Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Language of High Status Foreigners

This is a letter I wrote to a colleague some years ago who challenged me on two questions. First, he called me on my apparent lack of shame over not having full mastery of Japanese after so many years in Japan, a topic I deal with at greater length in How Come Your Japanese Isn’t Better than it is? (See under: My life in Japan). Then we differed over whether my attitude was worth studying as part of the greater picture of language attitudes, as a way of informing the sociolinguistic side of language acquisition. I said it was – if somebody wanted to undertake the task (I didn’t) – and he suggested such a study would only further add to the already overstuffed pile of studies on the language patterns of the elite.

For what it’s worth, here is my response.

… To get back to our conversation, I have no direct personal interest in justifying the failure of power-structure native speakers of English to learn Japanese. In my own case, I accept responsibility for my choices. I see them as choices. I could have, at several turns in my career in Japan, taken the time necessary – even the extended time it would have taken – to get my Japanese to the point where I became persuasive and able to keep up better. I have had other priorities all along. I like to say that had I known back in 1970 that I would be here in 2004 and beyond that I would have gotten serious about my Japanese, and I’m not lying. But the truth is I don’t have major regrets. I lived this life trajectory and none other, and I’ve always believed one has to work with what one’s got and that’s the end of it.

But that said, I think it is an interesting psycho- or sociolinguistic phenomenon that speakers of English, especially teachers of English, in Japan have an advantage which they cannot honestly be expected not to use. While some make choices to bear down and learn Japanese to a near-native degree, most don’t because they don’t have to to function at a high status level. I can’t tell you how many times – I trust is has been the same for you – people have made comparisons like “When I went to America, I had to learn English; when you come to Japan you should learn Japanese. There’s no difference.” I take that as pure bullshit. There is a major difference in that if they (we’re usually talking about students getting degrees in my experience) didn’t learn English well they’d get nowhere close to their goal, while my goals – being able to hold down a rewarding job and enjoy a wide circle of friends – do not depend on an analogous level of Japanese proficiency. The different contexts are the independent variables.

I don’t think you were questioning the fact, but it seemed to me as if you were making the case that there was nothing there worth studying. My argument is that wherever there is misunderstanding there is something worth studying. Wherever there is pragmatic difference there is something worth studying. It’s not at all a given that this is a tit-for-tat situation, this “in American we learn English; here you learn Japanese” argument.

We need to separate the personal from the social phenomena. On a personal level, I don’t believe I have a moral obligation to learn Japanese. If they discover that my Japanese is not up to their expectations, then they can jolly well change their expectations. I have made choices on the basis of self-interest, exactly as one does when one moves to an English-speaking country from Japan and chooses to participate in the goodies or not. “After all these years, the fact that your Japanese is only this good shows that you have no respect for Japan.” “You’re lazy.” “You have no right to expect people to use English; you’re in Japan. Here we use Japanese.” All these things I have heard more than once over the years. They’re all people’s opinions. They are not wrong. They are not right. They are opinions. And I have my responses. To the first anything between “Screw you, toots” and “I don’t design my life to satisfy cultural nationalists.” To the second, I respond, “Damn straight!” and to the third I respond “This is my planet; I speak any of its languages I’m able to choose from. If you don’t understand me it may be because you are not my intended audience.”

But on a sociolinguistic level, this is interesting. It’s even interesting that you should see it as a moral issue. This issue, like any issue in which the choice of attitudes and responses one particular speaker has laid out before him in a language use or language acquisition situation, makes a story. It may not be your story or a story you personally want to hear, but it’s a part of the bigger sociolinguistic picture.

When people look at social situations analytically they come up with “common sense” explanations. You know how often so-called common sense is nonsense. That’s what justifies social science research in the first place. This graduation thesis I have been working on lately takes questions the assumption that kids “learn languages naturally.” In fact, as my student was trying to demonstrate, it’s anything but natural. It’s jerky, problematic, and tied to all sorts of psychological distress. The study of her particular language acquisition trajectory is interesting because it makes the familiar strange, as Geertz suggested ought to be the goal of ethnography, along with making the strange familiar.

I question your statement that there are some things not worth studying and that you could be the judge of what was not worth studying. In principle, I can agree, but in the marketplace of ideas, I am loathe to assume the role of arbiter of those choices. There are tons of things that I don’t want to read about, that’s a given. And to me personally 99% of all the social science research I read isn’t worth as much as a sip of good wine, a roll in the hay, or a good night’s sleep afterwards. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth its weight in the bigger picture of how the world works.

I think wherever there are faulty assumptions made there is a field fertile for good social science research. I think you have allowed your ideology to interfere with an honest question. Why is it power structure people do bad things? It’s easy to wipe your hand across the surface and blame it all on class structure or some other package deal. But I think it’s worth somebody’s time to poke into the question of why it is English speakers use their status to remain inside an English-speaking cocoon, if that’s not making too much of the phenomenon. It’s not just a moral issue of the good people who put out the effort to be more open to the non-English-speaking world vs. the bad people who don’t; it’s also an issue of practicality, a line of least resistance like any other line of least resistance which explains behavior.

You’re not going to do it, and I’m not going to do it, but somebody ought to. Why you would oppose the idea I can’t understand. There is always the possibility of surprise. If I were a thesis advisor I might well say no to this project on the grounds there was much more inviting stuff out there. And I would have personal reservations, as I do (I share this with you more than you think, probably) with any power-structure research done by people with no apparent awareness of the privileged context in which they are working. But I would not call a halt to it, or even call it an unworthy pursuit if somebody went after it anyway.

There is something wrong with shutting down possibility. We do it all the time because of limited resources. But if the resources are there, whether it’s to send a spaceship to Mars or better understand dandruff, I think we ought to get behind the impulse to expand our human knowledge. In the field of sociolinguistics I think the language use patterns of power structure people ought to be seen neutrally and not dismissed on political grounds.

We ought never to let our politics limit our curiosity.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Gulf War Redux, Much Worse This Time

In Gulf War Primo, Halliburton and Co. and its chief executive, Bush Primo’s buddy Mr. Cheney, made out like bandits cleaning up the mess afterwards. Here we are in Gulf War Secundo and Bush Secundo’s buddy Mr. Cheney, now chief executive but one of whole U.S. of A., is about to make out like a bandit cleaning up the mess afterwards. Some people just can’t lose for winning. Perle looks like he's turning winning into losing when caught making $725,000 off of a deal thanks to his connection with the powerbrokers, but the fat lady hasn't sung on that one yet. Any bets on which side of Easy Street Perle will be on when the dust clears?

Other non-losers are the Congresspeople who voted for this war. Their sons and daughters are not going to die in Iraq. I believe only one of them even has a kid involved! But let's not go there; it's too class-divisive, to use the Bush spin on such topics.

With the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. took on the right to tell the rest of the Western Hemisphere how to conduct its affairs. Europe, stay out. In retrospect, you can’t really fault America for being so aggressive about keeping the Europeans out. They weren’t very nice guys in those days, and probably wouldn’t be today if they hadn’t lost their empires. I for one am not sorry the Europeans were forced to stay out, but if we focus on the Western Hemisphere and not the Eastern, we can see it was a colonialist decree, and one that benefited the Empire, not the colonies. Their "protection" translated into controlled economies and rule by U.S. big business thugs. It’s not surprising so much of Latin America still rages today against the Empire.

Now we’ve got a new doctrine with Bush's name on it, and we’re back in the Empire Building business bigger and better than ever. The hawks are now in complete charge and today we’re mighty enough not merely to dictate what goes on in Latin America; we can tell the Middle East they are going to be democratic whether they choose to be or not. If we have to kill a few of them in the process, that’s realpolitik. Can't make an omelet without cracking eggs.

Incidentally, did you ever hear Dave Barry's explanation of the Monroe Doctrine? It comes in three parts, he says. Part I - Everybody has to stay out of Latin America. Part II - That doesn't apply to the United States. Part III - ha ha ha. Why is it so hard for me to think the Bush doctrine of democracy by war is anything but a ha ha ha as well? Why does it continue to catch my attention that the chief executive of Halliburton is a heartbeat away from being the most powerful man in the world. Hell, he may already be the most powerful man in the world, if that look on Bush’s face is an indication of what’s going on inside.

