Speaking in tongues

Here is a fascinating discussion for somebody like me who is an avid language-learner:
Pimsleur review by experienced language learner | Fluent in 3 months

Irish polyglot Benny Lewis is even more devoted to learning new tongues than I. And that's saying something. Check out his 8-language pitch for his learning guide.

Currently I'm learning Turkish. I've been invited to give a talk next month to students at Koç Üniversitesi in Istanbul about A Gift for the Sultan, which will by then be published in Turkish, and I want to be able at least to converse a little in that language while we're there. I've been using (mostly) Rosetta Stone, which is marvelous for my way of learning: simultaneously aural and written, but intuitive, no rules spelled out. I cheat, and look in books when intuition fails. Each of us has his/her own learning techniques, but for me it's been working. After reading Benny Lewis's review and listening to the Pimsleur sales pitch (it's online), I'm sticking with Rosetta.


Keeping Spain "different"

The Disinherited: The Exiles Who Created Spanish CultureThe Disinherited: The Exiles Who Created Spanish Culture by Henry Kamen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Since the Catholic Monarchs' conquest of Granada and their expulsion of the Jews in 1492, Spanish rulers have sought to unify their country by driving out dissidents and deviants, thus guaranteeing and protecting the country's backwardness. Kamen tells the stories of many of the most interesting and attractive thinkers, artists, scientists and other innovators forced into exile, whether by the Inquisition or later burst of intolerance, though he has chosen not to say much about those who most strongly identified with the losing side in the 1936-39 civil war, and almost nothing about the huge numbers driven to leave Spain by poverty and the hopes of a better life in the Americas or elsewhere in Europe; this is a deliberate choice, on the grounds that "political émigrés and economic migration" have both been "well-studied" and thus not in need of further discusion.

"Spain is the only European country to have attempted to consolidate itself over the centuries not through offering shelter but through a policy of exclusion," he states in the preface (p. x). At first glance that may seem to be an exaggeration — France was extremely cruel to its Huguenots, several European countries drove out their Jews even long before the Third Reich's campaign to exterminate them, Protestants were forced to flee from Catholic lands and Catholics from Protestant during the 100 Years War. But Kamen is right that no other country so consistently, and over such a long period, succeeded in excluding so many and so many different types of misfits (religious, intellectual political, etc.).

This book is a collection of vignettes and anecdotes to illustrate the argument, rather than a systematic analysis of a Spanish "policy of exclusion." If the author had attempted that, he would quickly have to admit that there was no single "policy" through the centuries, and in most periods no policy at all — the intellectuals he writes about were in many cases voluntary émigrés or expatriates who left because Spanish backwardness (in education, infrastructure and institutions) did not give them space or support to develop their talents. The great virtuoso violinist Pablo Sarasate, for example, repeatedly returned to perform in Spain but was always disappointed because there was no adequate orchestra to accompany him or knowledgeable audience to receive him.

But beyond the sometimes fascinating stories of individuals, the book does illustrate the force of Spain's resistance to change, and thus incidentally gives us more context to understand the ferocity of reaction against the unprecedented modernizing efforts of the Second Republic, which was finally suppressed by insurgent generals, the continent's most reactionary Catholic church, and their allies. Toward the end of the nearly 40-year dictatorship of Franco, Minister of Tourism Manuel Fraga tried to attract tourists with the slogan "Spain is different." And it was, because under Franco it was western Europe's only theme park of mediaval superstitions, primitive technology, and lock-step discipline. Spain has changed, enormously, since the death of Franco, forced to change by its internal contradictions and some very capable and audacious political leaders, and by the changing world. But the forces of repression, the insistence on only one correct dogma, remain strong and are re-emerging in this current economic crisis. If, as seems likely, the conservatives win in November, they have already promised that one of their first victims will be the objectivity and variety of Spain's international-award-winning news reporting on public television and radio. So the struggle continues.

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How Israel was created, and what to do now

Recommended: The Real Story of How Israel Was Created by Alison Weir

It's important to understand this history, so obscured by political rhetoric and mythmakers. But, however flawed the creation, the state exists and is home to nearly 8 million people, of whom nearly 6 million (according to the Israeli census) are "Jewish" — by religion? by tradition? by ancestry? By any or all these criteria, apparently (which inflates the numbers). The occupied Palestinian territories have about 3.5 million people, including Muslims, Christians and atheists, not counting the many Jews (by any of the usual criteria) who have settled there illegally.

To my mind, the only acceptable way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to dissolve the partition, that is, re-unite it all as a single state, with the same guaranteed rights for everybody regardless of family mythology, competitive tales of suffering, or whatever religion people profess or abjure. In other words, make it a normal modern state. Jews have as much right to live there as anybody, and no more right than anybody. It would cease to be a "Jewish" state and be simply a state with (probably for a long time) a "Jewish" majority. Until such a solution, the situation there will remain unstable and a continuing provocation to regional violence because the present condition is simply unacceptable to the non-Jews.

So how will the impasse between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis be broken? Not if it is left to those two parties, already locked in self-nourishing cycles of hate and fear. If a solution is not imposed by pressure from other states (extremely unlikely, given current US politics and the uselessness of Tony Blair), it must come from a wider change of the global context. The most important change will be if the peoples of Egypt and other Muslim-majority countries can achieve and consolidate their own democracies and themselves become normal modern states, with rights for all creeds. Such a revolution would immediately deflate Jewish Israeli paranoid chauvinism and leave people like Netanyahu and Lieberman without a constituency to play to. It would also force serious realignment and rethinking of Hamas and the PLO, and the Arabs and Jews of Israel-Palestine would again be able to talk to each and work things out, as they were beginning to do back in the early 1990s, before Rabin was assassinated (1995).

So, for the sake of Israelis, Palestinians and all the rest of us, we are obliged to do whatever we can to encourage democratization of Arab and other Muslim countries.