On the Importance of Learning a Second Language

Portrait caricatureThere is an article in today’s New York Times entitled “The Benefits of Failing at French” that reminds me of a debate in the Times back in 2011 entitled “Why Didn’t the U.S. Foresee the Arab Revolts?” Six scholars, academics, political appointees and think tankers debate the issue in The Times online. They all appear to believe it is very complicated.

Jennifer E. Sims, a professor and director of intelligence studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, thinks the problem is our over reliance on foreign assistance.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA officer, thinks it’s that we were captured by “group think.”

Vicki Divoll, a professor of U.S. government and constitutional development at the United States Naval Academy, the former general counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and assistant general counsel to the C.I.A., thinks the president is at fault for failing to allocate sufficient resources to the CIA. But then, on the other hand, she says “no amount of resources can predict the unknowable. Sometimes no one is to blame.”

Richard K. Betts, the Arnold A. Saltzman Professor of War and Peace Studies, director of the International Security Policy program at Columbia University and the author of Enemies of Intelligence: Knowledge and Power in American National Security, thinks the problem is that “it is impossible to know exactly what will catalyze a chain of events producing change.”

Celeste Ward Gventer associate director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense, thinks the problem is that we’re too preoccupied with “foreign policy minutiae.”

Peter Bergen, the director of the national security studies program at the New America Foundation and is the author of “The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict between America and Al-Qaeda,” thinks the explanation is as simple as that revolutions are unpredictable.

There is probably some small grain of truth in each of these rationalizations. I’m only a professor of philosophy, not a professor of political science, let alone a former governmental bureaucrat, political appointee, or think-tank fat cat. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that despite all the theories offered above, the real reason we didn’t see the revolts coming was good old-fashioned stupidity. That’s our strong suit in the U.S.–stupidity. We’re the most fiercely anti-intellectual of all the economically developed nations, and proud of it! We go on gut feelings. Oh yes, our elected officials even proudly proclaim this. We don’t think too much, and on those few occasions when we do, we’re really bad at it for lack of practice.

One of the great things about Americans is that they are probably the least nationalistic people in the world. Oh yeah, they trot out the flag on the fourth of July and for the Super Bowl, but that’s about it. A few crazy fascists brandish it throughout the year, but most people, except for a brief period after September 11,th pay no attention to them. Danes, in contrast, about whom I know a little because I lived there for eight years, plaster Danish flags all over everything. Stores put them in their windows when they have sales, they are standard decorations for almost every holiday and a must, in their small toothpick versions, for birthday cakes. This isn’t because they suffer from some sort of aesthetic deficiency that compels them to turn to this national symbol for want of any better idea of how to create a festive atmosphere. No, Danes throw Danish flags all over everything because they are incredibly nationalistic, as is about every other European and almost everyone else in the rest of the world who’s had to fight off the encroachment of foreign powers onto their national sovereignty. We’ve seldom, OK, really never, had to do that. Still, if we, you know, seriously studied European history, we would have something of an appreciation for how basic is nationalism to the psyches of most people in the world and we could use this as our point of departure for understanding the dynamics of international relations, as well as for appreciating the obstacles to our understanding of the internal dynamics of other countries.

Years ago, when I had just returned to the U.S. after having spent the previous eight years living in Denmark, I accompanied one of my former professors to a Phi Beta Kappa dinner in Philadelphia (he was the member, not I). The speaker that evening, was the former editor of the one-time illustrious Philadelphia Inquirer. His talk, apart from one offhand comment, was eminently forgettable. That one comment, however, left an indelible impression on me. This editor, whom I think was Robert Rosenthal, mentioned, at one point, that he did not think it was important for foreign correspondents to know the language of the country from which they were reporting because, as he explained, “you can always find someone who speaks English.”

How do you begin to challenge a statement of such colossal stupidity? It’s true, of course, that you can always, or at least nearly always, find a person who speaks English. I don’t mean to suggest that that’s not true. The problem is, if you don’t know the indigenous language, to use an expression from anthropology, then you really have no idea whether you are being told the whole story. And the thing is, if you ever do become fluent in a second language, and more or less assimilated into a culture into which you were not born, you will know that foreigners are never given the whole story. This was clear to me as a result of my having lived in Denmark, Denmark, a country with which we are on friendly terms, a country that in many ways is strikingly similar to the U.S. How much clearer ought it to be with respect to countries with which we are not on friendly terms, countries we know are either deeply ambivalent about us or outright hate us?

You will always get a story in English, certainly, from a native about what is going on in some other country, but if you don’t know the language of the people, then you aren’t really in a position to assess whether the story might be biased. You might have some idea of the social class of the person who is your source, but how are you going to know what the people as a whole think of this class, or of this individual? How are you going to know whether this person has some sort of personal or political agenda, or whether he is simply attempting to whitewash was is going on out of national pride, or a fear of being perceived by foreigners as powerless, or provincial, or intolerant?

This seems a fairly straightforward point, yet it is one that nearly all Americans miss. We generalize from our own experience. We assume everyone is just like we are, or just like we are taught to be, which usually means that we assume pretty much everyone in the world is motivated primarily by the objective of personal, material enrichment. We don’t really understand things such as cultural pride or what is, for so much of the rest of the world, the fierce desire for self-determination, so we are pretty much always taken by surprise when such things seems to motivate people. That’s the real meaning of “American exceptionalism,” an expression that is used in an increasing number of disciplines from law, to political science, to history with varying shades of meaning in each. That is, the real meaning is that our difference from the rest of the world is that we are dumber. Yes, that’s right, we are the dumbest f#*@!ing people on the face of the earth and just now, when we need so desperately to understand what is going on in other parts of the world, we are reducing, and in some instances even completely eliminating, the foreign language programs in our schools and universities.

It’s no great mystery why we didn’t foresee the Arab revolts. The mystery is why we seem incapable of learning from either history or our own experience. It doesn’t help for the writing to be on the wall if you can’t read the language.

(This piece originally appeared under the title “The Writing on the Wall” in the February 28, 2011 edition of Counterpunch)




Some Thoughts on Healthcare

Portrait caricatureThroughout the three years I lived in Canada, and the eight years I lived in Denmark, I would periodically return to the U.S. to see family and friends. I would regale my American acquaintances with stories of what it was like to live in a land with little to no poverty, absurdly cheap to outright free higher education, a generous minimum wage and free government healthcare. I was surprised and even hurt to find that instead of inspiring my listeners to lobby for such things themselves, I was branded an “America hater.” My hope that we might bring the quality of life indicators in the U.S. up to, or at least approaching, those of every other economically developed nation was viewed not, as I had conceived it myself, as an expression of fervent patriotism, but as outright treachery. How dare I say that anyone anywhere in the world was actually living better than people in the U.S!

Everyone knows there are lies, damn lies and statistics, so why would any intelligent American give credence to fantastical claims about such abstract and esoteric things as life expectancy, infant mortality, rates of disease, obesity and malnutrition? And how can you be malnourished anyway if you’re obese? Clearly these statistics are just part of a leftist conspiracy to make us feel stupid for believing what everyone knows is the God’s honest truth–that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, and that no people on earth live better than we do!

I am beginning to wonder, actually, whether the people who are opposed to a government option in the healthcare debate might not be right. That is, I am coming to view it as irrelevant to the debate that my experience of the Canadian and Danish systems was very positive, far more positive, actually, than has been my experience of the American system since I moved back to the U.S. in 1998. I saw physicians in Canada and Denmark for bladder infections, colds, sinus infections, acne, toxoplasmosis, migraines and suspected melanoma. I could always get an appointment within a few days of calling. Never did I wait more than twenty minutes to see the doctor and usually the wait was less than ten. I did have one bad experience in Denmark. I went to a doctor for acne and was told pointedly that I did not suffer from acne and that I should not be wasting the doctor’s time. But then I just went to another doctor who was very sympathetic and who prescribed a topical antibiotic–all without paying a dime.

My best experience with the Danish system was the treatment I received for migraines. I was diagnosed with migraines by a friend who was a physician and who very kindly wrote me a prescription for some new medicine, Imitrex (Imigran in Denmark), which he said was very effective. I was initially put out when I had the prescription filled and learned that my little 100mg pills were approximately $5 each. Five dollars a pill, I thought, that’s outrageous! It was only later when I ran out of the medicine in the U.S. and found out that it would cost me $100 for a 100mg dose that I came to appreciate how reasonable was the $5 price.

I asked my friend, when I returned to Denmark, why there was such a huge discrepancy in the price of the Drug in the U.S. versus the drug in Denmark. The Danish government, he explained to me, negotiated with the pharmaceutical companies to buy drugs in bulk at very low prices, then on top of that, the government subsidized 75% of the cost so that the public paid only 25% of what the government had paid. We both quickly did the math and realized that the Danish government was paying Glaxo Smith Kline $20 for a 100mg dose of Imitrex.

But if the Danish government could get it for $20, why did Americans have to pay $100 for it? Of course most Americans who take Imitrex don’t really pay $100 for it, not directly anyway; their insurance companies pay $100 for it. That’s why, as I learned to my distress when I moved back to the U.S., my insurance company would not cover more than six doses per month of Imitrex, Maxalt, or Zomig, or any other of the new migraine drugs. If I needed more than six doses (as I sometimes do), I was on my own.

Of course it would be easier for U.S. insurance companies simply to negotiate with the pharmaceutical companies the way the Danish government does to get drugs at a more reasonable price–but then it would be harder for them to charge such high premiums! Or perhaps it is just that the drug companies know that Americans are blithering idiots whom they can easily milk for five times the cost of what they feel is sufficient to justify the sale of the same medicine to Danes if they can convince us that by paying more we are avoiding the taint of socialism. No matter that the Danish money goes into the same capitalist coffers as our American money. We won’t see the implications of this because we are just irredeemably stupid.

