Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Newt Gingrich's Crusade Against Linguistic Diversity

Newt Gingrich has said many times that he favors making English the official language, but I've never been all that clear on why he feels this is so important. The issue came up again during Monday's debate, and Newt managed to clear up precisely nothing, but at least he threw out some numbers:
The challenge of the United States is simple. There are 86 languages in Miami Dade College, 86. There are over 200 languages spoken in Chicago. Now, how do you unify the country? What is the common bond that enables people to be both citizens and to rise commercially and have a better life and a greater opportunity?
A school spokesman confirmed to Politifact that there are indeed 86 languages spoken at Miami Dade College. A similar number (85) appears at the top of this PDF the school put together to show off how many international students it has. So Gingrich is right, but his point is…what, exactly? This is a college that's proud of the international diversity of its student body, putting it on par with every single other educational institution in the developed world. (Even Liberty Freakin' University, which is about to start construction on the Jerry Freakin' Falwell Library, brags of enrolling "over 900 international students from over 80 foreign countries.") Besides, most of those foreign students won't be allowed to stay here after they get their degrees anyway, which is a problem Newt actually recognizes and says he wants to fix.[1]

His other claim—that over 200 languages are spoken in Chicago—is just as baffling, and it's something he's been saying for a while, if this 1997 column by the always delightful Pat Buchanan is any indication:
With 30 million immigrants since 1965, almost all now coming from Asia, Africa and Latin America, our European ethnic core — 90 percent in 1965 — is shrinking fast — to the delight of our president, who looks to the day soon when we are a nation of “minorities.” We no longer worship the same God, share the same ideas of morality, admire the same heroes or celebrate the same holidays.

“Do you realize that there are 200 languages spoken in the Chicago school system? That’s an asset, not a liability,” Newt Gingrich recently burbled to Joe Klein. Oh. I thought the scattering of the peoples at the Tower of Babel, when the Lord confused their languages, was a punishment, not a blessing.
I don't know what's more fascinating—that Newt has been citing the same dubious statistic for at least 15 years now, or that apparently at some point between then and now he reversed his position on whether linguistic diversity is a good thing or a bad thing.[2] Maybe he read Buchanan's column and had a change of heart.

Either way, it's unclear just what in the hell he's talking about, since I can't find a source for the claim or an instance where he's been asked to elaborate. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest data on language use shows that there are primary speakers of 137 different languages in the entire state of Illinois.[3] That's a little south of 200, but it's still a big number, I guess. Although it should be noted that 27 of those languages have no reported speakers in the state who cannot also speak English "very well", and another 64 have at least one, but fewer than a thousand such speakers (including 30 languages with fewer than a hundred). So that leaves only 46 languages with even moderately sizable non-English-speaking populations, which would probably still sound like a lot if we weren't comparing it to the insane exaggerations Newt's been throwing around.

Speaking of which, back to the debate, where moments later Gingrich shared with us his nightmarish vision of an America that sits on the precipice of succombing fully to the ravages of polylingualism:
But as a country to unify ourselves in a future in which there may well be 300 or 400 languages spoken in the United States, I think it is essential to have a central language that we expect people to learn and to be able to communicate with each other in.
I don't know if this is intentionally manipulative or just ignorant (though in Newt's case I'm inclined to assume the former), but it has to be one or the other. For one thing, according to Ethnologue, the number of languages spoken in the U.S. is probably in the 300-400 range right now.[4] And Newt's predicting divisiveness and incomprehensibility? I haven't seen it. Unless we're counting the Republican debates. [Rimshot]

Moreover, the number of languages in the world, much like the number of extant animal species or profitable daily newspapers, is declining at an unprecedented rate. Many of the languages spoken in the U.S., as you might expect, were around long before the Europeans arrived, and it seems a little unfair to lump Native Americans in with immigrants when you're spreading misinformation about people coming here and not learning the local tongue, but, regardless, all but a handful of their languages are pretty close to extinction—so that's a hundred or so things Newt won't have to worry about much longer. Indigenous languages brought over by immigrants from Africa and Asia make up another big chunk of the 300-400, and most of them are in similarly dire straits. And even languages with stable populations elsewhere in the world, often retained initially by entire communities of newly-arriving immgrants, tend to disappear within a few generations.

What, then, is Newt so worried about? Who can ever say for sure, but I think the big numbers are nothing but misdirection. There's only one language that stands even a remote chance of reaching the same level of importance in America as English, y todo el mundo sabe exactamente cual es. But Newt isn't willing to aim his rhetoric directly at Spanish speakers—at least in part because, despite all implications to the contrary, many of them speak English too—so he demonizes the whole universe of human language instead.

If the problem is that a lot of people are speaking Spanish, the complainer is accused (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) of being xenophobic, and possibly racist. But if the problem is reframed—if it's that people are speaking, like, hundreds if not thousands of different languages and making everything confusing as all hell, then that almost sounds like a sensible thing to complain about. Assuming there's anyone left who can understand you.

1. From
We have the best universities in the world, but many foreigners who come to study are turned away and sent back home as soon as they get their degree. It is foolish to educate someone well enough for them to start the next job-creating startup, only to force them to leave America and start their business overseas. We want the jobs here and that means we want the job creators here.
2. Actually, it seems more likely that Buchanan was just being haphazard with context. I'm willing to bet Gingrich's next sentence started with "but", and proceeded to make it abundantly clear that his previous sentence was merely a pre-emptive strike against charges of cultural insensitivity.
3. More or less. I counted only languages that are specifically identified, but there are also a few thousand people lumped into catch-all categories like India n.e.c. (not elsewhere classified), Pakistan n.e.c., American Indian, African, and Uncodable, so the count may be a little higher. On the other hand, languages like Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian—which exemplify the adage that a language is just a dialect with an army and a navy—are listed separately despite being mutually intelligible.
4. This includes 176 languages known to be the primary language of at least one living, U.S.-born person, and about 190 languages classified as non-indigenous ("spoken by relatively recently arrived or transient populations which do not have a well-established, multi-generational community in the country"). Unsurprisingly, the line between the two categories is rather hazy.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Top Ten Fringe Candidates in the New Hampshire Primaries

As a long-time observer of politics and a long-time critic of the two-party system, I've developed a strong affinity for fringe and third-party candidates. We'll have to wait a few months before the third parties start to emerge, but Tuesday's New Hampshire primaries are jam-packed with fringe candidates for the major party nominations—there are 30 Republicans and 14 Democrats on the ballot—and I looked into all of them.[1]

I'm excluding the major and semi-major candidates we're all already familiar with—though most wouldn't have made the list anyway. The rest were ranked according to a formula that combines the following two factors:[2]
  1. How interesting it would be—and not necessarily in a good way—if the candidate became just prominent enough to get some media attention and participate in the debates (but not popular enough to actually win—that part is important).
  2. Intangibles.
Before I get to the top ten, honorable mention goes to Democratic contender Vermin Supreme, whose top issues include dental hygiene and traveling back in time to kill Hitler. I declared Supreme ineligible for two reasons: First, he's clearly just trying to be funny, and I'm all in favor of that, but it does distinguish him from the rest of the field (though I have my suspicions about a few). And second, his website starts playing music automatically, which is inexcusable.

Alright, here we go:

10. Timothy Brewer (Republican)
According to the Dayton Daily News, during a recent forum for minor candidates Brewer "vowed that speaking with Jesus through 'afterlife orbs' would solve the world’s problems," which is honestly not the worst idea I've heard in the last few months. The paper also reports that "[a]ttempts to reach Brewer about his candidacy failed." Really? Was he busy?

9. Bob Ely (Democrat)
Ely's website has a list of 24 reasons not to vote for him (for example, "I'll Dream Up Lots of Other Taxes"), but even better is his blog, which contains a single post that says, simply, "Nothing deemed blog-worthy". I'm not sure, but that might be brilliant.

8. Aldous C. Tyler (Democrat)
Heartbreaking news from the Tyler campaign:
I am truly saddened to be forced to announce that my bid for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States must come to a close. Due to a lack of logistical and financial support, I can no longer responsibly ask people to send their hard-earned money or spend their precious time on a campaign that simply has no ability to continue forward.
Yes, now it would be irresponsible for Aldous Tyler to ask people to contribute their time and money to his presidential campaign.

7. Mark Callahan (Republican)
You know how the most vocal opponents of gay rights often turn out to be gay themselves? I kind of doubt a similar phenomenon exists among Birthers, but Mark Callahan decided to take preemptive action anyway:
There has been a lot of news and national discussion about President Obama's eligibility to be President of the United States, based upon where he was born. I can say with absolutely certainty that Americans will not have to worry about this aspect of my eligibility to be President of the United States during my campaign, nor if I get elected President of the United States in 2012. In the interests of full disclosure and accountability, I will state that I am currently 34 years old. I turn 35 on May 11th, 2012, well before the inauguration of the President in January 2013, thus still making me eligible to be President of the United States, according to the U.S. Constitution, Article 2, Section 1. I have consulted with the Federal Elections Commission, and they have confirmed that I am eligible, as long as I turn 35 by the time inauguration day comes.
There was a lot of eye-rolling at the FEC that day, I'd imagine.

6. L. John Davis, Jr. (Republican)
Davis appears to come from the "this problem will be easy to solve once we figure out how to solve the problem" school of problem-solving, and his website is a masterful exercise in using a lot of words to say nothing. Here's a highlight:
What makes a United States president? Does a mold make a president? If we had a mold, we could mold a president. But which mold would we choose? Would we all agree on the same mold? . . . What color should he be? I know the answer to this one. It’s the great American color: red, white and blue.

5. Randy Crow (Republican)
Alas, is currently unavailable, but I was able to find some information at Project Vote Smart. There's some fairly dull biographical stuff, and a questionnaire with dull revelations like favorite author (Hemingway), favorite color (blue), and favorite musician ("none jumps out"), and some dull political views, and then just as I gave up hope of finding anything interesting, there it is:
Flight 93 was inteded to crash into WTC-7 cover up the fact that WTC-7 had bombs placed in it, as did the other two buildings, to bring them down.
Well, alright then. Keep that in mind, potential Randy Crow voters.

4. Hugh Cort (Republican)
Cort's website has "2008" in its URL and Google tells me it may harm my computer, so I'll let that one remain a mystery, but I'm guessing it has a lot to say about Iran and bin Laden and nuclear terrorism, because that's pretty much all he talks about. He runs an organization called The American Foundation for Counter-Terrorism Policy and Research, and he wrote a book called The American Hiroshima: Osama's Plan for a Nuclear Attack, And One Man's Attempt to Warn America. The entirety of his platform, as far as I can tell, is that we need to destroy Iran before Iran destroys us. So he's like Newt Gingrich, but with a more sensible approach to judicial review.

3. Randall Terry (Democrat)
Most candidates convey their views by simply talking or writing about them, but Terry won't be reduced to such a simplistic method. Here's the introduction to his 11-page platform:
Randall Terry addresses 30 issues facing our nation. Mr. Terry has assigned a number value for each question/issue; sometimes he assigns two differing values, depending on the interpretation of the question at hand. In addition, for each position, he provides an explanation.
What follows is a strange hodgepodge of views that could easily have been chosen at random. He's in favor of amnesty, opposed to gay marriage, in favor of US involvement in the UN, opposed to environmental regulations, in favor of marijuana legalization, opposed to gun control, opposed to both the Patriot Act and civil rights for suspected terrorists…and on and on. I couldn't make sense of it. And at several points he expresses uncertainty over the meaning of a question, which is just…mind-boggling, because it's his own platform. And here's where I stopped trying to figure it out altogether:
I think everyone who loves freedom should drive a great big, safe, SUV…and everyone who wants us to be slaves to the socialist state should drive an ittybitty Hyundai.

2. Joe Story (Republican)
He calls himself "The Average Joe", and his website is, so you pretty much know what you're getting here. Probably just a bunch of conservative talking points—fiscal responsibility, family values, etc.—watered down so as to make the basic ideas virtually impossible to disagree with, and some vague platitudes about the American way of life, right? Well somebody needs to tell Joe Story what "average" means, because holy crap:
"WE THE PEOPLE" must decide what our founding fathers meant by "Freedom of Religion". Could they have meant secular humanism "freedom from Religion" where anything goes or Islam the strictest cult known to man? The USA continues to remove the Judeo-Christian biblical laws that define the nations existence from the court houses and embrace Sharia law. How much longer before we look like London in flames or one of the Stone Age countries of Islam?
Yeah, so that's who this guy is—a hyper-Christian, anti-Islamic fanatic—and once that much is established there aren't really any more surprises, but I still enjoyed the misdirection.

