Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reason Vs. Ruin

It's very difficult to explain American cultural values to outsiders. Europeans and Asians find the debate over the role of government in health care rather odd. Since "socialized" medicine is demonstrably cheaper and better than for-profit health care, what is all the fuss about? President Obama gave a "make-or-break" (so the pundits said) speech to Congress Wednesday in which he presented a reasonable case for reform in the health care system, saying that "if we do nothing...our deficit will grow. More families will go bankrupt. More businesses will close. More Americans will lose their coverage when they are sick and need it most. And more will die as a result. We know these things to be true."

"You lie!" shouted one congressman when the president said that illegal immigrants would not be covered under a reform proposal already watered down to accommodate conservative lawmakers who abhor government involvement in the private sector (and why should health care be "privatized"?). I fear that the president's reasonable attempt to guarantee equal access for all to health care in America, an effort that has defeated many leaders in the past, will fail, drowned by a tsunami of lunatic claims -- "death panels," "federal funding of abortion," "Obama the Nazi," ad nauseam. It's impossible to predict the sewers into which the radical right will sink. And these crazies are now in control of the Republican Party. Their response to Obama's speech was given by a "pro-life" representative from Louisiana who has supported the "birther" movement which claims Obama was not born in the U.S. and therefore is ineligible to be president. In addition, he once tried to unsuccessfully purchase the title of British lord from a couple of con men. And of course Sarah Palin is waiting in the wings to carry their demented banner.

Speaking of the Americans who can't afford insurance or who lose their coverage because of obscure loopholes enforced by the insurance corporations to enhance their profit, Obama said, "We are the only advanced democracy on Earth – the only wealthy nation – that allows such hardships for millions of its people." If anything, the president was TOO reasonable. He should have attacked medical corporations for engineering the skyrocketing costs. Why is health care so expensive in America? What is needed is a preacher like Martin Luther King who could inflame passions over what can only be described as a scandal. Obama won't convert the lunatics, but he must forgo fruitless bipartisanship to rally his troops. The ideological divide in the U.S. is deepening and polite political discourse is increasingly ineffective.

President Obama referred to his predecessors who created Social Security and Medicare, programs that would never make it through Congress today. They knew, he said, that
the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don't merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.
Fine words. I wish that they would govern the health care debate. But I think that the hysterical lunatics of the right will drown them out.

Some of them went to high school with me. When we connected online, they sent me email filled with extremist conservative propaganda until I begged them to cease and desist. We were once good friends and I wasn't willing to write them off over political differences. My closest friend in high school was a dentist during the Vietnam war and has dropped hints that he worked for the CIA; we've agreed to disagree and avoid sensitive topics. I've found several old high school friends on Facebook. Betty, an heiress who drives a Rolls Royce and lives in Nevada, wrote on my Wall that she was a fan of Rush Limbaugh and wondered if I would talk to her. I've been in touch with Gary for a few years and we share an interest in jazz, having once played in a band together. But a week ago he responded to the title of this blog by writing to me in Facebook that there was already too much of my topics online. In another comment, he criticized my support of health care reform and said he wanted to keep government out of the doctor's office. When I asked if he enjoyed the benefits of Medicare, he replied, "None of your business," and disappeared. He defriended me on Facebook.

We all need friends, even ones who disagree with us, and his rejection hurt. Maybe virtual friendships are an illusion made possible by the smoke and mirrors of the internet. The longer I remain in Thailand, the more friends and even family members drift away, unable to feel the intimacy of in-person contact. Few people, it seems, are as able as I am to engage in the give and take of written conversation. Intimacy at a distance requires effort. A hundred years ago I would have written dozens of letters a day while lamenting that not many kept up their end of the correspondence. So as old friends fall away, my community here in Southeast Asia becomes all the more important: Jerry, George, Eric, Pandit, Holly, Marcus, Bill, Rubby and others. But the brightest light of my life now is Nan.

