Category Archives: publishing

Media Bullshit in World War I, 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 8795-8835:

Those who suppose the modern media uniquely prone to hyperbole, fantasy and deceit should consider the madness of rumour and invention that overtook the world’s press in 1914. The Daily Mail published a detailed account of an entirely fictional naval victory. ‘If damaging rumours start,’ wrote Dr Eugen Lampe in Ljubljana early in September 1914, ‘they spread at immense speed. If two people meet on the street, they ask each other: Any news? Nobody knows anything. But there are people who always choose to believe and broadcast the worst. For a week, the atmosphere has been extremely tense. Families, whose husbands and sons are in the army, mourn, pray and tremble. They fight to get at newspapers. Then they whisper: there are none of our casualties on the list of wounded. They do not want to tell us! There are so many that they cannot record all of them!’

Few of the journalists called upon to write about the war had any knowledge of military matters, and their ignorance showed. The introduction of trench warfare was at first greeted in the French press as a cowardly innovation by the Germans, who were mocked as ‘moles’. Many papers talked up the enemy’s weakness, flagging morale and food shortages. Austrian cities were said to be pleading with the Italians to save them from looming famine, while Germany was allegedly struggling in vain to recruit Italians to replace mobilised factory workers. Late in September The Times produced a wildly exaggerated calculation, based on the casualty lists, showing that the BEF had lost 40 per cent of its officers in a month of fighting. Ludwig Wittgenstein, aboard a Vistula picket boat, wrote on 25 October: ‘Yesterday evening a silly report came that Paris had fallen. At first I was delighted, until I realised the story could not be true. These fantasy reports are always a bad sign. If there was genuine good news, such nonsenses would not be necessary.’ Five days later, he eagerly scanned a German newspaper, and feared the worst after recognising the vacuity of its content: ‘No good news – which means the same as bad news!’

Meanwhile in France, on 19 August l’Eclaireur of Nice announced a fictitious clash between the Royal Navy and the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, in which the British had allegedly lost sixteen dreadnoughts including Iron Duke, Lion and Superb. French newspapers were especially enthusiastic about publishing reports concerning the German Crown Prince, an army commander in the field. On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane. None of these stories contained the smallest element of truth.

L’Action française informed the public that the Maggi dairies and Kub shop chains were in reality intelligence centres manned by Prussian officers who had become naturalised Frenchmen in anticipation of war; radio transmitters were concealed in every dairy, and Maggi milk was infused with poison. These reports caused mobs to storm the premises of these perfectly innocent, though foreign-owned, businesses. Among the most preposterous myths to be widely broadcast was that of ‘turpinite’, a new super-explosive supposedly invented by the chemist Eugène Turpin, which would effortlessly extinguish German troops in their trenches. The French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné was founded at around this time, as a reaction to the deceits perpetrated in the traditional press.

Some of the shortcomings of newspapers were no fault of their own, but instead the consequence of governments’ refusal to provide facts or allow correspondents to visit the front. In Britain Col. Repington complained that censorship was being abused ‘as a cloak to cover all political, naval and military mistakes’. It was undoubtedly true that the system was exploited to sustain public morale much more than to conceal operational secrets from the enemy. In France, after the Marne the General Staff began to provide a thin dripfeed of information to the press, but the damage was already done: a credibility gap had opened which was never entirely closed. French journalists – and, before long, their readers – became chronically sceptical about all official pronouncements.

French soldiers in the field referred contemptuously to the ‘bourrage de crâne’, literally ‘skull-stuffing’, but properly ‘bullshit’, which made up the content of the newspapers that reached them. Maurice Barrès of l’Echo de Paris became notorious for his enthusiasm for the war, which prompted the impassioned pacifist Romain Rolland to dub him ‘the nightingale of carnage’. Poilus, rejecting the conventional press, turned instead to trench newspapers which soldiers wrote and copied for each other, or to Swiss titles when obtainable. Philosopher Alain Emile-Auguste Chartier, now a soldier, wrote on 25 November: ‘The Journal de Genève is eagerly seized upon here and officers make cuttings from it; the military reports are admirable and everyone agrees that our papers seem ridiculous by comparison.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, military, publishing, war

Rapid Change before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 554-577:

It is a conceit of our own times to suppose that we are obliged to live, and national leaderships to make decisions, amid unprecedentedly rapid change. Yet between 1900 and 1914, technological, social and political advances swept Europe and America on a scale unknown in any such previous timespan, the blink of an eye in human experience. Einstein promulgated his special theory of relativity. Marie Curie isolated radium and Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer. Telephones, gramophones, motor vehicles, cinema performances and electrified homes became commonplace among affluent people in the world’s richer societies. Mass-circulation newspapers soared to unprecedented social influence and political power.

