Monthly Archives: May 2008

Applebaum Sour on Baker and Blogs

In a review entitled The Blog of War, Anne Applebaum first parodies then purees Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization (via A&L Daily).

Baker never answers the questions that he asks. That is, he has not undertaken the historian’s task of hearing multiple arguments, listening to myriad explanations, looking at a wide range of evidence and then marshaling the evidence in order to draw a conclusion. He has not even carefully examined, as other historians have done, the various arguments about the aerial bombardment of civilians–the military tactic that appears to bother him most–to make a judicious argument against its use. Instead, he has used his license as a “novelist” to excuse himself from all of the tedious work of genuine knowledge. By way of research, he has read back issues of The New York Times and The New York Herald Tribune, along with a notably limited group of other historical sources, all long familiar. From them, he has plucked bits of information, shards of the historical record that he finds compelling, or perhaps contrary to what he imagines to be the conventional wisdom–and left his readers to draw their own conclusions.

Here is where I should note, and gladly, that there are many legitimate ways to write history, even many avant-garde, non-linear, novelistic ways to write history, as the historiography of World War II itself well illustrates. There are, after all, political histories of that war, diplomatic histories, social histories, military histories, and intellectual histories, as well as histories written from American, British, Polish, Russian, German, Jewish, Japanese, Slovak, Estonian, Bulgarian, Chinese, and Italian points of view, among dozens of others. Besides all that, there are shelves of memoirs of victims and the children of victims, and perpetrators and the children of perpetrators. There are more purely literary accounts, such as W.G. Sebald’s semi-autobiographical novels, which mix fact and fiction but are nonetheless deeply committed to understanding precisely what happened and why….

But what Baker has produced is nothing like this, nothing like history. You cannot fault his scholarship, because aside from the process of accumulating a set of anecdotes, no scholarship has been conducted. Though the book purports to pronounce upon the international situation, all of Baker’s sources are in English. Almost all of the stories take place in America, Britain or Germany, as if the war was not really happening in Eastern Europe or Russia, let alone Indonesia and Singapore. He has not worked with many primary sources, other than a few memoirs, and he has not discovered any new material. He leaves out enormous chunks of the story. His description of the invasion of Poland in September, 1939, is limited to two sentences–Goering “ordered a thousand planes into Poland. There were dive-bombers over Danzig”–and he does not mention the Soviet invasion of Poland seventeen days later at all.

You cannot disagree with Baker’s argument, because no argument has been made. Baker does not build a case, he insinuates something, leaving the reader to guess what. My best paraphrase of his view goes like this: Churchill was a bully and a drunk. The Roosevelts were snobs and anti-Semites. Therefore they were not good people. Therefore their so-called “good” war must have been hypocritical. Therefore they could only have been fighting because they were in hock to the military industrial complex and they had a bloodthirsty fondness for bombing raids. Moreover, the Holocaust was in part a German response to British aggression, and the Japanese invasion of China was a response to Chinese aggression, and Britain’s very participation in the war was the result of Churchill’s aggression, especially his stubborn refusal to respond to Hitler’s “peace offensive.” Therefore the pacifists were right….

Perhaps, I wondered at one point, the whole book is a gigantic practical joke, a stunt intended to provoke scholars, anger Jews, infuriate Poles, and thereby create massive publicity for Nicholson Baker. And so my initial reaction to Human Smoke was to throw it across the room. Subsequently, I discovered that this reaction was very common, especially among practicing historians.

But then she segues into a sour diatribe on blogs and Wikipedia.

Unlike Nicholson Baker or the editors of Gawker, I cannot really supply an anecdote that will explain, in a hundred words or less, why I decided to pick up the book again and write this review. But a few days after finishing Human Smoke as well as Baker’s treatise on Wikipedia, I happened to be sitting with a group of writers, historians, and critics, all fellows at the American Academy in Berlin, talking about it. As fate would have it–Baker loves portentous and possibly significant coincidences, and who doesn’t?–we were sitting in a villa overlooking the Wannsee. Just across the lake, we could see the Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the place where, in 1942, the Nazis decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Had the drunken Churchill and the anti-Semite Roosevelt not decided to fight World War II, none of us would have been there. There would have been no American Academy in Berlin, of course, with its prominently hung portrait of the villa’s original Jewish owners, now the Academy’s patrons; indeed, there would have been no Jews in Berlin, no Americans in Berlin, and no critics and writers in Berlin, save those approved by the Third Reich. Instead, a happy Nazi family would have been looking out over the lake, enjoying the same view.

