30 January 2006

Bad Governments and Their Enabling Ideologies

Fareed Zakaria puts the latest Palestinian elections in broader context in a Newsweek column headlined Caught by Surprise. Again.
Rulers like Anwar Sadat and Jordan's King Hussein often used Islamic groups to discredit the secular opposition. Decades of repression, incompetence and stagnation ensured that citizens got increasingly unhappy with their regimes. And the only organized, untainted alternative was the Islamic movement.

Consider Hamas. It was founded as a sister group of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Initially it was a "quietist" group, accepting Israel's occupation of the West Bank as a fact and simply working to improve the conditions of Palestinians within it. Both Israel and Jordan tacitly supported the group during that period, because they saw it as a way of dividing the Palestinians. They also probably believed it could never come to power. But they worked tirelessly to destroy the PLO and its successor, Fatah, a secular, Soviet-styled revolutionary outfit. (Remember that in the 1970s, even the United States thought that conservative Islamic groups were allies against left-wing revolutionary ones, which is why we funded the mujahedin in Afghanistan.)

But the man who truly opened the space for Hamas was Yasir Arafat. Arafat created one of the most ill-disciplined, corrupt and ineffective organizations ever to be taken seriously on the world stage. Despite the pull of loyalty in tough conditions, Palestinians were losing faith in Fatah through the 1990s. Hamas, meanwhile, became more political, radical and organized. It provided health, education and other social-welfare services. And it stood up for its people.
Such problems extend far beyond the Middle East. To my mind, the central problem in the world today is bad government, ranging from relatively mild ruling party inertia and corruption in countries like Canada and Japan (to pick two who recently voted for reform), to hopelessly failed states like North Korea or Zimbabwe. At least democracies have the potential to clean house periodically. But elections don't guarantee the next government will be any better.

A lot of the real dirtball regimes are hangovers from the Cold War, still riding the turbid waves of their enabling ideologies, while their backers keep lowering the bar while telling themselves things could be even worse. In their days, at least Arafat, Assad, and Nasser were secular. At least Ceausescu, Hoxha, and Mao were anti-Soviet. At least Kim Il-sung, Ne Win, and Pol Pot were anticapitalist. At least Papa Doc, Pinochet, and Somoza were anticommunist.

And we're still doing that today. People console themselves that Kyrgyzstan's Bakiyev, Tajikistan's Rakhmonov, and Uzbekistan's Karimov are at least anti-Islamist (and so is Turkmenistan's Niyazov, though he may be his own kind of autotheocrat). Others applaud Castro, Chavez, and Evo Morales for at least being anti-American. Until accountability matters more than ideology, we'll never make any progress toward inducing bad governments to clean up their acts.

(Yes, I know, it's not just enabling ideologies, it's also enabling vital resources--oil, natural gas, diamonds, whatever--that provide excuses for others to tolerate unconscionable behavior by oppressive governments.)

28 January 2006

Protestant Paranoia in Poland in the 1700s

As committed as they may have been to the [Polish-Lithuanian] commonwealth, Protestants remained keenly insecure about their place within the state. They regarded radical Catholics as the greatest threat to their well-being, perceiving in them a tremendous capacity for intolerance and cruelty. The depth of their fear emerges time and again in the journals the Lutheran community maintained. Some entries soberly record improbable hearsay information about Catholic excesses, which the author obviously regarded as factual. During the period of the Confederation of Bar's insurrection, for instance, the chronicler lamented the purported plan of the confederates to deliver all Protestants, Jews, and Orthodox Christians "into lifelong slavery to the Turks." In a subsequent entry the chronicler recorded the case of a certain Malachowski, a monk from a nearby discalced [i.e., barefoot] Carmelite monastery who abandoned cloister life in 1768, fled to Berlin, and converted to the Reformed faith. When Malachowski returned to the Poznan area a year later, the Carmelites supposedly seized him, spirited him off to a monastery, and walled him into a tiny basement cell, providing only a small hole for air and minimal sustenance. He would have suffered there indefinitely had not a contingent of Russian troops under General Roenne passed by the monastery. Hearing foreign voices, Malachowski cried out in French for help and was saved.

This story is difficult to verify, but it illustrates aspects of the Protestant sense of place in Poland. They saw themselves surrounded by a religion as mysterious and towering as the churches and monasteries that Catholics built. Although most Protestants knew little about what actually went on within such churches and behind monastery walls, they were quick to believe the worst. The story also highlights the geopolitical perspective of Poznan's Protestants. They had long placed their faith in neighboring non-Catholic states to keep the commonwealth's Catholic establishment in check. Just as the Russian general Roenne had freed Malachowski, so had Poland's neighbors helped secure greater religious freedoms for minorities. In the eighteenth century Russia, Prussia, Sweden, and Denmark had all pressured the commonwealth in this regard. At the same time Protestants also shared a measure of the Catholic population's ambivalence toward neighboring states. During the Confederation of Bar rebellion, Russian troops occupied Poznan on more than one occasion. They committed numerous excesses against the civilian population, thereby dampening Protestant enthusiasm for their supposed defenders. The Lutheran chronicler took a dimmer view of Prussia. The author identified Prussia's successful attempt to destabilize the commonwealth's economy in this period as a "second confederation," comparing it to the loathed Confederation of Bar.
SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. 38-39

27 January 2006

Language Hat on Mother-in-Law Talk and Fieldwork

I should have mentioned earlier that the always enlightening Language Hat has been running a series of excerpts from R.M.W. Dixon's Searching for Aboriginal Languages: Memoirs of a Field Worker. His two-part post (here and here) on the special "mother-in-law" language employed by speakers of the Australian language Dyirbal takes me back to my grad school days in linguistics, including more than a few "Eureka!" moments that compensated for the drudgery, discomfort, diseases, and social frustrations of fieldwork (and college classrooms, for that matter).
The many-to-one correspondence between Guwal [everyday language] and Jalnguy ["mother-in-law" language] vocabularies was a key to the semantic structure of Dyirbal. If one Jalnguy word was given as the equivalent for a number of distinct Guwal terms, it meant that the Guwal words were seen, by speakers of the language, to be related. For nouns, it revealed the botanical and zoological classifications which the Aborigines perceived. For instance, bayi marbu "louse", bayi nunggan "larger louse", bayi daynyjar "tick", and bayi mindiliny "larger tick" were all grouped together under a single Jalnguy term, bayi dimaniny.

It could be even more revealing with verbs. The everyday style has four different words for kinds of spearing, and also such verbs as nyuban "poke a stick into the ground (testing for the presence of yams or snails, say)", nyirran "poke something sharp into something (for example, poke a fork into meat to see if it is cooked)", gidan "poke a stick into a hollow log, to dislodge a bandicoot". All seven of these Guwal verbs are rendered by just one word in Jalnguy: nyirrindan "pierce".
After I returned from doing fieldwork in Papua New Guinea, the three of us who had spent most of 1976 living in little villages along the north coast of New Guinea were invited to share our experiences at a Q&A session for other linguists. At one point, we were asked how our linguistics training had helped prepare us for our fieldwork experiences. I answered something along the following lines: "Well, it substantially increased my boredom threshold, and that proved extremely useful in the field."

UPDATE: Part III, the exciting conclusion here.

26 January 2006

Chile's Remarkably Unremarkable Election

Cuban-born columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner remarks in the Miami Herald on the remarkably unremarkable election of Michelle Bachelet (interviewed last night on the NewsHour) as Chile's next president.
Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera carried out good election campaigns, both colorful and modern. Shortly before Election Day, the pollsters made their predictions: Bachelet, a 54-year-old socialist physician, multilingual, former minister of health and defense, should win by about five percentage points....

By now, of course, the news is not who won the presidency but that, in the electoral field, Chile behaves as a developed and predictable nation. This allows us to make the following observation: Chilean society happily has crossed the threshold of common sense....

The Left that rules Chile is the Left of Tony Blair and Felipe González. It is a Left that, instead of nationalizing the sources of production, stimulates private enterprise and adopts measures to facilitate the functioning of the market. A Left that signs treaties for trade openings with the United States, the Mercosur, the European Union and South Korea because it has learned that Chile's growing prosperity depends, in large measure, on those intense exchanges. A Left, in sum, that governs honestly with the ideas of the Right -- which explains why it is so difficult to defeat it.

What is that desirable "threshold of common sense" and how can it be reached? In essence, the threshold of common sense is that point in history when a decisive percentage of the ruling class agrees on the diagnosis of the ills that plague society and the measures that must be taken to excise them.

In Spain, for example, that point was reached in the late 1970s, after the death of Francisco Franco, when the Right and the Left agreed to respect the basic, successful economic rules of the capitalist model tried out by the dictator, beginning with the reforms of 1959. To those rules they added democracy as a way to form a government and make collective decisions.

Something similar happened in Chile in the early 1990s, during the administration of Patricio Aylwin, the first democratic government post-dictatorship, when the Christian Democrats had the good sense to not renounce the good aspects of Pinochet's economic policy and to add to them the component of a liberal democracy.

That is why the Coalition for Democracy repeated its election victory for the fourth time: Chileans view Bachelet as a moderate and trustworthy person who will [not?] imperil with extravagant experiments the relative prosperity that Chileans have managed to achieve.

