Once again, ethnocentrism raises its ugly head. The cause of the current flap? The newly written Spanish “Star Spangled Banner.”
President Bush has expressed disapproval of the alternative anthem. “I think the national anthem ought to be sung in English,” he has said.
Worse still, Lamar Alexander has introduced a resolution to “Remind the country why we sing our National Anthem in English.”
I have no opinion on the Spanish anthem itself. I don’t care what people sing. They are just words and a tune. Whether or not the song itself is good is for others to decide.
What does bother me is that the idea of an “English-Only” America is resurfacing. I recall being confronted directly with the idea for the first time while I was on my mission in Anaheim. I myself was called as an English-speaking missionary, but there were at least half-a-dozen other languages represented in our mission. While I was assigned to a city with a large Korean community, the woman from whom we rented a room disapproved of that fact. If it were up to her, only English would be used to proselytize in the U.S.
“If they want to come here, they should learn English” She asserted. “we shouldn’t coddle them. Make them learn to talk to us if we’re going to deal with them.”
Few others ever expressed the idea in so harsh a manner, but many of the people with whom I interacted did not disagree with the essential concept.
The idea came up again during the 2000 elections, where one of the issues in Utah was whether or not Utah would become a strict “English only” state. Many spoke of the need to protect American culture and language.
Of course, such ideas have never really died. I have heard Michael Savage talk a number of times about the need for “one language, one culture” in America.
It begs the question: What is “American Culture?” How is English tied to that culture? Are you talking Deep South Culture? The Bible Belt Culture? Rural Midwest Culture? Mormon Culture? Western Urban Culture? California Beach Culture? Urban Black Culture? Just which of those cultures are “American,” and which are not?
Is McDonald’s part of American culture? Am I not American because I abhor the Golden Arches? Baseball (don’t like that either)? How about Microsoft? TV? Widespread car ownership and usage? Conspicuous consumption?
Most “cultures” have an indigenous cuisine (or collection of cuisines—I hear that Tuscans don’t like it when you lump their food in with Sicilians, etc). What in the world is American cuisine? Fast food? Now we’re back to McDonald’s again.
Culture is an abstract concept which is obviously rather difficult to define.
Whatever you want to identify as “our culture” has experienced a radical shift over the past century. If you want to protect the culture of our forefathers—even our grandfathers—you’re a day late and a dollar short. Our modern culture is nothing like the culture of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries.
I find it interesting to recall that “our” ancestors (ie, Caucasian Northern Europeans, primarily British) didn’t seem too concerned about assimilating into and preserving the pre-existing American culture…
Back to the topic:
Yes, it is convenient and less expensive for an entire community to embrace a single language. It would make a number of things easier if I could easily communicate to my neighbors. It is easier for a community to be united when they share the same culture, beliefs, ideas, and perspectives.
But that isn’t what America is about.
I can say for certain that the immigrants who have come to the United States over its history did not come for the English language. They were not drawn by the quasi-European culture. They did not even come for the strong current of Christianity.
America is, as far as I know, fairly unique in the recent history of the world. This nation was not established based on some cultural identity. The core principle upon which the U.S. was founded and which drew on the peoples from the four quarters of the earth (Africans aside, the bulk of whom were drawn on by compulsion) was liberty: the opportunity to pursue your own path; the freedom to express yourself; self-determination; the chance to be involved in the political process and to have the potential to make your mark.
(That and the economic opportunity to get a hand in the virgin resources of all varieties.)
That essential liberty was the value expressly protected in the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) and championed in the Bill of Rights. Neither document made any mention of the preeminence of the English language.
Because of that unique nature, the United States is one of the few nations to which immigrants have come from all quarters of the globe. We have welcomed (more or less…often less, but that is a discussion for another time) people from all races, nations, and languages. We have been a beacon of hope for the disadvantaged throughout the planet. This is the reason that France bestowed upon us the Statue of Liberty. This is why these words are inscribed on her base:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
Our strength isn’t our homogeneity; it is our diversity.
Our essential liberty is the principle which we need to hold dear and protect for all. Pretty much anything else—including something as superficial as linguistic homogeneity—is superfluous.
If we no longer believe that liberty is the core value of this nation, and would instead insist on ethnocentrism (the root of which is nothing more than base pride), then let us push Lady Liberty into the ocean so we can end the pretense.