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?

Paper was originally made from rags until the introduction of cellulose in 1800. Since then, it has transformed into a "circular" industry, with 55% of paper produced in Italy recovered. It no longer just comes from trees, either. Some companies produce paper with scraps from the processing of other products like wool and walnuts.

Learn more about this rags to riches story in Eni's new Energy Superfacts series.

In late 2017, Zimbabwe's long-serving strongman Robert Mugabe was deposed by the army after 37 years in power. Amid huge popular celebrations, he handed over the reins to Emmerson Mnangagwa, his former spy chief. It was an extraordinary turn of history: Mugabe, one of Africa's last "Big Men" and a hero of the country's liberation war to end white minority rule, went out with barely a whimper, placing Zimbabwe — stricken by economic ruin and international isolation — in the hands of "The Crocodile."

Mugabe has since died, but almost three years after his departure, Zimbabwe's woes continue.

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As the world prepares to mark the 75th anniversary since American forces dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, global non-proliferation efforts, first codified in Cold War-era treaties, are in jeopardy. While the overall number of nuclear weapons continues to decrease — mainly because the US and Russia have set about dismantling retired weapons — both countries, which account for 90 percent of the world's total nuclear arsenal, continue to modernize their nuclear weapons programs. Meanwhile, the New START treaty, which limits the number of long-range nuclear weapons that each side can deploy to about 1,500 apiece, is at risk of collapsing. Here's a look at which countries have nuclear weapon stockpiles and who's ready to use them.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Happy Monday, we are in August, summer, should be taking it a little easier. Coronavirus not taking the stress levels off but hopefully giving people the excuse, if you're not traveling so much, be close with your families, your loved ones and all that. Look, this is not a philosophical conversation, this is a talk about what's happening in the world, a little Quick Take for you.

First of all, you know, I'm getting a little bit more optimistic about the news in the United States right now. Yes, honestly, I am. In part because the caseload is flattening across the country and it's reducing in some of the core states that have seen the greatest explosion in this continuation of the first wave. Yes, the deaths are going up and they should continue to for a couple of weeks because it is a lagging indicator in the United States. But the fact that deaths are going up does not say anything about what's coming in the next few weeks. That tells you what's happened in the last couple of weeks.

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TikTok, ya don't stop: The wildly popular video app TikTok has been in the crosshairs of American lawmakers for many months now. Why? Because the app is owned by a Chinese company, raising national security concerns that it could funnel personal data on its 100 million American users to the Chinese government. The plot thickened in recent days after President Trump abruptly threatened to ban the app altogether, risking a backlash among its users and imperiling US tech giant Microsoft's efforts to buy the company's North American operations. After a weekend conversation between Microsoft and the White House, the sale negotiations are back on but US lawmakers say any deal must strictly prevent American users' data from winding up in Chinese Communist Party servers. The broader fate of TikTok — which has now been banned in India, formerly its largest market, and may be broken up under US pressure — nicely illustrates the new "tech Cold War" that is emerging between China and the United States. A Microsoft/TikTok deal is expected by September 15. Tick..Tock.

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