Monthly Archives: April 2005

K. R. Howe on Democracy and "Tradition"

When the new Pacific island nation-states gained their constitutional independence, mainly in the 1970s and 1980s, there was a heady optimism. Independence had come peacefully and cooperatively. There had been no revolutions, no bloody wars of national liberation. Independence was given, sometimes virtually imposed, rather than taken. Power shifted readily from colonial administrators to existing indigenous political elites. The independence constitutions of the new nation-states were largely informed by Western democratic institutions and values.

But in more recent times, the optimism has diminished. Along with growing economic problems for most Pacific nation-states, there are now very considerable tensions between notions of Western liberal constitutional democracy and some indigenous political values and traditions. The Fiji coups of 1987 were a major wake-up call for historians and others who still viewed the Pacific islands as pleasant, romantic, peaceful locations. These coups, in the name of protecting the rights of indigenous Fijians, caused great consternation to those commentators deeply committed to the commonly held dual ideals of democracy and indigenous rights. In this case, they could not hold both at once.

While the Fiji coups were rather extreme examples in the Pacific context, the underlying tensions between constructs of indigenous “tradition” and “the West,” and the politics of Pacific culture, are lively and serious issues in modern scholarship.

“Tradition” is constantly reinvented in all human societies. In Oceania, indigenous tradition has long been constructed by Westerners. It is also constructed from within island societies, often as a necessary anticolonial response and as a basis for an assertion of identity. This identity tends to be expressed more in cultural terms–a cultural nationalism–since political nationalism is often a problematic concept in islands where nation-state boundaries have been arbitrarily imposed, where even concepts of a political nation might have no indigenous precedents, and where so many citizens live outside their state.

Sometimes this process of asserting cultural identity is also used for particular internal purposes that might be regarded as less than noble, such as by some current political elites to maintain their own positions in the face of growing demands by some of their citizens for a more democratic sharing of influence and resources. Traditional indigenous values of status and even “class”–for example, differences between “commoners” and “nobles”–are not always compatible with notions of democracy.

Historians dealing with these matters often feel the need to tread very warily and not give offense. Criticism can so readily lead to accusations of racism. For historians there is the temptation to suspend the critical facility and to appeal to cultural relativism, a situation ethics based on notions of what is loosely referred to as “the Pacific way.” Thus, for example, certain practices involving matters of ethnicity, class, or gender or of social, government, and business policy that would be condemned elsewhere in the world are sometimes quietly condoned. As an example, the near-absolute monarchy in Tonga seldom receives the condemnation from crusading democrats that such monarchy might receive if it were elsewhere in the world. In the case of Tonga, it is more likely to be regarded as a “quaint” and beneficent system. Meanwhile, the reification of indigenous tradition, by both insiders and outsiders, has contributed to post-colonial stereotyping. As Stephanie Lawson comments:

The construction of the dichotomy between “traditional” and “Western” that has been so roundly condemned in anticolonial literature has now been inverted in a form which pervades the rhetoric of those who denounced it in the first place. This unquestioningly produces the same false essentialism which has seduced past generations of scholars into believing that there are determinate characteristics of Western and non-Western “minds.”

And the dichotomy is so obviously simplistic anyway. Some of the most “Western” of notions have become thoroughly entrenched within and often central to “tradition,” most obviously Christianity. A fundamental problem with academic discussions about Pacific cultural politics is that moral judgments can too readily belie the enormous complexity of issues. The idea of authorative history is no longer acceptable, yet to offer the opposite, the idea of history as an infinitely relative “multivocality,” may in the long run be equally unhelpful. Both strategies are just as inclined to create cardboard cut-outs of their respective selves and others.

SOURCE: Nature, Culture, and History: The “Knowing” of Oceania, by K. R. Howe (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 72-74

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K. R. Howe on Culture as History

For reasons that were thought perfectly appropriate and correct at the time, imperial Pacific history depicted indigenous societies as fundamentally weak, flawed, and degenerate. In postcolonial history, indigenous societies are more likely to be strong, resilient, adaptable, and vibrant. The underlying reason for the contrast is the fundamental shift in explanatory paradigm from nature to culture and the associated reevaluation of the relative merits of Western and non-Western cultures. The result is that imperial values have been inverted. Today’s Pacific historians operate in an ideological environment that tends to privilege the idea of indigenous societies. Notions of indigenous culture and custom have been reified.

Chapter 1 argued the case for a twentieth-century reconceptualizing of Pacific nature in the form of the ideal tropical island. Something similar has happened to the idea of Pacific culture. Both the generality and the specificity of indigenous Pacific culture have commonly been re-ennobled. At its extreme level, perhaps more in the realms of journalism and political rhetoric than academic history, is the claim that Pacific islanders, and indigenous peoples elsewhere, have culture, whereas many Westerners, especially in “newer” countries such as Australia and New Zealand, do not. More commonly, islanders are attributed characteristics commonly thought to be lacking in Western society. They are spiritual rather than materialistic; holistic rather than analytical; sharing, caring, communal, and inherently democratic rather than individualistic and self-interested. They are deemed to embody pre-industrial ideals such as honesty and self-sufficiency, as opposed to corrupting values of urban modernity, and they have a closer affinity with nature. There exists a late-twentieth-century version of the noble savage.

Of course such idealizing and privileging of indigenous societies have been recurrent themes in Western thought over the past thousand or more years. The current postcolonial version is a natural and necessary reaction to now outmoded imperial views and colonial practices. Just as imperial history attempted to disempower islanders, postcolonial history is an attempt to reverse that process. It positively supports attempts to improve identity and life for peoples who have been colonized and marginalized. But it does create an environment in which historians sometimes have difficulty depicting multidimensional aspects of indigenous culture in colonial/postcolonial encounter. Criticism or what might be construed as negative comment about island societies tends to be avoided. The idea that island societies, like societies everywhere, may be riven with internal conflicts and contradictions and engage in reprehensible practices is not commonly expressed, by either insiders or outsiders. If such critical comment is made, it is more often than not explained as a consequence of colonialism.

SOURCE: Nature, Culture, and History: The “Knowing” of Oceania, by K. R. Howe (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2000), pp. 70-71

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Deaths in the Family

All the news coverage surrounding the drawn-out deaths of more famous people back around the Kalends of April this year cast a macabre shadow over the much quieter deaths of two of my kinfolk, my second oldest surviving uncle and my youngest aunt.

As their deaths began to sink in, I found myself reduced to a kind of catatonic state: staring off into the distance rather than burying my nose in a book as I usually do while waiting for the bus to work; tolerating sappier shows on TV than I would normally have the patience for; damping down my verbal input and output while silently recycling old memories through my head—all subtle mourning behaviors for someone who is fairly quiet to begin with.

Although he had a Hebrew middle name like half his brothers (whose monikers included Jeptha, Joel, and Jahue), Uncle Bernard Elijah was not a recent Jewish immigrant. His (and my) ancestors arrived from England on the Atlantic shores of Virginia back in the mid 1600s, but they didn’t get very far past the Great Dismal Swamp until the mid 1900s. Most were either Baptists or Quakers, the latter being especially fond of Hebrew names, it seems.

As the middle kid of seven who survived childhood on tenant farms in Southampton County, Va., Bernard was my father’s next older brother. Although not very religious himself, he looked after his missionary kid brother’s family in Japan. We always enjoyed the Virginia ham he would send every Christmas, and looked forward to visiting him and his family every furlough.

He had retired after 33 years as a produce buyer for Colonial Stores, and had been married to my Aunt Marie for 63 years. He was a tough old bird. He was riddled with cancer, was in constant pain, and had been given six months left to live for about eight years before he finally gave up the fight. He was 84.

Aunt Becky was not blood-kin. She was married to my father’s youngest brother, whom he called Junior, so that we kids referred to him as Uncle Junior, just as we used to talk about Dad’s sister as Aunt Sister.

But Becky proved to be just the kind of kin I needed when I landed on her doorstep in tiny Ivor, Va., disoriented by rural America after a childhood in urban Japan, disillusioned with my religious heritage, and disinterested in continuing my formal education.