Why is it Secundo gets to repeat the mantra that Saddam Hussein is a bad man (and we gotta git’im) because he used poison gas in Gulf War Primo? Why don’t people scream at him to shut up about that twisted line? He is a bad man, who's arguing with that? He did use the poison. But we gave it to him, for Christ’s sake, and when he used it we gave him some more! And we gave him 1.2 billion dollars U.S. in credit and loans to boot! AFTER he used it. Anthrax! For Christ’s sake, isn’t anybody paying attention? We gave the Iraqis anthrax (OK, not we – Bush Primo did). The Senate Banking Committee has all the documents if anybody wants to look at them.

Weapons of mass destruction, what about them? After he used what we call weapons of mass destruction, we sent somebody to Iraq (OK, not we – Reagan did) to reassure Saddam of unwavering U.S. support. Who got this Saddam-smooching job? Donald Rumsfeld. Now we are waiting for the Iraqis to use these weapons of mass destruction which we gave them or the poison gas which we gave them against us. We will then be justified in saying, "See, we had to go to war because they had poison gas and weapons of mass destruction."

Know the joke about mixed feelings? The one that goes "that's how you feel when your mother-in-law drives off a cliff in your new Mercedes?" That's what's going on here with WMDs. You want them not to be there, because that will prove Bush wrong and all the anti-war protesters right, a two-for-one win. Three-for-one, because it will save a zillion lives. But then America will suffer the rage of the rest of the world for decades for having started this war on a lie. OK, maybe not a lie, just bad judgment that got lots of people killed. And if they do have WMDs and use them, lots of people will get killed, but we'll be off the hook as the international Rogue State of the Century. As a red-blooded American how could you not want that? See what I mean about mixed feelings?

It’s disheartening to read websites from around the world suggesting that the U.S. is going to have to plant chemical weapons or WMDs around the country to justify their invasion of the country. Disheartening because the U.S. credibility in the world is at an all-time low. From beacon of democracy to liar in a single lifetime. I remember at the Army Language School when we read in our textbooks that 400,000 people had died in a single night in a pogrom in Russia. "How come I never heard about that?" I asked the professor, an old tired Menshevik. "Because it was only 40,000," he said. "The textbook writers added a zero because they wanted to make certain you didn't miss what bad guys the Communists were. I told them it would backfire!" Backfire it did. We all mumbled something like, "Oh! Only 40,000!" As if killing 40,000 people in one night were not enough of a horror."

Lying backfires. One of those ironies of ethics -- honesty has a practical side. We're going in because he has weapons of mass destruction. Because he will use gas. Because he isn't a nice guy. The reasons all blend into a single justification, one truth, one speculation, one to-date dubious contention. And how about the "piece of cake" argument. They're going to welcome us with open arms! They all hate Saddam and will come out with white flags and flowers. Apparently the CIA and the military are up in arms at that one. Why didn't they listen to our own CIA when they said, "Careful! After thirty years of living in terror, the Iraqis are likely to surrender to an invader only after they have had time to be completely convinced Saddam is dead, plus maybe some time to get used to what that means." Why did they listen to Iraqi dissidents instead of more credible sources? Could it be they listened, as power structures almost inevitably do, to those sources their power creates to tell them what they want to hear?

I do this too. I want a world where Iraqis choose their own government, hash out policy after reasoned debate where all sides get a chance to speak, get to use their oil wealth to provide every Iraqi who wants it a university education, every woman who wants it a career. I understand the reason so many people have not worked to stop this Bush gang. We don't call it wishful thinking; we call it hope. But it's the same thing, and shame on us, the little inner voice tells us, if we surrender to cynicism and give up on hope.

