Great listen: World in Words #114 on political language & Tucson

I've lost count how many times a story featured on the World in Words language podcast has shown up on my site, but it continues to be a thoughtfully produced weekly pod that clues me in to stories from the news that I might otherwise have missed. (It's produced by PRI and WGBH Boston, the people who produce The World, and hosted by Patrick Cox.) This week's podcast was on a story that is impossible to have missed, the shooting in Tucson, and political language surrounding it before and after the tragedy. But once again I learned a bit more, heard more debate on it, as the pod brought together some of the most interesting perspectives and soundbites that I've heard to date.

The whole controversy surrounding the use of the term "blood libel" in popular politics today--and especially since Sarah Palin's use of it in the aftermath of the shooting is discussed particularly well. Also stellar is the commentary on President Obama's remarks at the memorial service for the six victims of the Tucson shooting, and its comparison to President Clinton's similar position after the Oklahoma City bombing, and how their two approaches were distinctly different in their tone--Obama's lacking any politicized jabs at all.

Some of the most interesting stuff, the stuff I mentioned above, starts around 9:00, if you want to skip the first part (which is also interesting, on political language in a few European countries and how it differs!) and get to the best bits. Definitely worth a listen if you've got a few minutes. Patrick Cox pulled out some of the best discussion I've heard yet on the subject.

I land somewhat in the camp of supporting Palin's use of the term "blood libel," in that I see where she was trying to go with it. And some of the anti-Semetic backlash has been unnecessary. Even so, her entire video has some bizarre elements, which also confuse me. Making it, in my mind, all the more fascinating, given that I can see where the lines of contention fall between each side, and I understand both.

Anyway, listen.

[audio:http://betheink.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/WIWpodcast114.mp3|titles=World in Words Podcast #114]

America and nationality, a troubled love story

For a long time, leaders (and many citizens) saw the United States as a country of, and for, white people. This is clear in our treatment of Native Americans and our trampling of many of the contracts we drew with them, and obviously, in our treatment of African slaves who then developed an African-American identity long before they were seen as legal citizens. With the powerful, nearly mythological construct of their "Manifest Destiny" backing expansion, Americans blazed across the continent, reaching the West coast and declaring nearly all that land, save for a small portion for Natives, as theirs.

But when it came time to seek other pieces of the Americas, there was a marked reluctance and not nearly the same sense of a God-given right to any land. We like to think that this was our sensible side taking charge, smartly avoiding the mishaps of other more established imperial powers, like England and Spain, whose empires were waning, and we saw the utter hassle of maintaining that much territory. There is a bit of truth in that.

More compelling, however, is this uninterrupted notion of America as a republic for white citizens. The colonization of African Americans back to Africa lay on the table long enough in American policy history to stand as a solid example of just how incompatible some saw a United States that contained large minority groups; need we even mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese immigrants for twenty years upon its signing in 1882? (Asian immigrants weren't even allowed to earn citizenship until the 1940s.) We've had a treacherous, scarred, love-hate relationship with our immigrants, even while we became known as "the Melting Pot," but this relationship was especially acute when it came to annexing territories not contiguous to the North American continent.

Historian Eric Love argues that racism in the era of American imperialism was not used to support imperial annexation, harking on the "white man's burden," but was actually what anti-imperialists used against that cause. In the cases of Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) and the Philippines, large populations of non-white natives was a large deterrent in making these islands part of the United States. Alaska had no such trouble, as Americans could more easily see it as assimilating with the nation as it was. In the case of Hawaii, that far-flung acquisition, the islands were annexed after enough convincing was done in showing that a large number of whites already lived there, the natives were docile, and populations like the Portuguese were, for all intents and purposes, white already. Plus, they argued, we need to protect those whites already living there.

So whether the Unites States has sought the land that happens to be occupied by non-whites, or whether non-whites have showed up at our doorstep and requested residency here, determining the fine line between citizenship and race has never been easy.

I would like to take this further and consider this fickle, slippery past in terms of the notion of nationality and self-identity. As the twentieth century developed around what started a bit earlier, with the world's structure as all land drawn up and broken into nation-states, we added another layer of personal identification: nationality. Before that the world operated on a more local level, and people's lives were far more contingent on what township you were from than anything else. Also significant was the language you spoke.

Fast forward a hundred years past Americans' fixation with non-whites standing as majorities in any hypothetical new states, and we are still discussing the issue of assimilation and "American" identity, though with far less racist undertones and with more modern logic. (Check into Love's book for some juicy stuff on our imperial era and his argument, which breaks the conventional historical narrative. He backs up his gutsy point with solid research.)