Uncle Junior offered me work therapy at the filling station and tire shop he managed for Becky’s Dad, who owned an oil distributorship, a couple of service stations, a furniture store, a plumbing business—a fair portion of what few commercial opportunities were available in a town of not much more than 300 souls. Work therapy was just what I needed. There’s nothing like repairing a flat tire on a mud-encrusted logging truck to bring one’s airy philosophizing back down to earth.

Meanwhile, Aunt Becky offered me talk therapy: a sympathetic ear and a genuine curiosity about the wider world. Only ten years older than me, she was as much an elder sister as an aunt and foster mother.

Being from a relatively prosperous family, she had been away to college, but she never seemed able to find a healthy compromise between her roots planted deep in the local soil and her longing to soar far beyond. She seemed to keep sacrificing one for the other. But maybe I’m just projecting my own sense of the same everlasting tensions.

With their encouragement, and financial support from a secret local benefactor, I went off to college, but dropped out in my sophomore year and had to join the Army. Becky and I eventually lost touch after she and my uncle divorced. By then, I had settled far away.

A few years ago, out of the blue, I got an email message from her. We were back in touch. I was able to pay her a visit when I went to D.C. for a meeting. Last Christmas, she sent us a Virginia ham. Last year, during my daughter’s spring break, I dragged her around to see a bunch of my Virginia uncles and aunts and cousins, and also to see the Quaker cemetery where her paternal great-grandparents, great-great grandparents, and other assorted kinfolk are buried. City kid Rachel (another Hebrew name!) thought it odd to be so attached to a patch of soil. It was a curious spring break for a Yalie. I suppose she should have been skiing in Switzerland.

It was during this year’s spring break that we first got word from a cousin by email that Aunt Becky was in Portsmouth Naval Hospital. Not just in hospital, but on life support. She had gone in because her legs were giving out on her. It turned out her kidneys were failing. And then everything seemed to give out at once. Dialysis and artificial blood hormones had to take over the work of her stalled kidneys. A respirator did the work of her emphysema-damaged lungs. An external filtering machine had to screen out a deadly organism in her blood. And heavy sedation was needed to prevent the panic attacks that made her blood pressure spike and plunge.

The doctors worked to stabilize her for weeks, but couldn’t seem to rescue one organ without endangering the others. Meanwhile, her three children made sure she always had a familiar face and voice at her bedside. At noon on 30 March 2005, she was disconnected from all the various means of artificial life support. Before sunset, she had slipped away forever.

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Surrender Negotiations, 7-9 April 1865

Today marks the 140th anniversary of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox. My ancestors who fought for the Confederacy were already POWs by then–one was among the 1600 men left in Wharton’s two brigades who surrendered to Gen. Sheridan at Waynesborough on 2 March 1865 at the end of the Shenandoah Valley Campaign; the other was wounded and captured at of Five Forks on 1 April 1865, where Gen. Sheridan’s troops broke Confederate Gen. Lee’s supply line and forced him to flee toward the west, evacuating Richmond and Petersburg.

On 7 April 1865, Gen. Grant initiated a poignant exchange of letters with Gen. Lee.

“General R.E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.:
5 P.M., April 7th, 1865.
The results of the last week must convince you of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia in this struggle. I feel that it is so, and regard it as my duty to shift from myself the responsibility of any further effusion of blood by asking of you the surrender of that portion of the Confederate States army known as the Army of Northern Virginia.
U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General”

“April 7th, 1865.
General: I have received your note of this date. Though not entertaining the opinion you express of the hopelessness of further resistance on the part of the Army of Northern Virginia, I reciprocate your desire to avoid useless effusion of blood, and therefore, before considering your proposition, ask the terms you will offer on condition of its surrender.
R.E. Lee, General.”

“April 8th, 1865.
General R.E. Lee, Commanding C.S.A.:
Your note of last evening in reply to mine of the same date, asking the conditions on which I will accept the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, is just received. In reply I would say that, peace being my great desire, there is but one condition I would insist upon,–namely, that the men and officers surrendered shall be disqualified for taking up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged. I will meet you, or will designate officers to meet any officers you may name for the same purpose, at any point agreeable to you, for the purpose of arranging definitely the terms upon which the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia will be received.
U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General”

“April 8th, 1865.
General: I received at a late hour your note of to-day. In mine of yesterday I did not intend to propose the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, but to ask the terms of your proposition. To be frank, I do not think the emergency has arisen to call for the surrender of this army, but, as the restoration of peace should be the sole object of all, I desired to know whether your proposals would lead to that end. I cannot, therefore, meet you with a view to surrender the Army of Northern Virginia; but as far as your proposal may affect the Confederate States forces under my command, and tend to the restoration of peace, I should be pleased to meet you at 10 A.M. to-morrow on the old state road to Richmond, between the picket-lines of the two armies.
R.E. Lee, General.”

“April 9th, 1865.
General: Your note of yesterday is received. I have not authority to treat on the subject of peace. The meeting proposed for 10 A.M. to-day could lead to no good. I will state, however, that I am equally desirous for peace with yourself, and the whole North entertains the same feeling. The terms upon which peace can be had are well understood. By the South laying down their arms, they would hasten that most desirable event, save thousands of human lives, and hundreds of millions of property not yet destroyed. Seriously hoping that all our difficulties may be settled without the loss of another life, I subscribe myself, etc.,
U.S. Grant, Lieutenant-General”

“April 9th, 1865.
General: I received your note of this morning on the picket-line, whither I had come to meet you and ascertain definitely what terms were embraced in your proposal of yesterday with reference to the surrender of this army. I now ask an interview, in accordance with the offer contained in your letter of yesterday, for that purpose.
R.E. Lee, General.”

“April 9th, 1865.
General R. E. Lee Commanding C. S. Army:
Your note of this date is but this moment (11:50 A.M.) received, in consequence of my having passed from the Richmond and Lynchburg road to the Farmville and Lynchburg road. I am at this writing about four miles west of Walker’s Church, and will push forward to the front for the purpose of meeting you. Notice sent to me on this road where you wish the interview to take place will meet me.
U. S. Grant, Lieutenant-General.”

They finally met face-to-face at the home of Wilmer McLean.

General Grant began the conversation by saying ‘I met you once before, General Lee, while we were serving in Mexico, when you came over from General Scott’s headquarters to visit Garland’s brigade, to which I then belonged. I have always remembered your appearance, and I think I should have recognized you anywhere.’

‘Yes,’ replied General Lee, ‘I know I met you on that occasion, and I have often thought of it and tried to recollect how you looked, but I have never been able to recall a single feature.'”

… Within a month of Lee’s surrender, the remainder of the Confederate forces give up the fight.

SOURCE: “Surrender at Appomattox, 1865,” EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1997).

And North-South reconciliation has continued–in fits, starts, and turnarounds–for 140 years.

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Saul Bellow’s Passing and The Dean’s December

The death of Saul Bellow–and two recent deaths in the family–spur me to turn a bit more inward and start a series of memoir posts about our year in Romania during 1983-84, during which we read Bellow’s (1982) The Dean’s December and also reread Orwell’s 1984. Those two novels, along with Hedrick Smith’s The Russians, seemed remarkably perceptive about the alien world into which we had naively ventured.

The Saul Bellow Society‘s website describes an intellectual challenge facing Bellow’s protagonist in Romania.

For Dean Albert Corde, it is a matter of penetrating what he calls the “fantasmo imperium”—a state where facts cannot be perceived and provoke only feelings of suffocation. Starting with hibernation in [his wife] Minna’s room, Corde meditates on the symbolic and actual iron curtains behind which millions have been sealed off. He concludes that scientific minds have only succeeded in producing “blockaded zones” and “zones of incomprehension” about the larger issues of human existence. Irresponsible media people, scientists, university administrators, and totalitarian politicians he believes have perpetuated a gigantic fraud.