If you want proof of Americans’ stupidity just listen to the talk in the U.S. about how government healthcare would limit people’s choices. My experience has been precisely the opposite. It’s private health insurance that is designed to make a profit off people’s illnesses that limits their choices. That’s how these companies make a profit, actually–by limiting people’s choices. That’s why Obamacare isn’t going to be much better than the old system: it still depends on insurance companies. How much money can insurance companies make if they cover every visit to the doctor, every medicine or treatment you need and make sure you were fully and completely taken care of?

No, insurance companies make their money by cutting corners on your care. We’d understand that if we weren’t butt stupid. My doctor in Denmark could prescribe for me as many doses of Imitrex per month as I needed, and I could afford to pay for as many doses as he prescribed, whereas my doctor in the U.S. bemoans that her patients cannot get more than six doses per month.

In Philadelphia, I used to have these really long waits in my gynecologist’s office. I waited almost two hours once. I don’t go to that gynecologist anymore. It wasn’t my choice though. The cost of malpractice insurance in Pennsylvania drove the good doctor into early retirement. When I went back to my primary care physician for a referral to a new gynecologist, she just threw up her hands. Everyone was leaving PA, she told me, because of the cost of malpractice insurance. She did know of one doctor who was very good and who might be willing to take me on as a new patient. “She doesn’t take insurance though,” my doctor explained apologetically. So even though I am fully insured by my university employer, I have to pay through the nose for my annual gynecology exams. And no, I can’t get reimbursed because the cost doesn’t exceed my “out-of-network deductible.” And I have to drive to New Jersey for my exams, because this doctor too has now left PA.

Oh how I long for the days when if I did not choose my own physician, the Danish government would simply appoint one for me within a four block radius of my residence, when I never waited more than a few minutes for first-class care, never paid even a small “co-pay” for it and when I could get as much medicine as my doctor felt I needed at a price I could afford even when I was still a student.

Americans don’t want to hear these stories though. I’ve had people become so angry with me when I explained how positive was my experience of two different government run healthcare systems that I actually feared they might spit on me. In a way, I don’t blame them. Hearing how the rest of the economically developed world lives is, for Americans, like hearing that everyone else is riding around in shiny new cars while we are having to make do with our broken-down bicycles. This, coupled with the knowledge that the U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries, per capita, in the world–well, it’s just too much to handle. Smoke begins to come out of people’s ears like the robot in “Lost in Space.” “Can’t compute, can’t compute” our little underdeveloped intellects scream until we begin to fear that our brains might actually explode. And they probably would explode if information about how other country’s health care systems work actually begins to filter through the Neanderthal-like layers of ignorance, prejudice and chauvinism that constitute the American skull.

Yes, it’s true. I have become an America hater. When I lived in Denmark, I used to long nostalgically for the open-minded, socially egalitarian culture of my forefathers. I felt a deep connection to the country where my ancestors had come before it even was a country. It actually took being back here to turn me off of it. I think we Americans have to look the facts squarely in the face and admit that we are hopeless losers. No matter that other countries’ governments can provide their citizens with quality health care–WE will not be able to do it. Someone in the halls of power would figure out a way to siphon off all the money for him or herself so that we would be left with a system that is just as bad as the one we have to endure now. No matter that other peoples would not accept such a system from their governments–WE would accept it.

We would accept a wretchedly bad government-run healthcare system because we will accept anything from the government. Poul Schlüter had to resign as prime minister of Denmark in 1993 after it was revealed that someone in his administration had conspired to keep political refuges from bringing their families to Denmark, as Danish immigration law clearly stated they could. Schlüter wasn’t even directly involved, but it happened on his watch. Someone in his government had broken the rules. Danes don’t like it when their politicians break the rules–so Schlüter was forced to resign.

Americans don’t mind when politicians break the rules though. We’ll accept election fraud, torture, the violations of our civil rights. A president, or other elected official, can even tell outright lies to trick us into a war that by conservative estimates has killed tens of thousands of completely innocent people, not only without losing office, but without even losing face!

Yes, we’d accept a completely dysfunctional system of government-run healthcare. We’d accept it and with characteristic fatalism tell ourselves that, after all, that was all one could expect from a government-run system. No matter that other governments can run such systems effectively–we would not be able to do it … because we are complete losers!

Look at what we have already accepted: hours-long waits at the doctor’s office, insurance companies telling us they will not cover our “pre-existing conditions” and will allow us only so much medicine, even for conditions that are covered. No matter that it wasn’t always this bad. We’ve accepted a long, and apparently inexorable, diminution in the quality of healthcare in the U.S. It doesn’t matter that, for example, the Canadian system and the Danish system are far superior to the system we have now in the U.S.–even for the fully insured .

We are going to hell in a hand basket and we know it. Things can only get worse. Any change, our experience of the last twenty-five years tells us, can only be for the worse, so we resist change. We know things can only get worse because we know, on some level, that the entire rest of lthe economically developed world left us in the dust long ago. Mention the French, high-speed trains and see what kind of reaction you get out of people. It might be wise, however, to check for the location of the nearest exist before you mention that they can reach speeds of almost 200mph miles per hour and get you from Paris to Frankfurt in four hours (Amtrak would take about 14 hours to go the equivalent distance).

(An earlier version of this piece was published in the 14 September, 2009 edition of Counterpunch )