Police Intelligence: Linking Teaching, Practice and Research

By Dean Dabney & Richard Tewksbury, authors of Speaking Truth to Power: Confidential Informants and Police Investigations

This guest post is published as part of a series in relation to the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference occurring March 21 – 25 in Kansas City, MO. #ACJS2017

In the world of police intelligence the ideas of teaching, practice and research are all critically important for an integrated approach to one of the foundational activities that sets the gears of the criminal justice machine in motion. One powerful and increasingly relied upon component of the law enforcement toolkit for gathering of intelligence is the use of confidential informants. The practice is widely acknowledged but plagued by a dearth of research and teaching about the issue. When most Americans think of confidential informants (or, “snitches”) they immediately envision media-inspired/perpetuated stereotypes and images. Who are informants, how they work, with whom they work, and when, where and why the police employ informants are all issues about which people primarily “learn” via entertainment media. Are those images correct? Maybe, but maybe not. Unfortunately, we have a paucity of research about the topic.

In fact, unfortunately we have very little research on how police gather information, regardless of the means. As scholars we have done a good job examining how the police use information in investigations, prevention programs and solving crimes. But, how information is gathered is largely beyond the view of social scientists. This is especially crucial in the War on Drugs, where information gathering is critical for any and all of our “successes”.

This is because it is a secretive activity, and there is a need for such activities to be at least somewhat undercover for them to be effective. However, that argument can be made for many types of activities, by many types of actors – both inside and outside the criminal justice system. The fact is that we do have knowledge about all kinds of “hidden” aspects of many social activities. In fact, there is no reason we cannot, or should not, study these realms. The question becomes why we do not investigate police intelligence gathering more frequently and in more depth and detail?

The argument that scholars are “kept out” would be easy to make, and many can offer stories of their own efforts to gain access to data but being thwarted in their efforts. But, this is not to say that there is a police conspiracy to keep researchers out. As our own experiences showed, access, and even acceptance, inside the policing world is achievable. The key is to find the right “spot” for making entry. If we find receptive individuals and organizations and we approach the issue in an open and unbiased way, it can be done.

Scholars are not systematically and universally excluded from studying police and their activities from the inside. There are opportunities, but as scholars we need to seek, find and perhaps most importantly nurture relationships that can facilitate our ability to “see it from the inside”. How can we truly “see it from the inside”? In order to do so, we need to actually physically be inside, and then stay there. We need to actually talk to police, community members, and even offenders. We need to meet the people who do the gathering of information, and we need to see them actually do it. We need to understand how the experience feels, how it rewards and frustrates, and what can be done when unanticipated obstacles arise. In short, we need qualitative, ethnographic research on the topic.

The practice of law enforcement intelligence gathering and use of confidential informants is a practice that is common, valuable but severely lacking in research. Without research on the topic we also have nothing to teach about the topic, except for what is common in our entertainment media. In this way the issue of police intelligence and use of confidential informants is a prime example of the need to integrate teaching, practice and research. As we stand now without that integration – and without quality ethnographic investigations — we are left with no knowledge, and no promises of gaining knowledge to teach about a practice. Only with the dedication of pioneering scholars will we be able to overcome our dearth of knowledge and learn how to better manage our law enforcement practices.

See Dean Dabney at: ACJS’s Author Meets Critic Session
Wednesday, March 22nd
11:00 am to 12:15 pm
Muehlebach Tower: Floor Trianon Level – Lido

Moderator:
Rod Brunson, Rutgers University

Critics:
Scott Decker, Arizona State University
William Wells, Sam Houston State University


Dean A. Dabney is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Georgia State University.

Richard Tewksbury is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Louisville.

 


Save 40% with UC Press during the 2017 Academy of Criminal Justice Annual Meeting

The 2017 ACJS Annual Meeting meeting convenes March 21 – 25 in Kansas City, MO.

