June 10, 2004

Proof positive that being black is no barrier to being a nitwit

Via Silentio, the Republican candidate for Congress in the North Carolina 5th congressional district has come to my attention. Vernon Robinson is, rather unusually for a Republican in general and a southern Republican Congressional candidate in particular, black. Setting aside the deeply troubling notion of a black southerner who is "honored [...] to be compared to Jesse Helms", setting aside his actual stances on issues - Neanderthal would be my choice of adjective - the real proof of nitwithood in my book is in this extract from his anti-immigration ad:

"The aliens are here, but they didn't come in a spaceship," an announcer says over the theme to "The Twilight Zone." "They've filled our criminal courtrooms and clogged our schools ... They sponge off the American taxpayer ... they've even taken over the DMV. These aliens commit heinous crimes ... You walk into a McDonald's restaurant to order a Big Mac, and find to your horror that the employees don't speak English."

Oh the horror! Fast food staff who can't speak English! Why right now, there are Americans going through drive-thrus, receiving medium sized orders when they asked for super-size! My God, the Republic must be saved!

One of my in-laws likes to complain that she can't understand black people when they speak. Now, when she says that, she doesn't mean that she doesn't always understand what people are saying when she goes to some inner city neighbourhood. I don't always understand conversations in the more remote American dialects, and I remember being in Detroit once as a teenager and having a very hard time understanding the colloquial language of the inner city. That would be a totally understandable admission. No, what she means is that she can't understand Will Smith in old Fresh Prince reruns. I wonder what she would make of Mr Robinson's English?

(BTW - I saw a Fresh Prince rerun in German a few weeks ago. There is something incredibly amusing about seeing German come out of Will Smith's mouth. I'm not sure I can explain it.)

McDonald's business practices are designed to minimise ambiguity in customer/employee communications. Menus are numbered. At every counter there is a menu in photo form, so that you need merely point at what you want. Braille menus are avaiable on request. The choices are few and most Americans have them memorised by age 6. Furthermore, it's not like the vocabulary of ordering at McDonald's is terribly complicated. "A Big Mac and a Coke, please." "You want fries with that?" "*grunt*" "That'll be five fifty."

I have ordered at McDonalds in Asia where I could neither speak nor read the language and where the employees spoke no English whatsoever. Tourists come to America who speak no English at all, and yet manage to place and receive orders at McDonald's all the time.

McDonald's has been designed based on the assumption that all the employees, the customers and the managers are complete idiots. In order to be unable to place an order at McDonald's you have to be simultaneously blind, deaf, dumb and ignorant of Arabic numerals. And yet, Mr Robinson has difficulty getting a quarter pounder in North Carolina and then blames immigrants. What does that tell us about Mr Robinson?

Update: Corrected a truly heinous typo and added a sentence cuz I realised I started making a point in the fourth paragraph and then never made it.

Posted 2004/06/10 13:13 (Thu) | TrackBack

Vernon Robinson, of course, is also assuming that what most of the citizens of his state are speaking is in fact English. Having been born and raised in Kentucky, and having thus spent a fair amount of time in the region, I would beg to differ. Can you imagine the chaos that would be caused (not simply in the South, mind you) by requiring people to speak even the most minimally 'proper' English (i.e., verb-noun agreement, direct object use, etc.). Now, of course, I don't believe there is such a thing as 'proper' language outside of language-use -- but if Vernon Robinson can reify language, then I suppose I can do the same when making fun of him.

Posted by: Brad at June 10, 2004 13:49

Yeah, every now and then I contemplate putting up a post about the English dialect of the south side of the Mason-Dixon line by writing it more phonetically and saying it's really a different language. I'm thinking of calling it albionics. But the post I'd really like to write is writing English using only Germanic root words and adjusting the spelling slightly to prove that we're all just speaking a particularly weird dialect of Dutch.

I never really do this because no one will get the point: What is an isn't constitutive of a language is not very important. Judgments of standard vs. non-standard language and dialect vs. different language matter to the degree they empower and disempower people. I'd like to find a way to contrast "ebonics" and "albionics" in a way to make that point, but if I wrote a post on how southerners really are disempowered by a standard of English that discriminates against them, I'm afraid people wouldn't reflect on what that implies for their own judgments of non-standard languages in their community.

Posted by: Scott Martens at June 10, 2004 14:43

Ah, so we could ascribe being la perfide Albion to the South of the US, together with the rest of its sins! I like it.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at June 10, 2004 15:45

Y'know, if Anthony Burgess hadn't already done it, doing the same thing with actually spoken English in British government offices and calling that albionics might be even more fun.

Posted by: Scott Martens at June 10, 2004 15:59

Yes it is funny seeing German being spoken by quite a few people, especially when the person they chose to dub them has a completely different voice than the person they are speaking for.

Posted by: dj at June 11, 2004 4:01

On German dubbing - Captian Picard, Will Riker and Worf on Star Trek the Next Generation are the funniest.

Posted by: Young Fogey at June 11, 2004 12:12

What is it about German though? I've watched stuff dubbed in French, and some is okay while some is just awful, but I can't think of anything where I thought the dubbing was just plain funny. But when American TV gets dubbed into German - at least stuff that isn't High Drama - it makes me laugh.

At first I thought it was just black sitcoms and that it was just me. German was Grandfather's native language and when I think of German, I still hear my Grandpa's voice. It's a liturgical language for Mennonites - the language of Bible readings and earnest sermons. I remember how it rattled me the first time I met a black person who spoke fluent German or the first time I heard someone cuss in German.

But other people seem to have the same reactions, so I'm beginning to think there's something else going on.

I haven't seen Trek in German, I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

Posted by: Scott Martens at June 11, 2004 12:34

The only thing that's ever fazed me about Germany is reading Manfred von Richthofen's autobiography and realising that he grew up hunting on horseback and shooting and generally doing the things that my neighbours did back home.

I'd only ever met rural Irish and English people who did that, and to consider that someone from the country of Frankfurt airport, sane orthography and great public services did it was just weird. Preconceptions vary, I guess.

Posted by: Aidan Kehoe at June 11, 2004 13:36

One of the weirdest experiences in my short life was watching Martin Lawrence's movie Black Knight in Russian. No, weirder was watching a bunch of Russians watching it, and occasionally laughing.

Posted by: PF at June 15, 2004 22:39
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