Who are we? According to Republicans, if you don’t speak English, you aren’t an American. They demand immigrants “assimilate,” which is their way of saying they must become conservatives; walk the walk, but also talk the talk.
They didn’t start it. Noah Webster, in his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, called for a national language as the logical conclusion to our political revolution, and suggested that if we’re not all speaking the same language, we’re committing treason “against the character and dignity of a brave an independent people” – ourselves.
What is the link between language and culture, or language between and identity? Are, for example, French Canadians less Canadian than speakers of English? And if not, why are Spanish-speaking Americans less American than English speakers?
Scholar Greg Fisher, studying the place of Arabs in the Roman-Persian world of Late Antiquity, notes that “the dominance of language as a marker of ‘ethnic’ identity in the modern world is so powerful and familiar a phenomenon that we might wonder if the same held true in antiquity.”
Sure, the ancient Greeks chided the Macedonians for speaking a barbarian tongue, and sure, even in the polyglot Roman Empire, Greek and Latin were the languages of government, but you could speak Syriac and be a Roman citizen. The Romans felt superior, but language was less a national identifier. They might have liked to make broad generalizations about various “races” but they would follow an Arab emperor.
Fisher points out that “linguistic nationalism is a modern idea.” In the Republican Party, it is tied to ethnic nationalism, and nobody should need convincing that we won’t see Americans elect an Arab president any time soon, though his ethnicity might be less an issue than his religion.
A black man with an odd-sounding (to English ears) name has the same problem. Indeed, even though his English is more refined and concise than that of many of his critics (he knows “moron” is not spelled with an ‘a’ for example), Barack Hussein Obama can’t be an American, critics say, because his skin is the wrong color and he isn’t the right kind of Christian, if he is Christian at all.
Stephane Hessel, who was a member of the French Resistance as well as a concentration camps survivor, who inspired #Occupy and the Arab Spring, and who moreover was born German but became French, wrote that “no one is ever just ‘French’ or ‘German.'”
Or American? (And I won’t even get into the issue of Americans who barely speak an intelligible English)
Indeed, in the antebellum South, you were not just an American, but a Virginian, perhaps more so the latter: Robert E. Lee’s devotion was to a state, a geographical location rather than a lofty ideal of states united.
Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, who lost his country, and as an emigre wrote in French, said that, “One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland — and no other.”
Hessel, citing Cioran’s words, pointed out that, “Since I speak three languages, I have chosen to have as many home countries as languages I speak – and since two of those languages are spoken globally, my sense of belonging perhaps extends beyond the mere borders of my home nations.”
You could go further than that. According to Plutarch, Athenian philosopher Socrates said, “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world.” Socrates didn’t have to speak all the languages of the world to believe that. He likely spoke only Greek. But his thought transcended the limits of his language.
This is not something Noah Webster would have understood. And it is all nonsense to Republicans, of course. There is no room in such thinking for nationalism, let alone American exceptionalism. Yet my great-great grandfather, who spoke Swedish and not English, came to this country from Sweden and fought for his adopted country in the Civil War. Many of the Republicans who speak most vehemently of American exceptionalism have never served this country, even when speaking the appropriate language.
Is being American more about talking the talk than walking the walk after all?
Who is more American? The Swede who does not speak but serves, or the Republican who speaks but does not serve? Perhaps this is not a question to a Republican’s liking; it is not simple enough an equation for an ideology that allows only either/or.
As Hessel pointed out, language has community-building abilities and man is a social creature. For all of modern conservatism’s talk of personal responsibility, as President Obama said, “You didn’t build that.” None of us do it alone. The early pioneers would walk miles a day to help their neighbors erect a cabin or plow a field and to be helped in turn.
In places like 1850s Minnesota, neither of them had to be speaking English, but make no mistake, they were both Americans, building the American dream in a new world full of opportunity.
Here is another question a Republican might not understand, asked by Hessel:
You may in fact feel more belonging to a city or a neighborhood rather than to an actual country; or to a religion, a skin color, a long lost origin, a real or imagined physical place or perhaps even a sexual orientation, an ideology. Indeed, who should a Turk of Berlin from Kreuzberg who is also a homosexual with leftist tendencies and Sufi sensibilities choose to be? We are all aggregations of different references, sometimes quite contradictory in appearance.
Aggregates of different references. Those are fighting words in Red States.
And nonsense to the white Evangelical Texas male wearing BDUs and waving a Confederate battle flag with an AR-15 slung across his back. You’re either American, which means you share his referents, or you are “other,” which might mean you have brown skin, or feel attraction to your own sex, or worship the wrong god (or none), or have those leftist tendencies, or maybe just think America isn’t perfect, or all of the above.
The wrong answer to any of them means you should just leave.
Never mind that the Founding Fathers established a secular government, or that our Texan is waving the wrong flag.
There are plenty of socially liberal conservatives out there. There are plenty of Catholics who pay no attention to their priesthood, some of whom insist their congregants eschew contraceptives while they sodomize those same congregants’ young boys. Just saying you’re something doesn’t make you something. You have to show it.
How much does what language we speak matter? Will Durant, synthesizing Aristotle, wrote that, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
We should strive to be excellent then, in whatever language we were brought up to speak. Language is a referent, one of many. There are many people who speak no English at all who have a much better idea of what it is to be an American than some who speak it as a first language.
Zealots, true believers, extremists, people for whom one belief drowns out the world’s nuanced medley, who embrace either/or thinking, wield language, like religion, as a weapon.
And that is the thing. As Hessel said, we are aggregations. Often of conflicting ideologies or sentiments. Few of us are all one thing or another. The one thing we all share – the one thing we must all share – is the idea of America. The idea of liberty.
Humans are social animals. We build communities. Our English ancestors did not always speak English, but Celtic and Latin and German and Norse and French. I think we can trust ourselves to find a way to communicate.
Image from Conservative Cotton
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.