Ian Buruma's latest review for The New York Review is of Paul Handley's unauthorized biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand. This is a well-timed article. Thailand is facing considerable instability stemming from both the military overthrow of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and increasing Muslim unrest in the south near the Malaysian border. Buruma writes at great length about the active role that the King plays in efforts to maintain stability and the strong public mandate he has supporting such activism (which is not addressed by the constitution). Ultimately, Buruma makes a case for two underlying propositions:
- The general public of Thailand believes that their monarch has their best interests is heart in any decisions he makes.
- They are probably correct in believing this.
One would think that this might be an opportunity to promote the Hegelian view of monarchy as the "ultimate" form of government; but Buruma does not go in for such neoconservative Kool-Aid. His final paragraph takes quite a different tack:
To describe royal charity as a form of populism would seem to be a paradox, for what could be more elitist than a monarchy? But it is not unusual for aristocrats and kings to claim to be on the side of the common man against the greedy rich. What we see in Thailand, then, is two competing forms of charismatic autocracy: a traditional type, seeking its legitimacy in religion, culture, history, bloodlines, and superior virtue, and a new kind, based on money, celebrity, and media savvy. This is not unique to Thailand. Anyone who has seen The Queen, the movie about the British royal family in Tony Blair's United Kingdom, will recognize the phenomenon. But the drama in Thailand is especially acute, because unlike Britain, Thailand is still struggling with democratic institutions. Those who applaud too loudly, for understandable reasons, the victory of the old guard over the new should think of the damage done whenever people look to kings and generals to solve problems they should really take care of themselves.
For my part my applause goes to Buruma, particularly for that concluding sentence, since, by looking at Thailand, he seems to have cut to the core of what I have called the "secular messianism" problem in our own country. Unfortunately, over here we do not face the refinement of aristocratic values as an alternative to "money, celebrity, and media savvy" gone wild. As I was reminded on Monday night while listening to Amiri Baraka read a fictionalize account of the civil rights movement at its most tumultuous, the alternative that confronts us is the concept of "Homeland Security" as a new way to legitimize the government beating up on whomever they choose. This is the consequence that has come from our opting out of the responsibility to see to our own problems, so it is no wonder that the rest of the world attaches so little credibility to anything we now say about democracy.