Thursday, December 18, 2014

Art, Life, and Imitation: Thai protests and what it means for the country's riotous future

Does art imitate life or is it the other way around? 2014 was unofficially the “Year of the Dystopia” with its many film releases following this genre. From Divergent, to The Giver, to The Maze Runner, to the wildly anticipated Hunger Games installment, Mockingjay, it’s impossible to consume popular media releases without encountering authoritarian governments, police states, and themes of resistance. 


Is this trend toward the dystopian genre indicative of global trends toward resistance against totalitarian government? Or is the spread of governmental and structural oppression protests influencing the demand for media entertainment? In the case of Thailand, the case is something entirely different: a strict military overthrow blatantly ignores and bans the media representations that strongly mirror its regime while its population turns to this very media in order to resist.

While many protests in the twenty-first century so far seem to mount against the flowing course of globalization, to rise against the combining forces of global governance, more international trade, and the clash and collision of cultures worldwide, a protest in favor of globalization looks like a very different animal for those living in authoritarian regimes. In Thailand, students and protesters are currently being detained in the name of democracy based on a three-finger protest salute picked up from the popular Hunger Games series. The new Thai military government has banned the release of the newest Hunger Games film based on protesters' use of the salute (Mydans 2014). While coups are not unusual occurrences in Thai (or even Southeast Asian) history. However, the performance of this pop-culture-protest is a different approach to previous demonstrations. The purpose of this salute, I would argue, is not only to perform as a uniting gesture for students and young people toward the militarily controlled government but also to signal to the West that something is deeply wrong by appealing to Western conceptions of uprising.

In late May of 2014, following months of building tension, unrest, and protests, a silent coup placed the country under military control. This action followed a meeting of several party leaders in order to hash out a solution. While all of these leaders entered the room in order to find some semblance of order between many factions, only one man left undetained: the country’s new ruler General Prayuth Chan-ocha (CNN 2014). This action leaves Thailand with no more constitutional monarchy and a media system that is no longer free, open, and heterogeneous (CNN 2014). But did this coup occur and why, oh why, is this so common for Thailand? Several articles from major news sources help to outline some reasons for much of the ongoing conflict in Thailand over the decades and offer some brief history.

1.     The first reason resides in the classic tensions between the lower-income, rural majority to the North of the country and urban, elite minority in the larger cities. While the majority has managed to elect a Prime Minister from their party for a little more than a decade, the minority party controls much of the judiciary system and the military (The Washington Post 2014). But wait, is this the only time this has happened…?

2.     Definitely not. Coups have been very common in Thailand throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Since 1932, there have been 12 successful coups staged in Bangkok. In almost all cases, the minority party has sought to return the country to traditional values and normalcy, as defined as rule by the minority party (The Washington Post 2014). But wait, if there was a constitutional monarchy, doesn’t that mean there’s a king? Could he stop all of this…?

3.     He has not and probably could not. Overall, the King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, is revered and beloved to the utmost. However, the king hasn’t been entirely well in several years and people from every party have been eyeing the status of his health. King Bhumibol’s son is significantly less respected and loved than his father and anyone in a high office after the death of the King may hold significant power (The Washington Post 2014). Huh, but if the King’s son doesn’t hold much sway over the people, who does…?

4.     The answer lies in a charismatic, aristocratic businessman named Thaksin Shinawatra, part of a dynasty family with significant sway over the country through economic and personal means (The Washington Post 2014). Since the 2006 coup, Thaksin has lived abroad in exile though his sister Yingluck served as Prime Minister until the May 2014 coup (CNN 2014). With the Shinawatra siblings gone, many political leaders detained, the King in ill health, the successor to the throne not very well-liked, and the general of the military seizure of power of the entire nation, who knows what will happen next…?

5.     Nobody knows. But it makes for one hell of a story and that’s where the use of the Hunger Games style salute comes into play.

As I mentioned before, the use of the three-finger Hunger Games salute is most likely a ploy for photo-ready, succinct transmission of a cry for help to the West, to the East, for anyone to realize what is happening in Thailand. But what do three raised fingers have to do with protest and globalization? Good question, let’s explore that thought. 

The salute itself comes from the multi-million dollar movie and book franchise, The Hunger Games, most recently released as a third installment in the form of Mockingjay. In the first book and movie, the salute is established as a sign of belonging as citizens of the lowest-income, most marginalized district of the fictional country of Panem salute the main character Katniss as she goes to compete to her almost-certain death. Having won the titular Games, the salute is then used by other districts to indicate their allegiance to Katniss and, by extension, their resistance against the totalitarian government (IMDb 2012). In a particularly gruesome scene in the second movie, a protester salutes Katniss at a large government gathering and he is shot before her eyes.