Visit Booth #300 to see the latest UC Press titles in Criminology, Criminal Justice, and Law and Society. Books focus on linking the teaching, practice, and research on issues such as incarceration, corrections, policing, gender, immigration, school to prison pipeline, and much more. Senior Editor Maura Roessner wiil be in attendance if you’d like to learn more about working with her to become a UC Press textbook author or reviewer.

Read the latest blog posts from our authors.

And save 40% online with discount code 16E6715, or request an exam copy for consideration to use in your upcoming classes. The discount code expires April 5, 2017.


Finding Women in the State

by Wang Zheng, author of Finding Women in the State: A Socialist Feminist Revolution in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1964

This is our final guest post published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Thank you for reading!

Hundreds and thousands of Chinese women from diverse backgrounds had joined the Communist Revolution between the early 1920s and late 1940s. Like many of their male comrades, many Communist women had died in battlefields or on execution grounds in their fight against the warlords, Japanese fascists, and Nationalist government. When the Chinese Communist Party won the civil war in 1949, there were five hundred and thirty thousands women members in the CCP who now became the state power holder. Except for a few books in English presenting portraits of Chinese Communist women who endured tremendous hardship in the vicissitudes of the revolutionary journey, these women who had been an important part of the epic of the Communist Revolution curiously vanished in scholarship examining the CCP’s leadership in building a socialist country.

Parallel to the absence of Communist women in scholarship in and outside China have been the dominant narratives of how the party-state did or did not liberate Chinese women. Accomplishments or failures in advancing women’s equal rights and social economic progress have been unfailingly attributed to a monolithic abstract entity – the party-state, a patriarch paradoxically adopting many pro-women policies in the socialist period. If feminist scholars in the English speaking world since the 1980s have shown logical coherence in criticizing the Chinese patriarchal state’s failure to fulfill its revolutionary promise of women’s liberation, scholars in post-socialist China have articulated many contradictory statements without historical research, from “Chinese women have been the most liberated in the world,” to “a crime of Maoist women’s liberation was to have masculinized Chinese women.”

Based on archival research and interviews of Communist women who were officials of the socialist state at various administrative levels, my book reveals the concealed and erased history of socialist state feminists’ endeavors to materialize their visions of socialist revolution. Continuing an anti-feudalist New Culture agenda, state feminists operated in diverse fields including the film industry to transform patriarchal cultural norms and promote gender equality laws, discourse, and practices. Their conscious combat against sexism in and outside the CCP constituted a contentious “gender line” of struggle within the power structure of the Party. Excavating a hidden feminist history in the Chinese socialist revolution, my book presents the first scholarly effort to investigate the high politics of the CCP and examines the demise of a socialist revolution from a gender perspective. I also raise critical questions of methodology in scholarship dealing with specific historical moments but without a historical approach.


Wang Zheng is Professor of Women’s Studies and History and Research Scientist at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Michigan. She is the author of Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories and the coeditor of From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, Translating Feminisms in China,  and Some of Us: Chinese Women Growing Up in the Mao Era.


Last Church Standing: Resisting Demolition in Ho Chi Minh City

by Erik Harms, author of Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in New Saigon

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

Since January of this year, Ho Chi Minh City residents and intellectuals have been increasingly rallying around the fate of the Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and the neighboring convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross. These architecturally and religiously significant structures currently face the prospect of demolition. The church, which still fills its pews with worshippers at its regular Sunday masses, and the convent, which is still home to an active congregation of nuns who have diligently maintained their historic buildings and grounds, both stand in the middle of a major urban redevelopment scheme called the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone. Surrounded by the rubble of mass eviction, the story of these religious structures provides a useful counterpoint to the story of more than 14,500 individual households who have been displaced by the project over the course of more than a decade.

 

Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and Convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, viewed from Ho Chi Minh City’s District One. Once surrounded by dense neighborhoods, all of which have been demolished, the church is itself threatened by demolition. Photo by Erik Harms. June 2016.

 

In 2010 the pace of eviction and demolition picked up rapidly in Thủ Thiêm as many residential areas were reduced to rubble. Photo by Erik Harms. September 2010.

