Authenticity in Politics. Siem Reap, Cambodia

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia) -> Siem Reap (Cambodia)

Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, CambodiaBoarded the Giant Ibis again to get from Phnom Penh to Cambodia. The bus was much older this time, and crowded. The infrastructure in Cambodia not being as well-developed as Vietnam meant we were treated to the sight of things covered in fine red dust as the vehicles on the “national highway” whizzed along, bumping on rocks and into potholes.

Siem Reap, CambodiaWe stopped at a roadside hut for lunch and these kids ran up. They waited at the door of the bus and peered at us as we ate. You could almost hear the Western consciences groaning under the weight of their stares. “Don’t give them money; don’t give them anything,” warned the waitstaff. Apparently, tourist money and other free stuff led to their parents pulling them from school. What use was learning if handouts were so easy? And why bother with dull drills when they could have fun and as much candy as they could manage to wheedle off people? But some gave anyway, so they wouldn’t feel so bad.

Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, CambodiaWanted to make a quick stop at Angkor Wat and friends again (after a decade!) before heading down to Thailand, so hired a tuk-tuk first thing the next morning to take me round. While I could navigate the place from memory, what threw me off were the hordes of visitors.

Ta Prohm, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia Ta Prohm, Siem Reap, Cambodia Siem Reap, CambodiaThey seemed like the insidious roots of trees, getting into every crack, tearing apart buildings in their enthusiasm, as they pushed and pulled at the ancient moss-covered bricks.

Siem Reap, CambodiaPreviously, I’d climbed the old temples alone, the only sound that of cicadas and my pounding heart, afraid that if I fell, no one would find my crumpled body. Now, I’d be lucky not to be trampled to death.

What’s interesting about the Angkor Complex is the change of architecture and architectural features as political power passed from a Hindu king to a Buddhist one, and then back to a Hindu king before returning to a Buddhist one. There are various accounts of the violence that accompanied some of the successions.

Siem Reap, CambodiaPower struggles in the modern day are of a different breed altogether: not by might but by the elusive authenticity again, it seems.

In my read-through, Andrew Potter now turns to authenticity within politics in The Authenticity Hoax: Vote For Me, I’m Authentic:

The Bayon, Siem Reap, CambodiaTelevision altered politics first by making the politician’s appearance and ability to perform in front of the camera their most important quality. Television also brought money into politics because now there was the need for lots of it to pay for television advertisements. What television thrives on is conflict so it is “no wonder then that politics in the age of television consists almost entirely of heavily scripted events that offer little more than prepared statements, canned responses, and memorised talking points”.

Now the internet has led to a fundamental transformation of journalism itself so that anyone is an “insta-pundit” and anyone with a mobile phone can report “live” from the scene. Guy Debord calls this The Society of the Spectacle. “Building on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism, Debord argued that the trajectory of modern society is characterised by a shift from an authentic and active lived reality to an alienated existence that is mediated by images, representations, and passive consumption…social relationship between people mediated by images”.

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Siem Reap, CambodiaIn addition, the irony, says Potter, is that “we say we want to see the real person behind the mask…we say we want spontaneity and real emotion…we say we want to be able to choose from parties and policies that accord with our beliefs and values, but when presented with all these, react with revulsion.

In actual fact, the authenticity we claim to desire must mirror our own narrow values and ideals. This is the “reason politicians hire image consultants and stick doggedly to their talking points…”spontaneity and frank talk is punished far more frequently than it is rewarded…political leaders are trying to appeal to as many people as possible without turning anyone off. Worse they have the additional burden of trying to do it under the omnipresent and omni-hostile gaze of a media that will rip them apart at the slightest misstep”.

And such media runs on controversy and scandal, eschewing the important issues of policy to pounce on anything that might sell copy put doubt on someone’s authenticity. [Comment: but there is no supply without demand, so it is the public who are to blame, surely?]

And even without the media, because authenticity is such a purportedly-valued characteristic in a political leader, negative advertising (character assassination, casting doubt on the moral valence of a candidate) will do the job.

“…this puts politics in a death spiral. A fixation on authenticity and a candidate’s character creates an opening for attack ads by the opposition. But this in turn gives a candidate an incentive to lie about his past or hide his true character, which provides jobs for all the spin doctors and image consultants whom nobody likes. In the end…it isn’t the spin doctors who have drained the authenticity from politics; rather, it is the desire for authenticity that provides opportunities for men who can help you fake it. The only alternative is to vote only for candidates who are so upright, honest, and unimpeachably dull that you wouldn’t want them having supper with you, let alone running the country.” Siem Reap, CambodiaAnd as for how “politics seems more and more a branch of marketing, with parties and leaders packaged and sold using the same techniques used to sell energy drinks, NBA players, and everything in between”, Potter argues in his usual manner that “the selling of politics does not undermine democracy, it enhances it, and the branding of political parties and leaders is not a tool for manipulating voters, but a mechanism for enabling democratic participation…[because] most people don’t have the time or frankly, the ability to properly digest budgets, policy documents, or drafts of new bills, and the distillation of the stupendous complexities of the modern state to a handful of simple but distinct brands is not just useful, but necessary”.