Yet the dull truth is that we arrived at the topic of Nicholson Baker not because we were talking about the war, but because we were talking about the contemporary cult of the non-expert, or rather the anti-expert: the bloggers who assume that the “mainstream media” is always wrong, the Wikipedia readers who think that a compilation of random anecdotes is always preferable to a learned study, and of course the college students who nowadays prefer to get their news in emails from friends because it is too bothersome to read a newspaper. And the even duller truth is that Human Smoke belongs to this cult, and not to the more exotic outer reaches of the historiography of World War II.

Now, I have great respect for Applebaum’s knowledge of history and her writing of it. In fact, I think I have blogged more excerpts from her fascinating and well-done Gulag: A History than from any other book I’ve read. Nor do I have any sympathy for Baker, nor any desire to inhale the smoke he’s blowing in the book under review. I’m also getting more sour on the blogosphere these days, as it becomes less and less distinguishable from 24-hour journalism’s endless gotcha coverage and partisan shouting matches. And I’m also pretty routinely dismayed by the sloppy amateurishness of much of the stuff I find in Wikipedia (to which I’m contributing more and more these days, but only on subjects I know well).

But, geez, Anne, give us a break. Baker’s book was published by Simon and Schuster, not Gawker Media. Book publishers supposedly employ rigorous editors that blog media so often lack. Your review appeared in The New Republic, a magazine whose writers include fabulists and whose fact-checkers have repeatedly fallen down on the job. Most major media outlets have suffered similar embarrassments in recent years. Do you seriously believe that the reliability and expertise of the world’s legions of newspaper reporters are any more impressive than those of Wikipedia’s legions of contributors? News reports may claim to be the first draft of history, but they are usually the umpteenth draft of tired conventional wisdom. Finally, did the writing of purblind, partisan, and provincial-minded history only begin with blogging? Surely the writing of such history began with the advent of writing, the beginning of history.

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Filed under blogging, democracy, publishing, war

Inciting Backlash in Spain, 1931

From: Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 128-129:

The newly elected left-Republican and Socialist coalition in June 1931 further provoked the religious with controversial articles in the new Constitution, Spain’s first experiment in democracy. This went much further than a legal separation of Church and state. It extruded the Church from education, restricted its property rights and investments, and dissolved the Jesuits, who played a role in liberal and leftist mythology equivalent to that of freemasons, Jews and Marxists in the demonology of their opponents. This last measure was a bitter pill to swallow in the homeland of St Ignatius Loyola. Civil marriage and divorce were legalised, while the agreement of the authorities was henceforth necessary for any public celebration of religion – another indigestible measure in a society where religious processions were a highly developed art form. A supplementary law in 1933 nationalised all Church property, including secularising the cemeteries by putting them under local authority control and dismantling the walls which separated the dead religious from their non-believing fellows. Having nationalised Church property, thereby ignoring the wishes of those who had donated it, the government then taxed the clergy who used it. Measures against Church charities simply hurt poor people. The government also closed all religious schools, which since they educated 20 per cent of Spanish children, and were not replaced by secular alternatives, sat oddly with the Republic’s expansion of education.

Although these measures were implemented with varying local intensities, there can be no doubt that preventing the ringing of church bells, removing religious symbols from classrooms, and bureaucratising the procedures for those wanting religious funerals grievously irked many Catholics. Officious insistence that dying people fill out forms to get the send-off they wanted failed to charm their friends and relatives. These measures were condemned by Pius XI in the forceful 3 June 1933 encyclical Dilectissima nobis, which, while carefully professing indifference to forms of government, stressed the hypocrisy of these measures in terms of ‘those declared principles of civil liberty on which the new Spanish regime declares it bases itself’. These laws were the product of ‘a hatred against the Lord and His Christ nourished by groups subversive to any religious and social order, as alas we have seen in Mexico and Russia’. Republican Spain had become part of a ‘terribile triangolo’ whose object was the eradication of religion. Anticlericals in the Cortes responded in kind, with snide remarks about the ‘Mercantile Society of Jesus’, while the Socialist leader Azaña crowed that with these 1931–3 measures Spain had ceased to be Catholic.

Of course, things had been tending that way far longer than the wave of measures introduced in 1931–3 may suggest. In 1881 the Churches had lost control of the universities. In 1901 religion had become optional within the curriculum leading to the school leavers’ certificate. In 1913 non-Catholic parents could exempt their children from religious instruction. With a few exceptions, the arts and intelligentsia were dominated by secular-minded people. The Catholic presence among the urban working class and the southern rural poor was also exiguous. In 1935 a Jesuit calculated that, taking the eighty thousand parishioners of a Madrid working-class suburb, 7 per cent attended mass on Sundays; 90 per cent died without the benefit of the sacraments; 25 per cent of children were unbaptised; and of couples marrying, 40 per cent could not recite the Lord’s Prayer. Similar levels of indifference and ignorance were revealed in studies of Bilbao and Barcelona. The Church was also like an alien presence in the villages of Andalucia, with anarchist and Socialist activists converting peasant indifference or quasi-pagan superstition into outright hostility. Churches were falling into disrepair, when they even existed, and priests were poorly paid with government stipends equivalent to the lowest grade of janitors. The priesthood was not an attractive career option, with recruitment for seminaries falling by 40 per cent between 1931 and 1934.

Is the lash or the backlash the driving force of history? Who was the Prime Lasher?

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The Gulag Economy’s Peace Dividend

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 467-468:

Forced labour played an increasingly important part in the post-war Soviet economy, according to a policy dictated by Stalin and his ‘kitchen cabinet’ of advisers. With the ending of the war the pool of unpaid labour available for exploitation by the state grew enormously. Apart from Gulag prisoners and labour army conscripts, there were 2 million German POWs, and about another million from other Axis nationalities, who were mostly used for timber-felling, mining and construction, although those with skills were employed occasionally in Soviet industry. In some factories German POWs were so integral to production that detention camps were built on the factory grounds and officials tried to block the prisoners’ repatriation to Germany. The Gulag population also grew, despite the release of many prisoners in the amnesty of 1945; the camps took in well over a million new prisoners between 1945 and 1950, largely as a result of the mass arrest of ‘nationalists’ (Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, Latvians, Lithuanians and Estonians) in territories captured or reoccupied by the Red Army but never really reconciled to Soviet power. The Gulag system expanded into a vast industrial empire, with 67 camp complexes, 10,000 individual camps and 1,700 colonies, employing a captive labour force of 2.4 million people by 1949 (compared with 1.7 million before the war). Overall, it is estimated that conscript labourers represented between 16 and 18 per cent of the Soviet industrial workforce between 1945 and 1948. They were especially important in the mining of precious metals in cold and remote regions where free labour was very expensive, if not impossible, to employ (hence their contribution to the Soviet economy was even more significant than the figures would suggest). Slave labour also made up the workforce in the big construction projects of the late 1940s which came to symbolize, officially at least, the post-war confidence and achievements of the Soviet system: the Volga–Don Canal; the Kuibyshev hydro-electric station; the Baikal-Amur and Arctic railways; the extensions to the Moscow Metro; and the Moscow University ensemble on the Lenin Hills, one of seven wedding-cake like structures (‘Stalin’s cathedrals’) in the ostentatious ‘Soviet Empire’ style which shot up around the capital in these years.

The post-war years saw a gradual merging between the Gulag and civilian economies. Every year about half a million Gulag labourers were contracted out to the civilian sector, mostly in construction, or wherever the civilian ministries complained of labour shortages; about the same number of free labourers, mostly specialists, were paid to work in Gulag industries. The Gulag system was increasingly compelled to resort to material incentives to motivate even its forced labourers. The population of the camps had become more unruly and difficult to control. With the amnesty of about a million prisoners in 1945, mainly criminals, who had their sentences either reduced or annulled, the camps were left with a high proportion of ‘politicals’ – not the intellectual types who filled the camps in the 1930s but strong young men who had fought as soldiers in the war, foreign POWs, Ukrainian and Baltic ‘nationalists’ – who were hostile to the Soviet regime and not afraid of violence. Without a system of rewards, these prisoners simply refused to meet the set targets. The cost of guarding the prisoners was also becoming astronomical. By 1953, the MVD was employing a quarter of a million guards within its camps, spending twice as much on the upkeep of the Gulag than it received in revenue from its output. Several senior MVD officials were seriously questioning the effectiveness of using forced labour at all. There were even mooted plans, supported by Beria and Malenkov, to dismantle sections of the Gulag and convert the prisoners into partially civilian workers, but since Stalin was a firm supporter of the Gulag system, none of these ideas was seriously proposed.