 

The story of the Thủ Thiêm New Urban Zone is detailed in the recent UC Press book, Luxury and Rubble: Civility and Dispossession in the New Saigon. This new urban development, which is being built directly across the Saigon River from Ho Chi Minh City’s central commercial and shopping District, has been saddled with controversy. Throughout the project’s development, the biggest dispute surrounding its construction has swirled around the amount of compensation being offered to individual households who were asked to give up their homes and land to make way for the project. Luxury and Rubble details the ways in which the compensation process itself gradually drew residents into a largely monetized mode of negotiation with project authorities. This process, in turn, transformed how people in the area conceived of land and rights. Their negotiations over land-use rights framed their understanding of rights by focusing on “money and meters,” that is, how many square meters residents would be compensated for and how much money each square meter was deemed to be worth. In the process, evicted residents learned to fight for their right to receive just compensation based on market values. But in doing so, they also started to think of land primarily in terms of its monetary value, which in turn conflates the act of fighting for one’s rights with gaining the market-based value of land.

By contrast, the fight to preserve the Thủ Thiêm Catholic Church and the convent of the Lovers of the Holy Cross employs a very different idiom. Instead of focusing on the monetary value of the land, this fight is has been framed in terms of preserving the cultural and religious value of the structures. For example, in a post to its facebook page on January 12th, the Consulate General of Canada in Ho Chi Minh City posted the question: “Do you think it’s a good idea to demolish something that is even older than Canada?” In a follow-up post on January 25th, the consulate page noted: “Nearly 100% of comments made were in favour of integrating historic buildings such as the Thu Thiem Convent and Parish Church into new urban developments.”

The fact that the Thủ Thiêm church remains standing, while all the individual houses surrounding it have been demolished, makes it worth considering what strategies might be most successful in helping to resist eviction. In this case, resistance is most successful when it rejects the marketized idioms of land compensation and instead focuses on alternative idioms of justice that cannot be calculated in terms of money and meters.


Erik Harms is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Southeast Asia Studies at Yale University and the author of Saigon’s Edge: On the Margins of Ho Chi Minh City.

Luxury and Rubble is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.


Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene Call for Papers: Sustainability Transitions

We invite you to submit your next paper to the Sustainability Transitions domain of Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, a trans-disciplinary, open-access journal whose mission is Open Science for the Public Good.

Elementa publishes original research with the ultimate objective of accelerating scientific solutions to the challenges presented by this era of human impact. Structured into six distinct knowledge domains, the Sustainability Transitions domain welcomes contributions that advance knowledge on shifting society-environment interactions to sustainability — to a world in which human beings and other life flourish in diverse social and environmental contexts. A primary purpose of this domain is to bridge boundaries among disciplines, geographies, cultures, and institutions, and between scholars and practitioners; thus, we encourage submissions from scholars in the social and natural sciences and humanities, and practitioners, innovators, and leaders who are forging ahead with strategies to shift towards sustainability.

For the full Aims & Scope of the Sustainability Transitions domain, please click here.

In addition to innovative features including a value-sharing business model and an article-promotion partnership with Kudos, Elementa articles are highly used and downloaded (see highlighted articles below). For the full Elementa story, visit our website at elementascience.org.

For Elementa news and updates, be sure to follow along on Facebook and Twitter.

There has never been a more important time to ensure that transparent, evidence-based, peer-reviewed research has the widest and most impactful dissemination as possible. Please consider submitting your papers to Elementa or developing a Special Feature or Forum, and feel free to get in touch with Anne Kapuscinski, Dartmouth, Editor in Chief for Sustainability Transitions, should you have any questions.


Special Forums currently open for submissions

Multi-stakeholder initiatives for sustainable supply networks
Food-energy-water systems: Opportunities at the Nexus
Cuba’s agrifood system in transition
New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems

High-impact Sustainability Transitions content from Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene

(All metrics from March 15, 2017)

Carrying capacity of U.S. agricultural land: Ten diet scenarios
Peters CJ, Picardy J, Darrouzet-Nardi AF, Wilkins JL, Griffin TS, et al. 2016.
Total usage: 73,969 views/downloads since original publication on July 22, 2016

Farmer perceptions of climate change risk and associated on-farm management strategies in Vermont, northeastern United States
Rachel E. Schattman, David Conner, V. Ernesto Méndez
Total usage: 7,373 views/downloads since original publication on Oct 12, 2016

Opportunities for energy-water nexus management in the Middle East & North Africa
Farid AM, Lubega WN, Hickman WW. 2016.
Total usage: 6,043 views/downloads since original publication on Oct 26, 2016


Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory

By Valerie Stoker, author of Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory: Vyasatirtha, Hindu Sectarianism, and the Sixteenth-Century Vijayanagara Court

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

The fall of 2016 was an interesting time to publish a book on the relationship between religion, identity, and politics. As we know, the United States elected a president in November who ran on an openly Islamophobic platform and who, within the first weeks of his administration, has made dramatic changes to American immigration policy.

Trump’s election is part of a general 21st-century wave of resurgent nationalism, populism, militarism, and religious and ideological conflict that are responses to broader social and economic change. My book, Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory, looks at a time and place quite removed from our contemporary lives: the South Indian empire of Vijayanagara in the early 1500s. But, not unlike recent reality, this empire was marked by high levels of immigration, foreign trade, a rapidly changing economy, and new patterns of religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. Much as in today’s world, these changes generated both anxiety and opportunity. I wrote this book in part to elucidate how Vijayanagara’s leaders managed these changes and what impact this management had on traditional social units like Hindu monasteries. How did people understand the differences between themselves and others and how did the machinations of the state affect these processes of identity formation?

To explore these issues, my research focused on the relationship between the Vijayanagara Empire’s most famous king, Kṛṣṇadevarāya, and the Hindu monastic leader, Vyāsatīrtha. In the field of Indian religious history, Vyāsatīrtha is best known as a sectarian polemicist who wrote several texts devoted solely to criticizing the views of rival religious traditions. But my work shows that he was also an agent of the Vijayanagara state who worked closely with rival religious communities on projects that helped Kṛṣṇadevarāya expand the state’s functional apparatus. This type of collaboration between religious rivals, who were often also linguistically and regionally distinct, was something the Vijayanagara court actively patronized for many reasons. Such collaboration created cosmopolitan nodes throughout the empire that became hot-beds of economic activity as well as cultural and intellectual exchange. My book re-reads Vyāsatīrtha’s polemical works as an attempt, not solely to criticize other systems of thought, but to engage with them in order to clarify both the boundaries and commonalities between different religious traditions. I argue that this very clarity provided the basis for successful collaboration in daily life.

Thus, by creating a religious cosmopolitanism that was inextricably linked to a variety of practical endeavors, Kṛṣṇadevarāya and his agents shaped a social environment that not only avoided religiously based conflict but supported socio-economic mobility in highly diverse settings. Of course, not everyone flourished within this framework. Because the Vijayanagara court’s patronage was selective, it was also exclusive. And there was plenty of militarism in Vijayanagara statecraft, directed both at rival polities to the north and recalcitrant groups within the empire. Nevertheless, the approach of the sixteenth-century Vijayanagara court to ideological and other differences provides a striking contrast to today’s political rhetoric and reminds us of the value in studying India’s past.


Valerie Stoker is Associate Professor of South Asian Religions and Director of the Master of Humanities Program at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio.

Polemics and Patronage in the City of Victory is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.


The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

by Marcia Yonemoto, author of The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

During the final month of the bruising 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, Inoguchi Kuniko, a member of Japan’s parliament and former Minister of State for Gender Equality and Social Affairs, registered her disappointment at the coarseness of American political discourse, and remarked that “when the glass ceiling breaks, there are a lot of injuries that a woman must bear.”[1] This struck me as a valid but curious statement, coming as it did from a high-profile female member of the conservative wing of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and staunch ally of current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō. For despite the Abe government’s vigorous endorsement of “womenomics,” its policy program to increase the number of women elected to public office, in high managerial positions in business, and in positions of authority in public life in general, Japan is still far from reaching the government’s target goals—indeed, at least by the measures of the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, Japan is trending downward, not upward, in terms of resolving persistent gender inequality.[2] So in speaking about the danger of shattering glass ceilings, was Inoguchi simply expressing sympathy for then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton? Was she speaking from her own perspective as one of a spate of women cabinet ministers in the Abe government, many of whose terms in office were cut short by campaign-finance and other scandals? Or was she speaking in the abstract, ruminating perhaps not about when women in Japan break the glass ceiling, but if they ever will?

These particular questions can’t be answered with any certainty, but it is clear that roles and perceptions of women in Japanese public and private life continue to evolve, to raise questions, and to spark debate. I address very similar issues in my book, The Problem of Women in Early Modern Japan, except my focus is on women in the seventeenth through early nineteenth centuries. The book explores the challenges women encountered when trying to reconcile confining social norms with individual autonomy, obligations to others with desires of their own, and limited public authority with myriad forms of private power. While the early modern military state often has been viewed as authoritarian and oppressive, its social and political controls were far weaker than those enjoyed by state today. And while the government articulated cultural norms and ideals of propriety, it lacked the comprehensive authority to enforce them, and this allowed considerable latitude for women to learn, to work, to write, and to play in ways contemporary observers may find surprising.

[1] “U.S. Presidential Campaign Shocks Women Around Asia-Pacific,” Asahi Shinbun/Reuters, 10/20/2016.

[2] Japan’s overall ranking dropped from 101st out of 145 countries surveyed to 111th out of 144. By comparison, the United States’ overall ranking also went down between 2015 and 2016, dropping from 28th to 45th. See World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2015, accessed at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2015/ and World Economic Forum, The Global Gender Gap Report 2016, accessed at: http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/ . Other data, however, show some progress—a 2016 Cabinet Office poll showed that for the first time, a majority of Japanese adults (54.2%) believed that “women should continue working even after they have children.” Maiko Ito, “Majority for First Time Says Mothers Should Continue to Work,” Asahi Shinbun 11/14/2016, accessed at: http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201611140005.html


Marcia Yonemoto is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Mapping Early Modern Japan: Space, Place, and Culture in the Tokugawa Period (1603–1868).


State of Exception/Estado de Excepción Opens at Parsons School of Design NY

The multimedia exhibition State of Exception/Estado de Excepción, on display at New York’s Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at the Parsons School of Design through April 17th (check out the stellar review from Holland Cotter that appeared in March 3rd’s New York Times), presents traces of the human experience—objects left behind in the desert by undocumented migrants on their journey into the U.S. and other forms of data, all collected as part of the research of University of Michigan anthropologist Jason De León’s Undocumented Migration Project, as well as the basis for his 2015 book, The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.

De León sees the materials as fragments of a history, revealing death, trauma, and suffering on both sides of the border while bringing to light complexities of the migrant experience.

Above: Richard Barnes, The Things they Carried-Migrant Death Artifacts #5 / Colibri Foundation (used with permission)

This exhibition, created by artist/photographer Richard Barnes and artist/curator Amanda Krugliak in collaboration with anthropologist De León, includes an installation of hundreds of backpacks left behind by migrants crossing the Arizona desert as well as numerous pieces of clothing and ephemera, and video images created by Richard Barnes on location along the Mexico-United States border. The installation also includes excerpts of original recordings of audio interviews with migrants, all part of De León’s work.

Above: Richard Barnes, Backpacks collected by Jason De Léon’s Undocumented Migration Project at the University of Michigan

In the many years now since Jason De León and his team commenced this research, State of Exception/Estado de Excepción has continued to evolve, constantly updated to reflect De León’s findings, the ongoing public debate around immigration, as well as the continuous efforts towards immigration reform, and inevitable backlash.  Now, more than ever, in the aftermath of a presidential campaign that fed off anti-immigrant and xenophobic rhetoric, it is absolutely critical to look deeper into the migrant experience and raise questions as to what the future may hold for the thousands of people fleeing dire poverty, drug cartel violence, and political instability to the south.

Above: Richard Barnes, The Things they Carried-Migrant Death Artifacts #6 / Colibri Foundation (used with permission)

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 Jason De León is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and Director of the Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term anthropological study of clandestine border crossings between Mexico and the United States. His academic work has been featured in numerous media outlets, including National Public Radio, the New York Times Magazine, Al Jazeera magazine, The Huffington Post, and Vice magazine. In 2013, De León was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. His book The Land of Open Graves is the recipient of the 2016 Margaret Mead Award from the American Anthropological Association and the Society for Applied Anthropology.

 


Challenging the Notion of “Globalization” as a 21st Century Phenomenon

by George Dutton, author of A Vietnamese Moses: Philiphê Binh and the Geographies of Early Modern Catholicism

This guest post is published in conjunction with the Association for Asian Studies conference in Toronto. Check back regularly for new posts through the end of the conference on March 19th.

In the second decade of the twenty-first century it has become a truism that we have finally entered the era of the “globalized.” It takes little effort for historians to produce a wide range of evidence to suggest that this is not the case, and that the phenomenon of “globalization” is one found already in the ancient worlds. This is particularly true with respect to the various “world religions” that emerged between the 5th century BCE and the 7th century CE, each of which gradually, and occasionally rapidly, travelled to distant corners of the globe. A particularly good example is Roman Catholicism, whose initial spread was relatively modest, but which then took advantage of the sailing ships of the “Age of Discovery” to span the globe. Unlike the other world religions, Catholicism has developed an elaborated ecclesiastical hierarchy that reaches around the world with implications for local Christian communities.

Over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, agents of the Christian church reached the farthest corners of Asia and slowly built up communities of local Catholics. One of these groupings was founded in the coastal reaches of the Red River in the northern part of what is today Vietnam, and was then often called Tonkin. Initiated by Portuguese Jesuits, this community of Catholics grew to several hundred thousand in less than half a century. These mission fields soon drew the attention of other orders – Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, and secular mission societies – and priests from a range of nations – Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, among others.

The Christians in coastal Tonkin found themselves both served by the European priests that were in their midst, and profoundly shaped by ecclesiastical conflicts and decisions emanating from the Catholic centers of power in Rome and the Iberian Peninsula. While local Christians experienced a substantial measure of autonomy imparted by distance and the logistics of communication, they were still subject to church politics in Europe. Thus, the papal recall of all Jesuits priests in Tonkin in 1678 sent shockwaves through the community. The order to divide Tonkin into two vicariates that same year further shook the local Catholic communities, who found themselves now experiencing elements of their faith in ways shaped by differentiated approaches to ritual and emphasis. A century later the formal dissolution of the entire Jesuit Order in 1773 further rattled Tonkinese Catholics, now finding themselves subject to new ecclesiastical leadership whose dictates and expectations were often at variance with their long-standing traditions.

While those loyal to the deep rooted Portuguese Jesuit tradition defied their new overseers, this was not sustainable and in 1796 they dispatched one of their own, the recently ordained Vietnamese priest, Father Philiphê Binh, to Portugal on their behalf. This community understood the global forces of Catholicism, and the nuances of its politics. They became active participants in defense of their traditions and sending their emissary to Europe was an indication of their engagement in the church politics of the period. Vietnamese Catholics recognized, far more than most Vietnamese, the degree to which they themselves lived in an era of “globalization.” What happened beyond their borders in remote political capitals had profound and measurable impacts upon both their material and spiritual lives.

