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Saturday, October 18, 2003

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National Character: It's hard what to make of this exchange of gifts, as recorded by the Washington Post:

Bush gave Koizumi a pair of monogrammed brown cowboy boots as well as a little Japanese flag. In return, Koizumi gave Bush a voice-recognition pet-dog robot.

 


Friday, October 17, 2003

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Back in the U.S.S.R.: While reading for my tutorial in international relations, I came across the following quote, written in 1979:

The death rate among states is remarkably low. Few states die; many firms do. Who is likely to be around 100 years from now--the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Egypt, Thailand, and Uganda? Or Ford, IBM, Shell, Unilever, and Massey-Ferguson? I would bet on the states, perhaps even on Uganda. (Kenneth N. Waltz, Theory of International Politics, p. 95).

It consistently amazes me that 12 years before the Soviet Union's collapse, the analyst community was convinced it would still exist a century later. And it looks like IBM's doing pretty well thus far...

 

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Luitginisc Cnuosifon: Back in September, the Volokh Conspiracy posted the following email forward:

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a total mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Fcuknig amzanig huh?

Like most email forwards, it's an urban legend; many versions circulating around the web change the text slightly, such as referencing an "Elingsh uinervtisy" instead. (The "Elingsh uinervtisy" version was reprinted in the October 2003 edition of Prospect Magazine.) But apparently this legend has a grain of truth behind it, originating in actual linguistic research. By now, the forward has shown up in several different versions and even 14 different languages.

So, does it work? To test it, I've put up a simple CGI script (written in GAWK!) called "The Jumbler", which can randomly jumble any text while preserving the first and last letters of each word, as well as punctuation. Results may differ, but running the first sentence of the email through a second time produced "Accirnodg to a raecchesrh at Cdiagmrbe Uirsitnvey," which is far less legible (especially if you don't know what you're supposed to be reading). Here are some other results; judge for yourself.

When in the Crsoue of hmaun enevts, it bcoemes neasrscey for one ppeloe to dslsoive the ptocaiill badns wchih hvae cetcnoend them wtih ahtnoer, and to aussme amnog the prewos of the etrah, the sapreate and eqaul sitoatn to wcihh the Lwas of Nuarte and of Ntuare's God elnttie tehm, a deenct rcspeet to the oionpnis of mnkaind rereqius taht they sluhod dclaere the cauess wichh iepml them to the satraopein.

To be, or not to be: that is the qesoutin:
Weehhtr 'tis nbelor in the mnid to suffer
The snlgis and aowrrs of ougautores furntoe,
Or to take amrs angisat a sea of tboulres,
And by oopinpsg end them?

I wulod gllday pay you Tudseay for a hrgmuaebr tdaoy.

It seems that some basic aspects of consonant ordering need to be preserved, but that's just my first impression--I'll wait to hear what the experts have to say.

 


Wednesday, October 15, 2003

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Mass Delusion on the Korean Peninsula: Few recent newspaper articles are more disturbing than this Washington Post report from back in September, which I recently re-read. How is it that only 9 percent of citizens consider the possession of nuclear weapons by a secretive, isolated dictator--whose policies are directly responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of his countrymen and whose government frequently threatens to unleash "a sea of fire" on its enemies--to be "a major government concern"?

In my copious free time, I've just finished reading The Aquariums of Pyongyang, an account of the North Korean gulag system by an escaped survivor (recommended here). It's a heartbreaking book, and the conditions it describes of deprivation, barbed wire and prison camps are depressingly similar to those created by totalitarian regimes in Europe. The managers of the Yodok camp borrow methods directly from the Nazis and the Soviets--forcing inmates to act as informers, turning them against each other, manipulating them through their own fear and hunger--to dehumanize the prisoners and subject them to the most severe physical and psychological torture.

