The Scarlet & Black

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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Don’t be that spy


Posters throughout ARH extol the value of language learning, and invite passing students to pick a motivation for learning one or more to suit their worldview. Do it to be smarter, urges one. Do it to be more successful, another. Do it because of globalization and competition, yet another. Apparently, everyone’s learning English, so another poster warns students not to rest on their English-speaking laurels. The posters emphasize a variety of advantages for students who learn a second language.

As a language major, I find such posters crass. It’s almost as if one could opt to study “language” rather than choosing one. However, the message of most of the posters does not surprise me, and I hope that such posters will attract students to the study of culture as well as language during their tenure on the plaster walls. That being said, I find two of the posters downright propagandistic in light of the drone war and recent revelations on domestic spying.

One, citing Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, notes that national security agencies “continue to experience shortages of people skilled in hard-to-learn languages due to a limited pool of Americans to recruit from.”

Is it so terrible when the national security establishment suffers from a lack of translators. When the transcription of calls in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen leads to the killing of innocents without due process, why would anyone want a hand in that? It’s all success and paychecks until someone on the other side of the globe gets a hellfire missile shot through their window. Of course, no translator would ever know they helped set wedding parties in Pakistan alight, and that is the terrible simplicity of this system in our myopic, post-9/11 world.

Of course, if you go and work for the national security establishment, you may never know your translation work has such deadly consequences, but it might. One might simply clatter away translating Urdu or Arabic to English before that translation passes down the invisible conveyor belt of taylorized wisdom until ending up in a White House war room. It is here; we are assured by Hollywood films and TV dramatizations, that President Obama, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, makes a very sad face as he condemns the faceless to a remote-controlled death without justice.

The bearer of bad bombs also makes an appearance on the posters in the ARH. He laments his lack of a superpower in a crimson font unique among the otherwise formulaic posters: “It’s kind of a weird superpower, but if I had something that I could immediately wish for, I would love to be able to speak any language.” – Barack Obama, it concludes, in bold letters larger than the other quoted authorities.

What’s not said in this poster is said in the other. We need more translators not for diplomacy, which is absent from all these posters, but for national security. Implicit in this need is a disturbing trend in foreign policy. Instead of talking with our allies or issuing diplomatic appeals for goodwill directly to the people of the world, we instead focus our efforts on the translation of material, illegally obtained, to further an abstract notion of security. What’s more is that we kill based on translations. We collect data for processing by the analytics of assassination. What comes out as trends or as targets supposedly justifies the force used thereafter, but to my mind no intelligence justifies this type of murder.

No matter what languages I endeavor to learn in my capacity as a mere mortal, I will not use such abilities to kill or maim the defenseless under the guise of national security. If we are indeed engaged in a war of information against terrorists, then I refuse to contribute my powers of analysis to such a conflict when it entails terrorizing and killing those caught in the middle. No amount of nuance or money is going to get me to work for the DOD, the NSA, the CIA or any other executive branch involved in orchestrating the drone war.

Learn a language for enrichment, for cultural understanding, for fun, for whatever reason you like, but don’t be that spy. Language learning is a skill for those willing to communicate and not for those only willing to eavesdrop.

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