Demonization or Deification — A Very Tricky Distinction – David Simmons | Asia Times

Demonization or Deification — A Very Tricky Distinction

David Simmons | Asia Times

Last Thursday the front page of The Nation, a Bangkok-based daily, featured a dramatic photo of the Grand Palace with the simple headline:  “Divine Departure.”

For the past year, Thailand has been in an official state of mourning after the death of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died at the age of 88 a year ago after a long illness. The Bhumibol era officially ended Thursday with the cremation of one of the most beloved monarchs of modern times.

But “divine”? Yes — Thailand is a predominantly Buddhist country, but it is obvious that if there is a divine presence for nearly all Thais, it is not the Buddha. It is Bhumibol.    

Enlightened Westerners may chuckle at the quasi-deification of a mere man, one whose human flaws (if he had any) it is against the law to point out. Enforcement of Thailand’s infamous lèse-majesté laws has been ramped up by the deeply royalist military dictatorship since the king’s death, the generals knowing full well that his oldest son and successor so far does not enjoy an exalted position in the people’s hearts.

Anti-monarchy laws obscure ulterior motives

How the transition to the post-Bhumibol era will play out is unknown, largely because it is illegal to discuss it out loud. But such legal excesses cloud the understanding of non-Thais about the true nature of the monarchy cult.

The lèse-majesté laws were enacted for political reasons, not because there was ever any genuine danger that Thais would withhold their reverence for the king. Like anti-corruption laws (at least as enforced in most of Asia, including Thailand), lèse-majesté has been used to tear down political opposition to the ruling elite.

But back to those “enlightened Westerners”. It is true that in those Western countries and multinational groupings such as the Commonwealth that have not abolished their monarchies, their kings and queens are not revered — they are mere ornaments, like the retractable Spirit of Ecstasy that adorns Rolls-Royces. But mere humans are mythologized in the West all the time, either through irrational hero-worship or, more often, demonization.

The demon is a character of every major religion and superstition that has existed throughout history. But like humans, it has evolved over the centuries.

The English word “demon” derives from the ancient Greeks’ daimonion, and to them, such beings were not necessarily malevolent. They had another word, eudaimonia, derived from daimonion, that meant “happiness.” The theory was that the happy Greek was possessed by a happy demon.

The problem with demons, in practically every religion, is that they are will-o’-the-wisps. And their ability to possess the bodies of humans makes them untrustworthy allies at best and thoroughly nasty at worst, necessitating exorcism.

Spirits of the dead enticed to remain that way

In the East, people remain somewhat tolerant of these disembodied beings, especially as there is a good possibility (they believe) that they are the spirits of the dead, including their own loved ones. But while they’re treated with respect, it’s believed that it’s better if they stay in their own world, and don’t try to re-enter the land of the living.

For this reason, all over Buddhist Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), you see spirit houses, little dwellings supplied with foods and drinks to entice them to stay there, and not to enter the homes of their still-living loved ones.

That’s not how Western Christians see the situation. For them, demons have completely lost their credibility. They are not to be tolerated. This remains the attitude even as the West becomes more and more secular. The ancient concepts of Good and Evil persist, even as more people doubt (or claim to doubt) those concepts of supernatural origins.

All this has given rise to the relatively modern phenomenon of demonization — the assignation of demonic qualities to humans, or human innovations or symbols, that are seen to be so evil or dangerous that they transcend normal humanity.

In Europe, the most famous human demon is Adolf Hitler. The present-tense “is” is appropriate because the Hitler myth remains almost as powerful, and even more ethereal, than when he was alive.

A wicked reputation sometimes clouds the truth

Demonization is not the same as slander. There is plenty of evidence that Hitler was a very bad man, so he’s not getting a bum rap. In nearly all cases, the object of demonization is pretty bad to start with.

What happens is that his wickedness gets exaggerated or over-reported to proportions that either cloud the truth or assign to him traits or qualities that he did not actually possess.

Meanwhile, anyone who points to the fact that the German economy was a basket case until Hitler came to power, and that he put into motion a culture of science and innovation that led to the modern freeway, the Volkswagen, and the rockets that eventually flew to the moon — sometimes by personal encouragement and funding for people like Ferdinand Porsche and Wehrner von Braun — is taking the risk of being demonized himself.

In this way, demonization can be applied not just to individual humans but also to their innovations. An example of this, again from the Nazi era, is the swastika. This is an ancient symbol that was used by many cultures, mostly in the East, before Hitler decided to adopt it for his National Socialist Party. Now it is a symbol of all of the evils of the Third Reich.

Few Westerners understand that the demonization of Hitler, the Nazis, and the swastika was never enthusiastically subscribed to in Asia. But only in the West.

In Thailand, Hitler is seen as a clown, possibly a symbol of how Europeans, who think they are superior to everyone else on the planet, and who have never understood how their colonization of most of Asia was deeply resented and remains a source of shame to this day, are in fact self-deluding arrogant fools, crooks, and murderers.

Every once in a while, someone in Thailand uses a Hitler image in an advertisement or a publicity stunt, and local expats freak out in rage at their “insensitivity.” And the Thais get another laugh out of it, knowing that few of the offended have even heard of Shiro Ishii, the Mengele of the Japanese Empire, or even Hideki Tojo.

Demonization is a Popular Tactic in Politics

This is not to say that Asians are less susceptible to the use of, or manipulation by, demonization. As in the West, it is most commonly used in the political sphere. In Thailand, the guy with the horns and pointy tail is Thaksin Shinawatra, who outflanked his many enemies within the traditional Bangkok-based elite (he hailed from the country’s “backward” North) and “tricked” the rural majority into electing him as prime minister for his “populist” programs.

Of course, he was just as corrupt as his predecessors and used his power to enrich himself and his family and friends like they did. But unlike them, he also kept a lot of his promises and put in place policies that shifted much of the country’s wealth and industrial base into the formerly solely agricultural (and poverty-stricken) Northern and Northeastern regions, which remain important drivers of the Thai economy.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Thailand now is a bitterly divided country, between the Central region to which Thaksin is the devil incarnate and the populous North and Northeast, which have stubbornly failed to buy into the anti-Thaksin mythology. It is no exaggeration to say that the monarchy cult has been the glue keeping Thailand from falling apart or descending into violence even worse than the slaughter of pro-Thaksin, pro-democracy “Red Shirts” in 2010.

And this is another important aspect of demonization. Like any mythology, it has its adherents and its opponents, and doubters sitting on the fence.

Beliefs are Often Fomented by Brainwashing

In Asia, the most obvious example of this is Kim Jong-un. To most people outside North Korea itself, he is the personification of evil, who keeps an entire country in slavery. But to North Koreans, he can do no wrong — even enjoys quasi-divinity similar to that of a Thai monarch.

Do they believe this because if they don’t they’ll be sent to a labor camp? For some that may be the reason, but it’s more likely to be because they have been brainwashed from birth that the Kims are quasi-deities. And that’s how belief systems work everywhere.

Whether in the East or the West, demonization is a form of delusion, an altering of facts to manipulate the believers into a certain set of behaviors. It is often a form of deliberate propaganda, but in many cases it is a spontaneous phenomenon arising from a need for self-delusion.

The most obvious example in the present-day West is Donald Trump. Again, there is no need to pretend he’s a great man to make this point; obviously he is not. He is a chronic liar and cheater. But lying and cheating are the hallmarks of most politicians, especially, but far from exclusively on the right wing that Trump represents.

To consider just one example, during Trump’s debate with his Democratic rival for the USA presidency, Hillary Clinton, on September 26, 2016, when she pointed out that he was an incorrigible tax evader, he said, “That makes me smart.”

That got the “Trump Is the Antichrist” brigade up in arms. Yet the entire American business class pats itself on the back not only for evading taxes but for lobbying and bribing politicians into making it even easier for them to do so. Everyone knows this. But the inconvenient truth was set aside by the pro-Clinton USA media.

Meanwhile, Trump himself — possibly inadvertently — bought into his own demon myth by claiming to have been called a genius. “Genius” is a Latin word that originally meant a demon who oversaw childbirth and, if the kid was lucky, was his guardian angel — a benevolent genie. This genie imbued the child with the characteristics that would guide him into adulthood, and special abilities — like the knack of choosing a clever accountant to help him avoid paying taxes.

When the Words of One Reflect the Views of Many

So, during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump was a demon not because he evaded taxes, or because he thought fat women were “pigs,” or because he thought there were too many Muslims, but because he said so, in so many words.

To watch all the crocodile tears flowing down the cheeks of pro-Clinton pundits, you would have thought he had concocted such antisocial ideas in the Trump Tower.

That’s what you would have thought — unless you knew, as we all do, that it’s nonsense. These ideas are, in fact, embraced by millions of Americans who had been too afraid, or too hypocritical, to voice them — until Trump made it acceptable.

The 2016 US election has been criticized as post-factual. In fact, the facts were too unpalatable to contemplate, let alone deal with, long before 2016.

The United States of America is a violent society where the chance of getting shot to death is astronomically higher than in any other developed culture, where for-profit prisons are packed to the rafters, where citizens are still executed.

Desperate immigrants, mostly Latinos, pour into it to try to improve their lives, only to be exploited by employers so as to drive down wages, and blamed for it by white folk forced on to food stamps, while people like John Stumpf and Martin Shkreli and Jamie Dimon become billionaires.

But it’s not nice to talk about such things. Vote for Hillary, and more of the same — if you don’t, you’re an uneducated boor and a racist, the pundits said.

And we know how that turned out.

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  • Clyde Duncan  On 10/31/2017 at 10:26 am

    This is a very nice take on Donald Trump from The Economist (Sept 3, 2016) by someone who is familiar to us:

    Donald Trump reminds me of some monstrous figure out of Lewis Carroll’s writings.

    An amalgam of the Red Queen:
    Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!

    Humpty Dumpty:
    When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less!

    and Bellman in “The Hunting of the Snark”: “What I tell you three times is true!”

    Georgetown, Guyana

  • Clyde Duncan  On 10/31/2017 at 6:41 pm

    It’s Mueller Time!

  • Clyde Duncan  On 11/02/2017 at 12:25 am

    This Past Year Seems Like An Eternity ….. Check This Out November 2016:

    Electing Trump: The Moment America Laid Waste to Democracy as we Know It

    Gary Younge – The Guardian UK

    Most pundits said they wouldn’t do it; most pollsters insisted they couldn’t do it; everyone from the Pope to Beyoncé said they shouldn’t do it. Now it’s done.

    Donald Trump’s election victory changes both the game and the stakes. He adopted a conciliatory tone, both towards the nation and his opponent, Hillary Clinton, in his victory speech.

    But for the past year his campaign has laid waste to the democratic traditions of an ostensibly mature political culture.

    Advocating violence at his own rallies, branding journalists scum, making up facts, refusing to accept the result if he lost – he refused to abide by basic decent democratic norms.

    A self-confessed sexual predator, race-baiter, xenophobe and Islamophobe – not to mention a thin-skinned Twitter troll who mocks disabled people – he also refused to recognise what had been until now the boundaries of acceptable electoral discourse.

    Trading the dog whistle for a wolf whistle, a range of bigotries have now been emboldened.

    New lows have been set; old, if unspoken, rules have been broken. A new normal has been established literally overnight; divisive in its rhetoric, authoritarian in its impulses, untethered in its ideology, it wears its vulgarity and ignorance as a badge of honour.

    Trump both personifies and embodies it. He is no longer a threat to the powers that be; he is the power that will be.

    For these infractions Trump has not only gone unpunished, he has been rewarded. And not with a new prime-time show but the White House, the nuclear codes and the most powerful military on the planet.

    As German chancellor Angela Merkel’s guarded response to the result indicates, this is not just an issue for Americans but for the world.

    The electoral appeal of nationalist nostalgia, class resentments, racial animus and economic insecurity are by no means limited to America.

    Most western nations have their Trumps, and many of these Trumps are having their day. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, campaigned with him; Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, was one of the first foreign politicians to congratulate him.

    Watching the tears fall from liberal eyes on Tuesday night in Muncie, Indiana, where I have spent the past month, as unexpected results came in from Rust Belt states, felt like Brexit 2.0.

    Today they wake up to a different country, not because the country has changed but because they can now see it for what it is.

    Bars in the more liberal downtown were silent and stunned; out in rural areas they were setting off fireworks.

    This was not inevitable. There is no doubt that Clinton, who has more experience than almost any candidate previously, was qualified to do the job. She may yet win the popular vote. The problem was she did not have the qualities to win an election.

