News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Blending in with authoritarianism

Biff: I've long tossed around the idea of writing a novel set in the midst of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Coming across the following section in Jan Tomasz Gross's War Through Children's Eyes reminded me of a circumstance I would need to represent cleverly, evocatively, and in considerable detail: the comprehensive change in the local zeitgeist once the invaders settled in and the caste system (stalwart patriots vs. suspect locals) took hold. I was thinking of the change in terms of television, traffic, utilities, and so forth. Of course there would also be politically motivated disappearances, the overt rounding up of political prisoners, the general cowing of the public through posters, abusive public officials, bruited warnings on TV, but I didn't think ahead far enough to recognize the pervasive changes in behavioral norms which would occur in the public sphere and at home, even within the security of the private.

After 50 years of Japanese occupation, the Taiwanese had become highly civilized and modern. You can see this in the period architecture, and I'm not referring just to structures erected by banks and so forth, but also walls and farm houses. During the Japanese era, quality counted. After the KMT arrived, quality became either unbecoming or, more probably, dangerous and was thus replaced by the rag bag, the jerryrigged, and the slapdash. Crap was less likely to attract predatory officials or the newly imported species of burglar.

Clearly, there was a drastic decline in professional standards, and I remember wondering ages ago if this reflected a decline in personal standards too. When I arrived here 20 odd years ago, people swarmed buses, lied like rugs to the inquisitive unfamiliar, were remarkably callous to strangers involved in accidents, and otherwise acted in a brutish manner in urban public places. Public passivity was a facade hiding intense suspicion. Questions prompted wild answers, people would say anything, however irresponsible, to help. To help get rid of you. Nobody knew anything and two blocks away from everyone's home began a forbidden zone, beyond the pale and not to be risked.

And so stores selling the same things concentrated in queer zones, ghettos as it were, because vendors couldn't attract enough customers out in suburbia. Nobody knew what existed around the corner from where they lived. Too risky. So no bright shopping centers, only endless dim warrens. People warned me not to look out car windows in Taoyuan. Those locals were dangerous.

Naturally things have improved vastly the past couple of decades, though the urban peasant complex survives in many respects, in the fashions of the aged for example.

Edward Said, in Orientialism, quotes an Englishman in Egypt decrying various low practices of the locals: laziness, mendacity, unreliability and so forth. And yet I recognized practically every pejorative description from my own experience while Taiwan was still under martial law. Rather than lazily accuse foreigners of being Eurocentric, these negative traits could be better explained by trying to imagine life under martial law, i.e. without the rule of law, without the immunity a foreigner such as myself had by virtue of his passport. Connections were everything at that time, and bribes were de rigeur for everything from processing a government license to making sure one's doctor didn't saw off the wrong limb in the hospital. Sticking out in any manner was likely to attract the troublesome attention of everyone from jealous cops to observant pick pockets. Telling the truth to strangers was asking for trouble for sooner or later for one was bound to say something offensive to someone with power or connections to power.

Just as the Polish learned to dumb down everything from their apparel to their behavior in public in order not to attract unwanted attention from their Russian overlords, so the Taiwanese made a point of not attracting unwanted attention from the KMT and its local lieutenants.

Here's what happened in Poland in 1939 when the USSR occupied the eastern half, with many of the parallels with the Taiwan of yesteryear rather striking (the very public filth, the overpowering (presumably new) odors, for example):

The threat of arrest and deportation or the necessity to hide one's political past, or the necessity to hide one's political past complicated many people's lives. Both the immediate and all pervasive realization that a new society had already been installed came from the new look of houses and streets and the people in them; from the new songs, music, and propaganda broadcast full blast over speakers mounted in the streets; from unfamiliar odors, like that of the tar with which the footwear of Soviet soldiers was impregnated.

The visual change was the most striking. "Within a week our town was completely changed: dirty all-around, no one caring to keep it clean, heaps of refuse thrown away by the Army disintegrating in the streets. Sidewalks, trees, lawns all destroyed by trucks and tractors." (HI, PGC, Wlodzimierz Wolynski; 39; see also Doc. no. 77) There had been no war in the area, but the brief military operations caused relatively little disruption to life and property. The new look was more a result of the occupation of the war itself, and promptly passed, as if by contagion, from things to people. The population suddenly became acutely aware that external appearance was indicative of social origin. Dressing in certain ways or carrying certain objects increased the probability of being stopped in the street by militiamen and invited snide comments from supporters of the new order, as well as curiosity from Soviet soldiers. It took only a few days for the population in the streets to change its look and undergo a rapid process of upward, external proletarianization. Soon everyone looked more or less like a worker going to or from work. No one wore extravagant colors or fancy clothes; ties rapidly disappeared from men's wardrobes; and scarves replaced hats on women's heads. People instinctively started to care less about external appearance. They went out, indistinguishable in the large crowd of similar men and women, unkempt, hurried, and colorless. On this subdued proletarianized backdrop, a new reality was systematically imposed. Very symbols of Polish state of cultural tradition were slowly eliminated -- memorial plaques, monuments, Polish Eagles. "Lwow jest juz bez lwow" (Lwow is now with lions) wrote a high school friend to Danuta Polniaszek; the occupiers had removed the stone lions in front of the town hall. Street signs were rapidly changed, the Polish names in Latin characters replaced by Ukrainian inscriptions in Cyrillic. Towns and villages were decorated with portraits of Soviet leaders, which appeared everywhere in all sizes, the biggest ones perhaps 6 x 8 m, on office buildings occupied by the new administration. Banners with inscriptions in posters were hung in public places, some ridiculing the former Polish government, some showing despicable silhouettes of Polish officers or, for contrast, advertising the beauty and happiness of the lives of Soviet citizens... On Hetman's Embankments in Lwow enormous red billboards with excerpts from the Soviet constitution written in gold were erected... Red stars popped up here and there, replacing old crosses, Eagles, and sometimes, the traditional rooster shaped windvanes. The physiognomies of Soviet leaders invaded the interiors of buildings as well; in view of the familiar faces of Polish politicians, holy pictures, or small wooden crosses, the appeared on the walls of restaurants, offices, and classrooms...

People in the streets changed not only their appearance, but also their behavior. For one thing, the pace of street life changed. Rather than strolling leisurely or aimlessly, people pretended to walk quickly toward a specific destination. They avoided meeting each other in the street and engaging in conversation. "On October 21, I was walking down Zyblikiewicz Street with Mrs. Wanda S. we were talking about some family matters. Suddenly two men separated us brutally and proceeded to question us about the subject of our conversation. Since our answers were identical, we were released. But I know of people who were arrested in this matter." ...It was safest to walk alone, briskly.

There was also less courtesy, chivalry, and politeness in crowded tramways or public places, and women received less of the recognition and respect traditionally granted them. This was partly due to the overcrowding and shortages and fatigue and irritation typical of situations of prolonged stress. But to a large extent it was another consequence of the law of mimicry, for the occupiers were, most conspicuously, lacking in social graces: "Their conduct was one of the main reasons why we looked upon them as if they were of a different mentality, as if they belonged to a different spiritual formation." To understand the experience of the Bolshevik occupation, one would have to know "how they moved, how they walked, how they sat, how they waved their hands."

Sunday, April 05, 2009

History doesn't repeat itself, it rhymes - Mark Twain

Biff: There were several comic aspects to the barbarous stage of occupation of Taiwan by KMT forces from 1945 onward. One was the notion instilled into common soldiers by their captains and political officers that Taiwan was to be liberated from the vicious grasp of the amoral Japanese while the Taiwanese themselves were a disreputable crew of Benedict Arnolds. Either way, the theory ran that the Taiwanese had been deprived of the patriotic milk of human kindness oozing from the withered teats of the civil-war exhausted motherland and were not only unaware but, much worse, ungrateful. They not only suffered under the iron grip of the Devil Dwarves but had been brainwashed into credulously believing they were superior to their native Chinese brothers and sisters, who, though equal, were more equal than they, when all was said and done, given their superior provenence and hence enhanced authenticity.

Theory, all theory usually, hits the road for the first time with a crash. When the KMT soldiers arrived, they found themselves in a wealthy land which had prospered under Japanese oppression. In fact the land was so oppressedly wealthy and prosperous, and the common soldiers from China rendered so poor and deprived care of their patriotic paymasters, that quite a few liberators took to stealing with abandon from the ostensibly oppressed.

Theft by itself is unremarkable. But it was sometimes done with style. KMT soldiers stole bicycles for example. Unable to peddle them away because they couldn't ride them competently, they gave the game away by carrying them on their shoulders. Too obvious, like a forlorn fashionista carrying her pocket pooch (the more successful ones collar a man-serf, a lap-dog if you will, to carry their toy coolies, er, collies). Excuses that the bike belonged to the porter underneath the purloined contraption, i.e. bike rides man, rather than the other way around, were to no avail.

And then there was the common soldiery witnessing the holy prodigy of household running water, streams of which emerged from an appliance called a tap, planted in many a Taiwanese wall. Inspired to purchase one of these miracle gadgets at a local hardware store, the tap was screwed or otherwise forced into the wall of one's own dwelling on the theory, assisted by a belief in the miracles of Western science, that turning said spigot would generate running water. Failure to comply with expectations clearly indicated that said tap was defective. Those tricky Taiwanese turncoats! This in turn led to heated arguments with hardware store owners and accusations of retailing faulty goods to take advantage of innocent patriots, patriotic emancipators that is, who having converted weapons to plowshares, were now helpless in the face of emancipation of their hard-earned scrip.

