Three Hits: Language and Geopolitics

Three Hits: Language and Geopolitics

Forget the Mullahs, did you hear Laurel or Yanny? In honor of that internet-busting question from last week (we think its Laurel, no question), we take a look at three stories in which language is bound up with politics.


Do you say it right?

Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement, one of two anti-establishment parties currently forming a government there, has notoriously bad grammar. (He routinely screws up the subjunctive and conditional tenses.) But with populist politics on the rise, a certain roughness in speech isn’t such a bad thing. Most people’s grammar isn’t perfect, after all, and this guy talks like me has a certain appeal when bashing elites. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte certainly knows this: His coarse language is a totem of his politics. And needless to say, Donald Trump’s simplistic, repetitive, and often vulgar formulations on Twitter are the essence of his norm-busting political brand. Populists aren’t just changing how we vote, they’re changing how we talk.

How do you say it?

China is home to more than 130 different languages and dialects, but the government has long prioritized one, Mandarin Chinese, as the lingua franca. Now, The Economist reports, as President Xi Jinping looks to burnish his country’s image as a global power, his government is softening restrictionson the use and teaching of non-Mandarin local languages spoken by many people in the Chinese diaspora whom Beijing wants to woo for investment and commercial opportunities. But China needs to walk a fine line: encourage (certain) regional cultural identities without fomenting a level of regional identity that could, in time, be destabilizing.

Can you say it at all?

For all its virtues, Facebook, as anyone knows, also overflows with all manner of vile, offensive, hateful trash. But is it OK to censor it? Hundreds of Facebook employees at a center in Germany, profiled by The New York Times, have the power to decide. In January, Germany passed a stringent new hate speech law that requires online platforms to identify and remove anything that crosses the line. When in doubt, the decision is kicked up to lawyers. Two major political questions here: First, is it acceptable for a government to outsource interpretation of its laws to a private company like this? Second, does this set a risky precedent for authoritarian governments who can use their own definitions of “hate speech” to squelch dissent?

Jon Lieber, Managing Director of the United States for Eurasia Group, shares updates on recent COVID-19 policy developments:

The Biden administration extended an eviction moratorium even after the Supreme Court said they couldn't, what's next?

Well, the CDC imposed a nationwide eviction moratorium in light of increased risk from evicted people because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Supreme Court in June ruled that they (CDC) overextended their authority in doing so and mandated that the moratorium expire on schedule in July. A group of progressive activists weren't happy about this and raised a huge stink in Congress, but Congress recessed for their August vacation before they could solve the problem, putting big pressure on President Biden to extend the moratorium even though he said he didn't think that it would pass constitutional muster. The CDC did it anyway, extending the moratorium until October 3rd, which is a time that's short enough to probably avoid it being overturned by lawsuits, but long enough that Congress has time to figure out how to either extend it on a bipartisan basis or put more money into a rental assistance fund that few people have taken advantage of so far. This whole incident shows the power of progressive activists in the Biden administration who were able to elevate the profile of this issue and potentially prevent millions of people from losing their homes this summer.

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This week, the market value of Tencent, China's biggest video game company, nosedived after a state media outlet suggested that online gaming was as addictive and destructive as opium. Tencent immediately pledged to cap the number of hours people can play, and to keep minors off its platforms.

It's the latest example of a months-long crackdown on major Chinese technology firms that until recently were viewed as some of the world's most powerful and successful companies, as well as a source of national pride. Beijing's about-face on its own tech titans could have big implications for China, and beyond.

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Iran was involved in two naval incidents in the Gulf of Oman in recent days. The US, UK, and Israel have blamed Iran for a drone attack that killed two European nationals. Iran has rejected the accusations. Iran is also suspected in the "potential hijack" of a tanker off the coast of the United Arab Emirates.

These provocations are happening just as Iran inaugurates a new president, Ebrahim Raisi, and as talks continue over the possible US re-entry into the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. What's the connection between these events? We asked Henry Rome, Eurasia Group's deputy head of research and a director covering global macro politics and the Middle East.

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Whenever Burkina Faso is in the news, it's often about how the crisis-ridden country has got caught up in the crosshairs of horrific jihadist violence plaguing the Sahel.

But this week, the nation of 20 million was celebrating because Hugues Fabrice Zango won its first-ever Olympic medal after finishing third in the men's triple jump in Tokyo.

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Should people get COVID vaccine booster shots? Not yet, says the World Health Organization, which is pushing for rich nations or those with access to jabs to hold off until at least the end of September so all countries get to fully vaccinate at least 10 percent of their populations before some jump ahead with boosters. But the WHO's call has fallen on deaf ears in nations like Israel, France, Germany and Russia, which are already planning to offer boosters, in part to better protect people against the more contagious delta variant. What's more, mRNA vaccine makers Pfizer and Moderna are recommending supplemental doses for the same reason. The problem is that, beyond the obvious moral imperative for equal access to vaccines, if the rich continue hoarding jabs while vaccination rates stay low elsewhere, the virus will continue to thrive — and mutate into new, potentially even more infectious variants that sooner or later will reach every corner of the planet.

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80: If polar ice caps continue to melt at their current pace due to climate change, 80 percent of all emperor penguins will be wiped out by the end of the century because they need the ice for breeding and keeping their offspring safe. American authorities want to list emperor penguins, which only live in Antarctica, as an endangered species so that US fishing vessels will be required to protect them when operating in their habitat.

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On GZERO World, Ian Bremmer takes a look at the yin and the yang of alcohol's role in high-level diplomacy and society at large. Alcohol can bring people together just as easily as it can tear them apart. From a 1995 Clinton/Yeltsin Summit where a drunk Yeltsin almost derailed Bosnian peace talks, to Obama's Beer Summit and the recent G7 Summit, booze plays a part in how world leaders interact. Globally, alcohol consumption has been steadily increasing, by over 70 percent between 1990 and 2017, according to one report. . Low and middle-income nations like Vietnam, India, and China are a driving force behind that trend, with drinking in Southeast Asia rising by over 34 percent between 2010 and 2017. And yet, amidst this global booze boom, the world has only grown more and more divided.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

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Does alcohol help bring the world together?

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