verging on hysteria. My wife has looked over his comments and, as a newly confirmed member of the Sino-Thai elite, she now wants to know when I’m getting her the BMW she needs to authenticate her status. Thanks, Roland.

Roland replies:
Subject: My last comment in this thread

Once again, I was there, playing amateur photojournalist. Paul C. was not. There were no assault rifles being fired at the troops, the troops just started shooting. I do not believe that Ben Doherty of The Guardian saw the protesters (they weren’t actually rioters, technically speaking, because there were no actual riots, per se) firing assault rifles at troops because they didn’t have any; I think he must’ve mistaken Thai commandos for protesters. There were several friendly-fire incidents amongst the Thai troops, and he may’ve witnessed one of them.

How the Thais choose to manage their own social arrangements and deal with their own internal disputes is their affair. My point in relating what I saw with my own eyes was to point out how Asian culture and society is viewed by all its participants as a zero-sum game, with no thought of compromise. Opponents must be crushed, and be seen to be crushed. If the political polarities had been reversed in Thailand in 2010, the outcome would have been largely the same. Note that Thailand has been through 18 coups since 1932, with several civilian massacres thrown in for good measure. Other Asian countries typically haven’t experienced as many coups, but massacres are the norm in Asian politics going back thousands of years.

Paul C. said that his wife was Sino-Thai. That differentiates her from about 80 percent of the populace of Thailand, both culturally and socioeconomically. Again, ethnic Chinese run the government and dominate business in all Asian countries, with the exceptions of Japan and the Republic of Korea. She may not be in the upper reaches of the Sino-Thai elite, but she isn’t a peasant, either. Most Thais, and most Asians, are peasants.

I am not hysterical in the least, nor am I frustrated. I don’t care who runs Thailand, or any other Asian country, and if I decide I don’t like the way they do things, I can simply go back to the USA at any time. I’m just realistic in my view of Asia and Asians, and am highly critical of what I view as Paul C.’s misguided apologetics for Asian culture and society. I believe that Asian cultural norms and business practices are inimical to the West, and I believe that the eagerness of large international corporations in particular to do business in Asia, coupled with the constant influx of Asian immigrants to the USA, is fomenting a creeping coarsening of our society and our business environment.

There is in fact a subculture of Western expatriates in Thailand who try to involve themselves in its internal politics. I believe that it is none of my business, and refuse to take sides in Thai political disputes. It isn’t my country, so I’m not entitled to an opinion. What I do know is that the political controversies one sees played out in Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, China, and so forth are not about the common people vs. the elites, or about “democracy” in the Western sense; they’re disputes amongst competing elites, nothing more.

LA writes:

I wrote to Roland, following his last comment:

To give you an example of my own guidelines and how I edit things, normally I would not allow a commenter to call another commenter “hysterical.” But in this case you had made personal comments (or speculations) about Paul C.’s wife’s attitude toward him, so I felt that his coming back with stronger than usual language at you was acceptable.

Roland wrote back to me:

I understand and believe that to be fair. In retrospect, I should’ve been more hypothetical in making that particular point, and not have indulged in speculation about Paul C.’s domestic life. If you wouldn’t mind conveying my apology for having done so to him, I would be grateful.

Paul C. writes:

I realize that Roland D. has issued what he calls his last post on the Asian culture topic, but, if he wouldn’t mind, I do have one question for him. In light of his belief “that Asian cultural norms and business practices are inimical to the West, and … that the eagerness of large international corporations in particular to do business in Asia, coupled with the constant influx of Asian immigrants to the USA, is fomenting a creeping coarsening of our society and our business environment,” why does Roland himself do business in Asia as well as live there, as is indicated elsewhere on View from the Right?

Roland replies:

I reside and do business in Asia because in my professional field of endeavor, it’s the most challenging and exciting place to be in the world. By residing and working here, I am not importing Asian cultural norms or business practices to the United States; rather, I’m helping Asians improve their technical infrastructure while at the same time making good money in an environment which has a very low cost of living and a high degree of personal freedom because in Asia, people who have money can pretty much do whatever they want.

My work is largely consultative and in situ in nature; it does not involve displacing American workers from manufacturing jobs, or shipping widgets or people from Asia to the United States. It does not involve continuous interactions between Asians and colleagues in the United States, so there is no risk of cultural/ethical contamination. As we have seen, I am quite resistant to the blandishments of the Asiatic mode of production—one of the few things, along with his critique of the tendency towards monopoly in capitalist economies, that Karl Marx got right.

May 11

A reader writes:

You have many readers and contributors, so I doubt you would remember that my wife is Thai.

If you should decide to post any of the following, please attribute it simply to “a reader,” for some reasons that may be apparent below.

My wife and I have been married for almost eleven years, and during the early part of that period we briefly ran a business with other Asians and Asian-Americans (in the U.S.). She comes from a high-ranking military family in Bangkok, so I know that sphere fairly well also. She is not “Sino-Thai,” but has just a little bit of Chinese ancestry, which is not at all unusual for people in the upper echelons of Thai society. (Roland’s bifurcation on this matter is not so hard-fast as he thinks). So most everyone I’ve known over there and as students here has come from that milieu, although one half of my wife’s family (the more accomplished side, actually) is provincial in origin.

My take in brief: there IS an ethical basis to Thai society, albeit an inchoate and weak one; it is a work in progress.

I’ll start by saying that unlike your two main participants in this conversation, I reside here in the good old midwestern U.S. Also, I should note that my wife was always regarded among her peers as “the most Western Thai girl” (her words, but everyone I’ve met seems to concur). I bring this up just to say that I have no intention of gainsaying either Paul or Roland’s experiences, particularly of the civil or political variety—I’m in no position to do so. Therefore, what I’ll say comes from my relationships and experience with Thais both here and over there.

Ultimately, I cannot share Paul’s judgment of Thailand as a place freer and more pleasant than America. Elements of what he says are true. I particularly like the fact that people can be very generous and kind; they possess a gentle sense of humor that is uncynical. They are ready to have good conversations and seem to be open to, and forgiving of, Westerners. They are easygoing and yes, it seems that one is usually safe, at least considering the extreme crowding. Things that would provoke fights here are easily smoothed over.

But as Roland correctly points out, this can be both a virtue and a liability. On the one hand, one comes to appreciate just how quickly—much too quickly—as contemporary Westerners we reduce everything to matters of rights and contention. And yet one also comes to see that this constant Thai smoothing-over goes hand-in-hand with a kind of mental, familial, and social slavery. Thai society is held together by many strands, but a significant one is the constant, subtle fear of being perceived as ungrateful when one is prevailed upon. The prevailing-upon, the proactive favor-trading, the counting of social debt, and the calculated, pre-emptive avoidance of favors from others: this is a very tricky business, and one that would give most Westerners headaches to navigate. I honestly do love Thailand, but upon returning to the U.S., I often say how pleasant it is to “breathe Ohio again.” A significant portion of this comes from feeling the pressure lift from us. If only most Americans could feel this comparison; how forthright we can be with one another, and what a glorious condition it is!

I find Roland’s analysis to be backward, and far too reductive, even if it does contain much truth. It seems at points in his description that he has never enjoyed an edifying, non-business relationship with an Asian person, and this is a shame. He reasons from his business dealings to culture, whereas the truth of the matter is that the former are a mere subset of the latter. He misses both the true strengths and the true weaknesses of Thai culture. Since the ostensible goal of this conversation is the compatibility or lack thereof of Asians with the West, these are the things we should seek. I mentioned this blog entry to my wife last weekend when it first got underway. “Can Asians assimilate?” Her answer: “Not really. Not usually.” Now we are both well and deeply aware of the rotten business practices, the underhanded and shifty clan-partiality, the need to save face, etc, namely all of the economic and political qualities that Roland details. But that wasn’t what she meant. The deeper question is how one’s sense of decency is framed, and even how one proceeds with personal relationships. For Thais, these often occur along the lines Roland details, but not always.

Let me mention the main element that is missing from both accounts so far and speculate about why Roland and Paul may have avoided it. It may turn out that my account is biased to the extent that I am most familiar with people from the military and intellectual strata of society, but I don’t think it makes what I say any less real. The Asian elephant in the room here is nationalism. It is a significant element in Thai thinking, even if it does not always prevail over the familial. There is much for a traditionalist to admire in Thai society. They seem very much attached to their sense of peoplehood and seek actively to preserve it. A point germane to this whole business of the “Sino-Chinese”: I have known some who come from families who are quite attached to being Chinese; they insist upon marriage to others within the group, and seek to maintain themselves as distinct. However, it also appears that many are mixing, intermarriages are not at all rare. This is due in no small part, I think, to the state’s insistence that any Asian person coming to Thailand must become Thai, first of all by taking a Thai name. The younger Thais seem to admire the Chinese for their business acumen and intelligence, but there is also the perception (sometimes even among those who are part Chinese!) that they are dirty and lacking in taste. In any case it seems like the differences are surmountable, and people take pride in being Thai.

