The Power of Babble


An inexplicable urge inspired me to pull an old book, "Languages Identification Guide," (acquired years ago at a used bookstore for $10.95) from a shelf this morning. I suppose the book deserves a purposeful existence at an academic library, but I sadly suspect it has gathered less dust in my collection than it might elsewhere. Translated from the original Russian, the book contains sample paragraphs for the purpose of identifying languages in which printed material appears, with myriad dialectical variations noted. The languages range from the warlike "New Assyrian" (composed strikingly of spear-like strokes) to the picturesque Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan script; from the flowing elegance of Arabic to lovely and ornate scripts such as Chinese, Tibetan, or Hindi; from the softly rounded characters of Burmese to the sternly rigid characters common to the Soviet Union.

One page out of about 285 (not counting possible notes in the indexes) covers English; I doubt that's unique to the English translation of the book. Leafing through the book for the first time was an astonishing experience; I'd never realized how little appreciation I had of the world, despite a well-used childhood subscription to "National Geographic." Exploring this book and the multitude of languages - most I'd never heard of - brought humanity into a new focus; those people on the pages of National Geographic now had languages, not just quaint customs and colorful (if often minimal) outfits. Suddenly far away continents on the globe were peopled in my mind in a new way; maps and photos never conveyed the depth and significance of foreign cultures to my imagination the way a yellowing and obscure language reference book did. Possessing language gave foreign cultures history, literature, poetry, dignity, austerity, and intelligence.

I wish I could put this book - for just half an hour - into the hands of anyone who thinks war can achieve peace, or democratic ideals should be militarily exported. Progress in either case depends on getting the other side to speak our language self-defensively: in forcing another culture to learn our language, or adopt our ways, we do violence against their native languages and their customs. That, to me, represents the purpose of politics: a politically ordered society is unsustainable and tends toward violence because nothing more certainly divides a society than compelling disparate people to unite politically, or more tentatively unites divided people than unnatural, idealistic blueprints for societies.

The book covers over 200 languages, recalling to my mind Morgan Freeman's gentle remark (as Azeem) in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves: "Allah loves wondrous variety." As would any God worthy of the title. Unfortunately, few Gods, Allah included, appear to fit that description these days. Infinite variety and ever-changing interactions between people seem only natural and desirable; the ability to display that diversity and achieve harmony despite differences constitutes the essential foundation of a free market in my eyes. Call that "free market" freedom of association, world peace, brotherhood of man, laissez-faire, as you like: any institution that succeeds in coercively manipulating human relationships and activities via decrees, dictates, or economic policies creates obstacles to peace, freedom, and fair exchange, bestowing a blight upon humanity.

Imagine twenty people plucked at random from around the globe sitting in a circle, each one saying, "I come as a friend" in his native dialect; by sheer chance two of them may understand each other unless they're a group of multi-lingual people. Those who wish all mankind to speak one language for the sake of peace and cooperation would shred the intricate tapestry of humanity to weave a hangman's noose for the human species. As indigenous populations conquered by invading cultures throughout time have discovered, the conquering 'civilization' gradually corrupts or deliberately destroys native language, custom, history, and culture. Left to their own inclinations and natural conditions, people have reasons and incentives to learn foreign languages, and do so without duress largely to facilitate peaceful trade, acquire learning or understanding, or simply to earn a living.

Nature also loves wondrous variety, whether it manifests in the smallest of organisms or the most complex creatures. From the uniqueness of snowflakes to the individuality of human beings down to our fingerprints, nature discriminates on behalf of diversity, ever experimenting with new combinations that thrive or perish largely on their own merits. It seems we've learned very little from nature. Extreme environmentalists display the worst of conservative traits in attempting to statically preserve nature's ever-changing, ruthless character as an unnatural 'still-life' or domesticate a wild environment. Socialists engage in the most anti-social of strategies - depriving individuals of economic autonomy - to force "cooperation" through centralized coercive control over wealth and opportunity. Deliberately creating a small powerful class to safeguard the interests of a vast powerless class suggests either ignorance of human nature, or contempt for human individuality, or both. Cooperation happens voluntarily; coercion compels submission, not cooperation.

Whether nature or God (or both) created man, diversity among men is an indisputably natural and beneficial arrangement. Whether nature or God gives us breath, awareness, and imagination, presumably she, He (or they) intended man to use and develop those qualities. Humans have an astonishing ability to "create" themselves and engineer their personal environments, and that natural ability common to human intelligence renders people equal more effectively than any redistribution scheme of wealth or opportunity.

Any attempt to render people equal in an unnatural sense must first ignore or disparage entirely natural differences. As humans, we either presume that the possession of human consciousness represents a satisfactory basis for equality, or content ourselves with chronic failure to satisfactorily resolve the problematic equality equation. Politically egalitarian strategies based on the presumption that people are inherently unequal render equality inconceivable, and proceed from the assumption that equality must be artificially induced through meddlesome laws and social institutions structured upon a groundwork of presumed inequality: tortured logic at best; the presumption of human equality means at least people acknowledge other peoples' humanity, and that's not a bad place to start.

A person having cultivated the empathy to understand that equally human individuals encounter inequitable social or economic circumstances may concede that nature doesn't distribute equality in social or political terms. He may attempt to address the perceived deficiencies of nature's benefits distribution scheme through politics; alternatively, he may recognize the numerous ways that political perception distorts nature's picturesque way of providing equality while ensuring the diversity she loves, requires, and supports. People have vastly different abilities, physical characteristics, environments, and social backgrounds. Differences don't create inequality; "nyet" and "non" aren't identical to "no," they are equivalent. Two plus four = six, like one plus five, or three times two. Surely there's nothing esoteric or incomprehensible about "different, but equal."

In the end, perhaps it boils down to politics VS nature, and I have little doubt that nature will win eventually over politicians, misguided environmentalists, coercive socialists, shell-game economists, ethically challenged genetic engineers, or corporatism run amok.

I don't see how a society of equals can become a reality, short of individual people freely choosing to honor claims to a pre-existing condition of human consciousness. Egalitarian political schemes build upon an unsound basis of inequality, and set about the impossible task of rendering unequal people equal, ignoring a simple and elegant solution - equality by virtue of equal humanity. Failing to recognize other people as equally human is like presuming people guilty until proven innocent, or unequal until proven equal. Presume equality for the sake of peace: Presume innocence for the sake of liberty. Please.

Some languages are written left-to-right, others right-to-left; some are written top-down, and others from bottom-up. Languages may have very different characters, appearances and sounds; but despite the diversity of forms they have one thing in common: they're all languages. Humans have one thing in common, despite diversity of cultures, languages, and faiths: we're all human. If humans are not equal on that basis alone, then equality is nothing more than a political piņata, and a pipe dream. Like many other things in life, I guess equality starts here, with me. I don't question equality, only the reasons why many people dispute its existence - and how poorly that question reflects "human progress."

It's our willingness to treat - and perhaps more importantly, to consider - other people as our equals that breathes life into the concept of equality, just as our willingness to desire freedom for others as ardently as we would defend our own freedom gives sustainability to the concept of liberty. A society of self-confessed equals has great potential to live together freely and peacefully, while a society of unequal people living free may not be peaceful: people fear freedom largely because they've lost the equal footing that gives a free society stability. A society of people rendered "equal" by political standards has lost one true compass capable of guiding humanity toward freedom, equality, and the stars.


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