Christmas morning in northeastern Thailand. The climate here is quite different from Bangkok’s; it’s the dry season and the sun is climbing into the sky, but the temperature is still pleasant, in the low 20s Celsius. The forecast high here is 31, several degrees lower than Bangkok, but still nowhere near the minus-6 in my sister’s home town in Canada.
I’m one of those Western grumps who find Christmas mildly depressing, but I give those flooding my Facebook feed with seasonal cheer the benefit of the doubt, that their greetings are sincere. And I’m amused that my Thai Buddhist family is having more fun with this nominally Christian festival than I am, sharing and laughing at Christmas videos received from their Buddhist friends around the country.
The day starts normally, with the morning BBC News report. It too is amusing, or bemusing, beginning and ending with “alternative facts” – or, to be kind, modified facts. The newscast closes with the obligatory report from NORAD on Santa’s journey through the skies, with a rather low-tech illustration of the famous reindeer-drawn sleigh that, we are told, has already delivered “billions of toys.”
The newscast begins with a report on “civilian deaths” inflicted by the evil Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin in Idlib, as if civilians don’t die in British and other Western military onslaughts, and conveniently omitting the fact that Idlib is one of the last holdouts of the alphabet soup of jihadist outfits that have done their best to tear Syria to shreds for the past too many years, as the powers in Moscow, Washington, Riyadh, Jerusalem, Tehran and Ankara positioned themselves to divide the spoils.
In the generous spirit of the season, the Beeb this morning grants the rulers of Idlib the inoffensive label “rebels.” According to a BBC report published in June, “Idlib has been controlled by a number of rival factions, rather than a single group, since it fell to the opposition in 2015.
“The main armed groups operating there are:
“Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, a jihadist alliance);
“National Liberation Front (Turkish-backed rebel alliance);
“Hurras al-Din (pro-al-Qaeda HTS offshoot);
“Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP, Chinese Uighur-dominated jihadist group).”
The June report adds, “Although HTS insists it is independent and not linked to an external entity, the UN, US and Turkey consider it a group associated with al-Qaeda and list it as a terrorist organization.”
Yes, but they are still “rebels,” against the “brutal dictatorship” in Damascus.
And then the Ghost of Christmas Past chimes in, reminding us of a simpler age when there was no debate about the meaning of words like “brutal” and “tyrant.” There was no doubt that Nicolae Ceausescu met a just end on Christmas Day 30 years ago as the bullets of a firing squad tore into his overfed flesh. There was no argument that the courageous Northern Alliance was on the right side of history as it drove the Red Hordes out of Afghanistan (where Osama bin Laden was biding his time). Life, and the news that journalists strive to report honestly amid funding cutbacks and competition from the “democratic” cacophony of the blogosphere, is far more complex.
Too complex; and so we must simplify life for our own sanity. We look the other way as the extraction industries fund “democratic” regimes that prevent foods and medicines from flowing into the “troika of tyranny” in Latin America. We transmit small PayPal donations to our favorite charities while averting our eyes from the plight of African and West Asian refugees risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean into hoped-for safety in Europe. We drive our SUVs down the road to deposit our household waste in recycling bins.
And rising above the chaos of ignorance and hypocrisy are the merchants of death, the arms industry, much clearer in their mission than the rest of us – to rake in yet more billions, potentially even “trillions” (a word now more common than the Ghost of Christmas Past could have imagined), as near-basket-case countries in Asia and Africa waste scant resources on supersonic jet fighters, submarines, and missile defense systems.
But all of the above is beside the point. This is Christmas Day, a day dedicated to family ties, to the better aspects of human nature, to ignoring the odds that seem stacked against a peaceful future.