Saturday, February 16, 2008

On Bilingual Cultures

Jim has some commentary on the neo-con position on multi-culturalism. A lot of that commentary is aimed at bilinguals – and there is no disguising its racist undercurrent. But I’m reminded of something John Wayne once said – “some of the people who agree with me … are jerks”.

Before you make assumptions about my attitudes beyond the words that I actually write here, please take a look at this post of mine from the ChicagoBoyz, explaining why I fight pretty hard to maintain a bilingual household, especially since I’m a native English speaker.

America has always been a de-facto polyglot nation. It has never been a polyglot political entity. This is an important distinction. Up until this century, the expectation has been that if you have dealings with the Federal Government as a private citizen within this country, that those dealings would be in English. One of my most prized possessions is my great-grandfather’s circa-1880 German / English Dictionary. He emigrated in his mid-twenties, and never expected America to conform to his culture or his language. He adapted, and adapted well.

Of course, my great-grandfather lived in Brooklyn with a lot of other German-speaking immigrants (including, I’m sure, a lot more Jews than he was used to dealing with back home). Many of the Chinese immigrants I know stick to Chinatowns. This is an expected human behavior. But it is not good for the body politic. It separates the immigrant from American society, and re-enforces some of the very negative cultural practices that in part led to the immigration in the first place. No one who is completely satisfied with things back home emigrates, but fear pushes some immigrants back into a cloister that mimics the bad old days in the old country. A good example would be the Tong / Triad control of much of Chinatown. People who live in these areas are more likely to be exploited, and less likely to understand the practical compromises that make the Constitution work on a day-to-day basis. In that respect, they are dangerous voters. In the great melting pot of America, they are the lumps of sugar that did not dissolve.

Even the lumps that do largely dissolve still have a core of foreignness that will never fit in. Sometimes that’s a good thing to bring new perspectives. Usually it’s neutral or negative. My wife has a lot of attitudes left over from growing up in a Taiwan that was still under martial law. Her reading of the Constitution is a bit … interesting. I interviewed once with a German VP at a major company. He was very entrepreneurial, and told me he considered himself 100% American because he differed so much in outlook form the average German. My wife snorted when I told her that. I asked why – I still do believe the old American propaganda of the melting pot to some degree. But my wife brought up some of her more Chinese attitudes, and then noted that the German had emigrated even later in life than she had – so he was bound to be less American than he thought. As a nation we can absorb and Americanize only so much foreignness in each generation – hence the whole concept of immigration quotas in the first place (leaving aside the drain on the social welfare system of immigrants who can’t adjust).

When my wife took a look at the recent immigration protests, she got angry. Her words were something along the lines of “you won’t see any Chinese people at those rallies, they are too busy working, and they know their place in this country”. She is extremely grateful for the amnesty of 1986. Without that, the US would have lost a Ph.D. chemist in trade for a cashier at a Chinese restaurant. What a waste. But there is an element of demanding rather than asking to these recent protests, and it rubs me the wrong way, too, especially since many of these immigrants are positing some bizarre claims.

The big issue for me is the children if illegal immigrants, or those of the proposed “guest worker” class. Those born here are citizens. I know one family with a citizen daughter and illegal immigrant mother. If the mother had been deported when the kid was in high school, what would have happened? The kid would have followed the mother until majority, then come back here sans HS diploma. What a huge waste of resources. Or what of those like my wife who came here in grade school illegally? With a US high school diploma she was unemployable in Taiwan, yet unable to matriculate in a US college until the amnesty. Do we throw such people away? Again, what a waste. But with our open borders we have created an attractive nuisance where such stories abound. It’s time to get serious about border control.

Back to the bi-lingual issue, I don’t consider myself a racist, but I am a culturalist. Some cultures are better than others. Full stop. The more I study and visit some cultures, the more I’m glad I was not born into them. I share the skepticism of the neo-cons about America embracing Spanish culture in a large way, although for different reasons. This quote from Indian book reviewer A.G. Noorani gives you a good idea why:

British rule in India was doomed when the rulers introduced their language in India. You cannot talk a people into slavery in the English language. “An Englishman is the unfittest person on earth to argue another Englishman into slavery,” Burke reminded the House ofCommons on March 22, 1775. The effect is the same if “the natives” are taught English. It brings in its train British history - the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, Parliament versus the Crown, habeas corpus and the rest, as also concepts like the rule of law. Those who framed our Constitution were familiar with all this.

Most former colonies of Britain stand out as significantly better off than their neighbors. I’m not defending colonialism, just noting the strength of English-speaking culture in breaking the bonds of Ralph Peters’ Seven Signs of a non-competing culture:


Restrictions on the free flow of information.

The subjugation of women.

Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.

The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.

Domination by a restrictive religion.

A low valuation of education.

Low prestige assigned to work.



Most countries colonized by the Spanish are either third-world shitholes or just in the process of dragging themselves out of that state. After visiting Spain, I’m not surprised. The ancient “manana” culture hasn’t done the Mother Country a whole lot of good, and the former colonies aren’t even at the low level of the Mother – that’s why their people are pushing to get into the US. They exhibit most of the signs of a failed culture because Spain itself still exhibits at least four of those signs, and bits of the rest – hence the immigration patterns to English-speaking countries. One of the quickest ways to break those bonds is to start communicating in English, breaking habits of thought that are ingrained in the Spanish language.

Of course, it may sound strange for someone who’s taking a great deal of effort to communicate in a foreign language with his own children to express these ideas. But that’s a personal decision. Families with strong ties to their own heritage will carry on their own traditions for the good of the children, and the rest, who inhabit a lower energy state, will be absorbed into the dominant culture, as have all previous waves of immigrants. I bear a Prussian surname, but speak next to no German. No big loss – I picked the foreign languages I wanted to speak, and I speak them. I’m no big fan of Prussian culture, believe you me.

It is the American ideal itself that drives me to reject the widespread acceptance of Spanish, especially in the form of school curricula. My concern with bi-lingualism is not so much the speaking of a foreign language (my kids’ first language is not English) as it is the concern that this will open the door for Nanny Staters to create another political dependency. The history of bilingual education as advocated by Academic multi-culturalists is a case history in the soft bigotry of low expectations.

I expect, no I demand, as a native of the US, that immigrants who become citizens stand with me as equals. Bi-lingulaism as practiced by the government looks suspiciously to me like “separate but equal” with about the same “equality” of results.

As far as the destruction of American postulated by Lamm- give me a break. True, there have been no largely bilingual or poly-lingual nations that have survived when the demographics were nearly even – Austria-Hungary was constantly at war with itself until it split apart. I did a whole post on the ChicagoBoyz on the linguistic problems of China and how they help drive the splintering and regrouping cyclic history of that sad nation. But in general, when the majority is large, there is no problem. On the other hand, those who have not been in the halls of Academia recently may underestimate the self-hatred of many of the Marxist or other leftist professors in the humanities and socail sciences (and their ex-students now occupying government positions) have for the culture which spawned them. Stupidities such as the Akaka bill have the potential to set precedent for the Southwest. Neo-cons are absolutely correct to fear the self-loathing Academics who see the US as the root of the all the world’s evils.

The Hispanic immigrants of today will become part of the patchwork of America, unless leftist Academics and politicians are allowed to create a permanent underclass of guest workers with citizen children who do not speak the de facto official language of their own. If the Constitution is not changed, and the children of “guest workers” are in fact citizens, this will become a serious issue.

4 comments:

CW said...

I think we mostly agree John... I am a big believer in the 'melting pot' and the value and strength that immigrants have brought to the United States. I'm also pretty moderate and pragmatic about the problem of illegal immigration from Latin America, primarily because I understand that it is impossible for the United States to simply deport all the illegals. Since we can't kick them out, we ought to figure out what to do with them. I may even have a more favorable attitude towards Latin illegals than you do, because so many of them that I have met are trying so hard to contribute to our country and economy.

But likewise I believe very strongly that immigrants, illegal or not, should learn to assimilate, for their own good as well as ours. I believe the historical lesson is not that a immigrant minority of this size or that size is a problem, but that a non-assimilating minority is ALWAYS a problem, regardless of size - whether we're talking about gypsies in Hungary or Muslims in Denmark - or whomever in the United States.

Jim Wright said...

John, agreed.

In my post, my primary beef was with the racist xenophobia of people like Dick Lamm and those who have formed their opinions of immigration by reading and propagating such crap.

I think you make some very good points, I don't know if I agreed completely with your assessment of Spain and Spanish seeded cultures. I lived in Spain for a number of years and came away with a different perspective. however, I did live and work in Central America for a number of years, and came away with a similar outlook. The situation in complex.

However - I do very much agree that there is a maximum level of immigration any nation can absorb in a given period and still maintain it's own identity and culture, and that immigrants must make an effort towards full assimilation. A provision of citizenship, and even long term guest status, should be a minimum facility with the de facto language. While I don't have a problem with providing some language help in government services, public schools must be in English. I lived in S. California for a number of years, and my son attended elementary school there - at least half of his school was Spanish speaking - and at least half of them could not, or would not, speak English. The school provided two teachers per classroom, one in English, one in Spanish. The results of this were immediate and obvious, the bilingual classes were half as complete as single language classes, the schools costs were double, and the spanish speakers had no incentive to learn English at all.

John the Scientist said...

Jim -with whom did you work in Spain?

I work with our Spanish organizaiton quite a bit. Governmentally, they are on the level of other EU countries, because most governments are totally inefficient. The problem is that their private sector is no more efficient thatn their government.

Jim Wright said...

John, I was stationed there as part of US Naval forces. I lived in Espana Sur, en la ciudad de Rota. (Yeah, that's about the extent of my Spanish these days, alvido mucho).

I lived out on the Spanish economy, off base, for about 3 years. Wonderful place, I loved Spain. Wonderful people, the best wine in the world (screw French wine, bah), fantastic food, ancient culture. I loved it.

But, yeah, inefficiency is a hallmark of Spanish culture. They revel in it, in fact. Everything is manana (tomorrow) - we'll do it tomorrow. And at least once a week there is some type of holiday. On the other hand, nobody dies of a stress induced heart attack either. It may take long time to complete a job, but the craftsmanship is often fantastic.