The Biggest Threat to W. Is Case of Texas Tin Ear

Back in the early 1960’s, when passage of the Interest

Equalization Tax made it clear that a fair piece of Wall Street’s

investment-banking business would move offshore, Lehman Brothers decided to

prepare itself for the nascent globalization (a term not then coined) of

finance. As a firm especially well-known for its “Oil Patch” connections and

ingenuity, we figured this area was one that could be really productive for us

overseas. Accordingly, we decided that it would be a good idea if one of our

top oil partners-a brilliant engineer Texas-born, -raised and -educated-learned

French so as to be able to parler with

Total, CFP, Elf Aquitaine and so on. He was therefore sent to Berlitz to take

the famous language school’s renowned “immersion” course-the linguistic

equivalent of Marine boot camp.

Berlitz hadn’t reckoned with what it was up against. After

four hours, the instructor broke down and wept.

This is an extreme example of a syndrome I think of as

“Texas Tin Ear”: an inability to get one’s ear around the strange languages

spoken by foreigners-that is, people physically and mentally resident outside

the Lone Star State-which anyone who has spent 10 minutes in those parts, from

Wichita Falls south to Laredo, from Longview west to El Paso, will know to be

as distinctive a state of mind as it is a physical and political subdivision of

these great United States.

An inability to get one’s head, ear and tongue around

foreign languages is usually accompanied by a certain insensitivity to the

sensibilities which those languages have evolved to give voice to. I fancy I

have considerable experience listening to foreign tongues, including Texan, a

language in which the Latin first-person singular, Amo -or “I love”-has come to mean “I am about to,” as in “Ah’mo git

me some that barbecue right now!” There are always barriers when Frenchmen give

ear to Italians or-God help us-to Americans, but I have seldom been concerned

that my Gallic opposite number hasn’t grasped my meaning. The look on his face

is simply intended to make me feel a complete fool for the way I parle français , to heap on my feckless

head that special scorn with which le Bon

Dieu enabled Gaul and its inhabitants way back when Paris was still

Lutetia. To make me feel the total inadequacy that is the due of any hapless

human unable to do that thing with his or her mouth that French people are

taught from birth to do with theirs: that unforgettable pursing of the mouth

and roll-down of the lower lip that somehow conveys an entire gestural

vocabulary, a veritable universe, of shrugs and contumely.

The French mouth is one of the great cultural instruments

ever; anyone wishing to see it at the top of its game is encouraged to tune in

to the matchless Bernard Pivot’s TV gabfest, Bouillon de Culture (cable Channel 75, Sundays at 6:30-but hurry,

the season is ending!), in which a group of intellectuals so rarefied as to

make Susan Sontag look like a guest on Hee-Haw

vies to see who can speak the language of Racine and Victor Hugo the fastest.

Texas Tin Ear is different. It flows, I think, from a

different kind of arrogance and a different set of life problems. Texans know

there’s no talking to an oil well, and that if another fellow’s talking to you,

chances are he’s lying, so best not pay too close attention and keep your own

counsel. This is what leads to Texas Tin Ear. L.B.J.’s Tin Ear was one of the

problems that most grievously beset the Man from Pedernales, in so many other

ways as subtle and devious a politician as ever occupied the White House. As

was the case back then, in 1964-68, I fear it is going to be a problem-possibly

a big one-for the Bush administration, which, as readers know, I think has to

be regarded (and understood) in Texan terms.

French is not this administration’s principal besetting Tin

Ear problem, which is not to say that foreign languages aren’t. They are-but

all of them. Texans are used to being envied for “Big D” and all that. They can

get pretty bumptious about the glories of their state and what a wonderful

thing it is to be a Texan, and Lord knows I agree: My daddy was born in Bowie

and grew up in Ft. Worth, and I’ve done business in Texas and lived in Dallas

myself, and now have a son and his family, including a grandson, living there,

and I just frankly love the hell out of the state. But Texans are more than a

wee bit prone to think they know best-the way New Yorkers are (although without

the rudeness), but seldom folks from Ohio or Oregon. This makes ’em obtuse when

it comes to seeing themselves as others see them.

