Tag Archives: Obama

Iran and the US Learn How to Flirt Diplomatically

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Diplomatic body language: Bill Clinton, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat at the White House 1993

Veteran British diplomat Sherard Cowper-Coles says that handling a meeting with Iranian diplomats “after a deep chill” will require patience. Western diplomats will need to “avoid the temptation to cut straight to the chase. It’s very important to spend time on what are much more than opening courtesies.”

It would important to display a knowledge of Iranian history and civilization—but watch out for little gaffes, “like calling the [Persian] Gulf the ‘Arabian Gulf.’”

It’s also not a good idea to overpraise, especially in public. In 1977, then-president Jimmy Carter went to Tehran. At a dinner with the Shah of Iran, Carter raised a glass to his host, and then raised his rhetorical glass even higher.

“Iran—because of the great leadership of the Shah—is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world,” said Carter. “This is a great tribute to you, your majesty and to your leadership and to the respect and admiration and love which your people give to you.”

A few days later, street protests began in Iran, leading eventually to the revolution, and decades of enmity with the United States.

There are, though, plenty of skillful ways to send a message in a diplomatic setting.

Nancy Soderberg, a diplomat under President Bill Clinton, remembers when the Administration agreed to receive Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat at the White House. For Arafat it was big coup to get invited to the president’s home. But there were limits.

Arafat wasn’t allowed to bring his pistol, which he took everywhere with him. And then there was the hugging: Arafat was a big hugger. It just wouldn’t do to have him photographed hugging the president of the United States.

“Right before the meeting President Clinton was being taught by his aides this jujitsu move where if you grabbed Arafat’s elbow, pushed your hip out, there was no way he could hug him,” said Soderberg. “That’s exactly what Clinton did to avoid a picture of him being hugged.”

Arafat did eventually did get his man—seven years later. He and Clinton were finally captured locked in embrace, on neutral territory—Switzerland.

Not that you’d expect quite such warm body language between Obama and Rohani this week. One step at a time.


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“Amnesty”: Sensitive Word in the Immigration Debate

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants (Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

Kids hold signs in front of Los Angeles City Hall, demanding general amnesty for all immigrants (Jonathan McIntosh/Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Jason Margolis

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word amnesty as an act “by which pardon is granted to a large group of individuals.” Many immigrant rights activists argue: that’s not the right word for what’s being talked about today, with regards to the question of what to do with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US.

“Hmmm, amnesty, we don’t say amnesty cause it’s not amnesty,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of the immigrant-rights organization LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley, a heavily Hispanic area in the southeast corner of Texas along the Mexican border. Valdez-Cox has been working with low income Mexican immigrants for three decades.

When President Reagan granted the last amnesty in 1986, 3 million undocumented immigrants were given legal status just by registering with the government.

“What is being talked about (today), is totally not amnesty,” she said. “When people have to pay so much money – because there’s going to be huge fees for having broken the law and coming in illegally – when you have to go to class, when you have to learn the language, that is fine, but the thing is don’t call it amnesty. It is not amnesty. It’s earned, you have to work for it, you have to pay for it. It’s an earned legalization program.”

Just down the road in Alamo, Texas, Michael Seifert, the coordinator of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, said the term amnesty is more commonly used for criminals and former dictators.

“And then we use that same word to talk about, oh we’re giving amnesty to the 11 million people who were brave enough, who were responsible enough, who were bright enough to come to this country and make a living, and create a living, and create neighborhoods.”

I asked Seifert what term he would prefer.

“I would say legalize them, yea. Regularize their status,” he said.

“‘Regularization, normalization,’ I mean it’s almost like you’re stretching not to say the obvious word that everybody uses,” said Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration.

Krikorian said those other other terms are fine to use as well. But, he said, “Amnesty was the word that was used for legalizing illegal immigrants for a long time and still is. It’s simply a standard word for the process of letting those who are out of legal immigration status get right with the law.”

