Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

Bernie Sanders’ Campaign And The First-Past-The-Post System

It is a truism in electoral democracies that the electoral system–the particular methodology used to convert the individual choices of voters into a composite social choice–is a key determinant of electoral outcomes. Does the system allow you to rank all candidates by order of preference or does it ask you to only pick one candidate, your favorite? Can you assign numerical weights to the candidates or only a simple rank? And so on. The American first-past-the-post system ensures that the candidates with the most votes–not necessarily a majority of the polled votes–wins. In the presidential elections–thanks to the electoral college–this means that a candidate can be elected president without securing a numerical majority of the so-called popular vote. It also means that particular states and electoral districts–the so-called ‘swing’ or ‘battleground’ states–acquire a disproportionate importance in the presidential elections.  This is why New York, which is expected to resolutely continue voting Democratic in the presidential election is steadfastly ignored on the campaign trail, while Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania received dozens of visits.

Thus, the supposed electability or unelectability of a particular candidate is not so much a matter of nationwide determination of that issue as much as it is a question of electability in particular states and particular electoral districts. In the past some analyses have suggested that a US presidential election can be swung, nationwide, by the polling results from as few as less than two dozen districts, scattered over a half a dozen states. In 2008 and 2012, part of the reason for the success of the Barack Obama campaign was a comprehensive statistical analysis of voting patterns and poll results that led to the campaign focusing its effort in precisely those states and those districts whose results would result in large numbers of electoral college votes going Obama’s way. (During the 2008 campaign, I spent a day knocking on doors in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. It was a swing district in a swing state; Obama won there, a crucial factor in his final win in Pennsylvania and his eventual victory.)

All of which is to say that the greatest strength of the Bernie Sanders campaign remains his energetic and enthusiastic supporter base. They are willing and prepared to do the hard yards–in the all-important zones of decision. Though Sanders has been criminally ignored by the media in comparison to the other candidates, a win or two in the primaries will force greater coverage of his campaign and in all probability increase his fundraising revenues. Those monies will play a crucial role in sustaining the passion of those who ‘feel the Bern.’ And the smarts acquired during the Obama campaign are theirs to draw upon as well.  Sanders’ greatest challenge lies in the Democratic primaries, in beating a candidate deemed ‘inevitable’; if he wins, the prospect of a Trump or Cruz presidency will galvanize his support–and its fringes–even more.  There is also the small matter of the fact that Sanders’ so-called ‘socialism’ has its own populist appeal, which will bring some Reagan Democrat-like voters back to the fold.

When the primaries are over, and the Democratic nomination is settled, some states will vote Democratic as they always have; some will vote Republican as they always do. The remaining states and their electoral districts will become the focus of the two parties’ campaigns; and the winner will be the one who has the hardest working campaign workers, concentrating and doubling down on their work in the places that ‘matter.’ Sanders’ campaign has an edge, in this regard, over every other candidate. Even Trump. I do not doubt that Hillary Clinton were she to be nominated, would command an enthusiastic campaign force; it is just that the talk of Sanders unelectability simply do not take the considerations raised above into account while talking about his chances.

Descartes, The Planned City, And Misplaced Philosophical Desires

In Part 2 of Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences Rene Descartes, as a prelude to his ‘clearing away’ of prior philosophy, writes:

[T]here is very often less perfection in works composed of several portions, and carried out by the hands of various masters, than in those on which one individual alone has worked. Thus we see that buildings planned and carried out by one architect alone are usually more beautiful and better proportioned than those which many have tried to put in order and improve, making use of old walls which were built with other ends in view. In the same way also, those ancient cities which, originally mere villages, have become in the process of time great towns, are usually badly constructed in comparison with those which are regularly laid out on a plain by a surveyor who is free to follow his own ideas….we understand how difficult it is to bring about much that is satisfactory in operating only upon the works of others.

Interestingly enough, as the examples of Chandigarh, Brasilia, and Canberra show, the planned city, built from scratch to purpose, the product of a singular architectural vision, is very often a counterpart to the bustling, chaotic, cosmopolitan cities whose growth has proceeded, at best, along an entirely haphazard trajectory.The ostensible beauty of the planned city’s design has not compensated for its lack of history, the absence of accretions of culture and lives lived within its precincts; the planned city gets off the ground with little interference from what came before, but it does not encourage riffs and improvisation. The planned city offers a gleaming surface and little else; it lacks the blemishes that speak of a rich interior. It has set itself apart, and there it shall stay. (No offense is intended to the residents of these cities; still, I think they would agree their city’s lack of a past, its ab initio origins, contribute in some measure to the contrast it offers to the great metropolises of the world.)

There is much that goes wrong with Western philosophy thanks to Descartes: the obsession with system building, the epistemic foundationalism, the quest for certainty, the alignment of philosophy with the sciences and mathematics, the appearance-reality distinction, the desire to ground truths in something beyond the human, the divorce of philosophy from history. (These sins cannot all be laid at Descartes door, of course; Plato is the original culprit for many of them.) Here, in the Discourse, we see the glimmerings of another problematic vision, one manifest in domains other than philosophy as well: that works made in splendid solitude are necessarily inferior to those made jointly with others, through acts of creative, even if sometimes clumsy and flawed, appropriation and improvisation. In doing so, Descartes reinforces–among other things–the fallacy of the lone creator, the solitary artist, the self-made man, the sole author.

Ironically, Descartes ended up generating a great deal of undergrowth that hasn’t been cleared yet (or alternatively, a foundation that still tempts too many of those who came after.)

Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.

The Strange Case Of Anna Stubblefield And Facilitated Communication

The word ‘tragedy’ should not be used lightly. But the case of Anna Stubblefield and the young black man called ‘DJ’ calls out for such an appellation: many lives and two families lie ruined at its core. Stated baldly the facts of the case run as follows: a professor of philosophy, aided by, and reliant on a technique called ‘facilitated communication,’ developed over a period of time an increasingly inappropriate relationship with a severely physically and mentally disabled black man (a brother of one of her students.) When ‘DJ”s guardians realized the relationship had become sexual, they blocked Stubblefield’s access to ‘DJ.’ When Stubblefield persisted in making contact, they  reported Stubblefield to the police. Her arrest and trial followed. She was convicted of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to twelve years in prison.

There is, as might be surmised, nothing redeeming in this sad tale. Violations of trust lie scattered all over its particulars: an older white professor raped a young black man in her charge; a mother and wife betrayed her husband and children (Stubblefield’s husband has written with some passion and eloquence about the trauma visited on the couple’s children and the ruination of their marriage); and lastly, a bizarre method of communication, utterly discredited by any systematic empirical investigation ever directed at it, was used to impute all kinds of competencies to ‘DJ.’

At the heart of this story–besides the many visible betrayals of trust–lies the pseudoscientific ‘facilitated communication.’ Despite ample evidence showing this method–sometimes referred to as ‘facilitated typing’–is a front for the facilitator to impute thoughts and words to the disabled person, Stubblefield relied on it as a foundation for a series of extravagant claims about DJ’s mental capabilities–going so far as to state that he had ‘authored’ an academic paper–none of which were backed up by any form of clinical or scientific evidence. The most comprehensive debunking of ‘facilitated communication’ can be found in David Auerbach’s article for Slate, an act of investigative journalism for which he is now being rewarded by unhinged abuse by facilitated communications’ proponents on the Internet. As Auerbach makes clear, facilitated communication is not going away any time soon; indeed, its boosters would like to see it being used in public schools. It is unclear what would take to drive a stake through its heart.

There is little need to circle the wagons around either Stubblefield or the method of communication she used. The disabled need help and understanding and support; they do not need to be turned into laboratory cases for experimentation. Rape is rape, no matter who the victim or the rapist, for meaningful consent retains its central role in sexual relationships. Perhaps the happiest outcome–if that term is even appropriate at this juncture–for this series of events will be that ‘DJ’ and Stubblefield’s family will find a way to move on, that Stubblefield will be ‘reformed’, and lastly, that ‘facilitated communication’ will be consigned to the proverbial dustbin of history.

Contra Paul Starr, Presidential Elections Are Not Just About Electing Presidents

Paul Starr kicks off the latest production from the ‘Bernie Sanders is not a real candidate, merely a symbolic one’ brigade with the following assertions:

I have a strange idea about presidential primaries and elections: The purpose is to elect a president. And I have a strange thought about primary voters: They have a choice between sending the country a message and sending it a president.

With that opening spoonful of snark out of the way, Starr moves on to full-bore patronizing:

The desire of many Democrats to send a message is understandable. As the co-editor of a liberal magazine, The American Prospect, I know that impulse. There’s a lot of anger and frustration among Democrats about entrenched institutions resistant to change.

So:

When Bernie Sanders calls for mobilizing millions of people to bring about a revolution, a lot of progressives cheer him on.

But:

As appealing as Sanders may be, he is not credible as president.

