Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sympathy for a Dictator

With millions of Egyptians taking to the streets against their government, and with France, Germany and the UK pressing it to hold democratic elections (a chorus the U.S. has not yet joined), you might think that the dictator Hosni Mubarak has no friends at all. But you would be mistaken.

This morning I decided to take a quick look at Fox News, to see how they were reporting on the Egyptian democracy movement and I found that they were distorting the news (yes, as usual) in a way favorable to Mubarak.

Fox interviewed a woman named Lisa Daftari whom it identified as a journalist and Iran expert, and Ms. Daftari helpfully pointed out that when President Jimmy Carter didn’t support the Shah’s brutal suppression of the Iranian uprising of 1978-79, the Muslim fundamentalists took over. The Fox reporter interviewing Daftari had to sometimes guide her back to the point he seemed determined to have her make, namely that the Egyptian democracy movement is likely to produce an Islamic fundamentalist dictatorship that will become a dangerous enemy of the U.S. After some leading questions, the interviewer finally got Daftari to spin the story in a way that would be frightening to Fox viewers and would help turn them against the democracy movement.

The show I was watching was called “Fox and Friends,” and I guess Fox considers the dictator Mubarak to be one of its friends. Mubarak is a conservative dictator and one who has been cooperative with American interests in the Middle East, and given this, it is natural that an outfit like Fox would want to throw him a lifeline. Since millions of Americans slavishly follow Fox’s propaganda lines, I predict that there will soon be an outburst of conservative talking heads telling us that Egypt is headed for an Islamist dictatorship just like the one that rules in Iran.

CNN offered another version of the Egyptian story. They interviewed an expert named Brian Fishman of the New American Foundation who also said that an Islamic dictatorship is a possible outcome of the current uprising – if Mubarak crushes the protesters. If that were to happen, the Egyptian people might decide that only a violent revolution can topple him, and some violence-prone fundamentalist Muslims could gain control of an uprising that had transformed itself into a non-democratic one.

A viewer would conclude from Mr. Fishman’s analysis that the one thing the U.S. should not do is signal to Mubarak that he can violently suppress the demonstrators – the virtual opposite of what Fox was implying.

Naturally there are numerous sources of news about the uprising that provide a wide array of viewpoints including, for example, the English language website of Al Jazeera. But to me, the most interesting development so far is the one I mentioned above: the public calls by our European friends for democratic elections in Egypt. So now, President Obama, will you join our European allies and call for democratic elections? Or have you been over-exposed to anti-democratic fear-mongering like that of Fox? The whole world is watching.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Here's to a Wired and Unruly World

What’s happening in Egypt now reminds me of China 1989, though there are some differences. For one thing, the US has more influence with Egypt’s President Mubarak than it did with China’s leaders. Mubarak can’t simply ignore Secretary of State Clinton’s expressed wish for non-violence and restraint. On the other hand, the cooperation between Mubarak and the US has been so useful to both sides that we Americans are, once again, in an embarrassing situation where our entrenched political interests clash with our cherished democratic ideals.

What amazes me (besides us once again finding ourselves on the wrong side of a democratic movement) is the way in which social networking has suddenly become the lifeblood of political protesters. Too bad there was no Internet in 1989.

In the old days, a coup would always begin with troops taking over radio and television stations. But who can take over a web that has no center, that generates information from a billion separate points? As of now, nobody. Let’s hope it stays that way, because a decentralized wired world is a tyrant’s nightmare.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

This Posting Rated "R" for Adult Language

Once, while I was visiting my anthropologist friend James in New York, he took me to his campus to check out his department. The two of us pulled up in his car next to the office window of Richard, a fellow professor, whom we could see working inside. James began blasting on the car horn as though he were fuming with rage, whereupon Richard looked up at us, and James gave him the finger. At this point Richard burst out laughing.

I thought of this incident because I’ve been thinking about dirty words lately. I know that a middle finger isn’t actually a dirty word, but I think we can agree that it says “Fuck you” with a remarkably succinct clarity.

But why do we say “Fuck you”?

Though “fucking” refers to sexual activity, when we say “Fuck you,” we’re not really suggesting some sort of sexual encounter with our target. We’re usually saying, “I am really, really angry at you,” (though in James’s case the anger was faked for humorous effect).

Let’s face it: It’s more satisfying to say, “Fuck you,” than the denotatively precise, “I’m really, really angry at you,” because badass words pack a palpable emotional wallop. Using them not only signals and releases feeling, it can, in some cases, provoke it.

Consider this joke: “I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet. Then I felt a lot better after mocking his sorry ass.”

The person telling this joke would probably not feel any particularly intense emotion, but a listener may find it provokes laughter, which is a clear indicator of emotion. But would this joke be funny in the same way if it didn’t include the somewhat obscene phrasing at the end? I don’t think so.

My theory of dirty words (aka swearwords) is that they function mainly to express or incite emotion, and that any semantic baggage they carry is all but irrelevant in their most common usages. Of course they do provide semantic clues about social taboos. But more significantly their use indexes a speaker's readiness to violate taboos, and also reveals with whom he or she is willing to do so. Because violating taboos together is one way to deepen intimacy, tossing off f-bombs can sometimes have a positively benign social function – like tossing off little affective grenades that obliterate a few of the social barriers that keep us apart.

This is also true of slang. Connie Eble, a linguist at the University of North Carolina, has a fun and interesting book called Slang and Sociability, in which she demonstrates the ways in which students create social bonds through the use of slang.

Slang and dirty words are not the same thing, but what they have in common is emotional impact. Two of my best students (Eric Bindler and David Pandich) and I published a study last year on Chinese and English slang, and one of the conclusions we reached was that slang and dirty talk are separate but overlapping categories in Chinese and in English. They are overlapping because they both have “attitude.”

But slang is different from dirty talk, because its attitude is typically more sociable and because it usually changes quickly from decade to decade. “Far out,” and “groovy” had their day, but today you’re better off saying “gangsta” or “sweet” if you want to be the cat’s pajamas. And notice that none of these slang terms can be considered dirty, though all of them would be inappropriate in some contexts because of their emotional charge.

Slang’s emotion is mainly about the group or generation you belong to; it’s not so much about how pissed off or shocked you are. And, while dirty words often stay dirty for centuries, slang usually comes and goes within a decade or so. Of course there are the ever present exceptions like “swell” and “cool” (see December 11 blog posting for fascinating details on these slang terms).

The “Language with Attitude” article that Eric, David and I wrote about slang and dirty words attracted the attention of Eveline Chao, a journalist who herself recently put together a book on Chinese slang called Niubi! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. Ms. Chao’s book (which I have insisted must be added to the Rollins College library’s collection) lays out some phrases that travelers to China may find useful, particularly if those travelers are incorrigibly outspoken and unafraid of giving offense.

The Chinese word “niubi,” by the way, means “cow cunt,” and you will be sure to attract attention if you use it with gusto while making your way past the border control desk at the Beijing Airport.

When Ms. Chao found out about our Rollins team’s research on slang, she interviewed me for the November issue of That’s Shanghai, one of the magazines for which she writes. Then, when readers sent in questions to her about slang and swearwords, she gave me the opportunity to answer them here. It was a lot of fun for me, because, in case you haven’t noticed, slang, in my opinion, is the shit.



Sunday, January 9, 2011

Iran Will Riddle You with Amazing Films!

Last week I taught a course called “Cinema and Society in Iran” during the Rollins Intersession. Intersession is a word the college made up to refer to the one-week January term that allows students to take a mini-course lasting only five days, though each day is likely to require about 4 hours of meeting time -- brutal for teacher and student alike.

Iran has been interesting to me since about 1980 when I was teaching at a university in Pueblo, Colorado, and was asked by a group of Iranian students to be their faculty advisor. They were the ones who taught me my first lessons about this interesting country, including how to say “good-bye” in Farsi (“Hodofes,” more or less).

