English is the official language of Florida. The state constitution says so: Article 2, Section 9.

You may have forgotten that, although 1988 – when English was raised to dominion – was an exciting time. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole may not have known of Florida’s bold stand when he said, on Labor Day, that ”English should be acknowledged once and for all as the official language of the United States.”

It is being acknowledged, sort of. New Hampshire this summer became the 22nd state to make English official. Florida, with seven years of experience, knows what that means:

Nothing.

You still need a buck and a Berlitz phrase book to get a cup of coffee on Miami’s Calle Ocho, formerly Eighth Street, and Sen. Phil Gramm, a fluent speaker of funeral parlor Texasese, is allowed to campaign for delegates in Florida in his native tongue.

Poking fun at proclamations about language is irresistible because they are like the ”legal laws” of Camelot that prescribed the hours for snow to melt and stars to appear. When Sen. Dole buckles on his English, however, it bears the crest of Pat Buchanan. Language, Sen. Dole made explicit, is part of a group of superficial solutions that glance off the problem.

Ending affirmative action and bilingual education, teaching history as propaganda and superseding the First Amendment with an amendment to protect the flag were woven into his one-size-fits-all speech on restoring American values.

Something can be said for each of those ideas, except protecting the flag, which implicitly denaturalizes the descendants of everyone who ever fired on the flag.

(What’s this – a Confederate plot to achieve de facto secession?)

How much can be said for the rest depends on what you mean by the terms, how you define the problem and what your goals are.

As used by Mr. Buchanan, the ideas are ammunition in the cultural war he preached to the Republican convention in Houston three years ago. Conversely, some thought is needed on those subjects to promote cultural peace. Barbara Jordan, who chairs the Commission on Immigration Reform, writes that the notion of Americanism was ”stolen by racists in the 1920s. But it’s our word, and we are taking it back.”

She adds, ”We must assist (immigrants) in learning our common language” – and Ms. Jordan ups the stakes by calling it ”American English.”

Mr. Buchanan would use language to keep foreigners out – of our culture, of our politics and, in his fondest dreams, of our country. Ms. Jordan would use language to cut newcomers in on our ideals. When he waded into the miles-wide, inches-deep waters of language, Sen. Dole declared whose side he’s on.

Since, in contemporary politics, facts are nothing and anecdotes are all, here is a language anecdote that might give comfort to people in South Florida:

Trenton, N.J., has a large Italian-American population. It had an explosion in Italian classes for adults when the third generation achieved yuppiedom. Nana spoke Italian, often exclusively. Parents – second generation – could communicate in Italian with Nana but with no one else, especially not with their children. So when the third generation went into its Roots phase, it needed to import other ethnic Americans to teach Italian.

True story. And it has been the experience of every immigrant group so far. Language hasn’t run the other way since the English-speakers took New York away from the Dutch-speakers.

There’s no evidence anything has changed, nor that anything will change unless English-speaking Doles and Buchanans start so many fights among the rest of us that nobody wants to have anything to do with Americans anymore.

Tom Blackburn is an editorial writer for The Palm Beach Post.



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