In 1903 man first achieved powered flight; five years later, Ferdinand Count Zeppelin lyricised the mission to secure unrestricted passage across the skies, an increasingly plausible prospect: ‘Only therewith can the divine ancient command be fulfilled … [that] creation should be subjugated by mankind.’ At sea, following the 1906 launch of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought, all capital ships lacking its heavy ordnance mounted in power-driven turrets became obsolete, unfit to join a fleet line of battle. The range at which squadrons expected to exchange fire, a few thousand yards when admirals were cadets, now stretched to tens of miles. Submarines were recognised as potent weapons. Ashore, while the American Civil War and not the First World War was the first great conflict of the industrial age, in the interval between the two the technology of destruction made dramatic advances: machine-guns achieved reliability and efficiency, artillery increased its killing power. It was realised that barbed wire could be employed to check the movements of soldiers as effectively as those of beasts. Much speculation about the future character of war was nonetheless mistaken. An anonymous 1908 article in the German publication Militär-Wochenblatt asserted that the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese experience in Manchuria ‘proved that even well-defended fortifications and entrenchments can be taken, even across open ground, by courage and cunning exploitation of terrain … The concept of states waging war to the point of absolute exhaustion is beyond the European cultural experience.’

Socialism became a major force in every continental state, while Liberalism entered historic decline. The revolt of women against statutory subjection emerged as a significant issue, especially in Britain. Across Europe real wages rose almost 50 per cent between 1890 and 1912, child mortality declined and nutrition greatly improved. But despite such advances – or, in accordance with de Tocqueville’s view that misery becomes less acceptable when no longer absolute, because of them – tens of millions of workers recoiled from the inequalities of society. Industries in Russia, France, Germany and Britain were convulsed by strikes, sometimes violent, which spread alarm and even terror among the ruling classes. In 1905 Russia experienced its first major revolution. Germany displaced France and Russia as the British Empire’s most plausible enemy. Britain, which had been the world’s first industrialised nation, saw its share of global manufacturing fall from one-third in 1870 to one-seventh in 1913.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, disease, economics, education, France, Germany, Japan, labor, military, publishing, Russia, war

Japanese Buddhism Fading in Hawai‘i

Just in time for the onset of the Obon season, the July issue of Honolulu Magazine publishes an article by Tiffany Hill (pp. 38-42) on the “Fading Tradition” of Japanese Buddhism in Hawai‘i. Here are a few excerpts:

It’s strange to hear a Christian hymn in a Japanese Buddhist temple, being led by the minister, no less. But [Rev. Earl] Ikeda [of Mō‘ili‘ili Hongwanji Mission temple near the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa] had a reason. “I was invited to do a funeral service recently,” he explains. “I talked with the family and mentioned that it didn’t have to be a strict service done in the Buddhist tradition.” He explained to the family that they could choose a gatha, or song they felt would best honor their loved one. They chose “Amazing Grace.” In fact, adds Ikeda, when it came time to sing, the Buddhist minister himself led the mourners in the Christian hymn.

Speaking to us earlier in his modest office upstairs, Ikeda, sporting his usual attire of T-shirts and shorts, says, “I like that song, and the meaning really fits what Buddhism is about. In Buddhism, the idea is to live the moment. We can’t be attached to certain ways of thinking, that’s exactly what Buddhism isn’t.” It was a story he wanted to share with his membership….

The person most credited with establishing Buddhism in the Islands is Bishop Emyō Imamura. He came from Japan in 1899 to examine life at the plantations, and he was instrumental in building temples in plantation towns. Plantation workers converted plantation homes to create the first temples. By the mid-1920s, there were more than 170 temples in Hawai‘i. They were the lifeblood of the plantation towns, where they served not only as the place of worship, but as a commmunity center and as the nucleus for political and labor discussions as the Japanese fought for a place in the Islands.