Krikorian said surveys have found that the term amnesty has a negative connotation. It can sound like undocumented immigrants are getting something for nothing. And so, Krikorian said, those of in favor of an amnesty avoid using the word.

“People really, really didn’t like the word amnesty, and needed some euphemism in order to be fooled into to supporting it.”

A few weeks ago, President Obama delivered a 25-minute speech about comprehensive immigration reform. He never used the term amnesty or legalization.

Here’s how he spoke about the 11 million people living in the US illegally: “For comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.”

But just because the president isn’t saying it, that doesn’t mean the word amnesty won’t be used a lot in the coming months.



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Obama’s Simple Rhetoric, and Rubio’s Spanish Reply

Was President Obama’s rhetoric “dumber” than that of George Washington, as The Guardian claimed after analyzing State of the Union speeches over the years? A conversation with much-traveled speechwriter and political consultant Tad Devine.

Also, was Senator Marco Rubio’s Spanish language response effective in turning Latino heads and attitudes? We ask Richard Pineda, who teaches politics and communication at the University of Texas at El Paso.



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America’s Woes From the Outside In

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback surveys the collapsed portion of I-35W Mississippi River bridge. (Photo: Kevin Rofidal, United States Coast Guard)

Two people following the US elections especially closely are Lionel Shriver and Edward Luce. Both are writers.

Shriver is an American who lives in London. Luce is a Brit who lives in Washington DC. Both have one foot in and one foot out of America. They are each insiders and outsiders.

Lionel Shriver is author of We Need To Talk About Kevin and ten other novels. She has lived much of her life outside the United States—in Kenya, Thailand, and now, Britain.

Her annual trips home to New York have become a way of measuring America’s decline. When she drives the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, she sees what was once a serviceable highway now “completely rusted out.” The repairs “look as if they’re made with plywood.”

“You see this all over the United States,” says Shriver. “For visitors it’s quite a shock. Since I only go back every summer, I see this in juddering increments.”

Over time, Shriver has come to a stark conclusion about her homeland: “The United States is failing—and failing big time.”

There’s plenty of evidence to support that. The Pentagon recently commissioned a report on the nation’s defense-industrial preparedness—essentially, a compendium of the companies manufacturing key materials for the military.

Of the nineteen most critical industries servicing the US military, American companies led in all categories in the early 1990s. It now leads in just four of those categories.

That damning statistic was cited by Edward Luce, a Washington-based columnist with Financial Times, in his book called Time To Start Thinking: America and the Specter of Decline. (The US version subs the softer Descent for Decline.)

Luce spent time at the National Defence University, quizzing the kind of military people who he believes will be running the Pentagon a decade from now. He describes them as “panicked” about the disappearance of America’s manufacturing strength.

“They completely depart from Republican Party orthodoxy by saying that the first thing we must do is withdraw from the world,” says Luce. These officer-scholars believe that military strength “is based on economic strength.”

And so they have concluded that the Pentagon needs to slash its budget, freeing up public money for the domestic economy—primarily, education and infrastructure.

That may or may not be a solution. But will it see the light of day in the current political climate? Could such fundamental rethinking be adopted in today’s Washington? Luce doesn’t think so—and nor does Lionel Shriver. They think the country is too polarized.

For someone like Shriver who lives abroad, the gradual tribalization of political America into red and blue appears anything but gradual. It seems not just sudden but difficult to reverse.

Shriver recalls going to a party outside New York on one her recent trips back from Britain.

“Everyone agreed with everyone,” says Shriver.

“I had a conversation or two in which I indicated that I supported the Conservative Party in the UK, that was of course the wrong word.”

She says that made her a pariah. She calls this new-found tribalism, “political apartheid.”

“If you go to a party in the New York area you know that they’re all going to be Democrats. And if you open your mouth and say something that seems faintly Republican or even mildly pleasant about the other side, you’ll shock everyone,” says Shriver. “They will physically pull away from you.”

