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Post Kissinger and Identity: A Psychological Analysis
Created by John Eipper on 06/24/21 3:47 AM

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Kissinger and Identity: A Psychological Analysis (Leo Goldberger, USA, 06/24/21 3:47 am)

Along with many others, I have been a bit puzzled by the persistent German accent that characterizes Henry Kissinger's English--especially since his slightly younger brother, Walter, did not have an accent. I had known that his brother, when asked that question, simply responded: "Because I listened." While listening carefully to how natives speak might certainly be of some significance, it is an insufficient explanation, at least in my view. So what might be yet another explanation--in addition the oft-repeated ones about age or a special auditory, melodic sensitivity?

By pure happenstance, I once met the prominent linguist, Roman Jakobson (one of Chomsky's teachers) and posed the question of why it was that someone like Henry Kissinger (whom he also knew from their joint Harvard days) had retained such a strong accent, having been only 15 years old when he came to the US. Jakobson's initial response was that it was odd that I--a psychologist--should ask such a question, as it was within my discipline to understand the reason, namely: "it's simply a matter of his identity"! Henry Kissinger's identity is primarily that of a German," he ventured to say. Jakobson followed this assertion by pointing to himself as an example of someone who could speak some 20 different languages, but he did so, he added: "all with my native Russian accent"!

For me Jakobson's comment was indeed an eye-opener, as it seemed to fit the case of Henry in contrast to his brother. As a youngster, denied entry to a German high school and often beaten by Nazi kids and prevented from pursuing his love of soccer, his German identity was in a state of diffusion until he came to the US, living in the largely German-Jewish neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, and following high school there, enrolled in New York City College's School of Commerce, headed for a career in accounting. All the while he worked in a barber brush factory.

Drafted in 1943, his most significant encounter ensued: While in basic training at Camp Croft in Spartanburg, NC as an ordinary soldier, he was listening to a required lecture about the war by a Lt. Fritz Kramer (himself of German extraction).  Kramer was so impressed by the questions posed by one of the recruits in the audience (i.e. Henry Kissinger), that he sought him out after his talk to learn more about his obvious, extensive knowledge base about European politics. The rest is history: Kramer was able to shift Kissinger to Intelligence and then, after the invasion, ultimately left him in charge of the captured German city of Krefeld (in the North Rhine, Westphalia area) as the American forces kept moving on.  It was Kissinger's first taste of real power! And needless to say, he wallowed in it, and especially loved his white, two-seater Porsche--a car I was once told he requisitioned to send to him back in the States when he returned home. He also started to subscribe to weekly telegraphic news of his favorite German soccer teams.  But even more significantly Lt. Kramer persuaded him to forget about going back to City College, but transfer to Harvard instead...with Kramer's help.  The rest is of course history writ large.

In my psychological understanding of all of this--and with due acknowledgement of Walter Isaacson's authoritative biography of Kissinger--the military experience plus Kramer's influence left him filled with an infusion of confidence and desire for power, and a retrospective identification with the aggressor, a common Freudian defense mechanism.  Hence his German identity--though it in no way diminishes his several other identity aspects, such as being an American, a father, husband, a scholar, etc. Or, indeed, a Jew!

Now for the comments attributed to him about anti-Semitism. My take on that is that he was getting a bit fed up with the persistent focus of his being a Jew, not only by the uncouth Nixon who refereed to him as "his Jew boy," but almost in every context within which he moved. But, in my reading of his life history, I am convinced he was as identified as a Jew could constructively be.

Reading about his encounter at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem convinced me fully of this interpretation, as he visibly mourned the Auschwitz deaths of his close relatives, despite the fact that he had tried to avoid this painful confrontation, as his mission in Israel was that of the Secretary of State.  His Jewish identity was well hidden, even within Israel--he had hoped. All it calls for is some empathy to understand his adaptation to America.

JE comments:  The accent thing may be as simple as the "puberty rule"--that one can never completely shed one's native accent when learning a new language after the onset of puberty.  Walter Kissinger was 13 (vs 15 for Henry) when they left Germany for the US.  This 2001 Smithsonian article mentions both Kissinger and the puberty threshold:

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/accents-are-forever-35886605/

Other sources argue that this concept is a myth.  At WAIS HQ, Aldona has only the slightest Polish accent when speaking English; she came to this country at 20.  My Spanish, which I began learning at 16, is still painfully Gringo, despite my best efforts to "listen" (thank you, Walter Kissinger).

Leo, I am star-struck by your encounter with Roman Jakobson, one of the pioneering icons of literary and linguistic theory.  In grad school I stood in awe of a volume of Jakobson's collected works, which contained essays in six different languages.  My favorite Jakobson concept concerns "phatic" communication, the type that conveys no information other than the speech act itself.  This can be as basic as a "how ya doin'?" to a stranger in the elevator (we don't care how that person is doing) or the cell-phone staple of today:  "please repeat what you said; you're breaking up."

A quibble from this car nut:  the first Porsche didn't appear until mid 1948--and Kissinger already graduated from Harvard in 1950.  It appears that he left Occupied Germany in 1946.  Can someone help us pin down the chronology?  I Googled "Kissinger's Porsche" and came up empty-handed.


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  • Basqueness of Jon Rahm; on "Foreign" Accents (Enrique Torner, USA 06/25/21 3:20 AM)
    With this post I would like to respond to John Eipper's question about whether golfer Jon Rahm speaks Basque or not, as well as address the subject of speaking a second language with an accent.

    Let's start with Jon Rahm's question: I have not found any website regarding Jon speaking Basque or not, though my research was not vast by any means. However, I venture to guess that he was schooled in Basque because of his age. If the Basque country acted as Catalonia did after Franco's death and the arrival of the democracy, children who were schooled in the bilingual autonomies at this period and afterwards learned all the subject matters (except for Castilian) in the language of their respective autonomies (Catalan, Galician, and Basque or Euskera). This was the case of all of my nephews and niece, who, raised in Catalonia during the post-Franco democracy, learned all subjects but Castilian (and English) in Catalan, being the first in our family to overcome illiteracy in Catalan, the language we all spoke at home but could not write properly. I still remember the first letter in Catalan I received from one of my nephews! Whenever we wrote to each other, we did it in Castilian because we can't write properly in Catalan. I remember having a class on Catalan at the end of high school, a couple of years after Franco's death: that was the only class on Catalan I had in high school, not enough to learn how to write it properly at all.


    In contrast, I started learning English when I was 7 years old. I had English classes ever since, so my written English was always better than my written Catalan, though that was the language I spoke with family and friends. This leads me to the topic brought up by Leo Goldberger: speaking a second language with an accent. Being a philologist and a language lover, this comes very close to home.


    As John Eipper said, the age at one learns the second language plays a big role, and puberty is said to be the critical cutting age for learning a second language best. Accent is especially what suffers the most if one does not learn the second language before puberty (some say it's age 10). I have been in this country for over 30 years, and most people say I have a slight Spanish accent. I think that living in a country where they speak the target language helps diminish the "foreign" accent, more or less depending on one's ability to learn the language.


    To be honest, I think speaking another language with an accent is no big deal at all unless it interferes with communication. As a matter of fact, I love accents, some more than others. I think that accentuates people's identities. I hate it when people discriminate somebody because of an accent: that should never happen! So, unless understanding becomes an issue, I advocate for keeping your native accent when speaking another language.


    P.S. While I was writing this, I noticed David Duggan's post on my previous post on Rahm. He corrected me on one mistake I had made: Jon Rahm won by only one stroke. I had realized my mistake before his post, but then forgot about it! Thank you, David, for correcting me, and for your great commentary on the US Open! As I said, I was not able to watch it on television, so I had to go by website sources alone, so I couldn't offer the commentary you so well provided.


    JE comments:  Enrique, from one educator to another:  your English prose gets a solid "A"!  Congratulations to your teachers back in Barcelona. 


    You make an offhanded remark above that you love some accents more than others.  We WAISers are enlightened and worldly, but I'd venture to say this observation applies to us all.  Why do some "foreign" accents sound sophisticated and/or seductively exotic, while others are just, well, irritating?  Note that I do not identify any of these accents by name, as that wouldn't be nice.  I will say, however, that the local Great Lakes dialect (not exactly "foreign," but definitely distinctive) grates on this listener's ears.  This young YouTuber explains:


    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pqhy2ejuGLU


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    • Famous Accents: Victor Borge, Henry Kissinger...and a Mercedes (Leo Goldberger, USA 06/25/21 1:30 PM)
      I'd hasten to say that I by no means feel critical of anyone with any sort of accent.  It is just that I am curious about its persistence--despite the age--in many people. For example, I myself, eager to assimilate as quickly as possible, have none. Of course then there are those, like my old friend Victor Borge, who deliberately kept his accent to enhance his show business appeal--though quite able to drop the accent as well.  I am likewise able to adopt a pronounced Danish one--while dropping any hint of English when visiting my home country.

      But as to some embarrassing errors in my recent posting. I was wrong about the Porsche; it was actually a 1938 Mercedes that Kissinger confiscated from a Nazi. My source was Kissinger:  a Biography by Marvin and Bernard Kalb (Little Brown & Co., 1974). While their book was a Book of the Month selection, it was cited as too fawning--yet in my view it is superior in providing all sorts of details about Kissinger's earliest personality and early years and educational progress in the USA (in the initial chapter, "The Greening of a Greenhorn"). In rereading that chapter I was refreshed on a variety of facts I had forgotten, such as his encounter with Fritz Kraemer (then himself only a Private) and his own eventual promotion to Sergeant and then Captain--while he even served some months in the Bergrasse district, Hitler's famous turf.


      JE comments:  The Mercedes fits the chronology--and it was a fancier ride than an early Porsche, which was very spartan.  I wonder about the logistics and legality of a GI "confiscating" a vehicle in Occupied Germany.


      Another random reflection:  the Kalb Kissinger bio was published forty-seven years ago.  Ol' Henry has lived another half of his life since then.

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