A fellow calls his friend, who is a Hollywood producer. “Hey, Steve, how’s it going?” In return he gets an earful. “How’s it going? You kidding me? It’s going amazing! I have a major motion picture about to be released, a sitcom that was picked up by a network for next season, and two scripts in pre-production!” No kidding. “Sorry, Steve, I didn’t know you had someone there. I’ll call back later.”
To be a real linguist it’s not enough to know all the national languages. It is necessary to learn also the language of the moment, the language of the situation. There are things you say a certain way on a certain day. Things you carefully avoid mentioning. Things that you tiptoe your way around in discussion as if they were not standing there like a huge pink elephant right smack dab in the middle of your subject matter.
Where you run into trouble is when one party to the charade suddenly abuses the conversational compact. Uncle Jerry is a registered sex offender but the family deals with that by on the one hand never mentioning it in front of Grandma and on the other hand never inviting him to events. One day, Grandma suddenly turns to one of her daughters-in-law and demands to know why her Jerry was not asked to the barbecue. Oh, oh, what do you say in this spot?
Much the same happens to diplomats and statesmen when dealing with the likes of Kim Jong-il. Long before Kim succeeded his dad, everyone in international politics dined out on stories of his being out to lunch. The buzz was that he was too cuckoo to clock in at his new job. That he would be a figurehead underfoot while the generals handled the specifics. Yet he seems to have gone far for one so far gone. The country continues to function, if you can overlook such annoyances as oppression, suppression and starvation. He’s still a nut, mind you, but a tough one to crack.
So how do we talk to this guy? The answer is: gingerly. We send in our foreign service guys, than whom none are more adept at circumlocution. Talks are proceeding. Various proposals on the table. Cautious optimism. Definite sense of progress. Learning to appreciate each other’s culture. Meeting of the minds. Just a few kinks to work out. Avoiding areas of misunderstanding. A deal is possible. A deal is imminent. A deal is announced. Peace in our time.
The most absurd instance of the goo-goo gaga talk at these junctures was delivered during the Clinton administration, courtesy of Madeline Albright. She emerged from her pally powwow with the Grand Infinite Genius Leader to announce her discovery that he watches CNN and has e-mail. Later she took the further step of revealing that he wanted to keep an e-mail relationship going with her after she returned to Washington. All of this news was intended, believe it or not, to placate us and still our fears. Hello-o? Is it just me or does this freeze every bit of hemoglobin in your veins?
Still, baby talk it is, and designed to be a verbal pacifier for the little monster in his crib. We reach out to him in brotherhood as a member of our… er, nuclear family. Except that all of this is meant to be voiced to us along with a broad wink. Of course we get it; the guy is a dangerous loon and we’re not yet ready to take him down, so we have to pretend he’s one of the boys Only we must never forget what the real story is when told in real language. Houston, we have a serious problem and we need to solve it before it lands on our hands.
Now that Kim is sending bombs bursting in air with the rocket’s Red glare, the Bush administration must get beyond the phony baloney rhetoric that was anyway only intended for public consumption — before those bombs consume the public. Punting the problem forward by first characterizing it with euphemistic misnomers is a stall tactic not unlike our approach to al-Qaeda in the 1990s. We need a strategy that targets North Korea for regime change, sooner rather than later.
It is possible to put the crunch on Kim by economic and political means. Bitter Koreans like to jest: “What is the capital of North Korea? Around three dollars.” Surely we can make some change.