In Poland, the USSR troops, same same. History rhymes. Check out the below.

The following excerpted from (War Through Children's Eyes) by Jan Tomasz Gross.

...The first visual contact between the Soviets and the population of eastern Poland revealed something that neither side anticipated. The red Army was, of course, an army, but there was something odd about its makeup. True, its tanks rolled proudly along streets and country roads, but then horseman and horse-drawn supply carts came. Most of the animals appeared to be on their last legs. Soldiers poured in endlessly -- there were thousands of them -- but some had saddles and some did not; some had shoes, but others only cloth wrapped around their feet; some wore long coats, other short ones; some had belts, while others had only strings attached to their rifles (Docs. no. 17, 9, 43, 110). And there was a strange look on their faces -- a mixture of suspicion, incredulity, and joy. For they literally could not believe their eyes when they saw those images, unbelievable riches. Take, for example, the peasant horses and cattle, all so well fed and well kept. Many a red Army soldier jumped on the grazing horse and sped away. Many swapped their nags for the healthy and strong horse of a helpless peasant. Then, too, there was food, in dazzling amounts and varieties: orchards bearing fruit which they freely helped themselves, food offered in peasant huts, including delicacies rarely seen in their kolkhozes or hometowns -- butter, sour cream, meat, sausage, eggs, cheese. But perhaps the greatest revelation came when they reached the towns with their material objects and commodities: shoes, clothes, fabrics, and industrial products of all sorts -- watches, for example, were great wonder. And all this can be seen in the shops; it could be touched, bought, appropriated.

It was a very confusing experience for Red Army soldiers who knew they had come to liberate the oppressed blood brothers from the masters yoke. For they also knew that the masters, by definition, were a small minority and that everyone else was suffering deprivation. But where were the masses if everyone lived so well? (this is even more ironical since the eastern half was the poorest part of Poland, which itself was rather poor by contemporary European standards.)

Before being ordered into Poland, red Army personnel had been warned of propaganda tricks that would be pulled on them in this foreign country, and they were taught how to protect themselves and how to behave... There were even standard phrases to memorize such as "U nas vse est'" (we have everything) and "U nas etogo mnogo" (we have plenty of that). But as the soldier saw many commodities for the first time in their lives, they blundered repeatedly and made fools of themselves. Soon the boldest young pranksters in Lwow and other towns were entertaining audiences by engaging soldiers in conversations about Soviet factories that produced oranges, Greta Garbos, and Amsterdams (Doc. no. 77)
Quoted from (War Through Children's Eyes) by Jan Tomasz Gross.

...Numerous militia units, all over the "liberated" territory, included common criminals in their ranks (Docs. no. 15, 100).

It is not surprising that the Soviets should utilize criminals to subdue the conquered territory and the potentially hostile population since they used criminals in camps throughout Russia as auxiliaries and treated them better and trusted them more than politically suspect people. Common criminals were viewed in the USSR as "class allies" whose cooperation in the effort to stamp out the social' no opasnyj (socially harmful) element, that is class enemies, was most welcome.

The red Army broke open jails along its way -- who else could have been kept there but class enemies of the Polish "masters"? -- a logical deduction since during the first days of the war scores of Ukrainian nationalists and communist sympathizers had been arrested in Poland. Red Army commanders, on their westward march, had no time to ask for character references from everyone ready to assist them in organizing the new order. Front line soldiers and officers of the red Army knew that the old order in the conquered territory had to be inverted, that those on the top and on the bottom of the social scale would trade positions. Naturally, prisoners of the Polish government were more trustworthy than those who had not been in jail; a coachman was a better candidate for town office then a civil servant or politician; a doorman was better fit to run a large enterprise than an engineer; a porter made a perfect railroad station master; and the poorest peasants were promoted over everyone else to village committees....

Biff: Interesting, this logical reductio ad absurdum of populist socialism. That, in the end, if populist socialists gain authoritarian power, society is turned upside down and criminals lord it over the law-abiding, as here in this instance in Poland in 1941, and in China during the Cultural Revolution, when the students were granted lordship over their teachers, occasionally beating them to death, and in Pol Pot's Cambodia where the illiterate were empowered to righteously exterminate the literate. Idealism, beautiful booster of the cocksure, liberates the barbarian within to slay the noble savage without.