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Filed under economics, labor, nationalism, Russia, USSR, war

Soviet Wartime Disunity and Unity

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 419-421:

Contrary to the Soviet myth of wartime national unity, Soviet society was more fractured during the war than at any previous time since the Civil War. Ethnic divisions had been exacerbated by the Soviet state, which scapegoated certain national minorities, such as the Crimean Tatars, the Chechens and the Volga Germans, and exiled them to regions where they were not welcomed by the local populace. Anti-Semitism, which had been largely dormant in Soviet society before the war, now became widespread. It flourished especially in areas occupied by Hitler’s troops, where a large section of the Soviet population was directly influenced by the Nazis’ racist propaganda, but similar ideas were imported to places as remote as Kazakhstan, Central Asia and Siberia by Soviet soldiers and evacuees from the western regions near the front. Many people blamed the Jews for the excesses of the Stalinist regime, usually on the reasoning of Nazi propaganda that the Bolsheviks were Jews. According to David Ortenberg, the editor of Krasnaia zvezda, soldiers often said that the Jews were ‘shirking their military responsibilities by running away to the rear and occupying jobs in comfortable Soviet offices’. More generally, this gulf between the front-line servicemen and the ‘rats’ who remained in the rear became the focus of a widening divide between the common people and the Soviet elite, as the unfair distribution of the military burden became associated in the popular political consciousness with a more general inequality.

But if there was no genuine national unity, people did unite for the defence of their communities. By the autumn of 1941, 4 million people had volunteered for the citizens’ defence (narodnoe opolchenie), which dug trenches, guarded buildings, bridges and roads, and, when their city was attacked, carted food and medicine to the soldiers at the front, brought back the injured and joined in the fighting. In Moscow the citizens’ defence had 168,000 volunteers from over thirty nationalities, and another half a million people prepared for defence work; in Leningrad, there were 135,000 men and women organized in units of the citizens’ defence, and another 107,000 workers on a military footing, by September 1941. Fired up with civic patriotism, but without proper training in warfare, they fought courageously but died in shocking numbers in the first battles.

Comradeship was also crucial to military cohesion and effectiveness. Soldiers tend to give their best in battle if they feel some sort of loyalty to a small group of trusted comrades, or ‘buddies’, according to military theorists. In 1941–2, the rates of loss in the Red Army were so high that small groups seldom lasted long: the average period of front-line service for infantrymen was no more than a few weeks, before they were removed by death or injury. But in 1942–3, military units began to stabilize, and the comradeship that men found within them became a decisive factor in motivating them to fight. The closeness of these friendships naturally developed from the dangers the men faced. The mutual trust and support of the small collective group was the key to their survival. ‘Life at the front brings people closer very fast,’ wrote one soldier to the fiancée of a comrade, who had been killed in the fighting.

At the front it is enough to spend a day or two together with another man, and you will find out about all his qualities and feelings, which on Civvy Street you would not learn in a year. There is no stronger friendship than the friendship of the front, and nothing can break it, not even death.

Veterans recall the intimacy of these wartime friendships with idealism and nostalgia. They claim that people then had ‘bigger hearts’ and ‘acted from the soul’, and that they themselves were somehow ‘better human beings’, as if the comradeship of the small collective unit was a cleaner sphere of ethical relationships and principles than the Communist system, with all its compromises and contingencies. They often talk as if they found in the collectivism of these groups of fellow soldiers a type of ‘family’ that was missing from their lives before the war (and would be missing afterwards).

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The Rise of Salazar in Portugal

From: Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, From the Great War to the War on Terror, by Michael Burleigh (HarperCollins, 2007), pp. 140-142:

In contrast to Spain, where the presence of Catholics on both sides of a vicious civil war dictated a cautious response by the Vatican, there were two countries where Pius XI’s vision of a ‘golden mean’ between invasive totalitarianism and weak democracy was apparently being realised by authoritarian governments. The first was Portugal, where in 1911 the new Republican regime had introduced some of the most anticlerical legislation in Europe. The Church was an easier target for urban radicals, many of whom were freemasons, than either the army or the large landowners of the south. Church property was nationalised, the university of Coimbra’s famous theology faculty was abolished, and feast days were restored to the world of work. Foreign priests and Jesuits were expelled, and both civil marriage and divorce were introduced. Religious teaching was prohibited in all schools. Both women and the 65 per cent of the population who were illiterates were disfranchised to destroy any potential Catholic voting base. Virtually the entire hierarchy were either exiled or expelled and in 1913 the Republic broke off diplomatic relations with Rome.

The fight-back against the efforts of a radicalised minority to impose French-style laicisation began among students in the devoutly Catholic north, and particularly among students at Coimbra. Two leaders emerged, Manuel Gonçalves Cerejeira and Antònio de Oliveira Salazar, of the Academic Centre for Christian Democracy, out of which developed a political party called the Portuguese Catholic Centre Party. Circumstances enabled this moderate party to make its influence felt. During the First World War, the Republic needed the Church to provide chaplains to its army of Catholic soldiers, while missionaries became crucial to the retention of a vast overseas empire at a time when the military was overstretched. By 1919 the Republic and the Vatican had restored diplomatic relations.

Initially, Salazar, an academic economist, subscribed to democracy as ‘an irreversible phenomenon’, but by the 1920s he and many others had become disenchanted with what was a highly corrupt local version of it. When he was elected to parliament in 1921, his revulsion for the opening session was so great that he walked out and returned to university teaching the same day. Between 1911 and 1926 Portugal had eight presidents, forty-four governments and twenty attempts at coups or revolution.

In 1926 the parliamentary republic was finally overthrown by general Manuel de Oliveira Gomes da Costa. Within two months, he was in turn deposed by general Carmona. Since Carmona had few ideas of his own, he depended upon conservative lay Catholics, including Salazar, who was twice brought in to right Portugal’s parlous finances. Salazar was careful to separate his political ambitions from his Catholicism, even if this meant tensions with his old student friend Cerejeira, who had become archbishop of Lisbon. When Salazar told the latter that he represented ‘Caesar, just Caesar, and that he was independent and sovereign’, Cerejeira shot back that he represented ‘God … who was independent and sovereign and, what’s more, above Caesar’. Salazar’s dictatorship retained the Republic’s separation of Church and state.

Restoring the Portuguese economy at a time when the world was sliding into depression lent Salazar a wizardly mystique, which he used to civilianise the military dictatorship from within. In 1930 he proclaimed a new National Union, an authoritarian nonparty whose primary purpose was to demobilise opinion. One of its first casualties was the Catholic Centre Party, which, Salazar argued, would impede the march to dictatorship. Thereafter Catholic Action became the main vehicle for the Church’s plans to reconquer Portuguese society for Catholicism.

President Carmona appointed Salazar premier in July 1932. He proclaimed the New State a year later. Catholic corporatist teachings, however misunderstood, were combined with a form of integral nationalism derived from Charles Maurras. The quiet professorial dictator, who avoided public speaking and staffed his regime with numbers of fellow academics, faced one remaining challenge. Portuguese disillusioned with the low-key tone of Salazar, and suffering under his austere economic policies, turned to the National Syndicalist Blue Shirts, who modelled themselves on the Fascists and Nazis. Salazar dealt with this radical Fascist threat deftly. He co-opted its more opportunist members into the regime, and then in July 1934 dissolved the remainder. This hostility to the National Syndicalists was similar to that of the Portuguese Catholic hierarchy. Referring to their desire for a ‘totalitarian state’ he asked: ‘Might it not bring about an absolutism worse than that which preceded the liberal regimes? … Such a state would be essentially pagan, incompatible by its nature with the character of our Christian civilization and leading sooner or later to revolution.’

Salazar saw little difference between the Communists, Fascists and Nazis, all of whom were wedded to a totalitarian ideal ‘to whose ends all the activities of the citizen are subject and men exist only for its greatness and glory. Portugal had no imperial ambitions – its empire was already the world’s fourth largest – and the regime dissociated itself from Nazi antisemitism, welcoming Jewish refugees fleeing their oppressors. The regime’s object was to entrench and intensify conservative Catholic values rather than to experiment with a ‘new man’ or woman. That lack of ambition, which extended to an aversion to modernising the nation’s economy, may partly explain why Salazar remained in power in this backwater until 1968.

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Kotooshu, Gambare!

I haven’t been following sumo very closely these days, but this week when I checked the standings of the May tournament that concludes this coming Sunday, I noticed that the undefeated Bulgarian ozeki Kotooshu had handed the senior yokozuna Asashoryu the latter’s second loss. But I didn’t get my hopes up because Kotooshu was scheduled to face the other yokozuna, Hakuho, yesterday, even though he has a better record against Hakuho than against Asashoryu. Well, this morning I saw that Kotooshu was now 12-0, having handed Hakuho (10-2) his second loss. Better yet, veteran Japanese ozeki Chiyotaikai (4-8) had saddled Asashoryu (9-3) with his third loss. If Kotooshu can win two out of the three remaining bouts, he won’t have to face either yokozuna for a tie-breaker, and will win his first tournament championship in sumo’s highest division (Makuuchi).

UPDATE: Reader Thomas of Nihonhacks provides a JapanProbe link to video of the two bouts on Youtube.

DAY 13: All the leaders lost, so Kotooshu (12-1) now has to win just one of his two remaining bouts to win the Emperor’s Cup. Hakuho dropped to 10-3, Asashoryu to 9-4.

DAY 14: He did it! Kotooshu (13-1) got behind the scrappy Mongolian Ama (another crowd favorite) and shoved him down to clinch his first Emperor’s Cup. The last day’s results won’t matter to him, but they will matter to everyone who is 7-7 and needs a winning record to maintain their ranking, like Tochinoshin (‘horse-chestnut-heart’), the Georgian rookie who just made his Makuuchi debut this tournament.

Of the 42 rikishi in the top division this tournament, there are 8 Mongolians, 3 Russians, 2 Georgians, 1 Bulgarian, 1 Estonian, and 1 Korean.


Filed under Japan, sumo

A Linguistic Rediscovery Close to Home

During my dissertation fieldwork in Papua New Guinea over thirty years ago, I discovered that a bunch of Austronesian languages in Morobe Province mark their relative clauses in a manner that is pretty rare from a typological point of view: they mark both the beginning and the end of the clauses. An English equivalent would go something like, “The language [that they were speaking that] sounded vaguely familiar,” or “The language [which they were speaking such] sounded vaguely familiar.”

The only other place where I could find languages that did the same was in Central Africa, and my dissertation cited a 1976 article by the great French linguist Claude Hagège which mentioned by name two Nilo-Saharan languages, Moru and Mangbetu, and two Niger-Congo languages, Mbum and M’baka. Over the years, I lost track of anything pertaining to those languages except their names.

But I got curious again recently as I worked on updating for publication an old paper on clause-bracketing in PNG Austronesian languages. So, yesterday, after googling those names and finding out that Mbum and M’baka (= Ngbaka) are spoken in the Central African Republic, I emailed my historian brother in Strasbourg, whom I recently visited, to ask whether he knew of any CAR languages that bracketed their relative clauses. He had spent years working in the (at that time) Central African Empire for the US Peace Corps and USAID while I was writing my dissertation in linguistics, and he later wrote a dissertation himself on Japan-Africa relations before World War II.

My query didn’t ring any bells with him at first, but after some reflection he came up with some examples in Sango, CAR’s national lingua franca. And then he emailed to ask his linguist friend Raymond Boyd at CNRS whether he could think of Adamawa-Ubangi languages that used such markers for relative clauses. Boyd replied:

Right off, I can’t think of one that DOESN’T. In languages like Sango and Chamba, opener and closer can be the same. In Zande, the opener is etymologically an indefinite and the closer is a locative. I’ve been reading a dissertation on Mambay (an Adamawa language closely related to Mbum and Mundang) where there is only an opener, but I take this to be perhaps a Chadic influence (I’d have to check this on a much larger range of data).

It was a Eureka moment for both of us.

I can’t believe I never thought to ask my own brother before! Back in January, when he took us to the used book vendors in place Gutenberg in Strasbourg, I discovered a book I couldn’t resist buying—despite the 30€ price—for no other reason than that I had mentioned the language it described in my dissertation. It was La Langue des Makere, des Medje et des Mangbetu, par A. Vekens, Dominicain (Editions Dominicaines Veritas, 1928), and the pages were still uncut. But even then, it didn’t cross my mind to quiz my brother about the CAR languages he had worked on.

Here are some examples of bracketed relative clauses.

Mangbetu (Vekens 1928) in Congo

A belu [si kesia né môlô ta kira ne] kambuba e faranga môkôtu.
Les hommes [ceux font le travail avec intelligence ceux-là] gagneront des francs beaucoup.
‘Those who work smart get plenty money.’

Sango (my brother, pers. comm.) in CAR

Tene [so mo tene so] ake nzoni ape.
word [thus you say thus] is good not
‘What you say is no good.’

Jabêm (Dempwolff 1939) in PNG

Lip [tec aê gawa nec] gêjac mocseŋ teŋ.
trap [Dem I I-set Dem] it-catch bushfowl one
‘The trap I set caught a bushfowl.’

South Watut (Holzknecht 1989) in PNG

Jek i-ra jiyaʔ ri naip a [ti ra-gin afu ŋga]
Jack he-cut tree with knife [Dem I-give to Dem]
‘Jack cut the tree with the knife which I gave him.’

Patep (Lauck 1980) in PNG

Ông ob tyoo yii yuu nuhu [wê ob lam ge]
you will dodge spear two arrow [Rel will come Rel]
‘You will dodge the spears and arrows that will come.’

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Filed under Africa, Central African Republic, language, Papua New Guinea

Gulag Returnees Meet Their Accusers

From The Whisperers: Private Lives in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2007), pp. 583-587:

‘Now those who were arrested will return, and two Russias will look each other in the eye: the one that sent these people to the camps and the one that came back.’ With those words the poet Akhmatova anticipated the drama which unfolded as prisoners returned from the camps to confront colleagues, neighbours, friends who had informed on them….

Ibragim Izmail-Zade was a senior professor of medicine and a departmental head at the Institute of Medicine in Baku at the time of his arrest, in 1938, on charges of belonging to an ‘anti-Soviet group of Azerbaijani nationalists’. After his release from the Kolyma camps, he returned to Baku, where he took up a junior position in the same institute. Instead of the cutting-edge research he had done in the 1930s, he was now employed in routine clinical work. During the trial of M. D. Bagirov, the former Party boss of Azerbaijan, in 1955, Ibragim appeared as a witness for the prosecution, in which capacity he was allowed to look at his own file from 1938, when Bagirov had led the terror campaign in Baku. Ibragim discovered that he had been denounced by his favourite student, who had since gone on to become the head of his department at the institute. While Ibragim was in Kolyma, the former student had often visited his wife and daughter, who treated him as a member of the family. The old student was noticeably cooler in his behaviour after Ibragim’s return, rarely coming to the house, and never in the evening, when he would have been obliged to eat or drink with him. After his discovery of the denunciation, Ibragim and his family were forced to see the former student several times, and while they never spoke to him about his actions, it was clear that the Izmail-Zades now knew of the betrayal. One day the political director of the institute appeared at the Izmail-Zade house. He wanted Ibragim to sign a document stating that his family had no grievance against the former student, and that they would remain on friendly terms. Ibragim refused to sign. He had to be restrained from throwing the official out on the street. According to his daughter, Ibragim was crushed by the betrayal. He felt humiliated at being forced to work beneath someone who, he felt, was hardly qualified. Being asked to sign the document had been the final straw….

Many former prisoners were surprisingly forgiving towards the people who had informed on them. This inclination to forgive was seldom rooted in religious attitudes, … but it was often based on the understanding, which was shared by everyone who had experienced the prisons and the camps of the Gulag system, that virtually any citizen, no matter how good they might be in normal circumstances, could be turned into an informer by pressure from the NKVD.

