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Thailand is degenerating just like Venice did in the 18th century
Publication Date : 01-05-2014
There are several reasons why it was refreshing to hear former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva explain why he is stepping in to help find an "amicable" and mutually acceptable resolution, as our messy and nasty political conflict approaches a destructive dead end. Admire him or hate him, there is one thing we can all agree upon: he does not talk dirt. Abhisit risked censure from all sides by stepping forward. But he was following his "conscience and duty to the country", and the rest (though he did not say it in so many words) was understandably just trivial.
The notion of having a conscience and a duty to the country, the dread of committing wrongdoing, and the shame of behaving dishonestly have lost their lustre in our society.
Thailand has entered an Age of Decadence.
More than two decades of fast and furious economic prosperity has so amplified the bad habits of consumerism that there are alarmingly few things that money cannot now buy. A certain religious sect even claims worshippers can buy a place in heaven with donations to their temple.
In tandem with the rise to prominence and power of the nouveau riche - most of whom feverishly follow the model of the Uber-capitalist United States, which professes its trust in God on its banknotes - is the decay of our moral backbone.
Bangkok was once called the Venice of the East for its many canals and serene surroundings. Now the country can be compared to the Republic of Venice during the 18th century as it declined to a low point in its near-thousand-year existence. The descent of Venice into its Age of Decadence finally saw it fall to Napoleon in 1797.
The social, economic, political and moral transformation that made Venice the "dissipate and licentious capital of all Europe" is laid bare for tourists in the "Guided Walking Tour of Life in Eighteenth-century Venice": "The nouveau riche ascended to great palazzos on the Grand Canal, nuns took to cavorting with handsome, young men, women ran casinos for their own enjoyment, and coffee and chocolate, those most exotic of pleasures, were consumed with appetites approaching lust."
That era gave the world a new word: "Casanova". Eighteenth-century Venetian Giacomo Casanova is notorious even today for his endless sexual adventures, including an affair with his own 17-year-old illegitimate daughter, which resulted in her giving birth to a boy who was both his son and his grandson.
There are compelling external reasons for his behaviour. The 18th century was a famously promiscuous era, and nowhere more so than in Venice. The all-but non-existent sexual morality in the city in which Casanova grew up must surely have played a significant role in shaping his conduct.
Fast forward to the Thailand of today and we don't have to look hard nor far to find those same external reasons. The traditional notions in our society of what constitute decency, honour and dignity have given way to deceit, self-interest and exploitation. Most things seem to have become commodities, ie tradable. The first blessing that many monks offer to alms-givers is that their "good deeds" bring them wealth. The reason? Nowadays wealth is synonymous with honour, respectability and acceptability. Money is what greases the wheels.
We have become more accepting of hideous behaviour such as paedophilia, practised on our youngsters by both locals and foreigners. In fact, abuse of all sorts is becoming more acceptable, condoned and even encouraged - especially abuse of power. For minor government officials, it is a known and accepted fact of life that monetary "tributes" are sometimes not enough to gain promotion from a superior; at times they must also sell their bodies. As such, we have an increasing number of inept officials in high places who have no notion of public service, and do not care to acquire one. In many cases, the abuses are passed on and become a tradition. These are officials who get there not because of their merits or their ability, but because they "pay" their way to their positions. As in Venice, complacence towards devious and lascivious acts has become an acceptable norm here.
Pageantry, pomposity and self-aggrandisement have replaced substance, honesty, prudence and humility in our social, political and moral life. Truth and logic have become endangered species.
Ours has become a country where compromise is equated to loss of face by certain individuals, which must be avoided even at the cost of the country's demise. It is a land where taking responsibility for misdeeds is considered shameful. South Korea's prime minister resigned over the tragedy involving a ferry owned by a private company. We cannot expect our own leaders to do so even when they have committed crimes.
The question we Thais must ask ourselves is: "Do we want to continue down the path that brought us to this age of decadence without dignity, looking back on a beautiful past but unable to move forward to the better nation we can build, and one that our children deserve to inherit?"
The answer rests in the hands of all of us.