Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Obama for President

Before events spiral out of control here in Bangkok, I'd like to say a few words about Barack Obama. He's got my vote. That is, if I can figure out how to use it here. I joined the Bangkok for Barack Facebook group, and hopefully there is still time to register here (or use my not yet cancelled registration in Santa Cruz as an absentee voter).

The Democratic Convention in Denver, which I watched here on CNN, had me at Michelle Obama's heartfelt and homey speech on opening night. Ted Kennedy's farewell (probably) speech was deeply moving. I missed Hilliary the next night (the following morning here) but caught her husband's articulate itemization of the problems the Republicans have bequeathed the country, and Obama's eminent qualifications to address them. Joe Biden has always been a favorite of mine and I was happy to hear him sticking the knife in his old friend, John McCain. “These times require more than a good soldier," Biden told the convention. "They require a wise leader,”something not in the 72-year-old Republican nominee's resume, given his support of Bush policies.

Obama's speech was a dream, reminiscent of John Kennedy at his best and ML King's speech at the foot of the Washington Monument 45 years ago (which I watched on TV from my studio apartment on Berkeley's north side with my first ex-wife). Obama connected McCain to the “failed policies of Bush” and “the broken politics in Washington.” America, he said "we are better than these last eight years, we are a better country than this.” It’s not because John McCain doesn’t care, he told the crowd of 75,000 in the outdoor stadium while millions like me watched on TV around the world. “It’s because John McCain doesn’t get it.” Then he offered a laundry list of important liberal proposals, including tax cuts for the middle class and a pledge to wean the country from dependence on Middle East oil within 10 years. Campaign promises, yes, but good ones.

The convention finale, complete with fireworks and confetti, could not compete with the extravaganza in Beijing the previous week, but the familiar scene of candidates with their large families was inspiring nonetheless. Sure, there were platitudes and clich├ęs in abundance. Are Michelle and Barack really that wholesome? He studiously avoided race in his speech other than to reference King's historical remarks, and I would have liked him to acknowledge the importance of immigration in America and the problems faced by undocumented workers. Why can't the Democrats call a spade a spade and accuse Bush & Co of war crimes (certainly Constitutional issues have been raised) for starting and continuing an unjust war against Iraq? They should not only be impeached but jailed for their infamies. In order to attract middle-of-the-road voters (who are they, anyway), they constantly moderate necessarily extreme rhethoric. But these are extreme times and they call for the truth. Obama came close in his acceptance speech, but he still walked and talked too much like a politician to my liking, his passion too restrained. Perhaps McCain's expected barbs will rouse his ire and let us see what an Obama unchained might be.

And then came the Republican September Surprise (the invasion of Iran will probably come in October): An unknown right-wing, evangelical soccer mom from Alaska was named as McCain's running mate, news shocking enough to force post-convention coverage of Obama off front pages and news shows. What were those heirs to Karl Rove thinking? Sarah Palin has risen from mayor to governor of her state in the past two years under a reform agenda (she opposed the "bridge to nowhere"), and clearly McCain's handlers thought she might attract the disenchanted Hillary supporters while giving their nominee new credentials as a mover for change (a word that Obama has surely a lock on). Anyone who would switch from Democrat to Republican for gender reasons alone is an idiot (dare I saw "feminazi"). She and McCain had never even met face to face befoe he chose her. Did he know that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter is pregnant, and that Palin is currently under investigation in "Troopergate" for sacking the public safety commissioner who refused to fire the policeman that divorced her sister? Or did he only know that she was a young woman with a Downs syndrome child who is passionately pro-choice for religious reasons? Family values anyone? Oh, and she also is in favor of drilling for oil in the Alaskan wildlife refugee, a proposal that McCain once opposed. Hurricane Gustav has given the Republicans a little breathing room, cutting short opening night ceremonies (Bush canceled his speech, probably much to the relief of many).

