The Dog that Didn’t Yell at the Top of its Lungs

The dust up about the Duke email about Chinese students speaking Chinese illustrates so much about US language policy that is deeply fucked up. People who understand language policy issues (or linguistics) are always hesitant to comment when this type of…. event happens. There’s a lot to go through so I’ll just list a few in no particular order.

*Many international students in US graduate programs have wildly unbalanced language skills. Here I’m reflecting on the time I spent working in a grad school administrative office where half a dozen foreign students stopped by every day. This is over twenty years ago but I don’t imagine things have changed that much. Many students (especially from East Asian countries) had excellent skills in reading and understanding technical texts that I had no hope of ever understanding. Nonetheless they had trouble understanding basic spoken American English and making themselves understood in return. Students from India had a different problem: They tended to be fluent in some type of Indian English (there’s more than one type) and could understand spoken American but Americans had trouble understanding them.

*Speaking one language syas nothing about one’s ability to speak another. The fact that some Chinese students speak to each other in Chinese doesn’t really say anything about their ability in English. It might be very highly developed and it might be pretty basic – there’s no way to diagnose that except by formal evaluation. Also, if their spoken skills are shaky speaking to each other in English is not likely to help much and actually could hurt (trust me on that one). Speaking to non-Chinese people in English (native speaker or not) will help but there’s no indication of whether they were doing that or not.

*Native speakers usually speak to each other in their own language. There’s nothing wrong or diabolical about that. Communication is like water – it seeks its own level. I’m fluent in Polish but if I’m talking to another native speaker (even one who also knows Polish) we’ll speak in English. Getting upset that Chinese students speak Chinese with each other seems incredibly… weird. It’s just weird.

*Americans have weird semi-religious ideas about English. Some of this comes from Britain and some of it is related to old melting pot ideas, but lots of Americans attitudes toward speaking English is not to distant from a Sunday School teacher’s attitudes toward praying and reading the Bible – you can never do enough of either. This is also why Americans get upset at things like ATM machines where Spanish is an option (by way of contrast, all ATM machines in Europe are multilingual and no one cares).

*Chinese people tend to be loud. Some years ago I was at a lecture given by a distinguished Polish Sinologist, who had devoted decades to understanding and teaching about and promoting Chinese culture, for which he had profound love and admiration. At one point he described a typical conversation between Chinese speakers as ‘straszny jazgot’ (an awful racket) clarifying that Chinese just spoke… louder than Poles (who tend to murmur in public) and if you want to study Chinese or go to China you just have to get used to it. Put Chinese and loud into google and look at the results for yourself. I think one of the issues at Duke just may have been the decibel level and a conversation with a couple of students about the idea of ‘indoor voices’ might have headed off the whole situation. IME once a couple of students from a particular country learn about some previously unknown rule of behavior word-of-mouth spreads very quickly.

*Nobody likes diversity. Everybody says they do and nobody really does (except when it comes to food). Real diversity means being surrounded by different languages all the time and conversational habits that alienate others. What most people want is a nicely color coordinated monoculture, but they think that sounds crude and so they lie to themselves and people around them by make warbling sounds about how great diversity is. Diversity is people from different cultures constantly pushing each others’ buttons forever. If you don’t want that then stop lying about it.

There’s more but that’s enough to start.

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Revealing Society….

Tragedy doesn’t create character, as the old saying goes, it reveals it. A couple of weeks ago Paweł Adamowicz the mayor of Gdańsk was stabbed while appearing on stage at a charity event and died the next day. A terrible incident like this raises a lot of questions and for me one of them relates to how Polish society reacts to such an event – and the answer is actually pretty encouraging.

The charity in question is Wielka Orkiestra Świątecznej Pomocy (most translations I’ve seen are awful so I’ll use my own – The Grand Orchestra of Holiday Helpers). The goal is to buy equipment for the underfunded Polish healthcare system, originally for childrens’ wards but over the years they’ve expanded to other areas. Money is raised by children and young teens with cannisters ssoliciting money and giving heart shaped stickers in return and celebrities donating things for special auctions. It culminates in a Grand Finale with concerts in the major cities. It dates back to the early 1990s (the first televized Grand Finale was in 1993). The charity is important far beyond the money raised as it was one of the first citizen initiative after the communist period – that is it wasn’t planned by the government or church but by private individuals who saw a problem and wanted to help.

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania świeczki dla adamowicz serduszko

In Poland even hearts can be political…

The current government has run something close to a subdued… strong dislike campaign against the charity and its frontman (Jerzy Owsiak, who also organizes a Polish Woodstock festival every year). This is mostly because they don’t like anything outside the church that they’re not in charge of. The church takes a neutral approach leaving it to local dioceses and priests whether to support it or not (some do… others don’t).

The killer in this case was a small time hood who was put in prison for robbing four banks and while in prison began deteriorating and was diagnosed with schizophrenia (and moved to a mental hospital). He was released in December, went off his meds and decided the previous ruling party (and not his ambition to be a gangster) was the cause of all his problems and after the stabbing announced over a microphone that he did it because Adamowicz belonged to the former ruling party (he hadn’t actually belonged to the party in question for a couple of years).

So to get back to the question of how has Polish society reacted.

As I mentioned, the reaction has mostly been in the direction of civic engagement. Even Owsiak’s political enemies toned down their rhetoric. Owsiak himself was horrified and demoralized by the murder and initially vowed to resign before overwhelming pressure from the public caused him to stay. People left candles in a giant heart design at the site of the murder and tens of thousands showed up at memorial services. One small-scaled private initiative “Paweł Adamowicz’s final collection” on facebook originally had the aim of raising 1000 zl (between 250-300 dollars) in his name for the charity and it quickly snowballed and by the time it ended had collected 16 million (over four million dollars). Also people have been conspicuous about wearing the heart shaped stickers (formerly they would take them off their jackets after a day or two now people still had them on two weeks later.

To understand the importance it’s important to contrast this with how public tragedy was met with immediately after the communist period. The three leitmotifs would be, in no particular order fatalistic cynicism (it just goes to show you….), personal victimization (it made me feel so bad! or you think that’s bad let me tell you about what happened to me!) and a search for the guilty so that the problem could be ignored (they’re to blame, it’s nothing to do with me!).

To be sure, all of these are still present but alongside the ongoing growth of civic awareness and citizen responsibility that was stunted during the socialist period. So the event has provoked a lot of discussion about the boundaries of civil discourse. As these things go the public manifestations of this new civic engagement will fade from public view but the fact that they appeared it what’s really important.

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Tuck You, Mother Tucker!

For a long time I’d heard of Tucker Carlson but had little idea who he was beyond a Fox commentator with a face for radio. Then I began seeing references to him in terms of the emerging national populist movement but still wasn’t that interested. Then I started hearing about a great monologue he did at the beginning of the year.

I’ve I’ve finally had a chance to listen to it.

The good is that it’s the single clearest statement of the discontents caused by neoliberalism. Some might say it longer, or better, or more academically or with more emotional force but it’s the single best introduction to the topic for general audiences that I’ve heard (I didn’t watch it I listened while doing other stuff which is my usual MO when the visuals aren’t critical).

The bad is that it won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already think that neoliberalism is a social (and moral) dead end that needs to be replaced (there’s no fixing it anymore than there was any way to fix Polish socialism in 1989). Neoliberal progressives will dredge up some sexist incident form 50 years ago or some racist public policy from 60 years ago  (and ignore the fact that Obama facilitated the largest transfer of wealth from working people to financial elites in the nation’s history). Neoliberal conservatives will cackle to themselves that they’ve got their jack and if you don’t then too bad for you (and dream of the glory days of Rush Limbaugh) and dream of war with Iran.

Tucker just isn’t charismatic enough to be the carrier of the message for a large audience (so…. no, no Tucker 2024 or 2020). It’s good as an info point for the intellectually curious or as a data point for those whose minds might be eventually changed.

A charismatic politician who knows how Washington works and who can think on his feet and isn’t encumbered by a massive ego could easily take this message to the White House. And I hope one does.





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Weird Old Guys

Was walking around with a friend who brightened up seeing a bar that was offering grzane wino (mulled wine).

“I was there with friends from work, they had Chartreuse, let’s go in and see!” he said.

I followed suspecting nothing. Then he started talking to the barmaid who looked to be in her 20s.

“I was here a couple of years ago” he began looking around. “There was a different name then and things were arranged differently, but maybe you still have Chartreuse?”

“Huht” she asked skeptically.

“It’s a French herbal liqueur…”

“No, we don’t have that” she said in that tone people reserve for the demented but probably harmless.

Outside I asked what he’d been thinking…

“I thought you meant you’d been there a couple of weeks ago, not a few years ago.”

“I thought they still might have it…” he said.

“Now we look like weird old guys who go around bothering young people with irrelevant stories while they try to look understanding while hoping we’ll just leave them alone.”

I work around people in their early 20s all the time and absolutely didn’t need to start the New Year with an outside reminder that I’m getting old…

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Learning by Listening to Haters

For a while now, I’ve been puzzled by my lingering affection for Family Guy. The first time I saw it, it seemed like a blatant Simpsons rip off and I ignored it untill about seven or eight years ago and then rapidly caught up with the whole series.

Interestingly I haven’t been able to stand the Simpsons for over a decade and long for the franchise’s death. The first 10 or so seasons were very good and often great and then… the long slide began into blahdom and I can’t even imagine watching it now and I don’t even want to watch the old good episodes anymore. But while the basic machinery of Family Guy is also worn and creaking and moaning and held together with scotch tape and spit I can still watch and enjoy it.

Don’t worry about him, he gets killed all the time.

It was while watching a youtube channel (a critic of animation who will remain uncited here) that it finally began to click. This critic hates the show with a passion and while watching some reviews of episodes he especially hates I got it. The critic is a normy and probably a millenial and is worried about things like characterization and continuity and plotting and so of course he hates Family Guy and so of course I don’t mind everything he hates because I’ve never watched the show in terms of plot or characterization (beyond the barest stereotypes) because that’s what it’s about.

More trickster hijinx.

For me, I know realize, Family Guy takes place in something like a suburban American Dream Time where nothing is permanent, real or unreal. Peter and Stewie are both Tricksters ruled by their momentary desires and engaging in wanton destruction (Peter and his fixation of the day or week or moment) and creation (Stewie and his inventions). The other characters play off these dual tricksters as antagonists (Lois) or sidekicks (Brian).

Znalezione obrazy dla zapytania peter griffin as pretty woman

Pretty Peter….

Seen this way the lack of continuity or plotting or consistence is not a fault but simply part of the medium just as the gross out or shock humor in the cutaways is part and parcel of the Trickster’s modus operandi (as is the frequent gender bending the two characters engage in).

I’m sure that no one intended Family Guy to become this type of show but it’s interesting that it has more or less on its own evolved into a mythic time setting with characters that never develop or change or learn. What’s interesting is how this can still work at the pure level of entertainment. Family Guy’s hardly great art (or even very good a lot of the time) but I’m glad I now understand a little better why I can still enjoy it.

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What Will the New Year Bring?

Ever since Hillary Clinton (who I actually supported at one time) lost to Donald Trump, political writing in the US has been getting more and more hysterical. The current focal point (after the long term nothingness of Russian collusion has bored everyone but zealots to death) is the ongoing series of caravans (I read a new one is just about to get started). There’s also the fact that the left is officially turning into a bunch of warmongering neocons. There’s more, but it’s all so wearisome…

Over here in Europe I increasingly have the impression that more and more countries are undergoing their own collective nervous breakdowns… Spain has been freaking me out with nihilistic films and tv shows that use the metaphor (Spain is a Death Trap!) and the UK keeps getting more and more unhinged about Brexit which should be a non-issue (give them a Norway or Switzerland like status and be done with it), and France has an ongoing citizen revolt (that hasn’t gone away even if the media is doing its best to not cover it). Germany seems relatively stable but is about to try to outsource its army and I don’t trust Merkel to gracefully leave office for a second.

I’m thinking that this isn’t healthy and more and more I’ve been having the idea that we’re building up to something…. I don’t know if it’s gonna blow in the next year or keep on simmering and maybe die down. The year 2019 could be a very wild ride… I’m hoping it settles down and people get a grip but I’m not super optimistic about that…

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A Tale of Two Victims…

After a number of misguided (Obama winning the Peace Prize?) or clearly publicity seeking (Dylan winning Literature?) Nobel awards, the Nobel Peace Prize this year was unusually well-deserved. The prize was awarded jointly to Nadia Murad and Dennis Mukwege, both of whom work in different ways, against sexual violence in the context of war.

What was very unusual was an almost total lack of coverage of Murad’s story by US (and more generally western?) feminists. I checked a few supposedly prominent sites and most made a perfunctory mention of it once or twice but there was nothing in depth. Nothing remotely comparing to the slavish and whimpering coverage given #metoo “it girl” Christine Blasey Ford who was maybe groped at a drunken party as a teen.

And that’s one reason for the disparity in coverage.

Murad’s family was killed, she was literally enslaved and sold as property and raped multiple times and forced to renounce her religion (since reclaimed) and wasn’t broken. Blasey… was groped at a drunken party as a teen and to hear he tell it the experience all but ruined her life. It ruined it so much that she could not speak of it without sounding like a frightened infant…

Another reason is, of course, cultural. Murad was brutalized by Muslim religious fanatics following their religious text to the letter (and was helped in her escape by Muslims who were not following their religious text to the letter). Like many western progressives, modern feminists are not prone to view non-westerners as moral agents and can only see Muslims in the west as victims of colonialism or other such nonsense and are all too happy to embraces powerful symbols of sexual coercion such as the hijab and niqab as liberating…. somehow.

The secondary fact that the mass sexual trauma endured by young Yazidi women led to a major change in Yazidi culture with survivors welcomed back as ‘holy women’ rather than expelled from the group as would have happened in the past. No modern Muslim culture displays anything like this type of dynamism, locked as it is, into dead end literal interpretations of the Koran and hadith.

In other words, Murad’s award makes highlights and makes obvious many things that modern feminists and progressives wish to not know; The real rape culture is not in the west but in places like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa; People in those countries are not helpless victims of colonialism but moral agents who at times choose unspeakable evil; Modern Islam is drenched in sexual coercion and violence; Western women have been led to be weak and wilting and dependent on others rather than strong and independent by third wave feminism and it’s micro-analysis of petty slights and discontents. I don’t blame them for trying to ignore her, the cognitive dissonance, should they allow themselves to perceive it would be far too great.

It’s so much easier to hashtag #metoo and keep the bad thoughts at bay.

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