Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Saturday, December 20, 2008


There’s a kind of behavior, and a kind of power, where to behave honorably is to conform to certain rules of cunning, courage and ferocity. Where honorable denotes, simply, the possession of superior strength and willingness to use force. Where to be 'honorable' is to be 'exceptional', 'worth your salt', and especially, 'overbearing'. Here, an honorable act is little more than a successful act of aggression - either in response to some perceived insult or to real provocation.
A high degree of heroism and virtue can be seen as embodied in a superior elite, or, to any brave man proud of valor, scorned danger, in people of no scruples, ready for anything. The key is ability to be a ‘real man,’ to follow a double moral system, with one set of norms applying among members of an ‘in’ group, and another, opposing set for relations with those outside it. In relations with fellow ‘real men’, tact and fine manners' are required, to be used with kinds of erudition, courtesy, kindness and verbal persuasion without compulsion. But in dealings with ‘lesser’ people and enemies, an opposite principle, of false kindness, false condescension and false courtesy applies: snares concealing death to unsuspecting trouble-makers, to the wicked or to the contemptible.
Despite formal hostility from most official authorities, these characters – be they criminals, politicians or entertainers – often enjoy popular esteem, even veneration. The courage needed to make these qualities count, and to not just defend one’s self and group against several (or even more) antagonists, but to take the offensive and put enemies to the slaughter, remains too often seen as admirable.
Power is often expressed in the respect and esteem in which certain people are held, and linked to the possession of particular qualities, and to the accomplishment of particular feats, deeds and actions. This is often, ’though hardly always, part of a cultural pattern whose central themes of self-assertion and honor attained through violence, is taken to be of paramount importance.
A brave man, someone who will put up with no provocation, can be seen as what every man needs to be, indeed must be to survive. Individual force and strength is the one and only means of settling conflict; any clash of interests or ideas presents a kind of quandary, a suggestion of attack, wherein-which it is found impossible to tolerate the superiority or (worse still) dominance of others.
Where this attitude dominates, competitions, challenges and fights are a fundamental means by which people are socialized. The distribution of power and prestige, even within a family, isn’t preordained, or patriarchal type, but established through conflict and testing. Relations within a family obey the rule, not of intimacy or solidarity, but of subordination, involving physically asserted superiority, obligations and values emphasizing prerogatives attached to each position within the hierarchy. Rule is seen as a chore that allows tending to no others.
The father-son relationship, for instance, isn’t based on an established, stable hierarchy derived from the parent's capacity, age and experience, but on ability to emerge victorious - through physical strength and/or cunning - in any competition. What matters most in the establishment of hierarchy is the predominance of the strongest. The strongest member of the domestic group might also be the oldest, or might be the most aggressive or wiliest. Family roles are thus fluid and temporary, subject to considerable tensions and reversals. In time, a son or even wife might grow sufficiently bold to challenge the father's primacy, struggle against it, and dethrone it. Competitive success is an end in itself, independent of the material advantages victory might bring, or even decision-making prerogatives.
It is, indeed, fine – and empowering - to conquer fear and overcome intimidation. It’s good to be strong, and capable; also to be rational, and truly self-controlled. It’s also healthy, and wise, to believe in something beyond he (very limited) self, and to accept life’s limitations. For in being civilized, there can be flowerings much grander than arrogance can supply. And to influence can be much better than to assert.



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