This is not to say that the Chile Bachelet will govern doesn't face serious problems. Yes, Chile in its 16 years of democratic rule, and continuing a previous trend, reduced poverty from 42 percent to 18 percent. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to further reduce those levels of misery and to bridge the enormous gap that separates the poor from the rich.
In contrast, Montaner has nothing good to say about Cuba after 47 years of Castro.
At this point in history, only two interesting questions remain about the failed experiment staged by Castro on that poor island:

• First, why has a man as eccentric and absurd as he -- capable of carrying out feats as improbable as the destruction of the centenary sugar industry, multiplying by 10 the number of prostitutes, executing or eliminating 16,000 people, and pushing into exile 15 percent of the Cuban population -- lasted so long in power?

Nobody doubts that his administration is the worst the country has ever endured, incapable for the past half century of allowing Cubans to have drinking water, electricity, food and shelter in minimally reasonable amounts. [But what about the health care?]

• The second question also is obvious: What will happen when he disappears? After all, we're talking about an ailing 79-year-old man with Parkinson's disease who exhibits very clear symptoms of senile dementia and has been struck by several cerebral ischemias that have affected his ability to communicate. He mumbles, repeats himself, becomes incoherent and confused, and displays aggressively bad temper at the slightest contrariety.

He can still talk for eight consecutive hours without the slightest concern for his listeners' bladders. What's important is not his staying power but the content of his speeches. He is a pitiful man who never stops uttering nonsense, to the embarrassment of a ruling class that has been trained to obey a charismatic and presumably infallible leader and now doesn't know what to do with this addlebrained and neurotic old geezer who just as blithely designs pygmy cows as he expounds on the unfathomable scientific secret of pressure cookers.

Gaps in China's Great Firewall

Mark Leonard, director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform, offers an optimistic perspective in today's Telegraph on China's attempt to censor its web content.
China is 60 times the size of Saudi Arabia, and most experts agree that the sheer volume of traffic would be impossible to police. But Beijing has risen to the challenge, throwing people, money and technology at the problem. The more lurid accounts talk of an e-police force of 100,000 people employed to scour the net, blocking sites and checking e-mails. The numbers are exaggerated, but analysts agree that teams of computer scientists run a firewall with at least four different kinds of filter.

Second, look at what the Chinese are censoring. Much of the commentary suggests that China is an iron-clad Stalinist state, shielded from global events by the "great firewall of China".

But analogies with Russia and eastern Europe in the 1980s are misleading. The governments of the Soviet bloc looked on powerlessly as their grey world of propaganda was eclipsed by Technicolor images of a better life in the West.

But China is already part of the capitalist world. It is awash with information, products and all the baubles of the consumer society. With every year that passes, the number of people with access to these goodies grows.

What Google has been asked to censor are perennial political taboos: articles on Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong - as well as pieces criticising the Communist Party's rule. But this kind of censorship is relatively subtle, aimed not at shutting China off from the world, but zeroing in on political controversy. Google estimates that less than two per cent of internet searches will be affected.

The third lesson is the most profound. What worries China the most is not information coming in from outside. It is Chinese people talking to one another. China's laws on the freedom of assembly are Draconian. Charities, trade unions and religious groups are kept under close surveillance and regularly banned. The ferocity with which the Communist Party suppresses the herbivorous and mild-mannered Falun Gong has puzzled many outside observers. But Beijing is not afraid of the content of their meetings; it is afraid of them meeting at all....

But however impressive the Chinese mastery of the internet has become, it is hard to see how the profusion of information circulating around China can fail to leave its mark on the country's politics. The great firewall is already springing leaks....

Many Chinese are also taking refuge in the world of digital images, which can be sent between mobiles or e-mailed as attachments, escaping the filters of the censor. Finally, there is the ingenuity of the Chinese people, who often write to each other in coded language (using stories as allegories). This has led many cyber-pundits to predict that, although Google's avant-garde credentials have been tarnished, the dream of a democratic China has not been deferred.
via Google News

Rebecca MacKinnon's RConversation blog is among the best English-language sources about censorship and the Chinese blogosphere.

I wonder how many people incensed at Google's compromises with the Chinese government are equally incensed about the myriad of much nastier compromises routinely tolerated by the multitude of NGOs, news reporters, and "peacekeepers" trying to make a small difference under conditions of far deadlier tyranny and chaos around the world.

25 January 2006

Poland on the Brink of Final Partition, 1793

Evaluations of the state of affairs in Poland in the late eighteenth century have conflicted sharply. Up through the Second World War, German authors tended to regard the situation in Poland as dismal. They emphasized the dysfunctional nature of Poland's political order and the stultification of its culture. In German circles, the phrase "Polish economy" (polnische Wirtschaft) long signaled a ludicrous oxymoron. Such assessments were used to justify, directly or indirectly, Prussia's role in the partitioning of Poland. If it can be argued that Poland was a failing state, then Prussia emerges as its redeemer, introducing stability and the flowering of civilization to the territories it absorbed.

Polish authors usually offer different readings. While quick to admit the many problems besetting the country, they tend to emphasize the great strides made during the final decades of the eighteenth century. According to this view, Poland was solving its problems and evolving into a strong, progressive, constitutional monarchy. Its very success, in fact, led to its demise. Because reactionary, autocratic neighbors feared that Poland's transformation could destabilize their own regimes, they crushed the experiment.

Both perspectives can draw comfort from the historical record. Certainly Poland, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, as it was known at the time, was burdened by enormous challenges, and the process of reform ignited bitter conflicts that threatened to rip the fabric of the state apart. At the same time, it made some impressive strides forward. In the twilight of its existence the commonwealth, long a study in torpor, displayed uncharacteristic vitality. Driven by the very real threat of dissolution, its leaders undertook bold measures. Its residents, suspended between despair and hope, persevered as best they could....

For all the noise of this tumultuous period, life in Poznan proceeded in large measure according to long-established patterns.... Its population was fragmented into dozens of insular communities with few occasions for generating an overarching sense of communitas across the urban area, let alone wider expanses. Regarding nationalism, the climate of late eighteenth-century Poznan was not conducive to such forms of identity. Its inhabitants continued to find meaning and their widest sense of social belonging within the confines of their locale, caste, and confession.
SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. 1-2

Hmm. I wonder why this sounds so familiar.

22 January 2006

How Secular Was European Nationalism?

[Religion and the Rise of Nationalism] examines the relationship between religion and nationalism in Poznan from 1793 to 1848. Currently located in western Poland, Poznan long has ranked as one of the largest cities along the linguistic and cultural borderland that separates the German-speaking regions of Central Europe from the Polish-speaking regions to the east. Relations among the city's ethnic populations were never exactly warm. They grew more strained over the first half of the nineteenth century, a period in which German and Polish Poznanians developed strong attachments to their respective national identities. I explore how religion influenced this process....

The modernist argument has dominated the study of nationalism for good reason: its adherents have marshaled an impressive body of evidence in its favor. In this study I have found many aspects of the modernist argument to be especially helpful in making sense of Poznan's changing social order. Where I part company with many modernists is over the supposedly secular quality of early European nationalism. It is indeed true that many high-proflle nationalist leaders from this period were avowedly secular, and the fiercest opposition to their agendas often came from religious sources. One can cite the struggles between the Jacobins and the Catholic Church in France, or between Giuseppe Mazzini and the Papal See on the Italian peninsula. But nationalism mattered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries because it resonated with large numbers of people and manifested itself repeatedly in mass movements of no small revolutionary potential. Yet Europe's population of secular urban sophisticates remained rather limited; secularization was only beginning to take its toll on traditional religious practice. In other words, most of the Europeans who rallied behind early nationalist appeals still maintained their traditional religious affiliations.

This work develops a nuanced and variegated portrait of the relationship between early European nationalism and religion. While many early nationalists were in fact estranged from organized religion, it was not uncommon for adherents of this new ideology to remain faithful to their religious traditions and to draw from these traditions in articulating their nationalist visions. Religion and nationalism could peacefully coexist and fruitfully interact with one another on a number of levels, as I demonstrate through a detailed study of one fascinating case: the city of Poznan in the first half of the nineteenth century. During this time Poznan emerged as an important center of Polish and German nationalist ferment as residents explored their heritage and agitated for a new political order based upon their nationalist assumptions. These processes culminated in an uprising during the "Springtime of Nations" in 1848, a period of revolutionary enthusiasm across the continent that stands as a touchstone of early nationalism. In Poznan in the years leading up to and including 1848, calls for greater political enfranchisement and national self-determination routinely intersected with the symbols, offices, and concerns of organized religion....

In exploring the relationship between religion and early nationalism, this book also contributes to an understanding of the evolution of nationalism. To account for the developmental trajectory of nationalist movements, historians long have drawn binary distinctions between early nationalism and its later manifestations. In its early phase, commonly reckoned as extending well into the second half of the nineteenth century, nationalist movements typically were spearheaded by liberal bourgeois elites, whose political interests and values set the tone within such movements. Sometime around 1870, however, the tenor of nationalism started changing. Conservative political establishments across Europe, long opposed to the revolutionary principles associated with nationalism, adopted new strategies vis-a-vis the phenomenon. Rather than resisting nationalism, they co-opted it and made it serve their reactionary ends. In this later phase, the rhetoric of nationalism demonstrated a greater sympathy for premodern values and institutions. It tended toward chauvinism as well, highlighting the virtues of the nation by disparaging ethnic or religious outsiders such as Jews, minority groups, or foreign workers. Such tendencies tapped into the xenophobia of the masses, gready expanding the popular appeal of nationalism.

