THE BILLS PENDING in Congress that aim to make English the official language of the United States are reasonable and sensible.
To use a word beloved by the jargon-mongers and grant-hustlers of the tired Left, these bills take a “proactive” approach to a looming problem, the sundering of the nation by language. Long Island’s own Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), an Irish sentimentalist who otherwise despises all things English, is the sponsor of one of the better-drafted bills. It would, among other things, do away with bilingual education, and therein lies a mighty rub.
Bilingual education is a $ 12-billion-a-year industry. It is one of the only prosperous holdovers from Lyndon Johnson’s pie-in-the-sky, spend-now, pay-later Great Society debacle. The Bilingual Education Act was passed in 1968. That’s important to remember. All other waves of immigrants assimilated without the aid of classes conducted in such languages as Chinese, Spanish, Haitian Creole, Bengali, Arabic, Greek, Vietnamese, Korean, French or Russian (among the items on the New York City school system’s polyglot smorgasbord). Accordingly, the arguments now being raised by those who have a stake in that $ 12 billion are largely specious and self-serving. There are, believe it or not, politicians who benefit from having their constituents sealed off from the greater populace by language barriers.
King’s bill, or one like it, has a good chance of passing in the House, and last week’s endorsement by Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole raises the prospect for Senate passage. That’s heartening, because without this legislation, the time is fast approaching when the motto e pluribus unum (one out of many) will have to be rubbed off the coinage.
Ballots are written in many languages; so, too, are government documents, including licensing examinations for drivers. In California, this absurd practice has extended itself to include 35 languages. That certainly makes it convenient for new arrivals, but what about all those traffic signs in English? What about English-language broadcasts that warn of tie-ups and danger? Can a voter who doesn’t understand English truly participate? It’s easy for politicians to cater to new arrivals with this sort of spoon feeding, but every time it is done, precedents are created, and that is worrisome. How far can the trend go, before these little political favors are regarded as rights?
When Allentown, Pa., passed an English-only ordinance, the general counsel of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, Nelson A. Diaz, sent a memorandum to Robert Achtenberg, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, saying: “It is my opinion that refusal to make documents available in language other than English, in some circumstances conflicts with federal civil rights requirements.”
It’s all too easy to imagine a scenario in Florida, California or New York in which a legislature finds itself faced with the issue of giving Spanish equal status with English as the language of public business. When that happens, forget about the concept of nation.
Canada – French and English – is fatally divided by language.
For a time, French Canada made signs in English illegal. Recently, a compromise was reached. English signs are now legal in Quebec, so long as French is also present in bigger letters. Billboards must still be in French.
In the United States, English is one of the few elements that unites people. Many national societies are united on ethnic, racial or religious similarities. One may live a lifetime in Japan and still not be Japanese. But it’s still possible to be an American and be Japanese or Jamaican or any one of several hundred racial, ethnic or religious subsets. The common element is a body of laws and traditions and the English language.
As Teddy Roosevelt once said: “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities.”
Bob Wiemer’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org