Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Waiting for The Princess

Dr. Holly and I got out of the taxi near the entrance to Bangkok's Chinatown on the first day of the Year of the Ox and joined crowds of people clad in red, the traditional color for the Chinese New Year. We walked down a street closed to traffic and joined hundreds of people gathered in the courtyard of Wat Trai Mit Witthayaram, site of the world's largest golden Buddha. In front of us was a giant temple structure that hadn't been there during our visit the year before. It's called the Phra Maha Mondop, and I realized that it was probably going to be dedicated on this auspicious day by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (because of newspaper reports that she would be present at the holiday festivities). The crowd, controlled by police and military who shouted menacingly at anyone pointing a camera, was hushed. In this country where royalty are semi-divine, they were waiting patiently for the Princess.

I had experienced this passive reverence before, when waiting for the King to drive past on his 80th birthday in 2007, and while waiting for Princess Sirindhorn to arrive for an academic conference at Mahidol University a couple of months ago. The movement of Thailand's royalty requires an army of security officers. When they travel on Bangkok's roads, all traffic is stopped by a highly coordinated police force who even close overhead pedestrian walkways (I saw police standing by last night to do just this on the walkway outside Tesco Lotus, but I never saw the familiar motorcade vehicles whizz past with flashing lights and motorcycle escort). In the Middle Ages in Europe the King's touch was considered to have miraculous healing powers. Here I think just seeing royalty is a form of making merit, and improves one's chances for a good rebirth.

Finally Princess Sirindhorn arrived on foot at Wat Trai Mit with a very large entourage, surrounded by dozens of still and video photographers (which makes the prohibition of photography by the general public a mystery). I could spot her clearly, but Holly had trouble seeing over the taller Thais in front of her. She wore a red shirt and a camera was hung around her neck (an avid photographer, an exhibit of her photos opened the new Bangkok Art & Cultural Centre last year). First she went into the old bot where the golden Buddha had been housed, and then entered the new facility. There was much scurrying and positioning by the entourage and news media. Later we would see more of her on the nightly royal news TV show broadcast on every channel. In addition to her camera she carries a notebook in which she is shown frequently writing. I saw this at Mahidol when she took notes during Alan Wallace's keynote address. Holly thought she did not look happy, her expression more intense than pleased. It must be hard being royal; It's a 24/7 job. Later I learned that the new facility would also house the Yaowarat Chinatown Heritage Centre, a museum for the Thai Chinese community.

When it did not look as if she would reappear from inside the Phra Maha Mondop any time soon, Holly and I walked around the block to the large Chinese Gate which marks the entrance to Yaowarat Road, the main sreet in Chinatown. It was set up for a reception, with chairs, TV cameras and colorful bunting. Clearly the Princess would come there before setting off down Yaowarat for the New Year celebration. Troops of police and/or military had sectioned off the crowd for control but the happy people didn't seem to mind. I saw a sprinkling of farang, like me some were in red, and everyone was taking photos of everyone else (except the Princess who was a forbidden subject). Holly bought a fresh bottle of orange juice and discovered that the child vendor had charged her double what the Thais paid. We bought dragons on a stick with batteries that allowed the eyes to light up; red pipe cleaners in the nose symbolized fire. The sticks were topped with tiny drums that made noise when the sticks were twisted. They were expensive: 200 baht for mine because the dragon was padded, and 150 baht for Holly's (cheapskate). The cops were allowing people to cross the street and so we moved out of an area where we thought we'd be stuck when the Princess arrived for the reception.

The Princess was taking her sweet time as the sun set over Chinatown. Our side of the street was getting more and more packed. There were many families with children, the kids dressed in red Chinese outfits, and even elders in wheel chairs. Young girls were taking each other's photos with their cell phones, their mouths pursed in a pose Asians think cute, their fingers making a V sign. There were large TV screens showing a cartoon ox, and a stage at the entrance to Yaowarat where something was clearly going to take place. Holly and I had our hearts set on seeing the traditional dragon dance. But as the crowds began to press against us from all sides, we wondered if we could last, or survive. Finally the entourage of the Princess began its walk down the closed street while we cheered from the sidelines. And there she was again, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, looking just like her pictures (the few that appear in the press), or in the videos shown nightly on Thai TV. Holly thought she was frowning but I thought she looked intense. The ritual duties of royalty are never-ending and must be hard work.

And then she was gone, into a Chinese temple on the other side of the street which remained blocked by barriers and stern-looking military guardians. So we set off down Charoen Krung Road which runs parallel to Yaowarat. A few cars squeezed past, compressing the throng and slowing our steps. Some yards away we came upon the dragon dancers preparing to perform. It would be an hour, we were told, an hour of claustrophobic waiting, and we were neither as patient nor as passive as the Thai celebrants around us. We rounded the corner and walked back to Yaowarat below the section where the Princess was still at work. The street was lined with food and drink booths and we each bought a herbal liquor that promised health with an alcoholic punch. It was time for food, and as the street restaurants seemed too crowded, we repaired to the mezanine bar of the White Orchid Hotel and sipped cocktails while waiting for our overpriced dinner, and listened to a couple of Asian lounge singers desperately in search of the proper key.

Asians do not like to be alone, but I think Holly and I both found the large crowds too cozy for comfort. I breathed a sign of relief in the taxi which I eventually found on a back road, and my empty apartment was paradise. I showed my dragon to the lady who sells me the Bangkok Post every day and she asked: "Chinatown?" According to the Post, folks born in the Year of the Rabbit like me will solve money problems in the first quarter and can expect "significant financial success" in the second quarter. Whoopee! But even better, "There'll be adventure in romance. Singles can expect to meet a partner or renew an old flame." The year is starting off slow. Bee has decided to be my English student rather than a girlfriend, and the other women with whom I'd been in touch have apparently gone away for the holidays. If truth be told, I'm finally becoming adjusted to living alone in my cozy 10th floor Lumpini Place Hermitage.

Marcus, whom I reported yesterday as retiring from his blog, has once again had second thoughts. That's good news for those of us following his adventures in Asia under the guidance of the Dhamma. He's back, with an occasional post. Check him out (see right for link). Marcus joined other members of the Little Bang Sangha yesterday for a talk on contemporary Buddhism by David Warren Smith at Chulalongkorn University. Smith, in residence at Chula's Center for Ethics of Science and Technology, was a student of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and a founding teacher at Naropa in the 1970's. His talk laid the groundwork for a series of lectures this year and featured eight provocative premises: 1. Contemporary Buddhism began 40 years ago in America when "the swans came to the lake." 2. The three traditions of Buddhism came together as a secular philosophy rather than a religion. 3. Buddhism has been "the dominant intellectual influence in the west for the past 20 years." 4. The notion of reform is changing into holistic and transformational renewal. 5. Buddhism has had a secret influence, "known only by those who know." 6. Buddhism is is always disruptive, and aims to overcome scientific materialism. 7. Buddhism has influenced fields from poetry and the arts to psychology, health care and business management. 8. As the global economy shifts to Asia, "there are new opportunities to revision Asian spirituality."

Dr. Smith spoke without notes and I was impressed, until he got carried away with point 6 above and wandered off on a couple of tangents. Point 7 seemed only a consequence of 3 which was too broad, I think, to be proved. Still, I liked his audacity. My question afterwards concerned which Buddhism he was discussing. Like "Christianity," there is no monolithic "Buddhism," but rather there are the three main traditions -- Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana -- and numerous, often widely-divergent, variations molded by local culture. While a follower of the Tibetan path, it was clear Smith was speaking of the generic American Buddhism I had learned. Thai Buddhism in practice is quite different; it is hierarchical and full of Hindu and animist traces. The reform tradition I appreciate here was taught by Buddhadasa Bhikku, but it is followed only by elites and academics. It is an intellectual Buddhism. The speaker's agenda, I suspect, was to propose that an integrated, generic Buddhism from American had something to offer Asian Buddhists. But he did not make that strong claim yesterday.

Among the small group of attendees at the seminar was John Butt, a retired Presbyterian minister who has lived in Thailand for many years, and is a founder of the Institute of Religion, Culture and Peace at Payap University, a Church of Christ institution in Chiang Mai. I look forward to getting to know him and his work which sounds intriguing. And I look forward to visits from friends in California next month. Fr. Cyprian Consiglio will be here for a weekend late in the month and his arrival coincides with a brief stopover by Jerry and Sylvia Deck who are touring Vietnam. Their daughter, Kristin Cote, is there now with her family and I've been giving her advice about the few days they will stay in Thailand. And, hopefully, my youngest son Nicki come visit in March.

It's painful to be a father from a distance. My daughter Molly is upset with me for complaining at Christmas that I only hear from her when she wants something from me. Rather than accept my plea for information about her life, she accused me of breaking her heart, and effectively cut me off. I learned from a friend that her new music group, the Sirens, recently performed in Santa Cruz, and that they had gone to Bali to record a CD. I doubt that they will drop by Bangkok for a visit. Luke is angry at me for revealing here that he is drinking again after six months of sobriety. He accuses me of being judgmental and taking a holier-than-thou attitude. What, I ask him, should I do? I can't watch him slowly commit suicide, even from a distance. He has gone to Florida to be with a friend and he sends me outraged messages by email from his iPhone. But at least there is communication. Chris, my eldest, and his wife Sandy are mourning the death of a treasured cat, and fearing for their other aging pets. The Pottery Barn, Chris's company, is suffering from the economic slowdown and there is uncertainty among the work force.

Rest in peace, John Updike.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Year of the Ox

Obama is in the Oval Office and the Israeli army has retreated from Gaza. Life on this first day of the Chinese lunar new year, the Year of the Ox, has slowed to a crawl. My friend Michael Harrington from Santa Cruz leaves this morning for Chiang Mai after a week in Bangkok, a visit unexpectedly extended when the lack of a visa prevented his planned trip to Ramana Maharshi's ashram in India.

I've enjoyed Michael's company and the opportunity to show off my adopted city. We hit all the high points: dinner on the river his first night here, and a long circle tour one day from the Grand Palace and Wat Pho down the river to Saphan Taksin and the Sky Train. We ate lunch in Silom, walked through Lumpini Park up to Siam for a visit at the Erawan Shrine, and then had cappuccinos at one of the watering holes in Siam Paragon, that sumptuous palace of consumption. From there we walked through a few more supermalls and up the street to the khlong for a watery boat trip to the Golden Mount where, after a steep climb, we had a spectuacular view of the Bangkok cityscape.

Back in California, Michael is a caregiver for a retired professor of comparative religion for whom I was a research assistant for many years. He is also studied and practices Thai massage, yoga and acupuncture, and recently published Medicine of the Heart, a book about his experiences learning traditional healing techniques in Thailand. While not an experienced traveler, he earned my respect for journeying on his first day here to the Tiger Temple in Kanchanaburi province where monks at a forest monastery care for over a dozen tigers they have rescued from poachers. For a small fee he was able to snuggle with one of the big guys. The wat is several hours by bus and taxi from Bangkok. After our tourist excursion, Michael treated me to a two-hour body massage by the pool at Charlie House near my apartment. And at our farewell dinner last night, he bought me a cheeseburger at Sizzler. It was my third stint as a tour guide for folks from back home. Next up: Fr. Cyprian Consiglio comes to Bangkok at the end of next month.

I'm sorry to report that my friend Marcus from England has decided to discontinue his Journal (listed at right). We met at a Little Bang meeting last year before he moved to Korea for a year of teaching English there. Now back in Thailand, he lives not far from me in Pinklao and when he has a little time off from six days of classes, we occasionally meet. Marcus is a serious Buddhist with a practice I envy, and extensive knowledge of various perspectives on the Buddha's teaching, from Pure Land to the Mahayana heresy (at least from a Theravadan point of view). I learned much from his articulate and very human discussion of life as lived by a westerner in Buddhist lands. This isn't the first time he's given up blogging and of course I hope he reconsiders. But his motive is good, to devote more time to working on a book about his experiences and his understanding of Buddhism. I wish him chok dii.

Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva is in trouble after only a month in office. Young, handsome and charming (although his critics prefer "vapid" as a more apt description), Abhisit has extolled democracy and the rule of law among his guiding principles. But a hapless Australian was just sentenced to three years in prison for a paragraph in a self-published novel that sold less than a dozen copies which supposedly maligned the monarchy ("supposedly," because the offending passage cannot be mentioned in Thailand). Universally negative news stories from outside the Kingdom about the sentence note that protecting the monarchy seems to be the new administration's highest priority (thousands of web sites have been censored for alleged lèse-majesté and Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, the justice minister, is creating a 24-hour “war-room” to monitor online threats.). An article in the Economist about the Australian, "The Trouble with Harry," has blocked that magazine's distribution in Thailand for the second time in two months. And a left-wing academic, Giles Ungpakorn, was charged this week for defaming the monarchy in a book on the coup in 2006 that deposed Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister. A petition signed by 128 academics from several countries calls for charges against Ungpakorn to be dropped. He will probably be more vocal in his defense that poor Harry who pled guilty and cried at his sentencing. For more information, see this story from the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the Economist, "If this were Myanmar, governments like Australia’s would line up to denounce the arbitrary use of archaic laws and defend the rights of dissidents. Instead, it is meekly waiting for a royal pardon so it can spirit its citizen back home."

A more serious crisis is brewing over the military's treatment of illegal immigrants. According to reports, as many as 1,000 Rohingya boat people from Burma were captured, beaten, and pushed back to sea without engines or sufficient food and water. The refugees were escaping from the Burmese regime's persecution of ethnic minorities. More than 500 are believed dead or missing. The men are all Muslims and survivors said four men were thrown overboard with their hands tied. United Nations officials wanted to check on over 100 remaining boat people but were told "these people have been escorted out of Thailand" by Thai Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thonpakdi. Abhisit promised a thorough investigation, but also issued a blanket denial of abuse on behalf of the military. His deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, even suggested the entire episode was cooked up to besmirch the country's image. "We are not going to see the Abhisit government going after the military because it was instrumental in his assumption of office," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The military has substantial leverage. The Democrats have made a Faustian pact that Abhsit has to live with," he said. BBC commentator Jonathan Head, who is also facing lèse-majesté charges for a story he wrote several months ago, says Abhisit's government "has found itself floundering amid public relations disasters over which it has very little control." Both incidents, according to Head, "undercut the promise of fairer, more open and more accountable government made in the new prime minister's early speeches."

The nominations for this year's Oscar awards have been announced and I'm doing my best to see all of the films. My choice for best film and director is, hands down, Danny Boyle's magnificent "Sumdog Millionaire"; second choice would be Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon." Last night I viewed "The Reader," and although I found it a moving story of lost love and redemption, I think I preferred Kate Winslet's frustrated housewife role in "Revolutionary Road," an inferior film (too much of a cartoon 1950s) to the one for which she was nominated. The night before I'd seen "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" and thought it a more crushing indictment of that pure evil known as The Holocaust. I haven't yet seen Sean Penn or Mickey Rourke, but I liked both Richard Jenkins in the marvelously low key "The Visitor" and Frank Langella's terrific portrayal of President Nixon. I would give the Oscar for best actress to Kristin Scott Thomas for her incredible role as an ex-con in Phillippe Claudel's first film, "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime" (renamed "I've Loved You So Long") but she was only nominated (and did not win) a Golden Globe. I'd like to see Anne Hathaway's film because I think she is an excellent actress, but probably Meryl Streep will get it for another memorable performance in "Doubt." Either Viola Davis, the distraught mother in "Doubt," or Penelope Cruz, the loopy ex-wife in "Vicky Christina Barcelona," should get the supporting actress award. For best supporting actor, the expected win will be by the late Heath Ledger, but I liked Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt" (and anything he does). But why is his role only "supporting"? Hopefully I'l be able to see the awards which begin at 8 am Bangkok time on Feb. 23.

My students are studying for their Pali exam this week and my classes with them have been canceled. But on Thursday I will hold the first of several days of individual interviews with each student. I've asked them to bring their corrected homework and I will return to them the midterm exam I gave last week. Hopefully, I can individualize my advice to them on improving their English and can get to know them a little better. Last week I had asked them to write a job application letter and many of them were similar, and ungrammatical. When I asked what they had used for a model, they told me it came from another teacher, a Thai man. "It's a good thing your teacher is a native speaker," I told them, and handed out my corrections. Next Monday I will be interviewed by Dr. Saen, another English teacher at Mahachula (hopefully not the author of the mangled job letter), who has a TV show every weekday evening. He wants to talk with me about my experiences in Thailand compared with teaching undergraduates in California, and Pandit Bhikku will join me to discuss our Little Bangha Sangha for the English-speaking community.

Today I'm meeting other Little Bangers for a lecture at Chulalongkorn University on Buddha in the 21st Century by former Harvard professor Craig Warren Smith. Afterwards, some of us will go to Chinatown for the big celebration to usher in The Year of the Ox.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dreams Do Come True

"I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: 'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.'"

Martin Luther King, Aug. 28, 1963

From my room in Berkeley, I watched the TV screen as Preacher King delivered his famous "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Two months before, I'd watched Gov. George Wallace block the admission of black students at the University of Alabama. The following year, during "Freedom Summer," the campaign to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, I watched the news to learn of the deaths of four civil rights workers, the beating of 80 volunteers, the bombing of 30 black-owned businesses and homes and the burning of 37 churches in an attempt to prevent the implementation of equality in America. Last night I watched the inauguration of Barack Obama to be the 44th president of the United States.

To quote Jackie Gleason and James Taylor: How sweet it is!

I'd been cautiously hopeful about Obama since his election in November. But I also feared that he had perhaps made too many compromises with the Devil to get elected, that his move to the center and away from his earlier progressive positions on the left was designed to placate powerful corporate and ideological forces on the right. He drew too heavily for his appointments from the Clinton clique, a group more devoted to global control and profits than the plight of the poor. Most troubling was his apparent knee-jerk support of Israel. I've come to believe that the problem of "terrorism" in the world today started in Palestine with the Zionist terror groups that forced the world to give them land already occupied by Arabs as a "homeland" for the Jews. So long as President Obama and his administration subscribe to that dogma, world peace is an illusion.

It was after midnight in Bangkok when I watched his inauguration speech from the steps of the Capital in Washington. Afterwards, the CNN pundits faulted him for a lack of lofty rhetoric, and for the absence of a memorable quote, like Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," from JFK's 1961 address. Before the speech, I'd grown sick and weary of the word "historic" which was overused by TV commentators to describe the first inauguration of a African-American to the presidency, as if history only meant the unusual rather than the significant. Obama is, after all, only black on his father's side of the family. But the tears in the faces of the half-frozen crowd of several million in Washington testified to the meaningfulness of finally allowing a member of a former slave race to lead the country. Will women be next?

Obama's speech did not particularly light my fire, but I downloaded and printed a copy of it from CNN's web site. On each reading of it, I became more and more impressed. He uses the word "I" only three times in the early moments of the speech, once to admit his humility, again to thank Bush for the smooth transition, and finally to make this promise:
Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America: They will be met.
That was in the beginning. From then on the new president speaks only of "we" and "us." Like Kennedy, Obama calls on Americans to "embody the spirit of service," to to be willing to "find meaning in something greater than themselves." This "new era of responsibility" is characterized by kindness, selflessness and courage. America's "ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart," he said, "is the surest route to our common good." I am greatly encouraged to hear the term "common good" reenter public discourse, replacing the "me first" ethos of previous administrations.

It was a somber speech. "We are in the midst of crisis," he reiterated. The nation is at war, the economy is badly weakened, "a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices." Bush, seated nearby, must have been squirming in his seat. Cheney, in a wheel chair from a moving accident, looked glum. Obama continued with the litany of crisis: homes lost, jobs shed, businesses closed, health care too costly, the education system wrecked.

Then he itemized the consequences to the environment: "The ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet." He also spoke of "the specter of a warming planet," and, amazingly, said that we can no longer "consume the world's resources without regard to effect." When was the last time you heard a politician admit that? He also mentioned the need to develop alternative energies from the sun, wind and soil. Environmentalism is back in fashion.

There was much talk of restoration, or a return to values that had been forgotten. "We will restore science to its rightful place" (no more Creationism!), and only by spending wisely, reforming bad habits, and doing our business in the light of day "can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government." There was also little said about racism, except to ponder the miracle that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

Government, for Obama, will be a help rather than a hindrance (the Republican mantra). "The stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works." Even government is back in fashion! What else can protect us from financial predators? "This crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control -- and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous." It's no longer fashionable to be rich!

In international relations, Obama will rely on "sturdy alliances, and "even greater cooperation and understanding between nations." He made a firm break with the Bush doctrine by saying "we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." The rule of law is more important that a tortured confession. He addressed "the Muslim world" directly and said "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." The word "terrorism (war on)" was never uttered. He promised help for poor nations and reminded "nations like ours" that "we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders." American must grow up, he said, quoting 1st Corinthians: "The time has come to set aside childish things."

In conclusion, Obama quoted George Washington who said, when the American Revolution looked bleak, that "nothing but hope and virtue could survive." In the "face of our common danger," Obama echoed, "in this winter of our hardship," only hope and virtue will help us to say: "We carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations."

I'm very happy that President Obama is on his way toward reversing the destruction of the Bush years. I will be watching his actions and looking at his developing policies very closely. It sounds like a new day might be dawning in America and the world is certainly ready for that. For now, I will continue to watch the drama unfold from the sanctuary I have found in Thailand.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Barbie Exposed

What we all suspected, it turns out, was true. The designer of the Barbie Doll was a pervert. Jack Ryan, who died in 1991, is described in a new book as "a full-blown Seventies-style swinger" with "a manic need for sexual gratification." In Toy Monster: The Big, Bad World of Mattel, author Jerry Oppenheimer claims that Ryan held wild orgies at his mansion in the exclusive Los Angeles suburb of Bel Air and surrounding himself with busty prostitutes hired because of their resemblance to Barbie.

The book suggests that Ryan's sexuality played a role in the design of the popular doll. "When Jack talked about creating Barbie, it was like listening to somebody talk about a sexual episode," the designer's friend, Stephen Gnass, reveals. "It was almost like listening to a sexual pervert." Oppenheimer quotes Gwen Florea, the voice of Barbie in a line of talking dolls: "Jack once said he loved me being so tall so he could stick his nose in my boobs when he hugged me." John Walsh in the London Independent described the toy Barbie as " a doll whose unfeasibly long legs are matched by the unfeasibility of her huge bosom."

The book poses a challenge to Mattel just as the giant toymaker prepares to celebrate Barbie and Ken's 50th birthday in March. According to Oppenheimer, Ryan took calls at Mattel from a madam and patronized "high-class call girls to streetwalkers," including a "very thin and child-like" hooker. He writes that Ryan "somehow rationalized that he was the only man in her life" until he was diagnosed with gonorrhea.

