Monday, July 8, 2013

Partisanship and authoritarianism

I saw a fascinating and disturbing excerpt today from a new book entitled, Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces. Here's a passage that caught my eye:
The political reaction to the Occupy crackdowns was interesting to watch. In the 1990s, it had been the right wing—particularly the far right—that was up in arms over police militarization. Recall the outrage on the right over Waco, Ruby Ridge, and the raid to seize Elián González. The left had largely either remained silent or even defended the government’s tactics in those cases. But the right-wing diatribes against jackbooted thugs and federal storm-troopers all died down once the Clinton administration left office, and they were virtually nonexistent after September 11, 2001. By the time cops started cracking heads at the Occupy protests, some conservatives were downright gleeful. The militarization of federal law enforcement certainly didn’t stop, but the 9/11 attacks and a friendly administration seemed to quell the conservatives’ concerns. So long as law enforcement was targeting hippie protesters, undocumented immigrants, suspected drug offenders, and alleged terrorist sympathizers, they were back to being heroes.
That sounds familiar, actually. As noted at the NYT, a majority of Americans are okay with NSA wiretapping, as long as it's their party in charge:
In 2006, when George W. Bush was president, just 37 percent of Democrats said the N.S.A. surveillance program was acceptable, while 61 percent said it was not. Now those numbers are 64 percent and 34 percent respectively.

Republicans appear to be fair-weather fans as well. In 2006, 75 percent said the program was acceptable, and 23 percent said it was not. Now 52 percent find it acceptable, and 47 percent unacceptable.
Blatant partisanship, it seems, is slowly yielding to more and more authoritarian government in America. When one half of the country refuses to stand up for the rights of the other half--and this is reciprocated--the rule of law slowly erodes.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Learning French

It's now been one year since I moved to France. Which makes one year that I've been speaking (or trying to speak) French in my everyday life.

I started learning the language through Rosetta Stone, which is a great program for beginners of any language. The main advantage of learning a language on the computer is the repetition. Most humans are simply not willing to repeat everything to you a thousand times until you get it. Except, of course, your parents when you were first learning to talk. That's kind of the theory behind the program: you need to learn your new language the way you learned your first one, through repetition and through association. You learn the entire language through immersion--no translation. This happens through a combination of pictures and sounds and text to guide you through. Not only is this time-saving--if you don't need to translate, you don't waste time repeating two words instead of one--but it also helps you to constantly hear the language the way it ought to be pronounced. I hate to make this sound like a commercial, but there really is no better way to start a new language than this program.

On the other hand, it doesn't get you very far. There are five levels in an entire Rosetta Stone language program, and I burned through all five levels in French in three or four months. Granted, I spent a lot of time on it when I first started, but still. Relatively basic phrases were simply not covered--I had honestly never heard the verb "falloir" before arriving in France. But with the ability that I had acquired to speak basic phrases at a reasonable speed, I was on the right track from the moment I stepped off the plane in Paris.

After Rosetta Stone had exhausted itself, I tried some google searches to see what other resources I found. The most impressive one was a web site called "Français Authentique," a site run entirely by one guy who had an ambitious idea. I listened to his introductory podcasts where he explained his philosophy, plus a few more podcasts where he explained some common French expressions. I didn't end up sticking with the program, but I so admired his basic philosophy that I simply adopted it in my own way.

The philosophy: listen.

I remember there were six other elements to the philosophy after that, but this was number one and clearly the most important. I think it's true: listening is by far the most important part of learning a language. Another key point was to listen to only those things which one can understand, at least 90%. That's because listening to anything in a new language is at first very draining. As anyone who has lived abroad learning a new language can tell you, you tend to sleep a lot more when listening to speakers of a foreign language. Just like working out to get in shape, at first it's going to be exhausting. The only way to get better is to keep doing it.

So I listened incessantly to whatever I could find on the Internet (for free, of course). Since getting to work took a significant amount of time (waiting for the train, climbing the enormous staircase at Lozère, walking through the forest) I could always use the time to listen to something rather substantial. Being a told nerd in any language, I gravitated to things which were pretty heady, such as FranceCulture. I figured, while I'm learning to understand the language, I might as well learn some real vocabulary as well as the current intellectual trends in France. It turns out there's another advantage to this approach: more heady, intellectual stuff tends to be spoken a bit more slowly than stuff on TV.

Searching TV shows on the Internet had limited use for me. Some of it is that, sorry to say, there aren't a whole lot of good French series (although I did find one show somewhat amusing) but most of the problem is simply the speed. It gets tiring and boring to repeat the same line over and over until you figure out what it says, and sometimes that doesn't even work (you might have to ask a native speaker, who knows what is said because, well, he just knows). One thing that helped a bit was watching an American series I knew quite well (Scrubs, in my case) in French. That was mostly to help me work on understanding fast speech. In terms of vocabulary, a TV series is pretty limited, especially one that's translated. The sole advantage is that it's entertaining, whether or not you learn very much.

