Wednesday, June 29, 2005

How not to learn Vietnamese

This Saigontourist page on Vietnamese is so brain-dead stupid. Ms. Down and Out was aghast. She wanted me to write to the editor of one of the local rags. I could do that, but what's the point? It is not linked from the current Saigontourist site now. However, Google popped it up.

I love how it states - in one sentence - "The most difficult part about Vietnamese is the pronunciation;" and then confuses the issue by offering "try the phonetic spellings here". According to it, how do you say the numbers from 1 to 10? "Mot, Hi, Ba, Bawn, Num, Saow, Buy, Taam, Cheen, Mooy". It gets worse. There's a whole table of phrases, none of which give any indication about what tone is needed. For example, "Thank you" is "cám ơn", but the site provides the crippled "cam on" instead, and offers the nowhere-near-approximate phonetic spelling of "cam em". I can picture tourists trying to buy stuff with these phrases, and recieving only puzzled looks in return.

Phonetic spellings of these sort are useless. 99% of the time, one language contains sounds that have no equal nor equivalent in another language, and vice-versa. So why pretend otherwise?

This country is not Cuba

From Cuba.Net:

Authorities close clandestine soft-drink factory

SANTA CLARA, Cuba - June 23 (Ramón González Abreu, Cubanacán Press / - Special police forces here raided a clandestine soft-drink factory operating out of a home in the El Condado neighborhood, arrested the occupants and seized products and equipment.

Forces of the Interior Ministry Special Brigades found cases of soft drinks, a bottle-filling machine, carbonation equipment and other tools.

The occupants were charged with possession of equipment in pursuit of an illegal economic activity, but they claimed the equipment was all lawfully acquired in hard-currency stores.

Which was found by Eric Umansky:

Ahhh the joys of entrepreneurship in Cuba. Here's what I wrote last year during my trip to the island:

Walk around downtown and there appears to be at least a smattering of private enterprise. There are multiple car rental companies, even seemingly competing fast food joints (El Rapido and Burgui). Some are run by one government ministry, others by another (for example, some car rental companies are overseen by the tourist department; others are overseen by the ministry of transportation), but in the end all the businesses are owned by the state. "It's the Duff Beer economy," says one expat. "It might all look different, but it's all coming from the same spout." 

What a difference from Việt Nam, where private enterprise is observed everywhere - from the stall holders selling phở, through medium-sized companies (some of which I work for) through to big companies like outsourcing supremo TMA Solutions. It's no neoliberal paradise, but there are lots of shops and cafés and motorcycle dealers and whatnot that are not owned by the state

And "hard-currency stores" - trời ơi! Do they really still exist? I've yet to see one here, unless you count duty-free shops as such. My contract(s) state my salary in USD. My employers then pay me the equivalent in đồng, which is used to purchase things. To buy things like foreign TVs and foreign perfume, you visit the same shops as the locals. Paying in hard currency doesn't give you greater variety of goods, and you end up getting ripped off anyway. 

It seems that "old" Communism - the Communism of Brezhnev and Andropov - is still alive in Cuba. I should visit it one day.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Basical Book Review

Ngữ pháp Tiếng Anh cơ bản - A basical English grammar. Author: Phạm Văn Bình. Publisher: by Nhà Xuất Bản Đại Học Sư Phạm (University of Education Press), 2003.

You saw it right. The word in the title is "basical". A simple vocabulary mistake on the cover does not auger well for a book - especially one dispensing linguistic advice. I could not believe my eyes when my fiancée brought it home, purchased for the sum of 10,000 đ. (Don't scoff: that's real money here. It's more than the price of a meal, and equivalent to two Xe Ôm rides in the inner-city area.) Why didn't the author use "basic" instead? It's a pretty adequate adjective as it stands. It uses less letters. Perhaps the the author thought "-al" gave it extra adjective power to sell more books.

What problems are there? The first is the proofreading, or lack of it. Consider punctuation marks like the exclamation mark, the question mark, and (of course) the simple period. In most English examples, it is placed just after the last letter of the last word. That is right and proper. (This is an example.) Other examples insert a single space beforehand (This is an example .) or omit it altogether. (This is an example) Those cases are not good at all. English learners may pick up bad habits this way, which is why I jump on them. (Punctuation errors are regrettably common in the essays I've marked.) Other problems are when the typesetters make mistakes inside the word itself, with the possibility of misleading learners. For example, there's an unnecessary hyphen in "acciden-ce" on page 3. On page 115 (my favorite), "written" is split into "writte" and "n" on separate lines.

