Friday, November 16, 2007

Languages and Presidents

I will admit that during the Nevada Democratic Presidential Candidate's Debate I was impressed when Chris Dodd all of a sudden fluently addressed one of the questioners in Spanish, (the questioner's native language.) Dodd explained that he had served in the Peace Corp in the Dominican Republic.

I thought about Bush's halting Spanish not too much worse than his English and Bush managing through a few French phrases when Sarkozy came to visit. I don't like much of what Bush does, but these few attempts nevertheless demonstrate progress over tradition.

These are instances, I hope, we can look forward to increasing in the future. I look forward to the day when it is a foregone conclusion that an American president should speak several languages or at least two languages well and have some capacity in several others.

In The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick discusses a meeting between Ronald Reagan and Francois Mitterand in which Ronald Reagan, due to his ignorance of the French language, and Mitterand's facility with English, forces the conversation into English. In this way, Reagan's obtuseness had the effect of enhancing his power by forcing his interlocutor literally over into his terms. EKS thus refutes Foucault's dictum that "knowledge is power" demonstrating that sometimes ignorance is power.

Such days are dark days. A facility with languages would indeed be an asset for future presidents. It goes along with a greater understanding of the world, a willingness to co-operate, not just operate within a global context.

Kudos to Chris Dodd for his surprisingly fluent capacity and also for his work in the Peace Corps also an asset for any presidential candidate. It is sad that one of the most successful programs has been so drastically reduced and hyper-controlled. It used to be that this was the one way for people all over the world to encounter sincere Americans who were ready to help and work and serve the goals of people in developing nations. All too common have been the presence of American soliders and corporate hit-men. These are not the best ambassadors of good will.

Can we return positive meaning to "globalization" with a more global, holistic view of politics? Can the U.S. cultivate strength through peace?

1 comment:

Bri said...

Awareness of and interest in other languages has little to do with linguistics. Kudos to Dodd, indeed.
Incidentally, I was reminded of the Foucault/Chomsky TV meeting during which Foucault chose to address his points in his native French while Chomsky stuck to his native English....
I doubt that Reagan would have managed to get Foucault to 'switch' to English for him.