Now I called this an elephant in the room because much of the nationalist sentiment is tied to the monarchy. As Paul suggested, one may not insult the king or his family, and people have been hauled off to prison for doing this, even (or maybe especially) on the internet. So if Paul and Roland have avoided this topic, I’ll say what I assume they cannot. The king, as far as I can tell, is genuinely a decent and benevolent man, beloved by people across the spectrum of Thai society. From his example, people take real and serious ideas of care for the nation and even to an extent, the poor. We can debate the efficacy of this arrangement, but I’ve had too many serious conversations with people to doubt entirely their sincerity about these matters—it shapes to some extent the way they think. Still, what can be said of the king seems not to hold for members of his family, if I can put it bluntly. In politics, Thailand has long ceased being officially a monarchy, but political forms float on cultural commitments, not the other way around. Conflicts in Thailand have been cut short or mitigated precisely because the king has often pleaded with the parties to come to terms, and people have listened. It is highly unclear—to put it mildly—whether this situation will continue once he is gone. What the Thais are experiencing, it seems to my eyes, is really a succession-and-legitimacy crisis. It remains to be seen whether, upon the kings death, the benevolent nationalist elements survive him, or the nation moves more completely into the amoral tribalism described by Roland. If the conversations I’ve heard amongst my in-laws are any indication, some of the higher-ranking military types feel honestly torn about the recent political events. They understand full well what Roland calls the “Huey Long” aspect of the Red Shirts, but still feel enough obligation to the impoverished masses to wonder whether some change is necessary or helpful. I don’t live there and haven’t a completely-informed opinion on these things, but unlike Roland and for some obvious reasons I can’t be entirely indifferent. I care about these people. That doesn’t mean wanting them to be like us, but it does mean hoping that they become what their nature best dictates. It also means recognizing that they are not, in any significant numbers, going to fit in with us here. They do possess ethical principles and impulses that go far beyond mere familism. Perhaps one way of putting it, though, is that those principles and behaviors have not cohered into anything we would recognize as “civility,” even if they are very capable in terms of generosity, hospitality, and at times, attachment to duty from either love of country or Buddhist religious principle.

To their credit, I think Thais, more than some other Asian groups, seem to get this point of difference. Years ago, we visited a semi-reclusive monk in a provincial temple. He came out to see us, smiled gently and—as my wife translated it, at least—said as part of his advice, “you have to understand that Westerners are very civilized.” I don’t think he was trying to be complimentary or ingratiating—just describing things as they are. Nor did anyone seem to take this as a matter about which they should be ashamed.

Sorry if this has been a bit rambling!

B.B. writes:

Your correspondents are both wrong about Thailand. Paul C.’s invocation of the “commonly known” fact that former PM Thaksin Shinawatra was paying the protesters 20000 baht ($700!) each is no more accurate than the common knowledge that the Koch brothers were paying the Tea Partiers whatever the American going rate is to do their thing. And Roland D.”s characterization of Thaksin as the Asian Huey Long might make more sense if Thaksin had proposed an asset tax and Long had been a billionaire before he entered politics.

These arcane points may not interest your general readers, but they serve to illustrate the misplaced confidence with which expats often discuss a foreign culture. Just ask yourself, as someone who has lived in America all your life and obviously thought much about it: how would you encapsulate America and Americans in several paragraphs off the top of your head? That hardly seems possible, and yet it is in effect what Paul C. and Roland D. tried to do. This reflects not their familiarity with the subject matter, but rather the opposite.

Prudence, it seems, stops at the water’s edge. How should the Zimmerman case be decided? The cautious would wait for some crucial facts to be established. Yet when it comes to foreign affairs, conservatives will readily give credence to information from the same media that portrayed Trayvon Martin as an eternal nine-year-old. If a “local” or two relate a rumor of a conspiracy in high places, then it is not just an established fact, but common knowledge. And heaven forbid if a university student should commit a murder, for that would be evidence of widespread violence. (By the way, if Roland D. was thinking of the same politician’s son who allegedly shot an officer in a barroom brawl—and thankfully there aren’t too many of them—he was in fact charged and tried, although I don’t know the outcome. The politician in question doesn’t seem overtly Chinese to me.)

