Sunday, October 9, 2011

Going to the Source

This rainy season in Southeast Asia has already been unusually severe, and Bangkok is worried.

And with good reason.

As the rains fall upcountry  and the ground becomes saturated, the Chao Phraya river, the "River of Kings," swells toward floodtide proportions.  And, of course, the Chao Phraya bisects Bangkok, which is built on the river's ancient flood plain.  As you can see from the picture above, there's not much vertical space between the surface of the river and the surface of Bangkok.

This aerial view might give you a better idea of how the river coils through the city.

And now the Chao Phraya is rising dangerously.  A major flood would cause an unimaginable amount of damage and might endanger lives, although the city's longterm rhythms are in some ways keyed to the river's fluctuations, and the loss of life would probably be minimal.  But the cost of the cleanup will run into billions of baht.

So the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority has taken action.

This is an internal memo calling on all the Authority's ranking directors and department heads to attend a ceremony that was held October 7 at the Bangkok City Pillar Shrine "to beg Ka Kang, the River Goddess, to lower the flood in Bangkok rapidly."  The invitation also requests "Thai dress or polite dress."

Even beyond the fact that Thailand still has a concept of "polite dress," this memo points up one of the big differences between the Kingdom and America.  We don't have enough gods to whom we can assign pinpoint blame when things go wrong.  Our plane is late, we blame the president for all the airport security nonsense.  The price of bread goes up, we blame the president for bad farm and financial policies.  We get sick and can't afford treatment, we blame the president for not muscling his medical overhaul in place more effectively; or we don't get sick and we blame the president for taxing us to provide insurance for others.

When the fact is that the president is just some schmuck who lives in the White House and has no idea what to do about the price of bread and no idea what to do about the planes not taking off on time, and no one has ever mastered health care.  But Americans don't have a goddess of flight schedules or a patron saint of dietary staples, so we vote out the president and his affiliated gang of robbers and vote in some other schmuck and a bigger gang of robbers, and two years later we're all demanding to know why everything hasn't been fixed.

When there's a problem, we can't go to the source because (except during a few extraordinary periods of our history) there really isn't a source.  Government is, in the bluntest terms, the machine rich people use to get richer.  We keep hoping, with every election cycle, that this time we'll get the exception to that rule, but -- taking a look at the world as a whole right now -- I find that to be a very, very long bet.

But, even from here in Santa Monica, I'm with the Thais as they seek to placate the River Goddess.


  1. Is the bottom line to what you're saying that our president is not a god? If so, then could you please explain to me why so many are linking his name and those of others coveting the position of president to words and phrases using "god" in describing the particular individual's perceived abilities and credentials?

  2. Unfortunately, I am not surprised that the majority of the American blame the president. Civics has been lost somewhere so that people either don't know or have forgotten that all laws/bill/ programs that deal with money have to originate in the House of Representatives. The president can send bills to Congress but the House has to pass anything that needs to be funded. If that happens the Senate gets involved and if they pass it, the bill goes back to the president for signature or veto.

    It is far easier to blame the occupant of the White House than to have to chase down the voting record of anyone's particular representative in the House. Polls have been taken that show that a significant percentage of people don't know who that is.

    It is important to keep in mind that Obama is unique in the long line or presidents since George Washington. No other president has had the opposing party make an absolute statement about their intent immediately upon the president taking office. In the words of the Republican party "god", Rush Limbaugh, "I am going to do everything in my power to ensure that this president fails." No other president has had to deal with a Congress like this one. The party of the rich controls the House; the party of the cowards, the president's party, refuses to support him because they are afraid they will be voted out of office. Even Bush enjoyed the support of a Democratic Congress when he lied and got the country into a war that has no cause.

    Jeff, the problem with the way the word "god" is used is that it is used all the time by the party of the right and their evangelical spokesmen to browbeat those who don't form their own opinions into believing that the current man in the White House is the devil. They brand him as a socialist and everyone who doesn't read knows that socialism and communism are the same thing. He wants the country to fail just like Russia!

    This is a rhetorical question, Tim - do you really believe that the people of the United States, the 99%, will be better served by Mitt Romney?

  3. I'm losing my touch.

    I should have made it clear that by "the president," I mean, "the president, whoever it is." We still, if only for the sake of convenience, tend to look at American government historically as a series of administrations, named after the individual who was sitting in the White House for those years, and thus I see the president - whoever it is -- as the remote and distant figure representing the government. The closest thing there is to a political god.

    My point is that we're past the Frank Capra days when an individual can sweep into the White House, solve all the nation's problems, take a broom to corruption, and recreate the shining city on a hill this country was originally intended to be. And, in fact, I believe individual presidents have much more power to do ill than to do good, and perhaps all future presidents should take the Hippocratic Oath, beginning "First of all, do no harm."

    I don't believe Obama is an exception to any of this, although I hoped he was. I could go on for pages detailing the reasons for my loss of faith in him without having to mention the Republicans even once. But I think the chances of (a) a transformative figure arising and being elected president, or (b) our ever getting a chance to vote for such a figure, are virtually nil. We'll continue to choose the lesser of two evils within the narrow spectrum of candidates who are allowed to run by the people who actually hold the power.

    I think the Occupy Wall Street people are a hopeful sign, if only because politicians and their handlers still have to listen to large blocs of voters, but until the demonstrators produce an actionable and realistic call to action, I believe they'll continue to generate more heat than light.

    So the bottom line of my piece was intended to be that the president, whom we blame or credit for thousands of things he/she has no control over, is the figure we turn to or rail at when things go wrong. And that it's futile to expect results. Better to pray to the river god.

    I guess you could say I'm disillusioned.

  4. Praying to the River God may be more useful than hoping that our government will respond to the needs of us ordinary folks. At least, the people praying will feel better. I am trying to remember a time when I felt safe and cared about by the government; seems a long time ago.

  5. I agree Tim. Politicians can don't anything any more. The business nexus holds all the power. The best we can hope for is someone who won't kowtow as cravenly to those vested interests as others, and refrain from starting pointless wars under false auspices. Who will do what they can with the little power they actually wield to make life a little better for the small guy. Which is why someone like Obama will be a million times preferable to the likes of Romney and Perry. Small degrees, and scant consolation for those who want to see big change, but it can make a big difference to many people. It's all we can hope for under these circumstances, depressing as it is.

  6. I will probably vote for Obama, but with no enthusiasm at all. It's difficult for me to be enthusiastic about a president under whose regime a shadowy group of people draws up a list of Americans who can be assassinated with no due process, and then refuses to identify those who make up the list or even the criteria for appearing on it. And a president who broke virtually every commitment he made about Guantanamo, our military presence in the Middle East, and whose justice department is pursuing medical marijuana dispensaries -- and I could go one for paragraphs. I don't think there's anything on the list above that Bush wouldn't have done, and Obama gave me the impression that I was voting against the Bush world view.

  7. We're all frustrated, Tim. Frankly, I think I'm going take your advice and go down to the river. But not to meditate, to drown some mother(*&^%%$s.