There are 33 temples still open on O‘ahu. Visit one of them today and you’ll find a small number of devoted members, all of whom pay annual dues to keep the temples open. It is not uncommon for ministers to speak in front of memberships compromising a dozen members, sometimes fewer. It’s also likely that a temple’s most active members are in their 70s, 80s, sometimes even 90s….

In addition to a shrinking membership, Hawai‘i’s Japanese Buddhist temples are also facing a shortage of ministers. Take [Rev. Jay] Okamoto. For the past six years, he’s not only been the minister of the Waipahu Hongwanji, but also the temples in ‘Ewa and Wai‘anae, neither of which have had their own resident ministers in 30 years. The ‘Ewa temple has 30 members and the Wai‘anae temple has around 50, he says.

All Japanese Buddhist ministers must be ordained in Japan before they can work in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. This often makes it difficult to attract local men and women in the first place, because they have to speak Japanese for their studies. Often, Japanese ministers end up serving in Hawai‘i’s temples, but, says Okamoto, they, too, face linguistic and cultural challenges. It’s a catch-22.

There’s also a seasonally related article by David Thompson in the same issue headlined “Bondancersizing the Night Away” (pp. 43-45).

UPDATE: The article is about “Bondancercise” classes, a word formed from the merger of Bon + dancer + exercise, but the spelling “Bondancersizing (the Night Away)” implies right-sizing Bon dancers (weight loss).

Leave a comment

Filed under Buddhism, Hawai'i, Japan, migration, publishing

Evaluating Both Style and Substance in One’s Sources

From the Introduction to History of the Spanish Conquest of Yucatan and of the Itzas, by Philip Ainsworth Means. Papers of the Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, vol. VII, 1917. (The Kindle edition is available for free on Amazon!)

Though Villagutierre’s Spanish style is far superior to that of such writers as Fernando Montesinos and Antonio de la Calancha, it is, nevertheless, atrocious. Although he wrote about 1700, Villagutierre’s style is excessively archaic; his grammatical construction can hardly be called construction at all, so formless and ambiguous is it. Villagutierre never hesitates to write several long sentences without a single main verb between them, nor does he often refrain from going on and on for a page or so without using a period. In the use of capitals he is most whimsical; usually he has them when they are called for, but he has many that are out of place as well.

The style of Cogolludo, on the other hand, is very good, and that, be it noted, despite the fact that Cogolludo wrote prior to 1688. One remarks with considerable surprise that in several cases Villagutierre and Cogolludo use almost the same words. For example, in speaking of the visit which Cortes made to the island of Tayasal, Cogolludo says: “… y aun que la ida de Cortes se tuvo por ossadia, y demasiada confianza…” Villagutierre, in the same connection says: “… que lo tenian a grandissima temeridad, y ossadia, y por demasiada confianza ….” This is an interesting point, and perhaps it is significant that Cogolludo’s book was published in 1688, whereas Villagutierre was not brought out until 1701. It is to be noted that Cogolludo, the earlier writer, uses only two epithets, and that Villagutierre, the later writer, uses the same two, plus a new one of his own. I know of two other cases where equally close and significant similarity exists between the two. It is possible, then that Villagutierre copied (not to say plagiarized) the work of Cogolludo without giving credit for it. But the important point for us in this matter does not concern the personal integrity of Villagutierre. Rather does the importance of the matter lie in this: if Villagutierre was acquainted with the history of Yucatan by Cogolludo to such a degree that he frequently borrowed whole phrases from it, he must have had a very good reason for diverging widely now and again from the version of events given by Cogolludo. Such a reason could only be supplied by the fact that Villagutierre possessed information which he regarded as superior to and more official than that of Cogolludo. Therefore, since in several instances (as in the account of the events leading up to the visit of Cortes to Tayasal) Villagutierre occasionally departs from the footsteps of Cogolludo, we may safely assume that he was at once more critical and better informed than the latter, whom, however, he valued enough to be willing to draw from his work much of his information and even some of his phraseology.

One rarely reads such introductions in scholarly books these days. This book is one of several I began reading to prepare for our winter vacation in the Yucatan, where my historian brother has retired and now works on Maya language projects.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, Mexico, publishing, scholarship, U.S.

Franciscans the First Modern Ethnographers?