An influential example of this typology can be found in Eric J. Hobsbawm's Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (1992). Hobsbawm describes the years from 1830 to 1880 as the "classical period of liberal nationalism," when nationalism was viewed by both its supporters and detractors as a new and progressive force closely associated with the liberal ideology that had emerged during the era of the French Revolution. But in the decades following 1880, nationalism changed considerably. Most notably, it "mutated from a concept associated with liberalism and the left, into a chauvinist, imperialist and xenophobic movement of the right." In his recent study of Polish nationalism, Brian Porter reiterates this same progression. Early Polish nationalism, he argues, was an inclusive movement focused on the emancipation of Poland and the rest of humanity from oppression of various forms. In the 1870s and 1880s, though, a much narrower conception of the nation emerged that was defined by a conscious hatred of outsiders. This animus was employed to promote the disciplined adherence to national values in the face of outside threats and to buttress established hierarchies of power. [Some have suggested that liberal internationalism is now mutating along the same lines in the face of threats to its established hierarchies of national and international power.--J.]

I do not deny the utility of generalizing about the differences between early and later forms of nationalism, especially when theorizing on a grand scale as Hobsbawm does. It is important, though, to consider counterpoints that remind us of the gap between the ideal type and historical reality. The actual development of specific nationalist movements routinely violated the explanatory models later developed to describe them. As my study demonstrates, the attempt by conservative establishments to commandeer nationalist movements was not strictly a late-nineteenth-century phenomenon. The Prussian regime and conservative nobles sought the same goal before 1848. Likewise, early nationalist leaders employed a rhetorical range that extended well beyond calls for equality, self-determination, and international solidarity. Events in Poznan make clear that Polish and German nationalists understood how the demonization of ethnic and religious outsiders could motivate core supporters....

I agree with the majority view that nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon whose origin is tied to political, cultural, and socioeconomic development unique to the modern era. And yet I dissent from the current vogue, inspired in particular by the postmodern approach of Benedict Anderson, of seeing national identities as raw inventions. Nationalisms have been capable of invoking intense passion in part because they lay reasonable claim to preexisting ethnic identities and historical and cultural legacies that are of genuine, compelling substance.
SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xxi

See also Robert E. Alvis, "A Clash of Catholic Cultures on the German-Polish Border: The Tale of a Controversial Priest in Poznan, 1839-1842," The Catholic Historical Review 88 (2002), pp. 470-488 (Project Muse subscription required)

UPDATE: Nathanael of Rhine River, who knows a thing or two about mixed identities, middle grounds, minority cultures, and the uses of nationalism and religion, comments:
I've never found the dichotomy of nationalism and religion convincing except in a few cases. A better way of looking at the problem is how nationalists 'nationalize' religion or religious issues, such as with the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Kulturkampf, or how pro-Church movements came to defend democratic rights (like the Catholic Liberals or Zentrum.)
I forgot to add a couple questions about the role of religion in contemporary European nationalism: Was Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla more a religious or a national leader? To what extent did he remain a Polish nationalist even after he became Catholic Pope John Paul II?

Secular Nationalism: Received Wisdom

Over the past several decades the idea that religion and nationalism can and do mix has been obvious to anyone who reads the newspaper. Around the world a series of powerful movements have sought to redefine societies and rework international boundaries in ways that emphasize the importance of religion within the political logic of nationalism and nation-states. Examples are abundant: the agenda of Hindu nationalists in India; the increasing centrality of Buddhism in the political discourse of the Sri Lankan government; the demands of "fundamentalist" Jewish groups that the Israeli government and society adhere strictly to Jewish law and the boundaries of the ancient Israelite kingdom; the powerful dovetailing of religious and ethnic identity that helped fuel the carnage in the former Yugoslavia; and drives across the Muslim world to bring governments into greater accord with the teachings of Islamic law. Such developments inspired the sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer to write a widely read study in which he argues that the encounter between older "secular" nationalisms and newer "religious" nationalisms has emerged as the most troubling source of conflict in our time. In its early incarnation in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe, he argues, nationalism was secular in nature, "based on the idea that the legitimacy of the state was rooted in the will of the people, divorced from any religious sanction." The secular nationalist ideology became hegemonic in the West and eventually spread around the globe, particularly during the era of decolonization in the 1950s and 1960s. Religious nationalism, in which religious identity is integral to the concept of nation, is a more recent phenomenon, he asserts, typically developing in the non-Western world as a conscious reaction to the perceived failures of secular nationalism to deliver on its promise of modernization and prosperity.

In building his argument, Juergensmeyer draws upon the received wisdom of scholars engaged in the study of nationalism. Although evaluations of the subject are many and diverse, most scholars have articulated versions of the "modernist" argument. According to this argument, nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon, originating in Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stimulated by the powerful forces that were transforming European society at that time.... While differing over primary causes, adherents of the modernist view tend to view nationalism--at least in its early phase--as indelibly linked to the liberal values associated with the modern era. Premodern European society was rigidly hierarchical, and its highest echelons claimed as their birthright a preponderant share of wealth and political influence. Nationalism represented a new and more egalitarian understanding of community. Its proponents championed the view that national heritage trumped all other forms of social identity. The status of one's parents, be they noble, bourgeois, or peasant, paled in comparison to one's nationality, and the boundaries of nation included all who exhibited its telltale characteristics. Nationalism thus served as a powerful tool for challenging the privileges of the elite establishment and pushing for more democratic forms of government. Summing up the predominant view of early nationalism, Anthony D. Smith writes: "At the outset, nationalism was an inclusive and liberating force. It broke down the various localisms of region, dialect, custom and clan, and helped to create large and powerful nation-states, with centralized markets and systems of administration, taxation and education. Its appeal was popular and democratic. It attacked feudal practices and oppressive imperial tyrannies and proclaimed the sovereignty of the people and the right of all peoples to determine their own destinies."

A great many scholars also include secularism among the modern values associated with early European nationalism. Under the ancien regime, the argument often runs, Europe's ruling dynasties allied themselves with the dominant church or churches of their realms in order to enhance their power. The churches were granted numerous privileges, and in exchange church officials encouraged followers to believe that the political elite ruled according to God's all-wise design. In their struggle against the social and political order of the ancien regime, early nationalists also took on organized religion, dismissing its political theology as so much superstition, unsuited for the progressive new era that was thought to be unfolding. Scholars often have portrayed early nationalists as secular-minded urban sophisticates, disenchanted with the religious worldview with which they had been raised....

At the same time scholars have sought to explain the striking affinities between early nationalist practices and traditional religious piety. The sacred aura surrounding nationalist symbols and their capacity to evoke devotion and self-sacrifice from adherents have led many observers to identify nationalism as a kind of ersatz religion.... According to this view, the typical early nationalist may have been estranged from traditional religion, but he or she still experienced spiritual needs long associated with religion, such as a sense of moral purpose and a comprehensive worldview. Nationalism helped fill the void created by the loss of traditional religious faith.
SOURCE: Religion and the Rise of Nationalism: A Profile of an East-Central European City, by Robert E. Alvis (Syracuse U. Press, 2005), pp. xiii-xvi

Australia's Crickety Baseball

Today cricket is stronger than ever, yet baseball has made its own respectable path since switching to summer play in the 1970s. Despite Australia's small population it is clear that there is room for both sports....

Baseball will never replace cricket in Australia, but the sport has a loyal and respectable following that cannot be ignored. The late Roy Page, South Australian night baseball pioneer, explained why he eventually preferred baseball over cricket: "[In baseball] at least you'd see a game decided. You'd go to cricket and you'd go for five days--which I used to do. You'd go five days, one after the other and at the end of the fifth day, it's a draw! An inglorious draw!"...

Still, ignorance of the game in Australia is hard to overcome. While zealous early entrepreneurs of baseball in Australia took great pains to explain the rules at every opportunity, the majority of the population never had the chance to learn because they never attended or played in a game. Accordingly, when Australians start to play the game, they usually bring a cricket style with them, such as throwing the ball underarm to other fielders and swinging at pitches near the ground. Many see this as a major hurdle that will continue to plague Australian baseball in the future.

Lismore Baseball Club founder Reg Baxter, though a stalwart cricket player as well, had nothing but praise for the attributes of baseball: "It lasts only two hours, while cricket is over two weeks, so you're tied down for two weeks, whereas in baseball you can say you're not available next Saturday and somebody else can take your place. To me there's something in baseball that's not in any other sport. I believe baseball is the greatest thinking game there is." Roy Page even credited baseball for helping bring innovations to cricket: "One-day cricket-who started that up? Ian Chappell. A cricket-baseballer. It was his idea that people wanted to see something on that specific day. They didn't want to go two and three days.... They wanted to see something settled on the night.... This was Chappell's idea. And I think that's going to be more pronounced in the years to come, I really do. One-day cricket. More so than this five-day business. It's not good enough." Australian team cricketers consulted Dave Nilsson and the Institute of Sport for batting and throwing tips. Baseball fans listen to cricket on radios at the IBLA [International Baseball League of Australia] games [emphasis added]. Cricketers still play winter baseball to keep in shape for the summer. Many Australian baseballers still field and bat like cricketers. Cricket or baseball? In Australia you can comfortably play and support either or both.
SOURCE: A History of Australian Baseball: Time and Game, by Joe Clark (U. Nebraska Press, 2003), pp. 136-137

21 January 2006

How Baseball Came to Darwin, NT

Like the other states, the Northern Territory had played baseball informally for many years before joining the national competition. Japanese fisherman and, later, American servicemen were first to play the game there. Organized baseball in the Northern Territory started in 1953 through the efforts of Charles Se Kee, a leading citizen of the Darwin Chinese community and president of the Darwin Basketball Association. Northern Territory baseball was limited to far-flung Darwin, Alice Springs, Katherine, and Tennant Creek....

