You’ve decided to write
that crime novel. The one book once released into the world will liberate you
from the day job, put you on Charlie Rose, the NYT bestseller list, interviewed
by the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and stacks of invitations to
the best parties in New York, London and Paris. You’ve heard that international
settings are in vogue for crime fiction. But you’re not quite certain, looking
at the world map, which country might be the best place for your noir caper.
Besides, you can write off the expense of research in finding out.
Let me give you some
unsolicited advice, look for a place with danger—not too much, but enough to
create tension and risk—political instability is good—again so long as there
aren’t bombs going off in the streets, and an exotic culture with interesting
taboos, customs, language, history, rituals and artifacts—though not so weird
that they can’t be understood without long, drawn out descriptions.
A convention of the crime
fiction genre begins with a murder. Central to the novel is a killing. When
researching your crime novel, you might have a look at murder statistics. The
homicide statistics indicate the prime crime fiction locations are the
mini-states in the Caribbean or Central America. In these places there are lots
and lots of murders as a percentage of 100,000 of population.
accumulate in these countries at an alarming rate. You can add Columbia and
Venezuela to the high rate of homicide list, too. Frankly, you can write off
Europe with the possible exception of Russia and Albania. The Europeans simply
have stopped murdering each other at statistically significant rates. Germans
seem to have stopped murdering each other in significant numbers a long time
ago. Fantasy and romance novelists would do much better in Europe than crime
The ten countries with the
highest murder are included in this chart:
From these homicide rates,
there isn’t enough raw material for a short crime story set in one of these
countries. Though fellow blogger Quentin Bates who bases his crime fiction in
Iceland, suggests that noir isn’t always reflected in the numbers.
The numbers don’t tell you
everything. Swedish crime fiction is a huge success internationally but the
Swedish murder rate is among the lowest in the world. Yet we have a feeling
reading Nordic crime fiction that murder is common in Sweden. That Sweden is a
dangerous place. None of that is true. Sweden has a very low homicide rate.
Those facts didn’t stop Stieg Larsson from hitting the jackpot (though he had
died of a heart attack before the big money came in).
The definitive chart on
the international murder is done on a country-by-country basis annually by the
UNODC. Looking at the most recent
figures from UNODC (2002 to 2011) on Thai murder rate has been in decline. If
this trend continues, it seems that soon I may be out of the crime fiction
business in Thailand.
In 2003 the Thai murder
rate was 9.8 per 100,000; and in 2011 it had dropped to 4.8 per 100,000. Do
Thais feel 100% safer from being murder given this corresponding drop in actual
homicides? I don’t have hard evidence to answer this question. There’s plenty of
antidotal evidence to suggest no decline in the fear of being a murder victim.
State authorities feed the fear and offer comfort as noted by Bangkok
Why the disconnect between
the declining murder rate and our sense of fear about murder? Our feelings are
subjective, irrational, and difficult to predict or control. And fear of death
and injury is one of the most compelling emotions, triggered not assuaged by a
UNODC excel file that presents cold, hard numbers.
I take the position that
Thais are no less concerned, fearful and watchful about murder in 2013 than they
were in 2003. There is little political opportunity and advantage in reducing
this unreasonable feeling of fear. In political life, money and fear correlate.
More resources can be demanded by and allocated to the police and other state
officials charged with protecting an overly fearful public. If our perception of
the risk of murder is updated, then state officials stand to lose budgets,
training, new employees, and better equipment. Actually, you can spend a lot of
that money in ways that have little but public relations impact because the
level of homicide is already happening. You can pocket some of that money and
still be seen as doing a great job.
Bottom line—our emotional
reaction to homicide hasn’t been updated with the latest statistics, which show
a substantial lowering of the probability of murder. The state has no incentive
to focus on the lower risk of homicide. The press will always have enough
murders (even at statistically low rates people are still murdered just as
people still win a lottery) to keep the flame high enough to keep fear at the
When it comes to murder,
we react out of fear and that closes the door to a more rational and deliberate
assessment based on the actual risk as shown through the UNODC statistics on the
rate of murder. Murders of foreigners make for dramatic news that reinforces the
sense of fear. This happens in Thailand as in many other countries.
The media manufactures a
false sense of risk with emotionally charged photographs, statements of
witnesses, family and friends in mourning, angry letters to the authorities, and
so on. If the murder victim is someone you love, care about or know, then UNODC
statistics aren’t going to mean much to you. But if you are reading about people
you don’t know, there remains a high possibility of identifying with them, and
you will be fearful. Emotions distort your ability to assess the actual
When it comes down to
writing that crime novel, it may not matter whether you live in a country with a
high or low murder rate. The rate of homicide appears to have little connection
to the perception of risk as it is assessed through fear. As long as your novel
creates a the personal setting between the killer and the victim, and does a
credible job in following the police or private investigator through the
evidence, your reader won’t likely write you an angry letter saying that
statistically the murder you’ve written about is as rare as a rose in
But as people love roses,
if you can convince them to overlook the improbability of a rose growing in the
wild in winter weather, they will follow you down the corpse laden garden trail
and believe this exceptional act could happen in the world. Indeed it could
happen to them. Yet you can be assured there will in the fullness of time an
Amazon Reviewer, who will give you a one-star review that goes along the lines
that everyone knows that only white roses grow in winter and this author had the
color wrong. He said the roses were red. And that, my friends, is more likely
than the wall cash your book will earn liberating you from your desk
I stumble upon artifacts,
small information packets from the past and wonder why I’d not seen this,
thought of this, or whether everyone else except me had reached that milestone
years ago. A case in point is the BBC series titled The Trap. The
series aired in 2007. I didn’t see it in 2007. Six years later a good friend
(thank you, John) said The Trap was something that I had to see. He was
The Trap is also
something you should see. You owe it to yourself to watch all three parts.
Unless, of course, you saw it six years ago, and have a six-year head start on
assimilating what it means.
I am just starting out on
that journey. Forgive me if I am taking you down paths that are old and
Our emotions and the range
in which those emotions are allowed to express themselves are cultural. The past
couple of months I’ve been investigating ‘fear’ and ‘anger’ the evil twins that
kidnap us, forcing us to do and say things we later regret. What The
Trap brilliantly does is provide the ideological framework erected during
the Cold War. Once the Cold War ended in a victory for the Americans, the battle
What emerged from that
struggle was the notion of Game Theory. Developed by Nobel Prize winner, John
Nash, Game Theory assumed that all people were by nature selfish,
self-centered-interested, and highly suspicious of other people and acted
rationally to maximize their advantages against others. This is the amoral
landscape where each person tries to outwit the other and will betray the other
to obtain an advantage. It is a bleak, paranoid vision of humanity. John Nash
was treated for mental illness, and later pulled back from the nature of
humanity assumed in the Game Theory he had created. His struggle with paranoid
schizophrenia was dramatized in the Hollywood movie A Beautiful
Never mind that the
theoretical framework of Game Theory was woven by a mentally unbalanced mind,
the dose of insanity did not prevent others from embracing this noir
vision of humanity.
This vision of humanity
spread like a virus from the geo-political contest between the Cold War
superpowers infecting psychology and economics. The role of the State was to get
out of the way. There was no belief in ‘public interest’ as a guide. This
position was taken up by Reagan, Blair and Thatcher in the 80s and 90s as the
basis for downsizing the State and outsourcing to private company functions
traditionally performed by state officials.
I wrote about Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma and how the 600 Billion dollar
pharma industry has been able to establish the new ‘norm’ or new ‘standard’ for
acceptable behavior, attitudes and conduct. Game Theory was a natural ally with
its bleak view of the human condition, Pharma promised to bring medical relief
to those who were ‘abnormal’ and who better but Pharma to rewrite normality. If
Game Theory predicts humans as highly rational and deliberate in their actions,
drugs like Prozac could take the edge off irrational feelings or emotions that
get in the way of the robot-like approach to life.
In the Neo-Noir Era
populations are seen as anxious or depressed. Big Pharma has made a hugely
profitable industry in exploiting the Game Theory exponents desire to ‘improve’
the rational mind, and to neutralize the irrational thoughts. Doctors have
redefined mental health in a way as to narrow the margins of where emotions are
allowed a role. Outside the narrow bands, drugs are prescribed for people whose
emotions fall outside the diagnostic register that has been put in place in the
last 30 years. This isn’t about medical necessity; it is about political
necessity to control the emotional lives of people.
The elite of the
rationalist sit on a mountain where the people below are feared for their
emotions. Big Pharma could not have re-engineered our notion of mental health
and brought in a new vision of normal without the consent of the ruling class
that saw major benefits in a sedated population.
Neo-Noir Era Big Pharma has prescribed Soma. It is being swallowed around the
world to cure the anxiety of living inside the Walmartization of both the local
and international political, cultural and economic systems. It is the remedy for
discontent, frustration and anger as the master game theory players pick the
flesh from the bones of society.
Huxley’s Brave New World predicted
a world in which a drug called Soma is administered to the general population.
The soma of fiction and the real life new soma like drugs expand mental health
intervention, making citizen patients who are docile, malleable and useful
tools. In Huxley’s 1932 novel he foresaw an American in the early twentieth
century where the State provided a drug induced comfort to self-medicating
The other visionary in literature
who saw decades ahead was Stanislaw Lem. In The Futurologists Congress, which was
published in 1972 (forty years after Brave New World) mind-alteringdrugs our hero finds drugs have been
in the tap hotel water. He drinks it without knowing he’s being drugged. In this
future utopia, money and lending lose all meaning. Banks lend whatever amount
you request and no one bothers to seek repayment.
The State uses multiple
kinds of psychological drugs to create all kinds of mental states, some bring
transcendence, others pride and high status, and other bliss. Everyone in the
delusionary condition can win a Nobel Prize, owns Renoir or two, drives a Rolls
Royce, wins millions in Las Vegas at blackjack, and plays the piano like Mozart.
The fact it is all illusion doesn’t matter because the mind reads it as real.
Life inside Lem’s Psych-Chemical State is all in the mind controlled by drugs. A
movie based on Lem’s classic novel is in the works for 2013.
In the last segment in the series,
The Trap explores the meaning of freedom, and how forcing people to be
‘free’ became the new mantra of the neocons. The Orwellian notion that freedom
can only exist as a by product of a cleansing, a tyranny of ‘freedom fighters’
who wipe the slate of those with incompatible ideas of freedom. Freedom requires
a certain mental state. Big Pharma has eased people into this space and the
government assures them that now they are ‘free.’ Freedom is an abstract state
of mind that is imposed by force or chemical substance, and the newly freed
people are happy with their condition and place in life. Having achieved freedom
they want for nothing else.
Only it hasn’t quite worked out
In The Trap we confront directly the idea
that the State has been quietly dismantled; better metaphor—dismembered and
reassembled as a private enterprise tool of in the interest of the ruling
In the Neo-Noir Era governments
have given way to private interests. Before that can be successful there needs
to be a pacification program as citizens–deprived of the safety nets, falling
down infrastructure, dysfunctional health, safety, and educational system–rely
on the assistance of Big Pharma to keep them pacified.In the BBC special The Trap visits a landscape made
popular by a number of novelists. Fiction has been our early warning system, the
canary in the mine.
In the area of crime fiction, the
Neo-Noir Era—while Lem and Huxley left their notes in the bottle and threw them
into the river of time, they are finally drifting to shore. Go back and read Brave New World and The Futurologists Congress. Both of these two novels could have been
In our time, science fiction has a
new ally in this attempt to call attention to the realization of prophecies—it’s
called noir crime fiction. The main difference is that we are gradually entering
the world foretold by Lem and Huxley.
In Missing in Rangoon, I have a look
inside the brave new world of Burma. A place of magic, illusions, and cascading
greed as private corporate interest have fond a virgin market to apply Game
Theory and to bring ‘Freedom’. It takes loads of Soma widely distributed before
there is transition from one political/economic system to another. Freedom is on
the lips of people. A word they once knew and thought they understood. It has
gone muster color, opaque, and tattered. The last of the free men and women
exist here and there, isolated, dwindling in numbers, knowing they have reached
an intellectual and cultural dead end. In time the memory of them will be
extinguished. As people who lived inside a dream before Big Pharma acquired the
exclusive monopoly. Be mindful of the hotel drinking water in Rangoon. Like the
good professor in The Futurologists
Congress, you may find that you wake up in a different time and
As a crime fiction writer,
anger is an emotion that figures into the emotions of the characters in a
narrative where people are threatened, intimidated, disrespected, frustrated, or
their worldview/belief system is attacked or challenged.
Anger is on the A-list of
negative emotions. If anger were an actor, he would never be out of
work. Drama is basically what authors and film directors use to keep the
audience on the edge of their seat. When someone goes postal with anger, people
pay attention. It is hard to take your eyes off someone who is truly angry.
Volatility in stock markets may cause an unsettling experience, but when the
personal volatility closes in, the situation becomes tense and fraught with
Years ago when I rode
along as a civilian observer with members of the NYDP in the 1980s. That New
York is long gone. My memory of that time is connected with a particular kind of
anger. The one job the police hated was call to investigate a domestic
disturbance in some high-rise slum or bad neighborhood in Brooklyn. When they
arrived, they found a couple, a husband and wife fueled by pills and booze and
still screaming at each other. The same shrill, loud threats, the sound of glass
being broken that caused their neighbors to phone for the police.
By the time the police
arrived everyone is at an emotional, irrational peak. It is precisely at that
point that is most dangerous—for the parties involved and for the cops who
arrive to calm things down. I suspect police in most cultures equally fear an
out-of-control, angry domestic situation.
The police hate domestic
violence calls. And for good reason. When two people living together uncork,
work themselves up into a highly unpredictable negative emotional state inside
their own homes. They become temporarily insane. They are literally out of their
minds. In this state, cops walk into a place where angry people know where the
knives and guns are hidden. It is, after all, their home. Couples beating each
other up don’t like outsiders coming into their lives. They want to inflict pain
on each other. Cops get hurt in these domestic situations. That’s why they hate
Emotions come with up or
down ratings. Joy, hope, love, generosity, and relief are positive emotions. But
anger is a bad boy and hangs at the same saloon where you find alarm, panic,
fear, sorrow, hate, and cruelty. That’s a tough crowd. Anger counts as his
relatives some nasty first cousins: outrage, wrath, hostility, scorn, spite,
vengefulness, resentment to name a few.
beatings, and killing I would speculate have a heavy anger bias as the emotional
state that prevailed at the moment of the crime. Add drugs and liquor and you
can explain a fair amount of crime. “Criminologists estimate that alcohol or
drug use by the attacker is behind 30 to 50 percent of violent crime, such as
murder, sexual assault, and robbery.”
In the past, anger and
angry people, were mainly contained by the police. One of the reasons that the
violent death rate is historically (looking at large periods of time) low is the
State became gradually much better devising institutions, which deterred,
captured, punished violent anger. For a detailed analysis see Steven Pinker’s
The Better Angels of Our
In England the statistics
indicate that young males especially those visiting pubs should be carefully
watched. That is to be expected we should expect from young men. What is more
interesting are the statistics for those who have been either an offender or
victim of violence.
The 2002/03 BCS shows
that over four-fifths of victims were emotionally affected by the incident
(83%). This is an increase from the last set of results (2001/02 BCS).
Twenty-six per cent were ‘very much affected’, and 24 per cent ‘quite a lot’, a
further third were affected ‘just a little’.
Victims of domestic
violence and mugging were most likely to be emotionally affected, as shown in
all recent survey years. Latest data show that victims were very much affected
in 40 per cent of domestic violence incidents, compared to only 17 per cent of
stranger violence incidents. In around one-fifth of incidents of acquaintance
and stranger violence the victim was not emotionally affected.
