(Coded) Messages in Bottles

As part of his continuing series on free speech in Asia, Timothy Garton Ash turns his attention to Burma–the land of military juntas and Aung San Suu Kyi–and points us to some deft work to get around its censors’ pen:

Thirteen years ago, editors of tiny magazines in dim, cramped offices showed me examples of the crudest precensorship by the authorities: individual phrases or whole pages had to be blanked out, or hastily replaced with advertisements. This was the age of the hidden message, of the Aesopian, with even an article on the proliferation of mosquitoes in Rangoon banned by the censors as suspected allegory. Sometimes, editors got away with little triumphs, like the November 2010 First Eleven magazine headline, in this soccer-mad country: “SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE.” First Eleven submitted this to the censors in black and white, but published it in multiple colors. The letters in bright red spelled out “SU…FREE…UNITE…&…ADVANCE TO GRAB THE HOPE….” Su—that is Aung San Suu Kyi—had just been released from house arrest. The captain was back.

This little bit of crypto-messaging reminded me of yet another cloaked message, in another context and country and age, pointed out by Christopher Hitchens:

In the year 1798, seeking to choke the influence of French and other revolutionary opinions in their own “backyard”, the British authorities jailed the radical Irish nationalist Arthur O’Connell. As he was being led away, O’Connell handed out a poem of his own composition that seemed to its readers like a meek act of contrition, and a repudiation of that fount of heresy, Thomas Paine:

I

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I prize above all earthly things;

I love my country; the king

Above all men his praise I sing:

The royal banners are displayed,

And may success the standard aid.

II

I fain would banish far from hence,

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

Confusion to his odious reign,

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

Of France, its liberties and laws!

If the reader has the patience to take the first line of the first stanza, then the first line of the second stanza, and then repeat the alternating process with the second, third and fourth lines of each, and so on, he or she will have no difficulty in writing out quite a different poem. (How much the British have suffered from their fatuous belief that the Irish are stupid!)

Such a construction yields, of course:

The pomp of courts and pride of kings

I fain would banish far from hence,

I prize above all earthly things;

The Rights of Man and Common Sense;

I love my country; the king

Confusion to his odious reign,

Above all men his praise I sing:

That foe to princes, Thomas Paine!

The royal banners are displayed,

Defeat and ruin seize the cause

And may success the standard aid.

Of France, its liberties and laws!

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