It also doesn’t help to

come from a place where it’s been business as usual-the “awl bidness,”

naturally-generation after generation. Much has changed in Texas, as it has

elsewhere, but the basic economic and sociocultural givens of Lone Star life

have changed less over the past 30 years, I think, than in most other regions

of the country, and this kind of consistency tends to dull alertness.

Right now, I happen to think that seeing ourselves as others

see us is pretty important. The world has grown, the world has changed;

anti-Americanism now comes in more colors and flavors than ever before, which

is understandable. We have made ourselves the envy of history. For the best

part of a decade-I happen to think longer-we have supplied so disproportionate

a share of global economic demand that it’s safe to say that without the U.S.,

the world would be in Year 11 or 12 of a prolonged slump. But success breeds

envy, and envy breeds dislike, then hatred.

None of this would particularly bother me if I didn’t fear

that the late Timothy McVeigh mightn’t have soul brethren out there: people

inclined to strap a bomb to themselves and board the F train instead of a bus

in Jerusalem or Haifa. It wouldn’t be hard to smuggle the equipment needed to

unleash a shoulder-fired surface-to-surface missile into a crowd in this

country, and while I suppose I’m as willing as any right-minded citizen to

contemplate the obvious benefits to humanity of such a terrorist action being

taken against the Four Seasons at lunchtime (à la the denouement of my novel Baker’s Dozen , available on remainder

tables coast to coast), the likelihood is that less deserving targets would be


I think the Bushies need to turn less of a Tin Ear to the

world. As Donald Rumsfeld observed, the old due bills-the residual gratitude we

earned for ourselves by fighting World War II and implementing the Marshall

Plan-have been discharged. We can no longer call these in. We shouldn’t run

around the world kissing ass, Bill Clinton–style, which only sells the notion

that we’re guilty or weak about ourselves. There’s nothing we can do about

sects that see us as the Great Satan. But we can do a better job understanding

how ordinary people feel about us. Kyoto didn’t help. Tin Ears seldom grasp

that lip service must needs be paid in certain circumstances.

But help may be on the

way: I understand there’s a motion on the table to appoint an Under- or Deputy

Secretary for Public Diplomacy, which is a job description new to me, and the

person whose name I’ve heard linked to the job is one of the smartest, most perceptive

people around, so this is a good sign.

There are two other languages to which the Texas Tin Ear has

become impenetrable. These are Beltway-speak and Media-speak, which derive from

the same Freudian stem and are spoken principally by small people in search of

self-importance. I worry less about Tin Ear with respect to these. It is said

that Tin Ear was responsible for the defection of Senator Jeffords, but he

appears on close inspection to be a dismal little shit whose chameleon colors

have been in evidence for some years (see Mark Steyn in London’s The Spectator , issue of June 2).

It seems to have occurred to few Media-speakers that the

obtuse carelessness with which they’re charging the Bush administration in

letting Mr. Jeffords get away may very well have been a simple case of choosing

not to throw good money-time better spent elsewhere-after bad, on a cause lost

to begin with. Texans grow up with dry holes as an ugly fact of existence. They

know when to declare a well a duster and move on. Mr. Jeffords was a duster

from Day 1. And I seriously question whether the people in the administration

who function as the equivalent of petroleum geologists find much in Senator

John McCain’s seismics and core samples that is worth spending a whole bunch of

political capital on. He’s a loser, too. Write him off and move on.

As for those who parlent Media-speak, why waste time

communicating with these people? The American public doesn’t bother with the

media; why should the administration that is trying to govern it? The only

people that are really interested in the media are the media. All I can do is

point to the Bush commentary of Maureen Dowd, Michael Wolff, Paul Krugman and

at least one writer in this paper (whose name I have promised my editor never

to mention), and submit my view that in turning a completely deaf ear to these

and their ilk, this administration has taken an important first step in

transmuting auricular tin into gold. Midas would be envious. The Biggest Threat to W. Is Case of Texas Tin Ear