When the Great History of Bad People is written, Mark Zuckerberg will get a chapter, if not his own page. The hypocrisy of making billions by scraping people’s personal information via social media while fanatically protecting his own private life is terrible, let alone his bare knuckled and successful assault on the mostly dead U.S. right of privacy. The unfettered access that business and government has to us all the time is in large part thanks to him.
Bad Mark Zuckerberg. Bad, bad, bad Mark Zuckerberg.
And then Mark exploded last year on the stage at Tsinghua University, dazzling the crowd with his beginning Chinese in a performance that recalled a spoiled child mangling a novice piano piece for the indulgent relatives. Zuckerberg was so pleased with himself in this performance, and so doted upon by his audience, that to the non-Chinese speaker you might actually think he sounded good.
Alas, he doesn’t. His raw combination of misplaced confidence, horrible pronunciation, and supreme pride at being able to butcher a simple conversation, most of which had been thoroughly rehearsed, shows the gaping cultural chasm between America and China. When Jack Ma of Alibaba speaks in perfect English, no one bats an eye. How the hell else are you gonna make money here if you can’t speak English? When Harvard drop-out Zuckerberg hacks elementary Chinese to pieces with a claw hammer, the audience cheers and acts like they’ve been given a golden calf, or treated to the most amazing mental wizardry since Einstein figured out the universe.
Surfing the Jaws of his Chinese debut, Mark grabbed the rail and dropped deep into the hole a couple of days ago when he doubled down, giving a full-length speech, again at Tsinghua and again in Chinese. This time the pronunciation was still horrible, the overweening pride was still oozing out of his pallid face, and the sad picture of a billionaire practicing Chinese on a forced audience was still there.
The content was deeper. The fluency was greater. And this time the gap between confidence and ability, though massive, was much less than his first foray.
All of this is part of Zuckerberg’s charm offensive to try and get Facebook out from behind the Great Firewall of China. In addition to stomping through the Chinese language with heavy steps, he met with President Xi Jinping and made the horrendous cultural gaffe of asking him to suggest a name for Zuckerberg’s first child. Xi declined, and hopefully someone advised Mark that asking the most powerful man in the world to name your kid is like asking the top surgeon giving a speech at a conference to please take a look at this funny lump you have growing on your butthole.
Despite the bad pronunciation, and despite the naked self interest, and despite the bold faced lie of wanting to learn Chinese so he could “communicate with his wife’s grandmother”–which sounds lots nicer than “I want to scrape the shit out of Chinese computer users’ data and make billions there, too,”–despite all that, Mark has struck a blow for America in the 21st Century. We finally have the CEO of a big ass company who believes that the best weapon for business is actually understanding the target market in its language, in the context of its culture, and meeting the competitive challenges by putting himself in their shoes, and understanding it from the very top of the corporate hierarchy.
Because that’s what speaking in a foreign language does. Zuckerberg may have looked and sounded foolish at times, but you know what? He also looked incredibly nervous and exposed and vulnerable. It was the most intimate view of him you’ll ever have. You could even say that he pissed away all his privacy protections in a pair of twenty-minute videos. He was up there naked. Anyone who’s tried to fumble a few phrases of French to an impatient Parisian waiter knows that when you’re speaking their language YOU’RE ON THEIR TURF.
You think public speaking is hard? Try it in a foreign language that you’re not very good at in front of a global audience. The criticisms poured in, of course, how could they not? “Glad there were English subtitles for his Chinese,” wrote one Chinese commentator. Well, fuck those commentators. Zuckerberg will never be anywhere close to native pronunciation, but so what? He already knows more about China and the Chinese with five years of language study than many entire U.S. corporations who are actively seeking to do business in China.
The rest of the world takes it as a given that if they want to compete in the U.S. market they must master English first. As a result, not only has the world mastered English, it has mastered us. We still send out ambassadors who can’t speak the language of the country they’re assigned to, we still have military brass running wars in the Middle East for more than a decade who can’t speak any version of Arabic, and we still have presidents whose sum total of fluently spoken languages is one, and if Trump gets elected, it will be zero.
Whatever else Zuckerberg is, he’s a realist, and he’s exposed the lie that “Everyone speaks English” so commonly used by lazy Americans to avoid doing the heavy lifting that’s required if you really want to have a chance in war, business, politics, or diplomacy. When the guy at the top is a monolingual clod, so is the organization. He’s put himself out there, arrogant, self-satisfied, and shrewdly manipulative perhaps, but he’s clearly doing the hard work that it takes to speak a foreign language, hard work whether you’re trying to give a speech in Mexico City or in Beijing–and he’s offering himself up to a billion Chinese critics, each one of whom is supremely qualified to tear his language skills apart.
The beauty of it is, of course, that they don’t. People appreciate it when you make the effort, and they respect the hell out of the courage it takes to speak in public in a foreign language. Mark may scramble his tones, but the only message he really cares about is coming across loud and clear: YOU MATTER TO ME.
Hats off to the sorry-assed scoundrel. In this regard at least, I wish him the very best, and hope that more Americans in every walk of life follow his lead.