30 June 2010

McWhorter on McCrum's "Globish" English

In The New Republic, John McWhorter reviews Robert McCrum's bass ackwards book, Globish: How the English Language Became the World's Language.
But the central problem is that McCrum’s sense that English is somehow uniquely “direct” and “universal” and therefore well-suited to bestride the world is false. In two ways.

First of all, to the extent that McCrum is taking this from English being light on conjugation suffixes (in the present, just little third-person singular -s) and not having gender (no el sombrero for hat but la luna for moon as in Spanish), you can’t claim that this makes it easier for a language to be universal without looking at the fate of other languages. Russian started as a homely, unwritten Slavic dialect, but is currently spoken by 280 million people, speaking a vast array of indigenous languages natively. Yet Russian is murderously complex – three genders, verbs of pitiless complexity, assorted sounds that are tough to produce, squishy word order, unpredictable accent on words, and on and on. (Of those who have reviewed the book in big venues, I am aware of only TNR’s own Isaac Chotiner as touching on a comparison like the Russian one in his New Yorker review.)

Russians, too, are given to chauvinistic claims about their “great and mighty Russian language,” in which case one could posit that the complexity of the language makes it “mighty” as well as maximally clear. This would make, in the end, about as much sense as claiming that English has gotten around because it’s relatively easy to learn. Both English and Russian have spread the way they have because they were the languages that happened to be spoken by powers that happened to acquire vast amounts of territory.

There is a discussion to be had as to why England (plus America) and Russia have had such lasting influence – but the reasons are about sociohistory and geography, not conjugation. We know this because if there were any meaningful linguistic argument, England and Russia would neatly cancel one another out. Arabs, too, might be perplexed to hear that a language has to be easy – “direct,” as McCrum often has it – to be a vehicle of empire. As anyone who has tried to master it will attest, Arabic is a tough one for foreigners. Yet the region is unrecorded that scoffed “We shall not use this Arabic tongue, as it be too difficult on the tongue to serve as a language of conquest!”

Then McCrum errs in a second way. He misses that to the extent that geopolitical dominance and linguistic structure can be correlated, it’s in that the dominance causes the grammatical simplification, not the other way around. This was even part of English’s history – when Scandinavian Vikings occupied England starting in the eighth century, they produced Old English in a stripped-down fashion just as many of us have produced French and Spanish in classrooms. There were so many of the Vikings that kids heard as much English of this kind as “real” Old English, and in a culture with little schooling or media, this “funny” English became the only English.

McCrum knows this – but misses that it upends his paradigm. The Vikings didn’t pick up English because it was enticingly “universal” – they made it easier by picking it up. To the extent that McCrum may suppose that it was this that kicked off English’s “accessible” phase, we return to Arabic and Russian – universal in their ways despite being un-Vikinged. Sanskrit, Cree, Tagalog and other complex languages also seem to have gotten around – the whole construct McCrum builds just doesn’t work.

Meanwhile, the world over, languages are on the easy side because they happen to have been imposed on a lot of adult foreigners. The lingua franca in Papua New Guinea, for example, is Indonesian, which delights the learner in having no gender, no conjugation, and no Chinese-type tones.
Unfortunately, McWhorter confuses Papua New Guinea, where Tok Pisin is the lingua franca, with West Papua (formerly West Irian), where Indonesian is the lingua franca. Otherwise, he's right on target.

via Rainy Day

25 June 2010

Wordcatcher Tales: Ittouhei, Haiboku

I learned my first two Japanese terms for military ranks from watching The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin on Japanese TV during the 1950s. In the dubbed Japanese dialogue, the lieutenant was addressed as 中尉 chuui and the sergeant as 軍曹 gunsou. But I never learned the terms for the lowest ranks until I recently watched an epic film trilogy from the same era, The Human Condition (人間の條件, Ningen no jouken) via Netflix. It is very long and often slow-paced, but fascinating for both historical and linguistic reasons. It starkly depicts both the brutality of Japan's occupation of Manchuria and the deadly and chaotic aftermath of Japan's defeat there. Based on a novel, it also reflects the personal experience of the director, Kobayashi Masaaki (小林 正樹), a university-educated pacifist who refused to become an officer when drafted to serve in Manchuria.

