There's been a certain poignancy to Veteran's Day, in recent times, as the very last keepers of exactly what November 11th means close their aging eyes and leave us. At last count this year, there were perhaps five veterans of WWI still living. Add those too young to fight, and there are still only a handful who remember the end of the war and all that era contained and meant.
The living memory of World War II is not quite so close to extinction, but it, too, is slipping away. The youngest WWII veterans ... assuming an age of 17 at the end of the war ... are now 81. There might be one or two who slipped in younger, but if the living memory of the war were a language, it would be classified as "moribund," meaning it had only a few elderly speakers left, according to the UNESCO "Atlas of World Languages in Danger of Disappearing."
We feel the ache and pressure, as time grows short, to try to preserve as much of the wisdom and as many of the memories from those veterans as we can, sensing that when the last of them leave us, we will be bereft of something important; a part of our heritage, story and learning that will leave us the poorer for its loss. There's even a Veterans History Project, organized by the Library of Congress, that's trying to collect as many veterans' stories as possible before time runs out.
Our parents' and great-great-grandparents' memories, after all, tell us not only of the world before our time, but of who we are and where we came from. They give us our pride, our shame, our sense of grounding and roots, and a sense of continuity that is a unique part of our personal narrative and identity. But what about the language those ancestors spoke? Is that an important part of the picture, as well? And does it need to be kept "alive" in the same sense that we want their stories remembered and retold?
It's a relevant question, because experts expect 90% of the world's approximately 7,000 languages will become extinct in the next 100 years as cultures mesh and isolated tribes die out. And the answer may well depend on where you sit when you view the question.
Some in the linguistic community are responding to the accelerating pace of language loss by scrambling to create a language database similar to the Library of Congress's Veterans History Project. Fifty internationally-renowned linguists are gathering at the University of Utah this week to take the first steps in trying to catalogue some of the world's endangered, seriously endangered, or moribund languages before they become extinct. They hope that the databases they help to create (and help direct funding to support) will provide the equivalent of DNA material that can be used to reconstruct languages, with all their cultural clues and connections, even after the last person with a spoken knowledge of them dies.
"The wisdom of humanity is coded in language," says Lyle Campbell, director of the university's Center for American Indian Languages. "Once a language dies, the knowledge dies with it."
But not all linguists agree. In a recent World Affairs article, John McWhorter, a linguist and lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, asked "would it be inherently evil if there were not 6,000 spoken languages but one? We must consider the question in its pure, logical essence, apart from particular associations with English and its history."
McWhorter's argument, which is long, asserts that while the death of a language is an artistic loss, our attachment to diverse languages itself is a bit perverse, given that he believes they grew up as a function of diverse geographical dispersion of people. Language, he believes, is not inherently linked to culture. And that as a matter of practicality in an increasingly global world, the use and existence of fewer languages is not only less work, in terms of learning and maintenance, but actually an advantage.
More than one aspiring national government, especially in its nascent stages, would have agreed with McWhorter on that last point. But not because language is separate from culture. On the contrary, efforts to stamp out regional languages and instill one, unified national language are undertaken because language is so inextricable and central to culture. So just as regional or tribal languages are seen as a threat to national loyalty and identity, a national language doesn't just make trade and communication easier. It also helps build another, unified, "national" identity, instead.
Unfortunately, that strategy doesn't always work. Or, at least, not without a cost. Pamela Serota Cote, whose doctoral research at the University of San Francisco focused on Breton language and identity, argues that looking at language as only a practical tool or as an outside connaisseur, as McWhorter does, misses the central importance of language to personal narrative and identity.
"We understand things, events, ourselves and others through a process of interpretation, which occurs in language," she argues. "The diversity of our languages represents the richness of our expressiveness of Being. This is how language, culture and identity intersect; it is also why the loss of a language is such a concern and why minority language rights is such an emotionally charged issue in countries around the world. Because language discloses cultural and historical meaning, the loss of language is a loss of that link to the past. Without a link to the past, people in a culture lose a sense of place, purpose and path; one must know where one came from to know where one is going. The loss of language undermines a people's sense of identity and belonging, which uproots the entire community in the end. Yes, they may become incorporated into the dominant language and culture that has subsumed them, but they have lost their heritage along the way."
If the last living members of a community or culture who speak a particular dialect or language die, there are no descendants to be uprooted, of course. And, perhaps, there is nothing to be done about that. Serota Cote acknowledges for a language to be revived, there has to be a population left to learn it, and a strong desire among the young people to revive that connection with their heritage.
But in Brittany, which was gathered into France only after the Revolution, the language became endangered not because of low population numbers, but because national edicts mandated that French be the only language spoken or learned. Finally, in the late 1970s, a movement sprung up to revive the Breton language, which bears far more resemblance to the tongue of Brittany's Celtic settlers than French. Language immersion schools now teach the language to children wishing to learn Breton as well as French, and other cultural revival efforts in Breton music and dance have accompanied the language movement.
The result has been remarkable, even though only a tiny percentage of Bretons actually go through the language schools. The Bretons have not revolted against French rule. But the shame at being Breton has receded, much as the African-American "Roots" movement reduced the shame at being black by offering a narrative story and pride that the children of subsumed slaves had lacked. A high rate of alcoholism and depression has receded and, as Serota Cote observed, "every Breton I spoke with who has learned the language as an adult said they feel now that they have been able to close the gap and heal those past wounds of shame. Many described finally discovering their roots by learning the language. One Breton said that the language 'completes the whole.'"
The challenge of melding and balancing past and present; tribal roots and unified national identity is one many nations struggle with. Too much tribal loyalty can breed division, but too much focus on an unified whole can destroy not only colors in the cultural fabric of a country, but an important sense of identity and narrative continuity among its diverse citizens. And language, like family or cultural memories, can play an important role in that narrative.
Sometimes language dies because an entire population dies out. That's still a loss, just as every plant and animal that becomes extinct is a loss to the richness of the planet's tapestry of existence. But in cases where the language wanes not because of physical extinction, but because of cultural subsumption, the loss of a language is a far more personal tragedy ... at least to those within that culture. For someone inside a lost or dying culture, a language can be like the memories of our grandparents--not required, or even convenient, for efficiency of operation in a modern, globalized world, but essential for our sense of roots, security, identity, pride, continuity and wholeness.
Life moves on. World War I is a distant memory, even for the elderly. Many Americans don't even know the real origins of "Veteran's Day." But imagine, for a moment, if we'd lost more than just the memory of the day's origins. Imagine if, along with losing those who remembered the world when Armistice Day was first celebrated, or even what the experience of WWII meant, we were also losing the language through which those memories had been lived and recorded. Chances are that any arguments about the accidental origins of that language, or its obscure use in the commercial world, would suddenly seem far less important to us than keeping that link with our heritage and past alive. No matter what anyone on the outside thought.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Some conservatives are defying expectation and backing the Vermont senator.
When Tarie MacMillan switched on her television in August to watch the first Republican presidential debate, she expected to decide which candidate to support.
But MacMillan, a 65-year-old Florida resident, was disappointed. “I looked at the stage and there was nobody out there who I really liked. It just seemed like a showcase for Trump and his ridiculous comments,” she recalled. “It was laughable, and scary, and a real turning point.”
So she decided to back Bernie Sanders, the self-described “Democratic socialist” challenging Hillary Clinton. MacMillan was a lifelong Republican voter until a few weeks ago when she switched her party affiliation to support the Vermont senator in the primary. It will be the first time she’s ever voted for a Democrat.
The Speaker’s reformist ambitions fall victim to his need to manage the media cycle.
Before taking the speakership last month, Paul Ryan made a promise to fix a “broken” House of Representatives and return the chamber to “regular order.” Eschewing the centralized authority of his predecessor, John Boehner, Ryan promised to put legislative power back in the hands of rank-and-file members—something key House constituencies had been clamoring for.
Under regular order, House bills go through an often-lengthy process from subcommittee to the floor; they are vetted, debated, and amended before receiving a final up-or-down vote. A return to regular order is one of the few areas with serioussupport from both ultraconservative Freedom Caucus members and progressive reformers in the House. After all, legislators on both sides of the aisle want a chance to be heard, offer amendments, and share expertise. Ryan concurred: “The committees should retake the lead in drafting all major legislation. When we rush to pass bills, a lot of us do not understand, we are not doing our job.”
If you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion. When Ben Carson was challenged about his claim that Darwin was encouraged by the devil, he replied, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” When the literary theorist Stanley Fish chastised atheists such as Richard Dawkins, he wrote, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” and described those who don't accept evolution as belonging to “a different faith community.”
Scientists are annoyed by these statements because they suggest that science and religion share a certain epistemological status. And, indeed, many humanists and theologians insist that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives exist alongside scientific ones, and can even supersede them.
Nobody’s focused on winning the peace. That’s a big problem.
In August 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met off the coast of Newfoundland to outline a shared vision for the post-World War II era. The British prime minister was so thrilled to see the American president that, in the words of one official, “You’d have thought he was being carried up into the heavens to meet God.” The two countries issued the Atlantic Charter, which sought “a better future for the world” through the principles of self-determination, collective security, and free trade. The United States hadn’t even entered the war yet, but it was already focused on winning the peace. The endgame was not just the defeat of the Axis powers, but also the creation of a stable global order, in which World War II would be the last world war.
Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?
The air shrieks, and life stops. First, from far away, comes a high whine like angry insects swarming, and then a trampling, like a herd moving through. The kids on their bikes who pass by the Caltrain crossing are eager to get home from school, but they know the drill. Brake. Wait for the train to pass. Five cars, double-decker, tearing past at 50 miles an hour. Too fast to see the faces of the Silicon Valley commuters on board, only a long silver thing with black teeth. A Caltrain coming into a station slows, invites you in. But a Caltrain at a crossing registers more like an ambulance, warning you fiercely out of its way.
The kids wait until the passing train forces a gust you can feel on your skin. The alarms ring and the red lights flash for a few seconds more, just in case. Then the gate lifts up, signaling that it’s safe to cross. All at once life revives: a rush of bikes, skateboards, helmets, backpacks, basketball shorts, boisterous conversation. “Ew, how old is that gum?” “The quiz is next week, dipshit.” On the road, a minivan makes a left a little too fast—nothing ominous, just a mom late for pickup. The air is again still, like it usually is in spring in Palo Alto. A woodpecker does its work nearby. A bee goes in search of jasmine, stinging no one.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The ambitious effort that could transform the institution and inform how other campuses respond to student protests.
Every university responds to student protests in its own way.
Earlier this month, scores of Brown undergraduates formed a circle on a quad and listened as black classmates expressed pain, anger, and frustration with campus life, following the example set by their analogues at the University of Missouri and elsewhere. Kate Talerico of The Brown Daily Herald recorded several powerful speakers and a diverse crowd that listened attentively and occasionally snapped to signal their agreement.*
Here are some of their words:
Candice Ellis, the first student to appear in the video, declared, “We begged this university to hear our stories about how racism, sexism, and a whole host of other problems prevail … and prevent us from being safe, from being at peace, from being whole and from being well. They invite us to meetings in the president’s office and the faculty club. They say they listen. They say they hear us. They do nothing.”
Researchers studying the “quiet eye” technique argue that the visual trick is a key part of coordination.
Consider two very different basketball players. The Los Angeles Clippers star DeAndre Jordan, one of the strongest, quickest players in the NBA, nevertheless made only 39 percent of his free throws last year. Then there’s his teammate, Jamal Crawford—not as fast or as strong as Jordan, but he makes 90 percent of the shots he takes from the foul line, a rate that’s among the best in the league.
What makes one player a stellar shooter, while another has more trouble making a basket? As Jordan demonstrates, it’s not just a question of sheer athleticism. The difference between athletes like him and athletes like Crawford may well come down to a concept known as “quiet eye”: a new way of understanding how people perform precise motor-skill tasks like shooting a basketball, flying a jet, or removing a brain tumor.
Why trying to think like the Islamic State is so hard—and risky.
In killing 130 civilians in Paris—the worst such attack in France since World War II—ISIS has forced us to contend, once again, with the question of the “rationality” of self-professed ideologues. Since it wrested the world’s attention with its capture of Iraq’s second-largest city in June 2014, the extremist group has prioritized state-building over fighting far enemies abroad. This is what distinguished ISIS: It wasn’t just, or even primarily, a terrorist organization. It had an unusually pronounced interest in governance. As Yale University’s Andrew March and Mara Revkin lay out in considerable detail, the group focused its energy on developing fairly elaborate institutional structures in the territory it controlled within Iraq and Syria. ISIS wasn’t simply making things up as it went along. It may have been mad, but there was a method to the madness.