1. Andy Martin (Republican)
Martin has a website, but I didn't link to it because there isn't much there, and also because he's a terrible, terrible person. Here are some excerpts from his Wikipedia page:
  • His 1996 run for the Florida State Senate came unraveled when it was revealed that he had named his campaign committee for his 1986 congressional run "The Anthony R. Martin-Trigona Congressional Campaign to Exterminate Jew Power in America."
  • Martin has filed numerous lawsuits, and has been labeled as a vexatious litigant by several jurisdictions. . . . In a 1983 bankruptcy case, he filed a motion calling the presiding judge "a crooked, slimy Jew who has a history of lying and thieving common to members of his race." . . . When later pressed in an interview about his remarks, Martin claimed that the anti-Semitic comments were inserted into his court papers by malicious judges.
  • On October 5, 2008, Martin was featured as a "journalist" on Hannity's America of the Fox News Channel. According to The New York Times, "The program allowed Mr. Martin to assert falsely and without challenge that Mr. Obama had once trained to overthrow the government."
  • Martin issued a press release shortly after Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that he had evidence Obama "lied to the American people" and "misrepresent[ed] his own heritage." Martin claimed that Obama was really a Muslim, was possibly hiding this fact "to endanger Israel,"
  • On October 17, 2008, Martin filed a lawsuit in a state circuit court of Hawaii against Governor Linda Lingle and health department director Dr. Chiyome Fukino seeking to verify the state's official birth certificate of Barack Obama.
Basically, Andy Martin is the infamous Ron Paul newsletters, in (more or less) human form.

1. In case it doesn't go without saying, no, I didn't try all that hard to get a thorough sense of who these people are, because that would be as pointless as it is impossible. We're talking about nearly three dozen candidates, virtually none of whom have received any significant media attention. So if Timothy Brewer turns out to be eminently reasonable other than the "afterlife orbs" thing, good for him, but he doesn't have a website, so the afterlife orbs are all I have to go on.
2. The specifics of the formula will be kept secret, so as to preserve the illusion that it exists.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

In Defense of a Bad Sports Town

Some relatively on-topic content is in the works, but I hope you'll indulge me a little here, because I grew up in the Atlanta suburbs and I'm a fan of all the Atlanta sports teams—even the ones that are now in Midwestern Canada—so it caught my attention when ESPN's Rob Parker did the journalistic equivalent of poking the entire metro area with a sharp stick:
It's not fair.

And, we know, it really shouldn't matter.

But Atlanta -- the city, not the team -- doesn't deserve a playoff victory over the New York Giants on Sunday.

It has nothing to do with football. It's deeper than that.

Without question, Atlanta is the worst sports town in America.
To be clear, this is some world-class trolling. Parker doesn't expect his article to be taken seriously in any meaningful way—his primary goal is to generate some publicity for himself, and his secondary goal is to get a lot of people riled up, just because it's fun.

All that said, he's absolutely right. Atlanta is a bad sports town. And it's perfectly fine with me if it stays that way, because this, according to Parker, is the alternative:
Giants fans -- even with a fresh Super Bowl in their memories after the 2007 season -- are living and dying with their team. Football is a part of their lifestyle, it's who they are. On Sunday, every single moment of the game will be pure agony until the clock shows all zeroes and the Giants have secured the victory.
My God, that's one of the most miserable things I've ever read. The pure agony of EVERY SINGLE MOMENT. The merciless gloom of a poorly-executed screen pass. The heartwrenching sadness of an untimely holding call. The unyielding woe of a failed replay challenge. The indescribable painOH GOD, THE PAIN—of a walk-off punt return.[1]

Meanwhile, in a bad sports town:
Your typical Atlanta fan -- who is probably from another city since so few are actually from ATL -- will be preoccupied with something else. They might not even be sure what time the game is on.

In fact, at some point, they might ask a friend -- filled with sweet tea -- at a pork-saturated barbeque, "Are the Falcons playing today?"