The film chronicles the gradual erosion of socialist ideals in the face of insurmountable realities. The lead character first fails to transform a Japanese mine employing Chinese slave labor into a more humane and efficient enterprise. After being drafted for insubordination and joining a labor battalion, where he takes many a beating without fighting back, he is eventually forced to fire his weapon and kill an enemy soldier when Soviet tanks overrun his hapless platoon. As a prisoner of war, he finds that life under communism falls far short of the egalitarian paradise that he had imagined when he had earlier considered defecting. The Soviets treat him just as brutally as the Japanese imperialists treated their slave laborers. After he escapes, he ends up becoming a leader despite his low rank, forced to make life or death decisions about the fate of starving Japanese soldiers and colonists straggling back toward their homeland.

一等兵 ittouhei 'Private, PV2' – (Japanese Wikipedia offers the most thorough compilation of terms for military ranks in multiple languages that I have found so far.) The rank just below 一等兵 ittouhei (lit. '1st-level solider') 'PV2' is 二等兵 nitouhei (lit. '2nd-level soldier') 'Private, PV1' and the rank just above it is 上等兵 joutouhei (lit. 'upper-level soldier') 'Private First Class, PFC'.

When I faced the draft after dropping out of college in 1969, I had rather pacifist tendencies, which were fortunately never tested in real conflict. I opted for language school rather than Officer Candidate School, and never even had to fire a weapon after basic training. As company clerk, I would just qualify myself on paper. By the time I got out in 1972, I had reached the rank of SP5, a rank abolished in 1985 that corresponds the lowest level of SGT.

敗北 haiboku (lit. 'lose-north') 'defeat, rout' – The Human Condition (人間の條件, Ningen no jouken) set of DVDs from Netflix contains 3 interviews: one not very remarkable one with the director, Kobayashi; a much more recent and interesting one with the star, Nakadai Tetsuya (仲代 達矢), who many years later starred in Kurosawa's classic Ran; and a truly excellent retrospective with Shinoda Masahiro (篠田 正浩), who puts the trilogy in much broader context.

Shinoda uses a lot of contemporary gairai-go, but the word he uses for Japan's defeat is 敗北 haiboku (lit. 'lose-north'), a word that goes back to the Heike Monogatari, about the epic struggle for supremacy in 12th-century Japan between two clans, the Taira (or Heike) and Minamoto (Genji). One of its synonyms is 敗走 haisou ('lose-run').

So what does 北 'north' have to do with fleeing a lost battlefield? Does it suggest retreating to the northern frontier of Heian Japan, that is, northern Honshu? Or does it suggest losing the north at your back, as the imperial palaces were oriented in Kyoto, Seoul, Beijing, Xian, and other capitals within the Sinosphere? In modern Mandarin, the term 败北 bàiběi ('lose-north') is literary, implying it goes back a long way and was not adopted from Japanese (as many modern coinages were). The more common way to write 'defeat' in Chinese is 打败 dǎbài ('hit-lose').

UPDATE: Matt of No-sword has a few observations about the Japanese association of 北 'north' with flight from battle and with death.

19 June 2010

U.S. Economic Recovery Prospects, 1934

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007), Kindle Loc. 3321-3353:
Lillienthal and the TVA's engineer, Llewellyn Evans, sailed to Britain to study something new that the United States might copy: what the Britons called their “grid,” which used power from both private and public companies. “The problem of linking public and private companies is similar to that of the Tennessee Valley,” Lilienthal told a reporter in New York at the Hotel Roosevelt before he sailed. In fact the UK grid owed some of its efficiencies to Sam Insull [a Chicago entrepreneur then facing prosecution by the FDR administration, but later found not guilty on all counts], who had advised Westminster repeatedly. The British press saw irony in the fact that Lilienthal of the TVA wanted to have a look at it. Lilienthal, the Electrical Review chuckled, said he was looking for a man of “seasoned specialized judgment, such as [Mr. Lilienthal] regards as essential for determining future policy in the States, but circumstances have deprived the American people of his experience and that of his associates.”

THE BRITISH WERE ON TO something. Another reality was becoming clear that summer of 1934: the drama of the prosecutions and the spring cleanups was hiding something. While the Norris Dam and other New Deal projects might be ahead of schedule, the economy was not, at least not in the sense of being where it had been before. The American Federation of Labor had reported in late spring that 780,000 workers who had been reemployed by the National Recovery Administration in the autumn had been unemployed again by the spring of 1934. William Green, the AFL’s leader, began fighting with Richberg at the NRA over employment numbers: the AFL wanted industry, not relief agencies, to solve the economic problem. The job had to be done, and it had to be partly Richberg’s, since, challenged Green, “We cannot indefinitely support one-sixth of our population on money borrowed against future taxes.” There were still nearly eleven million unemployed. And the Dow was heading in the wrong direction; it would spend the summer below the 100 mark of the preceding winter. Looking up, the New Dealers were taken aback. “The Depression was refusing to disappear,” Tugwell later wrote of the whole period.

Roosevelt now regrouped. Midterm elections were that November. The prosecutions had originally been about punishing financiers for the crash. If Insull’s debentures had lost all their value, then Insull must be guilty. But now the prosecutions and investigations should also be about justifying the New Deal, economically and morally. The Fireside Chats would help. Roosevelt and others had noticed that the medium of radio really did seem to create a new reality, separate from the reality of old politics. If voters focused on the voice and the message, and not the tardy recovery, that might carry the Democrats forward.

It was a hope that the administration concentrated on—for even as government lawyers prosecuted, they were also finding themselves on the legal defensive. The National Recovery Administration, for instance, was under fire in Congress, and from business, as a bureaucracy out of control. A report submitted to the fifty-seventh annual meeting of the American Bar Association noted that by June 25 of 1934, some 485 codes and 95 supplements had been approved by the president and 242 more by the Administrator for Industrial Recovery. In the period of a year, 10,000 pages of law had been created, a figure that one had to compare with the mere 2,735 pages that constituted federal statute law. In twelve months, the NRA had generated more paper than the entire legislative output of the federal government since 1789.

To survive, Richberg and the Justice Department warned—accurately—that the NRA must pass review by the Supreme Court, and soon. In any case, the law required renewal by Congress in 1935. Its constitutionality was a big question: could such a large program really be legal under the Constitution’s commerce clause? Marking Constitution Day in September, the New York Times commented that in regard to such legislation, “the winds of controversy over this issue are already rising.” With the election coming up, the New Deal had to score victories in national politics; if it couldn’t win a genuine return to prosperity, then it might succeed with the negative victories of bringing down the villains.

17 June 2010

Fumigating the Polynesian Voyagers, 1995

From Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, by Alan Burdick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 65-66:
In 1995 three Hawaiian canoes sailed south to the Society Islands, met a contingent of three other South Pacific canoes, then sailed to the Marquesas and north again to me Big Island of Hawaii, for the first time retracing the original route of discovery of the Hawaiian Islands.

This historic voyage encountered only one significant problem. Three days before the canoes were due to arrive home, the crew radioed Honolulu with news that they were suffering the painful bite of some undetected insect. Entomologists were consulted. The suspects were narrowed to three: the nono, a tiny, vicious blackfly that plagues beaches of the Marquesas and doomed those islands' resorts; the punkie midge, a no-see-um half the size of the nono that also haunts the Marquesas; and a biting midge known in French Polynesia as the white beach nono. The first is native to the Marquesas; the latter two arrived in Polynesia sometime between 1920 and 1950. All three are functionally identical—with mouths like scissors, they bite holes in the victim's skin, producing welts that if scratched can quickly fester. A single nono fly can inflict five thousand bites in an hour. After securing a blood meal, the fly retreats to a crevice in any nearby decaying organic matter—waterlogged wood a coconut husk, the hull of a Polynesian voyaging canoe—to reproduce. Its larvae emerge several days later to begin the cycle anew. With these facts in mind, Honolulu newspapers treated readers to several days of midge coverage, disagreeing only as to whether the midges posed a worse threat to the tourist industry than the brown tree snake, or merely an equivalent one. Cynics whispered of a midge conspiracy, of midges planted aboard the canoes by an environmental group eager to publicize the dangers of alien species in Hawaii.