But the primary problem is usage. A lot of the examples concocted for the book feel wrong to this native speaker. They fit the "rules" of English grammar, but no-one I'd know would ever say them. To explain the present continuous tense, the book writes is "She is a gentle girl, but she is being angry now." Replace "angry" with "difficult", and it sounds a lot better. A little further: "The sun is ever shining". If you're writing pretentious poetry, "ever" is perfect., but if you don't want people looking funny at you in a business meeting, use "always" instead. On discussing adverbial clauses, the book uses "He stood behind the door that they might not see him." I'd place "so" before "that" myself.

Then there are the outrageous errors. When describing compliment clauses: "The most importance now is you should look after her carefully." "Importance" is a noun, not an adjective - so how can you make the superlative out it? Replace "importance" by "important thing" to make the example correct. The author uses "Accidence" to describe nouns, and I don't even know if "accidence" is a real word.

In the book, most of the examples are both grammatically correct and feel right to me. But for educational books, "most" isn't good enough. You want the error rate down to 0.001%, if not zero - and the reader should be able to figure out where the remaining ones are. "First, do no harm", and teaching readers your own mistakes is harm as far as I'm concerned. The textbook companies back home would reject this submission on sight.    

I'd have two pieces of advice for the author. The first is to retype it out by computer - preferably on a word processor. You can probably lay it out better than the typesetters. (The University of Education Press can't even make a simple table look nice, and to get IPA, they need to scribble it in.) The second is to get a native speaker to run over your proof, and correct any mistakes in grammar and usage. (Including the fucking cover.) Yes, sir - you are not a native speaker, and I can tell. And if you are too proud to get a once-over on the book, be dammed to you.

Score: 4/10.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

On Flags

Possibly inspired by P.M. Pham Văn Khải's visit to the United States (or not): 

The California state Assembly considers a resolution that would formally recognize the flag of the former Republic of Vietnam in lieu of the current Vietnamese flag, as eight other states have done.

Experts say the trend could create tension amid warming relations between the United States and Vietnam. Robert Siegel talks with [Vân or Văn (?)] [Trần], a Republican assemblyman from the 68th district.

That's from NPR, and you can even listen to the audio of the tbroadcast if you choose. Before commenting any further, let us compare the two flags. This is the current flag of Việt Nam. It was also used by the North before 1975.

This was the flag for North Vietnam. Now it is the flag for the whole country.

This is the old South Vietnamese flag, as used between 1955 and 1975.

This is the old South Vietnamese flag.

The first catches the eye, and is simpler. The second reminds me of a cricket wicket being bowled out, or possibly a trio of skidmarks. (Or as one wag described it a few decades ago: "If they're not red, they're yellow.") Of course, the first has a very Communist pedigree, which of course disturbs all the anti-Communists out there. As Wikipedia puts it:

The flag of Vietnam was adopted on November 30, 1955. The flag ratio is 2:3 with a yellow five-pointed star in the center, symbolizing the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Red represents success and revolution. The five points of the stars represent the workers, the peasants, the soldiers, the intellectuals and the young.

But for the majority of Vietnamese nowadays, the flag simply represents their country. When I think of the flag, I think of things like the SEA Games of late 2003, when this country beat Malaysia in a soccer game. Immediately, the youth hit the motorbikes, and the motorbikes hit the streets. There were thousands - possibly tens of thousands - of young men and women hooning down the main roads on their scooters, flying and waving the flag as they drove. Number of Yellow Stars on a Field of Red observed? By myself - a few thousand or so. Number of Hammer and Sickles seen? (Such flags were also available from the same roadside stalls selling the national flag.) Well, I remember seeing... um, ah, er... zero. When it comes down to it, it's just a case of "Our country just beat their country at the footie - let's go out and celebrate!" In such circumstances, ideology is irrelevant. 

For this and other experiences, I think Assemblyman Trần's resolution is pointless. I understand he dislikes the current government. After all, he was 10 when his family was evacuated from Sài Gòn in 1975. That's old enough to remember vividly. But the bill sounds like a sop to the Vietnamese-American community. Listening to the broadcast, the primary motivation was that 8 other states of the Union had done it; why not also the one with the largest population in the country? Oh, and it is "free speech" to wave the South Vietnamese flag, and that's one of the good things about the United States. Perhaps, but is is "free speech" to get the State Government of California to follow suit? It sounds more like a waste of taxpayers' money to me. It would annoy Mr. Khải, but cheekiness by itself is not a rationale of the fiscal conservatism that Mr. Trần avowedly represents.   

But the real problem is that South Vietnamese flag represents a country 30 years dead, and it's been dead longer than it had ever been alive in the first place. Moreover, it never even possessed all of the country in the first place. Personally, I think the likelihood of the flag flying again here in the future is nil. Let it rest.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On a Flood

Two days ago (the 20th of June), I was having a shower when the rain started. It sounded like it was going to be a big one. It roared. But it was a diffuse sound, and nothing to worry about. Then a few minutes later, I heard the more immediate sound of heavy, constant dripping. Walking out of the bathroom, I saw that our little stairwell had become a waterfall.

The roof was flooded. We have a flat area on our house, accessible by the stairs. There's a wall around it. The rain was so heavy that the place turned into a small swimming pool. There are drainage holes at the end, but they were blocked by debris. Even if they weren't, their widths would have been too small for the deluge. Instead, the liquid built up, and then it overflowed into the house. I estimate we had 10 centimetres or more falling in the downpour. Normally the roof is perfect to hang the washing. But this afternoon, it had become a pool of lukewarm water, with the odd piece of styrofoam, chipboard and dogshit mixed in.

Oh, did I mention we had a dog? Yes, we obtained one a week ago. She's a nice girl pup. I dubbed her "Timpani" when my masseur was drumming into my back on her first night here. I don't know dog breeds too well, but she resembles a baby dingo. Like young pups everywhere, she's affectionate and playful. Unfortunately, she's also yet to be toilet trained. After a few evenings of the odd puddle of piss, we decided to let her sleep on the roof. She could do her business up there if she chose. We even had a doghouse built for her - using a few pieces of derelict chipboard cupboards. But with the rain, the doghouse disintegrated, and now she's back sleeping downstairs. At least the chipboard were useful in building an impromptu dike.

The flood was inconvenient, but it wasn't destructive. The water kept to the steps until it it the ground floor, and then it was quickly mopped outside. The bedroom (with its computers and books) was safe from the rain. Not much was on the floor apart from shoes, and they were placed on plastic chairs. The real problem was that I had to cancel my Vietnamese class. The road outside was also flooded - up and over the axle of a bicycle. Fortunately, my teacher was cool with my call. He lives in District 6, an area notorious for its poor drainage, and for the amount of overflowing that happen there. He was flooded out as well,  so he wouldn't have been able to make it anyway. 

Our landlady lives next door, so she was called in to inspect the property. She observed the roof. She saw its underperforming drainage holes. She promised to get someone to repair it. Then a few of us (including the landlady herself, and her brother) started bailing out the roof. We bailed the water onto the motorbikes parked below. Our front area is built half a metre above the road itself, so they weren't in dange of being washed away. But I'd wished someone had thought of moving the bikes into the house. Someone like myself.

Once the rain stopped, the flood cleared surprisingly quickly. In 10 minutes, the water went from axle height to ground height. Government plumbing is slow, but it does work. It just doesn't work quickly enough to prevent floods in the first place. 

The rain did have one consequence. The next day, I was attempting to driving into work. The problem was that the bike would sputter to a stop after driving 10 metres. Even adding fuel didn't solve the problem. We took it next door (the other next door - opposite the landlady) to have someone look at it. As you'd expect, we'd got water in the engine. It wasn't the rain that did the damage. It was the buckets of water that we bailed on it from two floors up.

But we were relatively lucky, compared to some. Unlike one workmate (who came home to find water damage everywhere), our roof didn't leak at all: it was the doorway to the stairs that let the water out, and it had the decency not to spread everywhere in the house. In one street (near where my partner's parents live), 13 out of 14 houses flooded from the road. Imagine your living room up a couple of inches with dirty, muddy, smelly liquid from the roadside, with a little bit of sewer mixed in. You have to mop it out, if not shovel it out. And that would have not been an isolated incident either. I also heard from others that some areas of the city were impassable. At least we didn't have anywhere to go that day. Yes, we were lucky - luckier than some.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Shift Work or Shit Work

Lately, I haven't had much time to blog. I've been teaching English at four schools. This is the summer season, where the primary and secondary schools are closed. The mums and dads want to get their kids out of their house - and what better than to educate them at the same time? That means that at your normal English school, the curriculum expands from weeknights and weekends to the fresh, fertile terrain of the 9-to-5 Monday to Friday working day. 