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 511-524:

Cortés emerged in the sixteenth century as the most recognizable of God’s agents for several reasons. One was the impressive nature of the Mexica empire and the subsequent importance of central Mexico to the Spanish empire. Another was the rapid publication and wide circulation (despite royal attempts at censorship) of Cortés’s letters to the king, which argued unambiguously that God had directed the Conquest of Mexico as a favor to the Spanish monarchy. The blessed status of Cortés himself was heavily implied; in one letter he uses the Spanish term medio (medium or agent), to describe his providential role. A third was the supportive spin placed on Cortés and the Conquest by the Franciscans.

Friars of the Order of St. Francis were the first Spanish priests into the Mesoamerican regions that would become the colonies of New Spain. In competition with the Dominicans, to a lesser extent other orders, and later the secular clergy (priests who were not members of an order), the Franciscans remained central to the activities of the church throughout colonial Spanish America. In central Mexico, Yucatan, and other parts of New Spain, sixteenth-century Franciscans were the driving force behind efforts to convert native peoples and build a colonial church. The roles that natives themselves played in that process, and the writings generated as a result by both friars and natives, gave rise to an extraordinary body of literature that was foundational to the academic discipline of ethnography.

The Franciscans saw Cortés’s support of their entry into Mexico and their activities in the earliest colonial years as being crucial to their mission, and as a result contributed much to the formation of his legend.

Leave a comment

Filed under Latin America, Mexico, migration, publishing, religion, scholarship, Spain

Origins of the Conquistador Genre

From Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, by Matthew Restall (Oxford, 2004), Kindle Loc. 443-474:

The Mexican historian Enrique Florescano has observed that the Conquest gave rise to “a new protagonist of historical action and narration: the conquistador” and with him “a new historical discourse” that featured “a new manner of seeing and representing the past.” The historical discourse of the conquistadors may have been new in the sense of its application to the Americas, but it was actually based on a genre of document developed by Iberians before they reached the New World [during the Reconquista]. This genre was the report that conquerors sent to the crown upon completion of their activities of exploration, conquest, and settlement. Such reports had a dual purpose. One purpose was to inform the monarch of events and newly acquired lands, especially if those lands contained the two elements most sought as the basis for colonization—settled native populations, and precious metals. The other purpose was to petition for rewards in the form of offices, titles, and pensions. Hence the Spanish name for the genre, probanza de mérito (proof of merit).

The very nature and purpose of probanzas obliged those who wrote them to promote their own deeds and downplay or ignore those of others—to eliminate process and pattern in favor or individual action and achievement. Most of Conquest mythology can be found in these reports—the Spaniards as superior beings blessed by divine providence, the invisibility of Africans and native allies, the Conquest’s rapid rush to completion, and above all the Conquest as the accomplishment of bold and self-sacrificing individuals.

Probanzas are also important because so many were written. Literally thousands sit in the great imperial archives in Seville, and still more are in Madrid, Mexico City, Lima, and elsewhere…. Most such reports were brief—a page or two—wooden, formulaic in style, given scant attention by royal officials, then shelved until their rediscovery by twentieth-century historians. Many, no doubt, have never been read. But an influential minority were widely read either through publication as conquest accounts, or by being worked into colonial-period histories. For example, the famous letters by Cortés to the king, which were in effect a series of probanzas, were published shortly after reaching Spain. They so efficiently promoted the Conquest as Cortés’s achievement, and sold so well in at least five languages, that the crown banned the cartas lest the conqueror’s cult status become a political threat. The letters continued to circulate, however, and later admirers traveled like pilgrims to Cortés’s residence in Spain. The Cortés cult was further stimulated by Gómara’s hagiography of 1552—that the crown attempted to suppress too.

There was plenty of precedent to the publication of probanza-like letters and to crown intervention in their distribution or suppression. Within months of Columbus’s return to Spain from his first Atlantic crossing, a “letter” putatively written by him but actually crafted by royal officials based on a document by Columbus was published in Spanish, Italian (prose and verse versions), and Latin. It promoted the “discovery” as a Spanish achievement that cast favorable light on the Spanish monarchs and on Columbus as their agent. Significantly, it also made the letter originally written by Columbus, who as a Genoese would have been less familiar with the Iberian genres, look more like a Spanish probanza.

