Cultural Caviar

Choose Your Words Wisely

January 04, 2017

Multiple Pages
Choose Your Words Wisely

A paradox of the current nationalist rebellion is how worldwide it is. Three years ago, I pointed out in Takimag in a column entitled “Nationalism Is a Blast”:

In 2014, the global winds are blowing in favor of conservative nationalism.

One reason it’s happening over much of the planet is because the various establishment elites have become so homogenous in their ideology, unconsciously egging each other on into more extremism. For example, after the normally cautious Angela Merkel made her historic refugee blunder in 2015, Hillary Clinton repeatedly endorsed Merkel’s foolhardiness, even as the German leader herself came to regret her imprudence.

But the corporate press has been no more aware of its own drift toward anti-border fanaticism than a fish notices it’s wet. Thus, the American establishment’s increasingly comic conspiracy theory blaming its political failings on a nefarious Kremlin plot. After all, what else could explain why voters did not respond appropriately to the media’s furious instructions to elect Hillary besides Muscovite mind-control rays?

A sensible exception has been Fareed Zakaria, who pointed out last month:

The one common factor present everywhere, however, is immigration. In fact, one statistical analysis of European Union countries found that more immigrants invariably means more populists…. One way to test this theory is to note that countries without large-scale immigration, such as Japan, have not seen the same rise of right-wing populism.

That raises the question of why Japan’s ruling class didn’t feel the necessity of going down the same mass-immigration path as did so many other advanced countries: Why is Japan such an exception?

“The coming global monoculture of English could be highly productive…until it’s not.”

One reason is that Japan is not a white country, so it’s immune to white guilt. Sure, the Japanese abused other East Asians in 1931–45, but that was in the name of organizing against white colonialism. So hassling Japan isn’t a high priority like it is for Germany.

Another reason is that Japan is linguistically quite isolated from the growing worldwide dominance of the English language.

If elites unthinkingly think alike, one reason could be because they increasingly share a language: English. Across much of the world, English is becoming the lingua franca.

For example, the French are immensely proud of their language and consider it far superior for rational thought than English. But even the French are having to give in to the modern reality that the other Europeans they want to do business with, such as Swedes, Dutch, and Greeks, are more likely to learn English as their second language than French.

If the French wanted to dominate world culture today, they shouldn’t have lost in 1940.

As a side effect, the prevalence of English spreads American ideological fads.

For example, over the course of my lifetime, the American media, such as movies, has shifted to an assumption of “Our Ancestors, the Immigrants” from “Our Ancestors, the Pioneers.”

It’s difficult to get across to young people today just how committed Hollywood was in the mid–20th century to propagandizing that America was less a nation of immigrants, as today’s cliché holds, than a nation of settlers. (Heck, in the 1960s the Italian film industry churned out Westerns.) For example, in Walt Disney’s speech opening Disneyland in 1955, he orated:

Frontierland. It is here that we experience the story of our country’s past. The color, romance, and drama of frontier America as it developed from wilderness trails to roads, riverboats, railroads, and civilization. A tribute to the faith, courage, and ingenuity of our hearty pioneers who blazed the trails and made this progress possible.

At some point between 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and 1972’s The Godfather, however, the American entertainment industry permanently lost interest in cowboys and Indians.

The rest of the world tends to follow along behind American trends. For example, the chattering classes of London have recently made it an article of faith that England has always been a nation of immigrants, despite all the historical and genetic evidence that England has been far more a nation of emigrants.

One country where modern American identity fads have been less likely to penetrate is Japan, which has been singularly resistant to immigration idolatry.

This is not to say that the Japanese pay no attention to American culture. They are often bizarrely obsessed with American musical and visual styles. For example, when my son visited Japan, he stumbled across a moonshiner subculture who dress in Li’l Abner overalls and sit around on porches swigging from jugs marked “XXX.”

But the Japanese are remarkably immune to American verbiage.

That may be because the Japanese are terrible at learning English. Although six years of English-language instruction is mandatory in Japanese schools, few students seem to actually develop any level of functionality with English.

Perhaps the Japanese don’t really want to learn English because they suspect that, while Americans have lots of cool-looking stuff, American ideas tend to be naive and would quickly prove self-destructive in a country less immense and isolated than the USA.

In America, it’s widely assumed that the global spread of English will unleash an unprecedented era of creativity. And yet history suggests that universal languages lead to stagnation, while differentiation of national languages encourages progress.

The nations of early modern Europe, for example, leaped ahead as their elites increasingly abandoned Latin for the vernacular of their lowly townsmen. The Italian Renaissance largely began with Dante’s decision to write in Tuscan Italian rather than Latin, while the English Renaissance stretches from Chaucer composing in humble English rather than in Norman French to Shakespeare’s triumphant post–Spanish Armada nationalism.

Another extraordinarily creative age in human history, classical Greece, began with the writing down of the Homeric works, which provided the culture with defining national epics.

Cultural progress appears to need some regional standardization of language, but not too much.

In contrast, the spread of Latin across Western Europe seemed to bring on stagnation. Likewise, the diffusion of Arabic across the Middle East and North Africa eventually led to backwardness, as Arabic script’s high aesthetic standards were deemed too fine for the newly invented printing press.

Something similar may be happening in China at present as Mandarin displaces other spoken dialects, such as Cantonese.

Freeman Dyson, perhaps the last survivor of the legendary generation of physicists who contributed to the WWII war effort, offered a general theory in his 1979 book Disturbing the Universe of why national languages are superior to universal ones:

It is true that a world with a universal common language would be a simpler world for bureaucrats and administrators to manage. But there is strong evidence…that plasticity and diversity of languages played an essential role in human evolution. It is not just an inconvenient historical accident that we have a variety of languages. It was nature’s way to make it possible for us to evolve rapidly…. Biological progress came from random genetic fluctuations that could be significant only in small and genetically isolated communities. To keep a small community genetically isolated and to enable it to evolve new social institutions, it was vitally important that the new members of the community could be quickly separated from their neighbors by barriers of language.

The coming global monoculture of English could be highly productive…until it’s not. Monocultures in agriculture aren’t terribly resilient to unexpected problems. The potato, for instance, provided much of Ireland’s calories until blight struck in the 1840s.

What could go wrong if everybody who is anybody in the world gets their media ideas served to them in English?

The most likely is the most obvious: The English-language media would indoctrinate the world with the self-serving idea that any ideas that conflict with the dominion of the English-language media, such as that humanity would be better off with national diversity, are crimes against the sacred value of diversity.

Sure, conformity in the name of diversity doesn’t make much sense, but when did that stop anybody?

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