I did not deliberately aim to work at four schools. Until March of this year, I had been working only at School #1 for a year. Then I took a holiday with my fiancée to Australia. All my classes were given to someone else. That's ok. Unfortunately, School #1 decided not to give me any new classes when I got back. There weren't many available, and their priority was to give the new ones to the full-timers. They'd also been pursuing a policy of hiring a lot of new teachers for the summer season, so there were even less classes than normal. After a few weeks of the very meager pickings of substitute work, I thought "enough was enough". It was time to update my resume, and fire it off to a few schools.

I succeeded in scoring work at Schools #2, #3 and #4... while School #1 finally gave me a regular class for the next couple of weeks. I've now got 32 hours of teaching. Multiply the preparation time by 1.5 to 2, and that gives me about 50 to 64 hours of doing work related shit. My schedule now looks like misaligned Lego blocks. I admit it will be exhausting, but it will also be lucrative, and I only have two or three months of it to deal with. It is all shift work. Each school knows I work at other schools, and they understand if I am not available to do substitute work. I get paid by the hour, and that is often the life of an English teacher.

All of this is a preamble to this little article, which made me angry. Perhaps it's just excessive empathy, but anyway - from The Charleston Gazette:

Wal-Mart officials in Cross Lanes told employees on Tuesday they have to start working practically any shift, any day they’re asked, even if they’ve built up years of seniority and can’t arrange child care.

One paragraph alone, and I saw more red than a VU meter at a forest rave.

Now I don't know Wal-Mart. I hear it is a shit company to work for, and I also gather it produces shitty products. Perhaps the nearest thing we have in Australia is a combination of Crazy Clarks and Target, except that the quality sounds worse than either. Oh, and you can get fired in Wal-Mart if you even breathe the word "union". But I don't have any personal experience or animus with the company. I only know that what Wal-Mart is doing is a bad thing.

Firstly, if they say:

Store management said the policy change is needed to keep enough staff at the busiest hours, ...

They're lying. They're probably also incompetent.

Each school I work with has a few hard-working people on administration, trying to sort out schedules and phoning up people for last-ditch emergencies. Teachers may come down with a stomach bug, and they need to phone someone else to cover the class. Yes, they can be a pain in the ass if you say "no"; they'll ask again, and may even put on a sad face if you meet them in person. But they're doing their job, and they never guilt-trip or threaten you if the "no" is definitive. They also understand that you are working shift-work, so you may not be available anyway. They'll take also take a "no" if it is your one personal emergency. I've heard people being sacked for that word, but only if they are lying (such as pretending to be sick with the runs when they are really getting sick on the alcohol). Or full-timers really working at other schools, and thus breaching their contract. 

I am also fortunate in having a supportive partner, and no kids to manage. The same cannot be said of the Wal-Mart workers, who often are female, divorced, and have kids to raise. How the hell can you threated people to drop all they are doing and work? The employees are in a dilemma: lose their job, or face the spectacle of their unsupervised kiddies having their own terminal experience with Mr. Hot Plate or Ms. Bathtub. For even putting the staff in that position, the manager responsible should get a horse-whippin' along the whole length of the Mason-Dixon line.

The real truth is, of course, the second half of the second paragraph. It is a despicable move, but strangely incompetent:

... but some employees said it appears to be an attempt to force out longer-term, higher-paid workers. 

After all, all the new employees have to be trained, don't they? Costs money, I thought. Kicking out the old-timers destroys morale as well, with the resulting turnover higher than a hydro-electric turbine. Others may argue that the turnover may cost money, but not as much as the income of the higher-paid workers lost in the process. After all, Wal-Mart is a financially-successfully company by any measure, and a lot of their wealth - they allege - is based on careful cost-cutting, "such as reducing paper used through computerization.". However, they have also managed to get five members of the Walton family (relatives of the company's founder, Sam Walton) in to the Forbes's Top 20 Richest People in the World list. Careful cost-cutting, my ass. That's just corporate entitlement.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Why Most Opinion Columnists are Crap

Tim Dunlop nails it to the wall until it stops bleeding:

So if the new Editor of The Age is genuinely looking to freshen things up, then good on him, but there's only one thing he should be driven by: good writing. Personally, I don't care if whomever replaces [Gerard Henderson] leans left or right--and I find the constant whining about the media has this bias, the media has that bias to be, well, childish--but I'd like these columnists to engage me as an equal rather than assume the tone of the godhead of all knowledge. I'd like to see some doubt creep into their pontificating, see them inject a bit of originality into their phrase turning, and for them to recognise that their privileged position obliges them to challenge authority, whether it be political, economic or cultural.

Or if I could be so bold as to summarize: treat the readers as equals, and you'll have a better chance of sounding interesting. Pontificating from the pulpit is not only repetitive, but boring.

Tim's post is worth reading, even if his list of columnists may be unknown to most non-Australians. I have no doubt foreigners could come up with their own equivalents (such as Tom Friedman for the U.S.)

The appallingness of columnists is the main reason why I've stopped reading print newspapers [*]. When I was back in Brisbane, I used to read The Australian; the parents bought it, and I found The Courier Mail (the only competition) to be vastly inferior. But now newspapers are more widely read on the Net than off it, and Google News allows you to choose from thousands of publications for information. That's why I can't be bothered to get the Oz from the newspapers sellers of Phạm Ngũ Lão. The Australian's stable of commentators come off looking rigid and narrow-minded compared to what is available on the net. 

[*] The only exception is the local rag Tuổi Trẻ. I read an article or two to my Vietnamese teacher during lessons. But here, the idea is to perfect my pronunciation. Since Vietnamese is a phonetic language using the Latin alphabet, it is possible to read out an article even if you don't understand the bulk of it. This is the only case where I find newspapers useful on a weekly basis.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Sith did make to Sài Gòn...

... as I predicted. At work, one of my fellow teachers was raving about seeing a DVD for Revenge of the Sith. Her point of emphasis was not the quality of the movie; she liked it, but not too much. It was the fact that she now owned a copy of the flick - a mere two weeks after it came onto cinemas in the states. What was better was its quality: it stuttered a few times, but the resolution was pretty clear throughout. No one had been pointing cameras inside a theatre.

Yesterday night, I too have a a "copy" in my hands. I was at the Saigon Tax Centre looking for some shaving creme. They also have a DVD section downstairs, with lots of pushy sales assistants ready to attract your attention. I'm now about 43,000 dồng poorer. One small aerosol can of Gillette: 26,000 đồng. One DVD of Revenge of the Sith: 17,000 đồng. You can even exchange your disk if you're not satisfied.

Now these are some thoughts about the movie; please don't mistake it for a real review. There are too many on the Internet already to add another one. For real reviews, you could please try the eviscerating Ruthless Reviews, whom I quote 'And yes, they spelled "shit" wrong'. For a more positive view, there's the Filthy Critic. So what did I think?

  • Firstly, the script was shocking. It was eerie in how it took accomplished and much-lauded actors like Samuel L. Jackson, and transformed them into chipboard. For example, there were the three uses of "younglings". It may be Jedi jargon for their multi-racial trainees, but couldn't the script have used "children" instead? It allows more emotional rapport from the audience, especially as by then, said kiddies had been slaughtered by Anakin Skywalker.
  • Never the less, some actors were able to transcend this. Hayden Christensen changed from irritating (not enjoyable) to evil fanatic (enjoyable). Ewan McGregor - who is a GOOD actor - actually seemed human throughout, and was even believable in his "you were my brother" dialogue after slicing a few limbs off Mr. Skywalker.Yoda was great, but Yoda's always great, and his performance was strictly CGI.
  • Natalie Portman was just pathetic.
  • The only person who seemed to be enjoying himself one hundred percent was Ian McDiarmid. He was the man behind Supreme Chancellor and then Emperor Palpatine. He was delightfully horrid throughout the whole flick - from sinister but everyday bureaucrat at the start to the ravaged visage and methadone teeth we remember from Return of the Jedi. Playing a evil galactic overlord is probably not as easy as it looks, but McDiarmid seemed particularly suited to the role. There were even a few battle scenes where you really believed the "power of the Dark Side". He hated. You could see that when he was flaying around with light sabres and besting his enemies. He was feral.
  • Finally, what about the disk itself? It wasn't too good on the laptop. There were a few times when I had to take it out, turn it a few degrees, and pop it back in again. That was irritating, especially as it always seemed to happen during the good bits (i.e., the battle scenes). Fortunately, WinDVD remembered the position of the disk, so it wasn't necessary to fast forward each time. There were other problems, like the sound falling out of sync with the action.

To summarize: I liked the film, but it fell far short of what it could be. It is better than its prequels, but lesser work than its sequels.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Student essays on Việt Nam

Virtual Doug (linked on the blogroll) teaches English in Huế with his wife. According to his bio, they met in 1969 over here. They fell in love with the country (and each other as well). A couple of decades later, they're back over here.

