Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The meaning of a word

The word "China" means two different things, related but distinct:

Definition 1. A large country in East Asia. It was founded in 1949 and the capital is Beijing. In this sense, 'China' is short for 'People's Republic of China'. You can also use this word for now-defunct countries. In 1900, for example, 'China' referred to a large country in East Asia which was ruled by Manchus from their capital in Beijing (or Peking).

Definition 2. A civilization centered in East Asia. Despite a high level of diversity and large regional differences, it is considered a fairly coherent entity. It is distinct from Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese culture, although it has influenced them a great deal. It is much, much older than the People's Republic of China.

The two definitions above are distinct. I propose that if you use the word 'China' (or 'Chinese') in a sentence, it should be easy to discern whether you mean definition 1 (the country) or definition 2 (the civilization). If it's a weird amalgamation of the two, there is an excellent probability that you are using language to obfuscate and muddle. Shame on you.

You might argue that one could say something similar for every country in the world. (France the entity headed by Nicholas Sarkozy vs. France the culture, and so on.) You would be right.

But China is a particularly important case. As Martin Jacques said in the one bit of wisdom in his TED talk otherwise filled with dubious assertions, China isn't a nation-state; it's a civilization-state. It can be thought of as something akin to Europe, if we had an odd parallel Europe where the centuries-old political trend was toward unified empires, and there was a single language so dominant that all the other languages were reduced in people's minds to the status of 'dialects'.

But that's definition 2 above. There's also definition 1, where 'China' refers to a country that's just one country in the world out of 200. There are plenty of ways the two definitions do not overlap perfectly, and as a result you see both innocently sloppy thinking and deliberate obfuscation based on the fact we've got one word with two meanings.

For example, take the idea that China has 5000 years of history, while American history started in 1776. It sure sounds like China's got a long head start on the USA from those numbers, but they're derived entirely from the obfuscatory power of muddled language. If we're talking about countries (definition 1), the PRC was only founded in 1949, so the USA is actually a great deal older. If we're talking about civilizations (definition 2), there was no civilization that started in 1776. It's not as if Thomas Jefferson was some sort of legendary culture hero who invented the Roman alphabet as he scratched out the words We hold these truths to be self-evident which was the earliest recorded Western writing. [1]

But that's just sloppy thinking, really. People use this sort of semantic vagueness to deliberately muddle issues as well. Let's think about the distinction between definition 1 and 2 in this sentence: 'Taiwan is Chinese'.

If we go by definition 1, that means 'Taiwan is a part of the People's Republic of China'. Which, despite what Beijing would wish, is obviously not true.

But if we go by definition 2, we get 'Taiwan is a part of Chinese civilization'. You could argue about that, but simply on its own merits I don't have a huge objection to it. Taiwan has plenty of native-born Taiwanese who consider themselves Chinese. (And the vast majority would be horrified if Taiwan suddenly became part of the PRC tomorrow. They don't think China = PRC.) [2]

If you think of China as a civilization akin to Europe, you'd have to agree that if the EU was a country and (say) Ireland was not part of the EU, it would still be culturally European.

But we live in a universe where people who wish Taiwan was ruled by Beijing have no qualms about telling Westerners 'Of course Taiwanese are Chinese! Taiwan is a province of China and the Taiwanese people identify as Chinese!' and thinking up terms like 'Chinese Taipei'. They are well aware that when the vast majority of human beings hear 'China' or 'Chinese', they think of that large country in East Asia, whose capital is Beijing.

In other words, they're playing with language, preying on the fact that to most Westerners 'China' means only one thing: "The People's Republic of China". I don't like it. It grates uncomfortably against my brain. I want people to stop doing it.

That's the context for why, until advocates for Taiwan's absorption into the PRC stop playing with words, I will never be entirely comfortable hearing about how Taiwan's culture is Chinese.

[1] Which doesn't even get into the fact that you only get 5,000 years of Chinese history if you count about 1,800 years of tradition and legends that predate the earliest surviving Chinese written records, which stretches the word 'history' rather far for my comfort.

[2] Even so 'Taiwan is culturally Chinese' is still an imperfect assertion, as Taiwan's got aborigines who are not culturally Chinese.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Of Jokes, Chimpanzees, and Teleprompters

A while ago I thought about writing a satirical little piece about a guy during the George W. Bush administration who misunderstood jokes about Bush being some sort of monkey or chimpanzee. He was very confused. After all, Laura Bush appeared to be human, and Bush's two daughters sure looked fully human, and human-chimp crossbreeds are biologically impossible. So George W. Bush wasn't the biological father of his two children!

Why was the national media not asking questions? Why hadn't liberal bloggers picked up on this? Why did nobody care?

It never occurred to anybody to explain to him outright that Bush being a chimp was a joke. Democrats played along with it (huh huh, yeah, he's a chimp) and Republicans dismissed it as Bush-bashing. No one ever told the poor guy that he wasn't supposed to take it literally.

And that's what I feel has happened to a huge segment of the Republican party over this "Obama needs a teleprompter to speak" meme.

Okay, it's not an exact comparison. Obama really does use a teleprompter, just like a huge number of other national politicians and other public figures.

But some people in the GOP seem to have accepted it as a given that Obama is reliant on a teleprompter in ways that George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, et al. were not. They've dug up precisely as much evidence for this as Democrats did for the assertion that George W. Bush was a chimp (none, because you're not supposed to think it's literally true). But politicians have actually woven it into their stump speeches and use it as a rhetorical cudgel against him.

This may not be such a great tactic for the Republicans, since they're as teleprompter-dependent as Democrats. Recent clips of Mitt Romney speaking without a teleprompter suggest that maybe this really isn't the line of attack against Obama that Republicans ought to be making.

The notion that politicians can't speak coherently without a bevy of speechwriters and a teleprompter has a long history in American political humor. I was familiar with it long before anyone outside of Illinois knew who Barack Obama was. It's not a new thing. This particular attribute got applied a lot to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. In both cases it was just one aspect of a more comprehensive insult: 'This guy doesn't have the brainpower to be president, which would be obvious if he didn't surround himself with advisors and prepared speeches'.

With Obama, though, when the teleprompter thing came about during the 2008 campaign it seemed a reaction to the uncomfortable fact that (a) Obama was much more eloquent on the stump than George W. Bush or John McCain, and (b) this eloquence was a big force behind the enthusiasm of his supporters. If you joke that Obama's only eloquent because of his teleprompter, he's not so intimidating any more. That's just basic human psychology.

I mean, you could ask the for evidence that Obama is uniquely dependent on the teleprompter. You could also ask Democrats for DNA evidence proving Dubya's simian origins. But that would just be kind of dumb.

Somebody fill me in here. What am I missing? Is there actually evidence that Obama is uniquely dependent on his teleprompter? Do Republicans actually have a smarter strategy here than I'm giving them credit for ?

(No comments that boil down to 'Republicans are dumb', please. I've already seen speculation that the teleprompter thing is basically playing to white racists who like to think that the dark-skinned guy can only say eloquent words which have been fed to him. But I'd like to see if I can sort out the meaning of the teleprompter thing while also assuming the best of people. Can it be done?)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

One, Two, Three, Many

I have a theory about a hypothetical guy named Bob. Bob represents a substantial proportion of the population. Bob has no sense of numbers.

It's not so much that Bob is bad at math. Rather, he has no mental framework to handle numbers beyond the ones he deals with every day. Bob sort of knows that a billion is more than a million and a trillion is more than a billion, because he learned it in 8th grade. But he has no idea of how much more. As far as Bob is concerned, all those ' -illion' words are interchangeable and mean 'a really big number, like ten thousand or something'.

Bob's problem isn't a lack of knowledge; it's a lack of any appreciation of scale. You can correct him, you can explain the difference between a million and a trillion countless times, and it won't matter. Bob thinks you're just being pedantic. He's mentally filing you with people who correct him on 'your' vs. 'you're'.

Bob's not a particularly religious person; he doesn't go in for young-Earth creationism. He knows the world is ten million years old, or ten trillion years old, or something like that. He even heard somewhere that cavemen and dinosaurs didn't actually live at the same time. But his mental image of Dinosaur Times still includes woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers as members of the ecosystem. Okay, a more scientifically-minded person might get all pedantic and nitpick that picture, but Bob's no paleontologist, okay? He has his own life to live, his own worries to worry about.

A couple of years ago, a story circulated about a survey that asked Americans whether the government was spending too much, too little, or just the right amount on foreign aid. Definitely too much, said Americans. How much should the government be spending, the survey asked. About five percent, said Americans. The punch line is that the actual amount the government spends on foreign aid is far, far less than five percent. This survey was generally spun to mean that Americans know far too little about how their government allocates money.

I wouldn't argue with that, except that Bob and like-minded people formed a substantial portion of the survey respondents. Bob doesn't know the difference between 5%, and 0.5%, and 0.05%. Well, okay, on one level he knows the difference, because he managed to pass eighth-grade math all those long years ago.

But he doesn't really know the difference. He wasn't having a flashback to eighth-grade math when he took the survey. He was talking about government. Not math. They're different things. He was reaching for an expression to mean 'a small amount of', and he came up with 'five percent'. Now you're going to tell him he picked the wrong expression? You nitpicky pedantic twit.

I don't know if Bob's lack of familiarity with scale is innate, or if better math education at a critical point (long before college) could have helped him.

But years of reading Internet comments from a wide swath of humanity has convinced me that Bob represents a fairly sizable proportion of the population. They're out there, and simply correcting them isn't going to solve the underlying issue.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Monkey: A Journey to the West

Monkey: A Journey to the West
Originally by Wu Cheng'en
Retold by David Kherdian
Published in 2005
Published by Shambhala
ISBN: 1-59030-258-3

Journey to the West
is one of the central books in the East Asian literary canon. If you're an educated East Asian the book has almost certainly left some kind of impact on your brain. Even if you've never read a version of it, you probably know of key episodes in the story. Even in the unlikely event you're not familiar with the plot, you certainly know of other works of fiction that were strongly influenced by it.

You can't be a consumer of media in East Asia and remain untouched by Journey to the West (or other central works of East Asian literature, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Dream of the Red Chamber), any more than you can be a media consumer in the Anglosphere and be wholly untouched by Shakespeare or the more important Greek myths.

Journey to the West is an episodic adventure story heavily influenced by Buddhist and Daoist philosophy and sensibilities. The Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang has the task of venturing to India (a fantastical, made-up India) to retrieve Buddhist scriptures. Although Xuanzang is the nominal protagonist, the story is really about his sidekick, the powerful supersimian Monkey. Monkey is the focus of the narrative, Monkey is the truly memorable character, and Monkey is the name by which the book is better known outside of China.

In David Kherdian's abridged retelling, the focus is squarely on Monkey. The first half of Kherdian's retelling is devoted to Monkey's origin story. The narrative describes Monkey's establishment as Monkey King, his spiritual training, and how he acquires great powers and powerful weapons. Finally, at roughly the book's halfway point, Xuanzang (called Tripitaka here) shows up and the Journey properly begins.

(Don't turn up your nose at the thought of reading an abridged version. A completely faithful Journey to the West would be immensely long, and what's been cut is apparently more episodic adventures, not intellectual or spiritual complexity. If you want to read the whole thing, there are two very well-regarded complete English translations; one is three volumes long, the other four volumes.)

As always when I read premodern fantastical literature, my mind tries to apply the logical rigor found in modern genre fantasy. I ask myself questions like, if two combatants are locked in a deadly duel and one of them magically grows himself to a height of 10,000 feet, is that really such an overwhelming advantage? I can think of lots of tactical reasons why being that tall would be a major disadvantage in battle. And seeing how battles between strong supernatural beings in this universe generally play themselves out as duels between shapeshifters, I wonder what would happen if one of the combatants got creative and transformed himself into a horror not found in nature or legend but something uniquely shaped to trap and kill whatever form his opponent happened to be in at that moment.

This is the same kind of thinking that also makes you wonder why it was so damn impossible for Achilles' mother to make her kid's heel invulnerable, too.

At one point we meet Laozi, the legendary old Daoist said to have written the Dao De Jing. He's running an alchemist's lab up in Heaven, full of bubbling cauldrons and various potions and concoctions. Suddenly it dawned on me: according to Journey to the West, the famed old philosopher and central figure of Daoism is actually a celestial mad scientist.

There's a lot of other memorable imagery in Kherdian's book, and I feel not only has my Asian cultural literacy been bolstered, but I also might one day seek out one of the unabridged versions.

Monday, March 12, 2012

My advice to the GOP

I feel as if I should have some sort of opinion about Rush Limbaugh, or our society's reactions to him. So here goes.

People say Rush is a political commentator, but he's primarily an entertainer. I don't mean that to be necessarily negative. We're deep in the Information Age now, the number of possible distractions available for any given person at any given moment is so high that it might as well be infinite, and so the ability to make people want to pay attention to you is a useful skill that society should value.

Rush is a good entertainer. He's a comedian. Based on what I've heard of him, he's got a great voice for radio, knows how to tell a joke, and has a natural gift for comic timing.

There. Now I'm done complimenting him.

I've never regularly listened to Rush, so the following can be filed in the vast category of Internet ramblings known as 'complaining about media you don't actually watch or listen to'. So be it.

I suspect the recent dust-up that cost Rush a good deal of advertising money took him by surprise because Rush believes the universe exists in order to supply him with material. As this way of thinking goes, if a certain Georgetown University student hadn't wanted Rush to say outrageous things about her, then she shouldn't have existed in the same reality as him. From Rush's point of view, his comments coming back to bite him are just as surprising as if he was sitting at home, mocking a movie on TV, and the characters in the movie turned and started mocking him. And then persuaded his sponsors to withdraw their support.

I can't be shocked or offended by anything he says anymore. He passed the moral point of no return back in October. After Obama pledged to send 100 American troops to Uganda to fight the murderous, regionally destabilizing thugs of the infamous Lord's Resistance Army, Rush decided to frame the issue as Obama sending American troops abroad to 'kill Christians'.

Of course you can criticize Obama over this. I can think of plenty of ways to make the case that Obama shouldn't be sending US troops to central Africa at all. But none of them involve framing the issue in quite the morally and intellectually repugnant way that Rush did.

(Not to Godwinize this post, but I wonder if it has occurred to Rush that back in 1941 a Democratic president sent not one hundred, but hundreds of thousands if not millions of troops overseas to fight people who were nominally Christians.)

It's true that a few days later he did (sort of) back down and lamely explain that he would have to 'do more research' on the issue. Really now? That's bad enough if you see him as an ordinary comedian. It's much, much worse if you take him as a political and cultural commentator with serious things to say.

I didn't like Rush before, but as far as I'm concerned his LRA comments pushed him past the point of no return. Nothing he says now is capable of offending me. He could call on all Americans to tithe 10% of their income to the Ku Klux Klan. Or accuse President Obama of eating grandmothers. Or he could call on all Americans to eat grandmothers. I wouldn't care. I'm beyond being shocked. I'm done.

What does offend me is the pretense that Rush (and people like him) are remotely serious public figures who should be treated like they have serious things to say. Now we've got three GOP Presidential contenders who are afraid to say anything stronger about Rush than maybe he shouldn't use such intemperate language.

It's said that these politicians are terrified of insulting Rush's 20 million loyal listeners -- the vast majority of whom, by the way, almost certainly don't exist.

In the unlikely event that any Republican leaders happen to be reading this, I have some advice. You're making a very, very bad strategic mistake.

Here's why.

I remember the Tea Party. It seemed to me that the core of Tea Party beliefs were that (a) the government was too powerful, (b) taxes were too high, and (c) personal liberties were being infringed on. I'm not a libertarian myself and I didn't think much of the core Tea Party beliefs, but I recognize that they were based on a very strong strain in American political discourse which has deep roots and didn't exactly spring into being from nowhere in 2009. There was a real opportunity for them to find common ground with those who culturally identified as liberal. Those pundits last fall who found commonalities between Tea Party rhetoric and Occupy Wall Street rhetoric had a real point.

But what actually happened was that the Tea Partiers got stereotyped as reactionary racist loons. And the Tea Partiers let it happen.

Sure, there were some people in the media who selectively quoted the looniest anti-Obama crap they could find and used it to make generalizations about the whole movement.

But even in a movement as nebulous and lacking in formal structure as the Tea Party, there should have been a couple of respected figures within the movement who had the power to make their voices heard, who could have distanced themselves from the wackier side of the rhetoric. That could have made a real difference in public perception.

But if it ever happened, I never heard it. It got lost in the noise.

I'm still nursing the conspiracy theory that this was a deliberate tactical move by some master strategist. If the American mainstream thinks your movement is a bunch of racist hillbillies, then that creates the impression that elitist snobs are looking down on you. Promoting the feeling of being victimized and put upon is a great way to build group cohesion.

Except that it marginalized the Tea Party brand and made it anathema to a huge swath of America.

So my advice to Republican leaders is this: denounce Rush, then put him behind you and move on. He doesn't deserve better.

Failing to do so will be a very big mistake. Rush is loud. He may not have many regular listeners but media outlets love replaying the outrageous things he says.

Every time a swing voter is reminded of the contraception debate, she'll think of Rush. Every socially conservative Catholic priest on TV talking about birth control will remind viewers of Rush. Independents across the country will look at the conservative talking heads on TV offering support to the GOP candidate and they'll picture Rush. They won't be able to help it.

You really don't want that to happen.