Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri May 26 12:30:26 UTC 2006

Washington Post

:: House passes bill to build fortified border fences, criminalize
undocumented workers, anyone who aids them...

25 May 2006

The human space is fluid, adaptable, sensitive to evolving circumstance.
This is why democracy is the only legitimate form of government. The
identity of groups, or for that matter of individuals is not implacable,
nor is it absolutely relative. It follows the vicissitudes of the human
health and mind, and requires sincere dialogue with the other in order to
reach its fullest potential.  The push to establish a single national
language can only be sustained on the basis of a number of false premises.
We will explore seven such lies and misperceptions here. These lies are
all of a particular sort, having to do with a way of rationalizing one's
aversion to difference or to change. And, in each case, it is fairly easy
to illustrate how the lie works against the interests of both a democratic
society and American tradition itself.

1. The first key false premise is that there is an irrevocable danger to
one's identity, one's security, one's community and the integrity of one's
culture, if confronted with difference, if to use the logic of the open
market one is forced to compete in the realm of ideas. This is not only
patently untrue, as will be shown in the enumeration of the other
misperceptions that provoke xenophobia, it requires that we reject both
American history and the values of a democratic society.  American society
has never been uniform, has always had to find ways to bring harmony among
disparate groups and from the Constitution forward has sought to defend
the rights and the role of minorities in society. During the Second World
War, the most decorated division was comprised largely of Japanese
Americans from the Pacific Northwest and Native American tribes have lent
soldiers, code-readers and specialists to all the wars since then.

2. E pluribus unum, the national motto, meaning 'of the many: one', has
long been interpreted not as a call to flatten and evacuate the richness
of an immigrant and pioneer culture, but to harness it, to make a more
vibrant and adaptable continent-wide market, rich in ideas, abilities,
distinctive methods and innovations. The second basic untruth to examine
is that government sanction of a national language leads to greater unity
and a stronger uniform sense of national identity. First, it's worth
referencing the brief glimpse of American history above and the words of
great leaders who defended the idea of a potent national character,
stemming from the global origins of the US population, to see that this is
not even the goal of American society. But more importantly, there are
clear examples that show that imposed uniformity does not bring a healthy
sense of national identity. France has a national one-culture policy that
proclaims French the national language and requires that immigrants
assimilate seamlessly into that one culture, leaving behind the trappings
and traditions of their homelands.

Children are forbidden from wearing culturally specific clothing in
schools and the 31 other languages indigenous to France are simply ignored
by the government as a matter of cultural policy. Foreign langauges spoken
widely in people's homes, like Arabic, Berber, Lao and Vietnamese, are
relegated to non-French status and communities that maintain close ties to
their family culture often find themselves bunched into ethnic ghettoes.
The result of this one-language policy has been constant and oppressive
tension leading to the near total isolation of communities lacking the
resources or the opportunity to integrate into the larger officially
French culture, despite being French-born for one, two or three
generations. The explosive tensions promoted by this policy, and
reinforced by the tacit discrimination it appeared to permit, led
eventually to last November's riots, which began in largely
multigenerational immigrant ghettoes in the northern Paris suburbs and
spread quickly to 20 such suburbs and eventually 70 cities across the
country and into neighboring countries.

The French interior minister further inflamed tensions by suggesting that
the young men involved were by nature "scum" and that he would deport
everyone who was accused of participation, ignoring the proportion of
French citizens involved, his view obviously obscured by racial
considerations. He further pledged a comprehensive purge of immigrants;
the one-culture policy fueled this irrational xenophobia, directed at
communities invited into French society during the post-WWII period of
rebuilding. So, two evident problems with this lie of a sole unifying
language: the declaration of a single culture does not erase cultural
diversity for this reason Europe pressured Turkey to eventually recognize
its Kurdish minority, which it had officially labeled an historical
fiction, and in the case of Paris, most of the "immigrant" youths were
French born. It is not the difference in culture that creates
cross-cultural tension, but the refusal of the majority to accept that
their nationality is not diminished or degraded by the presence of people
who think and behave differently, but who also identify with that larger
national identity.

3. A third major false premise of the English-only movement is the belief
in some sort of past golden age in which English was the sole unifying
language, spoken by all and to the exclusion of all others. This is not
only untrue the gold rush of 1849 brought not only easterners to northern
California, but also communities of adventurous emigrants from China and
east Asia, it is utterly ridiculous in its denial of historial reality. Of
the more than 300 languages currently spoken in the United States, at
least 154 are indigenous languages, which predate the arrival of European
colonists five centuries ago. Of those native languages still spoken
inside the territory of the United States, about half are endangered, 7
have only 1 fluent speaker, and 42 have 10 or fewer speakers. It is not
the multiplication of languages that is the problem, but the disappearance
of vast amounts of linguistic culture and knowledge from American society.

Immigrant languages have also played a role in making American society
what it is. After decades of being treated as an unwanted ethnicity,
Italian Americans, most often poor immigrants from southern Italy, or
their descendents, in New York and other cities, speaking their own
language, some even to this day, after several generations, introduced a
new culinary culture into American society. At the death of the New York
restauranteur Delmonico in 1881, the exiled Cuban poet Jos Mart, writing
in Spanish, noted the outpouring of popular affection for the man and his
life's work, specifically noting the gratitude expressed by many for his
having introduced sauces, garnishes and ingredients that all agree
enriched American culture and society. At the founding of the republic,
English was deliberately chosen as the language of standard use in law and
government, not as a means of establishing a national vernacular, but
simply to provide continuity in law, as the entire legal tradition of the
British colonies in North America had been drafted in English.

There were even competing camps arguing that German or French should be
used, to accentuate the break from England and because there were a large
number of colonists who spoke those languages as their mother tongue. In
fact, according to the 2000 US census, there are presently in the United
States only 24,515,138 citizens of English ancestry (single or multiple
ancestry included), while there are 42,885,162 citizens of German
ancestry. English-language culture has been a leading feature of American
society, throughout its history, and has been most prevalent in publishing
(books, magazines, newspapers and government documents), but it has never
had an exclusive dominion over the American mind, and it does not
represent any primary ethnic origin for the non-indigenous United States,
as a republic.

4. A particularly insidious lie at the root of the English-only movement
is the fear of an "invasion" of Spanish speakers. It is simply untrue that
the Spanish-speaking population of the Americas could eclipse the
English-speaking population of the United States and displace English as
the unofficial lingua franca of the republic. There are an estimated 450
to 500 million Spanish speakers across the globe, 40 million of whom live
in Spain and 40 million more of whom already reside in the US itself, most
of them speaking English as well.  Spanish is also spoken by millions of
people in Europe, south Asia and Africa. The population of the US in 2000
was 281,421,906, according to the US census. The Census Bureau now
estimates that figure is 298,820,183. The total number of people the US
Census Bureau reports live in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries
(including Mexico and Puerto Rico) in 2006 is 309,631,738. So, unless
every country in Latin America were emptied, there is no risk of a de
facto overtaking of the English language in the US; nevermind the fact
that there is no evidence of any hemispheric conspiracy to make the US a
Spanish-speaking country.

Ultimately, it is the failure of imagination in the way individuals form
their own sense of identity that generates the fear, not so much of
foreigners or of another language, but of having to compete with fellow
citizens who know more than one language. The English-only movement is
pushing very deliberately to limit the richness, vitality and adaptability
of American culture, as well as its ability to learn of and respond to
international crises or national security issues. It is in this that the
nation itself faces the most serious threat to the potency and resilience
of its linguistic and democratic culture.

5. There is also the pernicious suggestion that people speaking other
languages are not loyal Americans. This is directly tied to the false
projection of "American" as connoting "English-speaking" and "white".
What's more, immigrants who have faced political hardship, economic
depression, harsh journeys on foot or cramped in tiny enclosed spaces,
violent smugglers and real mortal peril, all in hopes of reaching the
promise of American society, tend to prize more passionately and more
personally the freedoms and the rights afforded by American law than
American-born citizens can normally imagine. Throughout American history,
from the Revolution, through the Civil War, into the World Wars and
including the 2003 Iraq invasion, foreign-born US citizens and
non-citizens have fought on behalf of the United States, risking their
lives for a country whose ideals they believe in and to which they hope to
one day belong.

6. That suspicion of something one does not understand, or which is
outwardly different, is somehow a useful tool in the furtherance of
democracy, helping to seal the system against unwanted intruders. This
assumes many things: one, that democracy must be a closed system (the
USSR, North Korea and Cuba have very effectively demonstrated the flaws of
hermetically sealed societies)... two, that it is the sole privilege of an
essentially distinct human population (who decides which people are
essentially and naturally entitled to participate? how does one get around
such stratification being antithetical to the US Constitutional
system?)... three, that democracy means uniformity (we have covered this
above). Each of these rhetorical bases is contrary to the meaning, the
direction and the lessons of American history. And each ignores the
phrasing of the nation's founding documents. In his famous "I have a
dream" speech, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said the "promissory
note" represented by the language of the Declaration of Independence and
the Constitution had been "returned, marked insufficient funds". He meant
that the nation had to recognize that its core aspirations had not been
achieved, precisely because a group identified by outward differences was
still excluded from true equality before the law.

7. There is, lastly, the fundamental lie that says that official
classification of all other languages as secondary, by establishment of an
official state language, does not mean one discriminates or that the
system of open democracy becomes less open. In fact, there is no way
around the basic truth that the declaration of a national language has
only one purpose: to institutionalize discrimination in a way it has never
been done before in the United States. During the fascist dictatorship of
Francisco Franco in Spain, from 1939 to 1975, his government declared
Castilian (the language we know as 'Spanish') the national language of
Spain. People who spoke one of the other languages widely spoken in Spain
(Cataln, Basque or Gallego), were pushed out of positions of importance,
robbed of their property and systematically persecuted for not speaking
the proper "Christian" tongue, as Franco's regime would have it.

Eventually, people were detained, forced to do hard labor, enslaved by the
state to build a tomb for the dictator, tortured and killed, because their
use of a distinct language was perceived as a grave threat to national
unity, despite those languages having been part of Spanish society for a
thousand years or more. Since the transition to democracy, beginning in
1975, the present day constitutional republic has four co-official
languages, persecution on the basis of language usage is forbidden, no
matter the language, and the society is more politically and culturally
vibrant, more economically prosperous, in closer contact with its
neighbors, more sustainable as a political system, observing and
protecting the principles of democracy, an example to other nations.
What's more, since the First Amendment to the US Constitution promised
that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech ...
[or] to petition the government for a redress of grievances", and the
Inhofe amendment to S.2611 aims to strip all Americans of the right to
interact with their government in any language other than English, it
directly assaults a basic constitutional liberty. It deliberately makes
less effective communication between the government and the people and
undermines the right of individuals to solicit the correction of an

That means less accountability in government when facing certain segments
of the population, which is a stratification of legal protections and an
abstract but very real form of segregation, enacted by law. [s]

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