Darwin baseball began humbly with a competition among four teams. Equipment was expensive and difficult to obtain. While there were enough teams for a decent competition, lack of adequate facilities was a major problem. One player remembers: "We didn't have any baseball diamonds. We had the old Darwin Oval, used as an area for public functions. In those days there was no grass on the field, and it was just dirt and rock. We had to paint the lines. We didn't have lime in those days. It didn't matter because there was no grass. We played on the oval with a cliff behind us, and any foul balls would probably go off into the sea. The games were held up while we got kids to go down and try to find the ball." From its beginning baseball in Darwin was played at the wrong time of year, during the wet season from 1 October to the end of March. Darwin Baseball League tried a supplementary dry season competition in 1956, playing at Coonawarra Oval with moderate success. Subsequent supplementary dry season play was attempted in 1964-68 but was dropped in favor of wet season competition, which players supported [probably so they could keep playing cricket during the dry season--J.]. As baseball became more competitive, though, Darwin changed permanently to dry season baseball in 1984.
SOURCE: A History of Australian Baseball: Time and Game, by Joe Clark (U. Nebraska Press, 2003), pp. 78-79

The Fun Side of Being Korean in Japan

On 14 January, Asahi Shimbun profiled a wildly successful, independent-minded, Japan-resident Korean, Kwak Choong Yang.
When entrepreneur Kwak Choong Yang was growing up in Japan, it is unlikely he could ever have imagined what would be happening here today. Though just a dozen or so years ago, many Japanese had negative perceptions of Korea, now they can't seem to get enough of all things Korean, and interest in the country's culture has never been stronger.

"True, some zainichi (Korean residents in Japan) are offended by all this. But we should welcome the fact that there is so much interest in our cultural roots," says Kwak, a second-generation Korean resident in Japan. The 49-year-old set up a publishing business eight years ago and has been introducing Korean culture to Japan....

It was before World War II that Kwak's father, aged 7 and all alone, arrived in Japan, where a relative lived. He worked his way up from the mines to management consultancy, the field in which he built a fortune.

Although the young Kwak grew up in comfort in Osaka, discrimination weighed heavily upon him. He was shocked when he secretly read about the "nationality clause" at the junior high school library. He realized there were restrictions on the jobs zainichi could hold in public service. He is still haunted by the memory of running out of a high school classroom after he announced his real name instead of his common name in Japanese. Kwak is therefore respectful of fellow zainichi who are grappling with discrimination.

"Even so, I want to tell people it's fun being a zainichi," he says. "Denial won't achieve anything. We shouldn't fear the changes surrounding the zainichi community."...

Kwak takes a liberal approach not only to the gender of his staff, but also to his employees' academic backgrounds.

He has hired high school graduates, and his company has no age-based retirement policy.

"I see myself as a dropout," he says. "I feel afraid of clean-cut companies where 5,000 people wearing the same suits work. So it was really no use creating a similar, stifling organization. My employees don't call me 'president' anyway."
via Japundit

Big Upsets in Sumo's Starting Basho

This year's first grand sumo tournament started off with the Georgian rank-and-filer Kokkai ('Black Sea') playing giantkiller, downing first grand champion Asashoryu, then newly promoted champion Kotooshu. Kokkai doesn't have much to show for it by now, but he did help clear the way for others to rise to the top.

Here's the Japan Times report after Day 13.
Tochiazuma dismantled Bulgarian fellow ozeki Kotooshu to take sole possession of the lead at 12-1 on Friday while Mongolian yokozuna Asashoryu was slammed to a third defeat by countryman Ama with two days remaining at the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament.

With Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko looking on from the upper-level box seats, Tochiazuma never gave the ozeki debutant a chance to launch an attack as he steamrolled ahead and shoved his opponent over the edge with a salvo of slaps to the chest in the day's penultimate bout at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan.

Tochiazuma, who came out this basho facing demotion, moved a step closer to capturing his third career title with sekiwake Hakuho and rank-and-filers Tokutsuumi and Hokutoriki trailing one off the pace at 11-2.

Asashoryu, who lost to Hakuho a day earlier, was tossed down like a rag doll immediately after the faceoff with an overarm throw, leaving him with a 10-3 mark along with Kotooshu and slim hopes of winning his eighth straight title with after claiming all six Emperor's Cups in 2005.

The yokozuna lost just six bouts in 2005 but has already suffered three defeats to start of the New Year.

Eleventh-ranked maegashira Hokutoriki (11-2) faced off in a rumble with Mongolian Hakuho but immediately backpedaled over the edge, slipping out of a share the lead.
UPDATE, Day 14: Tokyo native Tochiazuma remains in sole possession of the lead at 13-1, with Mongolian sekiwake Hakuho close behind at 12-2.

UPDATE, Day 15: Tochiazuma not only finished with the best record, 14-1, he also defeated mighty Asashoryu on the final day, handing the grand champion his 4th loss of this tournament. (Asashoryu lost only 6 bouts during the six tournaments of 2005.)

17 January 2006

Protests in Zhongshan City, Guangdong

EastSouthWestNorth has pulled together over a dozen different accounts from both English and Chinese sources for a long blogpost headlined The Zhongshan Incident. This hits close to home for the Outliers, who spent a year teaching English at a locally sponsored startup Sun Wen College in the town of Shiqi in 1987-88. (Sun Wen is yet another name for Sun Zhongshan, better known abroad as Sun Yat-sen.)

At that time, it was a pleasant enough little town where nearly everything was under construction. The new road south to Zhuhai put the Macao border within about an hour's drive, but the road north to Guangzhou took around three hours in a muddy, slow-moving, perpetual traffic jam.

Here's a chunk of reporter Howard French's account in the New York Times on 16 January.
SHANGHAI, Jan. 16 - A week of protests by villagers in China's southern industrial heartland exploded into violence over the weekend with thousands of police officers brandishing automatic weapons and using electric batons to put down the rally, residents of the village said today.

As many as 60 people were injured, residents of Panlong village said, and at least one person, a 13-year-old girl, had been killed by security forces, they said. The police denied any responsibility, saying that the girl had died of a heart attack.

Residents of Panlong, about an hour's drive from the capital of Guangdong Province, said the police had chased and beaten protesters and bystanders alike, and that locals had retaliated by smashing police cars and mounting hit-and-run attacks, throwing rocks at security forces.

The clash with villagers in Panlong marked the second time in a month that large numbers of Chinese security forces, including paramilitary troops, were deployed to put down a local demonstration.

The protests coincided with a visit to the area by the North Korean president, Kim Il Jong. The secretive Korean leader's visit, though never publicly confirmed by Beijing, is a poorly kept secret, and some residents said his presence in the region over the weekend may have contributed to the nervousness of the security forces. Like thousands of other demonstrations roiling rural China, it involved land use and environmental issues....

Indeed, demonstrating residents of Panlong village said their anger had been sparked by a government land acquisition program they had been led to believe in 2003 was part of a construction project to build a superhighway connecting the nearby city of Zhuhai with Beijing. Later, the villagers learned the land was being re-sold to developers to set up special chemical and garment industrial zones in the area.

The region that immediately surrounds Panlong village is among the most heavily industrialized land anywhere, and was the laboratory and launching pad for the economic changes put in place by Deng Xiaoping. These revolutionary changes revived the country and turned it, in the space of a generation, into a global economic powerhouse.

Panlong village is a short drive from Shenzhen, Dongguan and Zhuhai - all large and booming cities virtually created from scratch. It is also close to Guangzhou, the provincial capital, and to Hong Kong, whose investments helped fuel the area's takeoff. The region is not only the scene of some of China's fastest growing industries, including high-tech manufacturing, textiles and furniture - much of which is exported to the United States - it is also the scene of some of the country's worst pollution.

For most of the year visibility over the scrubland plains is so poor that beyond a few hundred yards all detail is lost behind a thick gray curtain of eye-stinging haze. Water supplies in the area are equally imperiled by the pollution. The situation has become so bad that even residents of Hong Kong, whose economy is dependent upon the adjacent region's growth, rue the environmental monster they have helped create.

Increasingly, their ambivalence is shared by rural dwellers in the area, some of the first people to benefit from the opening up of the country to foreign and private investment, which began in special economic zones in nearby areas in Guangdong as part of China's sweeping economic reforms.

"We have many special zones in this area, and each of them attracts investment," said a villager who was interviewed by telephone and gave his name as Hou. "The economic deals set in the past were not favorable, and many zones here have had smaller protests before, but the people were not united."

"Now," he added, "there are uprisings everywhere."

Lee-Jackson-King Day?

Wow. Here's a bit of awkward Virginia trivia I wasn't aware of: "Lee-Jackson-King Day was a holiday celebrated in the Commonwealth of Virginia from 1984 to 2000." Ah, the things you miss by being a long-gone expat!

via Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution

Oranckay on the Hwang Woo Suk Fiasco

Korea-based blogger Oranckay puts the Hwang Woo Suk cloning fiasco in larger societal context. Here's a small sampling.
IMHO, just how it was that Hwang was able to have his way with the country is far more important than that of what possibly could have been going on inside his head. History is full of con artists and psychopaths, but few ever enjoy the status bestowed on Hwang and figuring out how he was able to deify himself is of more critical importance. If someone robs a bank, you don’t ask why he did it. There have always been bank robbers and there always will be. The important question is how he did it and how he got away with it, and in this case the bank shares a lot of the blame.

