The best things I’ve read lately (08/03/2015)

Spock, Vietnam’s censors and vaccines

Following the tragic passing of Leonard Nimoy, Matthew Yglesias pays tribute to his iconic character:

Spock was not only a hero. He was a particular kind of hero. Someone the wrong kind of people would call a villain. I am always struck, as a longtime Star Trek fan, by the fact that many media figures seem to think it’s a dis on President Obama to compare him to Spock.

The ease with which some deride Spock makes him truly unusual for a television character. Spock is someone who some of us can eminently identify with, but also someone who others find so alien that they are compelled to castigate him. That, in turn, makes him a dozen times more relatable than a more conventional and universally admired hero.

Spock’s intelligence, bravery, courage, and good judgment don’t win him the universal admiration of his crewmates or of the world. But he did earn their respect, and over time he accomplished most of what he set out to do, from saving their ship, the Enterprise, to brokering peace with the Klingons, to aiding Romulan dissidents.

He was an archetype that was compelling enough to power not just five Star Trek shows, but countless characters in subsequent decades’ shows: from Rupert Giles in Buffy to Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Sherlock Holmes to Temperance Brennan in Bones to House’s Dr. House.

Over time, that turned Spock into something of a cliché. But he was an original in the 1960s, and Leonard Nimoy’s skill in defining the character helped define an entire genre of characters for generations to come.

A few years ago Thomas A. Bass wrote a biography of Pham Xuan An: a Vietnamese spy who while working undercover as a reporters for Reuters became one of the resistance’s most effective agents. Bass recounts what he had to cut in order to get the book published in Vietnam:

What did the censors cut from my book? Pham Xuan An is not allowed to “love” the United States or the time he spent studying journalism in California. He is allowed only to “understand” the United States. Removed were the names of exiled Vietnamese and their comments. Also removed was any criticism of China or mention of bribery, corruption or malfeasance on the part of public officials. Even Vo Nguyen Giap, the great general who led Vietnam to victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, was cut from the narrative, having fallen from favor before his death in 2013.

Known events were excised from Vietnamese history: the Gold Campaign of 1946, when Ho Chi Minh paid a large bribe to the Chinese to get them to retreat from north Vietnam; the failed land reform campaigns of the 1950s; the exodus of the “boat people” after 1975; the 1978 war in Cambodia; the 1979 border war against China. The nam tien, the historic southward march of the Viets, in which they worked their way down the Annamite Cordillera, occupying territory formerly held by Montagnards, Chams, Khmers and other “minority peoples,” was cut. An’s last wishes, that he be cremated and his ashes scattered in the Dong Nai River, disappeared. They were replaced by a scene describing his state funeral, with the eulogy delivered by the head of military intelligence.

There is also a long list of “errors” in the Hanoi translation, words that my Vietnamese editors have either genuinely or purposefully misunderstood, such as “ghost writer,” “betrayal,” “bribery,” “treachery,” “terrorism,” “torture,” “front organizations,” “ethnic minorities” and “reeducation camps.” The French are not allowed to have taught the Vietnamese anything. Nor are the Americans. Vietnam has never produced refugees; it only generates settlers. References to communism as a “failed god” were cut. An’s description of himself as having an American brain grafted onto a Vietnamese body was cut. In fact, all of his jokes were cut, not to mention his analysis of how the communists replaced Ngo Dinh Diem’s police state with a police state of their own. By the end of my book, entire pages of notes and sources had disappeared.

In fact, the most insidious changes occur at the level of language. An was born outside Saigon. He was a southerner. But the language of the south and other cultural terms were pruned from the text, replaced by the language of the northerners who overran Saigon in 1975. Censorship involves political control and the assertion of power, but in this case it also involves control of memory, history and language.

And my video of the week is Jimmy Kimmel taking on anti-vaccine: