What John Brown Doesn’t Understand About Language in the United States

Tehrangeles, San Fernando Valley, California (from Shahre Farang).

Perusing John Brown’s long-running blog on public diplomacy, I was jarred to find his crotchety rant about the minimalist linguistic antics of the young Americans he is forced to listen to on the Washington, D.C., Metro. He compared these inarticulate slobs baying into their iPhones, like — unfavorably? — to the crisp, articulate Croatians whom he taught, in English, during a recent detail to Dubrovnik.  Brown writes:

“It is also enchanting, while enjoying the privilege to give my course, to be blessed with hearing complete sentences, increasingly passé in America, coming from the mouths of twenties-something, even if uttered with an ‘accent.’ Moreover, the absence among my current English-speaking Dubrovnik students of uptalk, unfortunately still prevalent in the U.S., is equivalent to being spared of aural torture.”

Beyond an extraordinary contempt for young Americans who are still learning – some, apparently, in Brown’s charge – Brown demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of the nature of language both in the United States and in Europe that he views through a  prismatic Anglophone bias he proclaims to decry.

Brown apparently missed all the talk about dramatic demographic shifts in the United States that doomed the campaign of Mitt Romney, who not incidentally speaks excellent French. Brown does not list the languages he speaks, and presumably he speaks many, because he served two decades in the U.S. Foreign Service. But he may be forgiven for missing this huge demographic shift because 1) nobody talks about any of the linguistic implications regarding those demographics beyond the growing Latino population and 2) Brown is apparently only listening in on the Metro’s English conversations.

This eavesdropping is entirely self-selecting because English is the common, if not official, language of the United States. But Brown no longer knows his own country: on aggregate, 20 percent of Americans — that’s one in five — speak a language other than English in the home. The Census catalogs more than 300 languages spoken in this country; I’ve seen listed more than 400. After Spanish — whose speakers in this country alone outnumber Canadians — is Chinese (2.5 million speakers), Tagalog (1.5 million speakers), French (!) (1.4 million speakers), Vietnamese (1.2 million speakers), German (1.1 million speakers) and Korean (1.1 million speakers). I would assert that the United States is the most linguistically diverse country in the world.

The linguistic environment in Europe is the inverse of the United States, right down to the self-selection. The continent has long been linguistically diverse and has traded common languages over the centuries. Those Croatians Brown admires so much were entirely self-selected for their own benefit if not his — he entered the English-speaking classroom much as he would have entered an English-dubbed movie theater, because he could not have functioned, much less found his way there, otherwise. As much as the Croatians have achieved, his students are not typical of the population at large and I would suggest if he had traveled inland from the tourist-dominated Adriatic to Osijek or Vukovar he would find far less English proficiency.

The European aspiration of population migration, enabled by economic integration and by some lingua franca, is largely a myth. Beyond a limited elite — which I can attest from personal experience it is easy, again, to be deceived by a false self-selection — in fact there has been only modest economic migration across the European Union, with only about two percent of Europeans living outside their country of origin. (That’s a dramatic comparison to our 20 percent.) The primary language of European integration is English, and those who learn the language in reality generally flock to local, rather than international, capitals and locations.

Back in the United States, if it is the fact that the “80 percent” (to borrow a phrase, perhaps) do not speak a foreign language that Brown laments, that is far more a result of our educational system, which must balance practical demands with language-education for an English-speaking majority against the needs of a growing immigrant population of diverse linguistic background who also require education in the public language. Put it this way: ask any parent if they want their child to learn a second (or third!) language, they would definitely say yes. Informed that the best way to do this is to immerse them starting from pre-school, they would likely demur; skills in English for success in the United States  are far more important on balance than skills in another language — as Brown has made all too clear in his tirade about our youth’s facility with the language of Uncle Walt.

But at the same time, our language diversity is a natural boon for a country that still dominates the global economy and international trade, except our institutions don’t really know how to take advantage of it. We don’t have very many language schools and most programs are primarily structured to study and teach languages to those who don’t speak these languages. How do we take advantage of and enable those who speak the “strategic languages” needed in foreign commerce, intelligence, and diplomacy? The talent is there, but the institutions and resources are not prepared to absorb them. In my experience this is the grown-up version of the parents’ pre-school dilemma: in relation to virtually any other marketable skill, language will always lag. Companies and the government want primary skills and view languages as a side or additional benefit. Translators and interpreters can be hired as necessary. (I don’t agree, but that’s the way it is.)

Brown wouldn’t appear to know the advantages we enjoy or the challenges our native speakers of foreign languages face. Instead, he indulges in the kind of cheap cultural contempt for the United States common at the bottom of the political spectrum where the anti-American left and the cultural-warrior right often uneasily meet. Americans are a lot smarter, bigger, harder-working, and tolerant than most of the world gives us credit for, and it’s sad to see a practitioner of public diplomacy trafficking in these kinds of wholly unsubstantiated stereotypes.


How to Watch Propaganda

Certain parts of the blogosphere are atwitter about China’s announcement that it has commenced flight tests aboard its first commissioned aircraft carrier.  You can watch this five-minute newscast on the PLA Navy’s Liaoning from CCTV:

I’m personally less alarmed, and as this post will indicate far more skeptical of Chinese claims, than others by China’s growing military modernization. A single operational carrier of this type places China on par with other medium powers such as France, Great Britain, Brazil, Thailand, Spain, India and Italy, all of which deploy at least one carrier. Italy and Spain both have two. China wants two by 2015, four by 2020. That means one thing if China contributes to regional stability as it has off the coast of East Africa. It means something else if the country continues to squabble over rocks in the South China Sea.

Others are better suited to point out the strategic and operational significance of the new Chinese carrier.  Nonetheless, some background is required. China has long expressed a desire to develop an aircraft carrier and saw an opportunity when it bought the ex-Varyag, a former Soviet vessel built in the 1980s and transferred to Ukraine. Non-operational, essentially a hull, China bought it for $25 million in 1998 and hauled the hulk, harrowingly, from the Black Sea to China over the course of 2000 to 2002 for refitting during the next decade.

But I hold no ambivalence about China’s triumphant unveiling of their achievement: the bold television debut of the Liaoning‘s seaborne fighter squadron is a put-up job and a farce, more video aspiration of what the country would like to be very soon rather than what it actually is today.

And herein lies a lesson in real propaganda. A close viewing demonstrates how much mileage Central China Television (CCTV, the state-run broadcaster) could get out of so little real footage; how little of their naval hand they showed for all that bluster. Only someone with experience in naval affairs or video editing (hopefully both) can parse what’s really being seen — or more specifically, what’s being allowed to be seen — on the Liaoning.

At first glance — and especially if you don’t speak or read Mandarin Chinese, as I admit I don’t (but this isn’t nearly as important, remember, as what the video shows) — the ship is a dynamo. It’s shown underway at sea, then as a hive of activity with sailors scouring the flight deck. Then the aircraft: a J-15 (a carrier version of the J-11, and a Chinese copy of the Russian Sukhoi Su-33 carrier aircraft), approaches for the landing. Following that, another aircraft takes off from the flight deck, and then there is a lot of pirouetting of aircraft and flight personnel waving arms before the segment ends.

Let’s be clear about exactly what the viewer really sees.  Most of the long views of the Liaoning are of an empty flattop. At no time are there more than two aircraft on the flight deck. I am willing to assert that this newscast documents no more than one landing of one aircraft (#552) and one launch of another aircraft (#553). Cutting together footage of three cameras shooting the landing of a single aircraft can make it look as though multiple landings occurred. One sequence (shot of aircraft #552 I believe) is made to look like a launch, but the carrier deck is nowhere to be seen, so I think this was a shot of a flyby. I believe that aircraft #553 was likely preloaded for launch from shore. At no time do we see more of the ship below decks, use of the elevator, the hangar deck, or the air traffic control center (“the island”). We have no sense of how far the ship is out to sea. It’s quite possible the carrier is within sight of shore.

This fairly and in practical terms defines what I mean by propaganda. CCTV is China’s state-run television – there is no other media allowed in the country without censorship – and it is directed entirely for the benefit of the state. Although appearing to be fairly straightforward reporting about an advance in China’s naval arms, a frame-by-frame analysis demonstrates this is an artful exercise in falsification, fabrication and obfuscation. Although I can’t understand the narration (which, nonetheless, includes no interviews), a reasonable guess would include veiled or direct references to rivals in the Pacific Rim. And with that my definition would be complete.

To get another sense of how state-run media propagandizes, you can watch the entire, exhausting CCTV documentary on the Chinese Shenzhou manned space program produced and released with dubbing and subtitling in English.  It’s a feat that something as legitimately exciting as manned space exploration can be as dull as this series. But again it’s at least as revealing about the nature of state media and propaganda in a country like China to see what they release for the Western public. Of course nothing goes wrong, everything goes perfectly well (except the weather, which of course the Chinese meteorologists predict).   The taikonauts are China’s strongest and the best, their positive feelings never waiver. But in the end, virtually the entire “documentary” relating to the mission itself – including the launch sequence, flight and recovery – is computer-animated. It’s not like the producers didn’t have the time – this documentary is dated a full year after Shenzhou 7’s maiden flight. There’s no explanation except for the regime’s paranoia and instinct for secrecy.

This isn’t to claim China didn’t fly, just that there is far more the country wants to hide than it wants to share. An historical analog for this is the first Soyuz launch, which was organized in secret and caught the world by surprise.  Virtually the entire flight profile was hidden from the public until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To maintain the people’s faith, and to show strength to the rest of the world, no cracks in the façade of regime competence must show.

By contrast, the Mercury program inaugurated the American civilian space program in full daylight – in Tom Wolfe’s words, “the greatest death-defying hell-driver stunt ever broadcast” – and Neil Armstrong landed Eagle on the moon with a billion people watching on Earth. Even the U.S. Navy’s greatest recruitment ad ever produced, Top Gun, showed more launch-and-recovery operations than CCTV revealed from the Liaoning. The 1986 film’s plot hinged on some throwaway melodrama — the squadron’s best aviator loses his nerve after being lit up by an adversary — a kind of weakness impossible to imagine on Chinese television.

You can watch much of this on at least two CCTV channels contracted by Verizon cable at least in my region in the United States. RT has two channels on Verizon as well, one in English, the other in Spanish. Their offerings are about the same as each other.  Meanwhile, the Broadcasting Board of Governors has cut broadcasts to China and Russia, so they can’t even get unfiltered, bias-free, US-funded news broadcasting in those countries anymore.


The Subjective Political

Republican supporters console one another on election night in Las Vegas. (David Becker/Getty Images via The Guardian)

While virtually everything to be said about the recent presidential election has been said, it may help rein in the unseemly round of Democratic schadenfreude to suggest it wasn’t too long ago they were in the same position as the Republicans: specifically, that they went into the election convinced they would win and were genuinely shocked when they lost.

It’s not popular, and hardly analogous, to compare George W. Bush to Barack Obama, but the hostile partisan reactions to the incumbent were essentially the same. The policies of their first terms were considered so unpopular by the opposition party that they just had to lose, and all right-thinking, reasonable Americans would recognize this and limit him to one term. It was this sense of despair that the majority of Americans didn’t think the same way that really was palpable among Democrats in 2004 and Republicans this year — not just of real hopes dashed but that either they themselves or the American people had been somehow misled.

In the case of George W. Bush, it was about the war in Iraq. For Barack Obama, take your pick: the economy, the debt, immigration, etc. For those partisans opposing the incumbent, they felt that the question was so obvious — the weakness so clear — that any voter would have to side with them and vote him out of office.  But they didn’t.  Why?

Part of that may have something to do with swiftboating and the Rovian notion that most voters are already aware of the weaknesses of the candidates and vote based on some other interest. Certainly much of it has to do with how the campaigns are run, and how much money is involved. A firm Electoral College strategy helps narrow these issues down as well, too.  Iraq had a lot less of an impact in traditionally “red” states, particularly those with large military bases in 2004, for example, and Gov. Mitt Romney’s early dismissal of the GM rescue was death in Ohio this year.

But it also depends on how much Americans really care about these issues.  This leads me to a new exploration of what I haven’t discussed before about what we mean by “political“. When we use the term political, we’re often talking about the subjective, an ineffable balance of value we place on concerns of moral import. Not everything can be as important to us as others, without dismissing everything else.  This is the reason why we give to the charities we choose, volunteer for the organizations we do, and — ultimately — vote for the candidates we vote for. Not every candidate perfectly meets our checklist of priorities, but he or she is more likely to meet most of them, or get close to most of them, and more likely conforms to our values for the rest. Our political judgment thus rests on a subjectivity of value that is more subtle than simply ticking a box (although that’s what voting demands of us).

In this last election, which saw the quantitative methods in evaluating and assessing voter behavior elevated to a very high profile, it’s important to recognize that even these subjective (one is tempted to say analog) values can be captured with increasing digital detail and granularity. Much of this data is in the public domain, but far more — exponentially more — is captured by private firms and the major campaigns. This information is used to gauge and drive voter behavior. I’m not inclined to find that particularly sinister since marketeers derive billions in sales with essentially the same information, and consumers willingly part with this kind of information online through Facebook and with every Amazon purchase.

And it’s important to know that that subjective information is dynamic, fluid, and constantly changing. No better evidence of that is the fact that the top issue of the 2004 campaign was Iraq, while in 2012 it was the economy.  But, importantly, that’s not to say it necessarily effected the election outcome.

This is a very long and complicated way of saying that that people think differently about different things and hold different values about different things, and feel more strongly about those things than other people do. That’s obvious. But it’s worth repeating.  Because if we didn’t, we’d all be the same, and being different is what makes us human. Specifically to this discussion, we wouldn’t have politics without that difference, and politics is how we mediate those differences. We’ve learned from terrible experience that countries insisting that everyone is or should be the same become apolitical killing fields.


Winning the Long Game – Public Diplomacy, Public Opinion and the U.S. Elections

What winning looks like (MCT/ZUMA via Mother Jones)

Tuesday’s reelection of Barack Obama confirmed few people’s confidence in American democracy – least of which was the utter failure of $3 billion in “outsider” Super PAC money to effect the overall makeup of the federal government. But the election results did confirm the general accuracy of much-maligned public opinion polling which, with appropriate aggregation and correctly applied judgment, could accurately forecast much of the election results.


This brings me to the importance of international public opinion to public diplomacy practice. In many respects, public opinion is public diplomacy, or to be more precise, the entire point of public diplomacy: we engage with the public to change minds and mold opinion. We ask and check and monitor opinion through public opinion polling and surveys, both public and private, in order both to know what people think but also to determine how to change what they think.  It is impossible to think about public diplomacy without understanding and caring about public opinion, polling data and methodology in great detail.

This information does not exist in nearly the kind of depth and sequence that it does for something like a national race or for presidential approval ratings. For a national race, high-quality public tracking data can be produced on a weekly and sometimes daily basis. Information on presidential approval ratings can be produced on a monthly or weekly basis and on a variety of issues. This sort of information, about the United States and a variety of issues, is not available nearly as regularly, nor for as many countries, nor in as much depth.

But they do exist: GallupPew, and (to a lesser extent) the German Marshall Fund all produce regular, multi-national surveys of public opinion on a variety of issues. The data is fascinating and rich and worth spending quite a lot of time reading and absorbing.  Sinking down into the data, as I have, will demonstrate the astonishing diversity and dynamism of public opinion not just around the world, but within demographics, relating to the United States and on a variety of different issues.

But if public diplomacy is about affecting public opinion, then two ready questions come immediately to mind.  Why aren’t those in charge of public diplomacy held to account for the global public esteem of the United States? And, if they are, then why isn’t the public diplomacy apparatus organized and equipped better to change global public opinion?

I found these unanswered questions – or rather, the questions disconnected from solutions – during my time at NATO.  We were interested in public opinion but lacked the resources and tools to understand it in greater depth. We didn’t really know what we wanted people to know or think about us, other than generally to understand and support us.  And we had no real way to gauge how to resource that mission in any event.  I suspect the State Department is in a similar position.

It’s important to note there are imperfect comparisons between public diplomacy and an election campaign. There is no “vote” in public diplomacy, only a continuing series of referenda on U.S. foreign policy and our leaders. And there is little compromising on matters of national interest and prerogative and certainly none when it comes to those whom our people choose as our leaders.

If we told the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy that her job performance was contingent on public opinion ratings, that would certainly tighten her job description and focus her resources. (There are, for example, about 1,000 qualified public diplomacy officers in the State Department. The Pentagon has probably 10 times that number.)  It certainly argues for an organization within the State Department such as the U.S. Information Agency, whose dedicated mission is entirely focused on foreign publics. Unfortunately, it might also lead to the elimination of some of the more popular (and necessary) programs in the State Department, such as the Fulbright fellowships, that have long-term benefits for the United States but less immediate impact.  It might also lead to the accusation of propaganda, if not its outright activity.  Just as with the “air game” during an election at home, the obsession with public opinion may lead us to find an “easy way” to influence foreign “voters”.  An undue focus on public opinion could force our diplomats to succumb to these temptations, like studying to the test.

Perhaps we need to return to the recent election for another model for public diplomacy. It is becoming clear that the Obama campaign won the election through a gritty application of the ground game – a serious, methodical application of organization that found committed supporters and got them to the polls. There is something to be learned from that example. The ground game is also the best public diplomacy: building rapport, strengthening the organization, mobilizing allies, reaching out to the undecided. In the long game, it’s what wins.


The Problem of Propaganda

Hoang Nhat Thong (left) and Viet Khang (via http://www.nguoi-viet.com)

Last week, the Vietnamese government sentenced two musicians on the charge of “anti-state propaganda,” apparently the first case in recent memory that Hanoi imprisoned artists under the charge. But within the month the government put on trial three writers on the same charge of “anti-state propaganda,” so the accusation is clearly not a new one.  Vietnam is still a one-party state in the Chinese mold; while similarly opening up its economy, the government still maintains tight control over all communications and the arts.

The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.
This leads me to the particular charge of “anti-state propaganda,” an Orwellian construction which is common in Communist or post-Communist states such as Vietnam. It may seem peculiar to attack this particular epithet when the larger concern is for these artists’ and writers’ human rights. But when the charge for the “crime” involved includes the incendiary and imprecise word propaganda I think it is important to get involved in the semantics.The artists (pictured above) and writers were engaged in direct political protest against the state and it is important to assert, again, that is their right. Vietnam is a signatory to the United Nations Charter on Human Rights, which grants them the liberty to criticize their own government. Particularly in the United States, we enjoy exceptionally broad latitude to attack and criticize our government and our leaders, and it is important to remember that not everyone enjoys this freedom.

Propaganda, like terrorism, is one of those post-modern words that has been used so often by so many to have lost any concrete popular meaning. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t insist that it does have some real definition, especially when it is being abused to send people to prison by repressive governments.

We could begin by looking at its roots, which my Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary notes dates to the 17th century, when Pope Gregory XV instituted a committee of Cardinals called the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, or the congregation for the propagation of the faith. Commentators on propaganda often point to these origins and forget perhaps two critical aspects of the congregation. The first is the most obvious: the evangelical nature of the Church, which was dealing with the challenge of the Protestant Reformation at that time.

But most easily forgotten in our more secular age is the fact that even as late as the early 17th century the Catholic Church directly and indirectly ruled as a temporal power in Europe.  That is, the Church was a state.  This is important to my argument which will follow.

