Embarrasingly literal-minded note on "First they came for..."

A peril of today's interconnected world is that people from widely varying language backgrounds can read the same material and come to widely different conclusions, based largely on command of the language itself. This is especially true right now of English, which hundreds of millions of people use as their native tongue -- and hundreds of millions more can understand as the dominant language of international business and media, but naturally with different levels of comprehension and subtlety.

In a way this is like the problem I've recently described for politicians, who simultaneously address an internal and an external audience. A U.S. or British leader needs to assure the local citizens that he or she is defending their interests -- without doing so in a way that will offend the rest of the world. It's hard.

This is on my mind because of a post earlier today about quarantine for Canadian students in China, on the basis of nationality rather than exposure to disease, following similar handling of Mexican citizens. The post was called, "First they came for the Mexicans. Then, the Canadians...."

The "internal" audience for this post would generally recognize the title as a joke. Or at least a joking allusion. That audience -- of native speakers of English, especially native speakers of American English, especially native speakers of American English who had paid attention to politics and political sloganeering -- would know how often the "First they came for..." trope is used as the conclusion of any speech about excessive government control. If you're not already 100% familiar with it, start here. If, on the other hand, you've listened to (especially) American political speeches, you have heard this a million times, often in hyperbolic ways -- including the way I was using it, ironically, here.

But not every reader is a native speaker of English or familiar with Western political rhetoric. So I have heard from a number of people who took offense at the idea that I was describing super-seriously a systematic manhunt for various national groups. Sigh. I have dealt with enough languages over the years to be humble about the challenges of operating outside one's native language terrain (and to recognize the convenience of being able to write to an international audience in my native language). But I don't know the way out of it. This magazine, in print and on line, is deliberately aimed at high-end readers of English who will understand allusions and tricks of language. We can't water that down, or take on the lead-weight of stage direction footnotes  -- "I'm being ironic here!" -- on parts that some people might misread. But the multiplicity of audiences is worth bearing in mind. And I try to.

So apologies to any who took offense. Except to those who wrote huffily about what my words "meant," when that was the very thing they didn't really understand.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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