Saturday, May 20, 2006


The Dinosaur Trap: From English Only to IraqNam

(Image used by a member of the US occupation in Iraq in e-mail) There are proposals to illegalize the use of languages other than English. These are based on Republican talking points that are even more feeble-minded than usual. More important, they represent a kind of hubris that is directly responsible for the post-war disaster in Iraq. Yes, the failure to plan for the occupation was disastrous. But as an important column at TomDispatch illustrates, there was a chance for success even after. That chance was squandered through American hubris. Even the good guys among our military suffer from it. Let's start with the easy stuff: disposing of English Only. Here are some of the Republican talking points (as presented by, say, David Limbaigh) and a simple response, which you can imagine emanating from Sparky the Penguin. 1. Talking point: A failure to enforce a common language leads inevitably to national suicide. Sparky: Yes, I can see that. Switzerland, with its three national languages, committed suicide in, when was it? Oh, that's right. It hasn't. But it will! 2. Talking point: Americans should speak only English, so that we'll all understand one another. Why, you go to McDonald's and you can barely order a hamburger, the accents are so thick! Sparky: Yes, I know what you mean about Southern accents. And of course, tourists from Paris and businessmen from Shanghai will oblige us by speaking English, rather than taking their money and their business elsewhere. 3. Talking Point: What's the point of having all these languages anyway? One language makes everything so much simpler. Sparky: Yes, I understand that Al Qaida is terrified by the idea that a bill to make Americans even more culturally/linguistically illiterate is racing through Congress. Language is part of what's called soft power. If you can persuade people to speak your language, you have an opportunity to capture them culturally, since they start reading your newspapers and listening to your TV shows. But it is pretty much a one-way street. People are attracted to wealth and success, not to poverty and stagnation. The English Only crowd is apparently afraid that Americans might be entranced by the lifestyle of the average Mexican. You know, wages a tenth those of the US, extensive opportunities for entrepreneurs in recycling, foreigners demanding you speak their language, and so on. As Sparky might say, "What's not to like?" My solution: free language tapes to help every person who wants to improve their English pronunciation. The arrogance of monoculturalism led us into Iraq, where we are dissipating every advantage that past generations labored to give us. Even the very best members of the armed forces seem to suffer from this hubris. I had an exchange with Major (now Lieutenant Colonel) Robert Bateman, familiar to Altercation readers. He told me that there are no good Iraqi engineers, that the US occupation played along with them, but that they did stupid, destructive things. I always wondered whether they weren't one step smarter than Major Bob and were acting on behalf of the insurgency. Reading Michael Schwartz on TomGram, that's very easy to believe: This rather comfortable portrait of the U.S. as a bumbling, even thoroughly incompetent giant overwhelmed by unexpected forces tearing Iraqi society apart is strikingly inaccurate: Most of the death, destruction, and disorganization in the country has, at least in its origins, been a direct consequence of U.S. efforts to forcibly institute an economic and social revolution, while using overwhelming force to suppress resistance to this project. Certainly, the insurgency, the ethno-religious jihadists, and the criminal gangs have all contributed to the descent of Iraqi cities and towns into chaos, but their roles have been secondary and in many cases reactive. The engine of deconstruction was -- and remains -- the U.S.-led occupation. He then cites a NYT article by James Glantz on repairing the Al Fatah pipeline: 1. The pipeline ran along a bridge, which was destroyed by American bombing. 2. The US decided not to rebuild the bridge, so the pipeline had to be put along an alternate route, costing much more. 3. The contractor, KBR, was warned that horizontal drilling in the unstable terrain would end in failure, but persisted. Separately, we can be reasonably certain that KBR refused to employ Iraqi labor, creating resentment and thereby making any pipeline an insurgent target. As Schwartz says: First, the American military fatally damaged existing, already weakened facilities and support systems. Second, inadequate reconstruction was proposed, and given to large, foreign (usually American) corporations that knew next to nothing about local conditions (and generally cared less). Third, reconstruction itself was sabotaged by the contractors' programmatic inefficiency and corruption, compounded by damage from the ongoing guerrilla war. Fourth, the money ran out, while the cost of finishing projects escalated well beyond original projections. Finally, ongoing destruction promises to erode further an already hopelessly compromised system. This is why clean water, electricity, and even gasoline are in such short supply in Iraq: because we Americans are so d--n smart. We are caught in the dinosaur trap called hubris. The way out is a little thing called humility.
The Republican-dominated Michigan legislature recently enacted a bill requiring all high-school students to study a foreign language (among other academic requirements). I wonder how many people who voted for that bill also voted for the bill that makes English the official language of Michigan?

I'm thinking this "English is Amurican!" spasm is similar to the spasm of anti-Communism that gave us "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, and that far from unifying us, it's going to cause the same divisiveness the theocratic Pledge does.
We are seeing the ghost of Willie Horton future in these Republican wedge issue issues. They can't run on their program because their program is wildly unpopular when exposed.

Someone once said that to win in Mass. politics all you had to do was get all of the haters together and appeal to them. Ironic, isn't it, that Republicans have had to look to the hated Commonwealth to find an electoral modle that works for them.

That we have to start fighting them harder and smarter is what I'm dedicated to until they are defeated.
Rabid nationalism only works when people feel that their identity is threatened by more successful outsiders. Times of war generally serve. According to our president, though, this is a time of shopping, not really of war.

A major reason for the existence of the Republican Party is Caucasians who fear being run by the lesser hordes. I suppose it's a reasonable fear considering how much overrunning they do themselves.
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