The surprise of Soviet language policy

"Russian Schoolroom", Norman Rockwell (1967)

It is almost always worth perusing the Times Literary Supplement‘s “In Brief” section, which presents six or seven short reviews of books not quite important enough to have warranted a full-length review, if only because its very high message-to-text ratio means that interesting books are easier to spot. Case in point: the TLS‘s April 11 (yes, I’m behind in my reading) “In Brief” presented a review of a book on the survival and nature of the Budukh language of Daghestan, which is spoken today by only 5,000 people in the Caucasus Mountains. If that comparatively tiny number has you scratching your head and wondering where the “interesting” part of this is, first note that Budukh is a sister-language to Kryts, which is spoken by 8,000 Daghestanis in neighbouring valleys, and second, as the reviewer puts it:

That either of these two languages has survived is the result of the former Soviet national language policy, as set down by Lenin, that nourished all the multitudinous small cultures of the former Soviet Union. This made sure that at least parts of primary education were in the language of the home, and for languages with even as few as 10,000 speakers, that local bureaucratic paperwork was often available in that language.

Frankly, this took me by complete surprise. Continue reading

A satisfying anti-Palin polemic

“Whatever the Christian conservative way of life is, Palin is living it. And so her grotesque and fascinating candidacy broaches an interesting subject, which is the moral insufficiency of integrity.” When Leon Wieseltier is on there’s no one quite like him. (Note also the unintentionally funny comments complaining about his use of big words).

Let Her Speak

Kudos to conservatives Joe Clark and Andrew Coyne for their principled stands on the Elizabeth May affair. Praise also to Stephane Dion, for being the only major party leader to unambiguously support the Green Party’s presence in TV debates.

Zizek on Nitebeat

I recently came across this TV interview with cultural studies superstar Slavoj Zizek. From the looks of it, Nitebeat is or was a late night talk show. They must have been hard up for guests that night, because the host clearly has no idea what to make of Zizek. Yet the world’s greatest Slovenian philosopher rises to the challenge, and gives a funny, entertaining and insightful interview. What he says about tolerance, in particular, I found thought-provoking.

Bonus trivia for acquaintances of the Sans Everything blogging team: Zizek has the same hand gestures as one us. Can you guess who it is?

For those who can’t get enough, there is also a hilarious Q & A with Zizek at The Guardian.

Hat tip: Prologus.

Wells on Urquhart vs. Metcalf


Jane Urquhart.
Jane Urquhart.

Over at Maclean’s, Paul Wells is showing his literary side. He has a piece on the controversy over The Penguin Book of Canadian Short Stories, edited by Jane Urquhart. Despite its title the anthology contains a weird mix of material, not all of which is made up of short stories, which has caused consternation among the literati:

[Urquhart’s] anthology garnered respectful reviews in newspapers’ book pages when it first appeared, but there was grumbling in short-story circles about its peculiarities. (There are such circles. They are small, sparsely populated, and, as a rule, neither fat nor loud.) Memoirs and excerpts from novels mixed in with bona fide short stories? A book divided into five themes, as though some consideration besides literary quality had driven the choices?

Daniel Wells, the editor of Canadian Notes and Queries, emailed Kim Jernigan, the editor of The New Quarterly, and asked if she shared his concerns. She did, up to a point. Both found a lot to like in the Penguin anthology, including brilliant writers like Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Alistair MacLeod, Lisa Moore and Guy Vanderhaeghe. But both were baffled by some of the inclusions. What was Adrienne Clarkson doing in there, with a short story she published in Maclean’s in 1961, while she was still Adrienne Poy? “I love Charles Ritchie, but as a short-story writer?” Wells writes about the career diplomat and fondly remembered memoirist. “I did not know Claire Messud was Canadian. And Michael Ondaatje?”

Wells approaches this topic with less righteousness than the literary press. Perhaps that’s why his article is much more effective in communicating how strange Urquhart’s choices were (Adrienne Clarkson? Come on. I mean, was Wendy Mesley not available?).

John Metcalf.
John Metcalf.

As Wells mentions, writer and editor John Metcalf is leading the charge against Urquhart. Metcalf would be an obvious choice to edit this type of book. Yet so far, no major press has asked him to. Metcalf may contribute to his outsider status at times, with all his polemicizing. Yet he has done more for the Canadian short story than any other editor I can think of. First in his editorial work for The Porcupine’s Quill, and now in his capacity as fiction editor for Biblioasis, a small press based in Windsor, Ontario, Metcalf has discovered an entire generation of Canadian writers. Metcalf’s skill as a talent spotter has been repeatedly confirmed by larger presses signing up authors whose first books were published by Metcalf. Yet so far, no large press has shown any interest in working with Metcalf himself. The time is ripe for an editor at a large press to offer him the chance to edit his own Canadian short story anthology.  



