Don't call it a spade
Black Swans of Common Knowledge
As I write this, the news are coming out that the 12 boys trapped in 4km inside a cave in northern Thailand have been rescued, after having trapped in a cold, damp and pitch black cave for 10 long days until they were discovered, and another tense week when nobody really knew how to get them out. The rescue operation has been smooth, amazingly so.
The whole thing has been like a perfect movie. The setting is completely absurd. What were the boys doing there? Apparently the coach (apparently it’s a soccer team) had a habit of taking the early teen boys hiking and exploring and doing boy-scouts kind of stuff. Which is fine; but why on earth did he get into 4 damn kilometres into an unexplored cave in the beginning of the raining season? What was he thinking? In some other place or time the coach would have been left to rot inside, and his whole family beat to death. In Japan today he would probably have to kill himself after he and his whole family are completely ostracized. The Japanese are quite amazed at how nice the Thais have been in general.
But again, like in a movie, the setting is not important. The drama afterward is, and this cave-rescue story has had all the necessary elements. The long search, eventually finding the kids. The kids being in good health, because their mysterious coach has taught them meditation (to 13 year old boys? come on). The international teams coming in, all rushing to find a solution. Discussing for several days what to do, with many giving up and saying the rescue could have to wait 4 months. Then the rains coming up, forcing everyone to find a solution right now. And the pressure worked; they found a solution: getting the kids full-face oxygen masks and bringing them out with two divers per kid, one pulling and one pushing them out. While looking for a solution one heroic diver tragically died, providing the necessary tragic scene to the movie.
There’s even Elon Musk using the event to, of course, shamelessly promote himself, doing more harm than good, but of course any publicity is good publicity.
And now the kids are out. Happy ending. Which is good. Not because of the kids, mind you. Yeah sure, good for them. It wasn’t easy to endure all that, and they came out safe. Good for them. But let’s see the great picture. But 12 dumb boys and their dumber coach in Thailand are not something important. But the cave rescue story was so big, it attracted so much national and international attention, that everybody was talking about it. And when everybody is talking about the same thing, that tends to have political consequences. That’s how politics work, especially in our unfortunate era of mass communication.
“Thai authorities are trying to use [the rescue] for political gain,” said Rangsiman Rome, a pro-democracy activist and leader of the Democracy Restoration Group. “Whoever saves the kids is going to be seen as a hero.”
Thailand right now is in a tough spot politically. For over a decade the country has been torn between the traditional elite, based in the monarchy and the rich families from the capital, and a new movement led by some weird provincial guy called Thaksin who run a very smart political movement in which he pays rural peasants to vote for him, and he sticks it to the traditional elite in exchange. Every time the elite gets fed up with Thaksin and his party they stage a coup, rule for a few years, then run elections. Which Thaksin always wins. He will always win them. Why doesn’t the Bangkok elite just pay the peasants 5 dollars more than Thaksin, I don’t know. I guess they are cheap like that. Think they shouldn’t have to. Schools are so expensive these days, you know.
Since 2014, a military junta rules the country, and it has wisely chosen not to hold elections just yet. As China becomes the largest trade partner of all countries in the region, USG has been losing control of Southeast Asia, so Thailand figured they could get away with that. In the Philippines they elected Duterte which has been telling America to fuck off since he got the job. Cambodia is an outright Chinese satellite. Myanmar has gone back to China since USG tried to force them to let themselves get killed by a local Muslim army.
But China hasn’t been playing its hand too well. Its tourists are now everywhere, and well, nobody likes having too many foreigners around. Especially the Chinese, which are rude, crass, loud, and think they are hot stuff because they have money. They spend well, they don’t screw the local women, they don’t piss on the king’s portrait… but they’re kinda annoying. Most importantly, they move themselves and run the travel agencies, the bars, the hotels, the boats; basically every money that there is to make from the business, the Chinese will try to monopolize, and not let a single dime fall into hands of the locals. They do that in every business. The Japanese and Koreans do it too. It’s good business, of course, but it’s bound to anger your business partners. Especially if they are low-IQ , easy-going kind of people you find in Southeast Asia.
That was easily seen in the recent Malaysian election, when the party which had been ruling since independence lost the election, mostly because of anger against Chinese investment in the country, and the corruption it had enabled. The election upset of course galvanized all Westernized opinion. Democracy at work! Democracy is back! All that momentum is looking for a new target. Who is it? Not Vietnam, that’s a communist regime. Not the Philippines, the guy just won, and he was the upset candidate in his time. Cambodia is now also using Chinese money to build a competent dictatorship. The obvious target is Thailand, which is formally a democracy, and a pretty lively one. The military junta has committed to holding elections next year, and opposition forces are mobilizing. The most promising candidate is a young 30-something billionaire. Which also looks totally gay. Of course, the business of the Cathedral in 2018 is exporting Bioleninism.
Which brings us back to the 13 boys trapped in the cave. Who cares? Yeah, it’s a good story. But let’s say that Gnon rightly punished their stupidity and the boys had died the third day, and so been found dead after the long search. What would have happened? Absolutely nothing. Sad story, sure. The government would have made a statement, lamenting the news, calling for people to be more careful and not going to deep into caves. And that would have been the end of it. In a country where everybody drives fast motorbikes without helmets, 12 boys dying in a single day is not something uncommon.
40 people died on a boat accident in Phuket last week too. The news was huge in China, because most of the dead were Chinese, and yes, the operator of the boat was also Chinese. The Thais weren’t interested in Chinese deaths, besides laughing at them, and the Western press isn’t interested in Chinese deaths either, so that news is not consequential. It’s not interesting, and so its not common knowledge. The 13 boys in a cave, though, that’s a good story, and so it spread. It spread so much that it became common knowledge. And when something is common knowledge, people must have an opinion on them. You gotta talk about something, right? Conversation is a way to convey information, but there’s only a real need for so much information most of the time. 90% of conversation is just a way of testing your peers and see if you can pick up some status from them. And that’s the most basic form of politics.
The most important invention of the 20th century wasn’t antibiotics, or the airplane. It was TV. The dumb box made everybody sit down and watch the same stuff, all day, every day. Why? Precisely because it gets everyone to watch the same thing, to have the same common knowledge. Suddenly everybody had something in common to talk about and play politics, big and small. Of course it’s better if the TV has good, thrilling stories, like the Thai cave kids. But even if it hasn’t. Or if the stories are fake, like all those soaps we love to watch. The thing is to have something in common to talk about, to coordinate around. Fuel for our social instincts.
And so as everyone in Thailand was worrying about the kids in the caves, opposition political parties such as the one quoted above starting salivating. If, just if, the Thai government botches the rescue attempt. Either through incompetence, or just because it’s impossible to do; doesn’t matter, only results do. If the government can’t deliver and rescue those 12 dumb kids in the cave; a massive blame campaign could be launched, painting those 12 kids as innocent boys who were left to die by an evil dictatorial government. Many people would have agreed with that; after all they had been glued to their TVs and chatting non-stop about the cave kids for 2 weeks straight. Surely if the kids had died they would’ve felt compelled to reach some conclusion about it. Even if it had absolutely nothing to do with their lives, or with the quality of their government.
If the Thai government hand’t delivered in rescuing the kids, it may very well have fallen. Which is crazy. Think about it. How many things are the responsibility of a government? Governments employ millions of people. They manage huge heaps of affairs, many of them extremely important. Food supply, the military, industrial policy, education, trade; you name it. A government should be judged by how it does the things it’s designed to do. Not by how it manages to save 12 dumb kids and their dumb coach who in some fateful day as an election campaign was getting started, decided to go 4 km into a damn flooded cave.
Not that they can say anything like that, of course. Oh no, the government had to keep up good spirits. Thais, as one of the few peoples of the world which avoided colonization by Western powers, have kept much of their traditional culture, based on Theravada Buddhism in their case, so they are no strangers to public displays of nonsense. Everybody was praying for the kids, trying to be positive, lest one bad thought summon demons and cause harm to the poor boys. The government just announced that the kids, which were remember a soccer team, will get lifelong free tickets for their local soccers stadium, and a cash stipend to be paid immediately. Rewarding reckless behavior, you say? Shut up, you eeyore. Gotta be positive. The government’s reputation depends on it.
You can see what happens when the government reputation is not on the line, even if the incident is arguably more serious. The Phuket boat which sunk killing 40 tourists; well that’s pretty damn serious for a country where tourism is a big chunk of GDP. But the incident was Chinese people running a substandard operation, and the country’s vicepremier said it openly. This is Chinese people killing Chinese people; it does not concern us Thais. He was pretty angry at the whole incident, and he showed it. He could do so, as there was little domestic attention on this incident. He later apologized, however, as I guess the Chinese embassy wasn’t keen on the Thai government shitting on the source of half his tourists. Who do spend some money in the country after all, even if their countrymen try their best to capture all they can and ship it back home.
How does a government prepare against sudden black swans, random compelling stories which can draw the attention of a whole nation? You can’t, really. You can do like China, and have a few million people controlling the whole media, and seeing that no story goes on TV or gets retweeted too many times before they’ve found a spin that makes the government look good. But that’s a huge effort, and even China has chosen to co-opt stories instead of shutting them down as the irrelevant trivia that they really are.
But this instinct, the idea of using random events to test the mettle of a government is really quite ancient. Hell, the ancients actively sought random events, run them themselves, in order to test if a government was doing a good job. We call that divination. And of course there were always omens; particularly in China, any random weather or celestial event was thought to be a signal of Heaven’s displeasure with the emperor. That’s the psychology of common knowledge: if we have to take decisions in common, we must use things we all know about, such as the weather, or some ritual in which we all participated, as data for that decision.
People also want status, which makes any government inherently unstable. Everybody, or at least many people, want the king’s place. Even if there’s libraries upon libraries of law and custom saying that you can’t take the king’s place, the temptation is always there of trying to find some good reason to bring him down. Like, say, some big random event. Rulers after all, in our ancestral environment, when we spent time hunting and moving around, were not stable positions. Leaders in primordial human society exist because of a completely utilitarian calculus: rulers are there because they deliver the goods. They bring more meat, they defeat our enemies. Or they have awesome spells that make rain fall. Which don’t always work if you think about it, but everybody believes them. That’s what charisma is all about: the commonly acknowledged ability to deliver the goods, either proven, suspected or induced by propaganda. Biological variation and the nature of social animals make it so that having a leader to help the group coordinate and engage in collective action is incredibly useful, and some people will be more naturally suited to that leading role than others. But people will accept losing status to some guy only under very strict conditions. They must feel affiliated with him in some way, so that they can consider the ruler to be their guy. And he must deliver the goods.
Thankfully in this case Prayut and his guys delivered the goods, and Thailand will be spared of further turmoil at least until next year. The opposition of course cries “they’re using the kids for political purposes”. Of course! They were forced to, else that very opposition would use the kids in order to bring down the government. I’m sure neither Prayut not anybody in his government was happy about the huge problem the dumb kids had given them. In any pre-mass media society, the kids would have been left to die, and nobody would have cared, besides some locals who would have come with legends of cave demons one shouldn’t disturb.