I almost wrote "borrowed" there, but there's no reason to put things in the past tense. As Tacitus notes, these camps are still operating today, and if anything the situation is probably more desperate--this being a time of famine--than it was when Kang Chol-Hwan was imprisoned in the late 1980s. From a European perspective, concentration camps are a creature of the 20th Century, not the 21st. It's hard to remember that they exist not only in black-and-white History Channel documentaries, but in a modern age with real people inside them. It's even harder to remember that the starvation in these camps, as well as the famine sweeping the larger prison Kim Jong-Il's regime has become, are not the result of forces of nature. The evil wrought there is entirely manmade.

I'm not asking for the use of military force to open the camps (although it was hard to read of Yodok's terrors without remembering the calls to bomb Auschwitz, without wanting to end them now). At least, I'm not asking yet. But I can't help remembering how, after each new set of concentration camps was opened in Europe, the world made a resolution of "Never Again." We took our videos and aired the documentaries, we admitted how much we had known all along, and we declared that in the future, such injustices would not stand, the pleas of innocents would not be ignored, the nations of the world would intervene.

Well, here are the camps. Here is a genuine case of a prison regime, a ruling clique that retains power only through the cruelest oppression of its people. Here is a militarist dictatorship that poses a grave security threat--perhaps one of the greatest of the last decade--to the nations of Asia and peace-loving people the world over. Why is this not a dominant topic of world politics, a major focus of concern? Why is Halliburton getting more air time than the suffering of millions?

Even if there are few good options in North Korea--and I'd be the first to admit it--that still doesn't answer why we haven't put more effort into finding the best of them. The energy that was displayed when millions took to the streets last spring was dissipated in a fruitless cause; could it not be channeled into more productive use? Couldn't a world movement--especially one ostensibly concerned about freedom--spend less time protesting the violent removal of one Stalinist, and more time planning the peaceful removal of another?

Yet the experience of South Korea, as described by the Post, makes me begin to lose hope. What's truly startling about the end of Kang's book is the kind of reception he's received in the South--where college students accused him of parroting the government line. At first, I found it unfathomable that those most suspicious of "propaganda" would trust a regime from which starving people routinely risk their lives to escape. (If pictures of George W. Bush were hung in every American home, if every popular song referenced his name, if schoolchildren were taught miraculous accounts of his birth, would the pronouncements of his government be treated with similar respect?) But having read the Post article, it's become more understandable to me now. Denying that any of this represents "a major government concern" is much easier than accepting how dangerous, and how evil, the world really is.

I think I'm starting to understand something else now, too--why it was so easy for Hitler to rise to power, and to begin his aggression unchallenged. Never underestimate the capacity for self-delusion of a threatened nation that honestly desires peace.

 


Tuesday, October 14, 2003

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The double standard: Another trip update--on a day spent in Budapest, I visited the Dohany Synagogue, the second largest in the world. Although it's been substantially renovated, the original late 19th-c. walls are, remarkably, still standing. The synagogue wasn't damaged by the Nazis because the Gestapo used it as a headquarters, and it wasn't bombed by the Allies because it was a synagogue. Although it's designed like a cathedral (the architects didn't know how to build anything different), it's a beautiful place of worship, and a reminder of how vibrant Jewish life in Europe had been before the catastrophe.

As I had half expected, the synagogue complex is surrounded by an iron gate, and those entering are required to pass through a metal detector. At first, I didn't think much of it; various security precautions aren't that unheard of for synagogues, and this was a landmark.

But then it started to worry me. Why should I expect this? When's the last time you went through a metal detector to enter a church? The fear isn't limited to tourist destinations; why should the Hillel on Harvard's campus, of all places, need extra police protection during the High Holidays? Why should a concern for random physical violence be almost normal for synagogues, something you often don't notice and don't find unusual?

It was hard to think about such questions without recognizing something I had never really considered--the "double standard." The Russian Orthodox diaspora, for example, doesn't live in fear for what Yeltsin and Putin have done to the Muslims of Grozny. And the evidence for deliberate and calculated attacks on innocent civilians is far, far better in the case of Chechnya than in the Occupied Territories. Why are true accounts of massacres in Chechnya (including threats to "exterminate" the civilian population) so quickly forgotten, while erroneous accounts of massacres in Jenin are remembered so clearly?