But we can also look to more benign examples of the same sort of thing. I wasn't thinking of anything as extreme as the Killing Fields when first plowing those several paragraphs. They simply reminded me of that excellent sendup of Bill Clinton, the film Primary Colors. There's a scene when the narrator is brought to a public event and informed by his comrade-in-arms and campaign-trail f-chick that most of the worthies in attendance are in fact derelicts flushed out of a local soup kitchen. The point is, if one is corralling populist votes, the votes of the underprivileged, i.e. the financially incompetent, one will naturally end up foraging through society's demimonde. One sees this in political party support for illegal immigrants, for example.

Don't get me wrong, I'm an immigrant. And when younger, had half a mind to sample illegal immigration.
Besides, populist socialism can work to the benefit of society when the given political party represents the injured interests of immigrant labor, transient labor, and so forth. But populist socialism also mutated into a horror show of absurdity in a previous era, one not so distant, and more importantly did so with a monotony that implies a logical inevitability running the show regardless of the posing ringmaster bawling shibboleths and taking credit.

Much of what human beings do, after all, runs under the radar of consciousness with consequences beyond our immediate awareness. Whether our personal lives, or political ones, we often believe we're controlling or even creating a show when in fact the show is an equation without fair reciprocity, action prompting unequal reaction, ourselves catalysts spurring an unwanted avalanche.

To be less cryptic, an example of such tipping points: cynical lip service paid to catastrophic global warming on the theory that though it's bogus it will improve the environment. Instead, it results in Third World forest being felled to grow corn for ethanol, local farmland turned into ethanol plantations with fallow land reactivated for crops, new land opened up too but not tilled in order to earn carbon credits. The subsequent rise in food prices causes privation and riots in the Third World, while pristine desert land is defaced by thousands of acres of solar panels, and wind farms kill thousands of birds per annum. To paraphrase Mark Twain, a lie gets half way round the world before the truth finishes screwing its pants on.

Again, my point isn't to paint populist socialists as evildoers. There are no evildoers. Just mortals. Ignoramuses. Dumb and dumberer. The deaf leading the blind.

Just my curiosity being peaked by pious individuals committing ideologically driven profanities. Just another drive-by shooting in man-made paradise.
Cramer Says Recession Over

Looks like Obama has given up somewhat on morality-play economics
(i.e. the pursuit of fairness, social justice, and other hidebound
parochial populist nonsense) and turned (somewhat) to the real thing,
i.e. empiricism and ethics based economics (i.e. that what actually
works and makes the country a better place is ethical, regardless of
how immoral it appears to the shallow and fatuous glib Luddite). Thank
god. After the tedious distraction of medieval Islamofascism, the last
thing we need is another set of morons preoccupied with the pieties of
dark-ages thinking and repeating the antiquated errors of FDR and Wang
Mang (the latter a first century AD Chinese political progressive
(i.e. an anti-science pious economic conservative) who bankrupted the
Han economy with his own morality-play grand-idea based economics (ex:
he replaced the original currency format with a new one of 28
currencies; what a great idea! It's complex and abstruse. A work of
genius! It was like abandoning Copernicus for Ptolemy to explain the
solar system and calling one's detractors simpletons and
conservative-minded, when of course Ptolemy predates Copernicus and
Copernicus' system both worked and obeyed Occam's Razor, a rule of
thumb that possibly finds its greatest application in economics &
finance (two entirely different fields by the way; economics is to
finance as anthropology is to sociology). Much of economic
progressivism in fact predates capitalism by a couple of thousand
years and is in fact an attempt to complicate a simple system which
has been working better than any other for a thousand years now since
its inception in Europe care of the Catholic Church or in China during
the Sung Dynasty.

A simple thought experiment: were income gaps bigger or smaller prior
to capitalism? Smaller of course. The farther we move into the future,
the greater the gap becomes. Ergo the "progressive" demand for an end
to high executive salaries inter alia is not progressive but
conservative. Its a demand to return to the good old days when income
disparity was less. It's a demand made by a pack of economically
illiterate good ole' boys posing as futurists.

This sort of progressivism appears at times in all political parties
and of course always will.

Anyway, I found the following video at The Huffington Post whose
masthead might as well read: All the Ad hominems Fit to Print. Ignore
the bellicose comments below the article at the url below, as
opposition (principled or otherwise) to Dem talking points de jour is
typically interpreted by HP readers as treachery or the folly of the
useful idiot: failure to carry water renders one objectively an enemy
of the state-to-be. (And I'm fully familiar with the John
Stewart/Cramer circus)

I have no idea if Cramer is right about the economy, but if he's right
about Obama (who appears in three short clips) we can all breathe
easier. Somebody seems to have schooled him in Econ 101.

Cramer Huffing and Puffing over at Huff Post is here:

The past month's performance of the DOW is here: