September 24, 2011
No More 'Sound[ing] Like Crazy People' - in Any LanguageBy James G. Wiles
"YIKES" was the headline yesterday on Bill Kristol's special editorial in the online edition of the Weekly Standard. Kristol was commenting on how the GOP presidential candidates presented themselves (and conservatism) in Thursday night's debate. "I'm watching my first debate," someone whom Bill Kristol described as a "bright young conservative," texted him, "and WE SOUND LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE!!!"
Methinks our young friend is overwrought. But he -- and Bill Kristol -- are on to something.
In effect, a circular firing squad has formed among the GOP candidates. Not good. You can blame the campaign consultants for that.
Ed Rollins's first rule of campaigning? "Always fire first." Bill Clinton's own evil genius, James Carville, famously said that "when your enemy is drowning, throw him an anvil." The Ragin' Cajun seems to like throwing anvils so much he just dropped one on his own guy.
The premise of scorched-earth campaigning is that politics is the continuation of war by other means. That is an unhealthy notion in the current volatile state of our politics. Journalism and the Net feed the frenzy, too.
"If it bleeds," the axiom on Fleet Street goes, "it leads." One thing the late Lee Atwater never asked was, "Can't we all just get along?"
It's time to recall Reagan's Eleventh Commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.
Circular firing squads help the other side. Maureen Dowd -- who loveth us not -- is Exhibit "A" for that. Dowd recently devoted an entire Sunday column to the proposition that Republicans are "the Stupid Party." She cited evidence, too.
Now, Maureen Dowd is living proof that even a broken clock is right twice a day. But, in this moment of conservative hope -- as the stern of the stricken ocean liner Barack Obama rises into the sky, conservatives would do well to do something Democrats don't do and police ourselves.
A good place to start would be some of the silly, intra-party stuff we saw going on this past week. Here in the Blogosphere, Governors Mitt Romney and John Huntsman (neither is my favorite) are being pilloried because -- gasp! -- they speak languages other than English. Actually, it's worse than that: Romney, you see, speaks French.
An old clip of Mitt Romney extending a bienvenue to volunteers at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics has gone viral. Romney, be it noted, came by his command of the language honorably. He did 30 months as a Mormon missionary in Bordeaux.
This belief that if you speak French, you're not a real American is an unwelcome legacy of the run-up to the Second Iraq War of 2003.
First, there was the smear of the French as a race of cowards and two-faced liars. In no time at all, the mocking references to "our friends the French" morphed into "cheese-eating surrender monkeys." Originating on The Simpsons, the phrase exploded into the political mainstream via Jonah Goldberg of National Review.
Then, during the debate in the U.N. Security Council, a New York Post front page featured a picture of German and French leaders shaking hands. Headline? AXIS OF WEASEL.
The fun didn't stop there.
Frites morphed into "freedom fries." America's #1 cable news program actually suggested boycotting all things French -- including wine. Talk about an Ugly American!
Philistinism and nativism are not, of course, something new in American history. Their survival, however, into the 21st century -- and their cropping up (and being tolerated) in the party of Abraham Lincoln, who successfully opposed the Know Nothings in Illinois -- should be unwelcome.
Even after Baghdad fell, the nonsense continued. During the 2004 presidential campaign, Rush Limbaugh habitually spoke of the "French-looking" Democratic candidate John Kerry. Senator Kerry, you see, is bilingual.
It worked. And the jokes -- helped immeasurably, it must be said, by former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn -- have never really stopped. The result was that when U.S. Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice -- who speaks both French and Russian -- traveled abroad on America's behalf, she was advised not to take or answer questions at press conferences in any language other than English.
How dumb is that? (In Canada, incidentally, national politicians are expected to demonstrate their bilingualism by speaking alternately in French and English.) This stuff needs to be stomped on, hard, every time it rears its ugly head. People who do this sort of thing, thinking it helps our side, fit Lenin's definition of "useful idiots."
A few facts about France, a nation I've never visited:
- The American Revolution would not have succeeded without French money, French arms and materiel, French troops, and the French Navy. If you count the sailors in Admiral DeGrasse's fleet, there were more French combatants at the Battle of Yorktown than there were Americans.
- Unlike Great Britain, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Italy, Japan, China, North Korea, North Vietnam, and Iraq (just to mention a few), France has never fought a war with the United States.
- Unlike Russia and the nations of its Soviet Empire, France never had a Cold War with us, either.
Of America's first seven presidents, only George Washington knew no foreign languages. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams all spoke French and served as American diplomats in Europe. Most also read or spoke additional languages -- including President Madison, who, although he didn't know French, knew Latin and Greek (as did both Adamses and Jefferson). Madison also did advanced study in Hebrew while at Princeton.
The majority of 19th-century American presidents knew Latin. Most also knew Greek.
In the 20th century, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR both spoke French. FDR, raised by foreign nannies, also spoke German. Cousin Teddy could only read German, although he knew it thoroughly.
Martin van Buren spoke Dutch as his first language.
So, if Mitt Romney wins the 2012 election, he'll be in good company. If John Huntsman wins, the former Utah governor will actually be the second American president to speak Mandarin Chinese. The first was Herbert Hoover, who learned it in China while working there as a mining engineer. Hoover also translated a Latin text on mining, De re metallica, into English.
Let that be the end of conservative Know Nothing-ism. We have better things to do.
And, by the way, Spanish -- the language in which the modern world's first great novels and plays were written and the imperial language (with Latin) of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (reigned 1519-1556), the ruler of the first global "empire on which the sun never set" (el imperio en el que nunca se pone el sol) -- was being spoken in over half of what's now the national territory of the United States when English was spoken only in England and parts of the so-called British Isles. The fact that English has, in our time, become the new Latin, the lingua franca of the First World and the soon-to-be First World (India, China, Latin America) and of educated people everywhere, is only one of the Anglosphere's achievements.
That feat was achieved without making English the official language of the United States.
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