PM latest victim of bourgeois bilingual showpony disorder
One of the more bracing moments of my adolescence involved going to the movies with a female friend, also in her late teens, to see the French film Betty Blue which opens with an explosive 10-minute sex scene which is arousing enough to fire up an entire retirement village, let alone an 18-year-old lad who is already as toey as a roman sandal.
When Beatrice Dalle finally got around to having her orgasm and the actual dialogue began - aside from the “oui! oui! oui! oui! oui!” spectacle we’d just witnessed - my friend, a hysterical young Francophile who’d just spent an off-year living in Paris, whispered to me: “This just isn’t going to survive the translation.”
Her pretence was eclipsed only by mine as, in the same way that she had a terminal dose of the French, I’d just come back from an off-year living in Mexico, and was so badly afflicted by a showy determination to steer any conversation in the direction of Latin America that it’s remarkable the two of us ever managed to have an intelligible conversation at all…
“I wish we were at that boulangerie in Montmartre instead of the Myer Centre food court.”
“I ate grasshoppers with the Olmec Indians in Oaxaca. We drank mezcal. At dawn, I feared they would throw me into a ravine and I would end up, muerto, like Geoffrey Fermin in Under the Volcano.”
“The French say there is no love but l’amour fou.”
“Yo quiero Taco Bell.”
And so on.
Learning a second language is a terrific intellectual discipline. It’s also a whole load of fun. It opens you up to new books, new songs, helps you better understand the history and psychology of other nations, it can help you do business, make friends which you would otherwise never make, and it teaches you more about the structure of your own language.
But of the many noble purposes served by bilingualism, when you are not with people who speak that language, or not in a situation where you really need to speak it, it can quickly become the undisputable international call-sign for: hey, look at me, I’m a pretentious middle-class wanker.
As far as I’ve been able to gather there is only one, two-word joke in the history of English-language comedy - please correct me if you know another - and it comes courtesy of Fawlty Towers.
The joke is: “Pretentious? Moi?”
It’s a question Kevin Rudd might currently be asking himself.
The problems our Prime Minister currently faces over businessman Stern Hu’s imprisonment derive, I think, in very large part from Mr Rudd’s middle-class conditioning, where he’s fallen prey to a protracted bout of showy bilingualism and created a perception that he’s got some kind of pull with China, rather than merely a gift for mimicry and intonation.
The problem Rudd has potentially got with the Australian public is that he’s spoken Mandarin so many times publicly either as a welcoming gesture, or as a bit of a lark on Rove or at Canberra’s Mid-Winter Ball, that the pressure is now on him to show that his Sinophile credentials can actually serve a valuable purpose.
We’ve got a decent guy in Stern Hu working for a reputable Australian company in Rio Tinto, locked up in the clink for possibly as long as six months without any charge, and no real disclosure from China as to what evidence they have of his wrongdoing.
And the expectation on Rudd, rightly or wrongly, is that his long-standing use of Mandarin is more than a it of hip-and-groovy political product placement.
You can see why a guy like Rudd would be proud of his linguistic abilities, and he’s got every right to be. Growing up in white-bread, dirt-poor, mono-cultural Nambour, he landed a job with DFAT and learnt extraordinarily good Mandarin.
It was a particularly lethal weapon in his armory when he was in opposition. His obvious ease in Mandarin helped paint John Howard as a man of the 1950s, the sort of bloke who, a bit like your grandparents, would squint in disapproval at the idea of going to yum cha, who’d never dream of holidaying in Asia, who thought that there was still a lot to be said for the romance languages and rued the demise of Latin. Howard’s ill-fated flirtation with a racially-based immigration policy in 1989 probably helped cement the perception that he wasn’t comfortable in a space where Rudd looked like an absolute natural.
In the lead-up to the 2007 election it was clear that most people either admired Rudd’s Mandarin skills or were unfussed by them.
Alexander Downer was not among them. When Rudd addressed APEC in Mandarin in Sydney in September 2007, the Foreign Minister hit the airwaves to accuse Rudd of being a showpony, saying that he too had learnt a language, French, while working for DFAT, but didn’t go around speaking it all the time.
Downer’s comments at the time looked almost to be inspired by jealousy, or possibly just fury at the fact he knew his goose was cooked. They also resulted in a particularly awkward moment at the Press Club where, challenged to actually say something in French, Downer prattled at length in English to eat up time.
But now Downer would be having a quiet chuckle to himself at the quandary Rudd is in, because by making such a mainstream play of his linguistic talents, he created a belief among the Australian people that he knows China, understands China, can talk to China in Chinese, and that in return for this, China would respect him and us back.
The reverse seems to have happened. We’ve seen our senior bureaucrats and federal ministers being brushed this week as China agrees to meetings on the Hu case with eighth under-secretaries and acting deputy ambassadors.
And the PM has looked more like the bloke you want to have with you at the Barbecue King when you want to get Wang’s attention for another round of ice-cold Tsing Taos, than some meaningful high-level lobbying to get a poor Australian businessman out of jail.
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