On the Fourth of July the corn, rhetorical as well as agricultural, should be as high as an elephant’s eye. But while enjoying the rhetoric of liberty, consider the connection between the English language and American liberty.
A proposed amendment to the Constitution would declare “the English language shall be the official language of the United States” and “neither the United States nor any state shall require . . . the use in the United States of any language other than English.” It would prohibit governments from mandating multilingual publications and from establishing bilingual education as a general entitlement. It would end the pernicious practice of providing bilingual ballots, a practice that denies the link between citizenship and shared culture. Bilingual ballots, says Richard Rodriguez, proclaim that people can exercise the most public of rights while keeping apart from public life.
Rodriguez’s autobiography, “Hunger of Memory,” is an elegant and eloquent evocation of the modern immigrant’s experience. A son of Mexican immigrants, he grew up in Sacramento in the 1950s. He was so “cloistered” by family sounds, so long “poised at the edge of language” that he was timid in public — too timid to be at home outside his home, in his community. Language is an instrument of intimacy, and Rodriguez’s book is a hymn to the poignant bravery of immigrant parents. Such parents often launch children toward a cultural divide the parents cannot cross, the passage into linguistic fluency and social ease.
Urgent Issue: Rodriguez’s intelligent and unsentimental opposition to bilingual education makes his opposition to the constitutional amendment interesting. Writing today, he notes that bilingualism became part of the agenda of the left in the late 1960s, when there was “a romantic surrender to the mystique ofthe outsider.” Those people who considered the culture diseased naturally thought the culture should be shunned. Bilingualism is an urgent issue because so much of current immigration comes from the Spanish-speaking Western Hemisphere and because the availability of Spanish-language news and entertainment broadcasting encourages the notion that English is merely a marginally important option.
“Those who have the most to lose in a bilingual America,” Rodriguez says, “are the foreign-speaking poor, who are being lured into a linguistic nursery.” However, he considers the constitutional amendment divisive because many Hispanics will regard it as aimed “against” them. Such sensitivity should not be decisive, especially given the reasons, which Rodriguez gives, why bilingualism is injurious to Hispanics.
“Our government,” he says, “has no business elevating one language above all others, no business implying the supremacy of Anglo culture.” He is wrong, twice. The government has a constitutional duty to promote the general welfare, which Rodriguez himself says is linked to a single shared anguage. Government should not be neutral regarding something as important as language is to the evolution of the culture. Furthermore, it should not be bashful about affirming the virtues of “Anglo culture” — including the political arrangements bequeathed by the men of July 4, 1776, a distinctly Anglo group. The promise of America is bound up with the virtues and achievements of “Anglo culture,” which is bound up with English. Immigrants, all of whom come here voluntarily, have a responsibility to reciprocate the nation’s welcome by acquiring thelanguage thatis essential for citizenship, properly understood.
Citizenship involves participation in public affairs, in the governance and hence the conversation of the community. In ancient Greece, from which the political philosophy of “Anglo culture” directly descends, such participation was considered natural and hence essential to normal life. When government nurtures a shared language it is nurturing a natural right — the ability to live in the manner that is right for human nature.
Nowadays this nation is addicted to a different rhetoric of rights — including, for a few specially entitled minorities, the right to a publicly assisted dispensation from learning the language of public life. This age defines self-fulfillment apart from, even against, the community. The idea of citizenship has become attenuated and now is defined almost exclusively in terms of entitlements, not responsibilities. Bilingualism, by suggesting that there is no duty to acquire the primary instrument of public discourse, further dilutes the idea of citizenship.
Rodriguez wants America to “risk uncertainty” and “remain vulnerable,” “between fixity and change.” Obviously America cannot freeze its culture. But another way of saying that human beings are social animalS is to say they are language-users. To be sociable they must share a language. America has always been (in Rodriguez’s nifty phrase) “a marinade of sounds.” But it would be wrong to make a romance of linguistic diversity. Americans should say diverse things, but in a language that allows universal participation in the discussion. Acceptance of considerable pluralism is a precondition ofa free society; but so, too, is a limit to pluralism. Yes, epluribusunum. But also: one national language is a prerequisite for the sort of pluralism that is compatible with shared national identity.
Lingistic Unity: Teddy Roosevelt’s life was one long Fourth of July, a symphony of fireworks and flamboyant rhetoric. He embodied the vigor of the nation during the flood tide ofimmigration. He said: “We have room for but one language here and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house.” American life, with its atomizing emphasis on individualism, increasingly resembles life in a centrifuge. Bilingualism is a gratuitous intensification of disintegrative forces. It imprisons immigrants in their origins and encourages what Jacques Barzun, a supporter of the constitutional amendment, calls “cultural solipsism.”
On the Fourth of July, when we are full of filial piety toward the Founding Fathers, we should not lightly contemplate tampering with their Constitution. But a change may be necessary to preserve the linguistic unity that is as important as the Constitution to a harmonious national life.