The most common
reaction to violence was anger (51% for the 2002/03 BCS). This is also
a recurring finding from the survey. Shock, annoyance, fear, loss of confidence
or feeling vulnerable are also fairly common experiences.
No one is arguing that all
emotions—positive and negative—are webbing that we process a lot of daily life.
Anger, like fear, is a natural state. Living in close proximity only works if
anger can be contained. The size of Bangkok—estimated to be as high as 12
million people—is a good illustration of a system that keeps down anger-fueled
violence. And yes, there are news reports of someone going jai rawn and
hacking up a relative or friend. It happens. But it is also relatively
What has changed is the
arsenal assembled against the anger emotion expressing itself. Anger has been
undergoing a substantial taming process. In this case there are more than one
lion tamer under the Big Tent—psychiatrists, scientists, chemists, neurologists,
and Big Pharma. The old
political/criminal justice system that worked together to build more
prisons and to hand out much longer sentences has worked to curtail the
First, give anger a
medical label. Give it over to the white coats that everyone admires and
respects. Science and Big Pharama will solve the problem. This assumes that
containing anger becomes the role of medicine in general and psychology
specifically. By sending anger into the medical camp the solution is come up
with a medical condition like Intermittent Explosive Disorder, one said to be
“characterized by persistent, uncontrollable anger attacks not accounted for by
other mental disorders.” Science
reported a study which found one out of 12 young people (in the USA)—close to
six million adolescents” meet the criteria for IED. The emotion of anger another
form of mental illness. It shouldn’t be crazy to feel anger; that is a normal
Second, scientists have
split the emotion of anger apart like a particle shot at near the speed of light
inside one of those huge accelerators but this time to discover not the secrets
of the universe but the chemistry of anger. That is found in the mix of
underlying hormones—low serotonin, high dopamine and high noradrenalin.
With this knowledge, the next step is to test people for their hormone levels
and medicated to adjust them. Research on the genetic elements that form
patterns that shape the boundaries of temperament and personality are leading
closer to a DNA explanation.
Third, there is a large
and profitable anger pill industry. Google: “anger control medication” it comes
up with more than 18 million pages. We live in a medical era of
pharmaceutical designed emotional restructuring. The rush has been on to create
a new class drugs to modify or subdue the behavior caused by effects negative
emotions like anger. To achieve the perfect emotional state with drugs has
opened up big opportunities for pharma industry. It has large political
implications, too. The teenager becomes docile. Nothing bothers him or her.
The drug takes away the emotional equipment to respond. Here’s some of
the antipsychotic medication circulating in the
marketplace: Risperdal, Haldol, Depakote
The size of net of angry
people continues to expand. That Science Daily report also said, “Nearly
two-thirds of U.S. adolescents have experienced anger attack that involved
threatening violence, destroying property or engaging in violence toward others
at some point in their lives.” Big Pharma product developers aren’t overlooking
the size of this market.
There are significant
problems arising out of first three point outlined. Bad Pharma by Ben
Goldacre is a detailed examination of the crooked game played by all of the
players in the medical establishment. From the industry paid researchers,
scientists, and journals that use cherry picked data to show effectiveness to
the culture of burying negative news. Most of the negative trials that show
drugs don’t work, cause harm, or are no more effective than a placebo or any
other drug currently on the market are buried. That’s right, negative studies go
missing. The basic truth is there is no easy way to get good information over
what medicine works, what psychological categories are accurate. Whether a drug
company, government regulator or professional body, the outcomes are distorted,
misleading and often wrong; the missing data on negative trials are more
difficult to document than war crimes.
Fourth, with a largely
non-angry and medicated population it becomes much easier for economic and
political manipulation to pass without angry people to take into account. We
are—at least in theory—safer from categories of physical violence by
medicalization of anger. The political class gains part of its power by
acting out the anger of a medicated voting population. Politicians are
surrogates for anger. Political campaigns in many places—Thailand is no
exception—are a kind of theatre, the political consultants act as generals
fighting in the trenches of fear and anger. This spectacle, along with the
medication, keeps people from noticing how they’ve given over anger to the
medical and political establishment, and big business now found a way to make a
profit from this transfer.
Lastly, make anger into a
We are, in other words, in
the safest most secure period of human existence. We pay the price for this
safety. We’ve corralled anger—this negative emotion—as if it were a beast in a
cage. Not that many years ago we called people with strong views and feelings
eccentric. Some of them were angry people. We often celebrated such people, but
now they would be so uninteresting, being medicated, subdued, and watching the
latest YouTube offering or video game. Anger is defined as IED in such a way to
bring in a lot of young men. If anyone has any right to be angry examining the
real state of the world and their place in it, the young unemployed men in
Spain, Italy, Egypt and many other countries should be angry. And they don’t
like the medicine that’s been prescribed. They should be angry with a
medical/pharma system that distorts evidence and medicates them on dubious pills
and psychological analysis. The system based on controlling anger, as it turns
out, is a hugely profitable game.
IED reminds me of the
acronym for UO for unexploded ordnance. Anything dangerous hidden under ground
or temporarily caged by drugs is an explosion waiting to happen. Anger will
continue to shape and define crime fiction. The medical battle is yet to be
assured of an easy victory. Watching the anger management industry unfold may be
a good opportunity for a crime novel.
I am trying to make sense
of an impression that Thais are becoming angrier, and with more violent results
than a quarter of a century ago. Stories in the news, from first hand
observations and from friends can distort reality. What I have confidence in is
the idea that levels of anger correlate with crime. Anger rarely brings out the
best in us; quite the opposite, it is likely to lead to a rash, irrational
response against the object or person responsible for triggering this emotional
state. Laws are part of the security shield the state provides to protect us
against the violence ignited by anger.
The union of anger with
crime makes for an unhappy marriage right around the world. Every week there are
reported cases where some became angry and punched, slashed, shot, kicked or
shoved another person. Parker, the criminal in Richard Stark’s series drew an
audience, in part, because the character had no discernible sense of fear. If
Parker had been fearful but lacked a sense of anger, we would have a quite
different criminal personality. It is likely that emotionally wired Parker would
never throw a punch. Such a character would be more like Mr. Bean than Parker–an
object of amusement. We laugh with our heroes, not at them.
When reading a crime novel
it is an interesting exercise to ask how the author handles emotions such as
anger, how anger has explanatory power, and whether anger satisfies the reader’s
sense of fairness, justice, and equality.
A lot of criminal novels
are built on characters who are angry and that emotion feeds and motivates their
Anger is the opposite of
Anger is the subjective
experience of mind. It is pure emotion and short cuts off access to rational
thinking. It’s physiological and neural. Insults, threats as well as physical
violence are common reactions anticipated from an angry person.
Frustration, resentment, cheating are three examples of events that trigger
Looking at the building
blocks of anger, one that stands out is scarcity. Most of life is a competition
for mates, examination marks, jobs, promotions, honors, reputation, and status.
Such resources are scarce and unevenly distributed among a community. Excluding
or denying someone what they believe is their entitlement, or removing something
they already have can lead to anger. And anger leads to revenge and
I started the essay with
an assertion that I thought Thais are angrier today than they were in the late
1980s. It is not based on good statistics so the observation is subject to being
modified if not rejected with solid statistical evidence. That caveat stated, my
impression is with the vast increase in cars, trucks, motorcycles, and the
relatively slow building of additional modes of transportation alternatives,
road space has become more scarce. Drivers are no better trained or skilled than
before but there are more of them, and they compete for the same lanes on jammed
roads. Nam jai or ‘water heart’ is a Thai expression used when someone gives way
as a courtesy to another, a small act such as waiting and allowing someone else
caught in a blocked lane of traffic to enter the moving lane in front of you. I
still find acts that qualify as nam jai when driving but like a rare form of
wildlife, it is becoming rarer and on the road to extinction.
A couple of cases—one from
December 2012 to February 2013 illustrate circumstances where anger leads to
“Man killed for jumping
queue” – A Shan-Burmese man and his wife went to a temple in Chiang Mai for free
food. The food he had gone to obtain for his child. The Burmese man saw a queue.
Rather than join the queue, he cut in front, causing two teenagers to blow up
with anger. One of the pair used a broken beer bottle to slash the man’s throat.
The man died at hospital. The police are gathering more evidence before seeking
arrest warrants, according to the Bangkok
Anger flaring in road rage
has been more commonly reported in the Thai press. A couple of recent cases
serve to make the point that the emotion of anger is a dangerous thing, an
instrument looking to inflict violence to dissipate the emotional rage. This
kind of anger leaves the person without self-control and thrust him into fight
A YouTube video circulated
in Thai social media caught a 48-year-old man claiming to be a law lecturer
beating up on a small young woman after their cars were stuck in a small soi.
Frustration erupted as neither would give way. A Thai newspaper Thai Rath reported graphic
(with pictures and the video which was taken by a bystander) that the young
woman had picked up her girlfriend and was driving out of the small soi when a
black Mercedes Benz came in.
She could neither pass nor
go back. The young woman felt that the Benz driver might have a bit of nam
jai as she saw he had a bit of room to move, so she asked him to squeeze in
the lane and let her pass. He refused and insisted that it was she who had to
move. She said she couldn’t and he threw the car key at her face and stalked off
to his friend’s house. The young woman returned to her car and called her
relatives for consultation as to what to do. In the middle of the phone
consultation the Benz driver returned in rage, shouting, ordering her to reverse
her car, while slapping, pushing and shoving her. The young woman’s girlfriend
came out to intervene and was shoved. Now fearing the escalation, the two women
ran back to their car and started driving in a long reverse to let the Benz go
to its destination. The confrontation captured on video has been circulated for
days in Thai social media.
Recent reports are the
lecturer was fined Baht 1,000 for the assault and he apologized to the woman he
assaulted. End of case.
In another incident, the
Post reported two
women were in a car accident. A Thai man between 30 to 35 years in the other car
got out and repeatedly struck the 36-year-old woman who appears to have been the
driver of the first car. One car hits another. The occupants of each car
apparently got out to inspect the damage and became angry at each other. In this
case the anger boiled over into physical violence—the Thai man knocked out the
other driver. He left her unconscious on the scene. And in the time-honored
tradition of people who do bad, he fled the scene.
Anger and rage in crime
becomes more interesting when someone in uniform spits the dummy (Australian for
blowing one’s stack, eruption of Anger with a capital “A”).
Post reported a
story involving a military officer was unhappy with the driving of the car in
front of his, saying later that the car was straddling two lanes, so he couldn’t
pass. He flashed his high beams at the car ahead to move into the slower lane.
But the car stubbornly refused to move into the slower lane. Finally the officer
seized an opportunity passed the car, and then apparently positioned his car so
as to stop the car he’d passed. When he saw three people inside, he took out his
gun and fired three shots. Self-defense. He was outnumbered and felt
The event in this case was
also captured on video and later uploaded on the internet, and that caused the
person uploading the video to receive a number of threatening and hateful
comments. It seems a video was viewed as twisting the truth. That’s the problem
with a netizen videos, they capture a moment of anger, snatch from the jaws of
reality, and those involved have little room for the usual defense of
‘misunderstanding’ or ‘it didn’t happen that way, they pulled a gun first’ or
‘who me, someone else in another car fired a gun.’
A day ago in Phuket, the
driver of a mini-bus followed a car driven by a woman. She had made an illegal
turn. She had braked suddenly, causing the mini-bus driver to brake as well. He
became angry and raced after her in his bus. After he caught up (the traffic was
moving slowly) he jumped out of the bus and ran up to her car and pointed a
handgun at her. He returned the mini-bus, drove on, phoned his office to say he
has other pressing business, and they should send another driver. The driver left
the bus and
disappeared. The police said, “We have a warrant for his arrest and
he faces multiple charges relating to attempted murder, criminal damage,
carrying a gun in a public place, and issuing threats. We believe we will catch
him soon.” The police are continuing to look for him.
Such stories are appearing
more frequently in the Thai news. Road rage has been imported into street and
highway system in Thailand. The physical confrontations are pretty much
recognizable to someone from another culture. It seems that anger—while its
triggers and reactions have a cultural component—has a common, universal aspect
that is transcends cultural difference. In Thailand, like elsewhere, the
road rage cases are increasing and if you were to substitute Bangkok, Phuket or
other cities appearing in datelines for news stories and inserted either
Chicago, Toronto, or London, little else would need to be changed to localize
You can draw your own
conclusion on what cultural biases make it permissible for men in the heat of
rage to physically attack a woman. Beating up women deserves a closer
examination as an extension of dysfunctional behavior in the land of anger. I’d
start with the theory that in any political/social system which provides
extensive impunity for members of the elite class, those deemed inferior in that
society such as women, immigrants, handicapped, or peasant class are the object
of violence because their failure to acknowledge another entitlement means the
other person must automatically yield.
The insults, threats, and
violence attributed to the angry person create a universal
brotherhood/sisterhood—road rage, domestic violence, pub brawls, or that moment
when your computer hangs and you lose a week of work that should have been
backed up but wasn’t. We’ve all experienced such moments.
There is a correlation
between anger and criminal conduct. Acts of violence are outlawed. The criminal
and civil laws patrol the emotional borders to deal with angry people whose
emotional fuel motivates them to commit acts of violence.
Anger is the father that
begets much violence. When the flash of anger leads to a squeeze of the trigger.
Each culture tries to control that space. To diffuse the anger, to teach
self-control, and to provide substantial punishments and other disincentives for
the angry whose emotion causes them to harm others.
The lack of capacity to
control anger is a major reason to carefully restrict gun ownership. Anger,
alcohol and guns are a lethal combination. In big mega cities as resources
become scarcer be prepared for more violence generated by angry
Emotions like anger are
human behavioral stuff that will ensure that crime writers in material for
several life times. It is one thing to write about anger, it is another to
experience anger whether exploding inside your own head or inside the head of a
person charging at you with a handgun because you stepped on his foot and caused
him to lose face in front of his face.
If you think that escaping
into the digital world you can avoid anger, think again.
Hate is an offspring of
anger. You can find him in many places on the Internet. Online expressions of
hatred are the digital equivalent of a handgun waved in your face. Next time you
want to know if someone is angry with you on line, check out
The digital world has
emoticons for anger: :- | | :@
Richard Stark a.k.a.
Donald Westlake started a series only after his editor convinced him to change
the ending of the first novel. In the original ending, Parker was
Apparently, so the story
goes, Westlake’s editor changed literary history and crime fiction hasn’t ever
been quite the same since that first novel was published. Parker changed the
face of crime fiction for many readers and authors who later came down the
Parker is a
professional thief. Thug. Gangster. A killer. You get
a glimpse of each persona as you read the series. Crime is his business, it is
how he supports himself. He doesn’t have friends. He has associates he works
with on a specific job. He lives outside of society. And he’s forever planning
where to leave a stash of money, and finding that his money is running low and
it is time to return to plan a job. In the early books, Parker lives alone but
he doesn’t work alone. His women often come to a violent end. He carefully hand
picks members of a team for each job.
In each of the 24 novels in the
Parker goes through a process of selecting the members for his team, matching
their skills to the demands of a particular heist. He runs the team like a
military commando unit officer. A job sometimes is brought to him by an insider,
and this stranger, a non-professional—his head dancing with riches—finds his way
to Parker. He or she is usually a small time non-professional motivated by greed
and handicapped by an overweening ego. Most of these heists go sour. Violence
Parker has had conflicts
with organized crime members and bosses who have tried to cheat him out of owed
because he was a ‘little’ unconnected guy. Big mistake. They underestimated
Parker, his determination, a kind of post-human persistence in a mission, and
the lack of fear in pursuing his goal.