Case in point: the controversy surrounding the hypothetical admittance of Puerto Rico as a state, which, with its current school system and organization, would be a Spanish-speaking state. Seem like we have the same qualms with this concept that we did a hundred years ago--not along the lines of race, but along the lines of cultural assimilation and American nationality; really, we're still very much talking about what it means to be American and what things you must inherently give up from your old country when you chose to reside in another.

Tim Schultz, a lobbyist with the group U.S. English, spoke to PRI corespondent Patrick Cox recently on this subject, in Cox's World in Words podcast (which shows up regularly here). He made some interesting points throughout the interview, but on the subject of Puerto Rico, all I kept thinking about was how much his statements harked back to the rationale of more than a century ago, when we could not fathom the idea of having non-whites and non-English speakers as a majority in any state in the United States. It would mean a completely new voice added to our national congress, which was abominable back then. But in 2010, Congress looks a bit different; so the issue today is not ethnicity as it is language--that hugely significant linguistic identity, and the problem of citizens whose primary language is Spanish as somehow bad for our country, and certainly bad for our national unity. Both of those notions are fraught with cracks, as the country's past can attest to: it's not had an easy relationship with its immigrants, but it need not be said that the immigrants who've fought their way in over the centuries have benefited our larger "identity."

To Schultz, it in unconscionable to have any American kids going through school never learning English, which he feels would be the case in Puerto Rico if it became a state. Under the current federal education laws, children have to take standardized tests in English within three years of entering into a public school in this country; this is an incentive for students from non-English family backgrounds to learn the language quickly. As a territory, Puerto Rico is exempt from that law, he points out, and he argues that this sets an unhealthy precedent were it to become a state. I have to pause here to wonder, if it did become a state, wouldn't that exemption be called into question? If Puerto Rico became a state, there would be many things about their now-standing status that would change--tax exemptions for one--and it is a bit premature to suggest that we would just overlook this language issue upon seriously admitting Puerto Rico as a state.

He cites their economic troubles as an incentive for Puerto Ricans to learn English if admitted. "They're going to fall completely behind economically," if they do become a Spanish-speaking state, he says. He argues this based on the fact that if incorporated now, it would be the poorest state by far. Again, these are far-reaching hypothetical issues, and I think many Puerto Ricans could argue against him on this, while still others would agree, and would certainly expand their English language skills. After all, as Schultz also says, there are immigrants and Hispanics who agree wholeheartedly in English as the language of the U.S.

The main resolution his organization seeks is ensuring that the incentives exist for immigrants to learn English. As he said to Cox: "English is more important for American now than it ever has been, because we live in a globalized, information-age economy. And we're all connected more than we ever [have been]," Schultz says. I would agree, and add that the incentives are quite similar no matter what country you're educated in.

If Spanish rises to a sort of co-official status with English, Schultz says later on, "It's not that everybody would suddenly become bilingual; it's that Spanish speakers would less and less need to learn English to survive in the United States, and that creates a sort of second mainstream, if you will, a sort of second linguistic mainstream, in which Spanish speakers would become, you know, doing worse economically, and frankly, probably a lot less likely to self identify as Americans."

There it is again, this pernicious, pervasive tendency to define things in terms of nationality, and national identity; the reality is, without veering too far into postmodernism here, that there are millions of Americans who identify themselves as such while also holding Chinese heritage, Mexican heritage, Indian heritage-- and for many, their appearances and family languages will ensure that those identities remain with them as well. The hyphenated nationality (Chinese-American, Italian-American, even African-American) is synonymous with being American, even when we're born and raised in the U.S. So it is a funny thing, nationality, and our preoccupation with it.

Location, Ecuador: When your first cinema experience is Avatar in 3D

Not intending to jump on the bandwagon of the Avatar-debating blogsphere, I have to bring up one interesting story from the global audience's experience. Early this year there was a special screening of the blockbuster movie in Ecuador for the Shuar and Achuar, indigenous minority groups in the nation. As reported on The World and in my favorite World in Words podcast, for many of these people, this was their first time ever visiting a movie theater and most certainly their first time for the strange 3D experience. Some had never seen a movie. After a 6-hour bus drive out of the Amazon and into the capital, Quito, the leaders of these groups took in the spectacle of a movie. For better or worse, it's pretty neat when a worldwide phenomenon can bring groups like these Ecuadorians into a theater to see for themselves what all the fuss is about. I suppose that's one measure of a pop culture success.

Echoing their real life, the film touched on issues that these people are dealing with in their real lives: a battle against mining companies for the protection of their land. Their Amazonian homes contain vast amounts of oil, and they have seen an uprising that one of the audience members directly related to the Na'vi resistance in Avatar. "It's reality, what's happening now, just in another dimension," says Marlin Santi, one leader, whose words are translated; he feels the film could help bring highlight the abuse in the real, through the film's mirror on humanity.