Naturally, however, one does wonder what Hwang’s problem is. The best quote I’ve seen (was in the international media but I can’t find it) is that he might have been trying to “fake it ’till you make it.” He needed lots of money and lots of eggs, and maybe he figured that he could really pull it off before the lies caught up with him once he had what he needed to work with....

How was he able to get away with it for so long?

Put simply, I think Korean society as a whole has itself to blame for the international embarrassment. It got really hard to question him once he published the 2005 article then went to speak at a conference in the U.S., saying upon his return to Korea that he’d gone to “the heart of America” and “planted a Korean flag on the top of the hill of bioscience.”...

As I mentioned briefly in a piece I wrote for the Kyunghyang Shinmun, I actually find reason for hope in all of this. Others have noted reasons such as the fact that in the end, the media, or some of it, did get the truth out for all to see; that the Korean scientific community got to the bottom of the matter on its own; and, ironically, I think Korea has reason to be encouraged by the fact that the rest of the world fell for Hwang’s fabrications. Most countries only get to do international mail order fraud. 10 or 15 years ago if a group of Korean scientists had said they’d cloned stem cells they’d have been laughed at. Korea might be given more scrutiny next time around, but the world believed that Korea has the potential to make landmark scientific breakthroughs and was willing to be fooled. That would not have been the case not too long ago, and I think the world expects more of Korea than most of the Korean public realizes. The international scientific community will not be tricked so easily the next time, but then neither will Korea.
via Hunjangûi karûchi'm, who notes that Hwang has now received a job offer from Clonaid, the Raelian outfit.

15 January 2006

What Motivates Suicide Bombers in China?

The upcoming issue of The New Republic has a long review by David Bromwich of two books about suicide terrorism: Terry Eagleton's Holy Terror (Oxford U. Press, 2005) and Robert Pape's Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism (Random House, 2005).
The motives for suicide terror may be roughly divided into (1) religious fulfillment; (2) revenge; (3) founding a state; and (4) resistance to occupation. Holy Terror, when one looks at the details, is concerned rather narrowly with (1) and (2). Dying to Win suggests that the terrorism of the past two decades, and especially the suicide bombings, has emerged saliently as instances of (4), with (3) often a discernible secondary motive. (1) and (2) in Pape's view are possible and always exacerbating causes, but as he reads the evidence, they have not excited vengeful or ecstatic persons to the length of killing others by killing themselves.
Meanwhile, the January 2006 issue of Scientific American has a column by Michael Shermer ("Mr. Skeptic") about how to counter what he calls "murdercide" (ugh!).
The belief that suicide bombers are poor, uneducated, disaffected or disturbed is contradicted by science. Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, found in a study of 400 Al Qaeda members that three quarters of his sample came from the upper or middle class. Moreover, he noted, "the vast majority--90 percent--came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that's usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways." Nor were they sans employment and familial duties. "Far from having no family or job responsibilities, 73 percent were married and the vast majority had children.... Three quarters were professionals or semiprofessionals. They are engineers, architects and civil engineers, mostly scientists. Very few humanities are represented, and quite surprisingly very few had any background in religion." ...

One method to attenuate murdercide, then, is to target dangerous groups that influence individuals, such as Al Qaeda. Another method, says Princeton University economist Alan B. Krueger, is to increase the civil liberties of the countries that breed terrorist groups. In an analysis of State Department data on terrorism, Krueger discovered that "countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which have spawned relatively many terrorists, are economically well off yet lacking in civil liberties. Poor countries with a tradition of protecting civil liberties are unlikely to spawn suicide terrorists. Evidently, the freedom to assemble and protest peacefully without interference from the government goes a long way to providing an alternative to terrorism."
The recent spate of suicide bombings in China seems to underline Mr. Skeptic's point about despair in the face of oppressive and unresponsive governments.
Discontented or disturbed attackers in China have used mining explosives or fertilizer devices in previous bombings.

In August, a farmer with lung cancer set off a bomb on a bus in Fuzhou in southeastern Fujian province, wounding 31 people, and in July a murder suspect set off a bomb in a shopping mall in northeastern China, injuring 47 people.

A man set off a bomb on a bus in the western Xinjiang region in January 2005, killing 11 people.

On Saturday, Xinhua reported an explosion in a coal mine in Xinjiang in November was set off deliberately in the Beitaishan Coal Mine, killing 11 people.
Perhaps there are other bombings we haven't heard about, and religious nationalism cannot be ruled out in the case of Xinjiang (or East Turkestan), but it seems that suicide bombing in China is driven as much by individuals bent on revenge as by religion, nationalism, or occupation. Some of these Chinese suicide bombers seem to be aiming their Propaganda of the Deed at international news media in order to exact personal revenge on their otherwise unresponsive government--and, of course, on many of its innocent citizens.

UPDATE: It's not even clear how many of these bombings are suicidal. Here's a crime report from 4 January.
BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese police have detained the suspected architect of a bus bombing designed to kill his wife and in which 11 people died, Xinhua news agency said on Wednesday.

The suspect was believed to have given a man from his hometown explosives to plant on the long-distance bus in Yanling county, central Henan province, and to have killed the man after the attack to cover his tracks, Xinhua said.

The December 23 blast triggered a fire that swept through the bus, killing 11 passengers and seriously injuring three, the report said. It did not say if the man's wife was on the bus or whether or not she survived.

Investigators believed the suspect wanted to get rid of his wife so he could marry his mistress, the report said.
This perp sounds like a nasty piece of work, no matter who else he might want to blame for his criminality.

Coxinga's African Bodyguards

Swordsmanship was a vital component in the young Coxinga's education, not purely as a skill that a gentleman warranted, but also as a means of self-defence. [His father Nicholas] Iquan had many enemies, among the Dutch, Chinese and Japanese, and China was still reeling from the after-effects of drought and famine. As the son and heir of China's richest man, Coxinga was a valuable prize for kidnappers, and he was assigned minders hand-picked from Iquan's own personal battalion, the Black Guard. When the boy asked his father where he had found such fearsome warriors, Iquan simply replied that they had come from 'beyond the sea'.

Experience had taught Iquan that he could trust nobody; though he may never have known, his own mother had even conspired against him with [Dutch commander] Pieter Nuijts, so his paranoia was wholly justified. His Chinese associates were former pirates whose allegiance was unsure, his family were often out to get whatever they could, and he had long since learned never to trust the barbarians of Europe. Consequently, Iquan recruited the Black Guard from a place that had no relationship to any other country or associate: Africa.

The Black Guard, approximately 500-strong, had once been Negro slaves in the service of the Portuguese, but were now all freed men. Iquan had somehow acquired them in Macao, and had turned them into his own imposing private army. Perhaps some of them were among the slaves who fought so bravely to defend Macao from the Dutch in 1622, freed in the aftermath only to find themselves thousands of miles from home, with no hope of getting back. Others may have defected from the service of the Dutch, though Chinese sources imply that Iquan bought them in Macao and freed them himself. With many of its members unable to speak any language but Portuguese, the Black Guard was Iquan's most trusted unit, and he 'confided more in them than in the Chinese, and always kept them near his person'. Their mere appearance struck fear into his enemies, and rumours spread that even devils had joined Iquan's forces at Anhai: black-skinned giants with strangely curly hair, whose imposing forms were bulked out still further by hefty armour under gaudy silks. Fortunately, the Black Guard did not get to hear of such tales, as they were all devout Catholics, whose war-cry was a blood-curdling scream of Santiago, in praise of their patron St James.
SOURCE: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements (Sutton, 2005), pp. 79-80

14 January 2006

Australia-Japan Baseball Diplomacy

The Claxton Shield [national baseball competition] was inaugurated without fanfare at the 1934 carnival in Adelaide. Held between 4 and 11 August 1934, the first series was won by South Australia.

Shortly before the second Claxton Shield, a Japanese team visited Sydney as part of the Japanese Training Squadron. New South Wales played their representative Claxton Shield side against this team and won 9-2. As the other leading baseball nation of the world besides the United States, Japan was highly regarded by Australian baseballers. The Australians made numerous efforts to play visiting Japanese sides and recruit Japanese residents into Australian teams. Japan reciprocated this support, with the Japanese consul general sponsoring the Sydney first-grade competition, to be known as the Nippon Cup, the most significant trophy in New South Wales baseball to date.
In 1954, nine years after the end of hostilities against Japan, the ABC [Australian Baseball Council] arranged for a Japanese baseball team called the Tokyo Giants to tour Australia. Prime Minister Robert Menzies gave assurances that the tour would proceed without hindrance or incident, but he did not count on the powerful Returned Serviceman's League (RSL), who had objected to the tour from the outset. Nor did the Japanese team improve their standing with the RSL by arriving in Australia on Remembrance Day, 11 November. The visitors defeated the Queensland team 10-1 before only five hundred spectators. Three easy victories over Sydney teams were followed by the first "test" against Australia on 17 November. This test proved the most exciting game of the tour, with the score tied 8-8 after ten innings. The Giants would score 6 runs in the eleventh inning to win the game.

