Monday, June 12, 2006

Social dichotomies

In a previous posting I have advanced a thesis. Institutionalized bilingualism is divisive and unfortunate, as seen in Belgium, Canada, Cyprus, and Sri Lanka. Provided that there is a single dominant language, multilingualism is much less corrosive. In the Roman Empire Latin fulfilled this role; in Switzerland German has this status de facto. This contrast is why I view the coming bilingual regime in this country with foreboding.

There are more general patterns of social dichotomy. Anthropologists have observed moieties in tribal societies. In a given village about half the people belong, say, to the eagle clan, the other half to the wolf clan.

Such social dichotomies are common the microworld of academia, where departments tend to split into two factions. A friend who taught in the music department of several major universities noted that in each instance the faculty tended to divide up into composers and musicologists, on the one hand, and executants (conductors, singers, instrumentalists), on the other. This might be termed a structural dichotomy. Elsewhere there is a split between the professors who favor emphasizing undergraduate education as opposed to those who stress development of graduate teaching and research. Sometimes the division reflects the politics of the outside world. A friend who did graduate work in Spanish at a major university said that the faculty tended to divide between the supporters of Gabriel García Márquez and Pablo Neruda, on the one hand, and advocates of J. L. Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, on the other. The student could tell the instructor’s politics from the reading list. The first group favored the Left, the second the Right. For want of a better term, all the divisions noted in this paragraph may be termed natural ones, as they have some objective basis.

In other cases, the division reflects the presence of one or more powerful personalities, who polarize the department. A new recruit may be adjured to join Smith, “our great leader.” Others whisper that Smith is the devil.

A more benign dichotomy exists in the political structure of English-speaking countries. For 150 years the United States has been divided into the Democrats and the Republicans. No third party has had a real chance. In Britain a third party appeared a hundred years ago called Labour. At first it seemed that the country would support three major parties. Instead, the Liberal Party was squeezed into virtual insignificance in the center. British elections are essentially about which will rule, the Conservatives or Labour. Tertium non datur.

Austria and Germany exhibit similar political-party patterns. Other continental countries have different dichotomies. In the Netherlands, the pillar system has flourished for many years, allocating resources fairly to persons of Protestant and Catholic heritage. With the decline of Christianity in Western Europe this difference has become vestigial. However, a new and dangerous dichotomy is emerging, as the Muslim group is rapidly growing, setting itself over and against native Dutch people.

These examples show a range of dangerousness, for some dichotomies are more threatening than others.

Why then is bilingualism generally n o t benign? The first reason stems from economic struggles. In Belgium a hundred years ago the Flemish section, a majority in terms of population, concluded that it was being short-changed economically. In Canada it has been just the opposite. There it is the French speakers who have the grievance. In Cyprus the Turkish people are much poorer than the Greek speakers. A functioning reunification of the island will, the the Turkish speakers feel, reduce them to permanent inferiority.

In addition to economic disputes, bilingual polities pose another problem. The categorization is relatively inflexible, especially where politicians, eager to maintain captive constituencies, set up strict rules for assignment of individuals to a language group.

By contrast, in America one can wake up one day and switch parties. The formerly “solid South” (solidly Democratic) is solid no longer. Conversely, some Republicans today are disconcerted by the policies of Bush as well as by the increasing dominance of evangelicals. They are abandoning their former party allegiance. By contrast, in states with institutionalized bilingualism it is not easy to switch.

[Historical note on multiculturalism. Although the term dates back to 1941, it owes its contemporary popularity to the turbulence of Canada in the 1970s. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, though himself of French-Canadian heritage, was committed to preserving the unity of Canada, opposing Quebecois separatism. He advanced the idea of multiculturalism as a counterweight to the binarism of the two Founding Peoples, the French and the English. The multicultural idea recognizes that there are other primal ethnic identities in play, namely those of the First Nations (as Amerindians are called up North). Historically this recognition is correct as far as it goes, but it is important to recognize that its deployment was a political device.

Since then matters have evolved in Canada. Secession of Quebec is, it seems, no longer on the agenda. However, multiculturalism has had unfortunate effects-—just as it has in other countries to which the notion has been exported. Canada’s embrace of immigrants of all sorts has included Islamists and jihadists, as seen in the recent discovery of the plot to use violence against Canada’s institutions. The unspoken assumption has been that all are welcome (provided that they accept the nation’s traditions of tolerance). What if they don’t? In Canada, and in Western Europe, we are seeing the malign effects of naïve multiculturalism.]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your examples instantiate the problem. Friends in Canada resent French "imposed" on everything they buy in English. But what if, a magical what if, English was the "official" language, while another language, say Spanish, was a second language taught to make individuals bilingual for the sake of bilingualism. The Western hemisphere predominantly speaks Spanish, while the world economy predominately speaks English. Being bilingual to capture both experiences might just enhance our complex composition. As someone who DOES speak several languages, surely you don't deride polylingualism itself. You simply deride any overt choices about any language, as long as English is the dominant one for the U.S. On dominance, I agree, but on alternatives, certainly Spanish makes the most sense to being bilingualism, which is itself its own justification. Better to speak a language the rest of the hemisphere speaks, than learn German, for example, which a couple of isolated European countries speak, and few immigrants speak.

Assuming an intrinsic value of bilingualism, after English, I cannot fathom a better second language than Spanish. Given 12 million Spanish-speaking illegals, we might want to tell them of the Englightenment experience, which their linguistic context precludes.

Europe, which has taught bilingual education for decades, has mastered English as a second language. Maybe the U.S. should master Spanish as its second language.

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