Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bill Maher, Fareed Zakaria and The Politics of Pronunciation

I have a love/hate relationship with Bill Maher because I think he represents both the best and worst aspects of the newest generation of political comedians. During the bleakest hours of the Bush administration Maher was often a welcome voice crying in the wilderness about any number of conservative excesses. But just as often Maher goes for the easy joke at the expense of politics. His attitudes toward women are legendarily bad (although, to be fair he is generally more respectful of his female guests than, say, Charlie Rose, who never met a woman he didn't interrupt mid-sentence). In general Maher is pretty shitty on Arabs and Muslims too, regularly parroting the same centuries-old Orientalist/Islamophobic scenarios as any Fox talking head. His anti-religion schtick in particular is (as with Hitchens and Dawkins) dependent on an almost pathological Islamophobia about which he refuses to be dissuaded. So, you know, I watch Real Time with the side-eye at the ready.

It is always interesting to see how Maher's guests deal with Real Time's trap-door dynamic: One second you may be making your way through a serious conversation about the economy and the next the floor gives way and you have landed on a pile of dick jokes designed to allow Maher to remind himself (and you) that he is really in charge here. It is, with very few exceptions, always especially painful for me to see actors try to keep up... it's like watching a dog walk on two legs. A recent Real Time appearance by Kerry Washington, whose points about the Obama administration were almost entirely overshadowed by her crazy-eyes, is a sad example of this.

Fareed Zakaria, Richard Engel and Barney Frank (D-MA) shared the panel on Real Time's May 1st episode and their facility in navigating the hybrid news/comedy format was fascinating to observe. Frank, who now more than ever represents the Clintonian old guard within the Democratic Party, crossed the line into grotesque self-parody. (Note to Barney: Your uncanny resemblance to Buddy Hackett notwithstanding, leave the jokes to Maher, okay? You are very, very creepy when you try to be funny). NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Engel, who it must be said has a beautiful head of hair going for him, looked a bit like Steve Trevor seconds before Wonder Woman comes crashing through a window: handsomely at sea in the face of the shifting comedic tides. While Zakaria seemed amused by the spectacle and gracefully adjusted to the often abrupt shifts in tone. However, even he felt compelled to make with the funny, when he suggested with a smirk that the efforts undertaken by politicians and media professionals to pronounce Afghanistan and Pakistan correctly--as in "Eff-GAHn-i-stan" and "PAHk-i-stan"--is an attempt to be "ethnically cool." He compared this to liberal efforts to say "Nigeh-RAHG-wah" (ie. Nicaragua) in the 1980s. Of course Zakaria, who is Indian, gave himself a pass here by saying that these pronunciations came easily to him because he comes from that part of the world. The rest of the panel seemed uncomfortable with this observation as Engel, who was there hawking his upcoming book, War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, defended his proper pronunciation by saying that he'd spent significant time in the region. Zakaria argued that Americans anglicize the names of European countries as a matter of course, making no special effort to say "FrAHnce" instead of France, for example. The implication being that the special emphasis on pronunciation highlights foreignness, rather than the reverse.

Frank, who by this time was imagining a rim-shot after every bon-mot, piped up that certain of his constituents were very comfortable saying "Yisroel" as a matter of course, which gave Maher the opportunity to shift the conversation away from this awkward comedic non-starter and on to Israel. Rather than follow him in that shift (in which Frank defended Israel to a comic degree and Zakaria and even Maher (!) called him on it) I'd like to linger on this uncomfortable exchange about pronunciation. (For your reference the video at the top of this post contains this brief exchange starting at around 6:55. UPDATE: The video link is dead so I replaced it with a photograph of Fareed Zakaria in which he looks a lot like one of the Thunderbird puppets. Just saying.).

As a progressive I am always on board to deconstruct liberal guilt for its hidden racism and ethnocentrism, but I am not convinced that Zakaria is right about this. I am also old enough to remember the earnest Spanish pronunciation employed by liberal activists working around Central American issues.

But, so what?

Is it really fair to torment liberals over their...admittedly sometimes clumsy... attempts at cultural respect? Or perhaps more to the point, is it really productive? Since the first Bush administration, mispronunciation has been willfully employed to assert rhetorical superiority over Arab and Muslim subjects. Am I the only one who remembers that George H.W. Bush----in a move that made more than one gay friend of mine arch an eyebrow-- renamed Saddam Hussein "Sodom"? And is it possible to hear the default American mispronunciations "EYE-rack" and "EYE-ran" without hearing George W. Bush's folksy/wounded/proud voice in your head? Is it really so ridiculous to ask that if we are sending young American men and women to fight and die in a foreign country that we learn to say its name correctly? Is "EAR-ock" really such a devastating compromise for American tongues and ears? Or even, when anglicized as Zakaria suggests, "EAR-ack"? I don't think so.

So I wonder: what is gained by mocking well-intentioned liberals when they make an effort?

By positioning himself as a native informant Zakaria whipped out his authenticity card and slapped it down on the table. I like Zakaria for lots of reasons--many of which can be observed in the video above-- but that is as much of a bullshit move as willfully mispronouncing "foreign" names as a way of asserting cultural authority. In fact, of these strategies the one that bothers me least is an earnest attempt to connect.


UPDATE: This has been cross-posted by our friends at Racialicious.


  1. Great post Joseph. To be honest Zakaria gets on my nerves. He comes across as quite ethnocentric. I have even heard that he supported the war in Iraq, though I could be wrong on that. I saw him on The Daily Show the other night and he made the same "ethnically cool" joke. They didn't really dwell on it and Zakaria himself seemed to not be able to make up his mind about pronunciation, vacillating between the two different pronunciations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. To be honest, knowing that he CAN pronounce the names correctly, hearing him mispronounce them makes me cringe. But that's the way I've always been with natives who I know can pronounce words properly but who purposely mispronounce them.

    On an aside, Zakaria also tried to be funny on The Daily Show but it didn't seem right there.For some reason, as much as I hate them, I still find it hard to find talking about killing the Taliban funny.

    He was also talking about how Pakistan conned America. He did not mention how America has screwed over Pakistan and their role in creating this whole mess. Oh...maybe this is why I've come to dislike Zakaria.

  2. Zakaria has a point but I don't wholly agree with him.

    A lot of it has to do with the linguistic stability of the country name in question. That's a factor that's almost arbitrary.

    "Iraq" and "Nicaragua" are examples of unstable names. The average American probably pronounces Nicaragua "knicker-agh-wah" or "knicker-agh-wer". But that pronunciation is close enough to the Nicaraguan Nicaragua that the two versions can clash with each other.

    "Mexico" is more stable. There's a widely accepted U.S. pronunciation of "Meks-ih-co" even though people from Mexico would say "Meh-hee-co". In English classes, Mexicans would learn to say "Meks-ih-co" just like Anglos would learn to say "Los Estados Unidos" in Spanish classes.

    An example of a perfectly stable name is Japan. There is no Japanese pronunciation of "Japan" because in Japan, it's something totally different: "Nihon". "Egypt" (AKA Gumhūriyyat Miṣr al-ʿArabiyyah) is yet another example.

    But in a country with an unstable name (like Iraq) you're going to make mistakes in pronunciation no matter what. If you try to approximate a native speaker you're almost inevitably going to get it wrong, you make the native speakers wince and your own peers will think you're being a show-off. The best you can hope for is finding a decent halfway point between pronunciations that offends as few people as possible.

    The Bushes didn't even try though... no, they had to afflict everyone with their irritating idiosyncratic pronunciations. I agree that they showed a really outrageous arrogance.

  3. Sobia,
    I hear you. I do not think Zakaria is perfect at all. I am just thrilled that he represents a voice I do not often hear on the MSM. (As in the above clip when Frank says something stupid about Gaza and Zakaria says to him in a clam but firm voice "that is simply not true.") But the downside is that--because I am so happy to hear that expressed-- I don't listen carefully to his other positions. So I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

  4. I agree with you. I too was happy to see him make that statement about Gaza. And also about the fact that Afghanis were not involved in any international conflicts before the US attacked Afghanistan. But I was disappointed that he blamed the creation of the Taliban all on Pakistan. I believe it was Frank who made some mention about the US's role in, at least, supporting the Taliban.

  5. @atlasien
    You make an excellent point about the somewhat arbitrary nature of pronunciation. But in a country where language and terms are so deeply politicized I think we have to look closely at patterns of mispronunciation... especially when they cluster around people and countries we have hostile relationships with.

    I really believe that the mispronunciations of "EYE-rack", "Sodom" etc. by the Bushes were willful and designed to denigrate Arabs and Muslims. And it drives me insane that they have become so standardized.

  6. Joseph, I have been lurking around for a while (we do not agree on a bunch of stuff, so no point in arguing on your blog :) ), but this is a set of issues (power, knowledge, and language) which I am more than a little about and just throw out my two cents.

    A lot of this boils down to whether you believe that power and knowledge are related, and if so, to what degree (and the way you invoke Saidian Orientalism, I think I know your answer ;)). Naming is politicized, to be sure, but at that point EVERYTHING is politicized, after which it is a matter of picking and choosing which political issue interests you to the point of action. For issues of pronunciation, how much does the standardization of language construct the identity of the place you are talking about? Lets say a 10-year old listens to Bush say "Sodom" Hussein, but this kid has no idea what sodomy is (their loss I say :) ). What then? I mean, yeah you could talk about how calling William Horton 'Willie' back in 1988 was part of the centuries-long process of White males infantalizing black-manhood, but what if someone does not receive that message? This stuff only matters if all Americans receive language the same way, which is an idea I find pretty suspect.

    What about what other countries call other regions, or is the 'West', and the US specifically, so powerful that all examinations of non-Western languages just not that important? Language changes, meaning changes, and a lot of complaints about language strike me as narratives of essentialized perpetual victimhood. Do you really think that there are places where language and terms are NOT politicized?

    As for the idea of authenticity, I am post-structural enough to think the whole idea is bullcrap, but a lot of progressive stuff is built on the idea of the authentic subject speaking truth to power (as an x person yadda yadda yadda). I describe myself as a progressive, but I found that whole idea as dumb, so if you want to keep such a project then you gotta reconcile some of this stuff

  7. @Winslow
    Of course you are right that not everyone receives language and assigns meaning in the same way, especially in a country as big as the US. But I guess what I am questioning here is a question of intent. (I know, we are not supposed to care about someone's intent, but I can't help it: I do care). Willie Horton is an excellent example. Whether it had a lasting effect or not the intent was clearly to stigmatize and diminish.

    If there is one thing I am disinterested in it is victimhood, perpetual or otherwise. But I disagree that is the natural end point for discussions about language and terms. And it isn't that the way these things are expressed in non western contexts doesn't matter, its that the west is SO POWERFUL that the stuff we do has the most impact, so it merits a different sort of conversation. I think that is reasonable.

    I am suggesting here that Zakaria is using his "authentic" (agree: dumb) status to poke fun at liberals and I am wondering what that really accomplishes except to alienate people who are try to reach out to you. And that doesn't make much sense to me.

  8. I agree with Sobia. Zakaria's anti-Pakistani sentiment makes me very uncomfortable. Every time I read his articles or watch him on TV, I'm always bracing myself for some bizarre remark about Pakistan. He places all the blame on Pakistan while completely ignoring crucial facts such as Pakistan losing more troops than American soldiers in Afghanistan. It strikes me as odd when he defends Gaza, and yet suggests that a U.S. military intervention in Pakistan would only cause "political repercussions" (see his interview with Imran Khan). Wow, a military intervention would have "political repercussions?" I wonder why, Fareed.

  9. Sorry for the late reply, I have been busy with crap...

    Like you, I always care about intent (and I stopped listening to what I was 'supposed' to care about a long time ago, though I have yet to have my progressive card revoked :) ). As for Horton, we have proof about what the people who put the ad up were trying to do, and we essentially have a smoking gun. For other stuff, not so much, and we are left with the unenviable (though enjoyable for many historians') task of finding out what other people were trying to do when they, lets say, corrected our pronunciation of a foreign country. I think it is a project worth pursuing.

    I find your argument reasonable, but to a point, because I do find discussions of language to be poorly thought out (mostly because people either do not know/care about etymology or know/care about how language changes). Maybe thats just my curse to always historicize everything, but in doing so I look for continuums rather than black and white dichotomies of power-discourses. Wow, that was a grad school-ass sentence right there, somebody shoot me. There are a lot of places to find power, and while we can discuss the west in different terms, I always have to look at when the non-west screws around with these issues, not as a counter-accusation, but in an attempt to make such a discussion actually global.

    The pronunciation issue only gets touchy when somebody actually tells somebody else HOW to pronounce the name. Otherwise everyone just goes along their merry way. What Zakaria did was a prick move, but what else should he have done? I mean, this is some tricky-ass ground about what we mean by reaching out, because the alliance against the war/occupation in Iraq is tenuous as hell. Whatev, I was never that much concerned with language anyways :).

  10. A little late in the day to post a comment on this thread - but I really think that there's no harm in pronouncing the names of places as their natives would pronounce them, if we're appropriating the native name and spelling. I mean, if the natives say "Deutschland" or "Nippon" or “Hrvatska”, then that makes it easy for us because we don't use those names anyway. But when we're using "France" or "Iraq" or "Afghanistan", it would serve us well to say it as close to the native pronunciation as possible. As a native of "Mumbai" (previously Bombay), India, I know how one winces at the wrong "Mumbaaaaaaaaaai" pronunciation, and how the correct pronunciation from a foreign speaker impresses.

  11. @Siddharth
    No worries about revisiting this post... I am glad to have your input. I hope to hear from you again.