Obviously, these questions are just rhetorical; there are plenty of symbolic as well as power-politics reasons why the U.N. and others ignore Chechnya and focus on Palestine. And I certainly don't intend to justify all of Israel's actions, some of which (though only some) are indeed reprehensible, by claiming that "Everyone's doing it." But Jews aren't Israel, even if most Israelis are Jews. Why, then, does it seem like no surprise if innocent individuals are held responsible (even viciously murdered) for the actions of their co-religionists? (And this in the heart of Europe?)

I don't think the answer can be found in international politics, but only in something much darker. Those Parisian Jews who marched against the war were still beaten for looking Jewish. Yet the near-universal response--to change the subject to Israel's actions, to accept without question that Jews everywhere bear the blood guilt for Israel's sins--is nothing more than blaming the victim. It is deeply worrying to live in a world where this, too, is just to be expected.

 


Monday, October 13, 2003

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Don't call it a comeback: I've been here about a week, since I arrived in Oxford after visiting an old friend and his family in Hungary. I stayed for eight days, and had a wonderful time there. However, I don't want the following to give the impression that my experience was primarily political; it's just that I couldn't visit a country that had undergone such drastic change without spending a moment thinking about its history.

The last time I visited Hungary was nine years ago, in the summer of 1994. I don't remember too many of the places we went, but I do remember how it felt very different, like a socialist country. We had our passports checked every ten feet in the airport; we saw policemen in military-style uniforms; we stood in Heroes Square (baking like a reflector oven in the hottest summer yet on record) and saw all around us the concrete fruits of the past 50 years.

This time, things were very different. As I traveled through Hungary, staying a few days in Budapest as well as driving almost the length and breadth of the country, I noticed a very Central European feel, kind of like "Austria East." After living in England for a year, a country of rolling hills and green pastureland, I was glad to see straight highways, open plains, and immense fields of wheat--I'm starting to miss the Mid-West. Maybe it was because I was staying with friends, maybe it was because I had been there before, but it didn't feel foreign to me at all.

But I got the strong impression that this sense of normalcy was deliberate. On our drive, we visited Fort Monostor in Komarom, which had once withstood a siege of 60,000 soldiers, and from which the departing Soviet troops had removed everything movable (including the floors and windows). We walked through Festetics Castle in Keszthely, where the Russians decided to build a concrete-walled road through the middle of what had been a beautiful garden estate. Now the castle garden was again carefully tended, and the fort was building a new restaurant and visitor's center. My friend kept remarking how well and how recently various sights had been restored; I didn't notice, since they looked as well-maintained as any similar destinations in the U.S. (and more so than many). With every renovation, the legacy of socialism was being carefully removed, and the memory of Hungary's brighter days--when Budapest had been among the first cities of Europe--revived.

On my last day, we visited the Statue Park on the outskirts of Budapest, where several monuments to the old regime have been deposited. It's hard to reach from the center of the city, so there were only a handful of people there, and between the monuments and the emptiness it had the atmosphere of a graveyard. What struck me most was that these monuments, ostensibly erected in celebration of Hungary's achievements, were far from celebratory in emotion. There was no mistaking their design: they were supposed to be ominous and forbidding. A trio of Hungarian socialist leaders were depicted looking like nothing so much as evil robots emerging from the stone; the workers had strong arms, clenched fists, and expressions of righteous anger.



The implied message was not "let us build a worker's paradise," but "we will bury you." The many "Liberation" monuments took on a new light when my friend told me that the "liberation" was not from the fascists of 1945, but from the "counter-revolutionaries" of 1956--an inversion of meaning that reminded me of Berthold Brecht's poem "The Solution":

After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

It's difficult for me to imagine living under a government that sees its role, not as serving the people, but as compelling the people to service. Lord knows capitalism hasn't solved everything, and that Hungary is hardly free of problems, but it was difficult to go there and not think that something very important has been achieved.

Best of all, they're selling T-shirts at the entrance, not far from the statues of Marx, Engels, and Lenin. A final insult to their memory, I suppose.


 


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