Leave a comment

Filed under biography, Italy, Latin America, Mexico, migration, military, Portugal, publishing, scholarship, Spain

Vintage Year for Vietnamese Dissidents: 2006

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2486-2519:

2006 was a unique opportunity for Vietnamese dissidents. The country was in the final stages of joining the World Trade Organisation. Negotiations with individual WTO members were followed by drawn-out multilateral talks and then an equally drawn-out process in the US Congress to award Vietnam Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) status, an adjunct to WTO membership. In addition, Vietnam held the rotating chair of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, during 2006, and was due to host its annual summit in November. Twenty-one leaders had been invited, including the presidents of the USA, Russia and China and the prime ministers of Australia and Japan. Vietnam was also seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. All of this meant the Communist Party was vulnerable to criticism from abroad and therefore less able to crack down on dissent with its usual efficiency.

There was another factor too. By 2006, broadband had fully penetrated Vietnam; internet shops were available on most city streets. Through the net, dissidents managed to surmount the physical barriers the state had erected around them and bridge the gaps of physical distance, of ideology and – at least as important – of ego, which, until then, had kept them divided. Services originally intended to allow teenagers to flirt with each other provided invigorating links with Vietnamese exiles in the United States and elsewhere. Websites such as PalTalk host chat rooms in which hundreds of people can type messages to each other and simultaneously listen to an audiostream or watch video. In effect, each chat room is an interactive radio ‘narrowcast’. Narrowcasters can give out information, make speeches, discuss developments and take questions and comment from the other participants. Suddenly dissidents in Vietnam had access to a new world of ideas and to a reservoir of supporters. Until then many people had been reluctant to trust each other, never knowing who was an informer; but a few overseas activists acted as ‘brokers’ – in effect vetting the dissidents who contacted them and putting them in touch with one another. They also began to provide cash.

With the cost of living so cheap in Vietnam, relatively small amounts of money raised abroad could go a long way. Supporters groups sprang up in Australia (Bloc 1–7–06), the US (Bloc 1–9–06) and the UK (Bloc 10–12–06) and sent in money for dissidents’ living expenses and equipment. With hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese remitting money to relatives each month it was easy to disguise the transfers. They weren’t particularly clandestine; most went via Western Union. Once inside Vietnam, the money was moved by couriers to where it was needed. When police stopped the car of one dissident, Nguyen Phuong Anh, on 15 December 2006, they confiscated 4.5 million Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of about $300, about six months’ wages for the average worker. He told them he had planned to buy clothes for needy paper boys. The money was crucial. It paid for computers, dozens of mobile phones, and hundreds of SIM cards to enable the dissidents to stay in touch even as the security services tried to disconnect them.

But useful as the internet was to the dissidents as an organising and discussion tool, it was much less effective as a proselytising force. The national firewall prevents the casual web-surfer accessing dissident websites and intercepts unwelcome emails. That didn’t stop one middle-aged Ho Chi Minh City-based activist, though. At night, after his family had gone to bed, he would trawl Vietnamese discussion sites and blogs harvesting the email addresses of anyone making critical comments. Then, with his harvest complete, he would send out two or three hundred emails with details of dissidents’ activities. He would tell them about strikes and how to form trade unions and about lobbying activities in the United States. But he couldn’t send all the messages from one email address because he feared the security services would soon track him down. So instead, he laboriously maintained dozens of different accounts and sent just a few messages from each one. It worked, and he managed to stay below the police’s radar. But even this very direct mailing had limited success; the phantom spammer estimated his response rate was less than 1 per cent. So even with all these technological innovations the number of active dissidents remained small.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, blogging, democracy, economics, migration, publishing, U.K., U.S., Vietnam

Changing Role of Media in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Locs. 2931-2947, 3019-3044:

Right from the beginning of doi moi, Party leaders wanted the media to act as an agent of reform. The Politburo knew that hundreds of thousands of people had grievances about corruption and mismanagement by local officials and that it didn’t have the capacity to address them all. So, in effect, it delegated some of the power of inspection and exposure to the media. A new Press Law, formally approved in 1990, specifically gave journalists the right to gather their own information and made it an offence to obstruct their work. Simultaneously the end of Soviet aid meant the end of subsidies. Newspapers and magazines had to actively sell their product – and therefore offer something readers actually wanted to buy. Just as in every country with a freer press, editors discovered that the best thing for selling papers was crime. And who better to publish crime stories than a newspaper owned by the police themselves? Readers of Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) are treated to a diet of sex and murder – with reportage straight from the horse’s mouth. The editorial line of the paper both terrifies the audience and reassures it that the police are on hand to catch the bad guys and keep the streets safe. It’s a successful mix, making it easily one of the country’s biggest selling papers.

