Readers' Submissions

Freedom Vs. Responsibility: Thailand Vs. Farangland, Getting The Facts Straight



As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once cogently observed, “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

The opinions of people who contribute submissions to this website, including myself, express a wide range of opinions on every subject from A-Z. I will be the first to admit that much of what I write represents my personal feelings based on my own observations and experiences. Not surprisingly many other folks write pieces based on their personal observations and experiences. Sometimes I agree with a particular writer’s perspective, sometimes I take issue with something I read here. Rarely though are my feelings strong enough that I feel compelled to write and personally take issue with anything. Today is one of those days.

Based on some recent comments made by Caveman in his continuing series on his sojourn in Thailand, I would like to take the opportunity to challenge some assertions he puts forward as facts regarding environmentalism. I would also like to put these remarks in perspective concerning freedom vs. responsibility in Thailand and in Farangland.

In writing about the Loy Krathong celebrations here in the north Caveman writes,

The reality in the States being what it is, the environmental whackos would never allow such an event to even take place! I guarantee 100% that they would find some BULLSHIT way in which the lanterns are impacting negatively on the environment and would not stop their bellyaching until the practice was banned completely. This is a perfect example of how FREEDOM from such BS in Thailand directly impacts your life in a positive way.

Where to begin? Last night I celebrated Loy Krathong here in Lampang. I wish I could say that the “November full moon shines” as the song goes, but alas the weather this November has been quite out of the ordinary. Usually the rainy season ends like clockwork at the end of October, and at least in this part of Thailand, the weather becomes cool and dry. The skies are usually bright and clear. This generally lasts, with few exceptions right through Songkran in mid April. This year however November has been extraordinarily warm and wet; with cloudy skies frequent both day and night.

On Loy Krathing evening I set out with my son Sam to launch the Krathong he had made in school into the Wang River. Lampang has many places where the river is easily accessible. The skies were cloudy. No full moon was to be seen. Rain seemed imminent. That didn’t dampen our fun. I lit the candle and incense on Sam’s Karthong, then we both knelt down and gently set it floating downstream. The current quickly took it away out of sight.

As almost everywhere else in Thailand there were vendors selling krathongs and yi-peng, the traditional paper hot air balloons. One of the most spectacular sights you will ever see in Thailand is the sky filled with thousands of these glowing lanterns rising towards the heavens. I myself bought three of them for 100 baht, and with a little assistance from Sam, launched them into the sky.

Before I bought these, I did carefully consider whether it was safe for me to do so on that night. What was there to consider? Well, as lovely as yi-peng, are, launching anything that is burning does pose a potential risk of coming down somewhere and starting a fire…and quite a few yi-peng that Thais send aloft have incendiary devices attached to them. It’s a pretty sight to see them blazing away like comets like meteors streaking upwards…but I would imagine that they also have the potential to start a conflagration. It does happen every year, although I have no statistics on how many fires are caused every Loy Krathong season. Thailand is not noted for accurate record keeping when it comes to accidents.

So why did I decide that last night was probably safe to send my three yi-peng sailing to god knows where? As I have mentioned, this November has been unusually rainy. It had in fact rained here both the night before and that very afternoon. Everything for miles around was damp if not in fact soaking wet. The danger of one my yi-pengs starting a fire seemed remote, so I chose to go ahead and launch them. If everything had been bone dry, I probably would not have. Everything we do has consequences. I believe it is my responsibility as a ration (or so I hope) to as many factors as I can before risking a disaster…especially one involving other people.

In America you probably would have restrictions on sending something on fire constructed of flammable materials hurtling into the sky. Is this as Caveman so colourfully says “bullshit” or simple prudence? You might want to ask the thousands of folks in the western U.S., who each and every year experience the devastation of forest fires for their opinion on the wisdom of flaming debris coming down out of the sky when the vegetation is like a tinderbox.

Before anyone starts accusing Old Sawadee of being an anally retentive “killjoy”, let me say that if the risk of fire is negligible, I say send as many yi-peng into the sky as you want. As I mentioned, they are a gorgeous spectacle. Still only an idiot would put other people at risk if the conditions for launching them were high.

Every year in America many brush and forest fires are started through sheer carelessness. Some idiot throws a burning cigarette butt out a window, fails to extinguish a campfire or walks away from a fire which he should be carefully tending, and a deadly conflagration results.

