Tag Archives: freedom of speech

¿Habla American?: Why English as an Official Language is Blatantly Un-American

by Matt McKinnon

We the People...

Nosotros, el Pueblo…

I’m no fan of corporations.  In fact, I am often critical of them and the too-big-to-fail capitalism that has come to dominate global economics. But I am willing to congratulate them on the off-chance that they do something good or get something right.

Like the Cheerios commercials featuring a multi-ethnic girl with her family that prompted racist hate-speech from trolls everywhere. Or the recent revelation that multinational corporations are taking climate change seriously, since it poses a real economic threat to them.

Or when Coca-Cola broadcast this advertisement during the Super Bowl:

(Coke doubled-down amidst much criticism to play it again for the Winter Olympics.)

Now, I’m no dummy, and I’m certainly not naïve. I realize that the folks at Coca-Cola are first and foremost interested in their bottom line, and that means selling more Coke. And as we are all aware by now, the United States is undergoing a considerable demographic shift, so much so that white people will no longer be the majority by 2043. And more to the point: white kids will no longer make up a majority of youth in five or six years. Yes, five or six years! Which is why companies like Coca-Cola are so interested in multicultural approaches to advertising.

So yes, I know all this, and yet still find it laudable (1) that Coca-Cola produced the commercial, and (2) that they stood by it despite heavy criticism.

But enough about Coke. My real interest is the criticism that was generated by having non-white U.S. citizens sing a patriotic song in a language other than English. And the next logical step that many critics make: viz., that English should be the official language of the United States.

This impulse is nothing new. Nor is the fear and prejudice behind it.

Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin Franklin.

Our brilliant and esteemed Founding Father Benjamin Franklin railed against the unwanted influence of what he called “swarthy German” immigrants with surprisingly racist overtones:

“Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. “

(Indeed: Who knew that only the English were truly white?)

Of course, Franklin was wrong then, as those who criticize the Coke ad and call for English as our official language are wrong now. They are wrong for a practical reason based in historical fact: the new German immigrants did not “Germanize” the English, despite the fact that more Americans now claim German ancestry than any other ethnic or national group. No, they learned English because it was practical to do so, though some retained the use of their native tongue well into the 20th century.

Likewise, studies show that recent immigrants are assimilating in similar fashion, just as immigrants have been doing since, well, the original English came over and ironically did not assimilate into existing native cultures.

And this means that they are learning English.

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

Loosing my Espanish, by H.G. Carrillo (2004).

A Pew study found that 91% of second-generation children from Hispanic families speak English “very well or pretty well” and that the number rises to 97% of third-generation children. Indeed, other studies show that not only are second and third generations learning English, they are more likely than not to learn only English—and not the language of their parents’ or grandparents’ homeland.

But there is another—deeper and more essential—reason why English is not and should not be the official language of our land. And while this argument could be made from the liberal and progressive “love-for-all-things-multicultural” perspective worthy of this “liberal studies” blog, the stronger argument is actually one more conservative in nature, rooted as it is in the very fabric of our democracy, in what it means to be American.

The argument is simple: making English, or any language, the Official Language of the United States is blatantly Un-American at its core.

In fact, the late conservative writer Joseph Sobran made a similar argument some thirty years or so ago, to the chagrin of some whose conservative principles only went as deep as their nationalism. (This was the same Joe Sobran whom Pat Buchanan called “perhaps the finest columnist of our generation” and Ann Coulter named “the world’s greatest writer” and the “G.K. Chesterton of our time.”)

Joseph Sobran.

Joseph Sobran.

The point is twofold: First, from a conservative perspective, government should be limited and should only be about the business of governing—not social engineering. Mandating that Americans learn and use English is as absurd from a conservative viewpoint as mandating that they learn and use French, or that they eat their vegetables and lay off the Supersized fries and soda. This, argues conservatism, is simply not the purview of government, and it doesn’t matter whether learning English or eating broccoli are good ideas or not (as I think they both are). What matters is that this is not the government’s responsibility to decide or dictate.

And second, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” should, as much as is possible, reflect the majority of the people, while safeguarding the rights of the minority. But such a reflection, like the people it reflects, is in a constant state of change.

So in this case, what could be more basic than the right to express oneself in the language of one’s choice? And what could be more democratic than a government committed to accommodating that language—those languages—and to understanding and communicating with its own citizens?

For what right is more basic than the choice of language? Freedom of speech? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? All of these are secondary, at least temporally, to the choice of language whereby one speaks, or publishes, or prays aloud to their God.

Indeed, the only act synchronous to that of speaking is the forming of one’s very thoughts. And yet, even here, do we really decide what language we use to form our thoughts? Or does our language shape our thoughts and even ourselves?

If so, what would it mean that for some U.S. citizens, their very thoughts are formed in an unofficial language?

Government should not be in the business of constraining either the free thought or the free expression of its citizens.

"We speak English."

“We speak English.”

Furthermore, the fact of English as our common language is an accident of history. Not only are we the largest English-speaking nation in the world, we are also the second largest Spanish-speaking nation (second only to Mexico). And what is more democratic than a common language that actually resonates with the voice of the people? If Spanish, or French, or Chinese should one day become the preferred language of a majority of U.S. citizens, how undemocratic would it be that their free and common expression would be constrained by the short-sightedness of having made English the Official Language?

To extrapolate from James Madison’s argument against the state establishment of Christianity in his Memorial and Remonstrance: any government that can today make English the official language can tomorrow replace it with Spanish or Arabic.

***

This is what it means to be American: to have the right to choose whatever language one wishes to express oneself, be it for business, or entertainment, or religion, or school—ever mindful of the need to balance this with the necessity of being understood.

As Americans, we lack an ethnic identity. And we lack an established religion. And we lack an official language.

But we are united as a people precisely because we lack these. Since our ethnic identities and religions and languages are plural. As are we.

But in this plurality there is strength.

And from this plurality there is unity.

Or, as our Founding Fathers put it,

Dean Bryant Johnson, "E Pluribus Unum" (2012), detail.

Dean Bryant Johnson, “E Pluribus Unum” (2012), detail.

E pluribus unum.

(And that ain’t English.)

How Free Should Freedom of Speech Be?

by Matt McKinnon

Only now, weeks after the blatantly anti-Islamic film “Innocence of Muslims” posted on YouTube, making headlines and spawning violent reactions from Muslims across the globe, have tensions begun to ease a bit.  Oh, to be sure, mainstream media and American attention has moved on, only to return when the next powder keg blows, while much of the rest of the world is left to grapple with serious questions of rights and responsibilities in this new age of technology.

Riots in Libya in response to “Innocence of Muslims”

These recent riots across the Muslim world bring into high relief serious questions about the freedom of speech, for us as citizens of the United States, as well as participants in a global society made smaller and smaller with the advance of technology.

The problem, at first glance, seems like the usual violent overreaction by Muslim extremists whose narrow view of religion and politics seeks only to protect their view at the expense of the rights of others who may disagree.

Salman Rushdie

We are quickly reminded of the fatwa pronounced on Salman Rushdie  for the horrific action of writing a novel (itself a work of fiction), as well as the assassination of Dutch director Theo van Gogh for his work “Submission” about the treatment of women in Islam.

But a deeper look into this issue, instead of bringing clarity and self-assured anti-jihadist jihad, reveals a real problem that is not so black and white, not so clearly one of the fundamental right of freedom of speech versus ignorant fundamentalism, but rather one that is complicated, with subtleties and nuances not conducive to entertainment-news sound bites and the glib remarks of politicians.

The question becomes, not so much what freedoms we as U.S. citizens have with respect to our Constitution and domestic laws, but rather what extent should we, as participants in a larger global society, respect the various notions of freedom of speech at work in other countries and cultures different from our own.

Theo van Gogh

For, when we look closer at the latest incident itself, instead of finding the literary musings of a great novelist or the social critique of a world-class film director, we find a joke of a movie—though not really a movie at all: more like a few scenes of such low quality and disconnect that one doubts the existence of a larger work.  Some have called it “repugnant,” but what makes it so is not its content, which can scarcely be taken seriously, but rather the intention behind it.

The title itself (Innocence of Muslims) makes little sense—if predicated of the film’s contents.  However, if the title was a display of ironic/sarcastic foresight, then it fits all too well.  It would be hard to find anyone in the Western world who would take it seriously.  There is no plot, no character development, in fact, no real characters—only thinly disguised stereotypes meant to offend.

And that—the intention to offend—seems to be the only real purpose of the work itself.

Now it must be said that intention to offend is not, in and of itself, always a bad thing.  And the intention to offend religion especially is not either.  (I find myself doing both as often as possible.)  The problem arises when the intention to offend is also an intention to provoke, not discussion and debate, a la Rushdie and van Gogh, but violence and riot.

A few details are warranted:

As it turns out, the video was posted on YouTube in early July, 2012 as “The Real Life of Muhammad” and “Muhammad Movie Trailer,” but received little or no attention.  It was then dubbed into Arabic, re-titled with the aforementioned ironic/sarcastic name, and broadcast on Egyptian television on September 9th—two days before the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

(Except that it’s still going on, and will continue to escalate in the future.)

Holocaust survivors in Skokie, IL

So why is this case NOT the same as that of Rushdie and van Gogh, overlooking of course the artistic and social merit of these two?  Well, it strikes me that this incident is less like writing a book or making a movie criticizing specific points of any (and all) religions and more like yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre or assembling Nazis to march through Jewish neighborhoods in Skokie, Il in1977.

The first are clearly examples of protected free speech, the second is not, and the third is still hotly debated 35 years the case went to court.

Here is where American jurisprudence only helps so far.  For U.S. laws are clear that free speech can be limited if the immediate result is incitement to riot.  (This is what the city of Skokie argued—and lost—in their case against the Nazis: that their uniformed presence in a neighborhood with a significant number of Holocaust survivors would incite riot.)

Members of Westboro Baptist Church

To complicate matters, the freedom of speech laws are even more restrictive in other countries—and not just those “narrow-minded,” theocratic Muslim ones either.  In fact, Canada as well as much of Europe has free-speech laws that significantly restrict its exercise.   For example, the infamous members of Westboro Baptist Church, who recently won a Supreme Court case supporting their right to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers, are not allowed to protest north of the border in Canada, as that country’s hate speech laws forbid such activity.  (Many in the U.S. disagreed with SCOTUS’s ruling and were in favor of restricting free speech in this case.)

And in most European countries, publicly denying the Holocaust is a crime.  As is racist hate speech (just ask Chelsea footballer John Terry).

The production and “marketing” of “Innocence of Muslims” might or might not meet the criteria of hate-speech, but that is neither my concern nor my point.

The fact that the video was produced with the intention to inflame Muslims, and that when it initially failed to do so it was dubbed into Arabic and specifically presented to Egyptian television to be broadcast to millions, makes it hard to deny that its real intention was to promote and incite riot.

The missing pieces here are the internet and technology—and the laws that have failed to keep up with them.  For with social media, YouTube, smart phones, iPads, Skype, etc…, placing an inflammatory video in the right hands with the capability to reach millions almost instantaneously just may be the 21st century version of standing on a street corner inciting folks to riot.

In fact, it may be worse.

Not recognizing this, I fear, will have even more dire consequences in the future.

__________

Editor’s note: The usual practice in the BLS Program is to provide direct links to primary sources when possible. However, in the case of the video discussed in this entry, we decided it would be imprudent to link to it directly. If you want to view the video for yourself, a search of the title will lead you to the original posting, various repostings, and sundry articles and editorials about the video and its aftermath.