Mourning the king: a country united
(originally published on November 26, 2016 on dazuck.com)
It’s 97 degrees and whatever the humidity is, it’s sticky. We are outside the gleaming royal palace in Bangkok but cannot enter as the palace is closed this month. Still, ~30,000 Thais are waiting in black clothes. They will be there for hours. Standing, occasionally moving forward, waiting for their turn to see and pay respects to the body of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Tens of thousands did this yesterday, and will tomorrow, and will every day for weeks.
A mile away at a busy intersection traffic is buzzing and tuck-tucks are hawking and pedestrians are buying lottery cards from street vendors. In a flash too quick for us tourists to realize, a few police blew whistles and everything and everyone stopped.
Why the sudden change? To honor of King Adulyadej, who died ~3 weeks ago. His picture is on every corner and shrine, black bows adorn most shirts, and festivals across the country are cancelled or curtailed. There’s a hole in the heart of Thailand as they mourn their king.
I won’t pretend to understand or appreciate his fascinating biography (controversial crowning, 70 years of rule, military coups, near-divine status in Thailand), his importance to the country that is mostly run by the military, or the pros and cons of his rule of Siam. That context isn’t required to clearly see how unified Thailand is in grieving the loss of their King. On my first days in Bangkok, I did two things: I went to the royal palace where thousands were waiting to pay respects to King Adulyadej, and I watched Trump’s victory unfold. There is no claims of right vs. wrong here, but as pure observation the juxtaposition between Thailand’s unity and America’s division was more stark than any differences in food, traffic, religion or language.
The US formalized its partisan rips, and then devolved further into attacks and anguish and anguish in the days that followed. Many of my friends voiced their disappointment with their country and its people, some in my state threatened to secede, and journalists professional and amateur seized on a new (though overdue) favorite topic: our country is more silo’d and less unified than we realized.
Thailand spent that same month with cancelled or subdued festivals, daily respectful silences, shrines and photos and music everywhere, and a shared respect for a (mostly) beloved leader. The US could never rally around someone the same way — elections and parties make sure of that, and probably for the better. But right now it feels like our tends towards division and away from unity to an alarming degree, and in a snowballing way.If President Carter or Bush or Clinton passed away, would folks of both parties come together in respect of their service?
Older generations say everyone can remember where they were when JFK was shot. It’s not like he was universally loved, so what made the country come together so much more back then? Maybe I’m being cynical and we would still show some decency and unity today. Does it take a common enemy for us to come together, or can we do that without some external and existential threat?
What I think is particularly interesting about Thailand’s unity is not the nationalism — plenty of countries have more nationalism than the US, especially with more homogeneous cultures. Thailand is also so international, so welcoming, so open to being a global metropolis and tolerating difference and yet they maintain this fierce love and loyalty to their nationalist pride and it’s head. Thailand has PLENTY of faults, so I’m not saying they are doing this or anything right that the US is doing wrong. What I wonder though is whether the Thai monarchy (which doesn’t hold much ‘official’ power) is important just for being the one thing the whole country can rally around. So that even with growing diversity there can be unity.
In the US we don’t seem to have that anymore. We’ve fragmented. Our jobs, news sources, favorite sports, hobbies, threats and inspirations are so different. Diversity is good, and tolerance for difference should be celebrated. But we need something that holds us together as a single country too, and it shouldn’t have to be an enemy. This could be many things (mandatory service requirement, a beloved national sports team, a scientific quest), but I’ll argue in a future post that it used to be a more common conception of what it means to be an American and that our education system needs to bring that shared understanding back.