Demonization or deification — a very tricky distinction
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’ 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. Few Westerners understand that the demonization of Hitler, the Nazis, and the swastika was never enthusiastically subscribed to in Asia.
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 US 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 US 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 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.