Last Friday I flew up to meet her in Chiang Rai, the northernmost province of Thailand which borders Laos and Burma in an area known as the "Golden Triangle."The statue at left is of the much venerated King Mengrai the Great who founded Chiang Rai in 1262 as part of the Lanna kingdom; it didn't become Siamese until 1786. Nan's village is in Phayao province to the southeast and she made the three-hour journey to meet me at the airport in a Ford truck driven by her mother, Yuan, along with her 15-year-old half brother, Nok, and Edward, 7, the son of her mother's sister, Ban Yen, who died of cancer several years ago. The grandmother who raised Nan has still not been told that she has a farang boyfriend for fear she will pester me with requests for money. Thais are used to foreigners bringing gifts; her aunt brought several boyfriends to the village who were generous and now it's expected. Besides paying many of the expenses of our two day visit, I made a contribution to the extended family's welfare. Differences of cultural values over money are contentious in Thai-farang relationships but not, I believe, insurmountable. Time will tell.

Chiang Rai is a smaller, mellower version of Chiang Mai, it's cousin to the west. We stayed at an almost empty guest house with a garden, feuding cats, and an AUA English school at the rear. One night there was a large festival in the streets several blocks away to celebrate something important, with entertainment on several stages (break dancing!) and hundreds of food booths featuring northern cuisine like Chiang Rai noodles and "knee chicken" (wings). On the afternoon of my arrival, I picked a restaurant out of Lonely Planet that proved to be exceptionally expensive, but it gave Edward his first taste of pizza (he'd seen it on TV but had never eaten it). There was a smattering of farang in the streets and shops (why are so many fat?) but I do not think the city is a major tourist destination. Most probably pass through on their way to Laos or Burma. In the evening we browsed through the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar which I enjoyed more than similar markets in Chiang Mai and at Suan Lum in Bangkok; less crowded, cleaner, and with a better quality of goods. We listened to some beautiful music made with shaken pipes that I'd never seen done before, Nan had her fortune told (things are looking up, as she recovers from the death of her father and a motorbike accident), and we watched the dancers at an outdoor pavillion and ate roasted fish.

Nan's relatives were able to stay the night with a cousin and her mother offered to drive us around to see the sights. I was very interested in visiting Wat Rong Khun 13k south of the city, the "White Wat" designed and built by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The all white temple, sparkling with tiny mirrors, features unique touches, such as the hands of demons from hell reaching up around the gateway and paintings inside that include Spiderman and planes crashing into the Twin Towers. Under construction for 12 years, when finished the temple complex will include nine structures, only two of which appear to be completed (the second is a brilliant gold). The next morning we drove to Mai Sai on the border of Burma. I could not go across the bridge linking the two countries without a re-entry permit, so we explored a vast market near the river which divides Burma from Thailand. Burmese traders, their faces marked with powder they consider beautiful, were selling a variety of goods, including roasted chestnuts. I bought Nok a cowboy hat, Edward a box of dinosaur transformers, Nan some sandals and her mother a set of sheets and two blankets from China which is not all that far away. There were many beggars and lots of street vendors who insisted that I was interested in their fake Viagra. Yesterday, in class, I learned that my students from Shan State in the Union of Myanmar, which is right across the border from Mai Sai, are not allowed to cross there and must return home via Rangoon (which the generals renamed Yagoon). But I could not understand why. Those people I saw in Mai Sai who appeared to be Burmese (and facial features seem to differ from typical Thais) seem to be quite poor and dispirited. Or was that just my imagination?

Our third destination was Doi Tung ("flag mountain"), a series of modest peaks where the King's late mother built her Royal Village, a summer palace that is now a museum. The all-wood home is constructed from pine and teak, much of it beautifully carved, and is designed to remind its occupant of Switzerland where she spent many years and the King was educated, as well as of the distinctive architecture of Lanna. Shorts were not permitted and I was asked to don a pair of wrap-around fisherman's pants which felt several sizes too large. We walked up a long hill magnificently gardened, and past the helicopter pad to the villa to join a short tour. The views of the countryside from the peak were impressive. Afterward, we toured the lush Mae Fah Luang Garden and Arboretum (the King's mother was called Mae Fah Luang, in Thai แม่ฟ้าหลวง, which means "Royal Mother from the Sky", or "The Heavenly Royal Mother," by the hill tribe people she tried to help). The Golden Triangle was once the center of opium production in Southeast Asia, and the King's mother, and now the foundation in her name, has attempted to find and develop alternative crops (some would say the area is best known now for the production of methamphetamine, or yaa bah). The gardens were full of whimsical touches like waterfalls, fountains and sculpture and the grounds were immaculately groomed. Edward only slipped and fell by one leg once into the water of a pond. I also had my daily fix of cappuccino made with Doi Tung brand coffee grown in the area at a refreshment stand outside the arboretum.

Nan's parting gift for Edward when the group left on Saturday evening was a new bicycle which she bought for him at the Big C shopping center on the edge of town. We spent Sunday and part of Monday exploring Chiang Rai, visit Wat Phra Kaew where the Emerald Buddha was once kept (it's now in a temple with the same name in Bangkok), Wat Phra Singh with its magnificent contemporary carved door panels (one demon has a penis), and Wat Jet Yot which has a wooden ceiling over the veranda featuring an unusual astrological fresco. We visited the Hill Tribe Museum and Study Center and ate lunch next door at Cabbages & Condoms, a weak imitation of its scandalous Bangkok sister. We also got foot massages to recover from all that walking, and saw more of the Night Bazaar. Before our plane left for Bangkok on Monday, we took a tuk tuk to a temple near the Mae Kok River built probably in the 14th century, and ended our trip at Hat Chiang Rai reclining in a hut on the river bank where swimmers were absent due to the fast flowing rainy season water. We watched divers fill a boat with rocks and were told that a full load would fetch 1000 baht. By the end of the weekend I felt I had a good sense of Chiang Rai's possibilities. I also liked very much the hilly scenery in this northern outpost of Thailand.

Now back at my small apartment in Lumpini Place, Nan and I are beginning our life together. I spent the first day back preparing for my class. I gave my students an oral examination by asking them to talk about why they became monks (the reasons included poverty and the desire for an education with only a few citing love of the Lord Buddha and the dhamma), and I played them "Love is Color-Blind" by TQ and Sarah Connor and talked to them about prejudice and the civil rights movement in America. Nan returned to her old office to help train her replacement and was asked to work there through December. We have decisions to make, where to find a bigger yet cheaper apartment, and where she should go to school, probably starting in May. The current term ends at my school in two weeks and I'll have nearly three weeks off before the next one begins. I hope we can take one or two weekend trips together as we cement our relationship and learn how to live together. She has cooked some wonderful meals for me this week, including a rice soup with pork for breakfast this morning. I am already so spoiled! Today is the sixth in a series of eight talks on "The Way of Wisdom" at Planet Yoga on Sukhumvit in Bangkok given by Pandit Bhikku for the Little Bang Sangha and guests. I hope to say more about this and the last lecture in my next posting. For now, I'm enthralled in domestic bliss.


Barb said...

I am sorry about the falling out with Gary. He is one of the right wing extremists. I usually receive his e-mails and delete. I am glad you didn't mention my name when you were talking about friends "disapointing" you. I would hope that we can agree to disagree even though we really don't have that much to disagree about.

I too listened to the Presidents speech and thought it very good. My only concern is, as an older person, I won't be able to get the care I am now getting. I like having Medicare with the exception that they don't pay for preventative care as I would like. But then again, my daughter has no insurance and is on Medi Cal as she is not working because she is taking care of her "wealthy" father and can not get paid for the home care she is doing because he has "too much" retirement from the State of CA. Yes reform in some fashion would be an improvement over what we have now in the "good ole USofA"

Anyway, I will always be here for you and would never want our 55 yrs of friendship to change.
By the way your pictures of your trip were amazing. Keep writing your Blog so I can continue to travel vicariously through Thailand.
\Love you, Barb

Anonymous said...


Lovely post Will. You've certainly whetted my appetite for Chiang Rai. Perhaps I'll make it up there one of these days. That White Temple looks amazing!

All the best,


Ed Ward said...

You know what's wrong with your blog? Not the religion. Not the sex. Not the politics.

Nope: the pictures are too small! I'd like to be able to *see* these places you write about.

Dr. Will said...

Thanks for your friendship, Barb. You'll enjoy the journey, Marcus. In my Firefox, Ed, if I click on a photo it comes up very big with all the detail and more. Try it