LANGUAGE AS THOUGHT: WATCH OUT FOR THE HYPE Judging from how the Times magazine’s excerpt from Guy Deutscher’s new book has been one of the most read pieces in the paper for over a week now, the book is on its way to libating readers ever eager for the seductive idea that people’s languages channel the way they think--that is, that grammar creates cultural outlooks. “Oooh-mmmm!” I heard in a room once when a linguist parenthetically suggested that the reason speakers of one Native American language have prefixes instead of words to indicate mixing, poking, and sucking on food is because they
Who cares whether one in five people think Barack Obama is a Muslim? Yes, that’s even more people than a couple of years ago, based on results from a Pew Research Center poll last week. But even so, though this misconception is a personal insult to a president many of us think warmly of, does it really matter? In the grand scheme of things? Because the grand scheme is what should be on our minds, not score-settling and mud-slinging in the present moment.
Not so long ago, all eight of the members of Congress being investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics were black. Now, two powerful black members of the Congressional Black Caucus are on the griddle. There are two entirely appropriate responses. One of them is to wonder if there is something racial going on. Yes, that is reasonable. Dismissals of this line of reasoning as mere “crying racism” are, in this case, hasty. Bloggers blithely listing white people who have fallen into the OCE’s line of sight as disproof of the racism charge are missing the point.
This week’s Big Story on race reminds me of Married With Children. Really. Not because of the NAACP’s role in the firing of the Agriculture Department’s Shirley Sherrod. Obviously, in the wake of their well-advised and masterfully civil demand that the Tea Partiers disavow racism officially, to them a video of a speech made to their own members by someone appearing to condone reverse racism was poison. Which would have made sense if that’s what the video showed. But it didn’t, especially when viewed in toto (but actually only barely even in the clip).
Much to my surprise, I’m with Benjamin Jealous of the NAACP on this Tea Party business this week. Jealous has called on the Tea Partiers to officially disavow the racists, such as there are, in the movement. I am pleased to see that he has been on good behavior—no melodrama, no exaggeration, no pretending it’s 1962 (which I read as one more sign that that style of race discussion is on the ropes). Complementing his call for the Tea Partiers to be explicit, he has been explicit in saying—admitting!
Jesse Jackson has never interested me much. I’m a little late out of the gate in commenting about Jackson’s latest diversion, analogizing LeBron James to a runaway slave in light of Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert’s sputtering about James’ departure to Miami. I’ve always been a little laggard in dogpiling on Jesse. When I first started writing about race, I quickly noted a certain cognitive dissonance: everybody expected the new cranky black “conservative” to have a Jesse obsession. I never did, and don’t now. He shouldn’t be news, really.
Most of the mainline reviews of Robert McCrum’s Globish – of which there have been so many so fast that I am in awe of his publicity people -- are missing what is fundamentally wrong with the book. Herewith one linguist’s take on this peculiar book, within which all evaluators seem to perceive a certain fuzziness, but few are catching that it is based on an outright error of reasoning and analysis – as well as an infelicitous volume of downright flubs. McCrum starts with the well-known fact that English is now the world’s de facto universal language.
I have held off on writing about Rand Paul’s take on the Civil Rights Act. Partly because I am finishing a book. But also because his idea that it shouldn’t have been made illegal for businesses, as private institutions, to discriminate strikes me as, oddly, both too interesting to sound off on without long-term reflection and too uninteresting to get excited about in the moment. Uninteresting because who among us really thinks that there will be a move any time soon to legalize segregation for American businesses?