In a recent speech Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal announced “… we came to America to be Americans. Not Indian-Americans, simply Americans. … If we wanted to be Indians, we would have stayed in India” (The Hindu, January 16). He also argued that it’s entirely reasonable for nations to discriminate between would-be immigrants based on whether they want to “embrace their culture,” or “establish a separate culture within.”
The irony gets pretty thick if you remember — unlike Jindal — that English is the native language not of America, but of England. The dominant culture of America descends from people who came to this continent adamantly set on remaining, not English-Americans, but English. They didn’t assimilate into the Iroquois or Powhatan Confederacies or the Five Civilized Tribes, or adopt their languages. They exterminated or ethnically cleansed those cultures.
And the dominant status of English has been contested since the beginning. Aside from First Nations languages, New York had a Dutch-speaking population in the Hudson valley well into the 19th century. Likewise the Germans in western Pennsylvania and the French in northern Maine. Also bear in mind that expansion outside the US’s 1783 borders involved conquering peoples formerly under French, Spanish or Mexican rule and imposing English on them. Those big agribusiness plantations worked by “illegal immigrants” in California were previously haciendas seized by white magnates who colonized Mexican California, taking over the former patrons’ role of relying on peon labor.
The “melting pot” is just another example of the ethnic essentialism and state-constituted monolithic national identity that has spread throughout most of the world since Napoleonic times. The model of international law Europe adopted with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 assumed as a norm that every individual must be the subject of a single, unitary, sovereign nation-state.
Coupled with the rise of nationalism during the Napoleonic Wars, this norm was extended to include the requirement that every nation-state, ideally, have a single official ethnic identity. France became the official state of the ethnic French, Germany of ethnic Germans, etc. Everyone within the borders of a nation-state was to be assimilated into the dominant ethnicity and adopt its language. And that language, in the most extreme forms, was the official dialect (BBC Standard or American Network Standard English, Standard High German, Ile-de-France French, Standard Castilian, etc.).
In the 20th century, colonial Europe and America imposed the Westphalian nation-state as the official model for international law on a global level. In Africa this meant the European powers consolidated hundreds of minor principalities, confederacies and custom-based societies into 47 artificial multi-ethnic states. The Middle East is still living with the consequences of the artificial states the Allied victors carved the Ottoman Empire up into at Versailles.
The “English only” movement is especially clueless. In most places practical necessity is a far greater incentive to learn English than anything they can come up with. And people are generally pretty smart about learning whatever languages they need to to function in a society. Even when the kids of Hispanic immigrants — who speak fluent English — speak Spanish to each other, it’s a Spanglish that would make their grandmothers throw up their hands in horror. As for older first generation immigrants who have trouble learning English, they’re no different from the Polish and Italian-speaking grandparents many people fondly remember in Chicago, or the Norsk and German speakers Sinclair Lewis portrayed in Minnesota. And, psst — I hear there are some American occupation troops, and corporate personnel extracting other countries’ resources, who don’t learn the local languages either!
Jindal belongs to a party that’s big on telling government to get off our backs and mind its own business. I heartily agree. One of the first items on its agenda should be to stop trying to define our ethnic identities for us, or sticking its nose into which languages we choose to speak to each other.
Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory.