September 29, 2008

Why Europeans are getting taller and taller-and Americans aren't

When Vincent van Gogh was thirty-one years old, in the fall of 1883, he travelled to the bleak moors of northern Holland and stayed at a tavern in the village of Stuifzand. The local countryside was hardly inhabited then—"Locus Deserta Atque ob Multos Paludes Invia," an old map called it: "A deserted and impenetrable place of many swamps"—but a few farmers and former convicts had managed to carve a living from it. They dug peat, brewed illegal gin, and placed poles across the marshes to navigate by. Any squatter who could keep his chimney smoking for a full year earned title to the land he cleared.

There is little record of what happened to van Gogh in Stuifzand—whether he got lost in the marshes or traded sketches for shots at the bar. When I visited the village, the locals mentioned him merely to illustrate an even greater national obsession: height. At the old tavern, which is now a private home, I was shown the tiny alcove where the painter probably slept. "It looks like it would fit only a child," J. W. Drukker, the current owner, told me. Then he and his wife, Joke (a common Dutch name, they explained, pronounced "Yoh-keh"), led me down the hall, to a sequence of pencil marks on a doorjamb. "My son, he is two metres," Joke told me, pointing to the topmost mark, six and a half feet from the floor. "His feet"—she held her hands about eighteen inches apart—"for waterskiing." Joke herself is six feet one, with blond tresses and shoulders like a Valkyrie. Drukker is six feet two.

September 16, 2008

Echo of Moscow

In the land of the Soviets, the voice of the Kremlin was everywhere, an omnipresent reality-via-radio that long preceded Orwell's dystopia. Lenin and Trotsky fomented revolution primarily in print—in the commanding editorials of Iskra and Pravda, in the frenzied leaflets passed around in St. Petersburg meeting halls and later reprinted in "Ten Days That Shook the World"—but the leading instrument of enculturation and inundation under Joseph Stalin was a broadcast technology called radio-tochka, literally "radio point," a primitive receiver with no dial and no choice. These cheap wood-framed devices were installed in apartments and hallways, on factory floors, in train stations and bus depots; they played in hospitals, nursing homes, and military barracks; they were nailed to poles in the fields of collective farms and blared along the beaches from the Baltic to the Sea of Okhotsk.

The radio day commenced at 6 A.M.

First, the Soviet anthem, then "Govorit Moskva . . ." ("Moscow speaking").

If someone in a communal apartment shut off the radio, he was considered suspect, defiant, a potential "enemy of the people." The broadcasts issued the edicts of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, announced the details of the Five-Year Plan, declared the latest triumph of the Soviet Army and the perfidies of the capitalist West. In addition to the news, there was classical music and readings of classical Russian literature, along with "radio meetings" of village workers and soldiers' mothers. The Soviet people rarely heard Stalin's actual voice—halting, dry, with a thick Georgian accent—but through the radio they absorbed his pronouncements, his view of culture and the world, his implicit message of paternalism and threat. It is hard to imagine now the totality of the instrument and the perverse imagination required to conceive it, but radio-tochka existed for decades, as present as water and electricity and twice as reliable. It was such a successful tool of propaganda that when, in 1942, Hitler visited occupied Ukraine he expressed his admiration for Stalin's methodology and bemoaned the fact that the German people were still listening to shortwave broadcasts from the BBC.

September 11, 2008

India: Banana democracy

The Olympics proved China is a dictatorship that achieves, Singur shows why India remains a curio to the world.

As coincidences go, Sunday, the 24th of August 2008 will always stay in mind as perhaps the most revealing. It made it clear to me, and to all who cared to notice, in a dramatic way and in the course of just one evening, why China shines so brightly despite being the world's largest dictatorship and India remains in the shadows despite being its largest democracy.

As the last fireworks were dying out in Beijing, at the end of a spectacular ceremony closing the 2008 Olympic Games, several thousand followers of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress were preparing to sleep out in the open on Durgapur Expressway at Singur, a national highway (NH2), having occupied it by force and closing it off to all traffic to launch a protest aimed at derailing the Tatas' Nano small car project.

There, in the heart of Beijing, the Bird's Nest heaved and swayed to the steps of thousands of dancing feet, and a Memory Tower rose toward the sky and burst into amazing colourful patterns in a staggering display of human synchronisation. Here, in Singur, Mamata strutted and fretted upon her dharna manch, seething in anger, wildly gesturing and screaming, as fans turned NH2 into a private preserve and the line of stalled inter-state trucks got longer and longer, throwing traffic over a large area into total disarray. Nobody bothered. The police stayed away for fear of stoking a major conflagration.