Tag Archives: rhetoric

How to apologize for the Cultural Revolution without blaming the Communist Party

It’s been 25 years since Chinese forces opened fire on students encamped in Tiananmen Square. But that’s recent history.

Too recent for anyone to start apologizing for their conduct. Not so the Cultural Revolution.

The Cultural Revolution is far enough in the past (1966-76) for people to now start taking blame for some of its bloodiest moments. Of course, many of them are reaching the end of their lives, and may feel the need to atone for their actions.

Former Red Guard leader, Chen Xiaolu returned to his old school in Beijing last year to apologize for his actions in back in 1966. ( Photo provided by Chen Xiaolu)

Former Red Guard leader, Chen Xiaolu returned to his old school in Beijing last year to apologize for his actions in back in 1966. ( Photo provided by Chen Xiaolu)


Former Red Guard leader, Chen Xiaolu returned to his old school in Beijing last year to apologize for his actions in back in 1966.The words of these confessors are carefully, sometimes artfully chosen. With few exceptions, they go out of their way not to blame the Communist officials for inciting them — though government rhetoric at the time set peasants against landowners, the uneducated against intellectuals.

In the podcast, I ask The World’s Matthew Bell about this. He recently reported two stories out of China, also included in the podcast, which deals with different aspects of how the Cultural Revolution is remembered.

In one, Matthew visits a Cultural Revolution-themed restaurant, and speaks with a well-connected business executive the who has publicly apogized for his role in beatings of staff at a middle school.

It was a significant apology: Chen had been a local leader of the Red Guards, the stormtroopers of the Cultural Revolution, and he is the son of a Chinese army general who was close to Mao Zedong.

Bian Zhongyun's children mourn the death of their mother, as seen in the documentary "Though I am Gone." Bian was a school principal who beaten to death 1968 by a crowd.

Bian Zhongyun’s children mourn the death of their mother, as seen in the documentary “Though I am Gone.” Bian was a school principal who beaten to death 1968 by a crowd.

In Matthew’s other story, a Chinese filmmaker tells the story of a Beijing high school principal killed by mob of schoolgirls armed with homemade spiked clubs. The schoolgirls had been radicalized by Red Guards.


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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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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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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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The battle to own Bin Laden’s story

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, a new battle has begun: the rhetorical fight to frame his legacy. The White House got off to a bad start, with its initial claims about the circumstances of the killing. We offer two stabs at this story, one from the perspective of the US government, the other from a cultural point of view. There have been many other such stabs: I especially like this one in Slate. And here’s something on the inevitable memorabilia-exploitation of the moment (if not the man).

Here’s a great blog post on Language Log on how 9/11 changed The Pentagon’s language priorities. Which transitions nicely into the next item…

The Big Show’s Alex Gallafent tries out a couple of instant translation devices. This comes as The Pentagon’s research arm, DARPA, prepares to decide on one or more devices to equip military personnel in combat and other field situations.  (This is the second of a two-part series on The Pentagon’s history of language training and interpretation. Part One is here).

Finally, a quixotic attempt by a retired government accountant to lighten up the lyrics to Peru’s national anthem. And these are some truly grim lyrics. Translated into English, the first verse –the only verse that’s usually sung– goes like this:

For a long time the opressed Peruvian
the ominous chain he dragged
Condemned to a cruel servitude
for a long time, for a long time
for a long time he quietly whimpered
But then the sacret shout
Liberty! in its coasts has been heard
the slave’s indolence beats
the humiliated, the humiliated,
the humiliated neck raised up,
the humiliated neck raised up, neck raised up.

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Obama’s new words, Avatar in the Amazon, and a Chinese satirical extravaganza

As Barack Obama enters the second year of his presidency, he’s dropped some expressions — among them, war on terror, associated of course mainly with George W. Bush and AfPak, a conflation of Afghanstan and Pakistan, which didn’t go down too well in Pakistan. In his State of Union speech, Obama didn’t even mention the Middle East. His administration has invented a few phrases too: remotely piloted aircraft (drones) and overseas contingency operations (wars).  Also, a count of his favorite State of the Union words done by The Guardian kicks up some surprises:  Obama really likes the word I. Other presidents liked America (George W. Bush), government (Ronald Reagan. I don’t think he was being complimentary) and new (Lyndon Johnson).

Next, it’s to Quito, Ecuador, and a special screening of Avatar.

The 3-D screening was for a couple of Ecuador’s indigenous groups, the Shuar and the Achuar. Both are struggling to maintain control of their land in the face of attempts to exploit it by Ecuadorean and multinational corporations. Avatar, of course, is about much the same thing, albeit with a future setting on a far-away planet inhabited by tall blue creatures who speak a language called Na’vi.  (See my previous post on Na’vi, the new Klingon.) We have a report on the screening, and some language-related comments from Alejandro Mayaprua, an Achuar leader,  and Mayra Vega, president of the Women’s Association of the Shuar Nation of Ecuador. That’s them below. Also, check out this video on the screening from reporter Melaina Spitzer.

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After that, there’s a piece from Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad on a new online satirical movie that’s all the rage in China. It features a Chinese double-entendre phrase aimed at avoiding government censorship (it didn’t avoid censorship; it was eventually banned).  People became aware of the expression here in the U.S. after the New York Times ran a story on it. The movie also includes a fantastic “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” rant, which you can hear in all its glory in the pod.  Or you can watch a version of the movie with English subtitles here.

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