Friday, May 26, 2006

The coming bilingual regime: a sober look

As a thought experiment, let us assume that some sort of interplanetary overlord will very shortly visit earth and decree that the United States must become bilingual. However, we are not obliged to choose Spanish. We can select any partner language we deem best.

In the early years of the Republic some patriots proposed that, in keeping with the heritage of democracy and the overall eminence of classical culture, we Americans must speak Greek. Adopting this sublime tongue would forever secure us from the hateful domination of England. At length, however, a different proposal carried the day—or at least half of it did. It was decided that we Americans would keep English; it is a prize we deserve to have. It is the English who must be compelled to speak Greek. Ever obstinate, the limeys still have not complied with this stipulation.

If not Greek, then maybe another G-language. From time to time one hears that there was a real chance that German might become the official language of the US. Ostensibly, Bismarck thought that this might happen. Yet there seems little documentary support for the claim, despite the fact that German was the leading foreign language in our nation from at least 1700 to 1900.

At any rate in the putative vote decreed by our overlord, I nominate Chinese. One fantasy deserves another. This choice will open to us an almost limitless cultural storehouse—and of course give us that competitive edge to make the twenty-first century not the Chinese century, but the American-Chinese century. Odd as it may seem, the greatest advantage is practical. As the Japanese have demonstrated, Chinese logograms (“characters”) can be used to write any language—only the pronunciation differs, so that the character for king, wang in mandarin, is read o in Japanese. The French would read it “roi,” the Germans “koenig,” and so forth. As the principle spread throught the globe, humanity would be united in a single written language (standardized apart from a few grammatical markers to indicate plurals, past tense, and so forth; these could easily be standardized).

End fantasy. Let’s try reality. It seems as if we will have no choice in our partner in the brave new world of bilingualism. If the US Senate has its way, not only will eleven million (or more) Spanish-speaking persons who now live within our borders be naturalized, but also we will have to make way for another sixty million over the following twenty years. Our business interests have an inexhaustible appetite for cheap labor, and politicians will cater to the Hispanic lobby by welcoming new waves of millions. These developments will fundamentally alter the demography of our country. In this light it is worth weighing the pros and cons.

First the advantages. On the whole Spanish is relatively easy to learn. The grammar is straightforward and there are no difficult sounds, such as the German ch and the French r. Historically Spanish is related to other Western European languages including English, and this relationship provides many cognates, a great aid to learning. Some 320 million people, with whom we could readily communicate, already speak Spanish.

And what of the downside? One that is frequently cited is that it would sever our connection with the founding documents of our Republic. This is only partly true, as English speakers would continue to consult them in the original. Of course, bilingualism tends to be divisive-—but this goes with the territory and the effect is not exclusive to any particular language partner.

The real problems, and here I enter a highly radioactive zone, have to do with the primal inadequacies of Hispanic culture. Anthropologists assure us that all cultures are equal. Political correctness taboos any attempt to draw up a report card of cultures. Yet we know in our gut that all cultures are not equal.

The blight of Hispanic deficiency dates back at least to 1492, when the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews, to be followed by the forced departure of the Moors in stages over a period of time. These expulsions were most cruel to the victims. They were also cruel, though in a different way, to the remaining Christian population, as Spain changed from being a complex, relatively open society to a closed culture in which normative Catholicism was imposed on everyone. The stifling consequences on intellectual life are incalculable. Moreover, it was Catholic Spain, with its insistence on limpieza de sangre, purity of blood, that invented modern racism. And the noxious effects of this drastic narrowing of horizons are not just ancient history. They lasted until 1975, when the caudillo Francisco Franco finally died.

The centuries of intolerance were unfortunately the very centuries of expansion of Spanish power, preeminently in the New World. The conquistadores and the friars who accompanied them brought conversion by force. The also introduced a new system of racial stratification based on caste, with the peninsulares (those born in Spain) at the top, the white criollos just below them, then the growing stratum of mestizos (people of mixed race), and at the bottom the native Americans. All this depended, of course, on the foundation laid by the principle of limpieza de sangre. Anti-Jewish and anti-Moorish exclusionism became the models of the inferiorization of teh indigenous population. Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, among others, are still struggling with this baleful legacy of caste. Finally, the economic regimes imposed on the New World, first by the Hapsburg rulers, then by the Bourbons, were mercantilist. In this view, trade must be strictly controlled for the benefit of the ruling circles. There was no room in mercantilism for the entrepreneurship that has made America and Western Europe rich.

Today Spain has rejoined Europe. It is prosperous and free. But the tragic irony is that the repressive legacy of the conquistadores persists in the Spanish-speaking Americas. To be sure, as historians relate, the Aztecs and Mayas were not perfect either. Cutting out the odd heart and running cactus through penises are not exactly exemplary practices. Still the peoples of the Americas had their own culture, as the magnificent remains of such sites as Monte Albán and Palenque, Machu Picchu and Tihuanaco remind us. The conquistadors did every thing they could to stamp out these cultures.

To be sure, since the 1920s Mexico has sought to honor the indigenous heritage through symbolism (in the national flag, for example). Yet these gestures only serve to mask the continued rule of the white elites. The perfect exemplar of this domination is el Presidente Fox, that Euro-King Kong, towering over his mestizo subjects. Included in the repertory of indigenismo is the legend of Aztlan, the supposed Aztec homeland in our Southwest. This irridentist claim makes some Latinos not just eager to live alongside gringos in those states, but to dominate them, creating a new nation of Mexifornia. Properly to honor the heritage Aztlan, though, would mean to give up Spanish, the language of the oppressor and adopt Nahuatl. Here, where de-Hispanization is strongly indicated, there seems little appetite for change.

As I indicated, few will consent to violate the multiculturalist taboo, joining me in drawing up a balance sheet of what advancing Hispanization might mean. In brief compass I have taken a first step. Refute me, if you can.

Examined soberly, Hispanic culture has been a marginal component of the European symphony. Its participants have been playing out of tune for centuries. What melody will they play in our country when bilingualism is fully implemented?


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