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Does Bosnia Sound Like A Fun Place To You?

Thursday, March 29, 2007
As Paul over at Alien & Sedition has noted, immigration was an issue that paralyzed the Republicans in the last election. Like trade, it's an issue that cuts across both parties, but unlike most of the wedge issues we've endured for the last few decades it seems to cause more divison among Republicans than Democrats.


Arguments like those of Cristina Rodriguez in the Democracy Journal do not help matters. In it she suggests that the attempt to impose monolingualism on America - to promote English as the nation's common language - is misguided. According to Rodriguez, we should embrace our emerging multilingual society. Rodriguez makes a useful distinction between nativists who fear immigration, "liberal assimilationists" who think immigration is fine as long as long-term social cohesion is maintained, and multiculturalists like herself who believe that America's future is one spoken in many languages. She believes that multilingualism and political decentralization would enrich America's democracy and facilitate the democratic incorporation of new immigrant populations.

I can respect Rodriguez's idealism and commitment, but I can only respond that she is hopelessly naive. A society separated by the barrier of different languages is no society at all: at best there is an uneasy co-existence, and a worst a balkanized mess. Can Rodriguez name even one example of a politically and socially stable society with out a dominant language? I don't have to point to some obscure third world nation - even liberal democratic countries like Spain, Canada, and Belgium have been tormented by linguistic divisions. Why in the world would we wish that on ourselves?

Now Rodriguez does anticipate this argument, pointing out that linguistic unity does not guarantee social peace. And her point? "Liberal assimilationists" do not claim that a common language prevents social divisions, but that the absence of a common language guarantees such divisions. Her example of Muslims in Western Europe simply does not engage the argument.

Democratic accountability requires linguistic unity. At the prosaic level, without a common mode of communication, political leaders will find it very easy to say different things to different audiences. More importantly, how is any "national discourse" to take place when the citizenry can literally not talk to one another. There will be no common cultural frame of reference, no unifying symbols, not even generally agreed to facts. How can we make claims of mutual obligation, how can we recognize eachother as joint participants in a common enterprise, if we can't communicate? We would functionally exist in different universes - segregated all over again.

Multiculturalism where it has existed has been not an instrument of social justice through cultural "authenticity," but a weapon in the hands of the political right. The principal political tactic of conservatives everywhere is to get people fighting with eachother over symbolic issues like religion, ethnicity, region, what-have-you, all in order to distract them from the fact that they are being exploited. It is no accident that the South is the most conservative region of the country, or that the U.S. is the most conservative nation in the industrial democratic world. We made the disastrous mistake of adopting slavery, and therefore rivalry among blacks and whites has been a ready tool for conservatives to prevent social reforms.

To encourage the maintenance of a Spanish-only population in America (let's be honest, that's what we're talking about), is to create a new "outsider" ethnic group for white nationalists to rail against. Not only will they pit the white working class against the Spanish-speakers as "other," but it would also be likely that Spanish-speakers and African-Americans would begin competing, rendering any liberal political coalition impossible. And it takes no imagination to determine the social existence of a Latino linguistic ghetto: since when has separation ever been anything other than unequal?

Cristina's Rodriguez's vision for America is not some bold new embrace of social justice and cultural diversity. It is a foolhardy gift to the vultures in American life who are anxious to pick clean every carcass. It is the stuff of Karl Rove's dreams.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 2:20 PM
  • I disagree. A visit to modern Europe proves her point. If your argument were true, there would be multiple Bosnias, but that is not the case. The Europeans have adapted by learning to speak multiple languages, but using multiple languages to repeat common themes. If there is no dominant language, it simply means every person learns every language. The problem is that this is a fact of globalization, and the rest of the world has realized it ahead of the United States. The U.S. is the driving engine of globalization, and multiculturalism, including multiple languages in a single country, is the necessary side effect. Just because the South hasn't caught up yet doesn't mean they never will. Over the next few decades, as Hispanics emerge as the dominant minority across the South and Southwest, the politicians they elect will likely promote educational programs that require the learning of at least 3 languages (English, Spanish, Chinese), and possibly 5 (Hindi and Japanese).

    By Blogger Marriah, at 6:20 PM  
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