Traveling to Canberra for games on 19 and 21 November, the Japanese met Prime Minister Menzies, along with his minister for the interior, Kent Hughes, a former prisoner of the Japanese. Both warmly welcomed the visitors. Tokyo's schedule had included games in Melbourne and Perth, but relentless pressure from the RSL forced the cancellation of the rest of the Australian tour.
SOURCE: A History of Australian Baseball: Time and Game, by Joe Clark (U. Nebraska Press, 2003), pp. 53, 64

Australian Baseball Lingo

It's not surprising that Australia has its own particular Strain of baseball jargon. Here's a sampling.
  • "BALLS OUT!" - called by umpire to tell fielding side to throw practice balls back into the dugout as the inning is about to start.
  • BLUE – Umpire, because of blue umpire's uniform, even used when the umpire is not wearing blue. Victorian Baseball Association umpire, Greg Howard, has the car number plates "HEYBLU"!
  • DEAD - Out, as in "How many dead, Blue?" “Two dead”.
  • FOUR - colloquial reference to home plate. Only used in context of game situation though, as in "Look at Four! Look at Four!" from the third base coach to a runner running full speed into third, or "Four! Four!! Four!!!" from a catcher calling for a throw with a runner going home.
  • HOOKIE - Left handed batter, announced as "Hookie!" or by swallowing the first consonant " 'ookeeeee!". Called by fielding side so outfielders can shift to the right side.
  • LOADED BASES - Bases Loaded. (Australian baseballers always place the adjective first here).
  • SIDE (Batting or fielding) - possibly a cricket term, referring to "the fielding side" (defence) or "the batting side" (offence).
  • SIDE - Called by the umpire to indicate three outs have been made in a half inning and it is time to swap from offence to defence and vice versa.
  • “TIME AND GAME!” - Most Australian club games are timed, usually two hours or less. When a timed game is over, the umpire yells "Time and game!". Mixed reactions are predictable when this is yelled, from jubilation by the winners to painful shrieks of 'C'mon, Blue!?!" and other prevarications by the losers who may feel unjustly denied their right to try and win.
The Australian Baseball History website contains a fuller list.

13 January 2006

If a Tree Farts in the Forest ...

A surprising new study published in Nature, reported by the Guardian on 12 January 2006, may help explain why Kyoto Protocol signatories Canada and New Zealand haven't managed to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions any more effectively than nonsignatory Australia. Too many plants, not enough desert?
According to a study published today, living plants may emit almost a third of the methane entering the Earth's atmosphere.

The result has come as a shock to climate scientists. "This is a genuinely remarkable result," said Richard Betts of the climate change monitoring organisation the Hadley Centre. "It adds an important new piece of understanding of how plants interact with the climate."

Methane is second only to carbon dioxide in contributing to the greenhouse effect. "For a given mass of methane, it is a stronger greenhouse gas, but the reason it is of less concern is that there's less of it in the atmosphere," said Dr Betts.

But the concentration of methane in the atmosphere has almost tripled in the last 150 years, mainly through human-influenced so-called biogenic sources such as the rise in rice cultivation or numbers of flatulent ruminating animals. According to previous estimates, these sources make up two-thirds of the 600m tonnes worldwide annual methane production.

Frank Keppler, of the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, who led the team behind the new research, estimated that living plants release between 60m and 240m tonnes of methane per year, based on experiments he carried out, with the largest part coming from tropical areas.
Other perplexing results:
Tree planting

Researchers in North Carolina found that planting trees to soak up carbon dioxide can suck water and nutrients from the ground, dry up streams and change the soil's mineral balance


A recent study in Nature found cutting air pollution could trigger a surge in global warming. Aerosols cool the Earth by reflecting radiation back into space. Scrapping them would have adverse consequences

Global dimming

In 2003 scientists noticed levels of sunlight reaching the Earth's surface had dropped by 20% in recent years because of air pollution and bigger, longer-lasting clouds

11 January 2006

Orwell and Agee as Fieldworkers

David Denby's review of the collected works of James Agee in the latest New Yorker contains an interesting comparison of Agee and Orwell as cross-cultural fieldworkers.
For Agee, ... the point was not that these families suffered from atrocious social conditions. The point was that they existed. In an age concerned largely with the “masses,” Agee was impressed by the notion that other human beings idiosyncratically are what they are, in every ornery fibre. Flesh, bone, desire, consciousness--in almost every way, the farmers were different from him and therefore obdurate in their singleness and as capable of pleasure and misery as he. A young couple sitting on a porch and staring at Agee had in their eyes “so quiet and ultimate a quality of hatred, and contempt, and anger, toward every creature in existence beyond themselves, and toward the damages they sustained, as shone scarcely short of a state of beatitude.” [A little projection of self-hatred here, perhaps?--J.] Agee, born an Episcopalian, and deeply religious as a child, was no longer an orthodox believer. But he had a consciousness of the sacred in people and in ordinary objects that believers associate with God’s immanence. He loved, and took literally, Blake’s proclamation “Everything that lives is holy.”...

Agee’s lyrical gift set him off from other writers of liberal or radical conviction of the day. At almost exactly the same time that he and Walker Evans were in Alabama, George Orwell was exploring living conditions in coal-mining towns in the North of England, and it’s instructive to compare Orwell’s remarkable report, “The Road to Wigan Pier,” with “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Orwell boarded for a while in a little house that took in miners:
The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like blackbeetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.
So often in Orwell there is a strong sense of the sordid--­the scandal of meanness, decay, filth. And he was appalled by sloth and inanition. When, with much greater sympathy, he describes the miners and their wives in Wigan and other towns he typically catches them not “creeping” but moving vigorously--working, washing, cooking, or searching a slag heap for usable coal. Orwell is a chronicler of man as actor, and the second half of his book is a call for action in the form of socialist reform. But Agee chronicles being. He evokes the farmers and their families not just in sleep but at rest, sitting on a porch, or staring shyly and saying nothing. And he was incapable of physical disgust. For him, there is only an endless variety of shapes, textures, and dispositions, none of them beyond redemption in words.

In “Famous Men,” Agee is not a political writer but a poetic and metaphysical writer, who wanted to honor reality, and also to abolish it. There is a trap built into his kind of intense receptivity. That a person or a thing is itself and nothing else, and is therefore worthy of notice and celebration, may be the beginning of morality, but it’s also the beginning of tragedy. As Agee sits on the porch or alone in a room in one of the houses, he tries to take in, all at once, everything that the family is, everything that exists in the house--­for instance, Mrs. Ricketts’s dress, which is shaped “like a straight-sided bell, with a little hole at the top for the head to stick through, the cloth slit from the neck to below the breasts and held together if I remember rightly with a small snarl of shoelace.” He stares at a pair of coarsely sewn and nailed work boots, or at a tattered doll, or at the worn-through oil cloth on an old table, and is amazed at how much life went into the making and use of that table, amazed by how much life is going on in similar households, unnoticed, unrecorded. The mood is one of Wordsworthian awe and submission, though Agee extended his sympathies to objects--­even mass-produced, industrial products--­as well as to nature. At the same time, however, he is stunned by how limited the families are. Being so vividly and absolutely themselves, they are unable to be so many other things, and some of the angriest, most eloquent pages of the book are devoted to the deformations wrought on the children by early work and poor schooling. They have been cheated out of the most elementary ways of teaching themselves--­and therefore cheated out of pleasure. When they grow up, and become similar to that disdainful couple Agee encountered on a porch, the fierceness of their pride will be created as much by ignorance as by anger. The rhapsodist of things as they are is necessarily caught in a position of infinite regret. That is why the book, for all its celebratory tone, never falls into bathos. No one could confuse the tenant farmers’ days with a complete mastering of life.
via Arts & Letters Daily

UPDATE: As much as I admire Orwell, I'm beginning to develop an interest in Agee (born in Knoxville, TN), whose works I am far less familiar with. Part of it may be a vague admiration for the chutzpah of Southern writers who manage to invade and colonize New York City on their own terms. Among those I'm most familiar with are Harper Lee, William Styron, Mark Twain, Tom Wolfe, and Richard Wright. (I must confess that I don't much admire such purveyors of bald stereotypes--northern and southern, respectively--as Erskine Caldwell and Margaret Mitchell.) The beginning of a 1964 William Styron review in the New York Review of Books explains what they were up against.
'There is a saying among the Negroes in Harlem,' James Baldwin said recently, 'to the effect that if you have a white Southerner for a friend you've got a friend for life. But if you've got a white Northerner for a friend, watch out. Because he just might be the kind of friend who decides to move out when you move in.' This is a sentiment which may be beguiling to a Southerner, yet the fact does remain that a Southern 'liberal' and his Northern counterpart are two distinct species of cat. Certainly the Southerner of good will who lives in the North, as I do, is often confronted with some taxing circumstances. There was the phone call a number of years ago in the distant epoch before the present 'Negro revolt,' and the cautious interrogation from my dinner hostess of the evening: a Negro was going to be present--as a Southerner, did I mind? If I wished to stay away she would surely understand. Or much later, when Prince Edward County in Virginia closed its schools, the deafening and indignant lady, a television luminary, who demanded that 'we' drop bombs on 'those crackers down there.' (She got the state wrong, Virginians may be snobs but they are not crackers [you're wrong, Bill; we've got all kinds!--J.]; nonetheless, she was proposing that 'we' bomb my own kith and kin.) Or quite recently, a review in The New Yorker of Calder Willing-ham's [sic] Eternal Fire, a remarkably fine novel about the South which the reviewer, Whitney Balliett, praised extravagantly without knowing exactly why he was doing so, charging that the book was the definitve [sic] satire on Southern writing (through the book is funny it is anything but satire, being too close to the bone of reality), and polishing off Faulkner, Welty, Warren, et al. with the assertion that Southern fiction in general, in which the Negroes had served so faithfully as 'a resident Greek chorus,' had now terminated its usefulness. It is of course not important what this particular reviewer thinks, but the buried animus is characteristic and thus worth spelling out: white Southern writers, because they are white and Southern, cannot be expected to write about Negroes without condescension, or with understanding or fidelity or love. Unfortunately, this is a point of view which, by an extension of logic, tends to regard all white Southerners as bigots, and it is an attitude which one might find even more ugly than it is were it prompted by malice rather than ignorant self-righteousness, or a suffocating and provincial innocence. Nor is its corollary any less tiresome: to show that you really love Negroes, smoke pot, and dig the right kind of jazz.
Yes. Familiar types, all.

