- Benedict Anderson’s “Strange Hierarchies” in Thailand
We came to know Ben rather late. In person, that is. The work, we knew well. His four great pieces on Thai politics (Anderson 1977, 1978, 1985, 1990)1 greatly influenced our understanding. We stole his phrase “the American era” for the title of a section in our Thailand: Economy and Politics. Like many others, we began to use the phrase “imagined communities” as if it had been around since the origin of the world.
We met in person for the first time on Songkran Day in 2002. We had decided to complete a project that Ben had started almost twenty [End Page 166] years earlier—the translation of Nidhi Eoseewong’s classic, Pen and Sail. With the help of Craig Reynolds, we had secured Ben’s cooperation and arranged a meeting at a restaurant overlooking the Chaophraya River beside Thammasat University. As the streets were crammed with Songkran revelers, we had to abandon the car and walk the last three kilometers, dodging the water-throwing, and arrived about an hour late.
We were rather nervous about meeting this erudite, world-famous figure, and were now also embarrassed about being so late. Ben handed over a file on the translation and we exchanged a few words on the project. Ben then sparked a question and we plunged into a discussion that ranged over history, politics, and literature, and rambled from Thailand out through Southeast Asia to most of the world. For about an hour, we forgot even to order any food. By the end of a very long evening, we felt we had known Ben all our lives.
Many others have had this experience. Ben loved people, loved ideas, loved conversation, loved argument. His writing gives the feeling of someone talking to you, arguing with you, persuading you—an effect that is impossible to achieve by craft alone, but is the mark of a natural teacher.
This first meeting set the style for what followed, a series of evenings during Ben’s cool-season sojourns in Thailand when we would meet at a restaurant at dusk, perhaps with Ajarn Charnvit Kasetsiri and some others too, perhaps just the three of us, and then talk till we tired ourselves out.
Ben was generous with his time and his talents. When we were asked to run a workshop on “Populism in Asia” in Kyoto over 2008–2009, Ben agreed to sit through the seminar as rapporteur, and to deliver a concluding remark. For the book that followed, he sent a revised version of the talk, with a note “I’ve tried to do the minimum (polish a little) so that the oral flavour doesn’t disappear.” At the end of this piece, Ben noted how Bangkok middle-class figures criticized Thaksin’s policies “by claiming it was wrong to give money to peasants because they would not know how to use it and would waste it on such things as mobile phones. Inherent in this language is a clear sense of distance. I am not like a peasant, and the peasants are not like me—as if the two were members of different countries.” He went on:
Talking about the mass of the people in a way which positions them miles away is a powerful form of distancing in the imaginary of the state, which in some ways is a response to the fear that large [End Page 167] social distances actually create. Real oligarchs, of course, are not afraid of the people. But urban middle class—especially the Chinese middle class—are very afraid, and that is why they do not trouble the oligarchs or the police. They fear they will become the victims of subaltern rage, greed, and envy. In a city like Bangkok, this feeling is palpable. The fine talk about democratic values, the separation of the powers, respect for the judiciary, and the rule of law conceals a big hypocrisy. The middle class talk about democracy, but when challenged politically they resort to wholly undemocratic methods, and are capable of terrifying brutality.(Anderson 2009, 220)
This paragraph sums up most of the themes that we have...