Writ large, that isn’t a great recipe for solving the country’s problems.

There’s plenty of despair in Shriver’s words—Luce’s too. It may be that they are chroniclers of America’s decline. But they are also passionate chroniclers, who believe that the country can yet learn from its missteps.



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Is Language Holding Back New York’s Bengali Voters?

Bangladeshi-owned barbershop in Jackson Heights, Queens

[Note from Patrick Cox: Here’s a guest post from New York-based reporter Nina Porzucki]

Once a month Zain Ahmed treks from the Upper East Side of Manhattan to a windowless basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, just to get his haircut. “I take 3 or 4 trains just to get here,” says Ahmed. “That’s dedication, right?”

Ahmed works in finance, as a bond researcher. When it comes to the election, he’s most concerned about the economy and “where we’re headed.” Ahmed is a Democrat, and Tuesday he will be voting for Obama.

Ahmed was born in the US but his parents are from Bangladesh. He grew up speaking both English and Bengali. For him, language assistance at the polls isn’t an issue. He didn’t even know that Bengali translations of the ballot would be available—or for that matter that the local Bangladeshi population has grown as much as it has.

According to the latest census, there are enough limited-English speakers of South Asian decent to require language assistance in Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi at certain polling places in Queens. Of those languages, there are more Bengali speakers who speak limited English. While there will be interpreters available for all three languages, officials chose to translate the ballot into just Bengali.

Glenn Magpantay of the Asian American Legal and Education Fund says language assistance to non-English speakers is crucial. If people “are not proficient enough [in English] to read a ballot, should they be denied their right to vote?”

Under the federal Voting Rights Act, more than 5,000 Bengali speakers in Queens should have been able to cast their ballot in Bengali. But ballot translations will not completed in time. The New York City Board of Elections has not explained why and didn’t respond to requests for comment. However, there will be some language assistance at the polls, including interpreters and signage. There will also be sample ballots in Bengali. Just not the real thing. “It’s nice to have a sign which identifies the poll’s site,” says Magpantay. “But really the ballot that you mark to vote for the president or senator or member of congress needs to be in a language that the voter actually understands.”

Magpantay isn’t quite sure how the lack of Bengali ballots will affect those 5,000 potential voters. Jackson Heights Barber Sonatan Sil is one of them. When I ask Sil about the importance of voting in his mother tongue, Sil brushes off the question. He’s more concerned about deciding who to vote for. Sil says he still hasn’t made up his mind between Obama and Romney. “I am not Democrat,” he says. “I am not Republican.”

Sonatan Sil gives Zain Ahmen a haircut (Photo: Nina Porzucki)

This surprises his Upper East Side customer Zain Ahmed. Ahmed shakes his head at the barber. “To me that’s absurd. I mean I’m a religious middle-class minority,” says Ahmed. “The opposition is not in favor of people like me.”

The undecided barber shakes his head back at his Obama supporting customer. For Sil the biggest issue this election season is jobs. “Romney’s policies [are], I think, good policies,” he tells his customer.

Ahmed gets upset. “What are you saying?” he says to the barber. “What are you talking about? Not for people like us.”

The discussion continues on just like that throughout the entire haircut. Sil, the barber talks about his dislike of Obamacare. Ahmed, the customer continues to disagree.

There’s no consensus in sight—just like discussions in barbershops in Ohio or Florida. In a small basement shop in Jackson Heights, Queens, democracy certainly is alive and buzzing. But while Ahmed and Sil have the language skills to easily navigate the English ballot this election day, many of their neighbors may not.

[Patrick Cox adds: In the pod, I mentioned two other language-related election stories. In Maricopa County, AZ, election officials put out a Spanish-language flyer urging people to vote on November 8, two days after the day when everyone else will be voting. And California’s official Korean-language voters’ guide said that Proposition 20 would raise the state sales tax by 25 cents, one hundred times higher than the correct amount, a quarter of one cent.]