I like Parker. Sometimes
I’d like to be more like Parker. I suspect that Parker makes lots of people wish
also they could live without ever feeling a cold steel blade of fear touching
the back of their neck. There is something compelling about his absence of fear
in situations where the vast majority of people would be pale, speechless,
paralyzed. Not Parker. But I’ve been asking myself lately whether Parker’s lack
of fear should cause us to feel revulsion. Here’s the case against liking
Parker. After you’ve read a half-dozen of the Parker novels there is a pattern
of reality that fits into the category of pocketbook fascism.
Parker is never
Parker is a deliberate,
calculating, logical, analytical planner. He’s not snatching gold chains or
mugging old ladies on security check days. Parker thinks big. The heist he
chooses share a common link—they present large risk of failure but a
corresponding large payoff if successful. Parker carefully chooses his team for
their experience, competence, and trustworthiness. He’s often worked with them
before on prior heists.
But Parker can’t always
control new members—often the insider who brings the idea to Parker—and all the
planning can come undone when an incompetent, cheating, and lying member of the
team threatens the operational goal or the dividing up of the loot after a
Parker has no
sentimentality. When some double-crosses him, he has no hesitation to kill them.
Not out of hatred or anger, but out of a violation of his conduct for doing
business. Never double-cross Parker. It is a line drawn in the sand. His regular
team members understand the code. For those who violate it, there is no learning
curve for the next job. There is no next job. They are dead.
Killing people is Parker’s
way of controlling destiny, punishing those who are disloyal. Fascists show no
emotion in erecting kill paths and demand absolute, unqualified loyalty. You
find a similar mindset in men like Rumsfeld, Cheney, and McNamara. Violence and
body count is their way of exerting authority and control. Violence shows who is
the man, who deserves respect, and who must yield. Violence and intimidation
flash the signal—you are either for us or against us, and either way we aren’t
afraid to take the fight to you. There is no neutral ground.
Removing the emotion of
fear in a mindset produces a powerful, relentless and brutal force that becomes
an object of fear and hatred for others. And where the person who uses
deliberate violence lacks fear, such a person unbounded by fear becomes an
existential threat. This is doubly troubling—we admire Parker’s qualities, but
find ourselves uneasy that absence of compassion and empathy rob him of his
Parker is a deliberation
machine dedicated to planning successful criminal ventures. Instead of blood, he
has sequence algorithms running through his veins. Parker is anti-hero who never
suffers from doubt.
Parker’s game depends on
detailed planning and ruthless execution of plans and loyal team members define
his personality. The emotional side of Parker is held in check—or it may be
non-existent. Parker never has sex when in the planning stage of a heist. Sex,
friendship, drinking, fun are all distractions and they are sidelined until the
crime is committed. Then Parker, off screen—as the novel has ended—spends the
next six months spending the money before finding a new heist.
Parker might fit into a
CEO position to run a Forbes top 100 company, a Wall Street investment banker,
or slip into high level government position—though most of these people would be
hard pressed to remove sex and fun from their lives to achieve their
Parker sees emotions as an
enemy of forward planning. They are a distraction, a nuisance, and can get a man
killed. Parker, as a survivor, spends a great deal of time planning the details
of the heist, assigns the specific jobs to members of the team, and gathers the
materials and resources, scouts the location, looks for getaway cars,
untraceable guns, hideouts, and alternative exits. He’s thorough, cold,
calculated and when the plans hit the unpredictable forces of reality and fall
apart; he is quick to find ways to shore up the broken scaffolding. It is
Parker’s steadfastness, his belief in keeping promises, and his workarounds when
plans come unstuck, that are part of his appeal.
Parker is a man who can
control and overcome his emotions. Secretly many of us wish we had this ability.
As we don’t, Parker gives us the vicarious thrill of inhabiting a character that
is a sociopath. When we enter Parker’s mindset, the feeling evokes a sense of
admiration and power and we can forget that Parker’s cognitive abilities are
dangerous and deviant.
The heart of the Parker
novels is his ability to meet the challenges of the uncertain, unpredictable
world of crime where all planners must face the reality the plan isn’t working,
the outcome is in doubt, and an inventive alternative plan must be created on
the spot. Otherwise Parker gets arrested. Or he is killed.
Back to the Parker persona
as an example of fascism, he employs whatever means, including violence, to
achieve his goal. Nothing or no one who signs on can expect mercy if they fall
short of Parker’s expectations. Parker’s heart never does anything other than
pumping blood. It’s never soft. Until he gets his money, nothing short of death
will stop Parker from coming after someone who has cheated him. He kills not out
of hate. He kills people without feeling. Killings are simply part of his job.
Plans don’t call for a murder, but circumstances may make it necessary for the
plan to succeed. This is the way Parker thinks; how he perceives the world.
Parker is like a drone, hovering for hours in the air, observing, calculating,
seeking his best shot for a direct hit. Collateral damage is unfortunate.
Planners have bigger fish to fry. The little ones blown out of the water is just
one of those things that happens on the way from the kitchen to the dinning room
Parker is a man of
deliberate violence. He has a steel rod for a spine. A man who hasn’t shared a
beer with a man named regret. Parker represents that most human urge for control
over others and reality. Like good poker player, Parker figures the odds of his
hand, looks at the cards on the table, the other players seated around him and
makes a calculated gamble. If someone is cheating, they’re dead. Parker plays
for keeps. There is no fun in the winning or losing. Getting the job done, the
money, getting out and back to a good hotel, somewhere warm, in his swimming
trunks, a drink in hand, he finally looks at a woman and decides it is time. The
24 Parker novels continue to sell, and 8 Hollywood
have been made from the books. It seems the original editor had a scent of
something special about a Parker series.
Richard Stark a.k.a. Don
Westlake had the right instinct when he wrote the first Parker novel. Kill off
this guy. Parker’s death would be applauded by the reader who’d spent hours with
inside his head. But Richard Stark’s editor saw the opportunity for a series and
that required keeping Parker alive. Economically, politically and socially the
decision-makers elect, like Richard Stark’s editor, decide to hire and keep
Parker alive. They think having a Parker running things is useful. Such a
planner can be relied on to ensure the outcome happens. They also think such a
man (or woman) can be kept on a short leash. But a man who knows no fear can
never be controlled. He takes control, and when that happens, what comes
Read a newspaper, watch
the news on TV, walk down your street, look around you and you find that you are
living in a world where Parker has become the model of success. It’s too
late to kill Parker off. He’s on automatic pilot. And he’s in your future for
years to come.
Galileo has much to teach
us about the nature of fear. He found out the capability for suppression and
intimidation that an alternative worldview can be brought to bear on the
messenger of such a possibility. Belief systems rest on a unified, consistent,
and cohesive set of ideas. Galileo, the Wikileaks front man of his age,
championed the theory that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. The idea
originated with Copernicus twenty years earlier and it was a revoluntionary one
of its time—the sun was at the center of the universe and the earth and other
planets revolved around the sun.
In 1633 Galileo was
charged with heresy. No doubt that beyond his scientific knowledge, Galileo knew
a thing or two about the kind of torture that his heresy might unleash if he
failed to repudiate his view. He had a choice—continue to advocate the
Copernicus heresy or face torture. Love of knowledge and the emotion of
fear of pain and suffering must have dueled inside Galileo’s mind as they have
inside the minds of countless men and women ever since.
He endured the Inquisition
and was found guilty of having been “vehemently
suspect of heresy” for his support of the Copernicus view of the
universe. The verdict required Galileo to “abjure, curse and detest” Copernicus
view. After he recanted, his sentence of imprisonment was commuted to life long
house arrest. His book Dialogue was banned and he was forbidden to write
anything in the future. That ban wasn’t lifted until 1718.
heliocentric view of the universe, the Christian belief system and the
institution of the Church had not been destroyed. The fear of the alternative
theory of the cosmos had been irrational. But that is the nature of
Last week I wrote about
the campaign in Melbourne, Australia by government authorities to use the image
of a rhino to provoke a sense of fear of people driving and walking near the
tram system. What does Galileo have to do with the rhino campaign in
What links the concept of
fear when authorities such as the medieval church sought to preserve a belief
system about the nature of the universe and the intention of authorities to
manufacture a belief of fear when none naturally exist?
The answer is existential.
In the case of Galileo, the church feared that if an alternative to its
worldview would be allowed to go unchallenged, its authority, status, and role
might be not just undermined but destroyed. Suppression and intimidation by
authorities to preserve a worldview is their way of signaling that there is no
legitimate alternative worldview allowed. Belief in the absolute view is the
only legitimate way of understanding, explaining, and accepting the universe,
political, social and economic life. As Galileo discovered that while science
looked at objective facts and if those facts led to a conclusion that the
worldview required revision, which crossed an official line and demolished a
central tenet of the belief system, something had to give. And it wasn’t going
to be the true believers.
Galileo support of the
Copernican universe caused church authorities to experience an existential
crisis. To the mind of the official church Galileo’s view was intolerable. There
were a couple of reasons for this fear. First, was the loss of control over
describing the cosmos. That had been a Church monopoly and cartels don’t easily
open up to competition to outsiders. Second, the possible acceptance of this
alternative view of the universe made them fearful their beliefs and Church
would be destroyed. Allowing Galileo to proceed with his Copernican logic caused
the fear of something like the meteorite that stuck the Yucatan Peninsula 65
million years ago, causing massive extinction. In the face of the
potential oblivion of their belief system, its institutions, the rituals, the
priesthood and the community founded upon belief and ritual, the Inquisition
turned to repression. When faced with loss of controlling the message turning
the screws on the thumbs of the messenger is a time-honoured
The threat, the fear is in
the alternatives to any belief or institutions resting on a set of assumptions.
There might be a better explanation in the alternatives to an existing belief
system. Established institutions found their legitimacy on beliefs that are
static, eternal and absolute. That is a dangerous game. It means someone,
somewhere, whether Galileo or someone like him, may ultimately succeed in
presenting compelling evidence contrary to the established
The conflict between old
beliefs and new evidence exposing flaws or overturning the old beliefs entirely
is a mortal battle. In this struggle, the existing authorities have the
advantage of power which are used to defend to the death the old beliefs and
When institutions and
their infrastructure of beliefs are under attack, their back to the wall, and
with a sense of survival of an entire system at stake, there is no surprise that
brute force and threats are in the short run effective to silence the Galileos
and their information, data and evidence.
Galileo must repent. Or
Galileo will be imprisoned, tortured, exiled, murdered, disappeared, or sent to
Room 101 and strapped into George Winston’s chair.
Officials who patrol the
borders of belief system based on absolutist principles looking for the next
Galileo aren’t pluralists or open-minded—such qualities of thought are not
suited to finding and eliminating all ideas that represent existential threats.
They scan the Internet like astronomers scanning the horizon for the killer
meteorite on a head-on collision course.
True power rests with
those who have authority to characterize an idea and label the messenger an
apostate. Once the patrols appeal to the necessity of protecting their
beliefs, and most people go along, it is only a matter of time before it becomes
apparent that those on patrol are difficult to control or restrain—as any hint
of criticism, dissent, questioning, or challenging brings the Galileo
Fear us. Fear our ability
to make you change your mind about the alternatives you have proclaimed to our
beliefs. It is up to you. After all, it is your big, new idea or the water board
(which by medieval torture methods would have been viewed as benign). History
has been hard on Galileo for his submission to authority, his official
recanting. Would you have gone to torture chamber for an alternative vision of
the universe? Would your reservoir of courage have drained as your saw what
waited for you inside that chamber?
The larger question is why
fear triggers this existential threat and the terrifyingly strong and powerful
emotional reaction against who feel threatened? My theory is evolution equipped
us with a basic, if not primitive (just good enough) response system to deal
with what in our early environment were indeed existential threats. Predators
saw us as part of their food chain. Mistakes in dealing with predators and
strangers often proved fatal. Outsiders, strangeness, unusualness, all triggered
a fear response. We inherited this alarm warning system. Unfortunately it hasn’t
been upgraded from its original purpose and imported into the world of ideas and
In modern times,
governments employ an assortment of laws to monitor, identify, and suppress
modern Galileos—including censorship, blasphemy, computer crime laws and
lèse majesté or its equivalent. The common thread is based on the
existential fear that unrestricted exchange of information or data will
undermine and fatally wound the belief system, which may have remained unaltered
for centuries. The longer the duration between updates of beliefs to match the
current state of knowledge and information, the more repressive the laws and the
response of authorities enforcing the laws.
Technology has brought
more information, more channels to disseminate and access information, more
people connected, rendering geographical location largely irrelevant. Innovation
and technology is disruptive. It threatens to replace existing institutions.
People inside and outside of institutions are fearful. Their lives have never
been less certain. Control over new information used to create alternative
theories and principles remains unresolved. One side promises answers from their
belief system to all questions, the other side makes no promises and demands an
acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity as the nature order of
We are in the midst of a
new Inquisition in many cultures. Like medieval European elites who processed
Galileo, their successors are playing out their hand in a last ditch effort to
suppress alternative information messengers from challenging the official belief
system. There is fear on both sides of the knowledge equation as each side seeks
to draw supporters to its reality-based bias. Those with a vested interest in
absolutes butt heads with the modern probabilistic thinkers. In this tango along
the edge of the event horizon of fear, it is unclear who will blink
Controlling who has access
to gathering, assembling and disseminating information and knowledge are crucial
in a belief system seeking to preserve itself. The more out of date the
worldview becomes, the more likely that more and more resources will be devoted
to suppression and intimidation. At some stage, the main preoccupation is
reduced to internal fear management.
As an example of resource
allocation to patrol the digital borders where belief systems are challenged by
access to vast quantities of information, Chinese authorities have mobilized a
“At yesterday’s municipal
propaganda department meeting in Beijing, Vice Mayor Lu Wei implored 60,000
propaganda workers ‘in the system’ and over two million ‘outside the system’ to
‘use Weibo.’ According to official records, Beijing has a population of more
than 20 million–from Lu’s statement, one out of every ten Beijingers is a
With new advances in
software, it is much easier for regimes to track the modern Galileo’s, shut down
their websites, charge them, and imprison them. The essence of fear which began
as an individual response to survival in a hostile environment where most were
relatively defensively has morphed into an institutionalized fear monitoring
system to preserve existing societal arrangements, beliefs, and customs against
possible alternatives other might find more equitable, transparent, and fair.
Most governments wish to avoid that discussion. Room 101 will likely not be
closed any time soon. Nor has the last Galileo been forced to recant his
alternative worldview vision.
It is said that fear is
our friend. But when fear is scaled to institutional size, it has every tendency
to the same emotional, intuitive, gut feeling that all alternatives are
existential threats. As George W. Bush famously said, ‘you are with us or
against us.’ And here lies a key point. Old belief systems lasted because of
their commitment to an absolutist view of the worldview. We have moved into an
era where probability analysis rejects absolute outcomes as automatically
flowing from existing beliefs.
That idea is as dangerous
as Galileo’s heliocentric universe. As it leads others to hold all beliefs as
tentative possibilities open to better questions and better information. It
assumes we are likely to find that we change our minds about all kinds of
arrangements and relationship as we sift through information, finding new and
novels patterns and explanations in information and altering patterns of
existing beliefs along the way.
For now, we are at a stage
not much different from the one of Galileo’s day. New information is the cause
of fear. We experience certain events, activities, and signals as an existential
threat. Scaled to the institutional dimension, fear mongers will likely continue
down the time-honored path that worked on Galileo.
I have a feeling Galileo
would recognize much of repression that routinely occurs in various countries
today in the name of national security or preservation of the faith as variation
of the age-old desire to maintain the earth at the centre of the universe. We
are some ways from the day when Room 101 is converted into a computer room with
an Internet connection to anyone with a sense of wonder and curiosity about the
nature of the cosmos and our place in it.