Video found here: 

In comparison, students at local universities in Thailand flashed the salute to General Prayuth Chan-ocha while wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Thai equivalent of “No coup.” Police and soldiers rounded up the students and were reported sent to a military camp for “attitude adjustment” (BBC 2014). With that action, this situation ceased to sound real and began sounding like a dystopian movie, similar to that of the Hunger Games franchise. Perhaps, in a way, students have chosen this salute in order to signal to the Western audience reading about their situation how drastically authoritarian and strict Thailand has become. So much so, the situation begins to read like a work of fiction.
The performative gesture of the three-finger salute works here on two levels: it seeks to both personalize and reinforce the need for intervention. Since holding up three fingers worked so well for Jennifer Lawrence's character Katniss, couldn't it work for every real person now living under military rule in Thailand? Similarly, it unites the protesting students together with the media outlets photographing them. The salute is a surefire way to grab a cameraman's attention and a headline pointing out the connection between a popular, American-made film and a real-life coup is bound to rouse attention. In such an increasingly interconnected world, in which news outlets around the world can still receive word of such a closed-off coup within hours, globalization is both the means and the goals of the protests. Thai students are utilizing Western media, in the form of the movie and news outlets, in order to fight the traditionalist regime that itself wishes to slow the procession of globalization in Thailand. In this way, performance of protest and the processes of globalization come together in the intersection between fiction and reality for Thailand.

The efficiency of this performative gesture is enormous, in which so much about the nation's situation is conveyed through a simple act. It is difficult to say whether this simple of protest will continue to aid protesters, as it is still occurring today. The real-time implications of the protesters' use of the salute has resulted in the government's ban of the release of Mockingjay in all theaters in the country, for fear of more rebellion (Mydans 2014). This move illustrates even more clearly what the Thai government most likely wishes to hide: globalization has made controlling their population in the past and present more difficult and this trend will most likely continue into the future. 

Works Cited
Botelho, Greg, Paula Hancocks, Paula Hancocks, Kocha Olarn Reported from Bangkok, With Jethro Mullen Reporting, Writing In Hong Kong, Greg Botelho, Holly Yan, Catherine E. Shoichet, and Henry Hanks in Atlanta. Simon Harrison in Bangkok Also. "Thai Military Takes over in Coup -- Again." CNN. Cable News Network, 22 May 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.
"Five Reasons a Coup Was Staged in Thailand, Again." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 May 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
"The Hunger Games." IMDb., 23 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
Mydans, Seth. "Thai Protesters Are Detained After Using Hunger Games Salute." The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 14 Dec. 2014.
"Thais Held for 'Hunger Games' Salute." BBC News. BBC, 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014.

Friday, November 14, 2014

The Secret Life of the American President: Apologies and Lack Thereof

There are so many lasting catchphrase moments of the 1990’s.

But one of the most lasting legacies from the latter part of the 1990's will always be...
Allow me to turn back the clock for you to a very different United States. It’s 1998. The Chicago Bulls are still awesome. The Titanic is the #1 movie in America and it’s still in theaters. Little Allie Little is the ripe old age of six! 
That's me! Six years old and ready for pumpkins!
It’s an unusually warm El Nino winter, which spawns monstrous storms throughout the nation (Burt 2014). Similarly, a situation is becoming considerably heated in the White House and a political storm of humungous proportions is brewing surrounding the breaking sex scandal. The President of the United States, Bill Clinton, has already denied an affair with a former intern of the White House, Monica Lewinsky. However, given supplied evidence in the form of taped conversations with Linda Tripp and an infamously neglected blue dress, the President is forced to come clean. On August 17th, 1998, Bill Clinton gave a televised address to the nation in which he admitted to his inappropriate relationship with Monica (Miller 2013). Thus began the firestorm that would lead to Clinton’s impeachment. But in watching this video, much like with any speech from a politician, you have to wonder… Just who is this speech for anyway? What’s the ulterior motive behind releasing a statement this large and inflammatory, beyond clearing up his testimony?

The bottom line is this: Clinton’s speech reads and rings as an apology but it couldn’t be further from one. The goal of this speech was not to apologize, but to shame the audience (the American public) into moving past the incident. How did he accomplish this task through this speech? And how well did it work?

According to a how-to article by Forbes, “A real apology actually has three parts, and goes like this: ‘I’m sorry; this is what I did; and this is what I am doing to correct it’” (Fitzpatrick 2014). A well-crafted apology is a subtle and important art that many do not learn or choose to forego. Let’s see how well this speech lines up with this formula, if it is even meant to.

