2008 Democrats on English as Official Language: Horrid, OK, Better, Best

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Tue Jun 5 14:29:09 UTC 2007

6/4/2007 2008 Democrats on English as Official Language: Horrid, OK, Better,

One of the discursive moments that raised my eyebrows in the Democratic
presidential debate last night was the set of responses to the question, "I
want you to raise your hand if you believe English should be the official
language of the United States." Mike Gravel was the only candidate to raise
his hand. Gravel spoke first, justifying his claim:

We speak English! That doesn't mean we can't encourage other languages. I
speak French and English. People speak Spanish and English. But the official
language of the United States of America is English.

This is a horrid response. First of all, Gravel was simply factually
incorrect. There is no official language of the United States of America.
None. Period. Gravel seems to be unaware of this basic fact, which is odd
considering the high-profile nature of debates about English as an official
language in recent years. Does Mike Gravel not read the papers? Second,
there are implications for the declaration of English as the official
language of the United States of America, as two bills before the House make
clear. H.R. 769
<http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:h.r.00769:>and H.R.
997 <http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d110:h.r.00997:> stand ready to
declare English the official language of the nation. Although they differ
from each other in some specifics, both bills mandate that government
business be carried out in English, and that the government presume citizens
are fluent in English when engaging with them. This is a change from an
inclusive government to an exclusive one, and it is a violation of the
principle of equal protection under the law — a principle explicitly
contained in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the U.S.

Barack Obama followed up on Mike Gravel's disturbing statement:

I have to say that this is the kind of question that is designed precisely
to divide us. You know, you're right: everybody is going to learn to speak
English if they live in this country. The issue is not whether or not future
generations of immigrants are going to learn English. The question is, how
can we come up with both a legal and sensible immigration policy? And when
we get distracted by those kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to
the American people.

This was a kind of a meta-response, refusing to answer the question on the
basis that it is sneaky, tricksy or offensive. I don't know if the question
is "designed precisely to divide us" or not, but there is an already
existing division in the country on the overlapping issues of language,
citizenship, ethnicity and immigration, and there are a large number of
people who believe that language, citizenship, and immigration policy should
be designed to defend "the white, Christian, male power structure," which
they perceive as threatened by the different culture of "millions of foreign
nationals to basically break down the structure that we have." (quotes
from Bill
Obama's answer is an attempt to remain above that debate, and so it doesn't

Hillary Clinton followed on Obama's heels:

Let me add that we faced that in the Senate last year as to whether we would
or would not vote for it. The problem is that if it becomes official —
instead of recognized as national which indeed it is, it is our national
language — if it becomes official, that means in a place like New York City
you can't print ballots in any other language. That means you can't have
government pay for translators in hospitals so when somebody comes in with
some sort of emergency there's nobody there to help translate what their
problem is for the doctors. So many of us voted to say that English was our
national language but not the official language because of the legal
consequences of that.

Clinton engaged substantively with the practical policy implications of
English as an official language in a way that Obama refused to do and in a
way that Gravel was unable to do or uninterested in doing. This was in my
opinion the best response, until Christopher Dodd topped it by turning the
whole premise around with this capstone:

Well, I think the points that have been made by Barack Obama and Hillary are
very, very important here. This is the kind of question that does divide us.
Just a related point here. We need to be encouraging more language training
in our country. At the time of the 9/11 attacks here, we had advertisements
running in national newspapers for anybody who could speak Arabic here. We
have too few of our people in this country that can understand second
languages. This is the 21st century. This is a global economy. We need to
encourage more diversity in that. Certainly we have a national language
here. I speak fluent Spanish, along with Bill Richardson. I'm proud of the
fact I speak two languages. But we ought to be encouraging more of that in
the country and not talking about how we have one official language in our
nation. That's not helping our country.

Senator Dodd is right. The issue is not just about equal protection under
the law, although that is important. The issue is not just about ethnic
division and avoiding tricksy questions. We shouldn't be treating people
unequally in this nation, and we shouldn't be running around like chickens
with our heads chopped off, flapping our wings in some kind of senseless and
historically repetitive panic about America being corrupted by furriners.
But beyond avoiding the negatives, we should be embracing an alternative
national strategy, encouraging engagement with the world by having Americans
learn and speak more languages, not fewer languages.

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