All of that started to work for me, and by about six months into my stay I was speaking French with a bit more confidence. I still got stuck a lot, occasionally having to resort back to English when I knew someone could bail me out with a quick translation. Honestly, I found myself often not talking as much as I used to. I'm not exactly a chatterbox by nature, but there really is something psychologically difficult about feeling the desire to talk restricted by one's confidence in speaking the language. That was a fairly difficult time in my life. Any move is difficult and can sometimes be isolating. To feel isolated by a language is still worse.

Indeed, there's no more fundamental aspect of social life than language. Aided by personal experience, I've reflected on this a lot since moving to France. It is, of course, possible to incorporate a foreigner into one's society using extra-linguistic communication (as when I was first invited to have dinner at the home of a very lovely French family--I didn't get most of what I said, but I happily ate what was set before me!). But it hardly follows that one can actually have a society without language, and to be fully incoporated into that society seems to imply speaking the language of the people. Loneliness was thus very natural for me during my first few months in France. I felt that even with people who could speak English (with varying ability) it would be hard to feel at home in France unless I finally got the hang of speaking French.

Of course, it's important to put these things in their full context. I don't do just any kind of work in France. I'm a researcher, and that means language is a rather awkward issue for me in Europe. You see, English is my native language (although the Brits my disagree). But in academia, English is the lingua franca (ironically enough!) as it is these days in pretty much all commerce. That means all of my work is in English--almost every known academic journal publishes mainly in English. When I go to conferences, English is the language of all presentations. It has already happened to me many times that I am the only native English speaker among a group of mathematicians whose only common language is English.

This is awkward for two reasons. One is that I'm in France trying to learn the language, but the mere fact that I am American can often be an obstacle. Don't get me wrong: the French would rather speak their own language if possible. But the French, like most western Europeans, are instinctually wired to believe that Americans only speak English, and that the presence of an American means something in between a chance to practice English and a burdensome moment where one has to speak English (you know, for my sake). This point is all the more awkward in France, where the French themselves have a complex about foreign languages. Everyone in Europe knows the French don't speak foreign languages well--but at least they're not as bad as the Americans. More on this a little later.

The second reason is, I confess, that it is slightly embrassing to hear my own language butchered. True as it is that hearing English mangled does not require leaving the U.S., I find certain linguistic errors repeated so often by fellow scholars in Europe I start to wonder whether they are now accepted as correct English among non-native speakers. The problem is that I am a mathematician, and it always seemed to me like correct English is a fairly trivial part of my work. Thus I don't feel I have any right to intervene, even when I see or hear rather painful errors. But I digress.

When I arrive in Paris, I expected to find the French very proud of their language and simply unwilling to learn foreign languages. I quickly found this stereotype is not very accurate, although I can speculate about where it comes from. Most French people I've met do not find their own language especially exciting, much to the likely chagrin of French intellectuals, who take great pride in their literature and the spoken word. Indeed, this is a place where you can find a "Festival of the Word" and where many programs on RadioFrance are devoted to language and literature. But there is a difference between having a strong intellectual tradition and having a general populace who appreciates such things. When I've asked French people about their language, I've found that many have never even thought about the sound or structure of their own language.

One time I even heard someone say that she (or he, I don't remember) thought the French accent was ugly, which sounded simply unthinkable to me. The French language always had to me a sort of elegance about it, its sounds very exquisite and difficult to reproduce. On the other hand, it's true that while living in France, one quickly discovers how ugly it can sound (as any language can) in the mouth of someone who wants to sound obnoxious or doesn't care about how he speaks. I still maintain that French is one of the most beautiful languages in the world (rivaled in my opinion by Italian), but I admit that this is more in its idealized rather than its real form.

I haven't had much opportunity to write in French, and I have no idea if I have sufficient command of the language to write an article of any length or substance. But I find that normal conversation is no longer a problem, and though I still frequently ask what certain words or idiomatic expressions mean, these are typically not essential. It feels good to get complimented on my French, but truth be told, I'm just happy to not feel so isolated by my linguistic inability.

I've tried to learn two other languages so far: Spanish and Italian. I used Rosetta Stone for Italian, as well, which is why I knew it was a good program. I remember getting pretty far with it, but the fact that I never lived there made me lose pretty much all of what I had, and as I mentioned above, what you get from Rosetta Stone is hardly sufficient to gain fluency. Spanish, on the other hand, was the language I learned in school for years. Putting together what little I did in elementary school, middle school, and high school, and one semester at the university, I studied Spanish for around seven or eight years total. But none of it stuck, except for a few phrases.

