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Jewish World Review April 13, 2001/ 20 Nissan, 5761

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Who's sorry now? -- LOVE, as in "love is never having to say you're sorry,'' is one sappy cliche. It's harmless enough as a staple of the language of puppy love, but big-dog love can require an apology to a loved one when you're wrong -- and often when you're right. You could ask Cupid.

But not in the give-and-take between foreign countries, where love never has anything to do with it. Nevertheless, diplomacy sometimes requires the sensitivity and subterfuge of the language of love. Finding the delicate balance, as in relationships between men and women, is the game of diplomacy.

Some conservatives thought George W. Bush should have used tougher language in the initial stages of the crisis on Hainan Island by calling our pilots "hostages.'' Many liberals thought he was too tough, when he said this accident could undermine our hopes for a "productive relationship between our two countries.''

The speculation quickly changed from who would say what, and when, to something like "he said, he said.'' The advantage went to whoever got to write the subtitles.

The Chinese quibble endlessly over words, and which shade of purple to say them in. Did the president express enough grief over the death of the Chinese pilot? Was he "feichang wanxi'' (very sorrowful) or merely "feichang bao qian'' (very sorry)? Imagine the misery of the translator assigned to convert the tortured syntax of George Bush into "feichang'' anything. We should be grateful we have a laconic president who doesn't make a big deal over feeling another's pain. (Whatever Bill Clinton would have said, and he would have said a lot, every hour on the hour, no one could have translated it into two or three Chinese words.)

But how refreshing to get a lesson in the nuances of language, and an exercise in the kind of critical thinking that extends beyond what the meaning of the word "is'' is. An imaginative teacher could use this linguistic crossfire to stress the complexities and subtleties of language and the different ways language reflects different cultures.

Few scholars any longer study rhetoric, and as a result most of us have a limited knowledge of the infinite shades of gray (or purple) in the art of persuasion and translation. Words, which actually have precise meanings, are often flung about with abandon, even by people who regard themselves as educated. But every language offers a different set of rhetorical possibilities, and none are more formidable than the languages of China. Media Studies Journal, which examines the media and its impact on society, devotes an entire issue to the specific difficulties in reporting about China.

"With 4,000 years of civilization, China has consistently produced leaders and advisers who seem especially artful in using language to their advantage, understanding all too well that cruel and brutal rule must be glossed over with a soft veneer,'' writes Dai Qing, a Chinese dissident and onetime reporter for a Chinese daily.

The Chinese specialize in a technique they euphemistically call "guiding public opinion.'' What they mean is "censorship.'' It's the language equivalent of "saving face'' and it's what the Chinese government tried to impose on the United States with demands for an "apology.''

In China, the government speaks to a reporter in clear and precise language about how that reporter should approach his story. Explains Dai Qing: "'Say it this way and not that, for no other position shall be tolerated,' or better yet, 'Saying it this way is to your advantage, for if you insist on the opposite, well, then just let's wait and see.'''

This approach sets the parameters for how the Chinese report a story to their own people. "Sorry'' was the word they had to have us say so they could tell their people that the United States had apologized. It was less important what we apologized for than that we used a word the government could manipulate. So the United States said it was "very sorry that the entering of China's air space and landing did not have verbal clearance.''

The Chinese wanted us to accept the blame for the collision, but President Bush finally made them understand they weren't going to get that. Stalling became counterproductive and the Chinese government began to worry that the situation could spin out of control.

Wisdom, Confucius might say, is knowing when to cut bait, especially when you've got other fish to fry.


04/10/01: The details
04/05/01: News that wasn't fit to print
04/02/01: The devil in the legal details
03/29/01: Making marriage glamorous
03/27/01: Crime and punishment on the small screen
03/23/01: When speech isn't free
03/19/01: Russell Crowe doesn't wear a Black Beret
03/15/01: 'The little intimidator' of the breakfast table
03/13/01: "We are asking the Creator for clemency"
03/08/01: Saving El Salvador with dollars and sense
02/27/01: The last cowboys of their craft
02/23/01: When Bubba graduates to Bobo
02/16/01: Clarence Thomas addresses an imperfect world
02/12/01: Ariel Sharon, not by Steven Spielberg
02/07/01: Profaning the sacred with the political
02/05/01: What's the Creator got to do with it?
02/01/01: Live like the snopses, leave like the snopses
01/29/01: It's education, stupid
01/25/01: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows"
01/22/01: Poetry and religion in the Bush administration
01/18/01: Ashcroft can't dance (don't ask him)
01/15/01: Clothes make the First Lady
01/11/01: Pity Jerusalem in the 'peace' process
01/08/01: Laying the political race card
01/04/01: 'What women want' in the new millennium
01/02/01: This year, looking ahead is sure sweeter than looking back
12/21/00: Black power with a Republican face
12/21/00: First impressions of two First Ladies
12/18/00: Challenge for the 'better angels of our nature'
12/14/00: What we've lost sight of
12/13/00: Hillary in the lion's den
12/08/00: Return of the 'second sex' on campus
12/04/00: Politics as entertainment today
11/30/00: Winner vs. whiner
11/27/00: Measuring against history
11/23/00: Memories of Thanksgiving past
11/17/00: In defense of the Electoral College
11/16/00: More than one way to win an election
11/13/00: Sexual politics squared
11/09/00: A Middle East legacy
11/06/00: Filling in the dots at campaign's end
11/02/00: His own man in full
10/30/00: The Oval Office, through a glass brightly
10/23/00: There'll always be an England. Maybe.
10/19/00: The celebrity candidate
10/16/00: 'Ladies night' at the second debate
10/12/00: Gore vs. Bush: Volvo vs. Maserati
10/10/00: We weep for Rami for he is dead
10/05/00: Looking at Lieberman from inside the 'ghetto'
10/02/00: Campaigns, candidates, and kissy-face
09/28/00: Laughing and crying over Joe Lieberman
09/21/00: Targeting teenagers for money
09/21/00: Sexual politics in New York
09/18/00: Surviving the stereotypes and debates
09/14/00: Gloria Steinem runs cheerfully into captivity
09/12/00: Sex in the eye of the partisan
09/07/00: 'Sex and death' on the college campus
09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate