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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Europe’s Babel, America’s Moral Divide

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 16, 2011

Coverage of European economic news in The Wall Street Journal is usually tinged with schadenfreude and tinted by its right-of-center ideology.  Crises in Greece, Spain, and Ireland, pressures on the banking systems of France and Germany, and the lose administration of the Euro are portrayed by the Journal as signs of the naivete of Europe’s commitment to community and the inappropriateness of its ongoing adherence to social democracy.  Yet a quick look at the daily lives of ordinary Europeans — in terms of health care, housing, education, and even vacations — reveals living standards and levels of security and opportunity beyond the horizons of most people living in the inequitable neo-liberal society America has become. More important, the Journal and other critics of the European Union always overlook the most obvious of all successes of Europe’s seemingly bumbling policies and jerry-built institutions. For 66 years, there have been no violent confrontations between France and Germany nor between any other EU member states — a revolutionary change in a continent whose history was one of near continuous warfare between its major powers.

Occasionally, however, the Wall Street Journal does “get it right.”  In an article entitled Better Communications tops Europe’s 2011 Resolutions, the Journal pointed to a tendency of European politicians to say one thing in their native languages when speaking to their local and national constituencies and another in English when speaking within the context of the EU at large.  This may involve duplicity and the balancing of local and collective interests, but it is also in part linguistic.

Transcending Babel

Over the course of 2010, I took on a series of small assignments aimed at improving operational processes at a major EU institution through bettering the articulation and communication of organizational know-how and experience.  European institutions are managed and staffed by people drawn from all of the EU’s member states.  Increasingly, the only language this diverse bunch share is English — of a sort.  While many EU functionaries speak English extremely well, others speak it more as re-lexified versions of their native tongues. (Admission: I confess to doing the same in at least three of the languages I speak).  Adding to the confusion, very few people (including native speakers) write English as well as they speak it.  This subverts organizational memory and causes policies and projects to wobble on foundations of imprecise language and resultant degrees of misunderstanding.  Such dangers are relatively easy to rectify when working face to face, but in interactions between departments and institutions and over the course of projects the impact of linguistic ambiguity is magnified.

Going on “Mission” and “Subtracting Added Value-Added”

One European organization for which I have worked has seen the rise of two Towers of Babels in its near-60-year history.  From its founding early in the post-war period until the accelerated enlargement of the EU that began a decade ago, the official and defacto language of the institution was French.  To accommodate new member states, however, at the turn of the present millennium the institution switched its language from French to English.  At its worse, this created and perpetuates operational inefficiencies and crises in project implementation.  At its most innocuous, it is the source of an occasional chuckle.  My own favorite is the carry-over  from the organization’s francophone past into its anglophone present of the word “mission” (assignment in the field).  This lends a James Bond-like cachet of adventure to the dispatch of accountants to the offices of grant recipients and 1930s-cinema-like imagery of European friars navigating crocodile infested African or South American rivers to routine inspection visits at project sites.  In the same organization, linguistic imprecision creates referents that have no existence and  infuses work processes with an atmosphere reminsicent of Andersen’s tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes.  A misuse of the tired back-formation “value-added” is an example.  Employees at the institution are routinely evaluated according to whether and to what degree they contribute to the achievement of the organization’s objectives.  In the parlance of the organization such contribution is mis-labled as “value-added,” thus turning monthly and quarterly evaluation sessions into discussions of whether an individual has “added value-added” or “subtracted value-added” or “added negative value-added” rather than “adding positive value-added.”  The result is confusion as to how objectives are achieved and what the roles and efficacy of individuals are in expediting the processes their work supposedly comprises parts of.

Me vs. Us

The Wall Street Journal dislikes Europe as much because of what it accomplishes as for its inefficiencies.  America mumbles about improving infrastructure, Europe invests in it massively and redevelops infrastructure to transcend (and remove as sources of discord) national and regional boundaries.  America turns to off-shore drilling to ensure energy security, Europe turns to energy efficiency.  America talks about being a land of opportunity, Europe ensures equal access to education, housing, and health, the real basis for meritocracy.  The US bails out banks, Europe bails out entire countries so as not to abandon the security of multi-national community.

Fortunately there are other voices in the US mainstream press than the Wall Street Journal.  In A Tale of Two Moralities, Paul Krugman sketches the lines of a chasm that divides America — and, by extension, articulates a societal chasm between America and Europe that the Wall Street Journal overlooks — i.e. the divide between those who willingly invest in the societies that sustain them and those who see their gains as theirs and theirs alone and to be defended even with violence. In the wake of the attempted assassination and murders in Arizona last week, Krugman promises to continue on this theme: “I will no doubt spend a lot of time pointing out the hypocrisy and logical fallacies of the ‘I earned it and I have the right to keep it’ crowd. And I’ll also have a lot to say about how far we really are from being a society of equal opportunity, in which success depends solely on one’s own efforts.”  In my own way, I hope to explore in subsequent posts manifestations and implications of this theme in the realms of cities and infrastructure.


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