Author and editor Norman Cousins resigned Wednesday from the advisory board of U.S. English, the national organization that is sponsoring Proposition 63 on the Nov. 4 ballot.
He said that “there is a very real danger” that passage of the measure would cause Latinos and other racial minorities to be “disadvantaged, denigrated and demeaned.”
Proposition 63 would declare English to be California’s “official language,” would require the Legislature to “make no law which diminishes or ignores the role of English” and would permit any individual or business to sue to enforce the decree.
Cousins is one of several members of the advisory board who either said they knew nothing about Proposition 63 or oppose it in varying degrees.
Cousins, in a letter to Gerda Bikales, executive director of U.S. English, said he initially supported the measure “because I believe it to be a mistake to equate cultural pluralism with a multilingual society.”
But, “I now recognize that Proposition 63 has a negative symbolic significance,” he added.
Cousins said he still wants to protect the English language against “fissiparous tendencies” (tendencies to disintegrate), “but I am now forced to recognize that legislation is not the proper or effective means for dealing with this problem.”
“Not until we provide educational facilities for all who are now standing in line waiting to take lessons in English should we presume to pass judgment on the non-English-speaking people in our midst,” Cousins said.
This apparently was a reference to recent news reports that an estimated 40,000 adults will be turned away from English as a second language classes by the Los Angeles Unified School District this year.
Cousins added that he respects the “original concern of the sponsors” of Proposition 63 but said, “I fear a momentum may have been created that is carrying us in an unwise and unhealthy direction.”
Cousins, 71, was editor of the Saturday Review for 35 years, has written several books and is now an adjunct professor in the UCLA School of Medicine.
Bikales said she had not received the Cousins letter yet but added, “It’s a free country — people can change their minds — the great majority of California voters will be speaking out on this issue” on Nov. 4.
Dr. John Tanton, a Petoskey, Mich., ophthalmologist who is chairman of the board of U.S. English, said, “It seems to me he (Cousins) supports our general goals . . . but disagrees as to the approaches that should be taken.”
Tanton said passage of Proposition 63 would force California to provide more money for English classes and other special efforts to help non-English speakers.
He denied that the measure was demeaning or denigrating to minorities.
“We have always contended the opposite,” Tanton said. “The way to demean minority citizens is to keep them in language ghettos, where they can be controlled by self-serving ethnic politicians.”
Cousins was one of 21 members of the U.S. English Board of Advisers.
The board does not meet as a body but individual board members sometimes review the organization’s printed material and help with membership and fund-raising drives.
Other advisory board members include authors Saul Bellow and Gore Vidal, psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, television commentator Alistair Cooke, former “CBS Evening News” anchorman Walter Cronkite and Rosalyn Yalow, a Nobel Prize winner in medicine.
In recent interviews with The Times, some of these board members have shown familiarity with U.S. English and its local political activities, but others have displayed only the haziest knowledge of the organization.
After conferring with Saul Bellow, his literary agent, Harriet Wasserman, said, “Saul Bellow says that to his knowledge, he’s not a member of that board — it’s news to him.”
But Bikales said “we have a letter on file” in which Bellow agreed to serve on the board.
Cronkite has been out of the country in recent weeks but Nora Bock, his executive assistant, said, “I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know about all the stuff that’s going on out there,” referring to Proposition 63.
Interviewed by telephone from Rome, writer Gore Vidal said, “They didn’t ask my advice about the language of this proposition — if they had, I would have advised against it.”
Vidal added, “Obviously, this amendment is out to get the Hispanics — that’s clear and I would disagree.”
He noted that some Mexicans and Mexican-Americans refer to the Southwestern United States as the “stolen lands,” referring to the territory occupied by the United States after the Mexican-American War.
“Very rightly, they’re refilling these lands,” Vidal said. “They have every right to do that. We stole the land from them and now they’re reclaiming it.”
If Latinos in the Southwest do not want to speak English, he said, then the nation should adopt a system like Switzerland’s, in which each section of the country chooses its own primary language.
These ideas run exactly counter to the U.S. English program. As to why his name appears on the organization’s list of advisers, Vidal said only that, “I thought, as a member of the left, I should sound off on what I really think from time to time.”
However, some advisory board members are active supporters of U.S. English.
Alistair Cooke helps the organization by raising money and recruiting new members.
Author and historian Jacques Barzun said he attends meetings, reviews material and “keeps an eye on the press, on people who take a stand on this issue.”
Barzun favors adoption of a federal constitutional amendment declaring English to be the nation’s official language because “it will prevent, I would hope, the kind of split we see in Belgium or in Canada where the existence of two official languages has increased hostilities” between language groups.
Barzun said he is not familiar with Proposition 63 nor the arguments for or against the measure.
Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, said he agreed to become an adviser to U.S. English because he agrees with the organization that bilingual education is ineffective and should be abandoned or changed drastically.
Podhoretz also is opposed to bilingual ballots, Spanish-language Yellow Pages and foreign-language advertising.
“All of it seems a disservice,” he said. “In a pluralistic culture, language must be the common bond . . . . One does a great disservice to the children of immigrants if one doesn’t force them to learn English.”