Riding a strong headwind, a biting midge can cross fifty miles of open ocean. To forestall such an event, and despite prime sailing conditions the six voyaging canoes were ordered to a halt some two hundred miles south-southwest of Hawaii's Big Island, Hawai'i. The following morning, after much wrangling over which government agency should take responsibility for a nuisance insect that is neither an agricultural pest nor strictly speaking, a public-health threat, and which in any event now sat in international waters, a Coast Guard plane dropped thirty-six aerosol cans of pyrethrin, an insecticide made from daisies, into what were now heavy seas. The canoes' holds were emptied, clothes and equipment sprayed with disinfectant, the hulls scrubbed four times with seawater, the sails keelhauled. Everything organic was tossed overboard: religions carvings, palm-frond baskets, breadfruit seedlings wrapped in coconut husks, and traditional foods like sweet potato, taro leaf patties, and poi—which crew members perhaps were happy to see go, as they later confessed a preference for sausage and Spam. Inspectors from the Hawaii Department of Health then boarded the canoes and sprayed everything again. A series of triumphal celebrations had been planned to mark the voyage's end. Instead, the canoes were escorted into Hilo Harbor, sprayed once more, and enclosed in fumigation tents. A crowd of two dozen, including several customs and immigrations officials, greeted them.

Health and agriculture inspectors still do not know what sort of midge they nearly encountered; the cleaning, spraying, scrubbing, and fumigation had left no trace of them. Other survivors were discovered, however, including four species of fly, two species of ant, a cockroach, two spiders, a book louse, a parasitic wasp, a beetle, several snails, some live shrimps, a gecko, two species of eye gnat, and a scale insect that in some parts of the world is considered a serious agricultural pest. Some time afterward the chief of the Hawaii Department of Agriculture was heard expressing nostalgia for the days when state inspectors could walk down the aisles of arriving aircraft and fumigate freely, as they still do in New Zealand. As for the canoes, they reached their destinations. The Hawaiian crews sailed to warm homecomings on Maui, Molokai, and Oahu. The Cook Islanders disembarked, showered, and dried off with one hundred and fifty donated towels. The Tahitian voyagers, though they had a fine canoe, never arrived; in fact, they never embarked. They had failed to apply for U.S. visas, and were gently advised to stay home.

11 June 2010

Guam: New Predator, New Prey

From Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, by Alan Burdick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), p. 31:
In simple ecological models, the relationship between a predator and its prey is straightforward, Malthusian. In the classic model, there are rabbits and there are lynxes eating rabbits: the lynxes thrive, reproduce, spawn more hungry lynxes—so many that soon there are fewer and fewer rabbits, fewer lynx meals, eventually fewer lynxes. The lynx population declines, the rabbits slowly recover their numbers, and the cycle of eating and eaten, supply and starvation, begins again. The situation on Guam is altogether different. Even after the forests were emptied of birds, the snake continued to thrive. Its numbers are down: approximately twenty-four snakes per hectare, from a hundred per hectare in the late 1980s. That is a major drop, yet twenty-four snakes per hectare is still four times more dense than even the most snake-infested plot of Amazon jungle. Campbell said, "That's like having a gob versus a big gob." Now the snakes subsist on skinks and geckos. And the skinks and geckos are not disappearing. In fact, because they are no longer preyed upon by birds, they are more abundant than ever. The snakes have found a renewable resource, the gustatory equivalent of solar energy. And there is evidence to suggest that the snakes are reproducing faster too, giving birth at a younger age. Few biological invaders, once they have gained such a solid foothold in their new habitat, subsequently disappear from it entirely. Any hope that the snake would eat itself out of existence appears equally groundless.