The once near-monopolistic Nhan Dan, on the other hand, is kept afloat by the obligation placed upon every Party and government office to buy a copy. If it were left to survive on its street sales it would have gone bust long ago – it’s almost impossible to find in newspaper kiosks. The people don’t want to buy ‘The People’. Nhan Dan is not alone. Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the army newspaper) and Hanoi Moi – published by the Hanoi City Communist Party branch – are also kept going by compulsory purchase arrangements. Instead consumers have turned to papers which have built a reputation for uncovering corruption, exposing malpractice and widening the boundaries of what it’s acceptable to print.

The search for profit usually tops almost all other considerations – including, from time to time, ideological instructions. It’s sometimes a major battle for the Party to keep control. The local TV networks in Hanoi, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, now make so much money from advertising that they don’t need state subsidies – and if they don’t need the money why should they take the state’s instructions? The answer so far is that Party discipline has been stronger than the lure of cash but such divided loyalties are becoming more and more difficult to manage. So much so that the Prime Minister was forced to issue his December 2006 directive ordering tighter control over the press, in which he said Vietnam would never allow privately owned media.

But one media outlet is already almost entirely privately owned. The hugely popular online site, vnexpress.net, started life as a project of FPT, the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology, wholly owned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Under its highly entrepreneurial management (led by Dr Truong Gia Binh, former son-in-law of General Giap: see Chapter 1) FPT has grown from its original 13 employees into an employer of several thousand, with a series of IT outsourcing contracts for companies in Japan and Europe. It is also one of Vietnam’s largest internet service providers and telecoms companies. In 2001 it set up its own online news site – and just like VietNamNet-TV it did so without a government licence. Initially vnexpress.net was classified as an ‘internet content provider’, meaning that it could only publish material that had already been published elsewhere. By selecting the stories which the site’s editors thought would most interest readers and by focusing on information rather than ideological comment it rapidly reached a huge audience. Its business plan required it to reach 200,000 users within a year and a half. It achieved this within four months. But by the end of its first year in business it had already made profits from advertising of $70,000. It was the only unsubsidised website in the country. After more than a year of lobbying, vnexpress.net eventually received its licence from the Ministry of Culture. It was surprisingly easy. At the time it seemed to the leadership of vnexpress.net that the Ministry didn’t really see the point of an online newspaper or understand its potential significance.

As it has evolved, the parent company of vnexpress.net, FPT, has grown far away from its roots. Just 8 per cent of its stock is still owned by the state, around 80 per cent by its employees and foreign investors (including the venture capital arm of the US chip-maker Intel), with the remainder held by investment houses based in Vietnam. Thus one of the most important Vietnamese news outlets is almost wholly owned by private interests in contradiction of government policy. Its survival rests less on the law than on the balance of relationships between the company’s patrons and potentially hostile forces in other parts of the Party and government. FPT has become one of Vietnam’s biggest companies and its connections run deep into the Party leadership and into the boardrooms of some of the biggest global corporations. It has no shortage of allies to call upon if it’s ever put in a difficult position. For the time being vnexpress.net, its most controversial subsidiary, exists in a curious legal limbo.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, publishing, Vietnam

Language Documentation Hiatus

My slow and erratic progress on documenting Numbami, the language I did fieldwork on in Papua New Guinea in 1976, suddenly gained traction on October 1, when I imported my old Numbami dictionary file into a new software package I had just been introduced to. Now dictionary work has taken precedence over blogging, photography, and other hobbies as I tediously clean up the many import errors and add many cross-references and reverse-entry keywords. After the cleanup, I’ll have a printable Numbami-English and English-Numbami lexicon and be ready to digitize the text, glosses, and translations of several wonderful narratives I transcribed (in pencil) 35 years ago.

Before I imported the dictionary data, I had begun to retranscribe one of my best narratives whose pencil transcription had gone missing many years ago. A couple years ago, a language documentation specialist at the University of Hawai‘i (my old alma mater) had converted my old cassette tapes to digital media (.WAV and .MP3 format), so I could use Transcriber to align the audio with the transcription.

While underemployed in 1991, I had first input all my manual Numbami wordlist cards into Shoebox. In 2006, a friend helped me convert the Shoebox database into SIL’s new and improved Toolbox. Now I have imported the Toolbox data into SIL’s latest language documentation software package, FLEx, and have begun cleaning and recoding it.