09 January 2006

Indian Sati, German Totenfolge in Universal Context

The September 2004 issue of Journal of World History has a thought-provoking article on a much maligned, but not nearly rare enough phenomenon: the Indian custom of sati (= suttee). Author Jörg Fisch's title is Dying for the Dead: Sati in Universal Context. Here's the conclusion (courtesy of The History Cooperative).
Sati, the burning of widows in India, has probably been the best-known (and the most despised or lamented) Indian custom in Europe since the ancient Greeks. Comparisons with other customs usually have been made on the phenomenological level, especially with the burning of witches and heretics. Here it is suggested to introduce comparisons on the functional level. The main question is thus not what happens, but what the function and purpose of the act are. Seen in this perspective, the central aspect becomes the connection between this world and the other world, between the living and the dead. On the basis of a belief in a hereafter that is an immediate continuation of this life, both worlds are connected by an act in which a dead person is followed, voluntarily or by force, in a public ceremony, by one or several living persons, thus emphasizing the continuity between the two worlds. The particulars of the ritual, whether it is killing or self-killing, and the manner of killing are, from a functional point of view, unimportant. Usually, this manner corresponds to the manner of disposing of the dead. Thus, for example, in Indian castes that bury the dead, sati is usually performed by burying alive. In other contexts, the method of killing is to preserve the body of the followers as intact as possible, so as to enable them to do their duties in the hereafter, which often leads to strangling.

Following into death thus defined can be shown to have occurred, in the course of history, in most areas of the world for a longer or a shorter time, with the notable exception of Western Europe [Eva Braun?--J.], for which there is no satisfactory explanation so far, due to the lack of sources. Two further important questions cannot be answered either: we can only guess the context in which such customs had their origin, as we don't know when they developed, and we do not know whether there was a kind of diffusion from one point of origin or whether the relevant customs developed independently from each other in different places. The only exceptions are Southeast Asia, where the occurrence of widow burning makes Indian influence very likely, and Japan, where there was probably Chinese influence.

Following into death is of special interest because it links two worlds and thus religious with sociopolitical aspects. It is a matter of life and death. As it is physically impossible to accompany every dead person, the question of who has the right to be followed and who has the duty to follow arises. Following into death thus not only becomes a mirror of social structure and political power; it also can influence them. There are two main functions in this framework. Especially in India, sati reflects, confirms, and strengthens the subordination of men to women [vice versa, surely--J.]. In many other places it has the same effect for the superiority of the ruling groups. The ceremony of killing the followers shows the long-term results of social and political power struggles.

Following into death presupposes certain religious beliefs (as a necessary, not a sufficient, condition). Wherever beliefs in a final judgment prevailed over beliefs in a transfer of this world into the other, following into death either vanished, if the beliefs of the people at large changed, or were suppressed, if foreign conquerors had sufficient strength to abolish them. This is what European colonialism did, mainly with humanitarian arguments, but basically because of its own religious background.

08 January 2006

Pirate vs. Pirate on the South China Coast, 1630s

The new governor of Taiwan, Hans Putmans, had inherited an island of surly, fractious natives, and a tenuous alliance with [Nicholas] Iquan's family. He was surprised to find himself dealing not with Iquan, who was inland quelling the bandits, but with Iquan's mother and eldest brothers.

Unlike Pieter Nuijts, Putmans learned a little about the history of the region before he waded in. From his later activities, it is clear that he placed no faith at all in Iquan's continued friendship; after all, Iquan was merely the latest in a line of opportunists extending back to the legendary Captain China. But Putmans was also greatly impressed with Iquan's career path--from henchman, to pirate, to privateer, to admiral. Trawling through the books and records of the previous few years, Putmans hit on a new plan.

It was common knowledge that the Dutch had long coveted a port of their own on the coast of China. Veterans still remembered the disastrous 1622 attack on Portuguese Macao that had indirectly led to the Dutch presence on Taiwan. But it had been some time since anyone in the Dutch East India Company had given much thought to how the Portuguese had first achieved their foothold in China. They had been granted the land by the Chinese, Putmans believed, because they had cleared the Pearl river delta of pirates. The answer to their problem, as far as Putmans could see it, was not to wage war on the Chinese, but to wait until the pirate problem in Fujian was impossible for the Chinese to deal with, and then offer to step in and clean things up--on the condition that the Dutch could have their own little port like Macao.

Jacques Specx [governor general of Batavia], who had heard it all before, diplomatically tried to talk Putmans out of the idea, since it had several critical flaws. One, which Putmans never seems to have acknowledged, was that there was a considerable difference between the relatively small area of a river delta, and the thousand miles of Fujianese coastline Putmans was proposing to patrol. More importantly, Putmans was offering to clean up a pirate infestation that was not actually there--Iquan had already pacified the region.

But Putmans had already thought of a way around this. If there wasn't a pirate problem off the coast of Fujian, then the Dutch could make one. Putmans had worked out how much the average Fujianese pirate earned in a year of plundering, and proposed that the East India Company hire a number of them, both to wreak havoc offshore, and then to sail in to the rescue under the Dutch flag. Although it sounded a trifle silly on paper, was this not essentially what Iquan had done himself? Had the Chinese not ended their recent pirate problems by picking the toughest bandit and making him an admiral?
SOURCE: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements (Sutton, 2005), pp. 73-74

More here: Tonio Andrade, "The Company's Chinese Pirates: How the Dutch East India Company Tried to Lead a Coalition of Pirates to War against China, 1621–1662," Journal of World History 14 (2004).

Fujian's 'Ode to the Sweet Potato'

In a period of great climactic [sic] uncertainty, plagued with floods and famines, the Fujianese merchant Chen Zhenlong was greatly impressed by the high-yield, fast-growing sweet potatoes he saw cultivated in the Philippines. He bought some of the exotic American plants and brought them home, growing them experimentally on a plot of private land. When Fujian was struck by a crippling famine in 1594, the canny Chen approached the governor with his new discovery, and persuaded him to introduce it that season. The venture was rewarded with a crop that saved the lives of thousands of Fujianese. The governor gained the nickname 'Golden Potato', and the incident led to the composition of He Qiaoyuan's 'Ode to the Sweet Potato', part of which went:
Sweet potato, found in Luzon,
Grows all over, trouble-free
Foreign devils love to eat it
Propagates so easily.

We just made a single cutting
Boxed it up and brought it home
Ten years later, Fujian's saviour.
If it dies, just make a clone.

Take your cutting, then re-plant it
Wait a week and see it grow
This is how we cultivate it
In our homeland, reap and sow.
SOURCE: Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements (Sutton, 2005), p. 15

07 January 2006

Hero of My Lai Has Died

Hugh Thompson, the helicopter pilot who interrupted the My Lai massacre in 1968, has died.
NEW ORLEANS -- Hugh Thompson Jr., a former Army helicopter pilot honored for rescuing Vietnamese civilians from his fellow GIs during the My Lai massacre, died early Friday. He was 62.

Thompson, whose role in the 1968 massacre did not become widely known until decades later, died at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Alexandria, hospital spokesman Jay DeWorth said....

As the years passed, Thompson became an example for future generations of soldiers, said Col. Tom Kolditz, head of the U.S. Military Academy's behavioral sciences and leadership department. Thompson went to West Point once a year to give a lecture on his experience, Kolditz said.

"There are so many people today walking around alive because of him, not only in Vietnam, but people who kept their units under control under other circumstances because they had heard his story. We may never know just how many lives he saved."
A U.S. News heroes page has more details of that day.
On that historic morning, Thompson set his helicopter down near the irrigation ditch full of bodies. He asked a sergeant if the soldiers could help the civilians, some of whom were still moving. The sergeant suggested putting them out of their misery. Stunned, Thompson turned to Lieutenant Calley, who told him to mind his own business. Thompson reluctantly got back in his helicopter and began to lift off. Just then [crew chief Glenn] Andreotta yelled, "My God, they're firing into the ditch!"

Thompson finally faced the truth. He and his crew flew around for a few minutes, outraged, wondering what to do. Then they saw several elderly adults and children running for a shelter, chased by Americans. "We thought they had about 30 seconds before they'd die," recalls Colburn. Thompson landed his chopper between the troops and the shelter, then jumped out and confronted the lieutenant in charge of the chase. He asked for assistance in escorting the civilians out of the bunker; the lieutenant said he'd get them out with a hand grenade. Furious, Thompson announced he was taking the civilians out. He went back to [door gunner Lawrence] Colburn and Andreotta and told them if the Americans fired, to shoot them. "Glenn and I were staring at each other, dumbfounded," says Colburn. He says he never pointed his gun at an American soldier, but he might have fired if they had first. The ground soldiers waited and watched....

Thompson wasted no time telling his superiors what had happened. "They said I was screaming quite loud. I was mad. I threatened never to fly again," Thompson remembers. "I didn't want to be a part of that. It wasn't war." An investigation followed, but it was cursory at best.