When we compare the film to real life, however, there is an important aspect that is not new to this story; Achuar leader Lius Vargas brought up possibly the most idealistic, unfortunate aspect of the film, that of a white man sweeping in to rescue the indigenous people, becoming the liaison and the savior. "This is a Hollywood movie, so it's practically a given that a non-native comes to the defense of the people, and leads them to triumph in the end," says Vargas.  The importance of a movie like this, or a book like Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, published in pieces in 1899 and as a book in 1902, is that they spotlight some of the horrors that come along with imperialism--which was an important and shocking story for regular people in the western world in Conrad's time (arguably not so much of a shocker now). But both Conrad's and James Cameron's stories have that white man savior, continuing, albeit in a slightly more socially and politically aware manner, the underlying superiority of the "civilized" man. This largely does nothing to dispel the whole idea of the "white man's burden," that notion that he must spread his enlightened ways and rescue the world from its perceived "darkness." This underlying theme was obvious to Vargas as he watched the movie.

OK, I hopped on the bandwagon for a second there, but I swear I'm back on the ground now. Love it or hate it, that movie encourages chatter.

Danger and escape along the Tumen River: North Korean refugees, the struggle to survive, and the effort to tell their story

Laura Ling and Euna Lee must have quite a story. What they have recently published, in the form of an Op/ed in the LA Times, is a brief explanation of their reason for being in that part of the world, and a narrative description of how and what happened when they were detained by North Korean forces.

Assisted by a Korean Chinese guide, they were doing research and conducting interviews near the Chinese-Korean border, along the Tumen River. They state in their explanation that they are neither prepared to discuss in detail their experiences as prisoners nor looking to take any attention away from the dire situation they were there to cover in the first place.

As both of the articles I have linked to will suggest, the "underground" crossing North Korean citizens are making to escape the totalitarian state is dangerous and heart-breaking-- and means either death or a life sentence in a labor camp if they are caught and deported. Ling and Lee were near the border where this journey begins when they were arrested, interviewing refugees and the people helping them escape in an effort to highlight their stories. It is a frightening reality to imagine that for just a 90-second stint on North Korean soil, these two American citizens were apprehended and subsequently sentenced to 12 years in a labor camp. This is a government that clearly has some issues, and seriously takes action against anyone trying to escape or trying to illuminate the situation.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.21.23 PMIt is important that these refugees' stories be told. In early 2009, I read an article about the dangerous crossing in National Geographic; the article also added the story of the trouble North Korean citizens have even after a safe settlement in, most often, South Korea. After thousands of miles traveling under-the-radar through China (the Chinese-North Korean border is still a much safer bet than the most heavily-guarded border in the world: between North and South Korea) down to Laos, they trek across mountains and finally reach Thailand-- where they can apply for asylum. Months and much paperwork later they can be granted a refugee's visa and are able to move to South Korea. (I am of course giving the ideal course of a refugee's story; many times, it is neither this smooth, quick, or simple.)

A refugee who has landed safely in South Korea, or maybe even one waiting on placement back in Thailand or China, still has cultural and linguistic barriers to overcome. These people have been living in a hermit society, speaking a somewhat archaic and nowhere near modern version of the Korean spoken by South Koreans. Down to the phrases and greetings used in everyday life, it can be a struggle for North Koreans to communicate with their Southern counterparts. Oftentimes looked down upon for their accents, it can be difficult for them to find good jobs in the South Korean job markets; sometimes they are not qualified educationally. Every day is a struggle.

Screen shot 2009-10-16 at 10.03.25 PMSince April, I have been donating $9 per month to the 9 Lives Campaign, through the organization LiNK (Liberty in North Korea). LiNK uses donations to assist refugees in language training, cultural adaptation, education, and job placement while they are settling into new lives in other countries around the world. The 9 Lives campaign in particular aims to end the 9 different violent and tragic lives that befall some of these North Koreans--including sex trafficking and child labor-- when they cannot find  any other work or are tricked by people who claim they can help them. There is additional tragedy in the fact that many of these people leave their families behind, with very little chance of seeing them again.

Journalists Ling and Lee have been making headlines since March 17 when they were arrested. But the more important story has been going on much, much longer.

I urge you to listen to PRI's The World in Words podcast from February 19, 2009: "Two Koreas divided by language," which takes the listener on a journey into North Korea, from the point of view of a Korean-American young woman who is granted permission to visit with her uncle and mother. Some of their family members were suddenly enemies when the line was drawn through the peninsula in the 1950s. She is quite aware, during her stay, that their lives could just as easily have been hers; her story is stunning, and highlights the Korean split in a starkly personal way.