    She maintained the Obama coalition of the young, women, minorities and the university educated but could not energise them in sufficient numbers where it mattered, even as many emerged to vote not for Trump but against her.

    Sexism played a part; but, given that Trump won white women by a considerable margin, there was more to it than that. The FBI certainly didn’t help, but that alone cannot explain this.

    The historical symbolism of her candidacy notwithstanding, Clinton stood for the status quo. She in effect claimed she was running for Barack Obama’s third term.

    But in a country where wages are stagnant, class mobility has calcified, inequalities are growing and healthcare costs are rising, people did not want more of the same.

    Driving around Muncie and witnessing the remains of what was once a vibrant industrial town, with whole factories abandoned like carrion, it’s not difficult to see why Delaware County, which twice went for Obama, backed Trump. They wanted something – anything – to change.

    “The Democratic party establishment just says it wants to do the things we’ve always done and have incremental change,” says Dave Ring, who owns the Downtown Farm Stand and voted for Bernie Sanders in the primary and Clinton in the presidential election. “And the rest of the public is out here like we don’t have time for incremental change.”

    This was not simply a class revolt. Clinton won big among the poor; Trump won more narrowly among the wealthy. The white working class were a significant section of the Trump coalition and swung in large numbers towards him; but they were not the dominant part of it. The defining fault lines were also race, age, gender and town versus country.

    But Trump couldn’t have won without that shift in the white working class, and racism alone cannot explain that.

    “Nobody speaks up for the poor,” says Jamie Walsh, who grew up in Muncie and voted for Obama in 2008 and planned to vote for Trump this year. “There is systemic racism, but black people have advocates. Poor white people don’t. The whole idea [of white privilege] pisses poor white people off because they’ve never experienced it on a level that they understand.

    You hear privilege and you think money and opportunity and they don’t have it.

    So when Trump says stuff, they can understand what he’s saying, and he speaks to them in a way other people don’t.”

    For while Trump’s allegations of election fraud had little purchase, his claims that “the system is rigged” rang true for many. Almost 10 years since the financial crash, only the poor and middle class have paid the price; Clinton’s emails were a red herring, but there really is one law for the powerful and another for the poor; life expectancy among non-college-educated whites is falling.

    People, in short, have a great deal to be angry about, and precious little reason to trust the establishment.

    So Trump’s victory was not simply a rebuke to the Democrats in general or Clinton in particular.

    The Republican hierarchy did not want him, either, and for a significant period of the campaign he ran against them, too.

    It was an indictment of the entire political class by a sizeable section of white America either nostalgic for a mythical past that never existed or for racial privileges that did.

    He is a thumb in the eye to the bipartisan consensus, and its media cheerleaders, that brought them the Iraq war, the North American Free Trade Agreement and the financial crisis.

    He galvanised those so desperate for a political future that included them that they were prepared either to overlook the glaring contradictions in his conservative anti-establishment credentials – he’s a thrice-married, former gun-control, pro-choice Democrat who had the Clintons at his wedding – or saw them and forgave them.

    He represents the incoherent, inchoate and ill-informed rage against the fallout of neoliberal globalisation that has found a home in a newly mobilised and racialised nationalism across the west.

    His victory will provide momentary solace to his supporters but no lasting remedy.

    Clinton will not be jailed; no wall will be built; he will not defeat ISIS, but he will appoint supreme court justices, he can start wars.

    [Breaking News: No nomination ever got approval before the Senate pleading the Fifth – Trump to withdraw Agriculture Nominee – Nov 2017]

    In short, he will not deliver on his most outlandish promises precisely because they are outlandish. He exemplifies the problem; he has no solutions.

    The one thing we knew before anyone cast a vote was that Americans were going to get a president they didn’t like.

    Both candidates were viewed unfavourably; we just didn’t realise they would opt for the one they liked least.

    For a week or more Americans have been saying they just wished the whole election was over; now many would like to turn back the clock to a time, just yesterday, when they never imagined this was possible.

    Having spent the best part of a year treating Trump’s candidacy as a joke, he has the last laugh. America has taken a leap into the dark; we must now wait to see where it lands.

    This was November 2016 – Today it is November 2017

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