A month later, Andreotta died in combat. Thompson was shot down and returned home to teach helicopter piloting. Colburn served his tour of duty and left the military. The two figured those involved in the killing had been court-martialed. In fact, nothing had happened. But rumors of the massacre persisted. One soldier who heard of the atrocities, Ron Ridenhour, vowed to make them public. In the spring of 1969, he sent letters to government officials, which led to a real investigation and sickening revelations: murdered babies and old men, raped and mutilated women, in a village where U.S. soldiers mistakenly expected to find lots of Viet Cong.

Not all soldiers at My Lai participated in the carnage. Some men risked courtmartial or even death by defying Calley's direct orders to shoot civilians. Eckhardt doesn't think these men were heroes, because they didn't try to stop the murderers. But Colburn thinks they did the best they could. "We could just fly away at the end of the day," he notes. The ground troops had to live together for months.

The Pentagon's investigation eventually suggested that nearly 80 soldiers had participated in the killing and coverup, although only Calley (who now works at a jewelry store in Columbus, Ga.) was convicted. The eyewitness testimony of Thompson and Colburn proved crucial. But instead of thanking them, America vilified them. Many saw Calley as a scapegoat for regrettable but inevitable civilian casualties. "Rallies for Calley" were held all over the country. Jimmy Carter, then governor of Georgia, urged citizens to leave car headlights on to show support for Calley. Thompson, who got nasty letters and death threats, remembers thinking: "Has everyone gone mad?" He feared a court-martial for his command to fire, if necessary, on U.S. soldiers.
via Winds of Change

06 January 2006

Good News on the Malaria Front

The NewsHour on 4 January carried a fascinating (to me) report about some real progress on the malaria front in Africa: a WHO-backed experiment to manufacture and distribute mosquito nets impregnated with slow-decay insecticide.
JONATHAN SNOW: How the Olyset long life nets are made is another part of this story.

The AtoZ factory is a huge complex in the northern Tanzania city of Arusha. Mosquito netting in vast profusion being produced by Africans, for Africans, African workers, 1,200 of them quite literally saving other Africans' lives.

The engineers are Chinese. The technology is Japanese. The labor is African. And the money to purchase the completed nets is international.

In sum total, this is the global partnership to roll back malaria. And already this one factory is producing three million nets a year. But this is no place of altruism. This is a vigorously commercial enterprise.

The resin for the yarn comes from ExxonMobil in Saudi. They give the sum AtoZ pays for it back to UNICEF to buy still more nets.

The Japanese pharmaceutical company Sumitomo sells the magic long-life insecticide ingredients to AtoZ but has donated a free and vital technology transfer.

Inside each of these white pellets is insecticide which will bleed out of the yarn over five years.

05 January 2006

Mining Disasters and Rumor Reporting

If you Google "mining disasters" you get 1.6 million search results (0.1 million more than I got yesterday), with Springhill Mining Disasters leading the list, plus a sponsored link to Public Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler on 'Coping with public loss and tragedy'.

I don't have any coal miners in my family that I know of, but my mother was born in West Virginia's Mercer County, one of the 11 counties in the National Coal Heritage Area (NCHA) that comprised the Pocahontas Coal Field, and she died in Roanoke, Virginia, headquarters of the Norfolk & Western Railway, which made its fortune hauling Appalachian coal to the port of Norfolk. (My father grew up on a Tidewater tenant farm down toward the Norfolk end of those tracks.)
The success of Southwest Virginia's coalfields--lying in Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee, Russell, Scott, Tazewell, and Wise Counties--is inexorably linked to the expansion of railroads and to northern capital. After the Civil War, rail companies expanded westward as entrepreneurs and industrialists opened coal seams in Virginia's southwestern region. Norfolk & Western shipped its first coal from the Pocahontas Coalfield in 1883 and quickly developed lines through Tazewell to Norton. The Louisville & Nashville built into Norton and the Wise County coalfields by the 1890s. By 1900, companies developed lines that delivered coal from southwestern Virginia to piers at Hampton for shipment to both domestic and international markets. Southwest Virginia coalfields supplied high-grade coking coal to fuel the steel industry and steam coal for industrial and domestic use. The boom economy created by mining in the early 1900s faltered during the Great Depression but recovered during World War II. By the 1950s, many of Virginia's veins, which had begun operations more than fifty years earlier, were mined out.

Beginning in the 1880s, investors in New York and Philadelphia formed mining companies that purchased large tracts of land or negotiated mineral and timber rights in these rural counties. Before the boom ended in the 1920s, as many as 125 coal camps, or company towns, thrived in Southwest Virginia. The coal camps brought together, often for the first time, miners of different cultures and nationalities. To meet labor demands, mining and railroad companies advertised for and brought emigrants not only from other states, but also from Italy, Hungary, and Poland.
That family history is probably why I spent more time watching Anderson Cooper star in the Sago Mine Disaster than I did watching him star in Hurricane Katrina. (I have family friends down there, too, but gave up on the TV coverage pretty quick.) Anderson now joins Geraldo in my expanding category of instant channel-surf inducements. Just as the most experienced fly fishermen know where to cast for trout, the stars of the 24/7 Disaster News Networks know where to cast for the best rumors. If newspapers were once the first draft of history, the 24/7 TV news networks (and a whole lot of partisan political blogs) are the first draft of hysteria. God forbid anyone should read a little history or provide a little context or verify a few facts before they reach for the smelling salts.

How much more horrible is it for the kith and kin of the mine victims to have to show their jubilation, then grief in front of international TV cameras and microphones?

As usual, the NewsHour did a decent job. When a guest on Tuesday mentioned the 200+ violations the Sago Mine had been cited for, host Jeffrey Brown actually had the good sense to ask how that compared to other mines. The Sago Mine was much worse than most. On Wednesday night, Margaret Warner had the good sense to ask a former mine inspector for historical comparisons.
MARGARET WARNER: Thank you. How dangerous is coal mining today as compared to the past?

BRUCE DIAL: Well, coal mining today is much safer than it was say even 30 years ago. One of the reasons is that the New Mine Act passed in 1977, which made the inspections, when the inspector goes on to a mine site and they write violations there is a monetary fine on every citation that they write.

Other things, there are new technologies, like long wall systems, coal systems and things like that, that get out more coal with less employees.

Used to, to run a heading [coal extraction site] it would take about 25 employees. Today, a heading is typically run with five to 10 people. So there are less people in the mine.
That left me wondering how North American mining disasters have compared to those in, say, China. Fortunately, the Guardian has already run an AP report on that very point. China accounts for 80% of all world coal fatalities.
BEIJING (AP) - Small, privately owned and worked by moonlighting farmers, the coal mine in central China's Xin'an County was like hundreds throughout the country.

And, like thousands of Chinese miners, those below ground faced the daily danger of injury or death. On Dec. 2, a nearby river overflowed, sending water pouring into the mine and drowning 35 miners.

In most other countries, it would have been the deadliest industrial accident of the year. But in China, where more than 5,000 coal miners die on the job annually, it went largely unnoticed at a time when a pair of bigger disasters killed a total of 260 miners.

The big accidents grab public attention, but small mines like Xin'an County account for 73 percent of reported deaths. Experts say if Chinese leaders are to make good on repeated promises to improve safety, they must start there. And according to the government's own statistics, they are failing to make progress.

In the United States, 22 coal miners were killed on the job in 2005 - a record low, according to Suzy Bohnert, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 2004, the number of U.S. coal mining deaths was 28.

On Monday, a coal mine explosion in West Virginia that may have been sparked by lightning trapped 13 miners 260 feet below ground.

In China, most accidents are blamed on mine managers who ignore safety rules and hide fatalities, often with the help of officials who own a stake in the mines they are charged with regulating.

The government said this year it would close 7,000 small mines - about one-quarter of the country's total - in an effort to improve safety. The 2004 China coal mining death count - officially just over 6,000 - represented 80 percent of all world coal fatalities.
UPDATE: Of course, raw numbers don't mean much, although Chinese workers do seem overrepresented in mining disasters even relative to their huge proportion of the world's population. I don't know where to find statistics on the total number of Chinese mineworkers, but the CBC has tabulated a timeline of major Chinese mining disasters since 1990, with the following introduction.
China's mines are by far the world's most dangerous. About 6,300 people were killed in 2004 in floods, explosions and fires in China's mines.

China's poor record with mine safety is a long one. In 1942, an accident killed 1,549 miners in Japanese-occupied Manchuria in China's northeast, still the world's worst coal mining disaster.
For the U.S., I tabulated mine fatalities as a percentage of the mining workforce over the past century, using the MHSA table. Death (and injury) rates have been steadily dropping in the U.S., from 3 deaths per 1,000 workers in 1900 to 3 per 10,000 in 2004. The big drop in death rate between 1970 and 1980 results partly from the decision in 1973 to expand the workforce numbers to include office workers. But the drops since then reflect real improvements.

YearDeathsWorkersDeath Rate

UPDATE 2: Among the factors accounting for the improved safety records are pressure from unions, federal regulations, and the increasingly skilled nature of mine work. Here's a pretty telling response during Margaret Warner's interview with a former mine inspector on the NewsHour:
BRUCE DIAL: Well, in an area like where this accident occurred, mining is really the only big industry where a person can make a very good wage. The average miner will earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, with overtime, maybe, up to as much as $80,000 a year.
This is in a region where individual incomes average $20,000 a year, and household incomes $40,000. I wonder what the average is for teaching faculty at West Virginia University.

PressThink has a long and thoughtful compilation of assessments of the media coverage of the disaster, with a long and not always quite so thoughtful comment thread.