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The Perils of Campaigning in Spanish

[This is a guest post from my colleague at the Big Show, Jason Margolis.]

This summer Mitt Romney appeared on a Cuban-American radio program in Florida. Romney was on his way to a fruit juice stand, so, the host asked him: What are your favorite types of fruit?

“I am a big fan of mango, papaya, and guava,” said Romney.

The hosts couldn’t suppress their laughter.

The chuckles were because Romney said he likes papaya. That might not strike you as all that that funny. But papaya is Cuban slang for vagina.

Now, c’mon. Let’s be mature and fair here. Who, besides a Cuban or Cuban American, would know that?

But that’s not the only Spanish slip-up from Romney. His most notorious one came five years ago when he was giving an impassioned anti-Castro speech in Miami.

“And at the end of speech, Romney had the crowd fired up,” said Joe Garcia, a Cuban American in Miami who unsuccessfully ran for US Congress in Miami as a Democrat. “And he (Romney) ended, ‘Patria o Muerte, Venceremos — the nation or death we shall win,’ which is the closing line of all of Fidel Castro’s speeches, right? It’s a great line. Unfortunately for Romney it was the wrong line in this crowd.”

But Romney is far from alone having problems with Spanish.

In 2008, then Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton told the crowd, “Sí, se pueda.”

She meant to say “Sí, se puede,” instead of “Sí, se pueda.” Not a huge deal, but it is among the most famous American political phrases in Spanish, made famous by Cesar Chavez in the 1960’s.

Then there’s the downright bad Spanish from Newt Gingrich.

But at the end of the day, does it really matter if an English-speaking politician has a bad accent or mess up a few words?

In Denver, I met American voters Maria Young, originally from Mexico, and Martha Caban from Puerto Rico. I asked them what they thought of candidates who mangle their Spanish.

“I will say a couple of brownie points, yes, because at least they tried,” said Young.

Caban said, “I give them points too, following what Maria said, because at least they’re honoring and respecting us and trying to do something to connect with us.”

But what if they really, really screw it up like Romney did in Miami, speaking to Cuban American voters and quoting Fidel Castro?

“It will not matter. I am used to bad translations, so it doesn’t matter,” said Young.

And that’s coming from an Obama supporter.

But Christine Marquez-Hudson of the Mi Casa Resource Center in Denver said, “I think it can come across as patronizing.”

She said if a politician’s message is inauthentic, she doesn’t want to hear their Spanish.

“When someone comes out who has absolutely no personal connection and says, ‘hola, bienvenido,’ and they say it in a really terrible accent. I think it can be offensive.”

But Marquez-Hudson doesn’t see this from either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. She says Romney’s connection to Latin America gives his attempts at Spanish some authenticity. And she appreciates when President Obama uses his favorite Spanish phrase, “Sí, se puede.”

Marquez-Hudson said, “The thing about Obama is that he was a community organizer, and Sí, se puede is a community organizing chant, and so that’s the connection for me.”

Presidential candidates and their surrogates have been speaking some Spanish as far back as the 1960’s.

John F. Kennedy “Viva Kennedy” campaign reached out to Latino voters.

Since then, many presidential candidates have tried some Spanish here and there, most notably President George W. Bush who often spoke the language.

President Bush was applauded by many for speaking Spanish. Though, many also made fun of his Texas accent.

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Obama campaigns at the Los Angele Trade Technical College. (Photo: Jason Reed/REUTERS)

Democratic presidential candidate US Senator Obama campaigns at the Los Angele Trade Technical College. (Photo: Jason Reed/REUTERS)

So, at the end of the day, what’s a candidate do? Try a little Spanish? Not try? Why bother if it can result in endless ridicule?

I asked Diane McGreal what she would advise. McGreal works with the language company Berlitz and directs the company’s global leadership training program.

