Rush Limbaugh’s Chinese Impersonation
Saying Rush Limbaugh is an idiot is too dismissive. Pew Research surveys have shown his listeners are among the most politically informed in the country, and he’s one of the most original polemicists on the right. For example, when President Obama was talking bipartisanship while advancing a stimulus package written entirely by Congressional Democrats, Limbaugh argued in the Wall Street Journal that a true bipartisan solution would be to let the Democrats appropriate 53% of the stimulus money and the Republicans 46% (the same splits as the popular vote difference between Obama and McCain). He stood up for Dubai Ports World when other politicians were piling on, and his record on political predictions is not bad: in 2006, he said that if the Republicans lost Congress, they would nominate John McCain for president in 2008, and that’s what happened. In March 2009, he was criticized for predicting Democrats would propose to name the health care bill after ailing Senator Ted Kennedy, but in September of the same year, after Kennedy passed away, the late Senator Robert Byrd actually did this.
Political know-how doesn’t translate to knowledge in other subjects, though, and Limbaugh isn’t especially courteous on the air. When you’re broadcasting live for 15 hours a week trying to both entertain and discuss serious subjects, you’re going to have some bad moments. This is one of them.
I stayed away from the feed for a couple days because I knew it would offend me, just like I never watched Rosie O’Donnell saying “ching chang chong” on “The View.” I have a Happy Gilmore attitude toward public figures making asses of themselves. When rich, pompous golfer Shooter McGavin taunted, “I eat pieces of s— like you for breakfast!” Happy replied, “You eat pieces of s— for breakfast?” Why spend so much time following and commenting on things and people they hate? Once your mind’s made up, move on to the next thing. There’s so much to know and so little time.
But this controversy is related enough to this blog that I should comment. I think it’s interesting that we feel so personally attached to our languages that when other people ape them, we get upset. Or do we? Should this kind of thing be off-limits, or are we too possessive?
My first year in Japan, one of the school plays was about the Battle of Okinawa, and one student, playing an American soldier, got big laughs from the audience by speaking his Japanese lines with a heavily American accent. I felt alienated at the time and wondered if my own Japanese sounded like that. I wished I didn’t have an accent, but then I realized I’d caught myself in a contradiction because I love the sound of accented English. (Antonio Banderas’s Spanish-like English is hugely popular in the States.) I think it was more that I didn’t feel comfortable in my surroundings yet. I enjoyed the student’s American accent my second year when I was more settled into the community. I recently saw a scene in a Taiwanese movie in which WWII Japanese soldiers imitated American English for a propaganda play, and I laughed at it because it sounded so Japanese and American…or more specifically, what Japanese people speaking “American” sound like.
Limbaugh, in defending his comments, said that he was following in the footsteps of comedian Sid Caesar. We don’t have to recall a star of the 1950’s (warmly received in the ’90s): two big YouTube hits of 2010 were The English Language in 24 and 21 Accents.
These impersonators receive widespread praise. The difference is verisimilitude. We’re warm to impersonation when it sounds genuine and cold when it doesn’t, and if we’ve heard the language before we can tell the difference. Caesar’s fake French is great, but his fake Japanese could use some work: he has the “angry boss/general” tone, but some of his pronunciation is Chinese, not Japanese (which is a very limited language in my opinion). The audience liked it, but they probably don’t know enough Japanese themselves.
Even people who don’t know Chinese from Japanese know how off Limbaugh is because his pronunciation is so limited: while ching, chang, and chong are Chinese sounds, there’s way more to the language than that. Plus his angry tone of voice isn’t the one Hu Jintao would use for a friendly diplomatic speech (or any public event: if politicians do any shouting in China or Japan, it’s behind closed doors.)
So the same rules apply to both imaginary words and actual words. If you don’t know what you’re talking about, your listeners are going to get upset. If you over-simplify someone’s opinions or heritage, you’ll offend him and display ignorance. Limbaugh said,
I found myself trying to write down what Hu Jintao was saying in Chinese. Phonetically, so I could repeat it to you… Well, it’s a–it looks like chicken scrawls. I said, ‘I wonder to people who can’t speak English, what does it sound like to them?’ Because when I hear Chinese or Japanese, it sounds like all the same word. And I can’t comprehend anybody understanding it.
That being the case, he shouldn’t have tried it.