Yeah, just imagine those monsters—enjoying a sunny Atlanta day with a multicultural array of friends and neighbors, feasting on the delightful cuisine of their adopted hometown, shamefully unaware that somewhere nearby a local professional sports team is hard at work in pursuit of a trophy or cup or whatever. Unaware that the game is winding down and the exhaustion is taking over and the players are looking to the stands, desperate for the sweet performance-enhancing tonic that is tens of thousands of screaming color-coordinated lunatics. But, as always, there are no lunatics. There is only the cold, indifferent silence of the near-empty arena.[2]

Anyway, this is where I started to wonder if Parker was secretly on my side, because he just tried to make a picnic sound sinister, and almost invariably that is the act of a person carrying out a scheme several orders of magnitude more elaborate than necessary. But everything else in his article—paragraph after paragraph of unfavorable attendance numbers,[3] a recap of the Braves' late-season collapse, and a helpful reminder that the Thrashers must now be referred to in the past tense, which may still come as a surprise to a substantial number of Atlantans—points to the conclusion that yeah, he really does think that Giants fans, by virtue of being more "passionate", deserve a win this afternoon, and that Falcons fans deserve a loss.[4]

Of course, any time a city is called out like that its sports fans lose their collective shit, so in a fit of morbid curiosity I scrolled through the comments on Parker's article for as long as I could tolerate the ESPN commenting community—almost three minutes—and found what appears to be a bona fide, hardcore Atlanta sports fan. Here's what "Skyonex" had to say:
F the transplants in this city. I'm born and raised here AS a FALCONS/HAWKS/BRAVES Fan. I could care less for all these transplants from all over the country and the recent influx of NO Katrina refugees. You know who doesn't deserve a win? Idiots in New York who have no idea how hard it is for ATL hardcore pro sports fans.

Hey Rob, take it from a TRUE FALCONS fan for over 20 years... We've had it tough and we deserve a win. More so than any Ain'ts fan or Giants fan ever will...
Sure, this person comes off as severely unbalanced and possibly racist (really? Katrina refugees?) and by all indications should not be allowed to venture outside alone, but does he not also exhibit the characteristics of the "real fans" Parker is extolling? His devotion to his city is intense to the point of utter disregard for human dignity. He's convinced that Atlanta's sports ineptitude (and there's been a great deal of it, to be sure) is an actual difficulty he's had to deal with in his life. And he believes this combination of blind devotion and imaginary suffering makes him somehow more deserving than fans in New York and New Orleans—as if they'd know anything about devastation and sorrow—of watching a specific group of professional athletes win a specific football game.

Point is, if that's what it would take for Atlanta to turn its reputation around—stadiums and sports bars and message boards full of despondent, entitled assholes (and I think that is what it would take)—then I don't want to see it happen. Rob Parker is merely the latest member of the sports media to chastise Atlanta by rehashing the narrative that being a good sports fan means supporting your team with equal ferver win or lose (instead of behaving rationally by rewarding good management and punishing bad management), and being upset that your neighbor still pulls for the team in whatever city he's from (instead of being proud that he'd rather live in your city than his), and conflating on-field misfortune with real trauma (instead of displaying the emotional maturity of an actual adult).

That's what the sports media wants from you, Atlanta. Don't let them win. They don't deserve it.

1. That's right, Giants fans. Here, click on this one too. Is the agony overwhelming yet?
2. But still the game goes on. The in-bound pass goes to Josh Smith and he surveys the court, looking for an opening, but in that place inside him where there should be strength and hunger and aggression there is only the unshakable feeling that nobody gives a shit—that on this court, in this city, there is no difference between winning and losing—and so he puts up a 28-footer that misses everything.
3. To the extent that there's an actual problem with Atlanta sports fans, I suppose it would be the attendance, but even there it's hardly a crisis. Sure, there's room for improvement across the board, but the Braves and Falcons are in the top half of their leagues, and the Hawks aren't terribly far off. Only the Thrashers truly suffered from poor attendance, and they were a last-place team in a sport nobody cared about—I'm shocked they lasted as long as they did.
4. If my experience is any indication, Parker isn't being hyperbolic with the "are the Falcons playing today?" stuff. And he was wise to put the Falcons there instead of the Hawks—people are generally aware of the Falcons, whereas ill-informed curiosity would be a whole new level of prominence for the Hawks. In 2008 a friend and I went to an Atlanta bar to watch Game 6 against the Celtics—it was the Hawks' first playoff series in almost a decade, and merely by making it competitive they were wildly exceeding expectations. With about a minute left and the outcome still very much in doubt, a dozen people at a nearby table brought out a cake and launched into "Happy Birthday", completely oblivious to the game.
    (My other memory from that night is that after the broadcast ended a Cheers rerun came on, and nobody in the bar cared enough to change the channel. Imagine if this was Boston and the show was The Dukes of Hazzard—Waylon wouldn't make it to "never meanin' no harm" before something violent happened to the TV.)