“I would inoculate the audience. I would say to them right up front, I would start out by saying, I want to apologize for any mistakes that I make and then say a few words. And then the next step would be to ask their permission to continue in English, to say it’s important that that the message I get across is clear and understood.”

And there is one other way to make absolutely certain you get your Spanish correct. Pre-record the message. Mitt Romney ends his Spanish-language campaigns flawlessly staying, “Soy Mitt Romney y apruebo este mensaje.”



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Fear of Foreign Languages, Hospital English, and Garifuna Music

Some US Presidential candidates seem embarrassed by their ability to speak a foreign language. Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich speak at least some French. Romney picked his up while on Mormon mission in France. Gingrich acquired his as a teenager while his father his US serviceman father was stationed there. Yet Gingrich made fun of Romney in a TV ad because he  “speaks French.” The implication seems to be that speaking a foreign language muddies your 100% all-American vision.

No wonder Jon Huntsman didn’t catch on as a Presidential candidate. Huntsman speaks some Chinese (those Mormon missions come in handy for something). And, unlike the rest of them, he didn’t shy away from showing off his Chinese while campaigning.

For his part, President Obama has oscillated between a populist boast of ignorance (“my French and German are terrible!”) tempered by chagrin (“I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!”).

The Obama Administration has tried to make funding more available for foreign language learning. (Part of the problem has been the “No Child Left Behind” law which leaves languages behind. The law’s relentless testing in English reading and  math offers teachers little incentive to stray from the subject of the next exam. Instead, they teach to the test.) In recent years Congress has cut federal foreign language learning grants.

I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this list of the languages spoken by each American president since Washington,  but it makes for fascinating reading.

Going to the Idiomatic Bathroom

Also in the pod this week, we hear from a hospital in King’s Lynn in the English county of Norfolk. Foreign nurses there are expected to speak and understand English, and just to make sure they understand British-English hospitalese, they now take an additional course.  They learn some of the many variations for going to the bathroom, especially the ones favored by the mainly elderly patients who like to “spend a penny” or “go to the lavvy.” Other key colloquialisms: “jim-jams” (pajamas), “tickled pink” (delighted) and “higgledy-piggledy” (in a muddle).

As well as those British English terms, there is the regional Norfolk dialect. Among the pertinent (and not so pertinent) words  the nurses may learn are: “blar” (to cry), “mawther” (young woman: somewhat derogatory), “mardle” (chat, gossip) and “bishy barney bee’ (a ladybird/ladybug).

Those nurses might have got more than they bargained for.

Garifuna Revival Through Song

 Finally, reporter Nina Porzucki profiles Belizean singer James Lovell who is trying to keep the Garifuna language relevant.

The Garifuna people come from the Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. But no one speaks Garifuna there any more. No one has since the 18th century, when the Garifuna were exiled by the British to Honduras. The diaspora is now spread throughout Central America in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Belize.

The Garifuna language has survived but over time, Spanish, English and several creoles have become more dominant. The pattern is familiar: parents speak in their native tongue. Kids answer back in the language of the adopted country.

As a child,  Lovell would hear his parents and grandparents speaking Garifuna, and though he understood it,  he spoke Belizean Creole. It was only when he heard local musician Pen Cayetano singing in Garifuna that Lovell became interested in the language.

Cayetano sang about contemporary social issues. And his music was part of a new sound called Punta Rock.

That inspired Lovell to learn to speak and sing in Garifuna, which eventually led to his current project. With backing from the New York-based Endangered Language Alliance, Lovell is translating popular English language songs into Garifuna. He’s also helping Lovell raise money for an after-school program to teach Garifuna to kids in Lovell’s Brooklyn neighborhood—kids who, like Lovell, came from Garifuna backgrounds but don’t speak the language.

Lesson one for these kids: the pre-school hit I Love You as sung by Barney, the giant purple dinosaur.

Listen via iTunes or here.


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