Sunday, March 2, 2008

Sunday Reading

¿Que Pasó? Is Miami losing its bilingual abilities?

John Echevarría, president of Miami-based Universal Music Latino, had high expectations of the young Cuban American executive assistant he hired a few years ago.

”Professionally, she was very good,” Echevarría says. “But she was almost incapable of writing Spanish.”

So until he replaced her with a fully bilingual Puerto Rican secretary, the Spanish-language record executive typed much of his own business correspondence.

Experiences like that convince Echevarría, a Spaniard, that the city ”is losing an asset.” You have to wonder about its future as ”the capital of Latin America,” he says.

The quandary: Children and grandchildren of the immigrants who made Miami a vibrant international center lack the Spanish skills on which much of the city’s success and identity are built.

”Miami grew as a city along with the Spanish language and bilingualism,” says University of Miami linguist Andrew Lynch. ”Bilingualism was the foundation of Miami as a global city.”

That foundation is showing cracks. The question is whether it can be shored up — whether Miami, where fully 69 percent of the population (61 percent in Miami-Dade County) is Hispanic, can remain the robustly bilingual city it has become.

There are those who think bilingualism is a bad thing; that somehow it makes Miami a “third world” city and it makes them uncomfortable to hear people talking in another language here in America. My experience has been that those who believe that are intimidated by those who have the drive to learn how to work in two languages, and they are too embarrassed to admit that they have neither the skill or the sheer determination to even try to learn another language. And if it’s only about money, they are closing off themselves from an entire continent that would love to buy what we’re selling if you’re able to make the sale in the words they want to hear.

How Dumb? If this column by Charlotte Allen isn’t a brilliant piece of satire, it is one of the most depressing pieces of cultural and gender stereotyping that I’ve read since some dimwit advertising copywriter came up with “My wife; I think I’ll keep her.”

Here’s Agence France-Presse reporting on a rally for Sen. Barack Obama at the University of Maryland on Feb. 11: “He did not flinch when women screamed as he was in mid-sentence, and even broke off once to answer a female’s cry of ‘I love you, Obama!’ with a reassuring ‘I love you back.’ ” Women screamed? What was this, the Beatles tour of 1964? And when they weren’t screaming, the fair-sex Obama fans who dominated the rally of 16,000 were saying things like: “Every time I hear him speak, I become more hopeful.” Huh?

“Women ‘Falling for Obama,’ ” the story’s headline read. Elsewhere around the country, women were falling for the presidential candidate literally. Connecticut radio talk show host Jim Vicevich has counted five separate instances in which women fainted at Obama rallies since last September. And I thought such fainting was supposed to be a relic of the sexist past, when patriarchs forced their wives and daughters to lace themselves into corsets that cut off their oxygen.

I can’t help it, but reading about such episodes of screaming, gushing and swooning makes me wonder whether women — I should say, “we women,” of course — aren’t the weaker sex after all. Or even the stupid sex, our brains permanently occluded by random emotions, psychosomatic flailings and distraction by the superficial. Women “are only children of a larger growth,” wrote the 18th-century Earl of Chesterfield. Could he have been right?

I’m not the only woman who’s dumbfounded (as it were) by our sex, or rather, as we prefer to put it, by other members of our sex besides us. It’s a frequent topic of lunch, phone and water-cooler conversations; even some feminists can’t believe that there’s this thing called “The Oprah Winfrey Show” or that Celine Dion actually sells CDs. A female friend of mine plans to write a horror novel titled “Office of Women,” in which nothing ever gets done and everyone spends the day talking about Botox.

We exaggerate, of course. And obviously men do dumb things, too, although my husband has perfectly good explanations for why he eats standing up at the stove (when I’m not around) or pulls down all the blinds so the house looks like a cave (also when I’m not around): It has to do with the aggressive male nature and an instinctive fear of danger from other aggressive men. When men do dumb things, though, they tend to be catastrophically dumb, such as blowing the paycheck on booze or much, much worse (think “postal”). Women’s foolishness is usually harmless. But it can be so… embarrassing.

No, what’s really embarrassing is that this kind of mindset passes for considered opinion — if you can call it that — in a major American newspaper. Unless this is supposed to be funny… which it’s not very.

Musical Notes from North Korea: What impact did the visit by the New York Philharmonic to North Korea have on that country and the rest of us?

OF the many mental images that linger from 48 hours in Pyongyang, this one came hours before the New York Philharmonic ended its most unusual tour last week.

In a gleaming theater called the Moranbong, dozens of sober-suited North Koreans — certainly specially selected for the audience — sat in rows watching a Mendelssohn Octet performance with four Philharmonic members and four local musicians. They stared ahead impassively.

But in the back row, off to the side, one young man pored over a miniature score.

It was one of the few moments on the trip when someone other than the state orchestra musicians playing in a special rehearsal with Lorin Maazel, the Philharmonic music director, seemed genuinely interested in the music.

Of course, it was difficult to guess what people in that closed country were thinking. The stringent controls on movement, imposed by a phalanx of government minders, made it impossible to speak to ordinary North Koreans. They probably would not have said much anyway to citizens of a country long demonized by the authorities.

The size of the foreign contingent, with its 105 orchestra members, scores of patrons, their families and staff, and 80 people from the news media, was certainly a unique experience for the North Koreans in Pyongyang who encountered it. That consisted mainly of hotel workers, the staff in the concert hall and at the monuments, people in the grandiose buildings present for official tours and the minders.

The tour also meant an extended glimpse of the country, which rarely admits journalists, for the rest of the world. Hopes — realistic or naïve — are that the contact will lead to better relations between North Korea and the United States, despite North Korea’s stalling over its promise to shut down its nuclear weapons program.

“This is a human-to-human experience,” said Katherine Greene, a Philharmonic violist. She told of a conversation with her guide, who talked about how his wife does not cook, and how his mother-in-law does. “All of a sudden you have a basis for how we are the same,” Ms. Greene said. “This is always how it starts.”

Frank Rich: What John McCain and Hillary Clinton have in common.

The good news for the Democrats so far is that whatever Mr. McCain’s sporadic overlap with liberals, he is emulating almost identically the suicidal Clinton campaign against Mr. Obama. He has mimicked Mrs. Clinton’s message and rhetorical style, her tone-deaf contempt for Mr. Obama’s cultural appeal, and her complete misreading of just how politically radioactive the war in Iraq remains despite its migration from the front page.

Doonesbury: running late.

Opus: Junkie