In the last few days, he's been posting the best essays from students of his writing classes on the blog. Excellent writing from them (and him) on the country and culture. Highly recommended.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Isn't calling someone a "liar or a fool" unnecessary?

I'm happy you asked.

Most people are not really interested in politics, but hold opinions none the less about political things. For example, many otherwise apolitical people have strong opinions about the Schapelle Corby case. Sometimes I think such opinions are well reasoned. Sometimes they are silly, or even stupid. However, I do not attack them for this, if I judge they are sincere.

But Ben Stein is not "most people". First of all, he is a paid columnist. But if he is peddling nonsense, are the readers, advertisers and editors getting their value for money? More significantly, he worked with Nixon in the flesh. He should know better than to pin the genocide in Cambodia on a high ranking snitch like Mark "Deep Throat" Felt. Hell, I reckon he does know better. And if he argues a deeply dishonest argument like he did in Deep Throat and Genocide, then I'm almost 100% certain I am justified in calling him a liar.

However, I did say "almost". I'm still not certain if he remains a fool instead. This paragraph knocked me back on my feet:

The assumption of power in Cambodia by the bloodiest government of all time, the Khmer Rouge, who killed a third of their own people, often by making children beat their own parents to death. No one doubts [Richard Nixon] would never have let this happen.

Excuse me? Are we talking abut the same Richard Nixon here? The one who had Henry "Call me Mr. Realpolitik" Kissinger as Secretary of State? (It was the same Kissinger who sold out the East Timorese to Indonesia a couple a years later, after all.) Tricky Dicky would have probably let it happen. His new best friend China would have told him to lay off their brother ideologues in Phnon Penh, and Kissinger would done his best to force Nixon into line. And that would be that. If Mr Stein (who has probably met Dr K. a few times) believes otherwise, doesn't that make him a fool?

Perhaps it would be more polite to say Mr. Stein is neither a liar or a fool. I could refrain from doing do. But if a paid-up, public pundit with his own history writes something I find dishonest, I feel I should call him on it. He can't plead ignorance - the usual excuse for bad writing. So in the end, I conclude Ben Stein is either lying or fooling. Or both. 

I should add that the blogosphere is on to Ben Stein's nonsense.  The Moderate Voice argues why Nixon's removal should have been irrelevant to what happened later in Indochina:

  1. When Nixon left office wasn't his replacement the highly solid (and underrated in some ways) GOPer Gerald Ford whose Secretary of State remained Henry Kissinger? Is Stein suggesting that when Nixon left these two guys were negligent? There was a continuity of policy. Factors were in play that didn't have to do with Democrats and people hating Nixon because he went after Alger Hiss.
  2. Didn't Nixon himself in some later interviews note that if he hadn't given his enemies the sword they couldn't have used it against him?

The Washington Dispatch - argues like me that Nixon was incompetent. Unlike me, he thinks he wasn't hardline enough. (He advocated more bombing of North Vietnam for starters. Having met victims of said bombing [*], I cannot endorse such as position.) Fortunately, he is on far more solid ground with this paragraph. It describes the motivations of those attacking Mr. Felt quite well:

Loyalty must trump the most basic virtue, the desire to tell the truth. Loyalty to leader and party must trump loyalty to conscience. If the truth concerning the leader's actions is harmful to his interests, it must be suppressed.

And PowerLine has it's own take on the matter:

UPDATE: I think some readers have misunderstood what I tried to say in the last paragraph of this post (the fault probably is mine for not having been clear enough). I understand the argument that there is a causal connection between what the Democrats did to Nixon and the tragedies that occurred in Southeast Asia. Arguably, had the Democrats not acted as they did towards Nixon, some or all of these tragedies would have been averted. However, my argument is that the Democrats' actions towards Nixon are not to blame because they had the right to try to remove Nixon (assuming that he may have committed impeachable offenses). My point, I guess, is that the opposition has no obligation to tolerate a president who commits serious wrongdoing merely because his foreign policy may be correct and his successor's may turn out not to be. Recall that the Democrats tried at times to answer claims that Clinton should be impeached for having committed perjury by citing the alleged virtues of his substantive policies. I don't think that kind of argument flies.

[*] Such as my first land-lady. She was a teenager in Hà Nội when the USAF did their stuff in North Vietnam. Quite a nice woman as well, but was literally crimson when watching the CNN broadcasts of the strafing of Iraq. She was literally shouting at the screen. Who could blame her? She could relate.)

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Danger of Nixon Revisionism

Ben Stein is a liar or a fool. I judge this by his article in The American Spectator, Deep Throat and Genocide:

Can anyone even remember now what Nixon did that was so terrible? He ended the war in Vietnam, brought home the POW's, ended the war in the Mideast, opened relations with China, started the first nuclear weapons reduction treaty, saved Eretz Israel's life, started the Environmental Protection Administration. Does anyone remember what he did that was bad? ...When his enemies brought him down, and they had been laying for him since he proved that Alger Hiss was a traitor, since Alger Hiss was their fair-haired boy, this is what they bought for themselves in the Kharma Supermarket that is life:

1.) The defeat of the South Vietnamese government with decades of death and hardship for the people of Vietnam.

2.) The assumption of power in Cambodia by the bloodiest government of all time, the Khmer Rouge, who killed a third of their own people, often by making children beat their own parents to death. No one doubts RN would never have let this happen.

He truly must have been appreciated as a speech writer and lawyer for the Nixon administration. How many faults and deceptions are there in those four brief paragraphs? Let me count.

  1. Let me enumerate one point in Nixon's favour first. He actually pushed Vietnamization, the enabling of the ARVN to hold their own against the NVA, while withdrawing American troops. That was a bloody good idea, and in fact the ARVN were far more disciplined than a decade earlier. It's a shame it couldn't have been done 10 years earlier.  
  2. On the other hand, Nixon didn't end the war. What he and Kissinger did was negotiate a face-saving compromise with Lê Ðức Thọ (then foreign minister for North Vietnam). This allowed the Americans to withdraw their troops with a little bit of dignity. The war continued afterwards - yes - even after Nixon's resignation. However, Americans weren't now flying around much in Hueys. That made the voters stateside happy. 
  3. While negotiation their accords, Nixon and Kissinger also sold out the South Vietnamese government of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. Over his objections, the Americans and the North Vietnamese agreed to leave a lot of Việt Cộng held territory as is. Which in practice meant a lot of strategically important territory in the Mekong and the Highlands. They were places you could put supply caches for the NVA, and their existence alone helped the NVA win the war. But it was of little importance to Nixon or Kissinger. The death of one American soldier was far more important to them than the deaths of 10 Vietnamese. 
  4. The war was not ended by Richard Nixon. It was ended by General Văn Tiền Dũng. His "Blossoming Lotus" manouvre through and around Buôn Ma Thuột forced the ARVN to retreat. And since the opposing general responsible (Cao Văn Viên) was so incompetent as to choose a non-existent highway for a retreat route, the ARVN collapsed as a result.
  5. And yes, the North Vietnamese won the war - less than three months later, in fact. No question about that. If the U.S. has to evacuate its own embassy by helicopter, there is no way one can say they "won" it. It wasn't until Clinton that the U.S. got both a embassy and a consulate back into the country. 
  6. Nixon didn't bring home all the POWs. There were POWs in North Vietnam when Nixon resigned. There were POWs when Ford was president, and even a few when Carter was president.
  7. A lot of the blame for the rise of the Khmer Rouge lies with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. After all, Cambodian Prince Norodom Sihanouk was deposed in favour of General Lon Nol. You may believe the U.S. was behind that coup, or you may not. What is certain is that massive bombing of Cambodian territory by the USAF made the U.S - and by proxy, Lon Nol - government extremely unpopular. Meanwhile, Sihanouk, with now a lot of time on his hands, allied himself with a few Khmer Rouge front groups. Both events led to the KR controlling the country within five years, and Lon Nol off to Hawaii.
  8. Finally, if Mr Stein says "RN would never let [the KR] happen", I could only say "bullshit". Remember that Nixon was now buddy-buddies with Communist China. That was Nixon's greatest achievement. Remember also that the Khmer Rouge were Maoist, and good allies with China. I really, really doubt that Nixon would have jepordized any relations with China by making a stink about Khmer Rouge atrocities. And if you don't believe me, remember the hue and cry when the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia., even though the Vietnamese had been attacked first:  

The U.S. and other western governments, along with China, continued to recognize "Democratic Kampuchea" as the legitimate government of Cambodia, in order to signal their disapproval of the Vietnamese occupation of the country, which was backed by the Soviet Union. China launched a punitive invasion of northern Vietnam. The U.S. channeled some support to the Khmer Rouge resistance in western Cambodia via surrogates in Thailand, while the Thai military provided them with intelligence.

As I said, Ben Stein is either a liar or a fool.

If only this existed...

This caught my fancy:


They chose seven wonders in the ancient world, but what about those that didn't make the shortlist? We want to see the towering flan of Habuba Kabibra, the gaping arse of Mohenjo Daro and we want to see them on the messageboard now...

Those crazy towers...

(From B3ta, courtesy of illinois enema bandit (this messageboard is refreshed in front of a live studio audience). Well done.)

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

You can't trust those wingnuts to choose the WRONG books.

They are wingnuts, and they are not ashamed to admit it. From Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries:

HUMAN EVENTS asked a panel of 15 conservative scholars and public policy leaders to help us compile a list of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Each panelist nominated a number of titles and then voted on a ballot including all books nominated. A title received a score of 10 points for being listed No. 1 by one of our panelists, 9 points for being listed No. 2, etc. Appropriately, The Communist Manifesto, by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, earned the highest aggregate score and the No. 1 listing.

It's the self-identification that gets me. They are not mere scholars not public policy leaders. They are "conservative" scholars and public policy leaders. I don't trust them at all because they fetishize their own ideology before their competency. There are many qualities to admire in a teacher - their knowledge, their teaching ability, their humanity and their empathy. But conservatism, liberalism or socialism are not qualities to admire by themselves. Their alignment could make for good conversations at the nearest university bar. Or it could make them intolerant and strident. Whatever - just leave it out of the classroom. 

To see how easily they will shed academic rigour for their convictions, let's look at the blurb for their #1 entry:  The Communist Manifesto:

The Manifesto envisions history as a class struggle between oppressed workers and oppressive owners, calling for a workers’ revolution so property, family and nation-states can be abolished and a proletarian Utopia established. The Evil Empire of the Soviet Union put the Manifesto into practice.

But that second sentence is nonsense. "Property, family and nation-states abolished?" No. The USSR didn't even practice this selective interpretation of the Manifesto. The score looks like 0.5 out of 3 to me. The Soviets did abolish private enterprise, but public property was sacrosanct, judging by the amount of barbed wire around their Gulags and missile bases. And on the western side of their nation-states as well, especially East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. As for family units, they were probably stronger under Brezhnev than they are today. Families would often leave the slow business of lining up for rations to their parents and grandparents. The elderly would be appreciated for this, and they'd generally end up better fed as well. And now the life-expectancy for men has dropped down to 56 years - 12 years less than Việt Nam.

The  other thing is that the Soviet Union isn't really remembered for lack of property, lack of families or lack of (you gotta snigger at this) nation-states. Bullets in the back of the head are more memorable images. And that's the problem: neither Marx nor Engels doesn't really advocate this in the Manifesto. He sounds more outraged about the proletariat sending their wives and children down coal mines, or into factories. "Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty." And in early 19th century Europe, this was a daily occurrence. Even on Sundays.

State terror - now that was more Lenin's thing. He both wrote books about it, practiced it, and exhorted others to do the same. But none of his prose even made the top 10. So why pick the dynamic duo of M. and E. over Lenin? Well, I guess they're more memorable that him. They're a good enemy for the "tribe" of the Right to collectively denounce - an anti-fetish, two Goldsteins to the Airstrip One of the American Right. 

Why am I going on and on about this? Put it this way - I expect better from academics, and the people behind the survey make their living as academics, researchers and scholars. I expect them to make an argument, do some research, and back it up with facts. I'd expect them to be able to look up stuff that is available on-line for free. If I can can do it from a third-world country, why can't they do it from their cosy little sinecures in the U.S.? But their problem is that they're not lazy. They're incurious.

But the most damming indictment of this survey doesn't come from me, or from either Steve Gilliard or Brad de Long - my sources for the survey. It comes from their commenters, who point out the survey does not mention The Protocols of Zion at all. Yes, Mein Kampf is at number 2, but the evil of Protocols survives today. It could be demonstrated that it is more influential, and even deserves a #1 place. After all, Mein Kampf  - an extremely boring book - was only really influential in Germany for 12 years, and even then it was more for owning than reading. While Protocols - forgery of the Russian Cheka - is now being embraced by the more loathsome Islamic fundamentalist groups. 

But at the end, the wingnuts don't mention it. It's not that they don't care about anti-Semitism - they do. It just isn't symbolic enough to decry. It's not red-enough meat for the base. And in the end, these collective conformist conservatives will always talk trite symbolism over analysis. And a wingnut remains a wingnut, even if he has a PhD.