Learn a new language and get a new soul. - Czech Proverb
As an outsider looking at the Republican primaries, it always seems like the best thing we could hope for is the victory of the least obviously mad candidate.
He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own. – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The debate usually consists of talking about who they won’t shrink from bombing, what public services they will be happy to destroy, how many people they are prepared to deny healthcare and how far they are prepared to go along with fundamentalist christians. All of these are seen as good things.
This is par for the course, however last night I tweeted about something which was a new one for me. One of the candidates is being abused by another for knowing something.
Quelle horreur! Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney has been skewered in a new political attack ad – for speaking French.
The ad, released by rival Newt Gingrich, seeks to draw unflattering parallels between Mr Romney and another Massachusetts politician, John Kerry.
After decrying the former Massachusetts governor for backing government-mandated healthcare, taxpayer-funded abortions and raising taxes, the ad delivers the coup de grace.
“Massachusetts moderate Mitt Romney – he’ll say anything to win. Anything,” warns the narrator. “And just like John Kerry he speaks French, too.”
It is followed by a clip of Democratic Senator Kerry saying, “Laissez les bon temps rouler”, juxtaposed with another of Mr Romney saying, “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney.”
The idea that it makes you weak and stupid for knowing something is what will lead us back to “burning witches and dung for dinner” soon enough, and in fact there is a witch-hunter about to go on tour in the US.
The anti-intellectualism that is rampant in the US can in some senses be blamed on intellectuals themselves – perhaps in the field of science for example, some of the best and brightest should be coming out and refusing to use their brains to make the latest binnable christmas toy or refuse to, for example, design weapons for military. There are of course some heroic examples of this.
There was a recent debate about an article on the Pod Delusion podcast because someone suggested the money and brains going into the CERN project would be better used in disease control, medical science and green energy which would have a more direct effect in improving human quality of life, which is true. This provoked a lot of responses saying that many physics experiments have yielded unintended consequences that have benefitted humanity, such as brain scanners, which is also true.
Surely a good solution would be to start removing scientists from military endeavours and putting them into more progressive areas of research. It’s like the old saying “Don’t hate the government, make it the government you want” – what about “don’t hate science, make it the science you want”. One way to do this would be to attack the form of anti-intellectualism that we can see in the US primaries.
In the political field, when public intellectuals come along in the fields of politics and philosophy (Chomsky, Zizek, Finkelstein), many professors prefer to quietly snipe about them behind university doors instead of engaging in the public debate. Others are too frightened of losing their position to come out in support. But in politics as well as science, the general depiction of professors as stuffy old pedants allows what might otherwise be good advice to be dismissed out of hand as abstract irrelevance.
In the electoral sense, the anti-intellectualism seems to have gathered pace since mateyness was used to cover up for the intellectual deficencies of a certain Ronald Reagan. The Bush years certainly did nothing to ameliorate this.
It is clear that a decline in political and scientific awareness makes it easier to hoodwink the public. In the TV programme Yes, Minister, when Sir Humphrey said “If they (the public) don’t know what you are doing then they don’t know what you are doing wrong” he was talking about concealing information. Today it seems that it might be more apposite to replace the word “know” in the quote with the word “understand”.
For Les Americains involved in this electoral race, they might try to remember that a little linguistic dexterity can help you out from time to time. When the ridiculous decision was made to change the name of french fries on the whitehouse menu to freedom fries, the French ambassador was asked what she thought about it and is rumoured to have replied along the lines of “I think it is a sad reflection on a culture to take a concept as beautiful as freedom and attach it to something like a potato”.