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NKVD Busts Largest Polish Spy Ring Ever, 1937-38

In 1937, the Soviet NKVD began an investigation into the “most powerful and probably the most important diversionist-espionage networks of Polish intelligence in the USSR.”

The operation began with NKVD Order 00485, an order that set the pattern for later mass arrests. Operational Order 00485 clearly listed the sort of person who was to be arrested: all remaining Polish war prisoners from the 1920-21 Polish-Bolshevik war; all Polish refugees and emigrants to the Soviet Union; anyone who had been a member of a Polish political party; and all “anti-Soviet activists” from Polish-speaking regions of the Soviet Union. In practice, anyone of Polish background living in the Soviet Union–and there were many, particularly in the Ukrainian and Belorussian border regions–was under suspicion. The operation was so thorough that the Polish Consul in Kiev compiled a secret report describing what was happening, noting that in some villages “anyone of Polish background and even anyone with a Polish-sounding name” had been arrested, whether a factory manager or a peasant.

But the arrests were only the beginning. Since there was nothing to incriminate someone guilty of having a Polish surname, Order 00485 went on to urge regional NKVD chiefs to “begin investigations simultaneously with arrests. The basic aim of investigation should be the complete unmasking of the organizers and leaders of the diversionist group, with the goal of revealing the diversionist network …”

In practice, this meant–as it would in so many other cases–that the arrestees themselves would be forced to provide the evidence from which the case against them would be constructed. The system was simple. Polish arrestees were first questioned about their membership in the espionage ring. Then, when they claimed to know nothing about it, they were beaten or otherwise tortured until they “remembered.” Because Yezhov was personally interested in the success of this particular case, he was even present at some of these torture sessions. If the prisoners lodged official complaints about their treatment, he ordered his men to ignore them and to “continue in the same spirit.” Having confessed, the prisoners were then required to name others, their “co-conspirators.” Then the cycle would begin again, as a result of which the “spy network” grew and grew.

Within two years of its launch, the so-called “Polish line of investigation” had resulted in the arrests of more than 140,000 people, by some accounts nearly 10 percent of all of those repressed in the Great Terror. But the Polish operation also became so notorious for the indiscriminate use of torture and false confessions that in 1939, during the brief backlash against mass arrests, the NKVD itself launched an investigation into the “mistakes” that had been made while it was being carried out. One officer involved remembered that “it wasn’t necessary to be delicate–no special permission was needed in order to beat people in the face, to beat without limitation.” Those with qualms, and apparently there were some, had explicitly been told that it was Stalin and the Politburo’s decision to “beat the Poles for all you are worth.”

SOURCE: Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum (Anchor Books, 2003), pp. 137-139

At least one young Pole, Karol Wojtyla–preoccupied in 1938 with his confirmation, his high school graduation, and his enrollment in university–outlasted not just the NKVD, but the Soviet Union itself. He got, if not the last laugh, at least the last beatific smile. May he rest in peace.

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The Old Betelnut Trick

In Tondo [a district of Manila in the Philippines], quite a few people raising fighting chicken, and it is their habit in the evening to take their fighting rooster out and gather around the street under the light where they talk and exchange experience how to raise fighting chicken. Sometimes a few of them would let their rooster fight, just like sparring (practice) and we kids use to gather around and watch the rooster fight.

One evening as usual this people are gather around sitting in circle petting their rooster while we kids, about six or seven of us, is standing outside the circle watching. Among the group there was an old man, oh, he’s about 70 years old and toothless, sitting among the group in the circle. This old man always chew nganga (bitternut [= betelnut] leaves with lime mix together). Well, he cannot chew it as it come, so he got a bamboo pipe about 12 inches long and about 1 and ½ inches wide, and he got a long chisel knife very sharp at the end. He would put the nut and leaves inside the pipe, and would crush it with the chisel knife, and when it is crushed, he would tap the pipe on his palm, put it in his mouth and chew it.

Well, this evening as usual, he was very talkative telling which rooster is good, which rooster should be a winner. Well, two of the rooster owner decide to let their rooster practice, let them fight without knife, so they step in the middle of the circle and let their rooster loose. One was white and the other was red in color. While the rooster were circling around poised to fight, this old man with the bamboo pipe pulled the chisel out of the pipe, point it to one of the rooster, and shouted, “Sa pula ako, sa pula, sa pula,” meaning, “I am for the red, for the red, for the red,” at the same time he was holding his pipe high by his side. One of the kid who was standing behind the old man, I notice he drop something inside the bamboo pipe. I was not far from this kid, so I saw it but the old man didn’t notice it. He was too busy watching the fighting chicken and keep shouting and cheering the red rooster. After a few moment the fellows pick up their rooster and the practice is over. So the old man resume his business, put his chisel in the bamboo pipe, and start crushing the nut and leaves while talking and laughing with the groups. While he was talking he tap his bamboo pipe in his palm, while he was saying, “I tell you that red is very good, I’ll bet on that red any time, that red is good,” and at the same time he put his nganga in his mouth and he says, “That red … phew, phew,” he says, “sa lintic sa lintic” (meaning, “The hell, the hell …”) and he start spitting his chew out. The fellows were surprise, and ask, “What happened man, what’s wrong?” “Sa lintic,” he says, “Sa lintic. Some body put lot chile pepper in my nganga. Sa lintic.” By that time we were already away from the old man. We were afraid he might start swinging with that sharp chisel and, instead, he stood up and start walking for home still mumbling, “Sa lintic, phew, sa lintic,” and when he is gone the fellows start laughing, some rolling on the ground, laughing like mad.

SOURCE: Tomorrow’s Memories: A Diary, 1924-1928, by Angeles Monrayo (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2003), pp. 208-209

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The Old Rock-into-Chair Trick

This is one of all the fun we were having in those days. Here is another one. In those days the Moro they are very popular. It use to be the story of Prince and Princess, the Christian Prince and the Princess against the Moro Royalties. They were shown in the local theatre and the actor and actress are pickup among the young woman and young man from the locale resident. This show was always sponsored by the Pampanga people and about 305 of the resident of our district are Pampanganian people, so that show was very popular in our district especially when the actor and actress were among the local resident. They always rehearse their act in the backyard of the group of nipa houses, which was very common in Tondo and those backyard mostly are good size, enough room for their act and quite a few people use to watch the rehearsal and that’s where we kids gather around and watch, usually in the evening.

One evening one of the rehearsal was in progress in one of that backyard of those group of nipa houses. You see, these houses are about six feet high on bamboo pole and no fence around it, so we kids, if we want to watch this practice, we just go through under the house to the backyard, and there they are shaking and dancing and doing their action like nobody’s business. (You see, most of them kids in those day if they are playing around they have only camiseta, no pants, no drawers, the lower half of the body is naked). The rehearsal continue about the life of the prince and the princess. So come the last act, they put a artificial rock on the middle of the yard and here come the princess walking slowly as if she is walking under the moonlite and a little while, here come the prince too and come toward the princess and express his love to her. The princess answered, “I cannot love you. You are a prince, yeah, but you have no ability at all. You have no power. Nothing at all.” And the prince says, “I have no power? Well, watch this.” He draw his sword and says, “Sa bisa itang encanto, maging silla itang bato,” meaning, “The strength of my power this rock become chair,” and sure enough, the rock split open, and come out a beautiful chair and the prince ask the princess to sit down on the chair. Soon as the princess was seated, here come a little kid from under the house, his lower half was naked. He was just a spectator like us. He was carrying a little paper bag, he walk right in the midle of the yard, and everybody was watching him then. He drop the paper bag on the ground and say, “Sa bisa itang encanto itang tackla manging puto,” meaning, “The strength of my power this shit become bread.” Soon as the prince heard this, he start chasing us with his sword. Believe me, did we move. We sure ran so fast we were hitting our head on the bamboo posts, but keep on running for dear life and everybody around there are all laughing like anything.

SOURCE: Tomorrow’s Memories: A Diary, 1924-1928, by Angeles Monrayo (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2003), pp. 209-210

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