This one reason why there are laws on the books which regulate when and where you are allowed to burn things, and heavy fines or jail terms for starting, even inadvertently a forest fire.

I spent ten years living in the town of Lenox, Massachusetts. Caveman would absolutely hate the place, since it is crawling with environmentalists who take fire safety seriously. At the time I owned about 11 acres of land. Each spring I would have quite a lot of accumulated leaves and brush that needed to be burned. Burning permits were issued by the town for a short period at the beginning of April, when the ground was still fairly wet. In order for me obtain a permit, there had to be not much more than a light breeze, and I was required to be present during the entire time that burning was happening…with a functioning hose, just in case there was a flare up, and naturally I had to soak what was left thoroughly with water when I was done. You won’t be surprised to learn that brush fires in my town were rare. The only one in fact that ever occurred that I’m aware of was during deer hunting season when some irresponsible hunter failed to extinguish a camp fire.

Oh those damned environmentalists and their “fascist regulations”! How dare they tell people what they can and can’t do! If I want to risk a fire, hey it’s my “right” to do so!

Well then it’s no wonder that Caveman loves the “freedom from such BS in Thailand”, because as far as most Thais are concerned, anything that enters their minds is A-OK, no matter how dangerous, irresponsible or inconsiderate …and the rest of the world can just go to hell!

Old Cavey might want to rethink his proposition when a few weeks from now, the dreaded burning season begins, and the air all over the north of Thailand…and especially in Chiang Mai becomes toxic. He doesn’t have to believe me, just ask anyone who lives in the north, or better yet ask Stick about his not–so fond memories of the air quality when he visited last year.

Quite a few years ago I wrote a submission entitled Burn Baby Burn, about the Thai propensity to burn anything and everything they can get their hands on. Feel free to read it if you have the time.

Nothing much has changed since then. The air quality during the winter months when Somchai and his relatives are burning non-stop has to be experience to be believed. I think Caveman, who from his writing is a keen health buff will not enjoy his motorcycle excursions as much when everything is blanketed under a smoky haze, and he is coughing like someone who has a three pack a day cigarette habit.

If there are any environmental laws in Thailand which regulate what you are allowed to send into the atmosphere, they certainly are not being enforced. Is there the Thai equivalent of the American EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)? If so the folks who run it are either: a) incompetent, b) indifferent, or c) too busy collecting their “tea money” to enforce the law.

Every year I see Stop the Burning billboards in the Chiang Mai area. I’ve even received e-mails from people who are genuinely concerned with the yearly nightmare of massive air pollution, and who have petitioned the regional and national authorities to come up with a plan to drastically reduce or eliminate the problem. Needless to say nothing has been done as far as I’m aware, and I’m not holding my breath (bad pun intended!) waiting for anything to ever be done. This is after all Thailand where everyone is “free”, using Caveman’s unique interpretation of the word, from “environmental whackos and other so-called “do-gooders.

According to Caveman and others who share his “keep the tyrannical government off our backs” philosophy, air and water pollution is a myth, as is climate change, which was dreamed up by the “liberal media and “egg-head scientists”…and of course let’s not leave out jack-booted thugs from the United Nations who are intent in installing a “one world regime”…after descending in the dead of night in black helicopters and confiscating everyone’s guns!

Fact: air and water pollution worldwide are all too real. Toxic air is responsible for respiratory and other serious ailments all over the globe. Contaminated drinking water is a critical problem for millions of people all over the planet. In Caveman’s world however, anyone who dares to propose enforceable regulations regarding air and water pollution are either naïve bleeding hearts, or communist/socialist provocateurs, who are out to “destroy capitalism”!

Let’s get this straight folks, Old Sawadee believes in the right for you to swing your clenched fist anywhere you choose to…up to the point where it impacts my face.

No one has the “right” to spew toxic chemicals into the air and water that I…and everyone else has to breathe and drink. If an individual or a corporation produces poison, it is their responsibility to make certain that no one else has to suffer because of it. If that sounds like jack-booted fascism to you, well that’s just too damned bad.

