Three National Emergencies (3)

The final of our three national emergencies that alarm me is our reaction to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Our intelligence community, which I was a proud member of during my thirty-five years of federal service, is firm in its finding that Khashoggi was murdered on the orders of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman. But President Trump refuses to hold him accountable. Trump denies the evidence from his own intelligence experts that Salman commanded the murder. Trump argues that the monetary value of our relationship with Saudi Arabia is more important than holding the prince responsible for murder. In other words, profit is more important than human life.

Long before the Khashoggi murder occurred, the Saudis had already created enormous suffering with their attacks in Yemen. According to the International Rescue Committee, “Yemen is facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. Over 22 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, the country is on the brink of famine, and a million people have suffered from the worst cholera outbreak in modern history.”

But our Congress and president do nothing. They say nothing. With their inactivity and silence, they encourage autocrats through the world to do their worst, confident that the U.S., once the beacon of world peace and brotherhood, will look the other way.

We as a nation must decry murder and the infliction of death and suffering. Not to do so is inviting our own end. Our survival, in the long term, depends on it.

As I have noted here before, in the little over two years I’ve posted to this blog six times a week, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid political controversy. But these three emergencies go beyond politics. They pose threats to our very existence as a democracy. We must speak out and act.

Three National Emergencies (2)

Yesterday, I talked about the first of the three emergencies that I am alarmed about, climate change. Today, I’ll speak of the second emergency, nationalism.

Charles de Gaulle put it succinctly: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”

I do love my own people, my fellow Americans, and I love my country. My willingness to risk my life repeatedly during the Vietnam war testifies to that love in a way that no other actions could have. And I have long understood that American patriotism encompasses, among other things, a profound concern for the well being of our allied countries. It is unmistakably clear to me that peace in Europe, following the two world wars that killed millions, is based on the mutual concern that nations, including the U.S., have for one another. To put American first and neglect the welfare of our allies—all in the name of nationalism—invites the end of peace and a return to world war.

And yet President Trump has declared himself to be a nationalist. His motto of “America First” dominates his foreign policy. He insults our historic allies—who worked with us to establish and maintain peace after World War II—and compliments blood-thirsty dictators. He is leading us on a path to destruction.

We all must strive to elect patriots, those who want to work with the rest of the civilized world, to lead us. We must oppose nationalism wherever it raises its ugly head. We must support those among our elected officials who seek a peace shared with the rest of the world. And we must strenuously oppose Trump and his nationalism. Our survival depends on it.

To be continued next Monday.

Three National Emergencies

I am deeply concerned about three emergencies that our country is facing: climate change, the threat of nationalism, and our handling of the Khashoggi murder. Over the next few days, I’ll address my sense of alarm about each.

On 23 November, the U.S. Global Research Program issued a report on climate change and the threat that it poses for the U.S. and the rest of the world. According to the Washington Post, the report says that

“The effects of climate change, including deadly wildfires, increasingly debilitating hurricanes and heat waves, are already battering the United States, and the danger of more such catastrophes is worsening.

“The report’s authors, who represent numerous federal agencies, say they are more certain than ever that climate change poses a severe threat to Americans’ health and pocketbooks, as well as to the country’s infrastructure and natural resources. And while it avoids policy recommendations, the report’s sense of urgency and alarm stands in stark contrast to the lack of any apparent plan from President Trump to tackle the problems, which, according to the government he runs, are increasingly dire.”

The point is that the effects of climate change, caused by human activity, are upon us now. We can escape the worst disasters if we move immediately to alter our behavior. But the Trump administration and the Republicans who control Congress not only have done nothing to counter the effects of climate change, they even deny its existence. I am persuaded that, for our own survival, we must urge the Democrats who will assume control of the House in January to move immediately to change the way we do business so as to protect the planet we live on.

My Three Addictions (6)

Further about my addiction to writing: I’m not systematic or disciplined in my writing. When I’m deep into a story, I may spend as much as fourteen hours a day writing. Other days, I don’t write at all. I let my muse—my inner voice—dictate my writing schedule.

The revision system that works best for me is to read the text first on the screen of the computer, then in printed form. For reasons I’ve never been able to divine, the two methods point up different problems. I let the text “cool” between revisions so I can come back to it with fresh perspective.

I cut everything that doesn’t do the job. That can mean a sentence, paragraph, or even a chapter. Whenever possible, I tell the story through action or dialogue, sometimes both at the same time. I have tried many different points of view (POV). The one(s) I choose for a given story or novel depends on the nature of the story. The POV I have used least often is the so-called “God’s-eye” POV, where the reader hears the story from perspective of an unseen observer who has access to the internal thinking of all the characters.

When I am satisfied with the text, I read it aloud, first from the computer screen, then from the printed page. Or sometimes I record myself reading and listen to the way the text sounds. Or occasionally, when I can find someone willing to spend the time, I have someone else read the text to me.

Hearing the words read aloud offers a unique insight into the how well the text works. It helps me find clumsy wording, unnecessarily formal structures, repeated use of vocabulary, awkward paragraphing, long sentences. I hear nuances and implications I would otherwise miss.

Most of all, reading aloud brings out the poetry—or lack of it—in the phrasing. It underlines the emotional sense of the words. It highlights the subtle shifts in feeling as the story progresses.

And it lets me hear the ebb and flow, the rise and fall, the tension, passion, and peacefulness of the words. Once again, it is the sound that matters. It is what the reader is hearing in his inner ear.

So all three of my addictions—music, languages, and writing—reside in sound. That is where my soul is. And if I become completely deaf, I’ll still hear with my inner ear.

My Three Addictions (5)

By learning the very different linguistic logics that are the bases for different languages, my ability to think was greatly expanded. By studying eastern languages, I came to understand the Asian way of looking at life, as reflected in the eastern religions and philosophies, in a way that no other means could have taught me. Most important, my understanding of English and how it works was illuminated.

That proved to be an immense help in writing. It allowed me to discover new ways to phrase an idea, to becomes sensitive to subtle differences in expression, and to use syntax and word order to convey poetic variation. For the first time I understood the emotional difference between “It is always with me” and “It is with me always.”

That brings me to my third addiction, writing.

I write because I have to. Not to write would be damnation. I don’t mean that in a religious sense. I mean that I was put on earth to write. Failure to write would mean betraying my purpose for being alive.

Writing fiction is the most difficult work I have ever done save writing poetry. But it is also the work I find most fulfilling. Nothing surpasses that moment when I finally get a sentence, a paragraph, a story, or a book right. And nothing pleases me more than when a reader responds to my writing.

I’m a slow writer. One of my books went through ten drafts and took fourteen years to complete. Something like 10 percent of my writing time is taken up with drafting new text; 90 percent is spent revising. I need to let written material “cool”—that is, putting it aside for some period of time before coming back to it to look at it with new eyes. For a story that means a month or so. For a novel that can mean as much as a year.

More tomorrow.

My Three Addictions (4)

My study of first Vietnamese and later Chinese revealed to me a totally different linguistic logic, quite alien to both Germanic and romantic languages. In these two tongues, there is no grammar as we westerners think of it—no nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, or other parts of speech. No conjugations or declensions. And tense is rarely expressed because the context makes clear what is intended.

One example of Asian language reasoning came to me when I was studying classical Chinese. In the text I was trying to translate were three characters, those for “he,” “mountain,” and “treasure. I couldn’t figure out what was meant. My teacher reminded me that in Chinese a word can function as any part of speech, and I was approaching that passage as if the second two characters were both nouns. The second of the three, “mountain,” here was used as an action word. What the text means was “He mountained the treasure,” that is, he piled it up so high it made a mountain.

These languages convey meaning by word order and context. For example, the word in Vietnamese is usually defined as the verb, “to be” in English. But it really functions as an equals sign—what comes before equals what comes after. For pronouns like “I’ and “you” in English, the Vietnamese use words that indicate the relationship between the speakers. The most common formal term for “I” is “tôi,” which means “servant” or “slave.” The formal “you” in Vietnamese is “ông” (grandfather, a revered figure) for a man and either “cô” (aunt, for an unmarried woman) or “bà” (grandmother, for a married woman).

It gets more complicated. For less formal relationships, “I” and “you” are expressed by a word that designates a family member. If I’m talking to an older man, I use anh (older brother) for “you” and em (younger brother or sister) for “I.” If I am talking to a younger man or woman, the words are reversed. A younger Vietnamese woman I know addresses me as chú (paternal uncle), so I must use chú for “I” and cháu (nephew or niece) for “you” with her. Misuse of the proper word can be insulting to a Vietnamese.

It gets worse yet. Both Vietnamese and Chinese are tonal and monosyllabic languages. For instance, the syllable “ma” in Vietnamese has six different meanings determined by the intonation. A hilarious story about Robert McNamara tells how he tried to cheer the Vietnamese during one of his trips to Vietnam by shouting “Viêt Nam muôn năm,” which means “Vietnam for ten thousand years.” But he got the tones wrong and ended up saying “The little duck, he wants to lie down.” The crowd dissolved in mirth.

More tomorrow.

My Three Addictions (3)

Between 1962 and 1975, I was in Vietnam at least four months every year. I had two complete tours there and so many shorter trips that I lost count. I had long since learned to think in the three languages of the country—Vietnamese, Chinese, and French—and I spoke them constantly.

I was intrigued to come across well-to-do Vietnamese who spoke only French. They had grown up during the period of French domination and considered the Vietnamese language to be crude and coarse. And the native French still living in Vietnam had never bothered to learn Vietnamese. The many Chinese in Vietnam, I was disappointed to discover, spoke the Cantonese dialect as their native tongue—and different dialects in Chinese are not mutually intelligible. I had studied the Beijing dialect, known as 國 語 (guo yu—national language). But almost all of the Chinese in Vietnam had also learned the Beijing dialect, although they spoke it with an accent and mispronounced some of the words.

As readers of this blog know all too well, I escaped under fire as Saigon fell. I returned to the U.S. and went on working for NSA until I retired as early as I could and became a full-time writer. During my early years of retirement, it dawned on me that I had never learned the most commonly spoken foreign language in the U.S., namely Spanish. So I enrolled in classes at Howard Community College to study Spanish, my seventh foreign language.

As my hearing has declined over the years, I speak languages other than English less frequently. I discovered early on that I can lip-read English, but I can’t do the same in other languages.

One of the many benefits of knowing languages other than English is to learn the underlying logic inherent in each. The linguistic systems that undergird English and German are closely related. And French, Italian, and Spanish share a systematic basis not too distant from that of the Germanic languages. But Asian languages are based on a way of thinking unrelated to that of western languages.

More tomorrow.