Fear is one of the basic
emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a
symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion
charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has
equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the
risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it
served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the
threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of
We don’t do a very good
job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like
most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when
threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern
cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of
being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them.
And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram
Yarra Tram in Melbourne
I noticed signs on
platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate
board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from
being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a
tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino
translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.
The sign informs us that a
Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram
tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you
Later I found the “Beware
the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the
scary 30 Rhinos message to life:
There’s also “Beware the
page which has
some 3,000 likes.
I thought about the
message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone
into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I
suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving
people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were
oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research
revealed that the Beware
the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed
at tackling car to tram accidents.)
How can we get people’s
attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne?
That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public
hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency
However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid
of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No
doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as
far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to
creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants,
lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements
over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as
well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.
Whatever political dealing
went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the
rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram
Whether it has reduced
accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly
achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won
“Postcard of the
Year” award for
The Melbourne tram rhino
got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we
like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the
case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an
activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because
citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the
government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30
Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would
you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine
30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and
down like a charging wild animal.
How do you feel about
having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button
even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is
governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become
immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take
vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose
of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our
longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their
audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an
assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and
friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At
There is a second aspect
to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.
Unlike the first case
where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case
fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand
protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an
Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines,
quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the
government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control
is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public
safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an
opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on
The shoe bomber is a
classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes
resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil
liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber,
plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their
pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear,
governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over
citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report
listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline
passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single
shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain
fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear
containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so
difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government
policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of
Once people look to the
government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more
fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded
through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it
has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If
you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern
problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a
high price for our irrationality.
Returning to the fear
creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being
pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in
Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems
that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make
people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it
works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that
makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of
I’ve been told the
authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram
platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at
greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know
one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark,
our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the
best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to
increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind
ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the
night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire.
And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security
at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.
Apophenia sounds like the
name of a band from Macedonia sent to perform at the annual Euro Song
Contest. The term was coined by Klaus Conrad in 1958 to describe a
psychological state of a person who spontaneously made connections between
unrelated events, people, object and infused that connection with a powerful,
abnormal meaning. Apophenia began as a term to characterize a type of mental
Over the years the
definition of apophenia has broaden from a specialized medical condition to be
used as a more general description of the mental states of gamblers, paranormal
believers, religious believers, conspiracy theorists, lotus and mushroom eaters.
The underlying impulse is the search for causation. It is difficult for a person
to accept that randomness kicks out all kinds of events that aren’t casually
connected. Promise a casual connection and you’ll find an audience for the
connectedness you are pedaling. Politicians and economists exploit this mental
In Thailand, when someone
famous is killed in a car crash. Thousands of people will buy a lottery number
based on the number of the registration plate on the crashed car of death.
Apophenia. Parliament is opened after consulting astrologers or monks (or both)
for the auspicious time for the opening. Or a new cabinet minister wishes to
arrive at the office at the most auspicious time to start his job. Apophenia.
Thai culture is no different from most cultures. Cultures around the world,
politicians, pundits and priests tell stories riddled with apophenia. It is a
behavior so ingrained that we no longer see it for what it is.
And of course, apophenia
is necessary condition state of mind for writers of fiction (and non-fiction). A
mild case of apophenia is a novelist’s secret weapon that brings readers and
literary success. We spend our working days seeing spontaneous connections
between unconnected events, people, and lives, and weaving meaning into those
We experience a scene, a
smell, a sound or a taste and our automatic impulse is to fill the patter into a
story. Think of the last time you were on a train at 10.30 p.m. in a major city.
The rush hour has flushed down that the time drain. People on the train that
time of night are different from the rush hour crowd. Have you looked around and
thought about possible connections among the strangers riding in the same
There’s a middle-aged
woman holding a boutique of flowers leaning in a space near the door. She could
sit down as there are empty seats. But she stands with her flowers. Across from
her is an older man. They are likely strangers. But you see a connection. They
have matching gold bands on the third finger of their left hand. You suddenly
tell yourself they are married. They are poor. They don’t have a car. They’ve
been out celebrating a wedding anniversary but it didn’t go well. They had an
argument and aren’t talking. He gave her flowers earlier, and now they are a
mockery of the silence between. That’s apophenia. They are actually strangers.
They’ve never met. They will never meet. Except in your mind.
Seated down the car are
three workers in matching light blue uniforms with dark blue collars. There is a
company logo over the front right pocket. The three women are in their late
twenties. Two of the women are slightly overweight. They sit together. The third
woman, who is prettier, sits four seats away between a retired man and a
teenager with a New York Yankees T-shirt. They are going home from work. They
are office cleaners. The two women sitting together have received pink slips
from the company. This is their last day. The money in their pocket is all the
money they have. The woman sitting apart has kept her job. The two women who
have been laid off believe she has been giving sexual favors and that is why she
has been kept on. In fact, when the three got on the train, there were not
three empty seats together. They were separated not by choice but by
availability. They haven’t been fired. It is another workday, and they
will be back on the job tomorrow.
That is a simple train
ride. Someone with apophenia makes these spontaneous connections throughout the
day, in every setting, and out of all the unrelated people, events and objects
that she has experienced. If your mind automatically switches into this method
of assembly of people and events to tell a story, then you have the right mental
stuff to be a writer.
There is a bit of insanity
in a writer. Normal people—meaning those who rarely write out of imagination
(except for expense account vouchers) live in a different mental world. One
separated by how one goes about interpreting patterns, meaning, and purpose from
ideas, thoughts, images, objects, the driftwood of materials that lands on our
beach each day.
Apophenia is our brain
trying to make sense out of unrelatedness of things and people we experience. We
recoil from randomness and chaos. We don’t go around telling ourselves there is
a pattern in everything, and that, if one peers long enough, there is a
connection of meaning. But our behavior suggests that we don’t have much free
will to do anything but continue to make such connections. What appears to be
‘noise’ in the system is merely an invitation to an artist to interpret the
‘noise’ as have a relationship among the parts and those parts put into a whole
suddenly are meaningful.
Most people can’t resist
being seduced by such connections.
People who claim to see
images of religious figure in a toasted cheese sandwich or in clouds are an
example of apophenia. It isn’t only religious people who suffer from this
condition. So do gamblers who see connections that aren’t there. Astrologers,
mystics, drug users, and others occupy a world where the lego bricks of reality
are all around them and they spend their time assembling castles in the
Films like the Twelve
Monkeys and The Matrix tap into our inner desire to embrace
apophenia. Blue pill, red pill choices of how much apophenia you can handle is
an enduring metaphor of The Matrix. Films like these tapped into that
apophenia that lurks below the surface in many people, drawing connections
between all kinds of unrelated persons, events, and places with patches of
non-linearly woven into the fabric of the story. Philip K. Dick, the science
fiction author, took drugs, which he claimed opened a gateway to a secret
knowledge or insight into an underlying, unseen casual agent that connected
everything, fleshing out a deeper meaning. He also thought that he saw a stream
of gold light radiated from a fish necklace. Drugs. Did I mention, Philip
K. Dick linked this vision with the drugs he’d taken?
Mystics and religious
figures take apophenia to the logical extreme—all of the world is information
and all of that information is interconnected. Seeing this unified oneness is
An epiphany is making a
connection between two unrelated events that illustrate a deeper meaning, and
underlying casual connection others have glossed over or ignored. Science has
A powerful emotional
experience can create the need to creatively connect that experience with
unrelated events. Kurt Vonnegut’s novels are an example. During WWII Vonnegut
had been a prisoner of war in Dresden. He was in the city when Allied bombers
fire bombed it turning “the cellars where 135,000 Hansels and Gretels had been
baked like gingerbread men.” Slaughterhouse Five was his way of
connecting the unconnected into a meaningful story of massacre. Other novels
danced around that event, drawing from that experience.
What vests a fiction
author with the mantle of credibility over another author who can turn a phrase
just as well in the contest to attract the attention of readers? Many factors
come into play. But one element does matter when we read a narrative that asks
us to believe in the connection between people, events and it can be summarized
in three words: “I was there.”
I bear witness to the
experience. I saw the bodies, experienced the terror, suffering, pain and
horror. On the train, I saw the woman holding flowers on her way somewhere. I
connected her, the flowers, a stranger across from her into a story. Other
people in the train had their faces in their iPhones or iPads, with the
connections uniting their world being made online for them in a digital world.
The nature of what we mean by ‘experience’ is evolving from the world of Kurt
Vonnegut. We shelf life fire exercises for computer simulated games. Predator
aircraft for manned fighters. Slowly we are removing ourselves from the world of
first hand experience where all that unrelated, confused, and random bits float,
collide, bounce off each other, waiting for someone to connect the
Readers still seek to know
the meaning of unrelated things and events. We thrive on clean, cool, compelling
connections, ones that give us a sense that our ideas of causation have not been
violated. Chaos makes us frightened and lack of casual connectedness frightens
us even more. Evolution has wired apophenia into us allowing us a convenient way
to experience the world. Even though some of the attributed causation may be
false, or the connections turn out to be dubious and phony, apophenia is what
gets you through the day and night. Rather than a definition of insanity, at the
least in the mild forms, it may be a precondition to remaining sane.
We look to the imagination
of an eyewitness to bring us to where he or she stood and we want to know what
it was like for the small golden fish to radiate the meaning of the hidden
universe where all things are connection in a vast empire of
Next time your financial
advisor or best friend emails you with a surefire way to make a financial
killing, you can reply that you are waiting for the average rainfall in
Vancouver in October to correlate with average number of tourist arrivals in
Bangkok for the month of December in order to trigger a sell order for your
shares in Apple and to execute a buy order in gambling casino business in
After you finish this
essay, pick up any newspaper, go to any blog read what the writer has to say, or
flip (or scroll) through the book you’re reading and give the author a rating on
the apophenia on a scale of 1 to 10. Assign a ‘1’ is for no connections of
unrelated events or things. Give a ‘10’ for so many such connections and
offering a causal bridge linking them all that the person is insane or
enlightened. Remember the greater speed in making patterns from data, the higher
the IQ. That’s right. This is what is tested when given an IQ test. We have a
cultural bias that we all buy into—slow pattern-making means a person is
mentally less capable, less bright, and less able to pull together, assemble the
correct pattern in front of him.
It seems we suffer either
way. When a person finds it difficult to draw patterns from unrelated symbols,
events, or experiences, means he has a low IQ. But the person who easily finds
the underlying causes that spontaneously brings meaning to unrelated things has
a high IQ. How effectively you deal with such pattern making determines whether
you are crazy, stupid, or on drugs. Finally ask yourself, what rank would you
assign to yourself in the way that you connect unrelated events and
After all, one thing is
certain: Only you can say “I was there.” And only you can also say that in
Twelve Monkeys and The Matrix only an imagination created that
space. No one was ever ‘there’ and the Hansels and Gretels gingerbread men are
not the same as a 135,000 people who had been incinerated while Vonnegut had
survived. The science fiction inside Vonnegut’s head didn’t spring solely from
his imagination; his way of connecting events came from the way things had been
connected during his WWII experience. Everything Vonnegut wrote connected back
in one way or another to his experience of the firebombing. He had been there.
And he took us there with him, connected us to those events through his
What does an author do
when he sees a secondhand copy of his book in a bookstore? I have been thinking
about this having recently seen a secondhand copy of The Wisdom of
As I can’t cover all
second hand bookstores, I’d like any reader who finds a copy to feel free to
write a dedication in the book on my behalf. I understand that after exhaustive
studies, academics have concluded that a book dedicated to a famous person by
the author fetches a much higher return on the second hand market.
In a time of bookstore
closures worldwide, I’d like to help the bookstore owners increase their
revenues. They should encourage customers to form a self-help group to write
those special dedications for The Wisdom of Beer (or any other book you
might find of mine).
I have a few suggestions
for dedications to be inscribed in random, dog-eared copies of The Wisdom of
I am positive that you
will come up with much better material.
The Wisdom of
Beer dedication list might include the following:
my dear friend, Donald Trump,
Thanks for the napkin from
A60 Club with your hand-written essay on the Kenyan birth certificate. I am
sorry it arrived too late to include the appendix as you suggested. Should
The Wisdom of Beer ever be reprinted I will urge the publisher to place
it in the new edition.
Former New Yorker, Vincent
my personal mentor, Cesar Millan,
Thanks for writing to tell
me that The Wisdom of Beer has become the Dog’s Whisperer’s bible.
Sorry your show has been cancelled. But I can’t really change the parrot in the
book to the Boxer mixed breed. But I appreciate your idea.
Best wishes from me and
all of my pack of six, CM
Your probation officer
gave asked that I send you TheWisdom of Beer to help keep you
out of jail. I am proud to know the book will guide you to a new and better
You can reject beer or
wisdom, but if you throw out both you can’t expect the Republics to ever win a
majority. Please keep The Wisdom of Beer as an alternative bible to
rebuild your shattered life.
Peace, Fairness and Love
bring huge dividends, CGM
I won’t ever forget our
night together in Paris. Congrats on being chosen the sexist woman alive for
2012. Of course it is 2013 and you probably won’t win again. Still, I hope you
will always keep this copy of The Wisdom of Beer to remember our
special time together.
General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping,
I know you are new to the
job. The Chinese invented beer and I’ve written the first book ever to bring
that accomplishment to the world. You should celebrate with pride this gift to
mankind by translating The Wisdom of Beer and requiring every party
member to purchase a copy. My publisher promises a volume discount for all
orders over one million copies. They also offered to put a red cover on the
Your Comrade in Suds, C.
You’ve made “The Cable
Guy”, “Liar Liar” “Dumb and Dumber” and “Me, Myself & Irene” all quite
intellectual films. They were too serious for a true comic genius like your good
self and these films may have hurt your A-list ranking. Why not try something to
showcase your unique humour like starring in The Wisdom of Beer?
The Wisdom of Beer film would give your movie career a needed boost.
Face it. You need that. Have a beer.
The first reaction to a
threat or a possible threat is one of fear or anger. We are emotional by default
and once our feeling and intuitions are engaged, our so-called rational mind’s
duty is to justify the hot emotion that has us sweating and short of breath.
When the State is the one creating fear, the emotions are heightened. Isn’t the
State supposedly the one to protect us against those who would induce
That is the story the
State wishes us to believe. The dividing line between States isn’t so much
democracy and autocratic but between those States which spin a story of
protection against outside fear that most people believe is true. We are at
heart, all of us, security seekers. That plays to the advantage of the State as
the officials rely on the reality that there isn’t an alternative. A revolution
merely changes those who operate the State and as history shows the new
operators are no different than the ones they replaced—in many cases, they
become addicted to terror to cow their rivals into submission.
Criminal laws regulate
conduct and are the citizens’ first line of defense against the ‘wrongful’ or
‘bad’ conduct of others. In reality, many criminal laws authorize the State to
protect itself against those who would challenge its authority. Broad and
imprecise wording—like ‘national security’—allow those who enforce the laws
broad powers and substantial penalties to charge, convict, and imprison a person
whose activity is thought to be a threat to those in power. The threat of
prosecution chills the exercise of free speech—stops political discussion. The
State uses such power in the age of Internet access to censor what is sent and
received by users.
The State is an intangible
entity. We rail against an oppressive or abusive ‘State’. These emotional
outbursts are like taking a swing at a cloud. You never quite connect your
feelings with the object perceived to cause those feelings.
The functionaries and
officials who make up the State are many. They interact with each other. Some
are more powerful than others, and there is an institutional bias or culture
that prevails across those institutions as well as legacy traditions and customs
within individual agencies. This makes assigning responsibility difficult. Who
do you point the finger at when the State acts to criminalize political speech?