Fact: global climate change is real. The overwhelming majority of climatologists are convinced of it. I’m exempting of course the few kooks that Fox News trots out to deny that climate change is occurring. These are the same folks that can “prove” that the Earth is only 6000 years old and that men once walked with dinosaurs…until The Flood” wiped them out. The funny thing about science is that it depends on critical thinking and rigorous objective proof before coming to a conclusion. It is one thing to have a vigorous debate about what should be done to ameliorate the effects of climate change, it is quite another to deny that a crisis is occurring, or that it is even possible, because it offends your political sensibilities. Once again the mere thought of “government interference” in dealing with global warming and rising sea levels has people like Caveman apoplectic with rage. The problem is that billions of other people living on the Earth will suffer if steps are not taken now to deal with this situation.

In his most recent submission Caveman included a photograph of a shop on whose door hung a sign which read, “Save the world, use less plastic bags”. Caveman’s comment was consistent with what believes.

Sadly, as the above sign indicates, environmental whackos have begun to contaminate Thailand. Luckily, the infestation is still quite limited and does not meaningfully impact your quality of life. Hopefully I’ll be dead and gone long before they take over to the extent they have in the US.”

Oh those “whackos” are at it again…spreading their virulent “freedom restricting” nonsense here in Thailand. Quick enjoy your “quality of life” while you can before they “take over”!

Oh please Cavey, give me a break! In case you haven’t noticed, here in The Land of Smiles where folks can do as they damned well please, an enormous number of the ubiquitous plastic bags that the Thais hand out as if they grow on trees end up thrown in every corner of the landscape…along with all the other garbage Somchai routinely nonchalantly deposits here there and everywhere. Even if these bags are thrown into garbage bins these non biodegradable plastic bags will not magically melt into the ground, and will in fact be here an unimaginably long time, to delight the eye us all decades from now…unless of course Somchai decides instead to toss them on to whatever he eventually will be burning. Somchai doesn’t think twice about burning old cans of paint, pesticide, chemicals of every variety. On second thought, if he isn’t in a burning mood, he might just possibly dump the whole lot into a ditch where it will seep into the ground and eventually make it into the municipal water supply or artesian wells.

Fact: a witch’s brew of industrial chemicals does in fact find its way into drinking water, not only in Thailand or in developing countries, but in all corners of Farangland, including the good old U.S.A.

Once upon a time, when Young Sawadee was growing up in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, GE (General Electric) was a major industrial presence. One of the many things they manufactured back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s were huge electrical transformers, which were shipped all over the world. As part of the manufacturing process a number of chemical by-products were routine dumped into the Housatonic River…which coincidently flowed right by my childhood home and my elementary school. Prominent among the effluent were Polychlorinated Biphenyls, most commonly known by the acronym PCB. PCB, in case you are not familiar with the name, turns out to be one of the most carcinogenic substances known to man. From 1932 to 1977, GE (by its own estimates), released at least 750 tons PCB into the Housatonic. Fish being caught in the river were found to have 3,700-parts-per-million in their bodies, which is pretty scary when 50-parts-per-million or more is considered to be extremely hazardous to human beings. Despite massive cleanup efforts, in 2012 the river is still not free from contamination. According to the Caveman’s dreaded EPA, the PCB contamination in the Housatonic was the highest in the country.

Oh, if only those dastardly “environmental whackos” had just kept their damned liberal mouths shut, GE could have been “free” to do as they please. Instead those valued “job creators” took their transformer operation to Mexico, where presumably there weren’t any “environmental whackos” to “tie their hands’. Hmmm I wonder what the cancer and birth defect rates are South of the Border where GE is operating these days? I can bet you anything that their industrial poisons are there in the people’s drinking water. Nothing like a little “freedom” to do what you please, eh?

Let me if I may expand this discussion to include the need to balance freedom with responsibility. It doesn’t matter if you live in Thailand or Farangland, somewhere along the line intelligent people of differing viewpoints need to work out their differences and reach a consensus of what is acceptable behaviour. Since Caveman’s distant relatives (and mine) several thousand generations removed, began to come together to form collective that went beyond extended families, people have been debating what the rights of the individual versus society at large should be. Far wiser minds than I have written scholarly treatises on the subject, and I am not foolish to believe that my personal views are necessarily universally applicable. I think most intelligent people can agree that everyone simply cannot anything they please anytime, anywhere.

Feel free to disagree with me even on this basic point, but personally I don’t much care for chaos and anarchy. Individuals generally agree that some personal liberties need to be given up in exchange for the good of society in general. For example we may all agree in principle in freedom of speech, but at the same time agree that it would be criminal to cry “fire!” in a crowded theatre. What an individual may think is his right to do, may adversely affect a whole lot of people. How to balance the desires the desire of what one person wants to do with the desire of other folks?

Anyone whose read my submissions is probably familiar with my neighbour Somchai…you know the guy who insists on blasting his music at ear rupturing decibel levels in the wee hours of the morning. I am not the only one who has had the teeth in his head vibrating whenever Somchai has the urge to party…I’m merely the closest. The entire neighbourhood has had many a sleepless night. As I’ve mentioned in a previous submission, Somchai does not take kindly to even a honeyed suggestion to turn down the volume…even a little so that the rest of us can enjoy a night’s sleep. Now in the U.S. there are laws at the local level which regulate the amount of noise you can legally make in the dead of night. In Thailand, well you can pretty much do what you want. Are there laws which limit “noise pollution” here? I have no idea, but if they are, they are rarely if ever enforced. I suppose I could make an inquiry to the police…but then again I don’t think that would work out so well. For one thing, as we all know, “The Farang Is Always Wrong”…and secondly, I know that Somchai has a small arsenal of guns, and the last thing I want to do is enrage an unstable person with a gun! Anyway, whose rights are paramount: Somchai’s or the neighbourhood’s? Whose “freedom” is being abused? This being Thailand I tend to just shut my big Farang mouth and live with it. I haven’t had a chance to see if my new noise cancelling headphones provide any relief.

There are many instances that I do like the absence of some restrictions that you find in Farangland. For instance how wonderful is it that any Thai can pull up his pickup truck by the side of the road and say sell a load of pineapples, or park her noodle cart on the sidewalk and be open for business? No licences required! No problems! Well perhaps no problems. I’ve heard about, but cannot officially elaborate on the informal sidewalk and street Thai “mafia” who want their cut before “allowing” you to operate. Hmmm perhaps “freedom sometimes” comes at a price.

Speaking of paying a price, I wonder how many of you out there reading this have ever become ill after eating Thai food, either at a restaurant or perhaps something bought on the street? I’d venture to guess that almost all of you have at one time another been force to dash for the toilet after enjoying a meal here in Thailand. Was that because you have a “weak stomach” or indulged in too many chilies? I doubt it. It was probably because your curry or som-tam contained one or more of some commonly found pathogens.

The rouges gallery of the suspects who unceremoniously “did you in” include: Escherichia coli O157:H7, Campylobacter jejuni Clostridium perfringens, Salmonella enteritidis, Clostridium botulinum, Listeria monocytogenes, Shigella, and Staphylococcus aureus.

All nasty little buggers, and all of which, among others Old Sawadee studied extensively when he was taking his Food Safety and Hygiene course at the CIA (The Culinary Institute of America). Note: I am only mentioning this to answer any critics who think I’m just making all this stuff up. Nobody… I repeat nobody has ever become ill after eating anything I’ve cooked!

Among all the many “freedoms” Thais enjoy here in Thailand is that of never having to worry that an officious health inspector is going to shut him down for operating a kitchen crawling with the microbes mentioned above. Nope, no jack booted health inspectors checking to see even if your toilet facilities include soap, let alone that your meat hasn’t been sitting out all day in the hot sun and covered with flies. Nope, you are free as a bird to do as you please, and if a customer or two (or a hundred) become ill, well that’s just life, so quit your belly-aching!

If you seriously believe that, I’d like to invite you to pay me a visit. I’m sure the poo-yai-bahn for our neighbourhood would be delighted to hear you expound on the "little gamble” everyone must expect to take when eating out, and how much luckier he is than all those folks in America are who have to endure the Food Police knocking down the door of their restaurants to perform a supposed “health inspection”! Unfortunately my neighbour might not see things your way. You see his father, along with a number of other people became seriously ill after eating a bowl of soup made with tainted pork. Most folks recovered. My neighbours’ father died.

So, here in Thailand we have “freedom” from pollution control, fire safety, and food inspection. What other freedoms do Thais’ enjoy? Don’t even get me started about the lack of enforcement of traffic laws! Don’t want to stop for a red light or stop sign? No problem! Feel like passing other vehicles wherever and whenever you care to? Go right ahead, because it is virtually certain that no police officer in the entire country will ever arrest you. The only law the Boys in Brown ever enforce is the helmet law…and that only sporadically, when the “official” blockades are up. That of course is that these are purely money making operations, and have nothing to do with safety. At Songkran time you might see some spot checks for driving under the influence, but for the rest of the year you are “free” to drive in as intoxicate state as you please.

I don’t know about any other corner of Farangland, but in America it is mandatory to for children to wear seatbelts and infants to be secured in a car seat. It doesn’t take a genius to know why this is so. Even a motor vehicle minor accident can kill a child. Is this “fascism at work”? Only in the mind of a seriously irresponsible adult would this basic safety regulation so.

Here in “Free As You Care To Be” Thailand, all too many parents do not bother to secure their children in their cars. I see children every day standing on the front seat of the car, and I cringe. In the minds of some, children are little more than chattel, and parents can pretty much do what they want with them, so not having them wear a seat belt is taken as being within a parent’s “rights”. Apparently not requiring children to wear motorcycle helmets is taken for granted as well. I would estimate that 99% of all the children I have ever seen on a motorcycle in Thailand have not been wearing a helmet. Feel free to call me a fascist, but I consider that to be criminal! Any policeman who does not immediately pull over an adult who is carrying a child not wearing a helmet is guilty of gross negligence in my book! I’m willing to bet that this will not happen today or indeed any day in Thailand. Is this a “victory” for “freedom” or irresponsibility? Any sane person would say the later.

Okay I could write pages and pages giving other examples of dubious “freedoms” in Thailand, but I feel that I have given sufficient documentation for the scope of this submission. Now let me reluctantly make a few final comments regarding an extraordinary political statement (personally I would qualify it as a certified rant) that Caveman made, and that demands rebuttal.

A quote: …Cavey’s political views… given the recent election here in the States…are consistent with those in the minority. Yeah, and have you noticed also that the country is heading into the shitter? Think this is a coincidence? I’m quite proud to be in the minority, as the less I resemble most voting Americans (and the aforementioned sub’s author), the better!!

Let me also say this about the people in the US vs. the people in Thailand. So often, I rant about the human garbage that contaminates the US…and for the masses, this is true. Let me add also, however, that my belief is that the US also contains the absolute best people in the world!! The problem is that they are now a minority and are outnumbered by human filth.

Wow! Old Cavey was really wound up when he penned these words! If nothing else I sincerely do believe that these statements express his beliefs.

I am not going to even attempt to debate American politics with Caveman, especially here, since as far as I’m concerned that is not remotely what this website is about. I will say however that I am proud to in the minority he so despises. The fact that he believes that anyone who doesn’t share his belief system …and that would be over half the U.S. population, is “human garbage” and “human filth” only makes clear that Cavey has a few anger management problems…not to mention an overinflated sense of righteousness. Sorry Cavey, but it's YOU that is in the voting minority…by over three million!

Even though I live here in Thailand, I made sure to take advantage of my constitutionally guaranteed right to vote, and proudly casted absentee ballots, not only in the Presidential race, but in the Senatorial election in Massachusetts. I hope that my vote cast from the other side of the planet made a difference.

The only other comment I have to make about politics is directly related to expats living here in Thailand. I became a member of Democrats Abroad some years ago. They are extremely active and well organized in throughout Thailand including the Chiang Mai area. They are especially helpful in helping anyone who wishes to register to vote and of course vote in local, state and national elections.

I apologize for having to address this kind of issue, which as I said does NOT belong here, but since no one stepped up to challenge, I was forced to. Hopefully these kinds of screeds will be edited out of Caveman’s future postings, and I will o longer be force to respond to them.

Once again, freedom without a counterbalance of responsibility, whether in Thailand or Farangland is not in anyone’s benefit.

Now that I’m done with this I can go do something more important…like check out the brand new Central Plaza Lampang, which opened two days ago. I think I hear a warm pretzel from Auntie Anne’s calling to me. How can I possibly resist! I will of course be penning my impressions of Lampang’s new shopper’s paradise in the near future.



Stickman's thoughts:

I think the local concept of freedom would be better translated as "freedom from responsibility" than freedom in the sense of liberty.

I appreciate you wishing to include some political comments but as per the comments at the end of the submission from Farang Dave, today marks the last day I will tolerate ANYTHING about American politics in submissions.