The lesson in all of that is that language requires repetition, consistency, and, most of all, usefulness. This may make certain intellectual types cringe, but I honestly do not feel that anyone should feel he is missing something if he only speaks one language fluently. I speak French because I'm in France. I don't feel the slightest amount of embarrassment at having never been able to speak any other language fluently, because there are plenty of other ways to spend one's intellectual energies than to learn new languages for the fun of it. When it comes to Spanish, I do happen to feel some level of regret just because it is fairly useful, not only abroad but increasingly in the United States. But if you ask me, as a matter of principle, whether it is important to speak a foreign language fluently as a matter of personal well-roundedness, I will simply say flat out, "No."

On the other hand, living in a foreign country can be exciting. Especially when it's France. There is quite a lot of culture to which this language is forever attached, and it's a good feeling to have access to that. I'm not a strong believer in the theory that something is always lost in translation, but it's fairly obvious that being able to comprehend the original versions of great works is advantageous. But the most important thing for me is to be able to communicate effectively with the people around me. I sometimes joke that my initial problem with the French was figuring out what they were saying, but now I have to figure out why they are saying it. And that's the best part of language: once you have the medium of communication, you stop thinking about the medium and go straight to the person at the other end to discover beliefs and values and desires and dreams that you never knew before.

That's not all there is to my story, but I think that's a good summary of this first year of speaking French.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

On being proud to be an American

CNN writes about a Gallup poll asking Americans how proud they are to be American.
According to the poll, 57% of adult Americans are "extremely proud" and 28% are "very proud." In addition, 10% say they are "moderately proud," with 3% saying they are "only a little proud" and a mere 1% saying they are "not at all proud."
I suppose it's a bit like asking people how often they go to church, or if they believe in God. It's a way to track something about the national pulse.

The comparison really isn't far off, if you think about it historically. Peoples and nations have always been tied to their religions, whether they had one or many gods. The Roman Empire sought to unite a whole host of peoples with their many different religions. That was fine, so long as they bowed the emperor; thus God was replaced by Caesar.

We do the same thing today. Every nation is basically a religion, complete with its own mythology. I've become especially aware of this living in Europe, where national identity is a rather touchy issue, and constructing a European identity seems to be happening slowly with lots of bumps in the road. Each country needs a national mythology if they're going to unite the people together. You can't teach American history in American schools unless there's such a thing as the American people. Sure, you can always acknowledge division where it existed, as long as you don't break the basic rhythm of the story: one nation, one people.

America is unique in that we created a nation. Our creation myth is one in which our founding fathers--mere mortals!--are the creators. It's a little bit like Rome. You can worship whatever you want, as long as you're happy with what those guys built.

Still, I'm happy we don't have to bow to anyone. That is a real difference. Americans may have a cult of presidential worship, and we may often be patriotic to a fault, but we know we're not supposed to bow before another human being. I think that's a good thing.

I'm happy to be an American. If I had to answer one of those silly Gallup questions, I would even say I'm "very proud." But I rest very certain that nationalism should be taken with a grain of salt. In particular, we need to recognize that "I am proud to be an American" has many traits in common with a religious refrain: we are taught to repeat it regularly, we feel joy because of it, it instills confidence, it unites us in a common purpose, and so on. And I guess all of that is okay, I'm just not quite ready to sing, "Praise America from whom all blessings flow."

Americans probably need to be reminded more than anyone else that the value of a nation is all relative. Nations continue to come and go, or at the very least evolve. Ours isn't any different. Perhaps what makes American nationalism so strong is that from an occidental perspective, we are perhaps the oldest "modern republic." There's something to be said for that. Then again, maybe the age of the modern republic won't last forever.

I'm thinking very, very long term, of course. Still, in the short run, it would probably help us to act more morally if we toned down some of our national pride. I think in particular about our foreign policy and some of the immigration issues we have, and I think a lot could be fixed by changing our stance toward politics from one of trying to save America (or the world through America) to a simple, humble search for justice. Whether it's our respect for individuals rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" or the belief in "liberté, égalité, fraternité," every nation knows deep down what are the basic principles of justice. Perserving the United States of America at all costs is not one of those fundamental principles common to all humankind.

Happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

But just what is "truth," anyway?

In my last post, I wrote about how knowledge does not come about but by parents, that is, through an exclusive relationship of trust. But this exclusion doesn't last, and it becomes at some point clear that truth doesn't depend on the will of one or two people. I can verify it directly. I have my own sense of right and wrong, and this sense is worth trusting.