1.     “I’m sorry.”
First and foremost, the most important and primary component of an apology is an expression of one’s remorse. There is no mention of the word “sorry” in the entirety of this address, which is very deliberate. The closest the former President comes to admitting a wrongdoing is in his use of the word “regret.” This comes in the context of explaining away the continued silence surrounding the ordeal, as the President explains, “[…] my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that” (CNN). While the use of “regret” is symbolically important in the creation and appearance of an apology, it does not do the work that “sorry” is meant to do. Regret indicates that one feels “[…] sad, repentant, or disappointed” or is “[…] used in polite formulas to express sadness over something unfortunate or unpleasant” ("Regret"). Sorry is an indication of penitence ("Sorry"). In short, Clinton’s (or perhaps Clinton’s speech writers’) choice to use “regret” versus “sorry” is the first clue that this is not an address meant as apology, but rather meant to distract the audience with a façade of penitence. The regret is not in the action itself, but in the discovery and reception of the action.

2.     “This is what I did.”
The admission of the wrongdoing is often one of the pitfalls of the apology formula, though it can be the simplest and most excruciating parts of the process. Specifically referring to the offending action or words, rather than vaguely disassociating oneself from it, indicates knowledge of why it is wrong and sincere desire to heed it for the future. In analyzing former President Clinton’s address, it is difficult to assess whether this part of the formula had been filled given the intimate nature of the transgression and the very public nature of the address. The closest Clinton comes to acknowledgement of the specific wrongdoing occurs in this admission:

“Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible” (CNN).

This is completely counter to previous statements Clinton had given during his trial, leading to the infamous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" soundbite. Given the fact that the audience of this address includes citizenry that Clinton would not want to personally tell of his sexual exploits (children, elderly Southern church-goers with large hats, his own wife, etc.), the vague nature of this part of his “apology” is understandable and permissible. However, this is the nearest instance of apology that Clinton attempts in regards to the action itself. There is a second part to this second part of admission and it occurs in his lies by omission. According to the definitions given during his trial, the President never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as he supposedly only received sexual pleasure from her. His admission of omission therefore comes out in this public address as well:

“I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people […] I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors […], by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct” (CNN).

Admitting to his desire to evade culpability is the crux of the address and the reason to speak out at all. So, basically, Clinton’s admission of wrongdoing boils down to, “I did something, didn’t tell you everything, and then you found out that I didn’t tell you everything.” A solid C- effort.

3.     “This is what I am doing to correct it.”
Correction of missteps is a vital aspect to overcoming the misstep in the first place. While it may seem that, in his address, Clinton does not touch on this aspect at all it is done deliberately. This section is mostly not present and intentionally vague and this choice is, within itself, a reflection of having taken steps to correct the issue. Since the one of the issues of his transgression is the fact that it was made so public by his presidency, the fact that he chooses to make the steps he is undertaking to correct the issue private is itself a beginning of these corrections. On the outside, there is no mention of specific steps beyond this one: “But it is private, and I intend to reclaim my family life for my family. It's nobody's business but ours” (CNN). This section of his address, in owning the admission of transgression, shames the very audience eager to listen for the details of his affair. Clinton here admonishes, “Now it is time -- in fact, it is past time to move on” (CNN). This shames works to disguise his lack of apology with shame tactics.

So where does this address leave us today? What is the lasting impact that this seemingly presidential apology provides? Given Clinton's favorable poll numbers in the wake of this admission, it seems that coming clean is a good move. In that August, Clinton's favorability ranking was 69%, which seems impossibly high compared to the most current 40% for Obama today (Miller 2013; Gallup Daily). Perhaps this public address leaves its impact in its simple truth: we all make mistakes. Even presidents make mistakes and when this occurs, owning these makes works far better in the long run. According to the reception of this address, one doesn't even need to say "sorry" outright for it to be accepted just the same. I might even argue that it's an unfortunately glaring instance of the privilege that white, heterosexual men in power are given in a hyper-patriarchal society when they are so easily pardoned by the public. Ultimately, it is clear that former President Bill Clinton did well to issue this very public and formal outline of his transgression and this carefully crafted not-apology worked in his favor for years to come.

And that he could play a dang saxophone.

Works Cited
Burt, Christopher C. "The El Nino of 1997-1998." Weather Extremes :. Weather Underground, 10 Mar. 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
Fitzpatrick, Molly. "How To Apologize The Right Way: An Apology Actually Has Three Parts." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 3 Nov. 2014.
"Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval." Gallup Daily: Obama Job Approval. Gallup, n.d. Web. 10 Nov. 2014.
Miller, Jake. "15 Years Ago: Bill Clinton's Historic Denial." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 26 Jan.   2013. Web. 11 Nov. 2014.
"Regret." New Oxford American Dictionary. 2nd ed. N.d. Print.
"Sorry." New Oxford American Dictionary. 2nd ed. N.d. Print.
"Transcript: President Bill Clinton's Speech." CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2014.