Or criminalizes conduct that serves the interest of a small but powerful elite
that benefit from a cone of secrecy and immunity from criticism?
In the new Orwellian
world—everyone is guilty, and those charged are selected through the exercise of
prosecutorial discretion to send a message to all the other potentially guilty
citizens that they, too, are being watched and are vulnerable. And there is
nothing they can do and no one to turn to.
Placed in the situation of
being charged and the realization there was little chance of escape is thought
to have led Aaron Swartz to commit suicide in New York. He was a 26-year-old
computer genius, co-founder of Reddit, who’d been charged for ‘freeing’ academic
data at M.I.T. Since his death there has been a firestorm of protest,
questioning, criticism and hand-wringing.
The best piece written on
why writers write is George Orwell’s essay On Writing 70 years
Orwell said that the
subject matter of a book is determined by the age in which the writer
Context is what matters.
Look around your space, inside the room where you are reading this essay, when
you go out, look around the city. And think for a moment, it wasn’t always like
this and won’t stay like this. But for the moment, the present, this is our
context that determines how we think about books, each other, information,
security, politicians, guns, drugs, pollution, women, police, and doctors and
hospitals. We think of them in the now.
Commentary like this
essay, films, books, comments others make online, are collections of our context
where we find: social things, cultural things, psychological and political
things. We try to make sense of all these signals, picking through the noise. It
is hard work. The noise is always far greater than the signal. With the
distractions and limited attention we can bring to anything directly in front of
us should give us pause. It should give us a sense of humility. We are
overwhelmed by the emotional words of others, the details pile up, the ambiguity
increases. We hate doubt. We love certainty. One we avoid, the other we
Those employed by the
State understand this bias. To avoid randomness and uncertainty gives the State
actors an edge. Officials promise that they can and will remove the dread of
doubt and once removed, we will feel safe and happy. The State understands that
we are first and foremost emotional creatures. That insight is the source of
their broad, vague powers and discretion.
We filter the
justification, defenses, words of State officials as they weave a pattern that
shows their actions are lawful, correct and in the interest of the State and its
citizens. Orwell taught that writers had a duty to challenge these State
manufactured patterns, deconstruct them, and offer original, alternative
patterns. You can read volumes of Internet commentary taking this road about the
official actions of the State in pursuing Aaron Swartz.
The best writers
communicate an essence of insight, meaning and purpose. They distinguish between
intuition and rationale, objective evidence. To use Daniel Kahneman’s
distinction, one is automatic, lazy thinking and the other is slow, deliberate
thinking. They are connected. The lattice of biases that we all have ultimately
shape and distort the way we think about reality.
The best books embody the
way people think and feel. A good novel or short story hits an emotional chord
in the reader that seems true.
The best books reflect
emotional attitudes as people bumped up against the reality found inside the
context where we live. The emotions we find floating above us include: Anger,
hostility, envy, suspicion, jealousy, suspicion and deception.
Crime novels embrace these
negative emotions and fine-tune them into stories where characters seek to
escape their context, their destiny, or their moment in history. No matter how
fast you write, the book is much slower than the click of a camera shutter, and
even at that speed there is a transformation captured and the reality that
follows that moment.
Orwell wrote that authors
have four reasons or motives to write:
egoism. The desire to appear clever, talked about, remembered after
death. The great mass of people are far less selfish than writers. Serious
authors are vain and self-centered.
enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the patterns found in the exterior
word and converted into prose. The firmness of good prose, the rhythm of a good
story that carries you along.
impulse. To see things as they are outside of the filters, biases and
prejudices that every context presents as barriers to truth.
purpose. To use words to push the world in a certain direction—to
shape or alter people’s idea of the kind of society we live in and whether that
society is fundamentally just and fair.
Psychology has advanced a
fifth reason Mindset Exploration to identify the connection
between our emotional, impulsive, intuitive mind and our deliberate, rationale
mind. To understand the interplay between the two aspects of our cognitive
resources that create our system beliefs we defend and define the perimeters of
Our impulses war against
one another and change over time, but our beliefs are difficult to shift even
when the evidence is clear that what we believe is false or wrong. The Aaron
Swartz suicide and background prosecution has ignited a debate about core
beliefs about the role of prosecutorial discretion, freedom of speech, the
nature of information, who owns it, has access to it, and can use and exploit
Context of Aaron Swartz’s death engages at the emotional level when the
distrust of State actors and their bona fides are in doubt. His death is used to
emotionally confirm our worst fears—the State is patrolling the products of our
mind and our actions seeking to find violations of laws. And the question being
asked is whose interests are being served in such prosecutions?
In The Orwell Brigade, a dozen authors, including Barbara Nadel,
Quentin Bates, and Matt Rees who blog on this site, have joined John Burdett,
Colin Cotterill, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Mike Lawson, Ernesto Mallo, and Gary
Phillips to reclaim the role of telling truth to authority, to examine abuse of
power, and to question the false histories and narratives officials use to
justify their decisions and policies. The traditional media have retreated to
the safety of entertainment and gossip to turn a profit. We have paid a high
price for that retreat. One positive legacy of Aaron Swartz’s life is this
questioning official exercise of power that once was done by journalists,
essayists, and novelists has spawn a thousands, if not millions of voices. It is
difficult even for the State to shut down, arrest, and lock up all of these
people. I suspect they will lie low, wait for the faint breeze of time to blow
away the anger. Once that happens the State, through its officials, will slowly
creep back and remind us that without them we will live in a State of
Everyone author has a
muse. Along with painters, composers, dancers, and other performing artists. The
muse has a long tradition. The Greeks had many gods and goddesses, but the one
writers and artist are most fond of is called the Muse. An artist might be an atheist
when it comes to God and religion but the Muse makes the most logical and
skeptical of the bunch, into believers as to the intangible forces of creativity
and inspiration. Someday when neuroscience decodes consciousness, the neural
structure that creates the illusion of the Muse will be discovered. Until that
day, we are little ahead of ancient Greece.
The idea of supernatural
artistic inspiration had been around long before being co-opted into ancient
The Muses, the
personification of knowledge and the arts, especially literature, dance and
music, are the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne (memory
You may recognize the
mother, Mnemosyne, as the term ‘meme’ for that idea that infects the minds of
others comes from her name. Mind mental or memory were born from
For crime fiction authors,
the Muse known as Melpomene was one of the nine daughters and assigned to
inspire works of tragedy. Before you set up your home altar next to your
computer and call out to your inner Muse, there are a few things to know about
Muses—their mother, Melpomene, has a past.
Melpomene is portrayed
wearing a tragic mask and the cothurnus, boots traditionally worn by
tragic actors. In another version, she holds a knife or club in one hand and the
tragic mask in the other. She wears a crown of cypress. Her father was Zeus and her
mother Mnemosyne. And if you wanted an inspiration for a lyrical phrase she was
the Muse you made offering to.
Words like ‘amuse’ and
‘museum’ derive from the original use of Muse. Many ancient writers paid homage
to the Muse: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and Shakespeare.
Living in a culture like
Thailand where spirits are daily worshipped at small spirit houses scattered
throughout the land, and upcountry workers as well as city workers, give
offerings; the idea of the Muse is a natural fit. Spirit Houses erected on the
premises housing newspapers, publishers, media houses and advertising agencies
don’t yet display statues of the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. But 2013
is young and the meme of Muse hasn’t gone viral in Thailand. Finding a Muse to
present at Government House and Parliament might ‘inspire’ if not poetry, some
new comedy and tragedy to retire the old tropes people don’t find of
I have a theory (or two)
about the nature of the Muse. When one of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and
Zeus come to visit, pay attention. What kills creativity is distraction. What
ignites the imagination is found through focus and attention that seeks to find
a new pattern, a new way of seeing or thinking. That kind of thinking is
difficult. It takes lots of resources. You can witness the Muse indirectly when
you see a great painting, or theatrical production or read a great book. The
result of the best of the arts is the creation of something out of
Most of the time, our
attention is divided. We have too much on our mind, pulling it this way and the
other. We flit from problem to problem, image to image, from the past to the
future, like a bird hoping from branch to branch looking for the tree. But the
issue isn’t limited to the non-stop discontinuous internal mental streaming, we
also add to our distraction by the input streaming into our brain from the
exterior world. To call on the Muse to visit means a commitment to closing down
our random thoughts and to shut out stimulation from the outside world. TV off.
Internet off. Phone off. “Do not disturb” sign on the closed door.
Light a candle. Wait for
the Muse to deliver the right word, phrase, scene, and image that fit into a
narrative flow. That is my other theory about the Muse. It is another way of
describing the flow. Musicians, writers, dancers and painters know that space
where the notes, words, movements, colors appear as if from another place, and
create a narrative force that carries the creator along a path he or she would
never have discovered inside a mind cluttered with internal and exterior
The Flow is the space
artists seek to enter and never leave. When I write, I work to find that space
because in the Flow all the nine daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne are manning the
oars on a boat that navigates itself around bends, and through rapids, and
delivers you to a destination you never would have discovered in a world too
full of noise.
What is it about reading a
novel that draws us to a story? The standard list would include: the
characterization, the voice, the setting, or the suspense and thrills. I’d like
to add to the list: the way the story illustrates the psychological state of
fear, the choices made under duress of that emotion, and the consequences of the
choice made and the choices that weren’t made.
Fear elongates as faith in
the security and the protection of the authorities erodes. We live in an age of
heightened fear. Partially authorities use fear to grab votes, and to curtail
civil liberties. We are pushed in two separate directions: distrust of what the
authorities can do to protect us and the willingness to allow the authorities to
play to our fears for their own benefit.
We are a product of our
times, our age and our culture. The occasional book spans time, the age it was
written and the cultural distortions in which the author worked. Would George
Orwell have written different kinds of books with a different mindset if instead
of being a colonial police official in Burma, he had gone to live in Thailand or
Singapore or Saigon and worked as a journalist for twenty-five years? Or Graham
Greene who traveled extensively, one wonders a counterfactual life where he
stayed in Saigon for years. Or if Nelson Algren had been raised on a farm in
Kansas rather than Chicago and his father had been the local mayor and his
mother the country judge.
I have lived for 25 years
in a political system where officials have fewer restraints on the exercise of
their power, fewer inquiries, questioning and criticisms–a soft police state. I
thought of this, as once again I was on the back of a motorcycle taxi, which was
flagged down and stopped by the police at a two-man ambush T-intersection where
Soi 16 and Soi Paisinghtoh meet. The police were interested in the driver. I was
the person of interest. I got off the back of the motorcycle, showed a
copy of my passport. I was physically searched, made to empty my pockets
andsubmit to a pat down. Next the cops opened each compartment of backpack,
opening the plastic bag containing my freshly used gym clothes. This happened at
1.45 p.m. in the afternoon.
The police questions: “Do
you speak Thai?” (Of course not.) “What your name?” (I give my name.) “Where you
go?” (Home—one hundred meters from your ambush point.) “What you do in
Thailand?” (I am a retired lawyer (never be a writer)). “Where you live?” (I
point up the road.) “Show me your wallet.” (I show him my wallet.)
Finally one of the cops
asked the motorcycle taxi driver if he knew me. The driver gave a reference: “He
live in Thailand a long-time.” I’d never seen this driver before but he seemed
to know who I was. Based on the testimony of the motorcycle driver I was allowed
There would have been a
time where I found such an arbitrary stop, search and questioning unsettling,
upsetting and annoying. After third such incident in less in a year, it has
become an ordinary feature of life.
Show me your papers. Right
out of an old Bogart movie on the tarmac of some remote airport in North Africa.
Police roadblocks are small change in the scheme of things. They are a kind of
theatre where the actors know the drama is about fear and money and
I’ve learned a thing or
two about all three having survived coups, street fighting and violence, and
walked through minefields where villagers had erected bamboo huts. I’ve seen the
aftermath of war in Cambodia and Vietnam not long after the guns had gone
silent. I know many others who’ve seen much, much more than me. But I saw enough
to learn a couple of lessons about myself. What I am capable to feeling when
fear and power and money rollerblade straight for me. I don’t like it. I don’t
like being afraid. But I put myself in a position where that would inevitably
If I’d stayed a law
professor at the University of British Columbia, walking the beaches, skiing at
Whistler, buying salmon at Granville Island market, my life and what I wrote
about would have gone in a different direction. In the multiverse there is a
version of me who never left Vancouver and is still teaching law. That version
also writes. But I doubt he writes books set in Southeast Asia, or if he does,
they would be very different books from the ones I’ve written.
The stuff of writing that
is worth a second read, I believe comes from writers who have felt the bone
chilling sound of gunfire, seen ordinary people panic, wounded, suffering,
people without jobs, connections, hungry and homeless people. This is where the
rubber connects with the road of life. Not in the office towers or exclusive
clubs or shopping malls. Those illusions take away the fear that power and
money, our natural enemy, should instinctively make us weary. We believe that we
can reach out and cuddle the cute lion. The lesson of literature is a warning
that anyone who has been in this context never forgets what emotions flood
through the mind.
Nelson Algren was a writer
I discovered when I was very young, and like Orwell and Koestler had an
influence on the kind of books I read (and ultimately wanted to write). Colin
Asher has written an insightful essay “Never a Lovely
(Algren) pressed that refrain
throughout his life, at every opportunity he found. The formulation that best
captures his intention and method is: ‘The hard necessity of bringing the judge
on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the
writer in all ages of man.’ After his first book, Algren never traded in the
idea that the poor are purely victims. Sometimes the accused were guilty, he
believed, sometimes innocent, either way their perspective deserved
Algren like Orwell never
sentimentalized the poor. He never looked down on them. He understood how money
and power circled around them, caging them, controlling and fearing them at the
If Golden Arm had a
purpose, it was to challenge the idea, then congealing into ideology, that an
individual’s social value is related to his or her wealth. Its message is that
lives lived in the twilight hours, after swing shifts, in the shadows of newly
erected towers, or beneath the tracks of the El, are as passionate, as
meaningful, as funny and pointless, and as much a part of the American story as
What was congealing into
ideology has long since dried into hard stone. Where is there a place left where
social value isn’t calculated in terms of wealth and influence? Those who have
no wealth are left out of the story of our time. Algren, Orwell, Koestler and
Greene threw a literary lifeline to these people. We live in a time where
cutting that lifeline is the business of government, and writing has become an
entertainment business. Walking away from a secure university professorship was
something a foolish fifteen-year-old boy who’d read The Man with the Golden
Arm would do; but not a grown man. At any stage, things could have gone
But if I’d stayed in my
university office, something I needed to see and do and think about would have
never come alive. The theory of the multiverse says we are one among an infinite
number of universes, and all possibilities are a reality. That’s too much
like magical thinking for me to take seriously. False comfort is no comfort.
Making a choice in this life means taking a hard look at the cards you hold and
then making a bet on yourself. If you are a writer, you shuffle the deck, and
deal the hand your characters will hold. Every book is a new game of
But before you write that
first sentence you must find the interiority of the main characters. I find my
characters in the most unlikely places and most of them live off the radar
screen for most people. The best characters in novels are the ones society judge
as having no value—and that allows us to put society in the dock to judge it. I
am drawn to characters who push beyond the rejection society brings to their
every day life, and like characters who face the high wall behind which an army
of money and power pulls up the drawbridge. I like characters who don’t feel
sorry because others regard them as worthless, who don’t give up, who keep
advancing against the forces assembled to destroy them. I like them because they
have more natural dignity and grace than any university professor could ever
Authors Reality Check is written by a group of professional authors who measure
their literary work with an authenticity ruler. As 2012 winds down, I’d like to
look at the tradition of two authors: George Orwell and Arthur Koestler who have
had influence on my own attitudes about what to write about, and matching
experience to story and character. The best of noir/political fiction draws
upon, in my opinion, the real life experience of an author who has found
him/herself a victim of violence or has lived through the aftermath of violence
inside a shattered community.