But hope has to be based on looking through plain glass lenses, not these secrets and lies that spew forth from this most secretive of government cabals. The inability to tell the story straight is as much a part of this administration's modus operandi as its black and white rhetoric. The rose-colored approach by the Bush administration or what looks today like his Propaganda Ministry, the American Broadcasting Corporation, is going to backfire. All these human interest stories about men going off to war and how cute their babies are back home, how much their mothers want them to be safe, etc. etc. It's all in a good cause -- to make sure we don't take out our rage on the troops. But it squelches the serious questions about the fact that war kills people, and that the crap about being able to do this all from a great height and not kill (American) people is a very dirty lie.

Remember Madeline Albright's gaff when asked about the death of hundreds of thousands of children, "I think it's a price worth paying," she said. Not a way to win friends and influence people. Neither is calling a war where hundreds of Iraqis die but few Americans a "sanitized" war. What about, though, the argument "More Iraqis would die if we don't go to war," as the war supporters say. That's a tougher one. Can't pretend to know about that one. I'll tell you what occurs to me, though. Are you all that sure that you are willing to take the risk and put yourself forward as the person with the right to determine eenie meenie miney mo, this Iraqi has to go, and not that one? We're having a hard moment. Rumsfeld says now the war plans are all General Frank's doing. Really? Didn't he say it was his plan last week when things were going well? Not a pretty picture, this finger pointing. I hope we can get back to winning again, so we can stop this in-house fighting.

Boots on the ground. Love it. Sounds so get-up-and-go. Is anybody paying any attention to the fact that it means the Rumsfeld idea that we can do this without dying in great numbers (except for those who die in great numbers) by dropping things from a great height is now "inoperative?" Now it's boots on the ground. Which translates as "Oops! Maybe I was wrong about that great height business." Get this show on the road, mop 'em up in notime. Well, maybe a couple o' days. OK, maybe a couple o' weeks. OK, maybe a couple o' months.

ABC and other voices of the administration are now going on about the Geneva Convention. The Iraqis are wrong to show pictures of American POWs. We're not wrong when we show Iraqis up close surrendering? And if we hadn’t classified prisoners at Guantanamo as "detainees" instead of soldiers in this "war on terror" we might be in for a bit of Geneva convention noise ourselves. Fortunately that’s the right of Empire, to do the color coding and supply the labels. The news today is that we are beginning to release some of these Guantanamo prisoners, the ones we have decided are clearly innocent of wrong-doing, people the Pakistanis gave us without proper investigation. Here it is, fourteen months later and eighteen "detainees" are going home. Well, not exactly. They’re being dumped on the streets of Kabul without a penny to their names, if the New York Times has the facts straight. Innocent people, we say. Interviewed twice in 14 months and retained-detained some more. No compensation. No way to eat. No way to get back to their homes in parts of Afghanistan or Pakistan we can’t control. Damn it guys, if you want to be the good guys, you gotta stop this shit!

I liked it a lot better when Americans admonished the bad guys about not following the Geneva Convention without hypocrisy. George Duo, George Do-it-to-me-Again believes the supply side economists when they say it’s a good idea to cut $726 billion in taxes, 50% of which will go to America’s richest 1%, because it’s good for the economy. That will give the other half $100 a year more money than they had before. Hell, better not let the democrats interfere here and try to pay for this war or we’ll never get the economy turned around or bring the Dow over 10,000 and the NASDAQ over 5000 or build democracy in Iraq and then Iran and then Syria and then Saudi Arabia and then do you wonder why one of the dumb shit protesters in San Francisco drank some red stuff some white stuff and some blue stuff so he could puke the American flag? Cheney makes billions no matter how the war goes. Rumsfeld fulfills Orwellian prophecy. And Wolfowitz, Molly Ivans tells us, is suggesting the Pentagon reverse its "past constraint" against having the president invoke the national security exemptions written into some environmental laws. Hell, we got a war to fight. Can’t worry about the environment now!

Will somebody tell me how such a gang as this got to run this show? Will somebody tell me when I can join the folk in the stands shouting, "U-S-A! U-S-A!" Is this what a mother feels like when her son turns out to be a wife-beater?

February 11, 2005