Barbie and Ken were named after the kids of Mattel founders Ruth and Elliot Handler. Ruth got the idea for Barbie from a 1950's German doll called Bild Lilli, a three-dimensional representation of a fictional prostitute named Lilli in the comic-strip of a German newspaper, Bild Zeitung. According to Walsh, "She serviced German businessmen and was cheeky to the cops. Platinum-haired and tarty, she would do anything with sweaty clients, provided the money was right." This was the doll Ryan encountered in 1955, and "he adjusted it for the consumption of American children, by tidying up her lips and filing off her nipples," Walsh wrote. Being the model for Ken was an honor that troubled the Handler's son, who "grew up embarrassed and humiliated by having an anatomically incorrect boy doll named after him . . . [with] no hint of genitalia." Despite marrying and fathering three children, Ken was a closeted gay, Oppenheimer says. "To all those who knew him Ken Handler was a wonderful father, a loving husband . . . But there was another side to Ken. And in 1990 he was formally diagnosed with AIDS. His parents and wife were shocked." He died in 1994 in Greenwich Village, but obits didn't mention the disease.

Walsh writes that in the new issue of Harlot magazine, Tracy Quan, the author of Confessions of a Manhattan Call-Girl, claims Barbie as a role-model for her generation of prostitutes, because of the way she concealed her murky past beneath Attorney Barbie respectability. "Marketed as a harmless plaything, the all-American prom queen turns out to have been a foreign whore on the run," Quan writes. "Somehow, the kind of girl your brother couldn't take home to Mom became a role model for millions of young girls." Elsewhere in the magazine, reports Walsh, a San Franciscan writer called Cintra Wilson shockingly recalls how she used to arrange for her Barbie doll to have sex with a gruff and violent GI Joe. "Barbie is no unconscious sexual icon to children," she writes. "Even at seven, we knew she was a wanton, submissive bimbo."

But Wikipedia reveals another side to Ryan, a much-married Yale grad who included Hungarian sexpot Zsa-Zsa Gabor among his wives. He worked for Raytheon designing the Sparrow and Hawk missiles for the Defense Department before being lured away by Mattel to engineer Barbie where he labored for 20 years as a paid consultant rather than an employee. His income came from royalties on marketed products and patents, including the voice unit used in the Chatty Cathy and later in Talking Barbie. His Bel Air mansion featured two large stone lion heads at the front drive with voice units and draw strings. Ryan later sued Mattel, arguing that he was the primary inventor of Barbie, but ultimately lost in court (presumably Ruth Handler's claim was upheld).

Given Oppenheimer's revelations (the book will be published next month), the Wikipedia article ominously mentions that Ryan "was also known for providing room and board to UCLA students who would in turn work at the many charity events he held at his house." How many of them looked like Barbie? Or Ken?

The slaughter in Gaza continues while much of the world wrings its hands and waits for Obama's inauguration, as if that might solve something that has defeated negotiators and diplomats for forty years. It will be very surprising if Obama and Hillary abandon years of blind bipartisan political support for whatever madness Israel deems necessary to its survival (including killing children). People around the world marched in the streets last weekend to protest what is obvious to most are war crimes. But the popular demonstrations of millions never stopped George Bush's rampage through the Middle East. According to the astute Chris Hedges in Truthdig, the Gaza invasion is no less than the "final phase of the decades-long campaign to ethnically cleanse Palestinians." Like many commentators, Hedges believes Israel cannot win. " The Israeli assault, by destroying Hamas as a governing force, has opened a Pandora’s box of ills. Life will become a nightmare for most Palestinians and, in the years ahead, for most Israelis." Saying much the same in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli newspaper, Bernard Avishai and Sam Bahour argue that the attack on Gaza "cannot succeed in achieving Israel's stated aim of degrading Hamas' long-term capabilities and motivation. It will certainly not undermine Hamas' appeal, especially since the electricity and water infrastructures are also inevitably targeted." What it will do is produce another generation of radical militants. On Aljazeera's web site, UC Irvine historian Mark Levin asks "Who Will Save Israel from Itself?" His conclusion: "Israelis are clearly incapable. Their addiction as a society to the illusion of violence-as-power has reached the level of collective mental illness." He reiterates the opinion of many investigators, starting with Jimmy Carter, that Israel was responsible for breaking the fragile cease fire, and not Hamas. A good source of, admittedly biased, information can be found on The Palestine Chronicle web site, and also on the blog now recommended on the right side of this web page. Free Palestine Now!

A cold wind is blowing through Bangkok and Thais are chilled to the bone. Overnight lows are in the teens (celcius) and the 50's (farenheit) which still is the more meaningful standard to me. There was frost on Doi Suthep, the tall hill up north next to Chiang Mai, and a friend sent me photos of ice-covered roses in the northeast of Thailand. With the door to the balcony and the bedroom window closed, I keep warm enough. During the day the temperature stays in the mid 70's and I'm in heaven. The BBC and CNN is filled with scenes of snow-jammed traffic in the U.S. and Europe, and I chuckle.

Weather, then, can be a matter of perception rather than numbers on a temperature gauge. When we are loved it can be warm, and when alone the chilly winds blow. As I look at the red roses I bought Monday for Bee's visit, already dead in the vase, I shudder at the thought of my son Luke in Boston. It's not the New England blizzard that is making his life difficult but the fall from sobriety. I learned from a mutual friend who visited him on Christmas that he has been drinking for six months, up to two bottles of wine a day. I wanted to believe that the sobriety that began in October 2006 after my visit to see him and celebrate his 39th birthday had continued. But apparetly he has been in and out of the hospital lately for alcohol poisoning and threatening suicide. When he found out I had been told, his cover had been blown, he was enraged. He charged me with being judgmental and taking a holier-than-though attitude toward his "slip" (an alcoholic's word that minimizes failure). And he was particularly angry that I said goodbye to him. I have sat beside Luke too many times in the hospital while he recovers from an overdose or seizures caused by his drinking. I cannot watch him slowly commit suicide. I can only hope, from a distance, that he will eventually choose life rather than death. But at the moment that hope seems frozen.

When my son was very young I abandoned him by leaving his mother. I've tried to stay in his life but whenever he gets angry at me he pushes the abandonment button and I cringe. My sins as a father are very large. At the moment, my daughter is not communicating with me because I wrote to her after Christmas that she only tells me about herself and her life when she needs something from me (like the guarantee of a school loan that I provided a year ago). My youngest son is also an intermittent correspondent, but he responded immediately when I expressed my sadness at Christmas that I did not hear from him very often (every three months is not enough). He told me that he wants to come visit me in March or April. This blog, among other things, is a way to keep my family informed of my whereabouts and my thinking. I hope to receive some kind of a response back, but I have been frequently disappointed. I am not making judgments but rather am trying to express my feelings (trying to stay warm amidst the cold winds), which are mostly about sadness.

To top it all off, the newsstand near my house that has saved a copy of the Bangkok Post for me every day for six months has been without it on three different occasions this past week. Since we can't communicate easily, I don't know whether it's because they didn't receive it from the distributor or if they sold the single copy they get to another English reader. Whatever the case, it feels as if a lifeline has been taken away. I was so happy to have at least one neighborhood friend, and now I feel rejected.

Thank the goddess for my teaching. Yesterday, while my students were preparing their class presentations on what they can and can't do (on the topic of abilities and talents), I padded in my socks (shoes outside the door) down to the Humanities office where I chatted with Dr. Subodh, the visiting teacher from India who lectures on psychology in English to undergraduates in the Sociology department. He comes from near Mumbai and we talked about "Slumdog Millionaire," the Golden Globes-winning film made in India by Englishman Danny Boyle (director of the cult film "Trainspotting"). It was filmed in Mumbai and much of the dialogue is in Hindi. I saw "Slumdog" last week and think it by far the best film of the year; it's a love story with some shocking scenes and a terrific Bollywood ending. I heard music across the room and saw a Thai teacher huddling over a laptop with one of the monk secretaries. They were listening to what sounded like a traditional Thai song and I saw that it was a karaoke with Thai letters streaming across the screen. I went over to watch and they asked me to join in. When the flip was switched to English, the song turned out to be "Waterloo" by Abba with both Thai and English lyrics. So, having seen "Mamma Mia" not that long ago, I did my best Meryl Streep imitation.

Rest In Peace: Arne Naess, father of Deep Ecology; Patrick McGoohan, star of "The Prisoner," and Ricardo Montalban, of "Fantasy Island." And also philosopher Richard Rorty, one of my heroes, whom I just discovered died over a year ago and a half ago.

This British WWII poster is always relevant:

Saturday, January 10, 2009

England's Improbable God

Richard Dawkins is at it again. Support from the prominent British atheist helped an ad hoc group in London led by comedy writer Ariane Sherine to raise funds to pay for advertisements on 800 buses in the United Kingdom. The very British ads gently suggest:
There's Probably No God.
Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.
The group has raised enough money to put up 1,000 advertisements in the London underground featuring quotes from celebrities like this one from actress Katherine Hepburn:

The idea for the campaign came to Sherine when she spotted a London bus ad with the question, "When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth? (Luke 18:8)." Looking for an answer, she checked the ad's web site and received the following warning to unbelievers: "You will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell." Writing in her blog , Sherine wondered: "If I wanted to run a bus ad saying 'Beware – there is a giant lion from London Zoo on the loose!' or 'The 'bits' in orange juice aren't orange but plastic – don't drink them or you'll die!' I think I might be asked to show my work and back up my claims. But apparently you don't need evidence to run an ad suggesting we'll all face the ire of the son of man when he comes, then link to a website advocating endless pain for atheists."

Sherine's response to this terror campaign by the evangelical Christian site was to write a blog asking atheists to donate money for a philosophically positive bus ad campaign. She raised five times the amount necessary. With support from Dawkins and the British Humanist Association, the buses began running with the atheist ads last week. The campaign is being spread by the Atheist Bus web site, and is expanding its scope by initiating The Next Stop with the BHA. Non-believers in other countries have been inspired. The American Humanist Association launched a bus campaign in Washington DC in November 2008 with the slogan "Why believe in a God? Just be good for goodness' sake." Australians attempted to run a bus campaign with the slogan "Atheism - celebrate reason," but were blocked by the country's largest outdoor advertiser which refused to run the ads. Dawkins, by the way, disagreed with the word "probably" and wanted the ads to read: "There is almost certainly no God." But he was over-ruled. I agree with Dawkins that the ontological statement "there is a god" is false, but I believe the label continues to have poetic and metaphorical resonance.

Another famous atheist made the news this week. Hustler publisher Larry Flynt, claiming the failing economy has hurt the porn business, is asking the government for a $5 billion bailout. He was joined by Joe Francis, creator of the "Girls Gone Wild" porn franchise. DVD sales are down 22 per cent. Playboy's stock has fallen 81% in the past year and they sold their DVD division. Penthouse magazine failed to find a major bank willing to underwrite a proposed $460 million public share offer. "People are too depressed to be sexually active," Flynt claimed in his statement. "This is very unhealthy as a nation. Americans can do without cars and such but they cannot do without sex." Congress, he said, must "rejuvenate the sexual appetite of America." Flynt, who is paralyzed below the waist after being shot in a 1978 assassination attempt, says he is willing to steer his $80,000 gold-plated wheelchair to the steps of the Capitol building to publicize their campaign. "I'm dead serious about making Congress look stupid," he said. "Politicians have never handled money wisely since I've been in this world." The call for a handout from Flynt and Francis coincided with the opening in Las Vegas of Adult Entertainment Expo, the industry's largest gathering of porn stars, publishers, producers and sex-toy manufacturers. The porn industry is worth an estimated $13 billion to the U.S. economy, with over 5,000 XXX-rated films being shot each year. God may be improbable, but sex is a certainty.