The worst of the worst: a memorandum

In researching an upcoming post relating to Soviet language policy (oh stop rubbing your hands with such anticipation — it’s distracting), I came across a memo that casts a sadly familiar light on the current U.S. administration’s justifications of the use of torture. I’ll let the memo — and the identity of its author — speak for themselves:

To the Secretaries of oblast and regional party committees,
To the CCs of national Communist parties,
To the people’s commissars of internal affairs, and to the heads of NKVD directorates

It has become known to the VKP CC that the secretaries of oblast and regional party committees, in checking up on employees of NKVD directorates, have laid blame on them for the use of physical pressure against those who have been arrested, treating it as something criminal. The VKP CC affirms that the use of physical pressure in the work of the NKVD has been permitted since 1937 in accordance with a resolution of the VKP CC. This directive indicated that physical pressure was to be used in exceptional cases and only against blatant enemies of the people who, when interrogated by humane methods, defiantly refuse to turn over the names of co-conspirators, and who refuse for months on end to provide any evidence, and who try to thwart the unmasking of co-conspirators who are still at large, and who thereby continue even from prison to wage a struggle against the Soviet regime. Experience has shown that such an arrangement has produced good results and has greatly expedited the unmasking of enemies of the people. True, subsequently in practice the method of physical pressure was abused by Zakovsky, Litvin, Uspensky, and other scoundrels, converting it from an exception into a rule and beginning to apply it against honest people who had been arrested accidentally. For these abuses, they [the scoundrels] have been given due punishment. But this in no way detracts from the value of the method itself when it is properly used. It is known that all bourgeois secret services use physical pressure against representatives of the socialist proletariat and rely on especially savage methods of it. We might therefore ask why a socialist secret service should be any more more humane in relation to inveterate agent of the bourgeoisie and sworn enemies of the working class and collectivized farmers. The VKP CC believes that the use of physical pressure must absolutely be continued from here on in exceptional cases and against blatant and invidious enemies of the people, and that this is a perfectly appropriate and desirable method. The VKP CC demands that the secretaries of oblast and regional party committees and the CCs of national party committees bear in mind this explanation when they check up on the employees of NKVD directorates.

Secretary of the VKP CC
J. Stalin

Palin Pile-on

The blogosphere rings out with denunciations of Sarah Palin, Republican vice-presidential nominee. Among the more interesting items is the following ABC news report, which helpfully explains the political scandal involving an Alaskan state trooper who is Palin’s former brother in law:



Note the detail at the end about the timing of the investigation into the affair: it is scheduled to be released four days before the U.S. election. The Republicans are currently devoting much sleazy energy to delaying its release.

Palin also appears to be losing the support of conservative intellectuals such as Charles Krauthammer (whose column, like the ABC report, I came across at Andrew Sullivan‘s blog). 

Speaking personally, the most disappointing thing about Palin is her belief in creationism. During her 2006 race for governor of Alaska, Palin said of evolution and creationism, “Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of education. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.” Some right-wing sites are now downplaying the significance of this remark.  They note that a few days later, Palin said that she would not push schools to actually teach creationism in science class. All she meant to say was that if creationism did come up in biology lessons, students should be allowed to discuss it. “I don’t think there should be a prohibition against debate if it comes up in class. It doesn’t have to be part of the curriculum.”

I don’t find this line of defence very reassuring. For one thing, she is simply wrong that creationism deserves any sort of presence in biology class. It is the worst form of pseudo-science, and has no place in a serious scientific discussion. Moreover, the issue is not confined to what Palin herself personally believes, although her personal views are bad enough. If elected Palin will inspire and energize people who do want to mandate creationism in schools. Indeed, this seems to be the official view of the party she represented when she made her original creationism comment. As the Anchorage Daily News noted in 2006, “The Republican Party of Alaska platform says, in its section on education: ‘We support giving Creation Science equal representation with other theories of the origin of life. If evolution is taught, it should be presented as only a theory.'” 

If we must have fundamentalists on the Republican ticket, it would at least be nice to have some variety for a change. They’ve been going after evolution for decades now. Don’t they ever get tired of fighting the same old battles? Just once, couldn’t they come out against gravity or photosynthesis to liven things up?

Is conservatism a threat to national security?
Samantha Power (credit:
Samantha Power has an interesting essay in the August 14 New York Review of Books, “The Democrats and National Security.” She raises the question of whether conservative approaches to national security actually makes life more dangerous:

The first step toward undoing Republican dominance on foreign policy entails debunking the myth that conservative ideology enhances US national security. Here Peter Scoblic, the executive editor at The New Republic and former editor of Arms Control Today, does a great service in Us vs. Them: How a Half Century of Conservatism Has Undermined America’s Security. He considers five decades of arms control efforts in order to illuminate the common themes underlying hard-line conservative ideology on national security. He shows, most usefully, the continuity in conservative intellectual leadership across the years. John Foster Dulles wrote the Republicans’ foreign policy platform in 1952, denouncing the Democrats’ “futile and immoral policy of ‘containment,’ which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism.” Barry Goldwater denounced the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which William Buckley’s National Review termed a “nuclear Yalta.” And during his first term, Ronald Reagan and the Reaganauts appeared to argue that doing away with an evil regime was more important than preventing nuclear war.