Father Binh’s emergence as a priest and representative of his community on a journey half way around the world to defend its spiritual traditions is the subject of my book. While in substantial measure it is the story of a particular man and the complex contours of his life, it is also very much a tale of the ways in which eighteenth-century religious globalization had profound repercussions for Catholics in Tonkin. It is thus a reminder that peoples in seemingly remote corners of the globe were already then active participants in a world where the reach of ideas and politics was no less extensive than in the twenty-first century, even if it travelled at the speed of sailing ships rather than fiber optics.


George E. Dutton is Professor of Vietnamese History in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures and Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A Vietnamese Moses is currently available as a free, open access eBook as part of our Luminos program. Read it online now.


Reinventing the Self—from Masks to Avatars

By James H. Johnson, author of Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic

“Man is least himself when he speaks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” Oscar Wilde’s quip is a fair description of how many view the mask: as freedom from constraints, a liberating truth-teller, the way to show who we really are. I had Wilde’s notion in mind when I first started thinking about writing a book on masks.  At least in the prosperous parts of the world, masks affirm what social mobility, abundant consumer choice, and technology make possible: perpetual reinvention of the self.

Writing about masks in Venice, I was powerfully reminded just how recent the freedom to reinvent ourselves actually is.  What did masks mean for people living in societies where you were born into a role that determined your fate? Where charting your own path was the exception and changing your identity was unheard of?

Venice was one of the most rigidly hierarchical states in Europe, and in the eighteenth-century it was awash in masks. We think of it as the capital of carnival—rightly so, with travelers from across the continent and around the world converging for its celebrations.  But Venetians also wore masks for six months out of the year, outside of the carnival season and for occasions that were far from festive.  They wore masks at formal receptions and state ceremonies, in public theaters and cafes, in the sprawling gambling hall, and, despite prohibitions, sometimes in church.

The Venetian mask—an unadorned piece of white waxed cardboard that extended to just below the nose—was an accepted article of clothing for over a century. Most of the time, it wasn’t meant to be secretive, mysterious, or provocative. Instead it was a way for this vastly unequal population living in close quarters to go about their daily business without the complicating protocols of rank and deference. Masks preserved a psychological space where physical distance was lacking. Of course they could hide identities, but their usefulness didn’t depend on anonymity.  Much of the time these neighbors recognized one another. They preserved and protected social roles by temporarily suspending them. For these reasons, they were conservative.

Since finishing Venice Incognito, I’ve been thinking about how other societies have seen in masks a version of their own ideals, fears, and illusions. For later writers and artists who probed the unconscious, for instance, the mask was an object of doom and fascination, a portal into the unknowable depths of the psyche. “Your soul is a choice landscape,” the poet Paul Verlaine wrote, “where masks and Bergamasks pass entrancing, / Playing lutes and dancing, slightly / Sad in their strange costumes.”

Today’s masks more often send us online than toward the murky landscape within. Our digital selves couple limitless masking with unprecedented visibility. The personal information we willingly share—a continuous account of what we’re buying, reading, eating, watching, and listening to—stands alongside a wider record of choices and habits that grows with every click. The audience for our digital identities is friends, family, and numberless strangers. It also includes the sophisticated software of marketers and political campaigns, with potential uses by employers, insurance carriers, and domestic surveillance bureaus.

Online visibility transforms the self into a fragmented, quantified, and unmoored series of data points. It may be that the thing we find so appealing about Oscar Wilde’s promise—that masks reveal the truth of the self—has begun to recede. The risk is that the self becomes its mask.


James H. Johnson is a cultural historian who writes and teaches on modern and early modern Europe at Boston University. His research includes eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, the history of Venice, and music history. His book Listening in Paris: A Cultural History received the American Historical Association’s 1995 Herbert Baxter Adams Award and the American Philosophical Society’s Jacques Barzun Prize while Venice Incognito: Masks in the Serene Republic received the American Historical Association’s 2011 George L. Mosse Award and Oscar Kenshur Book Prize.


Venice Incognito is now available in paperback. James H. Johnson will be in New Orleans, speaking at the New Orleans Museum of Art, March 24 at 6pm and at Octavia Books, March 25 at 6pm.