As I write this, Prime Minister Samak is appearing on all TV stations to explain his declaration of a state of emergency in Bangkok a couple of hours ago. I'll have to wait for a translation to learn what he said. But it was clearly prompted by clashes between pro- and anti-government protesters in the streets early this morning that resulted in one death and dozens of injuries. The battles occured even after soldiers had joined police to keep order between the factions. So Samak probably had no choice but to call for reinforcements with the emergency decree. "I decide to put Bangkok under state of emergency for what happened this morning," Samak said at a press conference. "This is the most lenient measure we can do at the moment because people in other provinces did not get involved in the incident." He added that people could continue their lives as usual. What this means is anyone's guess. All schools have been closed, but I don't know if this includes universities as well. It certainly gives Samak a free hand to clear the large crowds around Government House who have occupied administration property and offices for nearly a week. And they have vowed to stay until Samak resigns, a more distant possibility now.

Yesterday, I went to the Mahachula Humanities faculty office at Wat Srisudaram to find the answers to a couple of important questions. First, what happened to the documents I need to extend my visa and work permit beyond next week when they expire? They had been drafted ten days earlier and only needed signatures. After four hours, one of them arrived, but with the wrong passport number (they had copied a document used by another teacher). So I have to wait until today or tomorrow, hoping that the political crisis does not disturb anything. Second, I asked when I would be paid for teaching in July. The paymaster is gone until Wednesday, I was told. Third, when are final exams and how do I conduct them? I learned that the term has been extended an extra week due to a fair that closed school two months ago. As for when and how I schedule exams, I received the all-purpose Thai answer: "Up to you." And finally, I asked how I can get credit for teaching last Thursday since the office was closed and I was unable to sign in as usual.

The Humanities office was closed because of a two-day seminar at the new Wang Noi campus for teachers of English from Mahachula branches throughout Thailand. I learned about it the day before and was told it was mandatory. It was suggested that I cancel my Thursday class which I resisted (the 16-week class had already been canceled three times for various reasons). However, I agreed to attend the first day of the annual seminar and I'm glad I did, even though all the speeches were in Thai. The main address was by The Most Venerable Professor Dr. Phra Dharmakosajarn, Rector of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), Ecclesiastical Governor of Region II, Chief Abbot of Wat Prayurawongsawat in Bangkok, and a member of the Secretariat to the Executive Committee for the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand. The Rector studied philosophy in Thailand and India, and his dissertation, written in English, compares the Existentialism of Sartre with early Buddhism. He illustrated his talk with PowerPoint slides that included pictures and quotes from Darwin and Machiavelli, as well as a drawing of a dinosaur, a big reptile with a tiny brain. Even without Thai I knew that he was warning about bigness (Mahachula is one of the largest Buddhist universities in the world, if not the biggest) and the need to adapt to changing conditions. In the afternoon the Vice Rector gave a two-hour speech about the uses of computers and the internet in education, with specific reference to new initiatives by Mahachula (I could figure out that much). After lunch, we broke up into small discussion groups and mine was headed by Dr. Suriya, the chairman of the English Language Department at our undergraduate campus. Dr. Supon on my left took notes in English which helped me to understand a bit of the conversation. As the token native English speaker, I was given the opportunity to say a few words and I talked about how I was given unlimited freedom to design my own course (I could tell that Dr. Supon felt there should be more rigorous guidelines and standards, and a uniform course description and syllabus for English classes). I explained the different strategies I use to get normally shy young monks to speak up in class, and I told them how happy I was to find a new career in the midst of retirement. My remarks were greeted with applause and I was invited to visit a couple of the other Mahachula campuses.

Mahachula's Wang Noi campus, on the outskirts of Ayutthaya an hour north of Bangkok, was built several years ago for a student population of 15,000. But only slowly have classes been moved from the current campus at Wat Mahathat and Wat Si. Many facilities are not yet complete, and about 1,000 first-year students attend classes Monday-Wednesday. I walked around the huge main building and saw many classrooms converted into dormitories with monks sleeping on mats and in tents. Those rooms used for study were electronically up to date and included air conditioning (my classroom is cooled only by fans and open windows). I found the architecture rather sterile and uninspiring and wondered if I will want to commute to teach there. More landscaping and halls full of chattering monks in orange robes might help warm it up. I'm not sure why the move is going so slow. I was told second-year students would move to Wang Noi next year, and third-year students the year after. The campus is rather remote, with a long walk to the nearest 7-11, and I doubt that students will be happy trading their busy neighborhoods in Bangkok where they live at different temples for the wide open rice fields of Wang Noi. The library at the new campus was new and well-stocked with English language texts, along with a selection of computers for monks to check their Hi5 sites. A year ago, the International Association of Buddhist Universities (IABU) was formed with its headquarters at Mahachula. In two weeks, Buddhists will gather at new new Wang Noi campus for the 1st IABU summit, its topic "Buddhism and Ethics." Before he left, I was introduced to the Rector and Dr. Suriya mentioned to him that my degree was in history. The Ven. Dharmakosajarn then told me about his plans to start a history department, beginning with Asian history and growing into a full-fledged faculty with courses in world history. I recalled that David Christian, whose "big history" text we used for a course in global history at UC Santa Cruz a few years ago, was a Buddhist and made a note to myself to get in touch with Terry Burke, his friend, who has become a leader in that new subdiscipline.

Dr. Suriya and my colleagues found it odd that I wanted to miss the second day of the seminar in order to go back and teach my students. We'd been bribed for our participation with the gifts of a 4 gig thumb drive and 1000 baht ($34). As it turned out, the next day's activities were abbreviated in order that teachers could return to their far-flung campuses in the provinces. I taught Asst Prof. Kovid's classes as well as my own, since he wanted to stay at Wang Noi. For their oral presentation, I had my students list the five things that made them most happy. Only a few mentioned money (more said it was seeing their mother). And after class I had plenty of time to take a boat on the river to Wat Yannowa for the second of Pandit Bhikku's series of talks on "Living Dhamma." I was a monitor, watching the fans and making sure there were enough chairs. Pandit's theme was morality, and he cited "The Wheelwright" story in the Suttas that points out the difference between two wheels that initially seem similar; one took six months to make while the second only two weeks. It's a "you can't tell a book by its cover" message. Morality is something internal, unseen. Perhaps the most important reason for moral uprightness "is that it makes you happy, and a happy mind is more easily concentrated," Pandit said.

His talk continued a conversation we'd had several weeks before about "merit making," the particular form Thai Buddhism seems to take with a religious practice more focused on accumulating merit through the giving of gifts to insure a good rebirth than achieving enlightenment. But I had misunderstood the value of merit (tam boon in Thai or dona in Pali), he told me. Its purpose is to bring the giver happiness which is the foundation of morality. It promotes generosity and compassion, and helps to make good deeds rather than evil ones habitual.
It is good and natural to celebrate anything good you have done. Naturally if you go telling people how great you are it will have the opposite effect to that desired, but otherwise do not get confused with the "selfish" argument. If it's good, do it. If you are doing it anyway, do it with the sense of offering, and not begrudging.
Pandit quoted from the Dhamapada: "A deed is good that one doesn't regret having done, that results in joy and delights."

A couple of hundred people from the English-speaking community crowded into the third-floor room at Wat Yannowa, many sitting cross-legged on mats. I talked with Paul who works at the British Embassy and who will miss next week's talk because of Prince Andrew's visit to Bangkok. Others told of their frustration in finding Buddhist teaching in English and their happiness to discover this gathering. The State of Emergency declared today prohibits meetings of more than five. I wonder if that will include educational and spiritual meetings like these talks. I hope not.

*This just in from Bangkok Pundit, my major source of information on the current political crisis here. Responding to travel advisories posted by South Korea, Singapore, Australia and the UK, he writes:
My advice is you are more likely to suffer an injury in a traffic accident - particularly on a motorcycle (not wearing a helmet, driving drunk, and driving in the Islands of course add to the risk) - than to suffer any injury from political violence in Bangkok.


Ed Ward said...

Will, you'll be using your last U.S. address as the address you vote from abroad. If you Google US expat voting, you'll get all the requisite sites, where you can download all the documents you need. Don't worry: you've still got plenty of time.

Ed Ward said...

And now, checking the various stuff on my desktop, you need to go to votefromabroad.org. That's where the downloadable documents and all are.