In On the Origin of Species, Darwin meditated on the impact that house cats might be having on the surrounding countryside. If there were more cats, there would be fewer mice. With fewer mice burrowing into the hives of their favorite snack, the bumblebee, there would perforce be more bees buzzing about, gathering nectar, pollinating the local blossoms—most notably the blossoms of Trifolium pratense, the common red clover, which depends exclusively on the bumblebee to complete its reproductive cycle. In short, more cats would mean more red clover. "Plants and animals, most remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations," Darwin wrote.

The Zen of Ecological Niches

From Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion, by Alan Burdick (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005), pp. 135-136:
For Charles Elton and many of his successors, biological invasions were a way to probe and characterize the way that ecological communities are assembled and held together. The ecosystem was studied as a sort of organic machine—a system—of semi-interchangeable parts, or, to borrow another analogy, a kind of corporate economy maintained by organisms with defined ecological jobs. By studying the arrival of foreign workers and the consequent displacements, the notion went, a scientist could figure out the overall corporate structure: the various job descriptions, the interoffice competition, the company bylaws, the glue of market success and longevity. Critical to this schema is the job itself, the ecological niche—a concept that has receded from meaning over the years with every new attempt to clarify it. Today, one can speak of a habitat niche (the range of habitats in which a species can and does occur) or a functional niche, the "role" or "place" of a species in a community—a notion further divisible into trophic niche (the relationship of the species to its food and enemies) and resource niche (which spans things utilized by the species, like nesting sites). As a conceptual tool, the niche has effectively dropped from the modern ecologist's belt. "Niche," Mark Williamson summarizes in his book Biological Invasions, "is useful in a preliminary, exploratory description, but becomes difficult to pin down in particular situations."

Whatever a niche is exactly, successful invasion, in Elton's schema, allegedly involves occupying an empty one. But, many biologists counter. what does it mean for a niche to lie "empty"? If a niche is an ecological job that takes up food or resources, and such a job is going unfilled in an ecosystem, the community would show side effects; it would soon be overwhelmed by waste or unused food. So for such a job opening to exist yet not harm the community, by definition it must be a job that involves no interaction whatsoever with other community members—like one of those jobs the boss's kid fills on summer vacation, only less productive. But if that is the case. any invader entering this empty non-job would have no impact on the system—which clearly isn't what happens with many invaders. "If you take the view that there are no empty niches," Williamson writes, "the invasion of communities cannot involve occupying empty niches," Some ecologists contend that in saving that an invader occupies a vacant niche, what is meant is that an invader plays a new functional role in the community, not that it doesn't use resources previously used by other species. The brown tree snake fits this definition; in coming to Guam, it declared itself top predator of an ecosystem that for eons had run perfectly well without such a top executive. Under these terms, Williamson writes, successful invasion becomes a matter of always, often, or sometimes entering a niche that can be full, empty, partly full, or partly empty—terminology that begins to suit the term itself. Williamson concludes, "It is to some extent a matter or the meaning you want to put on the word 'empty.'"

At the very least, invasion biology has made it clear that the conflicts and interactions that transpire between species in an ecosystem are too fluid and dynamic to be meaningfully described by a static term like niche. To introduce niche theory is to propose a koan: Does an ecological niche exist before on invader arrives to fill it? Meditatively interesting, perhaps, but useless in forecasting. "We are still unable to recognize a vacant niche except by carrying out the tautological experiment of introducing a species and seeing if it becomes established," one biologist notes. Williamson adds, "The extent to which a niche is vacant is, in practice, a post hoc explanation. Post hoc explanations are neither intellectually satisfying nor much use in prediction."
This book is engagingly written, but contains a lot of little factual errors.

07 June 2010

American Travelers Meet Stalin, 1927

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007),
Kindle Loc. 1305-60:
The appointment hour, 1:00 p.m., came without further vacillation by the Kremlin. Robert Dunn, John Brophy, and Paul Douglas all went for the interview. So did Louis Fischer, an American who was writing pro-Soviet articles for left-wing American periodicals out of Moscow at the time. So, as it turned out, did a journalist who was visiting Moscow for the New York Times, Anne O’Hare McCormick.

