Category Archives: Politics and Economics

Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Ivar Aasen?!

by Carrie Levesque

parlez-vous-quebecois-500I’ve always loved to study languages. I grew up in a bilingual area close to the Quebec border where a French dialect nearly unrecognizable to the French (and sometimes to the Quebecois from whom it derived) is widely spoken. In college I continued to study French, majored in Russian and took a few semesters of Spanish because I had a crush on the professor. As a graduate student in Slavic literatures, I studied Croatian for a summer in ultra-Catholic Zagreb, where the prize for the best language student was a large coin with a fetus on it (it was OK with me that I didn’t win). While I’ve met with many linguistic frustrations over the years (the Russian case system, French verb tenses) little in these experiences prepared me for the hot mess that is learning Norwegian as a foreigner in Norway.

A Norwegian to Norwegian translating dictionary.

A Norwegian-to-Norwegian translating dictionary. … No, really.

Because, you see, in Norway there is no standard spoken language. Norwegian literally has dialects without number, and there is no favored dialect. Your dialect is as good as mine. Mixing dialects: Also kosher. The Norwegian you learn in your Norwegian as a Second Language class is not the same Norwegian spoken on the street, and the Norwegian spoken on your street is different from the Norwegian spoken 50 miles down the road. In any Norwegian family one marries into, your spouse may speak a different dialect from his mother, who may speak a different dialect from her spouse. This is, of course, just a little inconvenient for non-native Norwegian speakers.

Back in the day, Danish was the standard written language of Norway. While the urban elite also spoke the same Danish they wrote, or a Norwegianized form of it, the isolated rural populations spoke dialects that evolved only gradually from Old Norse (Vikingspeak) to something more closely resembling the Dano-Norwegian spoken in the cities.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Norway was liberated from Danish rule in 1814, and as this was the era of Romantic Nationalism, establishing one’s own national language and culture was a primary concern. Norwegian linguist Knud Knudsen began to standardize a more fully Norwegianized form of written Danish into what is today called bokmål (literally, ‘book language’). Meanwhile, a self-taught country boy named Ivar Aasen (who, in my opinion, could not just leave well enough alone) traveled throughout Norway’s far-flung rural settlements, compiling many different spoken dialects into Norway’s other official written language, nynorsk, or “new Norwegian” (sometimes called ‘spynorsk’ (or ‘Pukewegian’) by bokmål devotees).

nei-til-nynorskAlthough only about 15% of Norwegian schoolchildren opt for nynorsk as their language of primary instruction today, all schoolchildren learn both languages in school since nynorsk is the official written language of many counties, especially in Western Norway. So while Bergen is a bokmål city and all of its official written business is done in bokmål, it is located in a nynorsk county, and so all institutions administered by the county (the hospitals, universities and high schools) issue communications in nynorsk. And this doesn’t cover what is spoken in Bergen, which is its own crazy something else. The shock and despair I felt when I learned all of this has since diminished, but it may be years before it ever fully leaves.

I heart NynorskFrom the start, people in Norway have been deeply, personally invested in whichever regional dialect of Norwegian they speak or write, so much so that to affect an easier-to-understand dialect—for the sake of, say, helping a foreign student of Norwegian understand them—feels so wrong that in such circumstances they prefer to speak English. While in Norway, unlike in the US, there is by and large no stigma attached to speaking a dialect, there is a stigma attached to speaking a dialect that is not your own.

Early on it was decided that since it was its dialects that kept Norwegian distinct from Danish, the equal status of all dialects must be preserved. This is not to say that people don’t make fun of each other’s dialects; there is lots of good-natured discussion around whose dialect is the ugliest. But, to give an example, teachers in school cannot correct their students for speaking a different dialect.

So linguistically egalitarian are the Norwegians that Norway’s major public television networks also produce programming in the language of the Sami, the indigenous population living mostly in the north of Norway. Though there are only 40-50,000 Sami in a total population of 5 million, every day they broadcast children’s shows and the evening news in Samisk (with Norwegian subtitles). That would be like American public television networks providing daily programming in Navajo or Cherokee. Hard to imagine that happening.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

It is interesting to imagine what things would be like in the US if we regarded all dialects equally, as the Norwegians do. While I don’t know a lot about the history of our most prominent dialects’ development, I think a lot of the stigma directed in some regions of the country toward certain dialects comes from the complicated and often ugly history framing, for example, Northerners’ prejudice toward Southern dialects, or whites’ prejudice toward Ebonics. How might it challenge us to do some serious thinking about these parts of our history if we learned to view as equally valid the different language patterns that grew out of this history?

“Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers[,]” as W. Wolfram and N. Schilling-Estes explain in American English: Dialects and Variation. What does the way a nation treats its speakers of certain dialects say about the values of that society? Because even if Ivar Aasen made my life more difficult by preserving and legitimizing the dialects spoken by many of Norway’s most disenfranchised citizens, I see the great value of his larger project and its enduring message. Everyone matters. And the tool we use to express our worth—our language—matters, too.

Brand Loyalty and Personal Identity

by Chris Metivier

This is not Christopher's haircut.

This is not Chris’ head.

I’m a traitor, a turncoat, a fence-jumper, and possibly having an identity crisis. Some of my friends feel betrayed, others feel like they’ve gained an ally, still others feel like they don’t know me anymore. I have mixed feelings of guilt, pride, defensiveness, and confusion. I don’t know if many of the people in my life will ever look at me the same way again. Certainly they won’t if they are looking at me in a recent selfie, since one of the advantages of my new life is that the front-facing camera on my new Android phone is much better than the one on my old iPhone.

I am a brand-betrayer. I’ve been “that Apple guy” for most of the last decade, an Apple evangelist even. I was an early adopter of the iPhone, and an apologist for it ever since. But no more. Now I’m an “Android phone guy”. Sure, I still use Apple computers (as well as a Windows computers, because they both have their advantages), but everyone knows that when you get a text message and pull out your handset that is simultaneously your connection to the rest of the world and a distraction from it, it’s either going to be an iPhone, or something else. People can tell a lot about you from your phone. They know how you operate, what’s important to you, what kind of person you are. They can tell whether you are a sophisticated, modern aficionado of contemporary industrial design, or a utilitarian, no-nonsense, all-business power-user.

Battle of the Brands.

Battle of the Brands.

People judge you on what kind of phone you use. I had no idea how much until I made the switch. As a member of team iPhone, I never noticed how much people believed in their iPhones. It seemed normal to me. Obviously iPhone is the superior device. I’m no fool, why would I have ever bought an inferior product? As one of these people, I had never been on the receiving end of the nose-wrinkling, smug disgust toward anything non-iPhone. Since becoming an iPhone outsider, I have been forced to wonder, have I been behaving that way all these years?

trusted-brandOf course I know, academically, that all this talk about judgment and character evaluation is superficial and not to be taken seriously. I even teach my business ethics students this very lesson. I use “consumerism” to indicate this kind of social behavior. I know “consumerism” is used lots of different ways in different contexts, but this is how I use it in that course. I’m covering that unit now, and just last week established the term. It works like this. Advertising comes in two flavors: transactional and branding. Transactional ads are ones that give you some information about some product or service. Branding ads don’t give you any information, but instead aim to change the way you feel about a brand. The danger of branding is that it asks you to identify with the values that a brand (ostensibly) represents. When lots of people internalize these brand values, they begin to understand themselves, their personal identity, through the brands that they buy. Their self-identity depends on their consumption. Hence, consumerism.

Here is an example that is both particularly easy to analyze and particularly relevant to my case.

PC -vs- Mac.

P.C. vs. Mac.

I’m sure you’ve seen one of the ads from this campaign, perhaps even a parody of it. It was, in terms of recognition, very successful. I often use it as an example in business ethics class. In it we see two characters who figuratively represent not just products, but brands. It’s important to notice that the two characters don’t represent specific products. The two options are Mac and PC. Not Mac and Windows, Mac and Dell, or something else. Apple has set up a dichotomy here between Mac and everything else. So you, the consumer, have exactly two options. Do you want to be like the hip, young, creative, relaxed, attractive Mac guy, or the stiff, nerdy, uptight, boring PC guy? The ad implies that there are “Mac people” and “PC people” and that they have personalities that can be identified by the products they use (or more importantly, buy).

apple-tat-girl-edWhen our culture becomes one (and it has) where people make purchasing decisions based not on the qualities of the products but on the whether or not they believe those products reflect the identity that they want to project, then it becomes a consumerist culture.

Let’s face it, all computers (and all smartphones) do pretty much the same stuff. When we decide which one to buy, it’s rarely based on the properties of the device itself. They just aren’t very different. Sure, you might be used to doing things one way or another, and it would be inconvenient to have to learn new methods for getting things done (another strategy companies use to create an artificial barrier to switching once you’re in), but certainly you don’t think so little of yourself that you believe you couldn’t learn. When you decide to buy a Mac instead of a PC, Apple hopes that it’s at least in part because you think of yourself as the kind of person who uses a Mac. That’s where brand loyalty comes from.

Coke or Pepsi?

Coke or Pepsi?