However, if you forget or choose to ignore that the Church was a state, then the roots of propaganda in state-mandated ideological propagation starts you on an entirely unproductive semantic path leading to today, when anybody or anything can be engaged in — or, more precisely, be accused of — propaganda.

It is distressing that the otherwise wholly moral scholarship of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which held a massive and disturbing exhibit for several years (ending in 2011) on Nazi propaganda, could not be more precise when it came to defining what propaganda is. Here is what they have on their exhibit web site:

“Scholars, journalists, and politicians have long argued about how to properly define propaganda and distinguish it from other forms of mass communication. Propaganda is biased information designed to shape public opinion and behavior.”

(Bold in the original.)  In this definition there may be lost on the visitor to the exhibit or the site an insight made by Hannah Arendt during one of the war crimes trials after World War II: this definition fails to take into account the particularly warped reality of the Third Reich. The Nazis not only controlled every aspect of communications, but every aspect of those communications were used to serve the state. “Bias,” in that context, doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how the Nazis approached propaganda.

But outside the Nazi context the definition could very easily be applied to any other form of “mass communication,” from legitimate advertising, to social marketing, to newspaper editorials, to political communications. “Bias” is the key word here. It is the essence of any practical choice we face, especially in politics.  More specifically, when we attempt to persuade the public on any important matter — childhood vaccination, for example — aren’t we engaged in an inherently biased activity? (Do we give opponents of vaccination equal time?)  Or to put this more precisely: I am sure those Vietnamese musicians and writers demonstrated ample bias in their attempt to shape domestic public opinion and behavior against the government. (If they didn’t before, I’m doubly sure they do now.) Does that justify their trial and imprisonment on charges of “anti-state propaganda”?

The Memorial isn’t alone in its imprecision. This site includes a standard list derived from a ground-breaking work from the Institute for Propaganda Analysis done in the 1930s.  It includes some of the usual suspects — bandwagoning, plain folks appeals, fear, testimonial — and provides some examples of propaganda that includes Enron, Newt Gingrich, the John Birch Society and the Office of Strategic Information.

All of this makes me extremely uneasy, mostly because you could apply most, if not all, of these critiques to a series of highly effective vaccination public service announcements that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a few years ago. (Unfortunately, my combination of key word searches failed to pull them up.) They featured a series (bandwagoning) of grandparents (plain folks) with their grandchildren on their knees, talking about (testimonial) what it was like when they were children, losing friends and family to the diseases that ravaged kids at that time (fear). But then there was hope (glittering generalities): vaccines were developed to protect children, vaccines that protect their own grandchildren.  Is this propaganda?

The other list includes only one government agency (the Pentagon’s Office of Strategic Information), with the possible exception of the Maoist International Movement which may be funded by the Chinese government. This, too, is disturbing. We may not like what Newt Gingrich has to say or the way he says it, but how does that make what he says propaganda?

This is the core of my argument and why I mentioned the crucial distinction that propaganda had its root in the Church as state. If a musician can be imprisoned for engaging in “anti-state propaganda” — and a definition provided by the Holocaust Memorial seems to support the government’s case, then our understanding of this word is corrupted.  Let me define propaganda down.

Propaganda is defined as:

Communications by a state or its directly control agents.

That deliberately and substantially distorts, misleads or lies,

Against a material or corporeal enemy.

There may be concerns about what we do about the “communications” of terrorist or quasi-state entities, or the lies that are admitted by political enemies. As with my argument about terrorism, we have other words for them. They are terrorists, or liars, or engage in libel or defamation. (Some of these are legal causes of action in their own right; propaganda is not.) These words may not be as satisfactory as propaganda, but we need to hold propaganda in reserve against those states that maintain a monopoly over communications to real effect — and, as we have seen with Hoang Nhat Thong and Viet Khang, to direct detrimental effect over individuals.

It goes without saying that these musicians and their writer cousins are not propagandists. But many in their country may not know anything else because only their government tells them what to think. We can change the way we think about what governments tell us, and the way we think about propaganda, and this is a good place to start.