Siem Reap, CambodiaHowever, in the previous chapter, Potter’d already mentioned Andrew Keen and Cass Sunstein’s assessments of how undemocratic the internet is. And if “democracy is based on the premise that reasonable people can disagree over issues of fundamental importance, from abortion and gay rights to the proper balance of freedom and security. When the mere fact that someone supports the other side becomes evidence that they have been brainwashed, then the truth is you no longer believe in democracy”.

Siem Reap, Cambodia“You buy my postcard…one dollah!” cried the little boy as he followed me around. Because I had in my mind the monks that might have lived here previously, perhaps meditating or deciphering a palimpsest, I couldn’t help but giggle at the incongruity. And the two children started laughing as well. “Haha!” said the boy quoting himself,””Buy my postcard one dollah”…hahahaha!” as he chased the girl amongst the old stones

wait, a stegosaurus? Angkor Complex, Siem Reap, Cambodiawait, a stegosaurus? or did a rookie stonecarver try and fail to do an iguana justice?

On the topic of dinosaurs, a really good example of unreasoned ignorant echo-chamber hatred on the internet is the time Steven Spielberg’s photo with an apparently deceased triceratops went viral, with people accusing him of violating animal rights etc.

And on the topic of internet hate, this New York Times article on Justine Sacco has been making the rounds. Most of the “lessons learnt” comments though, are not about circumspection in judging someone negatively or refraining from indulging in mob violence, but on ensuring one does not get on the bad side of the fickle crowd…

street food carts, Siem Reap, CambodiaThe street food didn’t look very fresh in Siem Reap, so, instead of doing the usual Pub Street routine, decided to splash out a little on Khmer restaurants instead: Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia banana chip, Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia coconut, Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, Cambodia frog legs, Chanrey Tree, Siem Reap, CambodiaChanrey Tree Restaurant

salad, The Sugar Palm Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia amok, The Sugar Palm Restaurant, Siem Reap, Cambodia pomelo salad, The Sugar Palm Restaurant, Siem Reap, CambodiaThe Sugar Palm Restaurant

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore

Coach from Saigon (Vietnam) to Phnom Penh (Cambodia). The Perils of Transparency.

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam) -> [Reunification Express] -> Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) -> Phnom Penh (Cambodia)

Giant Ibis coach from Saigon, Vietnam to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
banh mi for the bus ride from Saigon to Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Giant Ibis water and pizza snack on bus from Saigon to Phnom Penh, CambodiaWalked to the Giant Ibis coach office in Siem Reap, waved along by some older Vietnamese ladies who were sitting on the street having a yabber. It was a fairly empty coach for a Saturday. I’d brought a banh mi for brekkie and there was complimentary water and a pizza snack.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, Cambodia
duck ponds, Phnom Penh, CambodiaEnjoyed the buccolic scenery. After we crossed the border, artificially man-made as it was, we started to come upon duck ponds and houses on stilts (with the bottom bit filled in, in some cases) and spirit houses.

Phnom Penh, CambodiaThis place looked mighty familiar. Then I realised we were in Neak Loeung where I’d stayed in many years ago! The shops and markets were exactly where I’d left them. A comfort.

Neak Loeung ferry to Phnom Penh, CambodiaThen the entire coach followed several heavy vehicles onto a ferry to cross the Mekong. Motos and assorted vehicles milled about.

them three guys, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Phnom Penh, CambodiaWhen we started seeing boards of these three guys at ever-increasing intervals, and then of the Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni (នរោត្តម សីហមុនី), we knew we were near the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. “King Sihamoni gay” prompts Google when I type in the name of the former ballet dance instructor. Why would his sexual preferences be of interest to anyone, more than say, his political or philosophical preferences?

Yet, it is a question that none of us would think twice about asking in this day and age.

balloon man, Phnom Penh, CambodiaDidn’t think Andrew Potter’s chapter, The Authenticity Hoax: Perils of Transparency, had a terribly cohesive structure, and his conclusions seemed a little slap-dash. But he does identify viewpoints to be looking at issues from:

“Recognising that authenticity is a positional good with a built-in self-radicalising dynamic helps us make sense of a lot of the seemingly bizarre behaviour that manifests itself as authenticity-seeking. The fetish for the public display of emotion, which exploded into our popular culture with the death of Princess Diana and whose embers are tended by Oprah Winfrey’s cult of self-obsessed sentimentality, can be understood as a form of radically conspicuous authenticity.” “The Oprah Winfrey brand is built around a cult of authenticity through therapeutic self-disclosure, of the sort promoted by her frequent guest Dr. Phil.”

Toul Tom Poung (Russian Market), Phnom Penh, CambodiaToul Tom Poung (Russian Market)

Andrew Potter goes on to dissect the James Frey A Million Little Pieces incident where Frey was found to have invented events in his memoir “in order to serve what [he] felt was the greater purpose of the book”. Oprah agreed with this saying that what impressed her was the “underlying and universal message of redemption at the heart of Frey’s tale”. The Oprah-ian world embraces the Rousseau-ian ideal that feelings are the touchstone of authenticity, not historically accurate facts. So it was odd that there was such a furore over his confession of fictionalising major parts of it.

Potter explains this through Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “Rousseau recognised that the making of an authentic self is a group effort. You cannot just impose any old narrative you want onto the events of your life; the sotry has to seem plausible and sincere if it is to be accepted by others…[these vices of authenticity] include plagiarism, hypocrisy, and gossip.” [Comment: I’m not sure gossip is seen as such a sin in this parts!]

Mr. Bunnareth, Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Mr. Bunnareth, Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), best iced coffee in Phnom Penh, CambodiaMr. Bunnareth at Toul Tom Pom (Russian Market), probably the best iced coffee in Phnom Penh. Since his success though, several other iced coffee shops have set up next to him, forcing him to distinguish his business with newspaper cuttings, flags, and photographs

Joma coffee, Phnom Penh, Cambodiacoffee with the lovely J at Joma Bakery Cafe, a Western-style coffee import from, erm, Luang Prabang

Potter suggests that in some instances, the plagiarist may not even admit that there was anything morally wrong with his actions if they were “an authentic outward expression of [the plagiarist’s] deepest feelings and creative impulses; it is “the appropriation of something that is a part of [their] true self”.

And what about the rise of the concept of intellectual property rights? This might stem from what Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence” where artists are concerned that they are not authentic (that is, original, creative) enough, that they have been hindered by their influences and produce only something borrowed and derivative. So we “fight over credit for things”.

Pushing back against this is Lawrence Lessig who claims this stifles creativity and innovation and squanders the democratic potential of new technologies – “What’s at stake is our freedom – freedom to create, freedom to build, and, ultimately, freedom to imagine”.

However, Andrew Keen, in his The Cult of the Amateur, sees the internet as a “cesspool of ignorance, egoism, bad taste, and mob rule. He laments the loss of the professionalism, integrity, and authority of old…As far as he is concerned, there is nothing “democratic” about the new media. If anything they work to undermine democracy by helping spread propaganda and lies through fake videos, guerilla and viral marketing campaigns and the widespread use of “sock puppets”, which are fake online identities that are used to promote a cause or a product under the guise of independent support or endorsement. There are too many places to hide online, Keen argues, and what we are left with is not the democratic wisdom of crowds but an idiocratic mob rule, a cynical and infantilised political culture and a degenerate civil society.” [Comment: sounds like what the Singapore internet scene is like in this age.]

Cass Sunstein sees the internet as harming democracy due to the rise of the “Daily Me”, that is, the way the “internet permits highly personalised and customised information feeds that guarantee that you will be confronted only with topics that interest you; they screen out those that may bore, anger, or annoy you…[leading to] group polarization: when like-minded people find themselves speaking only with one another, they get into a cycle of ideological reinforcement where they end up endorsing positions far more extreme than the ones they started with…the blogosphere functions as a series of echo chambers, where every viewpoint is repeated and amplified to a hysterical pitch. As our politics moves online…we’ll end up with a public sphere that is partisan and extreme…The result…will be serious obstacles not merely to civility but also to mutual understanding”.

So this is a world where truth has ceased to have any relation to reality and is only what the self-contained ego feels to be true.  Keen and Sunstein conclude that “the ultimate goal of the new [Read-Write] culture is isolation, solitude, and narcissism” Potter disagrees and suggests instead that it is connectivity and “the perpetual and utterly transparent We of social networking” that is the taken to be the basis for authenticity.

dogs sniffing each other, Phnom Penh, CambodiaGossip
Authenticity in this culture is where everything is laid bare online for everyone to see, nothing is hidden, and everyone speaks his mind spontaneously without self-censorship, declining to observe social mores or standards of good taste.

“Our lives now resemble the teenaged prison called high school, where the predominant form of discourse is something known as gossip…Gossip is often defined as malicious or harmful talk about the private affairs of others…”

motorcycles! Phnom Penh, CambodiaPotter however defends gossip for serving to “expand our consciousness of what life is about in ways that are effectively inaccessible to other modes of inquiry”. Furthermore gossip “subverts traditional hierarchies: by cracking open the private sphere to general public scrutiny, gossip can be an instrument of egalitarianism and social leveling…we may want to call gossip a virtue of authenticity.” [Comment: but this fails to acknowledge the difference between repeating truths and repeating falsehoods]

Perhaps, he then says, “there is a flaw in the ideal of authenticity as complete disclosure”, but only because voluntary discretionary personal disclosure is “a way of building trust and fostering intimacy”, so the “Facebook-style habit of promiscuous disclosure very much misses the point” and makes such transparency much less valuable because it is shared with a wide audience.

He concludes: “But there’s no dignity in doing your job or remaining faithful simply because you have no option. Thus the end of privacy will also mark the end of our cultural adulthood. Surveillance is for criminals and pointless gossip is for children…”[Comment: this feels (ah, feeeelin’) like a long shot. as if he sensed (feeeeeeelin’) that total transparency at the expense of privacy was undesirable and just needed a reasonable rationale (but why not just feeeeeeeel). Most commentators, having pushed God out of the picture ab initio, struggle to align their consciences with their theories.]

monks in front of a coach, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore