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Language and Other Barriers

I feel for China. Not only is it taking the rap for its booming energy consumption, which is expected to grow to half that of the US. (Which, on a per-capita basis, represents a whopping ten percent of American energy usage). Not only is China expected to make blustery noises over Taiwan and Tibet, while simultaneously manufacturing a large portion of Wal-Mart's inventory. Which, to add insult to injury, Wal-Mart advertises with a yellow happy face.

No, the worst part is -- China has to do all this while being multilingual. Really, it's enough to make any self-respecting behemoth throw up its hands. Or at least its tongues.

True, China has a single written language. But that's just papering over the problem. How could any single nation overcome the deep gulf separating Mandarin, with four tones, from Cantonese, with six or seven tones? That's like a band whose guitar player knows a bunch of Ramones songs, while the singer does a spot-on imitation of Jon Anderson from Yes.

I picture Mandarin as a wily outlaw, and Cantonese as a lone-wolf bounty hunter tracking Mandarin across the vast expanses of mainland China. Finally, after a battle with a horde of savage Ping speakers, Cantonese would corner Mandarin in some lonely, godforsaken larynx. The two would fight it out at high noon, on a wide and dusty palate.

One would say, "This guy's mouth ain't big enough for the both of us," and the other would say "What? I can't understand, you're only using four tones." At which point the first one would draw a pistol and discharge it next to the second one's ear, so it wouldn't matter how many tones he used.

Ultimately, though, Cantonese and Mandarin would tire of being unintelligible to each other, and retire to the saloon. At that point, a talent scout would spot the pair, inform them that they're cult figures in Japan, and offer them two million dollars to endorse Suntory Whiskey. At last, our two mismatched heroes would bond over their common bemusement with Japanese culture.

Ain't love grand?

Sadly, the average American is willing to believe anything about China. I recently saw a cover story in a national news magazine, titled "How We Would Fight China". Pictured on the front was a fearsome, preternaturally glowy-eyed Chinese sailor.

Here's the problem. The magazine was The Atlantic Monthly.

Chances are, if we do fight China, it won't be in the Atlantic. Not that geography-challenged American readers are likely to catch this. No -- according to them, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is our last hope against a brutal Communist takeover of Bermuda. Next thing you know, Congress will authorize $87 billion in emergency funds for the defense of America's vital offshore tax havens. After all, what is the loss of $87 billion compared to the loss of our freedom?