And then, Starr is off and running with the usual shtick: Sanders’ plans won’t fly; he is too old; he calls himself a socialist. Got it. What would Starr like Bernie and his supporters to do? My guess is: just stop running, retire to the sidelines, make way for the Clinton cavalcade, don’t pee on that parade. Whatever you do, don’t vote for the candidate you would like to see elected, vote for the one ‘political analysts’ have decided–for you–is the ‘best’ candidate.

Starr is, I believe, a sociologist. The view of elections he offers here is curiously attenuated and impoverished for someone who claims the empirical study of society as his vocation. It is balanced, ironically enough, by an over-inflated sense of his ability to perceive the motives of those expressing their preference for Sanders (through the polls that indicate many Democrats prefer him over Hillary Clinton.)  Contra Starr, elections send messages all the time; in particular, by electing a particular candidate, voters inform the nation this is the person they want leading them. The electoral process–especially in its modern incarnation–allows for many signals to be sent as it proceeds: through the various polls that are conducted, voters inform their counterparts in other parts of the nation what their political inclinations are. For instance, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, if they vote for Sanders, might be informing other Sanders supporters that they have, so to speak, ‘got their back.’  These polls can be understood as a co-ordination mechanism; voters over the nation decide on their electoral strategy by reading the results of the poll and of the early primary votes. (I have, er, written a paper on precisely this topic.) If Sanders loses heavily in Iowa and New Hampshire perhaps support for him will falter, as Sanders supporters elsewhere realize their energies might be misspent.

Precisely because of this dynamic process of information exchange–through polls and primary elections–electoral dynamics can change. Indeed, the elections of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are proof positive of this phenomenon: they both attracted more supporters as the election season wore on, as voters decided they could back a candidate who seemed to command support in other precincts of the nation. Moreover, the electoral process, as it progresses, may bring–precisely as a result of the enduring contest between two candidates–more information about the candidates to light, thus allowing voters to make a more informed choice.

In light of these considerations, it is bizarre that an academic analyst would suggest that this process be short-circuited because their analytical crystal ball has forecast an inevitable win for one of the candidates. Given what Starr writes, it is entirely plausible he would want to claim that the entire primary process be called off and Clinton be anointed the winning candidate.

Why have polls and elections–information elicitation processes, when oracles can do all the work for you?

The Least Interesting Character On Orange Is The New Black

That title goes to Piper Chapman. It is not often that the supposedly central character on a show can pull this off, but we have evidence now that such an accomplishment is possible. This is not just because Piper is guilty of being WASP’ily ‘precious’ or ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ in the way that her fellow inmates describe as her as being; neither is it because her on-screen persona can very often be teeth-grindingly irritating; and it certainly is not because she is capable of a great deal of pettiness and petulance. Quite simply, there just isn’t that much there. She doesn’t have great lines, and she has little substance to flesh out the front she puts on. Every appearance of her on screen is guaranteed to suck the life out of the episode; it is with relief that we welcome the show’s many other fascinating characters back on stage. (Taystee for instance.)

Piper’s background–shown in flashback, like that of many other characters on OITB–is not particularly intriguing: she ran drugs, was a small business owner in Brooklyn, once had a girlfriend, got engaged, and then got busted. (So unremarkable has this history been that I cannot even remember if we have been granted access via time travel to her childhood years, exposure to which in the case of the other characters has often been quite illuminating.) Her personal conflicts with her fiancée, Larry Bloom, are mildly diverting, but they do not make us empathize or sympathize; somehow, amazingly enough, we fail to feel the pain of a couple separated by imprisonment. (Indeed, her supporting crew on the ‘outside,’ including Larry and her brother, are far more interesting; the latter, especially, should have a spin-off show of his own.) Her relationship with her former partner in crime and girlfriend, Alex Vause, has its moments, but there again, it is sunk by a certain banality; would we care if they broke up or stayed together or punched each other out in the dining hall? Indeed, the injection of the used panty business and the new romantic interest, Stella Carlin the tattooed Australian felon, in the third season, seem like rather desperate attempts by the show’s writers to spice up not just Piper’s life in prison, but also our interest in her. It is just not clear why we should care about this woman with so many other interesting and intriguing women (and men) around. It’s OK to find a character hateful, or irritating, or offensive; it is fatal to find the character just plain boring.

It is not entirely clear to me how this state of affairs has come about. I have not read Piper Kerman‘s book so I do not know if such a banality is present in the original story that underwrites the show. Still, I can only hope–like some other fans of the show that I know–that when Piper’s sentence runs its term, she will be packed off to Brooklyn, and the show will continue without her.