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:

The unfortunately realistic economics of the Hunger Games


One of the criticisms of the Hunger Games is that it’s not plausible that in a futuristic sci-fi world with extremely advanced technology, much of the population would still be on the edge of starvation. Matthew Yglesias argues that the extreme inequality between the Capital and the Districts is not only plausible but has actually existed and that Collins has identified how it would come about. He illustrates this by reference to the work of two economic historians:

Acemoglu and Robinson’s general theory can be grasped through the lens of the “reversal of fortune” they observe in the Western Hemisphere and originally described in an academic paper co-authored with Simon Johnson. If you plot per capita income in the Americas today, you see a clear pattern with the United States and Canada ahead, the southern cone around Chile and Argentina in second place, and the middle portion much poorer. It turns out that if you turn the clock back about 500 years, the pattern was reversed. The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.


District 12 is a quintessential extractive economy. It’s oriented around a coal mine, the kind of facility where unskilled labor can be highly productive in light of the value of the underlying commodity. In a free society, market competition for labor and union organizing would drive wages up. But instead the Capitol imposes a single purchaser of mine labor and offers subsistence wages. Emigration to other districts in search of better opportunities is banned, as is exploitation of the apparently bountiful resources of the surrounding forest. With the mass of Seam workers unable to earn a decent wage, even relatively privileged townsfolk have modest living standards. If mineworkers earned more money, the Mellark family bakery would have more customers and more incentive to invest in expanded operations. A growing service economy would grow up around the mine. But the extractive institutions keep the entire District in a state of poverty, despite the availability of advanced technology in the Capitol.


But Collins is right in line with the most depressing conclusion offered by Acemoglu and Robinson, namely that once extractive institutions are established they’re hard to get rid of. Africa’s modern states, they note, were created by European colonialists who set out to create extractive institutions to exploit the local population. The injustice of the situation led eventually to African mass resistance and the overthrow of colonial rule. But in almost every case, the new elite simply started running the same extractive institutions for their own benefit. The real battle turned out to have been over who ran the machinery of extraction, not its existence. And this, precisely, is the moral of Collins’ trilogy. [Spoiler alert: Ignore rest of this story if you haven’t finished the trilogy.] To defeat the Capitol’s authoritarian power requires the construction of a tightly regimented, extremely disciplined society in District 13. That District’s leaders are able to mobilize mass discontent with the Capitol into a rebellion, but this leads not to the destruction of the system but its decapitation. Despite the sincere best efforts of ordinary people to better their circumstances, the deep logic of extractive institutions is difficult to overcome, whether in contemporary Nigeria or in Panem.