Or is it? The only reason I learn to trust my own senses is because I first trust someone else's. I learn what "blue" and "red" mean because my parents repeat the words and associate them to the colors. At some point I stop relying on them and have faith in myself to be fully aware of the difference. Then if my parents try to play a trick on me, I know better.

Better ... Again, the paradox of language is that I can only assert myself by imitating another. When is it that I become so assured of my own opinion that I am willing to relativize a change in my parents' opinion?

It is entirely possible that I become self-assured far too early. After all, I thought many things as a child which were simply not true. If parents overly affirm their child's ability to reason for himself, he may become overly self-assured and therefore run into trouble. On the other hand, a sufficient amount of affirmation is necessary for the child to be capable of thinking or knowing at all. If a child merely remains attached all of his life to his parents' beliefs and ideas, then he has not truly learned anything. Knowledge is healthy self-confidence matched with healthy self-doubt and reliance on others.

So what is this truth thing, anyway? How do I judge a statement true or false?

Words are there to help us know something. In English there is only one word where the Latin languages have two. What I mean here by know is connaître. If facts about something are relevant, it is only because I have already imagined the something in my mind's eye. I know it, I can name it. The world around me consists of all such things, not merely concrete, touchable, seeable things, but anything that I can know through some combination of mental, physical, and spiritual interaction.

Words do not merely assign labels to things we know, but also helps us know them. I call my beloved by her name. It is not for mere ability to identify or locate my beloved that I use her name; it is also because her name draws me closer to her--physically, mentally, and spiritually. And if physically I cannot be near something, I can always use the name to remind myself of it, so that even if my memory of its physical qualities is lacking, I still have access to it. Thus even if the thing is abstract and has no physical properties, I still have access to it via language.

But words are so arbitrary. I have already mentioned how English has but one word where others have two. Is our world populated by different things, depending on our language? No, but the level and manner of access may be different.

What is truth, anyway? It's really mostly that stubborn refusal to give up on a world we all share. Anyone can interpret that world as she wishes, but she cannot claim it as her own. Other people and things inhabit that world, whether she is aware of them or not. This is why her claims are either true or false, or have some degree of truth or falseness: she is not in charge of her own world.

But if truth is nothing but a stubborn refusal, is it justified? In other words, is truth true? How can we ever begin to answer such a question?

Monday, July 1, 2013

First principles

Descartes, working in solitude, could doubt all he wanted. Yet no one ever starts with doubt, because no one ever starts alone.

A child's first words are not his own. He imitates what he can. The act of speaking is a matter of desire and trust, that is, a desire to be like those whom I trust. If I cannot imitate others, I cannot express myself. That is the paradox.

But not just any others. For the child who is just learning to speak, mother and father are everything. The word for mother is their word for mother, and the word for father their word for father. This trust--this unique, exclusive, trust--exists before there are any words. The meaning of those words relies on that trust.

I wonder when it was that I first heard the word true. Most words a child learns are things you can point to, then things you can describe using words that name things you can point to. Can you point to truth? In the same way you can point to different colors, I suppose you can point to truth. Just as each object has a color, so each statement has a measure of truth or falsehood. So each of us most likely learns what truth means by example.

Whose example?

One's parents are not the only ones who explain what words mean. Trust is everything at that beginning phase, but that trust does not remain exclusive for so long. In my own experience, I seem to remember quickly sensing that truth was far beyond the control of just my parents, my teachers, or anyone else standing in authority over me. (I've heard this is consistent with my "INTJ" type on the Myers-Briggs.) But where on earth would that idea come from? The only way I ever knew the meaning of truth was by hearing others judge whether or not statements were true or false. I suppose it was natural that I would desire to imitate them in doing so. Thus the criteria I used must have been the same as theirs. If we can all agree what the word "blue" means by looking at the sky, surely we can also agree what truth is.

I've asked a lot of questions since then about what truth is. For a good time, I occasionally argue with someone who holds that absurd opinion that all truth is relative. Just as colors depend on culture and personal perspective--a culture that lives in areas where it snows all the time might have several words for "white," for example--so does truth. Or say they tell me. Perhaps we should all learn as many different languages as possible, just to prove that the relativists have no point here. Of course range of expression depends highly on culture and experience, but that doesn't mean truth itself is culturally dependent. On what culture (or personal perspective?), I wonder, does the statement that "all truth is relative" depend?

But I will concede that any capacity to know the truth is dependent on others. That is why philosophy done from an armchair only gets so far. It certainly shouldn't pretend to get all the way back to first principles. Whether we wish it or not, we are all stuck in the middle of the story.