June 24, 2004

Nativism clings to life at 100 or 101

Under the intriguing heading, "After Century in a Log Cabin, Emma Buck Dies at 100 or 101," the NY Times ran an affecting obituary the other day for Emma Buck, who died on the Illinois farm "originally settled by Miss Buck's maternal great-grandparents, Christian and Christina Henke, German immigrants from East Friesland who came by boat from New Orleans and settled in western Illinois, about 35 miles down river from St. Louis, in 1841."

What caught my eye was that Ms. Buck was described in the piece as "speaking in a thick German accent." That's a dramatic reminder of how tenacious  foreign languages could be in rural America in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's unimaginable that any child born today whose great-grandparents immigrated to America before the Second World War would still be speaking English with an accent -- in fact such a child is almost certain to grow up knowing no more of his or her ancestral language than the names of a few ethnic dishes, at best. But that's the specter Semantic Compositions considers in a thoughtful post entitled "Huntington contra Nunberg," which contrasts  some of the things I have said about  English-only in  a recent  LanguageLog post and an earlier article in The American Prospect with the views offered by Samuel Huntington in his recent book Who Are We? (The post is the third of a four-part discussion of Huntington,  of which the other parts are here, here and here.)

As SC notes, Huntington acknowledges that patterns of Spanish retention suggest that Hispanics are following the same pattern of linguistic assimilation that earlier generations do -- though, as the Times obituary reminds us, a lot more rapidly than people did a century ago. But Huntington also suggests, as SC puts it, that "this time it's different." SC offers a cogent summary of Huntington's arguments:

Looking at Mexican immigration patterns since 1975, Huntington identifies several features which are distinctly different from previous generations of immigrants: substantially higher proportions of illegal immigration than any other ethnic group, high regional concentration (most notably in the Southwest , Florida, and New York City), persistence (no significant closing of the borders has occurred in the past 30 years), and historical presence (unlike all other migrant groups, Mexicans have a plausible ownership claim to American territory grounded in historical facts), and finally, a government which encourages the mindset that emigrants are still Mexicans first and foremost.

SC's response to this is too complex and nuanced for me to summarize here, but he winds up giving credance to the possibility of the specter that Huntington raises, though allowing that "It is probably 30-40 years too early to attempt to verify these claims empirically." And in his fourth and final post, gives a qualified endorsement to some of the symbolic measures that Huntington advocates -- a roll-back of Executive Order 13166, for example, which mandates the accommodation of LEP speakers for programs receiving federal funding (apart from the provision of emergency services), and an end to offering driver's licence tests in languages other than English.

The point about licences SC bases on the assertion that

In most states [driver's licenses] remain exclusively the privilege of citizens. American-born citizens presumably are brought up speaking English; naturalized citizens are either presumed to have learned enough English to pass a basic examination, or to be too old to acquire adequate English skills.... The notion that a test in English permitting a privilege with life-and-death consequences is an unreasonable imposition on people who theoretically have undertaken to learn English is itself a mocking of the idea that English was learned. To the extent that American society requires mobility, and this represents a handicap to the economic opportunities of non-English-speakers, Huntington might well rejoin that this is an excellent method for deciding between the validity of his analysis and Geoff Nunberg's. If Nunberg is right, this sort of policy reform should ultimately only serve as a barrier to those immigrants who are too old to learn English; if Huntington is right, the number of citizens driving illegally should skyrocket.

This example is worth considering. For one thing, I don't know whether most states restrict the issuance of driver's licenses to citizens -- frankly, that claim surprises me -- but I do know that there is no such requirement in many states with large immigrant populations, like New York and California. And a good thing, too. When I'm driving my daughter to school in San Francisco, the last thing I want to run into -- figuratively or literally --  is a driver who is ignorant of the rules of the road because he or she had insufficient competence in English to take the license exam.  Here as elsewhere, that is, making it harder for LEP residents to access various privileges and services doesn't impost a burden merely on them.

More generally, the argument against giving driver's licences to those with limited English proficiency, like the argument for rolling back 13166, rests on some questionable assumptions. First, it assumes that immigrants will learn English only if that becomes a means to attaining certain legal privileges and government services, rather than out of an interest in acquiring the cultural and economic benefits that English proficiency confers -- and by implication, it suggests that immigrants are too ignorant or lazy, or too much under the thrall of native rabble-rousers, to recognize those advantages. Hispanics are right to bristle at that implication, which has no grounding in fact.

Second, it assumes that a language learned for these reasons alone would be the vehicle for inculcating a stronger sense of identification of the national culture. (There have been many cases in which states have been able to impose a national language on minorities who were otherwise reluctant to learn them -- you think of the Slovaks in Hungary, the Hungarians in Slovakia, the Catalonians, and the Irish -- but it's hard to think of any instance in which that has enhanced the sense of identity with the national culture, in the absence of broader cultural and economic opportunity.)

Third, as I suggested in my earlier post, it presumes that English itself can be the bearer of the values implied by the phrase "Anglo-Protestant creed" -- a kind of irredentist Herderianism that linguists, at least, will recognize as a persistent fallacy in thinking about the relation between language and national identity. Somehow, that is, a people doing their daily business in English  will naturally come to identify with the majoritarian  cultural values  it stands in for.  Tell that to the Irish.

In fact, English is too useful and important to imagine that any immigrant group would be willing to turn its back on it in order to maintain a marginal, ghettoized existence. Whether the acquisition of English will continue to bring with it a sense of belonging to a national culture depends entirely on the economic and social opportunities that assimilation offers to immigrants, and on our ability to refashion the idea of American citizenship to meet new challenges. To date, the prospects are every bit as promising as they were a generation ago -- and a lot more so than they were in Emma Buck's day. Paul Starr put this point beautifully in the closing paragraphs of his  review of Huntington's book in the New Republic (unfortunately available only to subscribers):

There is a legitimate case to be made.. for a deepened sense of common citizenship in America. If we want Americans to vote and to participate in civic life, citizenship has to matter for them. Huntington is entirely right when he observes that "those who deny meaning to American citizenship also deny meaning to the cultural and political community that has been America." But he is wrong, repugnantly wrong, about how to strengthen that community, and wrong also to suggest that those who disagree with him about the means of doing so are betraying the country.

In the book's foreword, Huntington remarks that Who Are We? has been shaped by his identities as a scholar and a patriot. But he has put distorted scholarship at the service of a misconceived patriotism. The idea of building American identity around an Anglo-Protestant revival would be entirely self-defeating. Far from unifying Americans, Huntington's vision of America as a re-energized Christian society would be deeply divisive. Samuel Huntington's nightmare of an American crackup could come true, but only if more people think as he does.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at June 24, 2004 03:05 AM