Bits of Fun, Research

Mi dispiace; parlo italiano solo un po’

I am woefully, shamefully monolinguistic.

In spoken languages, anyway. I have some good solid Latin under my belt, and I used to be fairly proficient with American Sign Language (that skill has faded with disuse, but I’d love to regain it). When it comes to spoken languages, however… I’m pretty well useless.

I don’t have the ear for it, is the thing. And that’s a weird thing to say, as someone who has such an audiographic memory in English, and who prides herself on a certain facility with language. I took a year of French in high school (before switching to ASL), and I’ve been self-tutoring on Italian for about a year now. I can read both languages at a basic level — enough to pick up a newspaper and get the gist, enough to follow instructions. I can speak simple sentences quite slowly. But I have never trained my ear to hear other languages spoken at a normal speed. This embarrasses me. It’s something I’d like to rectify.

I recently spent four days traveling in France and Italy. Across France, really, to get myself to three days in Rome. And I was hellbent not to use English unless I absolutely had to. Armed with Google Translate, a willing attitude, and a charming smile, I set out to experience la citta eterna in its own voice.

This is an experience every English-speaking American should have.

I mean, not Rome, specifically, but traveling somewhere that English isn’t the dominant language and trying to behave accordingly — trying, at least, to get along in a language besides the native tongue that so much of the world now kowtows to.

Let’s face it; I was doing this with a safety net. Almost everyone you’re going to encounter in the high-travel parts of France and Italy speaks at least some English. If you really get screwed, you can find someone to help you in your own language. There’s security in that, and I genuinely don’t know if I’d yet be brave enough to go farther off the beaten path, where that net didn’t exist.

What I found, though, is how much wonderful benefit there is in allowing yourself some confusion and embarrassment. I didn’t want to use the safety net if I didn’t had to. So I buckled some solid phrases under my belt, looked up extra vocab where needed, and proceeded to stammer and gesture my way through.


I’m sure it was hideous. It certainly didn’t seem to take anyone very long to figure out that I’m an English speaker — although, strangely, a fair few guessed French before I opened my mouth — but many, very kindly, stuck to Italian when they realized I wanted to give it a try. It seemed to make a lot of people happy that I was giving it a go. I managed to get through a few transactions at restaurants and shops without resorting to English at all, and I felt so proud of myself — so stupidly proud, for managing fifteen or twenty words outside of my native language — but proud nonetheless. (I also started to get irritated at overhearing my fellow Americans who weren’t even trying. I mean, how hard is “grazie”?)

It can be unnerving, at first. I was most unsettled about my linguistic disadvantage when I was actively in-transit — getting across Paris from one train station to another, finding my way to dinner in Torino, navigating the Roman bus system. The rest of the time, though, I realized I could breathe a little and let the musicality of the Italian language wash over me. When I let go of the desire to understand perfectly, I found that I actually could pick out a word here or there. Perhaps, with greater immersion, I might actually get that skill I’ve always thought was beyond me — I might actually be able to tune my ear.

I sure hope that, even if I came off as “that stupid monolinguist American”, I also at least came off as “that pleasant American” and not “that jackass American”. I tried to approach every interaction with a slightly apologetic smile and a willingness to learn. I tried to bring myself as far along as I could, rather than expecting those I encountered to jump to where I was. It’s a humbling moment, to realize how many people have this experience on a daily basis — and how many of them do it without a safety net.

It’s also interesting to think about what it is that you get wrong. I’m terrible with prepositions, as it turns out. What must that sound like to a native speaker? What does it sound like to us, in English, when someone gets things wrong? And I’m interested in a scientific way about what errors people coming from different first languages make — are some cultures more prone to screwing up verb tenses than others? How about cadence? What was it about the errors made that made it so easy to identify me as una ragazza americana?

It’s the sort of thing, I think, that breeds empathy and compassion. Not just putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, but also thinking about how you get there. Too, thinking about how many concessions are still made for me, as an English-speaker, in so many non-English places.

So I urge you, my fellow native-English-speaking Americans, if you never have: Go abroad. Go somewhere that English is not the default language — even if it is still there as a safety net. Go somewhere where most of the conversations you hear will not be in English. Order a meal without using English. Ask for directions in another languagae, and try desperately to understand what you’re told. Get things wrong. Be corrected. Learn new words. Be laughed at a little. Blush a little. Apologize a little.

It’ll be good for you.

I think I might try Portugal next.


“Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity.”

Warning: Thoughts about politics, history, democracy, and danger lie ahead on this 4th of July, the 240th anniversary of American independence.

Thesis: We have confused civil liberties with civic governance.

A friend shared an article with me the other day featuring an interview with Chris Hayes on the ideas in his book, Twilight of the Elites, and their relation to the current Brexit crisis.

The first thing I noticed was that the article uses the term “elite” twenty-seven times without ever defining who or what, precisely, that meant. (Also worth considering is this piece from the Washington Post).

The problem with the word “elite” is it that it’s become the replacement slur that “liberal” was before the left reclaimed it. Who are “the elite” that the article lambasts? Government leaders? Banks? Corporate leaders? Heads of universities? Celebrity political dilettantes? It doesn’t much seem to matter — the word manages to conflate the intellectual, the financial, the corporate, the governing all together. Just say the word “elite” and anything that follows must be sensible.

It’s delightfully inspecific, and it allows demagogues to rouse populistic fury without actually having to define goals or have a plan. Just turn your furor on “the elite” and everything will be fine. And that’s how you get people to ignore what experts have to say about the economy, climate change, gun violence, whatever — demonize “the elite” through one lens, and you poison the populace’s view of, well, anyone who knows anything. That concerns me. It’s why I don’t feel I’m under any more obligation to respect the Leave camp’s Brexit decision as “the will of the people” than I was in 2006 when “the people” of Virginia voted against gay marriage. A bad decision is a bad decision, whether or not it has popular approval and whoever you’re blaming for the the conditions that drove that approval.

Willful ignorance is what’s currently driving politics here and in Europe — people who not only don’t know, but don’t want to know, are proud of not knowing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying that I want educated, thoughtful people capable of complex, divergent thinking in charge of the government. And I want an educated populace, where the majority of people have the creative and critical thinking skills to look at multiple prongs of an issue, synthesize information, and make a considered decision — that’s part of my entire philosophy as an educator — but that’s not what we (or the UK, or, it would seem, large swaths of Europe where neo-nationalism is surging) have. It’s what we should strive towards, but we fall far short of creating a society where it’s truly possible for all citizens. The championing of anti-intellectualism has triumphed to the point that people often (as studies have shown) vote against their best interests based on unexamined perceptions, and we’ve demonized changing your mind as “flip-flopping” such that many people are impervious to learning new information if they think it might contradict what they already “know”.

The problem with democracy — as politicians and philosophers alike have known for millennia — is that it only works if people are informed and engaged. That’s why we have a constitutional republic instead of direct democracy. Most people quite simply do not have the capacity to make decisions on a national or global scale. That doesn’t make them worthy of contempt, it shouldn’t infringe their civil liberties, it in no way devalues their humanity — but it probably does mean they shouldn’t be driving national and international policy. It’s odd that this is a potentially controversial view to take, and it reminds me (as so many things do) of a line from The West Wing: “A funny thing happened when the White House got demystified. The impression was left that anybody could do it.”

We don’t question that not everyone has the requisite skills, intellect, interest, and dedication to be a surgeon, a Supreme Court Justice, the inventor of new cybernetic technology, or a world-class poet or artist. But we’ve stopped asking those questions about our lawmakers. Why?

This is what led me to the thought that somehow we’ve confused civil liberties with civic governance — that expanding basic rights to more and more people somehow means that everyone is equally qualified to make world-changing decisions.

I wish our education system better prepared more people to make good decisions, but the UK has just showed us — as have the Republican primaries — why tyranny of the majority is a bad idea — particularly when the evidence shows that a staggering portion of that majority had literally no clue what they were voting on. I share the wariness of leaders throughout history who felt torn between a responsibility to the people’s voice and a responsibility to protect the people from themselves when they’re about to hurl themselves off a cliff. Should we listen to “the will of the people” when that will decimates the economy? When it ignores ecological perils? When it denies civil liberties to minorities? How about when it says we shouldn’t let members of a certain religion into our country? How about when it says we should round up racial minorities and “degenerates” and put them in camps?

Democracy has always been a dangerous sword to hold. There’s a lot of irony in that our own Founding Fathers were, of course, mostly members of the financial and/or cultural colonial elite, and even once-impoverished and oft-indebted immigrant Alexander Hamilton feared direct democracy, saying in 1788: “That a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government. Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure, deformity.” It’s a hard thing to grapple with, when you want to believe in the good of people… but know better than to give them total control. I suspect Alexis de Tocqueville would agree that the Brexit represents precisely the kind of tyranny of the majority that favors the sheer weight of numbers over the sense, rightness, or practicality of a situation. (de Tocqueville also believed that “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.” Make of that what you will).

In the information age, there’s almost no excuse for not educating oneself on major issues. A swipe of your fingers, and you can read both facts and opinions on almost any topic. (I do recognize that not everyone has internet access, but the majority of both Britons and Americans do — and certainly the ones crowing on social media about their allegiance to the Leave camp or the Trump campaign do). But there’s a dual problem here — not everyone has been given the critical thinking skills (a failure in our education system) to separate fact from fiction, or fact from opinion, or informed opinion from utter drivel, and, worse still, many people don’t want to seek out that information. Will, in fact, deny it when it’s put in front of their faces.

This is how we get not only science-blind phenomena like climate change deniers, but also the resurgence of tribalism and xenophobia — studies have shown that the more geographically isolated you are, the fewer different kinds of people you interact with, then the less likely you are to be capable of divergent thinking, to synthesize new ideas, and to empathize with people who are not like you. (And here we could get into arguments about gerrymandering and how reinforcing that urban-rural divide affects politics). A certain segment of society now has this perverse pride in ignorance, and it breeds further poor decisions — which in turn reinforce the ignorance and the destruction it causes. Our current system fosters incuriosity, such that, as news came out that many Britons voting Leave had had no earthly idea what they were voting about, I found myself thinking of the following scene from The West Wing:

JOSH: So, if we’re lucky, foreign aid’s going to be funded for another 90 days at 75 cents on the dollar. No one who’s ever said they wanted bipartisanship has ever meant it. But the people are speaking. Because 68% think we give too much in foreign aid, and 59% think it should be cut.

WILL: You like that stat?

JOSH: I do.

WILL: Why?

JOSH: Because 9% think it’s too high, and shouldn’t be cut! 9% of respondents could not fully get their arms around the question. There should be another box you can check for, “I have utterly no idea what you’re talking about. Please, God, don’t ask for my input.”

WILL: Why is foreign aid important?

JOSH: It fosters democracy.

WILL: There you go.

JOSH: [in British accent] Well, well played, young man. Very good, yes, yes.

WILL: I don’t know if you realized, but for a second there, you changed voices.

JOSH: Someone said, “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter.”

WILL: Churchill. He also said “Democracy is the worst form of government.”

JOSH: See.

WILL: “Except for all the others.”

JOSH: I know the end of the quote.

I don’t know how we solve this ouroboros of destruction. I believe education is the foundation of it, but it’s going to take something massive to break the chain of self-reinforcing political anti-intellectualism to make the massive changes to our educational system that will have to occur in order to get the educated, critically-thinking populace our republic deserves. Perhaps, as has often been the case in history, the system will have to catastrophically fail before it can be repaired. I hope not — but the historian in me is wary.

When Brexit happened, Editor Sarah pinged me on Facebook saying it made her think of the Optimates party in my book. I told her that the book hadn’t felt as on-the-nose politically when I started writing it several years ago as it does now. Based on the historical Optimates of Rome, these are “the elite” of Aven — the moneyed patricians whose way of life is dying, who oppose expansion and immigration, who disdain innovation, who object to the expansion of citizenship, and who overall want things to stay as they’ve always been — because, hey, it was good enough for our grandfathers, right? But the world isn’t the same as it was for their grandfathers. One of my protagonists is a Popularist, himself a member of that privileged patrician class, but one who — yet he still has to wrestle with the wisdom of letting the Aventan populace make choices for themselves versus setting himself up to make what he believes will be the best choices for them. He doesn’t want to be a demagogue. He wants to be idealistic, to think that people can and will work together for the common good — but he’s got a pragmatic streak that nibbles at the back of his mind. He wants to use his privilege to help people, but he has to make sure that doesn’t come off as condescending — or as bribery. He knows that a person’s birth does not bestow them with the necessary qualities to govern — but he knows that not everyone, of any class, is going to have those qualities, either. He’s lived under a tyrant, and does not want to become one himself — and yet can’t escape this feeling that if everyone just went along with his ideas, everything would function so much more smoothly and prosperously. Much of his arc, throughout all three books, is going to focus on what happens when he tries to balance those conflicting views.

I hope he has better luck than we’re currently having.

Every 4th of July, I watch 1776. I love that musical because it shows the Founders as so human — and it speaks to the compromise that always hounds democracy. How fast can we effect change? What do we have to give away in order to get part of what we want? (Questions that Lin-Manuel Miranda raises in Hamilton). But I also love it because it reminds me of what I really do believe — we can be great. This country has almost never lived up to its dream of itself, but I still so fervently believe that we could. The underpinnings are there. The drive is there. American independence is a beautiful, monstrous, strange beast.

What are we going to decide to do with it as it grows?