One of the best things I did during my fieldwork was to record and transcribe in the field a good range of narratives: two well-organized procedural texts about women’s work cooking food and about the communal work of processing sago palm starch; two personal tales about experiences being civilians on the front lines during World War Two; and a couple of traditional tales, including an origin myth that combines elements from both coastal and inland cultures. (I translated and blogged a passage from one of the war stories here.)

My host father (long deceased) was a retired schoolteacher and village kaunsil (elected representative to the local government council). He told me that a portion of the timber royalties from village land was allocated to help pay for the education of village youths, who had to leave the village even to attend elementary school. Timber royalties also helped pay for the small diesel vessel that carried people and goods back and forth along the mountainous coast, which lacked an overland highway.

It was not until the 1990s that a Tok Ples (Vernacular) Skul was established in the village to teach basic literacy in the local language, before children went away to elementary school, where Tok Pisin was the lingua franca. I made a tiny contribution to getting it started by sending enough linguistic materials on Numbami to show that it had a workable orthography, which was a prerequisite for any Tok Ples Skul. But my work on the language was otherwise aimed at other linguists, for whom I hope eventually (after I retire) to finish a reference grammar of the language.

But my priorities shifted over the past year from language description to language documentation, thanks to new technologies and new relationships. One factor was the new language documentation software mentioned above. The other was making new contacts via Facebook with well-educated grandchildren of my host father who have mastered English and Tok Pisin well, but know very little Numbami. They are my new target audience, not linguists and not people in the village who still speak the language (to the extent they do).

Numbami is the village language of only one village on the face of the earth. In the 1970s, that village had fewer than 300 people, and even there more people spoke Tok Pisin than Numbami. If the elders had to write, they wrote in Jabêm, the Lutheran mission lingua franca in which all but one old lady had been educated. My host father was educated in Jabêm schools, had taught in them, was an acknowledged authority on the language, and managed to get me interested enough to make Jabêm the standard of reference for much of my analysis of Numbami. (Many years later, I sidelined my Numbami reference grammar to translate Otto Dempwolff‘s grammar of Jabêm after I met by chance online a potential cotranslator in Romania whose German was much better than mine.)

The first paper I published after returning from my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea was on multilingualism and language mixture among the Numbami. If village residents want to find spouses they’re not related to, they generally have to marry someone from a different language group. Unless both spouse and children live in the village, they don’t learn more than the rudiments of the village language. The kids grow up speaking Tok Pisin, in any case. If they pursue education and job opportunities in town, they learn English, too.

Nothing I can do will affect language use in the Numbami village. If people end up abandoning that language in favor of others more useful, I can’t blame them. Villagers have been shifting language loyalties throughout the human history of New Guinea, for all sorts of reasons. The articles I’ve published so far are of little use to anyone except other linguists. But the dictionary I’m now editing may be useful both to a few linguists and to a few educated, town-dwelling people of partial Numbami heritage who want to learn more about their lost ancestral language, but who are accustomed to learning through the medium of English. Finally, the narrative texts may also be of at least historical interest to a third tiny audience of people who learned to speak Numbami in the village and to read it in the Tok Ples Skul.

Leave a comment

Filed under language, Papua New Guinea, publishing, scholarship

Effects of the Papal Visit to Cuba in 1998

From Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America, by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, 2001), pp. 97-99:

The issue of Granma I acquire from a vendor in front of the cathedral is eight pages thick, tabloid-size. There is such a severe paper shortage in Havana these days that toilet paper is nonexistent, and, for lack of anything to buy in bookstores or anything to buy books with, better-off Cubans, having already sold or bartered their best furniture, their cutlery, their paintings, their picture frames, the statues on their family crypt, their jewelry, and their garden ornaments, have now taken to delivering the contents of their bookshelves to the used-book dealers who operate stalls in front of the former Palacio de los Capitanes Generales. The toilet paper problem and the Granma problem are not unrelated; in poor countries, squares of newsprint are a common substitute for toilet paper, but in Cuba the skinny—and scarce—issues of Granma are not enough to fill the need, and so I wonder if the stacks of Marxist literature that are said to go for a song these days are being put to good use—I dare not ask my friends. In any event, the coverage of the papal visit in the current issue of Granma makes interesting reading, for beyond the live broadcasts, it is the only information about the visit to which most Cubans have access. In today’s Granma, for example, they learn that the world media “classifies the meeting between Fidel and Pope John Paul II as ‘historic,'” that a congressman in El Salvador “classified the visit as transcendental,” and that the Jamaican daily The Observer “writes that the visit … is an example of rejection towards the U.S. embargo policies.” The front page describes at length yesterday’s meeting between the pope and representatives of Cuban culture—among them, movie directors whose works have been censored and intellectuals who have learned to keep their opinions about Fidel Castro closely to themselves. Without quoting him directly (or any other Church hierarch by name), Granma tells us that the pope “underlined that in Cuba one can speak of a fertile cultural dialogue, which is the guarantee for more harmonic growth and an increase in the initiatives and creativity among the members of a civil society.” A further article describes with some sense of color the enthusiastic reception given to the pope by the youth of Camagüey. If memory serves, there is no significant difference between these stories and those describing earlier state visits by, say, Michael Manley or Pham Van Dong.

At the newly refurbished Hotel Ambos Mundos (the words “where Hemingway used to stay” are invariably attached to its name), we sit at the bar and watch the end of this day’s mass. It is being broadcast live from Santiago, the eastern city that prides itself on its militant nationalistic spirit, and where Fidel’s 1953 assault on the Moncada barracks kindled the armed rebellion that would bring him to power in 1959. It is easy to forget that the Cuban nation is not yet a century old, but in Santiago the long fight for independence from Spain and freedom from United States dominion, and the central importance of the Sierra Maestra in the Fidelista revolution, are never forgotten. The pope’s Cuban advisers have no doubt suggested that Santiago is the perfect place to address the question of patriotism and the nation during his homily.

The crucial words of the day, in fact, are not spoken by John Paul or even by the cardinal of Havana, Jaime Ortega, who as a young priest spent some time in the notorious work camps where in the mid-1960s Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, militant Catholics, and even unruly youths such as the now-hallowed singer Pablo Milanés were sent to have their thinking corrected. The statement that will echo the longest—and that may well be the first statement critical of the Revolution to be distributed by a state-controlled medium in the last thirty years or so—comes in the course of a salutation to the pope by the bishop of Santiago, Pedro Meurice, who now holds the same position as the lifesaving bishop Pérez Serantes of so long ago. The heart of Meurice’s impassioned declaration, much quoted since then, comes when he talks of a “growing number of Cubans who have confused the fatherland with a single party, the nation with the historical process we have lived through during the last few decades, and culture with an ideology.”

Friends familiar with Catholic policy say that the Vatican probably decided from the first that the pope, in his role as head of state, should not be the one to refer specifically to the problems of the Catholic Church in Cuba, and that Cardinal Ortega should also remain above the fray, leaving Meurice to vent the feelings of the priests and other Catholics during his official salutation to the pope. Foreign journalists read into Meurice s speech the Vatican’s statement of defiance, but a complementary interpretation is possible: together with the fact that the pope chose to bring up the issue of political prisoners—there are hundreds of them—only at a meeting he knew would not be televised, it could stand as evidence of the diligence with which the Church is seeking to avoid a counterproductive confrontation with Fidel, his party, or his faithful during this trip. This is not to say that the Church ignored the impact Meurice s words were likely to have. He is known as a firebrand, and Santiago, the fiery town, is said to be the place where anti-Castro sentiment is running strongest. It is here that the first loud chants of’ “Libertad! Libertad!” will be heard during the mass.

Friends who were there will tell me later that significant numbers of Fidelista Cubans walked out during Meurice’s speech, that significant numbers of Catholics cheered wildly, and that in general in the plaza the feeling was that something enormous and irrevocable had taken place. But in the streets of downtown Havana, Meurice’s words have had no immediate impact that I can see. The hotel bar opens out onto the street, and as we sit in front of the TV set, Cubans stroll by and stop to watch the screen. A mass is an unfamiliar event for most of them. Unless it is the pope himself, they have little sense of who is at the microphone (or up at bat, or on stage, as they would probably say, since a public gathering to them would suggest the national sport or a dance concert but not the liturgy). Meurice is unknown beyond Santiago. Cardinal Ortega is not recognized when he walks down the street …

Leave a comment

Filed under Cuba, nationalism, publishing, religion, U.S.