Both Orwell and Koestler’s
lives were shaped by civil war and world war, and the lessons they learnt from
the political front lines has forever carved images of official violence into
our collective memory. 1984 and Darkness at Noon are prime
examples of noir novels written by authors who had personally witnessed such
darkness of the human condition.
In noir fiction, the
officials and party functionaries are armed by ideology and guns. The state
monopoly of violence is sold by the State as the best solution to protect you
against chaos and the violence of your neighbors and strangers. As history
shows, there are many examples where such officials use their power not to
protect you from lawless forces, but to advance their own interest. The
government becomes a racket for those who govern. They block a citizen’s passage
down the winding, twisting roads of alternative thought and ideas. They erect
intellectual tollgates, demanding supplication, loyalty and purity of belief.
These attitudes are preconditions to a noir world.
There is no bargaining,
compromising, or negotiating inside this noir world. Any response short of total
agreement invites those official forces to restrict, intimidate or if need be
destroy the dissenter. Both Orwell and Koestler have written the ultimate noir
novels. In Darkness
at Noon and 1984, the loyal insider confesses to a false crime rather than
repudiate his belief in the institution and its leaders. A false historical
narrative is an extension of voluntary confessions to false crimes. Such
confessions lead to death or psychological destruction of the confessor. That is
how noir ends. Not with hope but despair.
Who has the credibility to
write about false historical narratives? Orwell wrote an essay suggesting it can
only be artistically rendered by an author who lived inside the false historical
narrative and accepted it for a long period of time as the truth. Only an author
with that experience can convey the authenticity of repression, and recreate the
actual psychology conditions of people who live and die in such regimes. The
outsider, the expat, comes into the new culture of ideology with idealism that
can easily turn into a descent into the worst kind of psychological
George Orwell wrote an
essay about Koestler in which he spoke about a generation of European writers
that wrote ‘political’ books with the kind of authority that Orwell felt was
lacking in English writers.
Orwell wrote in 1941 that
these Europeans were “trying to write contemporary history, but UNOFFICIAL
history, the kind that is ignored in the text-books and lied about in the
newspapers. Also they are all alike in being continental Europeans. It may be an
exaggeration, but it cannot be a very great one, to say that whenever a book
dealing with totalitarianism appears in this country, and still seems worth
reading six months after publication, it is a book translated from some foreign
language. English writers, over the past dozen years, have poured forth an
enormous spate of political literature, but they have produced almost nothing of
aesthetic value, and very little of historical value either.”
The subtext is that unless
the author has emerged from the context of where totalitarianism is an
all-encompassing aspect of their life, having been part of the process that
defines the identity and mindset, they are better equipped to communicate the
psychological range like an experience bent over his sheet of music reading the
score and conducting the symphony.
The central question for
Orwell in Darkness at Noon was why the Bolshevik named Rubashov, who
had committed no crime, confessed to a false one? The book is a study of the
psychology of a true-believer who has for irrational reason been falsely charged
with a crime. What would have been in Orwell’s view a mere polemic if it had
been written by an American or English writer in the hands of Koestler because
he has experienced what he’s writing about can raise the experience to an
Experience was something
that Koestler could draw upon. He was sent to Spain during the Civil War in the
1930s and was arrested and imprisoned and came very close to being shot. But for
the intervention of powerful friends abroad his fate would have death. Like
Orwell, who also saw action in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler survived to brush
up against death during World War II. He escaped Paris as the Nazis arrived in
Koestler had written
Darkness in Noon in German, leaving the manuscript with Daphne Hardy.
She translated the book into English before escaping France herself. Believing a
false rumor that Hardy’s ship had been sunk, Koestler attempted suicide. His
long literary life included encounters with the famous figures from World War II
to contemporary times: Thomas Mann, Dylan Thomas, George Orwell, Mary McCarthy,
Timothy Leary, Salman Rushdie and Cyril Connolly.
The irony of both
1984 and Darkness at Noon is the anti-hero in both is doomed
from the beginning, and it is the struggle against that fate that makes them
compelling, timeless, and disturbing. In an age where ‘entertainment’ is the
byword, ‘disturbing’ political novels are out of favour while books written by
authors whose lives are remote from any front line produce books like Fifty
Shades of Grey. The growing interest in noir fiction, authentic
fiction written by authors who have experienced the crack of the whip not in a
sensual setting but in a political one and who know the difference, shows
readers have an appetite for political novels that speak to a larger truth when
the agents of repression come calling.
For most people deception
comes early on. Around Christmas time millions of children believe that
Santa Claus will come to their house and leave gifts from them as rewards for
their good behavior in the previous year. It is no surprise that one of the
first lessons a child learns is that those most close to them, the ones they
trust and feel most secure with, are capable of deception. Christmas and noir
become coupled with a child’s first introduction to how corruption works as
Christmas approaches. Santa Claus expects a reward on his time and investment in
terms of milk and cookies. Children leave him an offering. It is the first bribe
they pay with the encouragement of their family. Christmas Noir features a fat
bearded man with supernatural powers (to get over the speed of light
limitations), and he comes dressed in weird clothes, and he judges your record
over the past year and bribery is part of the deal.
Christmas Noir doesn’t
stop with a fat magical warlord and his corrupt practices, it extents to his
whole business model. For instance, parents leave out the tiny detail that Santa
Claus’s so-called elves who work around the clock to make toys for billions of
children are likely children slaving inside a sweatshop. The noir reality is the
child is accepting gifts from a corrupt sweatshop slaver. Let’s don’t get
started on the animal cruelty in the treatment of reindeer which beaten until
they fly and then must land and take off on billions of rooftops all on one
The mother and father’s
deception about Santa Claus can be dressed up as a ‘white lie’ to preserve
childhood innocence and a tradition that is part of the cultural heritage. No
matter what dress you put on a horse, it remains a horse. A lie dressed up as
culture and tradition can never shed its origin as born in deception.
In the adult world, having
served in the front ranks of disillusioned Santa Claus believers, we are
nonetheless primed for further deceptions by politicians, conmen, bankers,
terrorists, and by friends on Facebook and Twitter. It is a mixed bag and we are
on alert for those who deceive, looking for signs and omens, remembering how
easily we were duped as a child and swearing not to let that happen
The old Santa Claus story
reappears despite our early training to spot deceit. Property bubbles, ponzi
schemes, Bernie Madoff, Nigerian offers to split offshore loot by a recently
deceased general, are among a vast array of criminal activities that depend on
the ‘fish’ taking the bait. And it seems there are enough fish in the sea that
even if only a few bite, you can fill the boat with fish jumping into the boat
and not waiting for the hook.
One of the functions of
the justice system and the political system is to prevent deception. That’s why
Campbell’s soup label can’t outright lie about the contents including salt and
sugar levels. Medicine, cars, TVs, computers, phones all come with puffing about
their superior features, functionality, and usefulness. Placebo in place of a
pill with active ingredients is allowed in certain blind studies but the
patients are informed that someone of them will be receiving a ‘fake’
The laws, police and
courts monitor commercial behavior for deception and punish those found guilty
of deceitful conduct. Most of the time. While our parents don’t go to jail when
it is clear they lied about Santa Claus, someone who operates a boiler room and
sells worthless shares to your grandmothers are arrested and sentenced to
prison. Some of the time.
Governments spend large
sums of money seeking to effectively gather information about criminals who use
deception to mask the crime, or their trail after committing a crime, or finding
how and where they stashed their ill-gotten gains. Every legal system and
culture has its own set of ideas about how best to go about detecting the
deceivers among us.
The most obvious way to
find people committing criminal acts is to catch them in the act. Criminals may
be dumb but they aren’t altogether stupid. If they believe they are being
watched or listened to—the eyes off the police are on them—they are unlikely to
commit the theft, mugging, assault, murder or drunk driving. Deception is
the art of not getting caught. It is also a cat and mouse game, where each side
tries to stay one step ahead of the other. The question is who is winning the
deception game? The deceivers who are able to either use deceit to take an
unlawful advantage or having committed any crime use deceit to avoid
Below is the picture of a
new watchtower on Walking Street in Pattaya: a place of bars, nightclubs, and
massage parlors. Thousands of people walk along this street every night of the
week. The street is closed to traffic. A vibrant nightlife attracts criminals
from pickpockets to drug dealers. These are examples of the kind of criminal
activity that depends on deception. The question is whether the police
officer in the tower is better at this job that CCTV cameras that feed into a
monitoring system watched by the police.
The watchtower mentality
goes back to defending castles. Like moats, watchtowers are defensive
instruments to protect mainly against surprise attack. Or in the case of a
prison, a surprise escape by prisoners or a surprise visit by friends and family
of the prisoners. In any event, using a watchtower to detect street crime has
some uphill problems. In a culture of face, perhaps the mere presence of a tower
overlooking a street is enough to instill fear in potential criminals that they
sleek off to the side streets–out of police sight–and commit the
Another example of
watchfulness is the blimp bought for use to fight terrorists in the South of
Thailand. As a surveillance system, it has most of the limitation of a
watchtower, only it is higher off the ground. In this case, the blimp cost
around $10M, and had chronic problems from the start. Meaning it had so many
additional accessories it apparently had trouble staying airborne. When those
problems appeared to be addressed, in the first flight, the blimp crashed and is
in for repairs. The idea behind the blimp was to expose deceptive conduct by
would-be terrorists who seek to disguise themselves or their criminal activities
on the ground. Instead the focus of attention shifted from terrorists to
possible deception in the acquisition of the blimp. Deception, in other words,
can be like those Russian dolls. Or it can be a retelling of the Santa Claus
story in a novel way.
The final example is the
GT200, a device bought by the army to detect landmines hidden along roads in the
South of Thailand and set off by remote control as military vehicles passed over
them. Like the blimp, the idea was to use high-technology as a means to check
deception by terrorists by discovering ambush points where their lethal mines
had been set. Only it turned out the army was deceived by the sellers of the
GT200 who faced criminal charges in the UK for—I am certain you are ready for
this—deception and fraud. The GT200 had the circuitry sophistication of a Barbie
doll. There were also allegations about the high purchase price paid for the
GT200 devices, i.e., around Baht 1,000,000 per device. What had been
bought to detect terrorists didn’t work and questions about sourcing, testing
and evaluating the device according to transparent standards disappeared from
sight and into the general fog that people understand to mean if they know what
is good for them they don’t ask such questions.
We are left without Santa
Claus’s heritage, which, like GT200, and the Blimp and the Watchtower, are from
an earlier belief system. When the government is our parent we enter the zone
where Santa Claus, like Schrödinger’s cat is neither dead nor alive. We must
first open the box and look inside. This was what George Orwell sought to show
as the duty of a writer. Now, however, the duty is not so much to expose
official deceit as to entertain and flatter. Because we know that if look really
hard and reveal an inconvenient truth that we will likely be in big trouble. No
presents for troublemakers. No one wishes to risk being the only one that Santa
didn’t bring a Christmas present to this year. The only one who made Santa angry
and lose face. So our generation goes along with watchtowers, blimps and GT200s
believing they actually exist and work for us.
The message from childhood
remains the same—you will be judged by a powerful person who runs a sweatshop
racket, someone with supernatural power and he expects a bribe. Those who we
assume are most responsible for looking after us are the ones who are the mostly
likely to deceive us in the end. That makes for a noir Christmas. But it also
brings us to a New Year where just maybe we will find George Orwell’s courage to
use truth to combat lies from the official and corporate world.
The murky world of
criminal has its fair share of morons. In the noir world, criminals are
aggressive, sinister, violent and unstable. In the real world there is are all
kinds of people who aren’t good at their chosen occupation. Some people don’t
have what it takes to be a criminal.
While 2012 has yet to end,
people are drawing up list of the most stupid criminals.
Here are some
The little known defense
of claiming to be a Werewolf doesn’t work in most jurisdictions.
No one bothered to inform
Thomas Stroup of the limitations of such a defense. Ohio police arrested Thomas
and charged him for underage drinking. The evidence was reasonably clear. Thomas
was passed out in a trailer encircled by swords. Other residents in the
trailer park had complained that Thomas started fights and was otherwise a nasty
character. When confronted by the police, Stroup said he was sober though
admitted his behavior was strange though beyond his control as he’d been
scratched by a wolf in Germany. And this wolf like spirit had motivated him to
kill the officer’s cousin named Keith. Only the officer had no cousin named
Christopher Jansen was on
trial in March in Pontiac, Michigan for drug possession. Young Christopher
claimed that he had been searched without a warrant. The DA countered that the
arresting officer acted properly without a search warrant as he had probable
cause. He saw a “bulge” in Christopher’s jacket and thought it might have been a
gun. Christopher objected to that conclusion. It turned out he was wearing
the same jacket that day in court. He removed the jacket and handed to the judge
for inspection. The judge removed a packet of cocaine from the jacket pocket.
The judge laughed so hard he needed a five-minute recess to get a grip on his
giggles before the trial could resume.
3. Closer to home there
are endless examples of foreign tourists who leave their thinking mind at home
arrive in Thailand and discover. . . .Like everywhere else there are
If you take a couple of
tourists and decide to get drunk, but at some stage they want to have
some fun or transportation to the hotel—why, after all it is holiday, do both.
So they steal a motorbike owned a taxi driver who worked at a taxi queue in
South Pattaya. It seems that Mr. Govind Lal aged 43 and Mr. Varun Kumar Guel
aged 28, could pass that motorcycle without noticing the key had been left in
the ignition. There is no explanation of what distracted the other motorcycle
taxi driver in the queue. The motorcycle owner, Moragort aged 32 admitted his
bladder was killing him as he rushed away leaving the key into the ignition to
use the toilet. After he returns, his bike is gone.
But with the bamboo
telegraph in hyper mode, the missing bike and the two Indians are spotted on
Second Road in Pattaya. Friends of Khun Moragort forced the bike to spot and
took the two Indians to Pattaya Police Station. The suspects defense was one the
local cops had likely many times was they only intended to borrow the
motorcycle, have some fun and besides they were far too drunk to have the
criminal intent to commit a theft. Khun Moragort, the crime victim, must have
been quite upset to hear the Indians prattling a defense reserved only for Thais
caught in these circumstances. That is the only explanation for his refusal to
accept a financial compensation package by the two suspects. No way these guys
were going to pay their way out of justice. The two Indians were remanded for
4. Tourists not only get
drunk and commit stupid crimes, when they stay longer than their bankroll, the
real fun begins on formulating really stupid plans to replenish their
wallets. And what better place to get money than a bank? Why not rip an ATM
machine out of the wall, cut it open like a mad, beast and drain out the
money? You have now entered the chain of reasoning that makes desperate men into
morons. In June, 2012, in Chon Buri, Alexander Milbourn, 25, and Shaun Edward
Tracy, 34, had a brilliant plan to attack an ATM at the Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem
Chabang branch. The local police said the two hit the ATM late night of June
The two Britons groused
out a third man, they called Richard (a popular name among British Expats in
Pattaya). Richard was on the lamb. One wonders which one of these guys was the
ringleader. They’ve got a map. Or maybe not. They just think on impulse hit the
ATMs in Si Racha district, at Bangkok Bank’s Bo Win, Bank of Ayudhya’s Laem
Chabang branch and Bank of Ayudhya’s Bo Win branch. There is a slight preference
for Bank of Ayudhya ATMs thought the sample is small so it might be just random
noise and no pattern is discernable for the name of the bank.
This is where it is gets
interesting. If you are going to steal something built into a wall to prevent
theft you have to respect that whoever installed the ATM machine would have made
it difficult to easily pry lose. Or so you would think. But you’re not out of
money and desperate in Pattaya like these three Britons. Their plan was to tie a
tow sling around the ATM and attach the other end of the sling to their car’s
bumper. Both ends secure, ATM to car bumper, driver gets in and pushes the
accelerator to the floor. It didn’t work. In all three attempts, the tow sling
failed to pry the ATM lose. One might think after the first failure, the gang
might have a rethink of technique. But, no, they tried-second time. By the third
time they must have been resigned to touring ATM machines by the thousands in
Pattaya in hopes there was at least one that would prove they were right and the
first three machines were just flukes of bad luck. What would a reasonable thief
do? Change cars. It must be the car’s fault.
It also might occur to
most people (especially Britons) that banks have significantly more CCTV cameras
than tellers and other staff. They are watching you. Not these boys. It took
them three failed attempts to get the attention of the police who gradually
became aware that someone was attempting to steal ATM machines. The point is the
tourists got caught and were probably just as surprised at being arrested as
they were when the second and third ATM machines to be ripped out of the
The police have taken into
custody, the tow sling, the two car(s) used in the attempted thefts and were
still looking for Richard. Personally, I think the Indians handled it much
better—with their imaginary friend Richard, they could have claimed they were
very drunk and had mistaken the ATM machines for paragliding docking stations
and had no idea they had anything to do with banking. It might not have worked
any better for the Britons than it had for the Indians. Yet the Thai justice
system has a lot of tolerance for drunks. It has very little for sober tourists
tying tow slips to their ATM machines.
When you are on holiday,
don’t commit a crime. If you decide to break that rule, think about how dumb
your plan is, borrow the money from mum or dad or a friend, and go back home.
Because none of your friends are going to tie a tow sling to her cell bars and
clear a path for your freedom.
On Friday 30th
November we launched Phnom Penh Noir at the FCCC in Phnom Penh before a
crowd of about 200 people. I acted as emcee for the evening.
KROM, Sophea singing the song Ying
(Photo credit: KROM)
Audience around KROM performance
(Photo credit: KROM)
Christopher Minko, KROM (Photo
We started off with two
songs by KROM from their Songs from the Noir album: My Way and the
Ying. Christopher Minko who wrote the lyrics is the man behind KROM and his
lyrics are part of Phnom Penh Noir. Christopher Minko has been
involved in a number of charities supporting Cambodians with disabilities. He
has fought more than his share of noir type battles to see that disabled
volleyball and basketball players were able to compete successfully in
Following the KROM
performance, Kosal Khiev took the stage. If you want a genuinely noir story,
Kosal delivers it in spades. As a toddler he and his family left a Thai refugee
camp for America. For a lot of reasons, the land of promise and dreams didn’t
work out for him. From age 16, he spent the next 16 years of his life in an
American prison. When he was released, the Americans deported him to Cambodia, a
place he had no real connection. He was an American in culture but a foreigner
by birth. No passport—he was in prison and never had chance to get one—meant he
could be deported. He lived in the street for a few months until he got his
first gig in Phnom Penh. He’d studied writing and poetry in prison and had
turned this training into the kind of performance art that stays with you,
haunting your dreams.
Kosal and his mother had
some large issues. She felt he’d wasted his time on music and poetry, and was
after him to get a ‘real’ job like other men his age, other members of the
tight-knit Khmer community in the States. Mothers talk and brag about their
kinds. Especially when their sons receive a regular paycheck. They all had sons
who worked in a shop, a plumber, electrician, etc but rap/poet performers? She
could not grasp the concept. Her son was homeless in Phnom Penh. In fact he
represented Cambodia at the Cultural Olympaid in 2012 in London, had appeared on
TEDx, the BBC, and won a major prize in Germany—those were abstract things. They
weren’t a paycheck. That night before 200 people, Kosal’s mother sat in chair as
her son sang one of those power storms of loss and regret. She cried. Members of
the audience cried. After he finished they embraced. It was as if for the first
time she had accepted her son for what he was and what he wanted to do in life.
She understood his power and that he had the truth he could tell. She was
finally proud of her son. It was one of the most moving moments I can recall. I
hate crying in public. Men shouldn’t do that. But I did.
Suong Mak and Christopher G. Moore
(Photo credit: Suong Mak)
Next I introduced Roland
Joffé, director of the iconic film The Killing Fields. His story Hearts
and Minds is the lead story in Phnom Penh Noir. It was his first short
story, and everyone who has read it has been touched by it. Roland had been also
very moved by the reconciliation of Kosal and his mother. He spoke of how he met
Haing Ngor, the Cambodian doctor, who played a pivotal role of the Khmer
journalist Dith Pran in the movie. Haing Ngor, who could speak English,
was on the set fixing this, helping out with the Khmers on the set, everywhere
at the same time. Roland had asked him about being in the movie. Haing Ngor said
he wouldn’t. They talked again, about the Khmer Rouge, the killings, the desire
to make a film that would portray those who had suffered during this time. Haing
Ngor finally agreed after understanding that he would be able to take that
message to the world. Not for himself (he wasn’t a selfish man) but on behalf of
his countrymen who had lived and died during the Pol Pot years. It was another
highly emotional moment as Roland Joffé hoped that wherever Haing Ngor was, he
wasn’t forgotten, as we all honoured his memory and his contribution to The
Roland also said that he
looked forward to telling more stories but more importantly to see Cambodian
telling their own stories. He told The Cambodia
Daily a day before
“The next crop of
Cambodian stories are not necessarily [mine], or any other Westerners, to
The last speaker of the
night was John Burdett, whose story Love and Death at Angkor appears in
Phnom Penh Noir. John articulated the concept of noir, placing it in
the historical context of French film, as well as classical literature like
Shakespeare’s. He was the right person to that as he’s a fluent French speaker
and studied literature in university. He captured the essence of what noir means
and articulated context of where Phnom Penh Noir fit into this noir
tradition. Vulture Peak is John’s latest novel. If you want to give a
great holiday present to someone in your family or friend, I can’t think of a
better crime novel.
Christopher G. Moore, John Burdett,
Bob Bergin and Suong Mak, rising Cambodian literary star (behind John
It was a noir evening with
many a non-noir twist and turns down the emotional road that Cambodia delivers.
Also attending that evening were other authors who contributed to Phnom Penh
Noir: Bob Bergin, Neil Wilford, Suong Mak, and Jack Narciso. Bob came in
from America for the event, and Jack from Italy. We missed James Grady, Praba
Yoon, Bopha Phorn, and Richard Rubenstein. They were missed. A video of the
evening is being edited and will soon be on YouTube.
Christopher G. Moore, Peter Gray
and Roland Joffé
On Saturday, Roland Joffé
was the featured speaker at the Rotary Club of Cambodia and I had the privilege
to introduce him before a luncheon crowd. The event was fund raising for
Cambodian with disabilities. Peter Gray and Lity Yap brought together a good
group to hear Roland speak about how Christopher Minko was one of his heroes
(mine too) for his efforts to help those no one else was helping.
Yap (second from left) and Christopher Minko and Lity’s friends
On Sunday we had two
workshops at Meta House where Bob Bergin, Jack Narciso, Neil Wilford,
Christopher Minko and Suong Mak, and myself talked about writing and our stories
in Phnom Penh Noir.
House workshop afternoon session
House workshop evening session
Noir weekend in Phnom Penh
touched a lot of lives. Christopher Minko was the steady hand on the scene who
worked tirelessly for months to ensure these events would come about. Arranging
sponsors and partners like Johnny Walker and Heineken beer. Also David
Armstrong, Alan Parkhouse, and Poppy McPherson at the Phnom Penh Post who let
their readership know about the authors and the events.
evening 30th November 2012 there is a book launch at the Foreign
Correspondents Club of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. I will be the emcee and below are
some of the comments I will make at the launch and want to share with
Phnom Penh Noir
is the anthology of fiction. For the first time a group of foreign and Cambodian
authors have joined together to write stories set in Cambodia creating a bridge
for the local and an international audience to travel over. An anthology such as
this one is designed build a cultural bridge between communities.
Ten authors and artists
who co-operated in this unusual project have come from around the world as well
as from Cambodia to celebrate their participation in the making of Phnom
I predict that in the
future, we will look back at tonight as the beginning of new
opportunities for Cambodian writers to reach an international
Previous to Phnom Penh
Noir, no one had tried to publish a collection of different voices, local
and foreign. I took that as a challenge. Let’s follow the lives of Cambodians in
the aftermath of The Killing Fields. While those events remain a powerful
backdrop, what makes this collection of short fiction so compelling is to
examine the contemporary lives and obstacles of people living and working in
The ghosts of Khmer Rouge
period continue to haunt those living in the present—they say: “remember us and
what happened here, what it meant and what it continues to mean.”
Phnom Penh Noir
is a collection of stories and lyrics written as a testament to the people who
survived the horror of those bleak days and to those born later, who have no
direct memory of the past.
The stories in Phnom
Penh Noir roam between these two communities, the old and the young, one
remembering, one forgetting. And the stories come as well from the expat
community living here.
The authors explore the
tension between generations and between locals and outsiders. As readers, you
become witnesses to these stories of the hearts and minds of people.
These Cambodia inspired
stories are reflections about what we are capable of doing and the nature of
forgetting and forgiveness. The authors in Phnom Penh Noir took up the
challenge to make the lives of people in Cambodia understandable to others. And
these stories make human conflict intelligible, accessible and memorable. How do
we go about reconciling another person’s suffering and pain from the past with
her pressure to find closure and move ahead?
That is a larger question
writers ask whenever they turn to fiction to address the existential issues that
underscore our stories and books.
President Obama spent
Sunday 18th November in Thailand, Monday 19th November
(six hours) in Burma and Monday/Tuesday 19th and 20th in
Cambodia. Along the way he bumped into the history of a region. Like a nine
headed naga history raised its heads and spit fire from the caves of local
politics, culture, and prejudices. You wouldn’t have seen the fire-eating
dragons of history captured in the photographs taken along Obama’s three-day
President Obama and Prime Minister
Instead what you and the
rest of the world saw were the photos of the American President kissing Aung San
Suu Kyi, flirting with Prime Minister Yingluck, clasping hands with Hun Sen
remain the enduring images of his trip. History doesn’t photograph as well and
is easily nudged into the ditch. Obama’s Southeast Asia trip was textbook
present day symbolic image making. Not an angry dragon floated above the heads
of the leaders and Obama.
President Obama and Aung San Suu Kyi
We can’t undo the past, we can only reconcile with the aftermath, the damage,
the loss, the suffering. Any member of the political class will acknowledge the
difficulty of brokering reconciliation. No one is happy to deal with past
conflicts, struggles and the long trail of victims history produces.
To admit wrongdoing done by one’s ancestors is to travel down a path that
post politicians wish to avoid. It is easy to blame those not in power or
foreigners for the misfortune. Victims gather at the time of major events such
as a presidential visit to the area. They demand to be heard. They raise their
voices, demanding admissions of guilt, compensation and punishment. Korean
comfort women used as sexual slaves in WWII want compensation from the Japanese.
Victims of the Cambodian Killing Fields want the Khmer Rouge leaders punished
for genocide. The Chinese remind their citizens of the rape and massacre of
Chinese civilians in Nanking by the Japanese during WWII. The Thais and Khmer
armies exchange gunfire over the border surrounding a historical temple.
President Obama and Prime Minister Hun Sen
The Burmese have a library of historical conflict with ethnic minorities. To
be fair, the President did mention the need to provide security to the Rohingya
who’ve lived for generation in the western part of the country. That is as close
to history as President Obama came, and the Rohingya pogrom is contemporary,
ongoing and not really history.
Historical narratives are like a flag blowing this way or that way depending
on the prevailing political winds. When it suits a government to advance a
present interest, then the historical wrongs are revisited to justify present
day claims and demands. It is an old trick and like a professional sleight of
hand, the pulling of the historical rabbit out of the hat unifies the crowd.
Makes them marvel at the magic.
President Obama wasn’t going to be drawn into the magicians circle and become
part of their act. No doubt he understood that the magicians in Southeast Asia
wished him to be their apprentice; to applaud their performance. It was better
to hug, kiss and hold hands. That was the way to win hearts. That is the new
show business, reality show model. History is for nerds, troublemakers,
demagogues, eggheads, and ideologues. Besides Americans have their own
naga headed creatures from the invasion of North America and the genocide of the
native population to slavery, civil war, and segregation. It is hard to
criticize another countries history when your own ghosts still roam the
There are some explanations why presidents and other leaders visiting another
country avoid getting caught up in the local history. It means taking sides.
When someone takes sides, it means he or she has made an enemy of those on the
other side of the historical divide. President Obama didn’t come to make
enemies, he came to meet allies, make friends, and cement American interest in
the region. Historical accounting would have scuttled those goals. History is
something leaders don’t talk about with each other. History is a taboo unless of
course there is a compelling national interest.
The past is a difficult time and space problem for any democracy to resolve.
There is often strong disagreement over what happened, and with both sides
claiming their evidence of evidence should prevail, neither side can be
reconciled to a conclusion that favours their rival.
Elections don’t resolve this standoff either, and that is the dirty secret
democracy keeps to itself. The ruling elites, to the extent history runs against
their interest, ignores it, waits for the victims to die off or become
marginalized. Democracies are no different than other forms of government in the
suppression of inconvenient truths from the past. School books, TV and radio,
newspapers have traditionally baked the history cake that is sweet and tasteful.
No culture wants to recount their unvarnished past. Democracies are in the
forgetting business like every other system.
History is like dark matter and energy, which comprise the overwhelming
amount of the universe. History, malleable, removed from living memory, subject
to manipulation is a geo-political minefield. When President Obama visited
Thailand, Burma and Cambodia he is walked through that minefield as well as
mingling with the ghosts of the past. People forget the details of what happened
long along. When I covered the UN War Crime Tribunal in Cambodia last November,
what became clear was how little most of the young generation knew about the
Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Killing
Fields Justice: a Witness to History.
As those who lived through that time grow old and die, the day will arrive
when no one alive remembers what happened. That’s the day history truly enters a
new phase. The evidence of what happened in the past exists outside the
experience of anyone alive. The loss fades, becomes abstract, and the past
because that alien foreign land where the dead are left as the only citizens.
Politicians struggle to keep coalitions together in the present. Obama was
looking to the future, a legacy by coming to Southeast Asia, and that goal is
rarely found in the graveyard of the past.
The last reason that history is left along the road to solving contemporary
issues of the day such as trade relations is politicians are caught up in the
present with an eye on the future. They don’t see a percentage in glancing back
over their shoulder over events caused by others in the distant past. History is
long, diverse and complex spanning generations and centuries. A president, like
the rest of us, lives inside the confines of a 24-hour day. There is only so
much information that can be processed during a day, a week, a month or a term
We are overwhelmed by information. In Nate Silver’s The
Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail-but Some Don’t the author notes the human brain is capable of processing
only 1/1,000,000 of the daily information of 2.5 quintillion bytes. We
fall behind every day. There is no way we have discovered to keep up with this
onslaught of new information.
A lot of that daily information may be ‘noise’—it isn’t useful—but finding
the signal in that maze of noise is still bound by 24-hours that makes a day.
With so much new information to process, separate into signals, evaluate, test
and form and shape into ideas about policy it is no wonder that history—all of
that ‘old’ information—remains in the back of the drawer.
Asia, like every other region, has many ghosts walking the land. The
explosion of information threatens the past, which is slowly being lost in the
‘noise’ of daily information. Who can keep up with the present information,
might be able to factor in the past information. But we aren’t at that point. We
may never reach that point either. Our daily information journey puts us further
behind each day. We can take a historical journey through The Killing Fields,
the South of Thailand, or Burma’s long oppressed ethnic groups, but the longer
we spend in those past wrongs; the further behind we fall in the current daily
The long history of discontent, simmering resentments from the past, and
unresolved borders lay buried behind the sweet smiles, flashing eye contact and
handshakes. It also lies buried behind the information treadmill, which keeps
increasing speed and as fast as we run we find that we only fall further and
further behind with no hope of ever catching up.
History teaches a valuable lesson about data: the rapid growth of information
radicalizes, ghettoizes, and localizes communities with strong beliefs. They
have their own TV stations, websites and blogs where such communities exist
inside a bubble believing in their alternative reality built from cherry picked
data. No wonder information contained in ‘history’ has become another data point
used by one side to support the superiority of their set of claims.
The unresolved and rival historical claims existing between various Southeast
Asian countries may be exceeded by the internal conflicts over historical
injustices inside each country. As President Obama danced in and out of the
region, he seemed to be saying between hugs and kisses and handshakes, “Move
along people, stay close to me, there is blue sky ahead and we’ll walk toward
the sunlit horizon arm and arm together.”
Remember the kiss of today. Forget the graveyards of yesterday. The ghost
whisperers make certain that state of affairs never holds for long.
The Oxford Dictionary has
included a new word in their 2012 edition—omnishambles, which is defined as “a
situation that has been comprehensively mismanaged, characterized by a string of
blunders and miscalculations.” The tradition in Thailand is to shortened long
words. There is a good chance that omnishambles will enter the Thai vocabulary
as something like ‘om’. The shortened word has the kind of sound that sounds
like a chant, the kind that takes you into a meditative state.
Last week provided a good
example of ‘om’ in overdrive as the Thai authorities sought to limit the damage
of a bailed alleged rapist of a young Dutch tourist.
The cover up or denial of
unpleasant facts by local officials was immortalized in Thomas Mann’s Death
in Venice. In that case it was the mysterious outbreak of disease that
officials feared if known would harm tourism. In an economy dependent on tourism
when there is a crime against a tourist or an outbreak of a communicable
disease, the question is how do the police, courts, prosecutors and other
government officials respond?
Do the local officials
cover up? That is the Death in Venice solution.
Do they blame the tourist?
That was recently the Thai solution to an alleged rape committed by a Thai tour
guide against a 19-year-old Dutch woman in July 2012. The facts at hand
(remember facts reported in the local press are often only distantly related to
what actually happened) indicate as follows. The young woman had been on holiday
in on the Island of Krabi. She was on holiday with her boyfriend. On the evening
of her birthday, she went to dinner with her boyfriend and a tour guide. The
boyfriend left earlier leaving his girlfriend in the company of the tour guide.
The way back to the hotel, the tour guide allegedly raped the young Dutch woman.
I use ‘allegedly’ because the tour guide hasn’t been tried and convicted of the
crime and until that happens no matter how damning the evidence (and in this
case from the press reports, it seems the evidence is strong) we must remember
he’s innocent until proven guilty.
That said, the evidence
(doctor’s medical report, victim’s statement, suspect’s confession, photograph
of the victim’s bruised face) suggest a strong case against the suspect, who ran
away after the incident. He either went into hiding or managed otherwise to
avoid the police for a couple of months. The police finally caught him (or he
voluntarily turned himself in according to some news reports). When a court
released the suspect on bail, the victim’s father made and released this video
on YouTube, which has gone viral with over 400,000 views. His anguish and
despair over what happened to his daughter and the release of the suspect on
bail pulls at the heart.
From politicians to the
police the response has been devoid of anything approaching compassion for the
victim or expressions of sorrow and regret over what had happened. Krabi police
uploaded two YouTube videos but the second video was removed. According to the
the police video “The Truth from Krabi” that was removed had around 50,000
views, 24 likes and 355 dislikes. It wasn’t a hit and became another example of
the ‘om’ factor.
But the YouTube video by
the victim’s father above remains online with a approval rating that is the
opposite of the Krabi police videos. Meanwhile, the media heard a number of
officials resort to the kind of rationalizations, justifications, and frankly
ugly statements such as because the rape victim had gone to dinner with the
suspected rapist that she got what she deserved. Omnishambles is the correct
description of the various statements and counter videos made by the police. If
you read the comments following the Evil Man From Krabi YouTube video,
an overwhelming number of Thais come out in support of the victim and who are
shocked and disgusted by the official reaction to the rape suspect being
released on bail.
The suspect is someone who
avoided the police for a couple of months. When the police finally caught up
with him, he confessed to the charges, retracted the confession and was bailed.
The fact he made himself unavailable for a couple of months suggest that he’s
not a good candidate for bail.
The case against granting
bail was a good one. The suspect already had shown through his previous conduct
that he might flee to avoid being prosecuted for his crime. Also, the suspect is
a tour guide who has committed an act of violence against people who hire him.
He’s free to return to his work for tourists who likely would not know he’s
facing rape charges. His being out as usual puts other tourists at risk. Would
you allow your teenage daughter to use this tour guide knowing he’s a rape
suspect? This is strange way to encourage tourism.
In sum: the suspect
confessed to the crime, which had been well documented by the doctor who
examined the victim. The suspect did a runner. He physically beat up the victim.
He raped her and left her on the road. The attending doctor said it looked like
she’d been in a motorcycle accident. Despite these facts, the suspect who
confessed to aggravated rape was released on bail. He’s back on the street or
beach in Krabi and presumably free to continue his line of work.
We learn a lot about a
culture by examining the degree of transparency and openness in the process in
which they seek to gather evidence, evaluate the evidence, based their decisions
on the evidence. We learn a great deal about notions of justice and the equality
of treatment without consideration of ethnicity, nationality, or social status.
The Krabi rape case is a classic text, like Death in Venice, which
shows the operation of law enforcement and the administration of justice up
close and personal.
Here’s the first Krabi
police video posted in response to the Evil Man from Krabi also on
Unless you are fluent in
Thai, you won’t follow what the policeman on this video says about the incident.
It is just as well that you don’t understand what he’s saying. The explanation
is rambling, defensive and not terribly coherent. This isn’t a parody; it is
full blown inside glimpse of the sub-culture and attitudes of law enforcement
officials. There are no subtitles for the video. It doesn’t seem to be have been
produced for an international audience.
Notice the inflection in
the voice when he uses the word ‘farang’ and then substitute ‘jew’,
‘Latino’, ‘gay’ or ‘black’ and you don’t need to understand the language to
understand the underlining attitude. The tourist is the ‘farang’ the
other, not one of us.
The ‘official’ response to
the criminal case by those in authority (as opposed to thousands of Thai
citizens) exposes a number of important attitudes. First, sensitivity to the
suffering of someone who is the victim of a crime of violence is not
acknowledged. There is no sense of the huge physical and psychological damage
suffered by the victim. Instead, there is a jackboot mentality—we are the boss
and we do no wrong. The authoritarian mindset is tailored made for enhancing the
omnishambles. The police don’t come across as serving justice or helping the
victims of crimes of violence. They are simply scary men who can do whatever
they want, and whatever they say is the law.
Second, the only way to
get attention of people who run their own little nasty local empires of impunity
is to expose them; put them in the spotlight, and let the world judge for
themselves whether going on a holiday to a place with police officials with
these attitudes and priorities is worth the risk. If something goes wrong and
you’re a tourist on holiday, then it is likely your fault. You will be left
Third, police reform has
been the subject of many commissions and committees but nothing has ever been
done. It is always business as usual. Part of the reason ‘reform’ is so
difficult is illustrated in this case. It is not changing a procedure, training
in the latest detection techniques, or new uniforms. The aftermath of handling
the rape case shows the deep-rooted culture of impunity, a top down military
command culture, a culture with a warrior mentality and anyone who doubts,
criticizes or complains is attacked.
The Evil Man from
Krabi is such an attack against a legal system that is perceived to have
committed an injustice. You can see and hear the full arsenal the authorities
bring to media. They alternate between justifying their handling of the case,
pointing the finger at others, attacking the victim, looking into blocking the
YouTube video, and concentrating on how to limit the damage to their face and
Resort locations like
Krabi have developed a local economy based on tourism. Millions of dollars are
spent to create an international image of Thai fun, hospitality, and service.
But the PR machine explodes once the monkey wrench from the dark side is thrown
into the works. The Thai authorities, based on statements and videos they’ve
released, suggest that tourists are a commodity, someone to be bought and sold,
to be marketed to, managed, relieved of money. No one in power was reported as
speaking of the violation suffered by this young woman, about her loss of
dignity, or about her right to respect as a human being.
The case also exposes the
knee jerk reaction of the police and other government officials that it is the
foreigner woman who is at fault because of the clothes that she wore or that she
had dinner or a drink with the rapist. In other words, foreign women get what
they deserve. This ‘evolved’ feudalistic worldview is one where the police, in
their mind, are always right. They close ranks. They have the power. You have
none. They issue rambling statements of justification. They aren’t used to
someone challenging their version of events. The fall back position is usually
along the lines of a ‘misunderstanding’ when it is clear that what they claim
are the facts are exposed as distortions and lies.
What the officials and
police fail to understand is with social media networks across the world, the
old true and tested tactics that work to shut up the locals no longer works.
They no longer control the information or the message. Millions of people can
watch, read, and listen and more importantly question, judge and criticize the
officials and police. They seem unable to understand the new world of
information which exposes cant, hypocrisy, lies, obfuscation, and excuses for
what they are. Omnishambles exposes them. They have no place to
The danger exposed in
Krabi isn’t the suspected rapist who is on bail, but the officials who are in
charge of security of the thousands of tourists who flock to the beaches of
Krabi and elsewhere in Thailand. If the message gets out that their safety and
welfare is not a priority that message has registered loud and clear in this
case. When reform finally comes—as it will—the agency behind the reform will be
the outward pressure from millions of Thais who take heart that attitudes of
those in power will ultimately change.
I saw the new James Bond
movie Skyfall this week. It was as though a Chuck Norris movie and
Silence of the Lambs had been remixed with Daniel Craig playing Chuck
Norris. Hector Hannibal morphed into villain Silva in Skyfall. Daniel
Craig, in the tradition of 72-year-old Chuck Norris, went bare chest and killed
more extras than appeared in the movie Gandhi. It was more like
computer game killing than the real thing. People who are in the drone business
must have the same detachment–this is another day, another job, attitude toward
After the movie, I tried
to remember how many people James Bond killed over the course of the 2 hours
movie time. There were too many expendable characters who died to keep track.
This must be something like working the immigration desk at the airport as one
747 after another lands and their weary passengers queue with their
Someone with a lot of time
on his hands has indeed gone through the Bond movies and added up the dead
bodies. In the 1967 Bond movie You Only live
final tally was 196 killed. Bond didn’t kill all of them. Apparently Bond’s
highest kill ratio was Goldeneye where he dispatched 47 bad guys. It
depends on how you count and who is doing the counting.
Here’s an 8 -minute
YouTube montage of several Bond films where the body count is 401
My feeling is that Daniel
Craig came close to that number in Skyfall. But I could be wrong.
Besides, the body count doesn’t really matter until you are a politician or a
general and need to explain why you need more money. When you are watching a
movie, you find yourself weaving from scene to scene with the character rather
than a cold, calculated computer keeping track of the bodies as they
What Skyfall and
other movies like this demonstrate is how violence is an essential part of the
entertainment industry. Movies are only part of the story of how violence is
disseminated. The nightly TV news, YouTube, newspapers, tabloids, blogs,
Internet feeds, Tweets—all are fused with body counts, details of acts of
violence, threats of violence in the future. Our cultural meal is heavy with
violence as the main course. It seems there can never be too much
Anyone who writes crime
fiction is hardly in the position to point a trigger finger at another person
who uses violence in the entertainment or news industry. Vincent Calvino, over
the course of 13 novels, has killed a fair number of people. I’ve contributed to
the overall cultural body count. As I recently wrote to my friend and fellow
blogger James Thompson, violence is a ritual. It probably always has been.
Slaughtering of animals and human beings to appease the gods made violence
sacred. Religion gave violence moral authority and purpose and made killers into
warrior heroes. Killing in the name of a higher cause is a way to recruit
killers and put them to work. Someone else’s higher cause for murder never comes
close to matching your higher cause for murdering. And so it goes.
Violence falls generally
into a several broad categories that may at times merge. First is the use
of violence as an act of revenge. Capital punishment is the State acting as the
agent of revenge. Often revenge is privatized in movies, books and TV.
Skyfall is the classic revenge movie where the villain uses violence
and mayhem to avenge the wrong done to him. He’d been betrayed, and what better
response to betrayal than to murder the person who turned disloyal?
The second category
includes killing competitors. In modern terms competitors are ‘enemies’,
‘terrorists’, ‘demons’ who, once they enter this class, can be killed with a
clear consciousness. In a state of war, whether against a country, or war
against drugs, the killing is to obtain a victory over bad people and bad
forces, and those who do the killing are given promotions and medals. At the
highest levels of the political class, a certain sociopath personality is useful
to use killing and violence to achieve policy goals. While they don’t often do
the killing themselves, they use psychopaths to do the dirty work.
A third category is
violence committed by psychopaths, that small but mentally deranged group of
individuals who kill not out of revenge or to eliminate a competitor but out of
the thrill or pleasure. An inordinate amount of media is given to such killers.
They are fundamentally different from the other killers. Psychopaths feel no
remorse, guilt, shame or empathy for their murders. Brutality and cruelty don’t
register except as part of the pleasure enhancement of killing.
This leaves us with the
question of where James Bond fits in the violence matrix. In Skyfall,
Daniel Craig’s killings fit all three categories. He’s a man for all seasons in
the killing game. To keep that high body count, it is useful to employ all the
categories and hope that the audience doesn’t notice that this is rarely the
reality of life. But whoever said that James Bond had anything to do with
reality? Indeed, having seen Skyfall is a reality check on violent
death, its causes, actors, and the reasons behind the body count.
What Skyfall does
bring home with the huge body count is that we know nothing about the people
Bond has killed. They have no back-story. They have no mother, father, brothers,
sisters, friends, neighborhood where they played as children. As they never come
to life, we feel nothing when Bond kills them. It seems the Bond franchise is in
perfect harmony of the modern technological age of remote killings of people who
we are never allowed to know. They are extras in life. They have no name or
identity. Body counts on the industrial scale require that detachment. We can’t
really allow ourselves to know and identify with the people our leaders, police
and military kill.
Skyfall is a
failed attempt to turn the James Bond Franchise into a Noir Film series. The
problem is James Bond Ian Fleming didn’t write Bond as a noir character. Though
Daniel Craig does a credible job of playing the noir lonely hero, but his
clothes are too well tailored. He looks more like the manager of a Boy’s band.
Also the noir atmosphere dissolves into Pulp fiction slapstick each time Silva,
the villain, turns up with a fresh platoon of goons who in the tradition of the
gangs around the Joker in Batman, die and die in inexhaustible numbers. Skyfall
never decided what kind of movie it wanted to be and the evidence of that
unresolved struggle leaves an unfinished decision. This wasn’t James Bond. Then
what was it?
I have a theory why the
movie didn’t work. The director and producer of Skyfall wanted to bring in both
the old James Bond audience and the newer, noir audience of Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo. There are no heroes who beat the system in noir. There are
bad guys, and that is a good place to ask the question: who really are these bad
guys and why must they die by the busload and in anonymity except for their
It started me thinking one
of the keys to labeling a book or film noir is knowing your bad guys and those
around them as well as your hero. That’s knowledge is worth having because then
the killing is put in a different context.
As in real life, in
fiction, we ask ourselves: Exactly, who are the bad guys?
Now, that is a difficult,
complex and dangerous question.