The problem with self-appointed interpreters of cultures (whether local or expatriate) is akin to the one with the media: they always seem to know more than you do until they don’t. Use your judgment. If something sounds like a hyperbole (like “Asians typically do not view Westerners as fully human and do not deal with them fairly, because to do so would be to surrender an advantage to their side, which would equate to betrayal within their cultural system.”), that’s probably because it is. Remember that Cornel West is an ivy league professor whose scholarship is devoted to studying the culture that he grew up in. If you can’t automatically trust him, then why should you anyone else? [LA replies: Roland’s statement that “”Asians typically do not view Westerners as fully human” was primarily about Chinese, and, as I read years ago, Chinese-American novelist Maxine Kingston in her novel The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghoses, said that Chinese in America refer to white people (and all non-Chinese people) as “ghosts.”]

There is a conservative argument in all this. It is difficult to understand a foreign culture, period. A multicultural society is one with little understanding among people. There is already enough tension between inevitable demographics such as the sexes, classes, and age groups, why add more? Now there’s an easy argument to make without reducing other cultures to caricatures, positive or negative.

LA replies:

I agree that we should not reduce other cultures to caricatures. At the same time, human beings naturally attempt to understand the world they live in, and their efforts inevitably start with personal experiences or broad insights that may often be too sweeping and are subject to further refinement.

But the problem is more fundamental than that. In today’s liberal world, how can we ever speak critically of a non-Western culture in a way that will not be considered a caricature?

May 11

Roland replies to B.B.:

I am not caricaturing Asian society in general, or Thai society in particular. You will recall that I have pointed out that Asian culture is based upon a completely different ethos from that of the West, and that I absolutely reject any attempt to try and change it. I have repeatedly noted that I do not believe that I am entitled to an opinion as to how Thais order their own social arrangements, and that if I decide that I simply can’t deal with how they do things, I don’t have to spend time in their country.

My analogy between former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Huey Long was just that—an analogy. It was not a statement that all the circumstances of their lives are identical. Thaksin portrayed himself as a progressive/populist and enacted several social welfare-state programs in Thailand based upon progressive/populist principles. For the first time in Thai society, a Thai politician courted the great unwashed and catered both his message and some of his policies to them.

At the same time, Thaksin, like all Asian politicians (and I mean all of them, in every Asian country), is tremendously corrupt by Western standards, and his standard Asian zero-sum approach to politics in many ways resembles Huey Long’s vast, overt patronage network, and LBJ’s somewhat less publicized, but pervasive one. The key difference between Thaksin and other Thai politicians was the overt populist/progressive appeal to the masses of Thai peasants, something no Thai politician had ever done before—coupled with the fact that he actually delivered at least some of what he promised. Which is a pretty good parallel with Huey Long in Louisiana, and beyond.

My statement about most Asians not viewing Westerners as fully human actually applies to all Asians. To the Japanese in smaller towns outside Tokyo who won’t allow us gaijins to be seated in their restaurants, to the Thais who routinely refer to Westerners as “buffaloes” (which is a hugely insulting term in Thailand), to the Malaysians who show contempt for their own non-Malay minorities and who burn Christian churches while condemning them as tools of Western influence, to the Chinese who refer to Westerners as ghosts or foreign devils, etc.

B.B. is of course free to disagree with me, but unless he has spent the last seven years of his life living and working full-time in Asia, engaged in ongoing business and personal relationships with Asians in their own countries, then he doesn’t really have a lot of room to claim that I am engaging in uninformed hyperbole.

I guess he could claim that I’m indulging in informed hyperbole, but what possible motive would I have to do that?

LA replies:

When it comes to Asians, you are post-judiced.

Roland D. replies:
Haha, that’s a good way of putting it. I guess in my case, familiarity breeds not contempt, but wariness.

Which is an allusion to one of my key personal beliefs—namely, that the advent of instantaneous international communications coupled with relatively affordable global travel has indeed brought about a much broader and greater understanding between disparate peoples.

An understanding that they don’t particularly like one another.

LA replies:

As a well-known conservative writer who grew up in Japan and has worked extensively with Japanese once said to me, “I feel comfortable with Japanese, but I don’t have warm feelings for them.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at May 09, 2012 11:02 AM | Send

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