Monday, January 16, 2012

on polyglot politicians

Jon Huntsman, currently jockeying for a GOP presidential nomination, made the mistake of speaking in Mandarin during a recent debate among presidential hopefuls. He scored no points among conservatives who viewed him as overly friendly to China and Chinese politics. While there is a whole network of issues swirling around at the subtextual level, I'd like to deal with only two of them.

1. Speaking a foreign language means you're sleeping with the enemy. Someone sympathetic to Ron Paul produced a video that essentially accuses Huntsman of holding "Chinese values" because of his ability to speak Chinese. (More disturbingly, the video seems to imply that Huntsman's choice to adopt an Asian daughter indicates the degree to which he's sold out his country. Candidate Paul has wisely distanced himself from this vid.) I know nothing of Huntsman's record as US ambassador to Singapore and China, but I imagine that his Chinese ability, acquired largely in the context of Mormon language education, comes with a certain understanding of Chinese and Chinese-speaking cultures; how can it be otherwise? To learn a language is to learn a culture, after all.

At the same time, I imagine that Huntsman is quite capable of disagreeing with his Chinese-speaking interlocutors-- and he's not alone in this. All I have to do, to find people with similar abilities, is look to the Korean-fluent commenters at The Marmot's Hole who, far from being brainwashed by Korean culture, voice disagreement with it routinely. I myself have, on occasion, expressed deep disagreement with France's and Switzerland's politics, this despite (a) having lived in both countries and (b) being able to speak French. The ability to speak another language, and the knowledge one has about certain foreign countries, carries with it no obligation to agree blindly with citizens of those countries.

2. The ability to speak multiple languages is the sign of an intellectual, and intellectuals aren't to be trusted. This sentiment, never far below the surface in modern "conservative" thought and discourse, is part of a larger anti-intellectual current that sees academic types as detached from reality and thus unfit to manage a country. The current gained prominence, I think, during the Dubya years as people did their best to defend the inarticulate stumblings of the two-term president. Sarah Palin's prominence in right-wing discourse is also a sign of this anti-intellectualism. This is unfortunate, because conservatives are at their best when they're from the William F. Buckley school of thought: clear-headed, intellectual, aware of their ideals and ideology. The notion that being intellectual means being divorced from reality strikes as me wrong-headed: it's the natural response of insecure dumb people who find themselves seated alongside confident smart people.

Where Huntsman may have gone wrong is in sounding like a show-off: the optics of flaunting one's Chinese ability are poor in the current political climate. What he should have done (and the Chinese themselves would appreciate this) is to keep his Chinese ability as much to himself as possible, but slyly market it to his potential constituency as a sort of "secret weapon" to be used during negotiations with China. Of course, the temptation to show off one's linguistic ability can be hard to resist, and I suspect that Huntsman's ego got the better of him. In that sense, his fellow conservatives may be right to take a dim view of what he did: if Huntsman was indeed showing off, then he revealed himself to be socially tone-deaf and thus not sufficiently "in touch" to relate to a wide swath of American citizens. But again: there is no firm, logical link between being out of touch and being a polyglot intellectual.

There may be plenty of reasons to critique Jon Huntsman as both a politician and a man. His ability to speak Mandarin Chinese isn't one of them, and people who critique him based on his language skills are only revealing themselves to be uneducated bumpkins. I certainly wouldn't trust one of them to run the country. If the reply to this stance is that intellectual candlepower is no guarantee of successful leadership, I'd heartily agree. But a few extra IQ points are more likely to help a leader than to hurt him or her.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Excellent commentary on Huntsman! You have nailed the appropriate social issues precisely.