Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Zero Intelligence

Zero Tolerance Syndrome seems to be one of the epidemics of the 2000s. In a way, it's kind of like AIDS: a viral infection compromises the immune system to the point of rendering it moot, so that any small bug that would normally pass unnoticed suddenly becomes a chronic issue. In this case, however, the "infection" is some kind of perceived evil, real or imagined, that somebody in power thinks merits a witch hunt. The "immune system" is common sense.


The problem is that the whole notion of "zero tolerance" has become something of a status symbol. Authority figures want to show how righteous they are (read "make people believe their family jewels are a bit larger than BBs") by vowing to get tough on anything that even vaguely smacks of [insert public enemy du jour here]. And since righteousness (ahem *manliness* cough) tends to be strangely competitive, you often wind up with a whole bunch of leaders trying to outdo each other in terms of just how zero their tolerance really is.

We Americans are fond of pointing at our Great Parent, Mother England, and laughing (sympathetically, of course) at the Monty Python-esque Nanny State it has become. We shake our heads at tales of 17-year-olds not being allowed to buy bicycle repair kits (lest they sniff the glue), people being fined for dropping bits of their sandwich, old ladies being told they can't tend flowerbeds without safety equipment, garbage collectors not allowed to clean up garbage in a shallow creek because they're not licensed to wear boots, or people catching repeat thief/vandals and calling the police only to wind up arrested themselves. But while we're so eager to guffaw at the speck in the eye of the Jolly Old Isles, we don't seem to be noticing the log popping up in our own.

After all, the good old US of A, while being the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave®, is also the country where:
This list could easily go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Naturally, all of these absurdities are rationalized by authority figures and experts citing the need for "drastic measures" to face a "growing problem". They boast about how they are getting "tough" on something or another by making examples (read "scapegoats") of people whose "crimes" probably wouldn't have merited a second glance a couple of decades ago. Meanwhile, the comment threads on the news articles are often punctuated with die-hards remarking that "all places have there rules" and that "Zeяo toleяanse mens zeяo toleяanse - theяs no gяay aяea". (Hmm...I wonder if they'd be half as smug if their own son were suspended because they'd gone off and left something in their car.)

However, I still have to wonder whether, far from being any kind of noble crusade, this Zero Tolerance stuff is just a way for authority figures to boast about fighting a problem while at the same time ducking it. They say they're allowing no gray areas because they don't want any complaints or accusations of discrimination, and yet at the same time they seem to be trying to turn life itself into a series of mindless "if - then" statements without any thought about the consequences. They're only too pleased to see innocent members of the community if not honor students have their whole record ruined just so the guy on top can pass judgment without having to use his head...let alone take any kind of criticism. Zero Tolerance certainly makes things a lot simpler.

Then again, "simple" can be synonymous with "brainless".

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Lingua Fracture

Today I logged into Facebook and opened my news feed to see this status post from one of my FB friends (who is an old schoolmate):

WELCOME TO THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Press 1 for English. Press 2 to disconnect until you learn to speak English. And remember only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you, JESUS CHRIST. And the AMERICAN SOLIDER. One died for your soul, the other for your freedom. If you agree... copy and paste in your status on Saturday...

It seems like status posts like this have been appearing a lot lately, no doubt in response to the recent controversy in Arizona. (I already addressed that issue quite enough on my own blog...and it ended with our favorite thread-jacker severing all contact with me and slandering me viciously by name online. That will be all, thank you.) Even without the militant Christian message, and even without all the "like" names attached to that post, there is something very disturbing about this. The first part says basically, "Speak English or get out of the US." This is a theme that has been spreading like wildfire of late, perhaps even the crusade du jour. The obvious target here is illegal Spanish-speaking immigrants, but this goes a lot deeper than that by its very nature.

The United States of America is actually one of few countries in the world that does NOT have a designated official language. It is also one of very, very few countries in the world that doesn't have a second language, official or otherwise. Go just about anywhere in the world, and you'll find that schools teach a particular foreign language as a compulsory subject. In most countries that second language is English, though in some places it's French, Russian, or even Japanese. The local governments most likely offer services in that language, too. In the case of Japan, where I live, the second language is English. (I speak Japanese fluently, but I do appreciate those English-language services!) The fact that English is the second language in most countries of the world, including Russia and China, really makes things easier, not only for foreign tourists but also international business. Go to many parts of the world and you'll find English-speaking ex-pats living and working there, sometimes with little if any command of the local native tongue. So why is it that the US shouldn't return the favor to some degree by offering services in at least one non-English language?

On that note, I remember how amused if not outraged people were when both France and the province of Quebec in Canada became "franco-nazis" and made it a crime to post public notices in languages other than French. Why, then, are so many Americans now starting to become "anglo-nazis" in a similar vein?

I'm sure there are a lot of people ready and eager to come at me with wordy lectures about illegal immigrants living on welfare and eating up tax dollars, etc., but that's not really the point here, is it? The point is this: Where on the Statue of Liberty does it follow "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," with, "as long as you speak English"?