The political scene in Thailand has been quiet since the start of the New Year. The government of newly selected Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjativa has focused its efforts on censoring thousands of global web sites (and hundreds of YouTube videos) that appear to insult or defame the monarchy. A leader of the opposition was sentenced to six years in jail under the harsh lese majeste law for a speech allegedly criticizing the royal family (a government supporter who quoted her words in a speech was also arrested but remains free on bail). An Australian author is in prison for self-publishing a novel in which the royalty was supposedly maligned. The red shirt wearing opposition has responded to Abhisit's reign by throwing eggs at members of his administration when they appear in public, a less harmful form of protest than closing the country's international airports. A debate has erupted over the suggestion by the Royal Thai Police to strip exiled PM Thaksin Shinawatra of his police rank (why he even has one I cannot say), surely a crucial issue, more important than the collapsing Thai economy.

As I write, the Israeli free-for-all in the shooting gallery of Gaza continues. A diplomatically crafted cease fire resolution by the U.N. Security Council (from which the U.S. -- no surprise -- abstained) has been ignored, as expected, by the Zionist giant. Former president Jimmy Carter, writing in the Washington Post, says that the previous "fragile truce was partially broken on Nov. 4, when Israel launched an attack in Gaza to destroy a defensive tunnel being dug by Hamas inside the wall that encloses Gaza." So much for putting all of the blame on Hamas. We get to hear from a remarkably reasonable Hamas in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed column by Mousa Abu Marzook, deputy of the political bureau of the radical Islamic movement that was elected by Gaza citizens. Steve Niva provides more details in his CommonDreams.Org article, "War of Choice: How Israel Manufactured the Gaza Escalation." And Naomi Klein, the respected critic of globalization, writes in The Nation about boycotting, divesting and sanctions, the "best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation by Israel," the kind of "global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa." The web site for this protest campaign can be found here. Former California legislator and 60's radical activist (and Jane Fonda's ex-husband) Tom Hayden writes about Obama's silence. "As the bombs fall on Gaza children and civilians, his credibility comes under greater question. The bright promise of moral leadership is sullied and squandered, along with the potential of America's ability to be an even-handed diplomatic mediator." In his LA Times piece, Hamas spokesman Marzook writes that "no American leader has ever visited a Palestinian refugee camp anywhere, much less in Gaza -- a startling fact, considering the central role America has played in our people's narrative. None has dared to look our refugees in their faces and experience their suffering directly." Hopefully, Obama will do that (but don't hold your breath).

Bee and I visited The Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) yesterday to view "Krungthep 226: The Art from Early Days Bangkok to the Imagined Future." Krungthep is the abbreviated Thai name for the capital of Thailand, and this is the third art exhibit I've seen in the beautiful new building at the Pathumwan interection in the downtown Siam district. The large 11-storey BACC still remains mostly empty and the exhibit is spread over the top three floors, with art, film and sculpture representing creative views of the city since its founding in the late 18th century, 226 years ago. Over 50 Thai and foreign artists are represented. There were maps and etchings done by early European visitors, and a ecological visioning of Bangkok by Tatiya Udomsawat, including the large MBK shopping mall across the street from the BACC, in an imagined future when the jungle has reclaimed most of the city. The variety of the different artist media used was impressive. A significant portion of the works referenced Buddhism which was no surprise, and some acknowledged both poverty and prostitution, Thailand's twin Achilles heels. All exhibits at the BACC are free, even to farang (who are often charged at museums when Thais can enter free).

After two hours of art, Bee and I headed to Kinokuniya, the largest book store in Bangkok, located in Siam Paragon, and browsed for books. My Buddha buddy David has suggested that I go straight to the source and recommended Bhikkhu Bodhi's English translation of the Suttas. They come in three expensive hardback volumes, and I chose one, at Pandit's suggestion, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, a translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, published by Wisdom Publications in Massachusetts. At 1,420 pages (about $75), it should keep me busy for awhile. Then we headed over the Mahamakut Buddhist University, the other Buddhist school (I teach for Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya). It's located adjacent to Wat Bowornniwet Vihara Rajaworavihara (Wat Boworn) in Banglamphu. We stopped by the temple to light candles and incense and offer flowers to the Buddha before Bee showed me the campus where she worked briefly for a Master's degree last year (I'm encouraging her to return). Afterward, we dodged traffic to cross the street where we browsed for more books in the campus bookstore. I found a few more volumes by Buddhadasa Bhikku, my current craze, as well as Buddhist Economics by P.A. Payutto, a classic, and a calendar with the dates in Thai.

My day also included a visit to the Apple Service Center at Siam Discovery where I took my pregnant laptop battery. A few weeks ago I noticed that the battery in my MacBook was getting bigger. But since it continue to take and hold a charge I thought everything was OK. Then I checked the problem on the web and was warned to disconnect it quickly before something bad happened (I was told it wouldn't explode, but that it could damage the computer). I quickly discovered that the battery is not included in my three-year AppleCare contract, but was told that my claim would be reviewed "in Australia." There is a chance that they might repair it for free, and I should get a call with the news early next week (a replacement could cost around $175 here).

