Bill Maher, Fareed Zakaria and The Politics of Pronunciation

By Guest Contributor Joseph, originally posted at VS. THE POMEGRANATE

I have a love/hate relationship with Bill Maher because I think he represents both the best and worst aspects of the newest generation of political comedians. During the bleakest hours of the Bush administration Maher was often a welcome voice crying in the wilderness about any number of conservative excesses. But just as often Maher goes for the easy joke at the expense of politics. His attitudes toward women are legendarily bad (although, to be fair he is generally more respectful of his female guests than, say, Charlie Rose, who never met a woman he didn’t interrupt mid-sentence). In general Maher is pretty shitty on Arabs and Muslims too, regularly parroting the same centuries-old Orientalist/Islamophobic scenarios as any Fox talking head. His anti-religion schtick in particular is (as with Hitchens and Dawkins) dependent on an almost pathological Islamophobia about which he refuses to be dissuaded. So, you know, I watch Real Time with the side-eye at the ready.

It is always interesting to see how Maher’s guests deal with Real Time’s trap-door dynamic: One second you may be making your way through a serious conversation about the economy and the next the floor gives way and you have landed on a pile of dick jokes designed to allow Maher to remind himself (and you) that he is really in charge here. It is, with very few exceptions, always especially painful for me to see actors try to keep up… it’s like watching a dog walk on two legs. A recent Real Time appearance by Kerry Washington, whose points about the Obama administration were almost entirely overshadowed by her crazy-eyes, is a sad example of this.

Fareed Zakaria, Richard Engel and Barney Frank (D-MA) shared the panel on Real Time’s May 1st episode and their facility in navigating the hybrid news/comedy format was fascinating to observe. Frank, who now more than ever represents the Clintonian old guard within the Democratic Party, crossed the line into grotesque self-parody. (Note to Barney: Your uncanny resemblance to Buddy Hackett notwithstanding, leave the jokes to Maher, okay? You are very, very creepy when you try to be funny). NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Engel, who it must be said has a beautiful head of hair going for him, looked a bit like Steve Trevor seconds before Wonder Woman comes crashing through a window: handsomely at sea in the face of the shifting comedic tides. While Zakaria seemed amused by the spectacle and gracefully adjusted to the often abrupt shifts in tone. However, even he felt compelled to make with the funny, when he suggested with a smirk that the efforts undertaken by politicians and media professionals to pronounce Afghanistan and Pakistan correctly–as in “Eff-GAHn-i-stan” and “PAHk-i-stan”–is an attempt to be “ethnically cool.” He compared this to liberal efforts to say “Nigeh-RAHG-wah” (ie. Nicaragua) in the 1980s. Of course Zakaria, who is Indian, gave himself a pass here by saying that these pronunciations came easily to him because he comes from that part of the world. The rest of the panel seemed uncomfortable with this observation as Engel, who was there hawking his upcoming book, War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq, defended his proper pronunciation by saying that he’d spent significant time in the region. Zakaria argued that Americans anglicize the names of European countries as a matter of course, making no special effort to say “FrAHnce” instead of France, for example. The implication being that the special emphasis on pronunciation highlights foreignness, rather than the reverse.

Frank, who by this time was imagining a rim-shot after every bon-mot, piped up that certain of his constituents were very comfortable saying “Yisroel” as a matter of course, which gave Maher the opportunity to shift the conversation away from this awkward comedic non-starter and on to Israel. Rather than follow him in that shift (in which Frank defended Israel to a comic degree and Zakaria and even Maher (!) called him on it) I’d like to linger on this uncomfortable exchange about pronunciation. (For your reference the video at the top of this post contains this brief exchange starting at around 6:55).

As a progressive I am always on board to deconstruct liberal guilt for its hidden racism and ethnocentrism, but I am not convinced that Zakaria is right about this. I am also old enough to remember the earnest Spanish pronunciation employed by liberal activists working around Central American issues.

But, so what?

Is it really fair to torment liberals over their…admittedly sometimes clumsy… attempts at cultural respect? Or perhaps more to the point, is it really productive? Since the first Bush administration, mispronunciation has been willfully employed to assert rhetorical superiority over Arab and Muslim subjects. Am I the only one who remembers that George H.W. Bush—-in a move that made more than one gay friend of mine arch an eyebrow– renamed Saddam Hussein “Sodom”? And is it possible to hear the default American mispronunciations “EYE-rack” and “EYE-ran” without hearing George W. Bush’s folksy/wounded/proud voice in your head? Is it really so ridiculous to ask that if we are sending young American men and women to fight and die in a foreign country that we learn to say its name correctly? Is “EAR-ock” really such a devastating compromise for American tongues and ears? Or even, when anglicized as Zakaria suggests, “EAR-ack”? I don’t think so.

So I wonder: what is gained by mocking well-intentioned liberals when they make an effort?

By positioning himself as a native informant Zakaria whipped out his authenticity card and slapped it down on the table. I like Zakaria for lots of reasons–many of which can be observed in the video above– but that is as much of a bullshit move as willfully mispronouncing “foreign” names as a way of asserting cultural authority. In fact, of these strategies the one that bothers me least is an earnest attempt to connect.