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Wordcatcher Tales: gatvol, makwerekwere, utari

I’m still bogged down with obscure linguistic research projects that are not yet bloggable, and already half-blogged books on depressing 20th-century European history that I haven’t finished reading. But I see that two other bloggers, Khanya and No-sword, have explored the social context of some interesting vocabulary from two far-outlying parts of the globe, the northernmost island of Japan and the southernmost country in Africa. So, without further ado, here are snippets of Wordcatcher Tales by proxy.

Steve at Khanya appends the following glossary to a post on Xenophobia – the gatvol factor in South Africa:

1. Gatvol – which being interpreted for the benefit of makwerekwere [2], is Afrikaans, meaning literally “hole full”, or more idiomatically, “Fed up”, or “had enough”, or “had it up to here”.

2. Makwerekwere – which, being interpreted for the benefit of foreigners, means foreigners.

Another South African blogger who in his home country was mistaken for a Nigerian explains the second term more specifically at The Zeleza Post:

Makwerekwere is the derogatory term used by Black South Africans to describe non-South African blacks. It reminds one of how the ancient Greeks referred to foreigners whose language they did not understand as the Barbaroi. To the Black South African, makwerekwere refers to Black immigrants from the rest of Africa, especially Nigerians. I was confounded by the fact that Black South Africa had begun to manufacture its own kaffirs so soon after apartheid.

Meanwhile, Matt at No-sword investigates why the Hokkaido Ainu Association, founded in 1930, changed its name to the Hokkaido Utari Association in 1961, and has now announced it will revert once again to its original name.

Ainu is obviously the name used to refer to the Ainu as a people distinct from other peoples; this is directly from the Ainu word aynu which means, predictably, “man” or “person” (as opposed to “supernatural being”).

Utari is a more interesting word. As a loan word in Japanese, it is usually glossed as “compatriot” (“同胞”, dōhō), which usually implies “fellow Ainu”. Its etymology in Ainu is more interesting.

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Evading Jim Crow in Caroline County, Virginia

New York Times editorial board member Brent Staples has some interesting background on how people of mixed race (as legally defined) evaded the Jim Crow laws in Caroline County, Virginia. It’s entitled Loving v. Virginia and the Secret History of Race:

Americans born in the 21st century will shake their heads in disbelief on learning that 40 states once had laws prohibiting interracial marriage. [Note: There were only 11 states in the Confederacy.—J.] The Supreme Court struck down the last of these statutes in the 1967 case of Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and a white man who were arrested and banished from Virginia for the crime of being married….

Like many rural areas in the Jim Crow South, Caroline County was governed by two competing racial ideologies. The impulse toward segregation was of course etched in law. But Central Point, which had been a visibly mixed-race community since the 19th century, was home to a secret but paradoxically open interracialism. The community’s story goes a long way toward explaining how the Lovings thought about race and why they behaved as they did.

Virginia slave owners, including Thomas Jefferson, were notorious for fathering children with their slaves. The 19th-century diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut could easily have been speaking of Caroline County planters when she wrote: “Like the patriarchs of old, our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines; and the mulattoes one sees in every family partly resemble the white children.”

Many of the mixed-race men and women in Caroline County settled in and around Central Point. They were already thriving by the early 20th century. Their church, St. Stephen’s Baptist, was, as one historian noted, “the largest and most costly house of worship in Caroline, white or colored.” People in the congregation and community were “as a whole, very nearly white,” the historian wrote, “and, out of their community, could not be recognized or distinguished as colored people.”

Inside Caroline County, Virginia’s strict laws on segregation applied. But when they ventured beyond Caroline County — where no one knew them — many of Central Point’s residents found it a simple matter to “pass” as white. They visited white-only movie houses and restaurants. They also served in all-white units of the segregated Army during World War II.

The community developed a system for protecting the racial identities of Central Pointers who moved away and married into white families. When they took their white relatives back with them to visit, their younger brothers and sisters, who attended the colored school, just stayed home. This was well known to the teachers at the school, who apparently accepted the absences without question.

The state officials who enforced segregation were clearly aware of what Central Point’s residents were up to and tried to stop it. They circulated lists of families described as descendants of black people. For a time, the state “corrected” birth certificates to note the “real” race of the bearer. It didn’t change things much in Central Point.

By the time that Richard and Mildred had begun to date in the 1950s, they had lived their whole lives in a community that had made an art form of evading Jim Crow restrictions on relationships.

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