Today is Children's Day in Thailand. Kids are eagerly looking forward to presents and a tableau of amusements. How come we didn't get this in America when I was growing up?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Moral Failure of the Jews

The news from Gaza is horrific. Israeli forces knowingly shelled a U.N. school where Palestinians were cowering in fear, killing at least 40 civilians and injuring over fifty, most of them women and children. A U.N. spokesman said that Israel had been notified that the building was a shelter, given its GPS coordinates, and the facility was clearly marked. Israel's military said its shelling — the deadliest single episode since the campaign against Gaza began a week ago — was a response to mortar fire from within the school compound and said Hamas militants were using civilians "as human shields." Some 15,000 Palestinians have packed the U.N.'s 23 Gaza schools because their homes were destroyed or to flee the violence. Nearly 600 Palestinians have been killed during the 11-day assault and almost 3,000 injured. Israel's devastating attack is in retaliation for rocket attacks by Hamas on its relatively well-off residents, killing four since the war began. Five Israel soldiers have died, three from "friendly" fire. Israel's disproportionate response to the relatively minor irritation of "terrorism" by Hamas, amounting to genocide, is comparable to killing mosquitoes with a bazooka (pick your own metaphor).

"There's nowhere safe in Gaza. Everyone here is terrorized and traumatized," said John Ging, head of Gaza operations for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, now a Middle East envoy for the EU, said, for "anyone living in Gaza, it is hell." Even Cardinal Renato Martino, the Vatican's minister for justice and peace, charged that conditions in Gaza "increasingly resemble a big concentration camp." Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip is “genocide” and appealed for urgent action by the U.N. Security Council. “Gaza today is living a new Palestinian catastrophe,” Abbas said. “I call upon this council to take the first necessary steps to save my people in Gaza, a resolution calling for an immediate cessation of Israeli aggression.” The night before, three Palestinian men were killed in an Israeli attack on another U.N. school for refugees. “These attacks by Israeli military forces which endanger U.N. facilities acting as places of refuge are totally unacceptable and must not be repeated,” said U.N. secretary general, Ban Ki-moon. “Equally unacceptable are any actions by militants which endanger the Palestinian civilian population.” International relief agencies warned that the humanitarian situation in Gaza was becoming increasingly horrorific. Most of the population of 1.5 million are without power, and hundreds of thousands are without running water.

Where are the Jewish voices speaking out against the violence perpetuated by the Jewish state of Israel in their name? I ask this because many people have wondered why so many Muslims are silent in the face of terrorist acts committed by supposedly devout followers of Islam, from the attack on the World Trade Center to the latest suicide bombing in Iraq. Does this "conspiracy of silence" show that Judaism or Islam is an inherently violent religion?

Many radical atheists, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, believe religion itself is at fault. I don't agree. I think that religious language is a cover for other, more concrete disagreements. Most political disputes are about land and power. This was the case in Ireland and I am certain that the root of the conflict in the Middle East is a struggle for control of land. Palestinians hate Jewish Zionists because their land was stolen to create the state of Israel. Jews feel threatened by every non-Jew and push for a "final solution" in which Jews and Arabs (many of whom are Christians) are separated by a giant fence that will prevent all contact between these disparate and desperate people.

The fence, and the "two-state solution," are as illusory as the belief that a well-financed (by the US.) military machine can enter a dense urban environment and stamp out all guerrilla activity. "Terrorism" is always the weapon of the weak. The rockets Hamas lobs into Israel are more symbolic than dangerous (which is not to say that a rare bull's eye cannot kill). Israel's relentless destruction of Gaza will create thousands, perhaps millions, of new terrorists dedicated to eradicating the state of Israel. When will they ever learn?

Those waiting for Obama to take over from the sycophantic administration of George Bush will probably be disappointed. While visiting Israel in July he said, "If somebody is sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that - and I'd expect Israelis to do the same thing." But what if his daughters were cowering in a U.N. school in Gaza? Yesterday, Obama broke his silence (he wasn't so quiet when terrorists attacked in Mumbai) by telling reporters: "The loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel [note the strained attempt at balance] is a source of deep concern to me, and after January 20th I’ll have plenty to say about the issue." But his support for Israel, as well as that of his new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is well known. There is some evidence, however, that the knee-jerk overwhelming support of Israel by U.S. politicians is at odds with the American public.

Hundreds of Thai Muslims have been demonstrating in front of the Israeli embassy in Bangkok. I'm tempted to join them. I feel angry and powerless about what's happening in Gaza. The conflict there seems endless. I watch the speakers in the U.N. Security Council on CNN debate the issue, recycling the same old arguments I've heard for years. As long as the U.S. gives a blank check to the Jewish state, and Jews around the world continue to support the government that commits war crimes in their name, the genocide will continue.

ADDENDUM: Read "Moral Blindness on Gaza" from The Nation by Robert Scheer. The same article appeared as "Why do so few speak up for Gaza" in where Scheer is an editor. In it, he writes:
Even if we accept the harshest portrayal of the tactics and motives of the Palestinian movements against Israel after the Six-Day War, at what point did that terrorism represent a serious challenge to the survival of the Jewish people or the state that claims to speak in their name? Yet that survival is invoked to justify the vastly excessive use of force by the Israeli war machine, with frequent allusions to the Holocaust previously visited upon the Jewish people, a holocaust that had nothing to do with Palestinians or Muslims, and everything to do with Central Europeans claiming to be Christians. The high moral claim of the Israeli occupation rests not on the objective reality of a Palestinian threat to Israel's survival, but rather on the non sequitur cry that "never again" should harm come to Jews as it did in Central Europe seven decades ago.
Describing how in 1948 "a group of prominent Jewish intellectuals including Albert Einstein, Sidney Hook and Hannah Arendt" warned about the "terrorist" Menachem Begin, leader of the new state of Israel which had been established partly through terrorist acts against the British, Scheer asks, "Where are the voices that reflect the uncompromising morality of Einstein's generation of Jewish intellectuals willing to acknowledge fault and humanity on both sides of the political equation?"

And by all means, if you have the slightest doubt that Israel is guilty of the most horrific war crimes, past and present, read Robert Fisk's angry "Why Do They Hate The West So Much, We Will Ask."