Sure you might come to believe that the product you chose is objectively superior, or that it will provide tangible benefits to you over the alternative. But those are ad hoc justifications for a decision you made based on how you felt about the product and what kind of person you want to be. Cognitive psychologists call it “confirmation bias” when we cherry-pick evidence to support the position that we’ve already adopted. As consumers, we don’t want to feel foolish for having bought an inferior product (I’m going to stick with the example of computers or smartphones), so we insist that our choice was the best in the face of criticism from those who happen to have bought a competing product for the same feelingsy reasons. And because none of us want to admit (or are maybe not even aware of) our underlying motivations, we get into esoteric fights about megapixels and gigahertz, or when these measurements are not on our side, we can use more abstract metrics like “user experience” or “software ecosystems.”

…which is a croc.

…which is a croc.

I’ve taught this lesson for years, and it never occurred to me until now that I was as guilty as anyone else. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and turn in my iPhone, to abandon the comfortable hegemony of Apple’s walled garden for the untamed, shifting Otherness of Google’s Android platform. I admit, I had a period of homesickness when I discovered that some of the conveniences I had enjoyed would take some work to reestablish.

"I've made a huge mistake."

“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

But on the whole, as I should have expected, my life has continued largely unchanged. I don’t regret my decision. And as I write this, it occurs to me that this shouldn’t even be a big deal. It wouldn’t be if consumerism wasn’t such a strong force, both internally and externally, in my life.

So I guess that’s the lesson, which I’m still learning. Consumerism is ubiquitous, insidious, and powerful. I’ve resisted the desire to detail the arguments I’ve heard in just the last few days for why my decision to change camps was either foolish or inspired, and to analyze all the ways in which these arguments are misguided, selfishly motivated, or just mean. I know my decision was neither a blunder nor an epiphany. It was an experiment. And it’s value in self-reflection alone was worth the price.

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Earth Day Is a Sham

by Matt McKinnon

1

I am very fond of the earth. I live here, and have now for almost five decades. It’s the only home I have ever known, and I plan on retiring here and someday giving back to the earth by, well, decomposing and becoming dirt.

Ashes to ashes and all that.

I also love to garden. I love the feel of dirt between my fingers: the rich, dark stardust that collected after the Big Bang and has nourished the origin and descent of our species, of all species, since the beginning of life.

In fact, my favorite part of gardening is not the planting, which is a close second. Or the harvesting, though I enjoy the fruits of my garden immeasurably. No, my favorite part is composting: Meticulously collecting all the bits and scraps from the kitchen as well as the garden to supply generous amounts of “greens” for nitrogen, shredding junk mail (and when I taught face-to-face, unclaimed papers) to add the proper amount of “browns” for carbon, assembling them all in my composter, and religiously turning and stirring to get the desired result of rich, black, humus.

2

The good stuff.

(The sweet smell of a properly-proportioned compost pile is actually quite intoxicating.)

So my favorite part of gardening is not just sticking my hands in the earth, but making it.

I have always loved the earth, literally, for as long as I can remember. One of my first memories is getting home from church on Easter Sunday, brightly arrayed in my new pastel-colored Easter suit, and making a mad dash for the dirt, new plastic bulldozer in hand to play in my beloved earth.

I must have been maybe five years old.

And all through my childhood the place my friends and I played most regularly was a lower, barren part of my neighbor’s backyard that we endearingly called “down in the dirt.” As in: “I’ll be back later mom; we’re going down in the dirt.”

And when my wife was a teacher, I would happily assist her in making the annual “Earth Day Cake,” complete with crushed Oreos and gummy worms. Not too dissimilar from the mud pies I used to make in my own backyard.

So it is with much pain and anguish that I proclaim Earth Day to be a sham. A fraud. A ruse. Perpetrated by both well-meaning environmentalists (like myself) and corporate interests with ulterior motives.

3

The problem, of course, is not the idea or intent: Celebrating the earth that sustains all that we are, as well as raising awareness of exactly what we humans are doing to our planet.

No, the problem is that Earth Day, far from being a rousing success, has actually been an abject failure.

Though this, of course, depends on how you look at it.

From a PR perspective (is there any other where public policy is concerned), Earth Day has been wildly successful. First proposed in 1969 by peace activist John McConnell to honor the earth as well as peace, and celebrated annually on April 22nd, Earth Day has grown from its initial celebration mostly in schools and colleges across the United States to become the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by some one billion people in over 192 countries.

But from a practical perspective, the movement has not had the desired effect of meaningfully arresting the manner in which we are still destroying the earth. Even more so than in 1970. Heck, it hasn’t even managed to convince most Americans that we are experiencing an ecological crisis.

Though perhaps it makes us feel better about it, at least one day a year.

And therein is the problem. Couched in terminology of honoring the earth, and even cleaning it up a bit, Earth Day domesticates what is arguably the greatest catastrophe to ever befall humanity: the impending collapse of an environment that is hospitable to human survival.

There have, of course, been other extinction events before—five in fact, with the largest being the “Great Dying” (or Permian-Triassic extinction event for all those biogeeks out there), some 252 million years ago, which resulted in the extinction of an estimated 90% of all species. The most famous, arguably, is the last major extinction, the Cretacious-Paleogene extinction event around 66 million years ago that resulted in the loss of 75% of all species, including everyone’s favorite—all those non-avian dinosaurs. This of course was followed by the rise of mammals (and birds) as the dominant land vertebrates. Which has ultimately led us to the precipice of a sixth extinction event.

4

Many scientists (PBS reports 70% of all biologists) predict that we are now in the beginning of another extinction event, the first (and probably last) ever to be caused by humans. (The same humans, incidentally, who celebrate Earth Day every year.) The result of this current extinction may compete in magnitude with the Great Dying, resulting in the extinction of nearly 90% of all living species. And potentially in a much quicker manner than the previous five extinction events of the past.

Of course, the data is not conclusive and the consensus is not unanimous, as it rarely is in science, or anything else for that matter.

But what is clear is that, regardless of what the population believes about “climate change” or “global warming,” we humans have polluted and destroyed parts of the earth to the extent that they may never recover—at least not in terms of being able to support life as we know it. (And by that I mean human life as well as those things that support human life.)

More so than the recent coal ash spills in our own neighborhood or the release of toxic chemicals in West Virginia, the oceans are perhaps the best example of how much humans have destroyed and are continuing to destroy the earth’s environment.

5

Floating islands of trash in the Pacific Gyre.

So let’s be clear in a manner that climate change or global warming cannot: the oceans are dying at an alarming rate. And by “dying” I don’t mean metaphorically. I mean literally. As in, studies suggest that all of the world’s corals may be extinct by the end of this century due to the acidification of the oceans caused mostly by the carbon dioxide emissions from human activity. And once the oceans die, well, human survival becomes more than a little tenuous.

And yet instead of debating what best to do about the great damage we have already caused to the earth, we are instead debating how to regulate fracking (if at all), whether to institute a “carbon tax,” and whether or not to build a pipeline from the oil sands in Canada to refineries in the United States. Rest assured: such debates are moot. For if we succeed in burning all of the oil available in those sands as well as the natural gas and coal we extract from the ground here in the US, then our fate is sealed. Along with that of anywhere upwards of 90% of the species who inhabit earth along with us.

6Oh, I almost forgot:

Have a Happy Earth Day.

 

The Hidden Cost of War

by Carrie Levesque

© Airborn Guy

A shadow of a soldier contemplating suicide (photo © Airborne Guy).

I haven’t been able to get the statistic out of my mind: 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. How can such a number not rattle us all? How would we respond if 22 teachers a day were committing suicide? Or doctors? Or police officers?

I think we would want answers. We would talk about this daily in our communities. We would seek action. Do we? Are we?

Not including veterans.

…and that’s not including veterans.

At this rate, every four and a half months, veteran suicides exceed the death toll from 9/11, the event that triggered our two most recent wars. What will it take to get the same leave-no-stone-unturned, spare-no-expense commitment from our government to address this tragedy?

It’s important to clarify that the numbers on military suicides are not easy to interpret. With PTSD so much in the news due to the recent shootings, it’s easy to assume that most of these cases are those recently traumatized by their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A soldier in Iraq.

A soldier in Iraq.

Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), 69% of veterans who have committed suicide are over 50, and have presumably been out of the military for some time. According to the LA Times, “Many older veterans are killing themselves for the same reasons that other civilians in the same age group kill themselves: depression and other mental health problems coupled with difficult life circumstances.”

Nevertheless, other studies estimate that among younger veterans and active duty personnel (the other 31% in that VA study), the suicide rate is twice that of the civilian population. While it’s true that studies on this issue have many limitations, one thing they all agree upon is the high likelihood that suicide among young veterans and active personnel is underreported.

In addition, many young veteran fatalities that would not be included in this statistic involve those who survive combat only to perish through alcoholism, drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Between 2006 and 2011, young veterans in California “were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents,” a pattern also seen in a 1987 study of veterans who had served in Vietnam and again in the mid-1990s among Gulf War veterans (LATimes).

Whatever the age of these veterans, however recent or distant their service, these numbers are alarming. No one disputes that our nation has a serious problem. “An epidemic,” Senator John Walsh has called it.

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

So why do we tolerate this problem? My guess is, its invisibility. Most of us don’t see soldiers every day, like we see teachers, doctors, policemen; soldiers are out, isolated elsewhere, doing what they do. Deployed to faraway lands or secluded on bases, behind well-guarded fences. As veterans’ advocate Jeff Hensley explains in “The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” these victims “were men and women who stood watch while our nation went about its business, blissfully unaware of their sacrifice.”

If soldiers are invisible, their families are even more so. Beyond the drama of “Army Wives” is a world we civilians have little genuine understanding of. In large part, we have no understanding of this world and its suffering because it is so taboo for them to talk about it.

A soldier and his daughter.

A soldier and his daughter.

In my class Women, War and Terror, we discuss Carol Cohn’s theories about “the ways in which gender discourse intertwines with and permeates” our thinking about war. “The impact of gender discourse…is that some things get left out.”

“What is it that cannot be spoken?” Cohn asks. “First, any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction.” When we talk about war, “Weapons’ effects may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with her skin hanging down in strips…. Psychological effects—on the soldiers fighting the war or on the citizens injured, or fearing for their own safety…all of these are not to be talked about…. What gets left out, then, is the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity—all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse” (“Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War”).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Soldiers, regardless of their sex, more than any other group, have it ingrained in them to take their suffering silently, “like a man.” The same is expected of their families.

“Be strong. Don’t complain. Never worry or distract your warrior when he’s on deployment. Defend the home. Liz [Snell] doesn’t remember anyone telling her how a good military spouse behaves. It was just understood,” goes the story in CNN’s “The Uncounted,” a powerful, in-depth look at the issue of suicides among military family members. It’s worth reading every word.

Snell and her daughter in "The Uncounted"

Snell and her children in “The Uncounted”

We are currently preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan that may or may not materialize, and are somehow always on the lookout for more conflicts to get involved in to keep our military-industrial complex going. But there is no more urgent conflict for our military to take on than the one of its own making: reinforcing an inadequate and overwhelmed system for providing desperately needed services for our servicemen and women and their families.

The One State

by Carrie Levesque

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

It was that time of year again, when my Russian Novel of Conscience class was discussing possible areas of overlap between the futuristic society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We and contemporary American culture. In Zamyatin’s highly regulated One State, citizens (known as “numbers”) live in ecstatic conformity and “mathematically infallible happiness,” having abandoned the “savage freedom” that we know today to happily accept the “beneficent yoke of reason” and blissful “unfreedom.” Their lives, lived in glass houses, are watched over by an omnipotent Benefactor and ordered by a Table of Hours that keeps everyone moving in “million-headed unison” all day, every day. When a group of rebels seeks to bring down the totalitarian state with dangerous reminders of the numbers’ humanity (emotion! individuality!), the state takes drastic steps to inoculate its citizens against the most dreaded contagion: Imagination.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in another dystopia that looks much like I imagine Zamyatin's to look.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in a dystopia styled after Zamyatin’s We.

While this novel easily calls to mind our current concerns about the modern American surveillance state or our uncritical conformity to various media’s ideas of perfection, this time around it also made me think about experiences I’ve had here in Norway (once called “the last Soviet state” by a Swedish finance minister who thought he was off-mic). You see, my child has recently been diagnosed with the disease of “imagination.”

A few months after starting kindergarten here, my older daughter was having some trouble adjusting. From time to time, she would act out in disruptive and silly ways, and she was making up stories about our family that raised the staff’s concern. Through a parent-teacher strategizing session, we discussed how to help her feel less overwhelmed socially and linguistically, and my husband and I clarified that we did not really share our home with her “brothers” James, Logan, Kendall, and the prone-to-biting Baby Carlos. As many parents of tweens may recognize, my daughter was not being abused by a voracious, unsupervised baby; she was just obsessed with the television boy-band Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

While they were mostly satisfied with this explanation, at the end of our meeting, there were lingering concerns. “But aren’t you worried that she has imagination?” they asked delicately, cringing slightly, as if asking about an embarrassing disorder she had. Though we explained that in the US, it was normal for children her age to make up stories during play like our daughter did, they seemed unconvinced. “We think you should keep on eye on it,” they concluded soberly.

Nearly a year later, I would interpret this strange encounter through the pervasive Janteloven lens of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is, as defined pretty succinctly by this blogger, “a principle which places importance on equality and egalitarianism while discouraging individuality and personal success or in other words, standing out.”

Being like everyone else—in one’s appearance, in one’s behavior—is prized above all else in Norway because it makes everyone comfortable, or so the thinking goes. When people behave in unexpected or “imaginative” ways (say, singing to yourself, doing a little happy dance when you receive some good news, basically any “excessive” show of positive emotion), it makes people uncomfortable because you are standing out. You are out of step with the five-million-headed unison of Norwegian life. It is believed that people who act differently and do not conform to the norm do so because they think they are “better” in some way, even if there’s nothing arrogant about the “aberrant” behavior.

The crowd. Don't stand out.

The crowd. Don’t stand out.

In few places is this law more strongly enforced and engrained than in Norwegian schools. Here there is strong pressure from both peers and teachers to meet—but not exceed!—expectations. Excelling academically only makes others feel bad and makes you look like a jerk. There is no tracking, no grades, no gifted classes, and things move along rather slowly at the elementary level to keep everyone on the same page. It’s March of my daughter’s first-grade year and they just wrapped up discussion of the letter B (though I should explain that the letters are taught out of order, in what appears to be a manifestation of Alphabet Janteloven: why should Z always come at the end? A, B and C must learn that they cannot always come first!).

The Norwegian One State may not have a Table of Hours, but they do have a rather amusing Table of Days. Should we take the reckless step of making tacos on a day other than Taco Friday, we keep the windows closed, so as not to arouse the disapproving curiosity of our neighbors. If we are caught allowing our children to enjoy a dessert or some candy on a day that is not Saturday, when Norwegian children get to indulge in a bag of candy after a week of self-denial, we are sure to invite stares, comments and questions.

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

My (American) mother-in-law tells a great story from when she was living with her Norwegian mother-in-law and decided one fine day that she felt like baking a cake. “On a Wednesday?!” her horrified mother-in-law asked. Tense debate ended in compromise: My mother-in-law could bake the cake on Wednesday, but her mother-in-law insisted it be placed in the freezer until Saturday, a more acceptable day for such indulgences.

For decades, anthropologists have classified societies according to how strictly they hold members to certain norms. “Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm. Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior” (Psychology Today). When an international team of social scientists recently surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries to rank the world’s tightest and loosest societies, Norway ranked 6th tightest, behind countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore (and ahead of Turkey, Japan and China). “A shocking surprise!” said no expat living in Norway, ever.

Tomoko Sawada's face 41 times in a shot from her book School Days; a commentary on conformity in Japan.

From Tomoko Sawada’s School Days, a commentary on conformity in Japan
(look closely; the teacher and each of the forty students is Sawada herself).

There is no marching to your own drummer here. There is no letting your freak flag fly. Oh, how we miss our American brethren and their freak flags! People who burst into song in public, who don’t hesitate to engage a stranger who looks like they’re feeling down and in need of a mood lightener. There is a street performer here who’s often out in the city center playing peppy Russian folk songs on his accordion, and my girls and I always give him money simply because he’s “the guy who brings the joy,” something few Norwegians would dream of doing in a public space. Joy is to be kept under wraps!

I hope this musician keeps bringing the joy. I hope it spreads, wildly.

¿Habla American?: Why English as an Official Language is Blatantly Un-American

by Matt McKinnon

We the People...

Nosotros, el Pueblo…

I’m no fan of corporations.  In fact, I am often critical of them and the too-big-to-fail capitalism that has come to dominate global economics. But I am willing to congratulate them on the off-chance that they do something good or get something right.

Like the Cheerios commercials featuring a multi-ethnic girl with her family that prompted racist hate-speech from trolls everywhere. Or the recent revelation that multinational corporations are taking climate change seriously, since it poses a real economic threat to them.

Or when Coca-Cola broadcast this advertisement during the Super Bowl:

(Coke doubled-down amidst much criticism to play it again for the Winter Olympics.)

Now, I’m no dummy, and I’m certainly not naïve. I realize that the folks at Coca-Cola are first and foremost interested in their bottom line, and that means selling more Coke. And as we are all aware by now, the United States is undergoing a considerable demographic shift, so much so that white people will no longer be the majority by 2043. And more to the point: white kids will no longer make up a majority of youth in five or six years. Yes, five or six years! Which is why companies like Coca-Cola are so interested in multicultural approaches to advertising.

So yes, I know all this, and yet still find it laudable (1) that Coca-Cola produced the commercial, and (2) that they stood by it despite heavy criticism.

But enough about Coke. My real interest is the criticism that was generated by having non-white U.S. citizens sing a patriotic song in a language other than English. And the next logical step that many critics make: viz., that English should be the official language of the United States.

This impulse is nothing new. Nor is the fear and prejudice behind it.

Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin.

Our brilliant and esteemed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin railed against the unwanted influence of what he called “swarthy German” immigrants with surprisingly racist overtones:

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. “

(Indeed: Who knew that only the English were truly white?)

Of course, Franklin was wrong then, as those who criticize the Coke ad and call for English as our official language are wrong now. They are wrong for a practical reason based in historical fact: the new German immigrants did not “Germanize” the English, despite the fact that more Americans now claim German ancestry than any other ethnic or national group. No, they learned English because it was practical to do so, though some retained the use of their native tongue well into the 20th century.

Likewise, studies show that recent immigrants are assimilating in similar fashion, just as immigrants have been doing since, well, the original English came over and ironically did not assimilate into existing native cultures.

And this means that they are learning English.

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

A Pew study found that 91% of second-generation children from Hispanic families speak English “very well or pretty well” and that the number rises to 97% of third-generation children. Indeed, other studies show that not only are second and third generations learning English, they are more likely than not to learn only English—and not the language of their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland.

But there is another—deeper and more essential—reason why English is not and should not be the official language of our land. And while this argument could be made from the liberal and progressive “love-for-all-things-multicultural” perspective worthy of this “liberal studies” blog, the stronger argument is actually one more conservative in nature, rooted as it is in the very fabric of our democracy, in what it means to be American.

The argument is simple: making English, or any language, the Official Language of the United States is blatantly Un-American at its core.

In fact, the late conservative writer Joseph Sobran made a similar argument some thirty years or so ago, to the chagrin of some whose conservative principles only went as deep as their nationalism. (This was the same Joe Sobran whom Pat Buchanan called “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation” and Ann Coulter named “the world’s greatest writer” and the “G.K. Chesterton of our time.”)

Joseph Sobran.

Joseph Sobran.

The point is twofold: First, from a conservative perspective, government should be limited and should only be about the business of governing—not social engineering. Mandating that Americans learn and use English is as absurd from a conservative viewpoint as mandating that they learn and use French, or that they eat their vegetables and lay off the Supersized fries and soda. This, argues conservatism, is simply not the purview of government, and it doesn’t matter whether learning English or eating broccoli are good ideas or not (as I think they both are). What matters is that this is not the government’s responsibility to decide or dictate.

And second, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should, as much as is possible, reflect the majority of the people, while safeguarding the rights of the minority. But such a reflection, like the people it reflects, is in a constant state of change.

So in this case, what could be more basic than the right to express oneself in the language of one’s choice? And what could be more democratic than a government committed to accommodating that language—those languages—and to understanding and communicating with its own citizens?

For what right is more basic than the choice of language? Freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? All of these are secondary, at least temporally, to the choice of language whereby one speaks, or publishes, or prays aloud to their God.

Indeed, the only act synchronous to that of speaking is the forming of one’s very thoughts. And yet, even here, do we really decide what language we use to form our thoughts? Or does our language shape our thoughts and even ourselves?

If so, what would it mean that for some U.S. citizens, their very thoughts are formed in an unofficial language?

Government should not be in the business of constraining either the free thought or the free expression of its citizens.

"We speak English."

“We speak English.”

Furthermore, the fact of English as our common language is an accident of history. Not only are we the largest English-speaking nation in the world, we are also the second largest Spanish-speaking nation (second only to Mexico). And what is more democratic than a common language that actually resonates with the voice of the people? If Spanish, or French, or Chinese should one day become the preferred language of a majority of U.S. citizens, how undemocratic would it be that their free and common expression would be constrained by the short-sightedness of having made English the Official Language?

To extrapolate from James Madison’s argument against the state establishment of Christianity in his Memorial and Remonstrance: any government that can today make English the official language can tomorrow replace it with Spanish or Arabic.

***

This is what it means to be American: to have the right to choose whatever language one wishes to express oneself, be it for business, or entertainment, or religion, or school—ever mindful of the need to balance this with the necessity of being understood.

As Americans, we lack an ethnic identity. And we lack an established religion. And we lack an official language.

But we are united as a people precisely because we lack these. Since our ethnic identities and religions and languages are plural. As are we.

But in this plurality there is strength.

And from this plurality there is unity.

Or, as our Founding Fathers put it,

Dean Bryant Johnson, "E Pluribus Unum" (2012), detail.

Dean Bryant Johnson, “E Pluribus Unum” (2012), detail.

E pluribus unum.

(And that ain’t English.)

Studying in Ghana

by Nargiza Kiger, BLS student, Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza in Tamale, Ghana

Nargiza Kiger in Tamale, Ghana.

I am in the middle of my online midterm test, and rather confident that I know the material, but becoming anxious because the test has a limited time and my internet connection is being torturously slow. I click to submit my answer, and watch the precious seconds go past, becoming more anxious as I wait for the next question to finally appear. I answer it…click…and wait again.

That’s when the power goes out.

Cussing and feeling defeated I storm outside to calm myself. The last time the power went out (the day before the test), it lasted for over twelve hours. In my head I am already drafting yet another email to my professor trying to explain my situation. “Just don’t make it sound like one of those excuses professors get from students all the time,” I tell myself as the security guard approaches me.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

The central market in Tamale, Ghana.

I have been living in the West African region since 2011—the same year I became a student at UNCG—and since then I have been taking my classes from Nigeria and Ghana. Living in West Africa is exciting and rewarding both on a personal and a professional level, and the new phenomenon of “distance learning” creates huge opportunities for a student like me, who can live in Ghana and take online classes from an American University. However, living in and taking online classes from Tamale has its own set of challenges. Sudden power losses and slow, at times non-functioning internet are common situations. Reliable internet access and reliable electricity are rare. As a distance learner I face these challenges on daily basis. It can be maddening.

As Ibrahim the security guard approached me, I wanted to vent my frustration and complain to someone about how challenging it is to be a distance learner when you have such poor infrastructure around you. In the course of our conversation something special happened that made me reflect back on the bigger picture and why am I a student in the first place. He brought me back to reality, and now any time I am frustrated about my tests, quizzes and mid term exams, I remember the story of Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim

Ibrahim Sulemana.

Ibrahim is a 22-year-old young man who wants to be a medical nurse. He was the oldest son of a farmer who relied on him greatly in managing the farm. When Ibrahim was 14 an educational project “Literacy and Development through Partnership” came to his community. This project focused on adult education and taught them how to write and read in English, the formal language of Ghana. Ibrahim joined the project and started going to night school after long, labor-intensive days in his family farm. Only at the age of 14 did he have access to basic education that I had had access to at the age of 7 growing up in Uzbekistan.

In rural parts of Ghana basic education can easily become a burden for parents. In rural Ghana a person on average lives on $2 USD a day. Although the education itself free from 1st grade to 9th grade, if you want to go to high school you have to pay on average 100 Ghana Cedi ($50 USD) per academic year. Private schools are 4-5 times higher. Because Ibrahim wanted to further acquire his higher education, it was crucial to graduate from high school.

Ibrahim committed to his night school education so much that his uncle noticed his abilities and convinced Ibrahim’s farther to let Ibrahim go to high school. In the following farming seasons, his father encouraged Ibrahim to hire some assistance in the field, so he could spend less time on the field and more at school. Ibrahim joined the junior high school at the age of 17 and graduated from High School in 2013 at the age of 22. He paid for his school from the small profits he made from growing rice. He told me that one year he had such a bad yield (6 sacks of rise) that he did not have any money or rice left when he paid his school expenses.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim at his school.

Ibrahim told me that he was surrounded with classmates who were much younger than him and always felt a bit ashamed, but he said that adult students like him tend to have clearer goals and have less time to “play around.” Now he is studying for his standardized entrance exam for the Nursing School. He tells me that it is very competitive and mostly not based on merits. Since he has no connections to the influential people at nursing school, he says that he has to only rely on his abilities and knowledge. At the same time the educational system favors those with financial capabilities. Ibrahim says that if a person pays about $5,000 in bribes to “the right person,” the person’s place at the Nursing school can be secured without any exams. He knows that it is impossible for him to save up that much money working as a security guard and making about $150 a month. So, he is determined to challenge himself and take the test. He told me that most of his salary and harvested rice is spent on his siblings’ education. He wants them to be educated at much earlier age than he was.

The day Ibrahim and I shared our educational journeys was the day I told myself that I will not feel frustrated over small challenges and will do my best to focus on the bigger picture. Ibrahim’s story made me reflect on educational journeys that many young people go through in different parts of the world, facing their own challenges. Most of us in the United States are lucky to have the opportunities in front of us. We only have to recognize them and take advantage of them. Immense resources and technology make education even more accessible. Online education has become a widely used approach in non-traditional education. It definitely allows me to achieve my educational progress from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ibrahim and Nargiza under the mango tree where Ibrahim likes to read.

Ibrahim’s reading spot under the mango tree.

Ibrahim and I became good buddies since our bond over our educational goals. We both encourage each other in our so different world, and remind each other of our ultimate goals in this journey. Recognizing poor availability and access of the resources for Ibrahim, I now share my books with him, as he is very nervous about passing English on his big test.

—–

Nargiza Kiger (rhymes with “tiger”), a senior in the BLS Social Sciences concentration, currently lives in Tamale, Ghana with her husband. A resident of North Carolina, she finished her Associate of Arts at Forsyth Technical Community College before coming to UNCG. Prior to that, she grew up and started her education in Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan, and she speaks enough languages that the College foreign language requirement probably won’t be an issue for her.