Those who did attend kept notes. Douglas: “Recalling the deeds of terror that had been committed there throughout its history, I shivered as we entered Red Square and then went through the gates of the Kremlin.” A small pockmarked man met them in a cloakroom; Douglas assumed it was an attendant. But the man took the head place at the table. It was Stalin. “His low brow was clear under a square-ish brush of black hair that made his head look oddly cubist,” wrote Anne O’Hare McCormick. “He looked like any of a million Soviet workingmen,” commented Fischer. “Deep pockmarks over his face,” read Fischer’s notes; “low forehead”; “ugly, short, black and gold teeth when smiles.” Whereas Trotsky had worn white, Stalin wore khaki. Douglas thought he saw a private’s uniform, Fischer a civilian suit. The pants legs he stuck into high black boots. Fischer sought to capture the moment in every medium possible. In his notebook, next to the words, he made pencil sketches of the leader’s head.

The group expected an hour with the leader. They got six and a quarter. One thing struck them even before the meeting started: Stalin’s charm. He was not dashing like Trotsky, but he seemed in a way more genuine. What came through was that Stalin had done his homework and touched on the issues that interested them—workers’ insurance, for example, Douglas’s pet research area since the days of the loggers. Stalin knew all about La Follette’s strong 1924 showing. A questioner asked how Stalin knew that the Russian people were behind him. He answered that the Bolsheviks would never have come to power if they were not popular; today heads of unions were all Communists, again a fact that reflected grassroots support.

Stalin also took time to emphasize that his government was an ethnically diverse one, with a Ukrainian, a Byelorussian, an Azerbaijani, and an Uzbek in the central executive committee of the Soviets. There were also, Fischer would later write, questions about religion: must a Communist be an atheist? Yes, Stalin answered, and even as he answered, church bells across the street rang. The guests laughed, and Stalin smiled—as if to signal the tolerance he could not articulate officially.

Stalin also rejected the notion that U.S. Communists worked “under orders” from Moscow as “absolutely false”—itself a lie. As the group drank lemon tea from a samovar, Stalin made his case: the Soviet Union and the United States might trade together even if they had different systems—the new doctrine of Socialism in One Country.

Fischer reported that no one but a serving woman entered the room during the course of the meeting; she brought cheese, sausage, and caviar sandwiches. (Brophy reported tea and cookies.) There must have been an interpreter and stenographer present. After several hours the guests made an attempt to go; Stalin would not permit it. Instead he turned the tables and asked questions of the delegates. The transcript of these questions, published within a week in Pravda, give as clear a snapshot as any document of the tactical and strategic goals of Soviet foreign policy. Stalin wanted to make the point that he had a genuine labor following in the United States, and he wanted to sideline those organizations that had sidelined him—with the aid of his interlocutors. He had already skewered the anti-Communist American Federation of Labor. Now he set about doing so again: “How do you explain the fact that on the question of recognizing the USSR, the leaders of the American Federation of Labor are more reactionary than many bourgeois?”

Brophy allowed that the AFL had a “peculiar philosophy.” Dunn took time to point out that the AFL was too close to capitalists—especially Matthew Woll, AFL vice president. Brophy was the one who spoke the last formal words of the visitors to Stalin before they departed. In Stalin’s official transcript, the travelers gave the Soviet leader what he sought, a form of U.S. blessing: “The presence of the American delegation in the USSR is the best reply and is evidence of the sympathy of a section of the American workers to the workers of the Soviet Union.” As the group left, Douglas spied a bust of Karl Marx, with full beard, in the corner. Contemplating it, he was startled to feel a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was Stalin. They joked about whether Marx had worn a necktie.

Several of the travelers sensed that they had been used to an extent they had not foreseen: “we realized that in his speeches he was talking over our heads to the newspapers, in answer to Trotsky,” Brophy would write. Anne O’Hare McCormick, confused, retreated to racialist imagery for her report: Stalin, she said, was a hybrid of east and west, almost “Occidorient in person.”

The vessel that returned the group home to America was not the President Roosevelt this time but the Leviathan. The irony of that name may not have escaped some of them. On shipboard, Silas Axtell, the lawyer, bitterly objected that some of the other labor people on the trip were producing a report far too positive. As he later recalled, “The whole report was written with such a solicitous and affectionate regard for the welfare of the dominating group in Russia, whose guests we had been, and the impression from reading the report was so different from the one I had received, I could not possibly subscribe to it.” Douglas likewise quarreled with Robert Dunn over the content of their joint essay. Dunn was painting the picture too rosily, Douglas maintained. Later, he discovered that Coyle had diluted his discussion of civil rights in the published report.

Axtell and Douglas may have been thinking of another intellectual pilgrim who had met Stalin before them: Emma Goldman. Goldman had had every reason to accept what she saw in Russia; the United States of Wilson, Harding, and Coolidge was unlikely to welcome her back. Yet when she learned that Stalin was imprisoning her beloved fellow anarchists, she had grown skeptical. And when the Bolsheviks—led by the same Trotsky of the white suit—bloodily put down their fellow Communists in Kronstadt in 1921, she had turned against the Soviet Union entirely. “I found reality in Russia grotesque, totally unlike the great ideal that had borne me upon the crest of high hope to the land of promise,” Goldman wrote. Though she really had nowhere to go, she left Communist Russia and shortly published a monograph on the false freedoms of the Soviet Union, My Disillusionment with Russia.

A decade after Emma Goldman's experience, and five years after the 1927 delegation, Arthur Koestler, a young Communist, would also be repulsed. He found that the Soviet Union had developed a neat trick for bribing young intellectuals. Through its State Publishing Trusts it would buy the rights to a book or article—with a different payment for an edition in each one of the Soviet Union's multiple languages. Koestler reported selling the same short story to as many as ten different literary magazines, from Armenian to Ukrainian. The place really was, he would note ironically, “the writer's paradise.”

03 June 2010

American Travelers in the USSR, 1927

From The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes (HarperCollins, 2007), Kindle Loc. 1196-1250:
TO MAKE LANDFALL IN EUROPE was a relief for the travelers. Here at least the economic facts did not contradict their reform concepts so profoundly. There were some bumps along the road. In Warsaw they felt a jolt when their guide, Albert Coyle, acknowledged that he had misplaced the trip funds. In Dortmund, Tugwell got bored and skipped a meeting with trade union people at a steel plant to go to an art gallery. But from the time they met Soviet trade union leaders at the Polish-Soviet border, the travelers felt their spirits rise. This would indeed prove the junket of all junkets. It didn’t hurt that their hosts gave them first-class treatment—free transportation, cheap or free hotel service, and so on. And there were to be meetings with leaders—Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin, the Russian prime minister, Leon Trotsky, already out of the Kremlin’s inner circle but not yet exiled, and others of high rank. For the travelers, who were at best respectable but not themselves of national rank at home, these introductions in and of themselves made for a high. There is nothing headier than finding one is more recognized abroad than at home. And that was not all: rumor had it there would be meetings at the highest level, perhaps even with Stalin himself.

The travelers’ enthusiasm was only strengthened by what they saw in the first few days. The failures of the economy were not all visible. Indeed, if one squinted, things looked almost reasonable in Soviet Russia. Lenin, before dying, had instituted his New Economic Policy (NEP), which allowed the survival of small artisans. The economy had finally begun to regain pre–World War I levels. The brutal collectivization of agriculture and the famines of the 1930s were still to come. The Soviets for their part tried to burnish their own reputation with unfavorable references to America. Everywhere the travelers went, Brophy would later note, they heard about Sacco and Vanzetti, who had been executed while the travelers were in Russia, just as predicted. For days after the execution, the towns the travelers arrived in were draped with banners hung in honor of Sacco and Vanzetti, “victims of ‘American capitalism.’” To the travelers it seemed that Russia understood what the land of Babbitt did not.