Scoblic shows that these men had in common several core premises. One cannot coexist with evil-doers, who are irreparably “fallen,” and thus rollback is required. Negotiation is not merely pointless, it is costly “appeasement.” And the United States should participate in only those international institutions that are servants of American power; those that constrain American power are enemies of the national interest.

Scoblic’s book offers a terrifying glimpse of the persistent tendency of one militant strand of conservatism to pursue conflict over peace, arms races over arms control, and ideology over pragmatism. His analytic history is particularly strong in revealing how, in a world of uncontrolled forces, conservatives sought to impose complete control, whether by pursuing technological fixes (like the nuclear missile shield) or treating US security as if it were something that could simply be willed. Because many conservatives presume exceptional American virtue —and believe that this virtue is self-evident to others—they have also consistently failed to see how aggressive US actions can appear abroad, and how the fear they generate can give rise to threatening behavior by others, who believe they are acting in self-defense.

The whole piece is worth reading, as is Power’s interesting blog.

The LRC on Humanitarianism

The latest issue of the Literary Review of Canada has an interesting essay-review on two new books about humanitarianism. The writer, Ian Smillie, is the co-author of his own thoughtful book on international aid. As a long-time admirer of Médecins Sans Frontières, I was struck in particular by Smillie’s criticisms of that well-known organization. They occur in the context of Smillie’s discussion of Imperfect Offering, a book by former MSF president James Orbinski: 


In humanitarian circles, MSF is respected but not always loved. It has a tendency to arrogance, is often self-righteous and sometimes ignores or fails to understand the broad context in which it works. Its fractious nature can lead to the establishment of two or three independent MSF operations in a single country — one from France, one from Holland and perhaps another from Germany. It usually arrives after an emergency starts and it pulls out as soon as it has decided its work is done. Others — UN agencies, CARE, Oxfam and the like — may have been in a country such as Sierra Leone or the Congo for years before a conflict began, and will remain for years afterward as relief efforts turn to reconstruction and longer-term development. But before and after are not the business of MSF, and so it is sometimes easier for doctors without borders, fresh off the plane, to speak out on what appears to be humanitarian compromise, co-optation and hypocrisy.

MSF’s very creation was based on precisely this kind of anger, in what Orbinski calls a case of “mistaken judgment.” Bernard Kouchner, who is today the foreign minister of France (and who comes off very badly through several appearances in this book), served with the French Red Cross during the Biafran war in Nigeria. Appalled by what he saw as genocide, and by the strict Red Cross notion of neutrality (and silence), he and other doctors broke away to form an organization that would not be bound by political borders, or by a neutrality that was indifferent to victims of war crimes.

This kind of “witness” and the outspoken defence of victims of conflict have been the hallmarks of MSF ever since. But in its first instance, it was predicated on a mistake. Orbinski explains early in An Imperfect Offering that the Biafran authorities had refused to allow a humanitarian road into the enclave, using starvation as a media prop to assist in the cause for Biafran independence. It was actually worse than that: humanitarian agencies purchased locally grown cassava and other crops with hard currency at vastly inflated rates of exchange, providing Biafra with its only means of buying weapons during some of the worst months of the war. “MSF would later recognize its error in judgment,” Orbinski says, “but the organization would not reject its commitment to speaking out.”

Criticisms like this are sometimes seized on by aid-bashers as a reason to give up on humanitarianism altogether. That view strikes me as short-sighted. The real value of Smillie-style critiques, I’d say, is to make NGOs better at what they do. In the case of Smillie’s critique, it raises the possibility that sometimes MSF’s less long-term, more-outspoken approach will be the right one to adopt, but in other situations, the more-long term less-outspoken approach of CARE and the other agencies Smillie mentions will be the better way to go. 

Another interesting nugget from Smillie’s essay:

If there is a failing in Orbinski’s book, it is his inability to explain clearly how humanitarians can work with unfettered independence in an enterprise where all money — even $10 donations — has strings. Individual donors gave generously to victims of the tsunami, for example, but it is harder to raise money for Darfur, and almost impossible for the Congo, where the death toll has exceeded that of the tsunami by a factor of six, if not eight.

Anyone interested in correcting the imbalance between the amount of aid given to the Congo compared to other crises zones can watch the following video, which describes the effort to rebuild the American University of Kinshasa. 

More information about the AUK rebuilding effort is here. And when it comes to charitable giving in general, don’t forget the organization with the greatest name in the history of humanitarianism.