A couple weeks ago, John S., my Iranian friend here in Florida, introduced me to Nairika, a UCF student from Tehran and they both came to class one day to talk about their personal experiences growing up there. Very interesting and informative. At one point John corrected one of my students who had mispronounced the country as “Eye-Ran,” which, of course, a lot of us gringos are inclined to do. Dear readers, I encourage you never to say “Eye-Ran,” except in sentences like, “I ran to my anthropology class with joyful anticipation.”

As a useful reminder, I provided the class with the following pronunciation guide: You should always say “E. Ron” not “Eye Ran.”

I helpfully added that they could win a lot of friends and admirers if, whenever they hear anyone say “Eye Ran,” they simply declare in an authoritative voice, “You ignorant rudesby! It’s ‘E. Ron’ not ‘Eye Ran!’”*

I like teaching this course because there are so many other interesting things to learn about Iran and its films. For one thing, Iranian movies often focus on children. In one remarkable film by Jafar Panahi, a little six- or seven-year old girl finds herself alone in the heart of Tehran and tries to make her way home amidst the swirling traffic and the sometimes dismissive adults. Then, about half-way through the film, the little actress looks directly into the camera, tears off part of her garb and declares, “I don’t want to act any more!” And then… Well, the film is called The Mirror, in case you’re interested.

Jafar Panahi also directed Offside, a comedy about women who are arrested in Tehran’s soccer stadium during the 2006 qualifying round for the World Cup. The film deals with their interactions with the hapless police who are required to guard them in a remote part of the stadium during the game. This is infuriating to the guards, since they want to be in the stands cheering, not off somewhere looking after a bunch of women dressed like men..

Some of the filming actually took place during the qualifying match, so there are lots of scenes where the huge Iranian crowd can be heard shouting and cheering for their team. A typical cheer: “What does Iran do? It riddles you with goals!” That movie is pure fun to me. Some day I hope I will be able to watch a soccer game in Iran so I can hear with my own ears the crowd roaring, "Iran will riddle you with goals!"


* Shortly after this was posted, the editor in chief of CultureWorld pointed out that considers both E-Ron and Eye-Ran to be acceptable pronunciations of Iran. In light of this, I feel obligated to issue the following statement: The lexicographers must be a bunch of ignorant rudesbies! Or else they are following the age-old principle according to which dictionaries reflect popular usage. Which means that it won't be long before we see "nuke-yuler" offered as a perfectly good way to pronounce nuclear.

OMG, here it is: "Though disapproved of by many, pronunciations ending in \-kyə-lər\ have been found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, United States cabinet members, and at least two United States presidents and one vice president. While most common in the United States, these pronunciations have also been heard from British and Canadian speakers." (From

The cosmos continues its entropic decline.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

My Country 'Tis of Me

If we’re going to Save the World (and why not?), we need to pay attention to superiority bias. This bias, also known as “the Lake Wobegon effect,” was illustrated by Dave Barry who wrote that, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status or ethnic background, is that deep down inside, we all believe that we are above average drivers.”

People affected by the superiority bias (which I think includes everyone except me) believe themselves to be above average in almost everything, whether they live in Lake Wobegon or not. According to one psychological survey, for example, when asked to rate their personal ethical standards on a scale from 1 to 100 (100 being perfect), half of all respondents rated themselves at 90 or better.

It may be true that to see oneself as average or (horrors!) below average, would be so depressing that we simply have to lean on the crutch of superiority bias just in order to get through the day.

But what’s true for individuals is even truer for tribes and nations, and this is where Saving the World comes into play. George Bernard Shaw once said that “Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.” In other words, love for your country is fundamentally self love. The patriot’s creed might be: “My country is exceptional, but it would just be ordinary if I were from somewhere else.”