Roger Baldwin, who had corresponded with Vanzetti until his death, was deeply impressed with what he saw. Baldwin understood that Stalin’s Russia had a dark side. He didn’t enjoy his time in what he called this “irritating place.” But Russia still seemed somehow farther along than the narrow Massachusetts that could put the anarchist pair to death. Baldwin gave Leo Tolstoy’s son letters he had received from Vanzetti so that Tolstoy might post them for Russians to see at a state bank. As he wrote of Russia, Baldwin’s own conclusions were hopeful. “Everybody is poor together,” he wrote to his mother. “There is much discontent, much regulation of life, but not much terrorism or repression except of the old upper classes.”

For the high-spirited Tugwell, part of the trip was about having a good time. Half a century later, Stuart Chase would write Tugwell, asking whether he recalled when “you, Bart Brebner and I were the ‘Three Musketeers’ in Moscow in 1927.” At one point the group split up, and Tugwell traveled down the Volga on a barge, insisting that his interpreter and captain teach him a folksong about a Russian Robin Hood, “Stenka Rasin.” In exchange Tugwell taught the Russians “Beulah Land.” He rode in private railway cars—“ancient but gaudy” first-class wagons-lits from the days of the Romanovs—through Cossack country. Tugwell kept notes; he dined out. He wondered, as he always did when he was abroad, whether his life was on the correct path: after another preceding period overseas he had taken leave from academia for a year to farm beside his father before deciding the move was a mistake. The more earnest Douglas, himself considerably distracted by his own dying marriage, at one point reproached Tugwell for his lack of gravity.

But when it came to their work, Tugwell, like the other travelers, was serious enough. Committed to researching agriculture reform, he fought off offers to see factories and demanded visits to farms instead. He noted, first of all, that while conditions were still terrible within the Soviet Union, they were probably improving: “The manor houses are gone; only the drab villages remain,” he wrote, concluding that “here is a bit more to eat of a little better quality. There is a radio in the village hall. There is more wood for warmth,” he would later write. New England might be slowly dying; the Soviet Union to his mind represented “a stirring of new life hardly yet come to birth.” He loved the idea of economics being made subservient, itself like a serf, to the good of the rural village: “with us, prices are a result; in Russia they are agents of social purpose.” Tugwell insisted on more visits and was duly granted them.

Tugwell found himself admiring the active role of the Soviet government toward farming. He liked the idea of the agronom, the farm manager or bureaucrat, who oversaw a set of farms or a region. The Russian farmer, he noted, “suffers from price-disadvantage, it is true; but so also do farmers all over the world.” Tugwell pointed out a difference from the United States: in Russia, the farmer’s challenges were the subject of genuine government controversy. “There is a disposition to do something about it. Can this be said of the U.S. government?”

Most of all, however, it was the villages that impressed Tugwell. Many had not yet been collectivized, but they were still relatively cooperative compared to rigidly fenced New England. This cooperation he perceived to be natural, indeed, inevitable—“cooperation is forced in the nature of things.” In his own childhood, there had been similar cooperation. He remembered traveling over New York’s Ellery hills to a friend’s house with his father, only to find the family not at home. The pair had fixed a meal from what they found in the buttery nonetheless, a fact which did not bother their hosts, when they returned, in the slightest. That was the way things were, in the old agricultural community. Under the czars, Tugwell noted, village farmers too had shared—“Russia was communal in this sense long before it was persuaded to Communism in the Marxian sense.”

Tugwell believed that what remained of private arrangements also needed to be ended; it was time for “abandoning the old one-man, one-plow method.” After all, in a big communal field “a tractor can go as far and fast as it is capable of doing without the bother of fence corner turnings. Socially, the village has great advantages if it is not too closely built or too big.” Further rationalization might work if only the stubborn peasant would cooperate. And even though he disliked the Soviet dictatorship from the start, he was struck by the authority of Russian propaganda and its enormous success. Always, the Russians they met up with “told us what our country was like.” This simultaneously horrified the progressive in Tugwell and pleased the efficiency expert in him: “I knew from then on how determined dictators come to manage a people.”