“I like to talk to everybody about everything,” says Linda, the owner of a women’s clothing boutique here in Willemstad, the historic capital city of Curaçao, one of the Dutch “A-B-C” islands in the southeast Caribbean and just 40 miles north of Venezuela.
Switching seamlessly (if you will pardon the clothing pun) among at least four different languages while speaking to customers, employees, and her 70-ish-year-old half-Chinese mother who sits quietly in the corner, Linda is one of those rare people, like the storied bartender, who is a sponge of information and occasional giver of distilled wisdom. Each day, like a squirrel instinctually saving for winter, she compiles the thoughts and feelings of dozens of passers-through (many from cruise ships in port just for several hours) who, as in the storied bar, are mostly uninhibited in their discussions of current and topical, if not necessarily deep or earth-shattering, items of passing conversation.
“A few years ago,” says Linda, “100 percent of the Americans I met were so excited about Barack Obama, so hopeful about the future. Over the past year, it’s become exactly the opposite. Everyone says something like ‘When are we going to have a president who knows what he’s doing?’ It’s been a complete change. Of course, here on Curaçao, we’re all for Hillary, but I actually think it’s too late; her time has passed.”
I like to think -- and have no reason not to -- that Linda is correct on both main points: Barack Obama has at long last worn thin with a public who gave him more chances, more benefit of the doubt, more mulligans than they’ve given any other president in modern history. And Hillary “What difference does it make” Clinton is past her electoral use-by date. I believe both, but suspect Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton would publicly disagree and privately think “We’ve fooled them so many times before, how hard can once more be?” Still, the Linda indicator looks bad for Democrats in 2014 and 2016.
Linda, like every person I’ve met here who has regular contact with tourists, speaks Dutch, English, Spanish, and Papiamentu -- one of a group of languages that exist in many places that have had multiple colonizers, including Creole in Louisiana and Pidgin in the South Pacific. It is a mix of the various colonizers’ (and nearby trading partners’) languages along with native local tongues, in this case from the Arawak Indians, though it seems most influenced by Spanish. Like most such languages, it is spoken somewhat slowly, and if you have even a passing grasp of any widely spoken (western hemisphere) foreign languages, you might understand an occasional sentence.
Linda seems to choose her words carefully -- by which I do not mean slowly, but precisely -- not surprising for someone whose living is partly dependent on effective communication, and whose languages are so different from one another. (Dutch and Spanish have almost nothing in common, for example.)
It leaves me wondering: Although English is a complex language, with more words than any other language I’m aware of, are Americans -- whether through a lack of appreciation of the beauty and function of language, or a lack of experience really thinking about how words are used -- just not very good at making a point with as much subtlety and precision as one might hope for in the interests of both clarity and enjoyment?
And if so, does the average American’s lack of facility with language, our own or another, leave us more vulnerable to clever manipulators, not least the aforementioned Obama and Clinton gangs? After all, while most people on Curaçao both assume and enjoy the normalcy of speaking at least three languages, most Americans view a foreign language as something they’re forced to study in high school and, like philosophy and chemistry, soon forget. Yet understanding why there are two different Spanish verbs for “to be” or two different French verbs for “to leave” brings precision to thinking in English.
Would Linda be as fooled as an average American by “it depends what the definition of ‘is’ is,” or “if you like your health insurance, you can keep it,” or “I didn’t draw the red line. The world did”? (To be fair, that last quote probably didn’t fool anybody, even the bald-faced liar who spoke it.)
In a nation that lurches from “valley girl” to Ebonics to “whatever,” where language that isn’t just imprecise and unintellectual but intentionally ignorant thrives among our young people while they mimic thugs who walk around with their underwear showing or glorified pole dancers who pretend to have sex with a microphone, is it any surprise that our Founding Fathers would not recognize what is now meant by “freedom” or “liberal” or “rights” or “limited government”?
Linda might not care about freedom or limited government the way that a small but growing minority of Americans at long last do, but I suspect she would be less likely fooled by Democrats’ Orwellian rhetoric than the plurality of Americans who did not just elect Barack Obama, but re-elected him despite four years sloshing between petty tyranny, incompetence, and outright failure because of his pretty but meaningless rhetoric. Being here is a stark reminder of the linguistic ignorance of Americans. And while plenty of countries with citizens who speak more than one language don’t have governments much better than ours, I wonder whether our bare grasp of English leads to political ignorance and manipulation as well.
Is it my imagination, or has the reaction to the Navy Yard shooter been somewhat more measured and clinical than with other horrific mass shootings in recent years? One wonders whether the media is less sympathetic to victims who worked, even if as civilian contractors, for the U.S. military, or whether they want to bring less attention to a massacre where the shooter was black, and perhaps dipping a toe into Islam? Instead, although Mr. Alexis was almost certainly mentally ill, the conversation seems more about excuses and empathy and (the absolutely valid discussion of) mental health rather than a mad rush to blame guns. (Of course, CNN’s Piers Morgan is a predictable exception. For Morgan, the gun is ever and always the problem, in much the same way that for John McCain the use of the American military is ever and always the solution.)
John Kerry was on television yesterday afternoon, trying desperately to overcome his inherent unseriousness, telling the world that “we know” that the Assad regime in Syria used chemical weapons, that the “international community” must stand together to show that the use of such weapons is absolutely unacceptable, and then saying (in a “try not to cough your ginger ale up through your nose” moment) that the world stands on the verge of being able to gather and destroy all of Assad’s remaining chemical arsenal through peaceful means. One would be tempted to forgive one of the world’s leading male gold-diggers except that his entire foreign policy team’s incompetence, including that of his big-mouthed boss, nearly dragged (and may yet drag) America into an unwinnable ages-old Sunni-Shi’ite feud while doing more to boost Russia’s regional hegemonic aspirations than any event since Yalta.
Still, before Kerry’s picking at the Syrian scab, it was remarkable how completely the “mainstream” media had wiped Assad, dead children, and Vladimir “Obama’s my yo-yo” Putin from the front pages and prime time broadcasts. It is, after all, time to get back to blaming Republicans for a possible government shutdown, with willfully ignorant reporters such as CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield (herself a Canadian) preemptively bemoaning the impact on first responders (almost none of whom receive significant funding from the federal government) and parroting President Obama’s frets about the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government” despite Uncle Sam taking in more than enough money, regardless of a debt ceiling increase, to service the current federal debt.
A final, upbeat note: I cannot explain it, but every place I’ve been with significant Dutch influence (Holland itself, South Africa, Indonesia, and now Curaçao) has some of the friendliest, most generous, and most multi-lingual people you will ever meet -- regardless of skin color. If you want to go to a place where the smiles that greet you seem utterly genuine, find a place where the Dutch have been.