Loving your country is greatly helped if you can pull a mental switcheroo about some of the not-exactly-admirable things your country has done in the past. When I visited Potsdam where the 1945 peace agreement with Germany was signed, I noticed that our very gracious tour guide always referred to the ugliness of the 1930s and 1940s as the work of “the Nazis” – not “the Germans” or “our nation’s leaders.”  The Nazis were, of course, monstrous authoritarians, but they couldn’t have done all the unforgettable things they did then without the cooperation of a goodly number of the Germans. On the other hand, we have to give the post-World-War-Two Germans credit for owning up to the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on the world. Most countries haven't owned up so well for the ugliness in their histories.

We Americans, for example, have ways of excusing such things as the decimation of Native Americans, the institution of slavery, and the nuclear annihilation of thousands of civilian families in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  We can say things like, "Well, I never owned slaves," or "They had it coming," but the sins are still there for all to see and most of us Americans alive today have benefited in some way from these sins.

Speaking of slavery, what are we going to do about the South? I think of myself as a Southerner since I’ve lived here most of my life. Of course I was born in Indiana, but this is OK because Indiana, given its voting patterns and its rich Ku Klux Klan heritage, is kind of like a Southern state that somehow managed to slip north of the Mason Dixon line when nobody was paying attention. So please indulge me as I identify myself as a Southerner.

Southerners, as a whole, are national champions in the superiority bias arena. For example, I’ve seen quite a few bumper stickers down here that say things like, “American by birth, Southern by the Grace of God!” but when I lived in New Jersey I can’t remember a single sticker saying “New Jerseyite by the Grace of God!” And I’ll thank you to wipe that smirk off your face, because New Jersey, in fact, is a lovely state except for some of the areas around Bayonne and a few places like that. It’s also famous for being a state where George Washington did a lot of his sleeping around.

But the South -- Lord have mercy. Larry Wilmore, The Daily Show’s Senior Black Correspondent, hit the nail on the head when he skewered Southern romanticizers who talk as though Dixie in the 1800s was all about elegant plantation living. “Ah, South, South, South,” he said. “Look, you’re a lovely place, you have a rich heritage. No one wants to take away your pecan pie, or your William Faulkner, or your sweet tea, OK? Just admit you fought a war over your right to keep slaves.” Then he added, “You may not have invented slavery, but you held onto it like an Expletive Deleted” [editor’s wording here].

Mr. Wilmore is right. But according to the standard Southerner’s Handbook of Alternate History, the Civil War was merely a legitimate defense of “freedom” against northern aggression. This Handbook (which does not actually exist in reality, but might as well), also casts Abraham Lincoln with his “government regulations” as the villain who ruined everything with his high-handed meddling.

While we’re pointing fingers, let’s also note that among Southerners, it is the Texans who take superiority bias to the most astonishing level. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have had some good times in Texas (most of which I cannot as yet describe here, statutes of limitations being what they are). I have also known a passel of lovely Texans in my life. But talk about self delusion. How many Texans, when they speechify about that mission in San Antonio where Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie died (and whose name escapes me now), how many of them are anxious to point out that one of the reasons Crockett and Bowie fought the Mexicans was in order to allow Texans to keep their slaves? Mexico, by that time, had made slavery illegal, and the Texans were determined to defend their “freedom to own slaves” from that uppity Mexican government.

"Remember the Whatchamacallit!"

All of this ties in to my New Year’s resolution, which is to bring about World Peace. The fact is, an awful lot of wars break out because each side sees itself as morally superior to its enemies. So, what I would like to propose is that the Nobel Prize Committee, or Dave Barry, or some other respected institution, establish a “Warts and All Prize.” This Prize would go to the opinion leader who does the most to get his or her fellow citizens to see their country for the self-deluding, volatile and over-armed powder keg that it is. As an anthropologist who studies these things, I can say with confidence that this describes my own USA and is also an accurate portrayal of many of the dozens of countries I’ve lived in or visited over the past 50 years.

So why not start trying to see ourselves for what we really are? After all, reality isn’t always beautiful, but it does offer us the only basis for sustainable human life. Isn’t it time we reacquainted ourselves with it?