Column: Gingrich's language barrier
SAN DIEGO -- This Christmas, someone should give Newt Gingrich the one gift he really needs: a filter.
I have praised Gingrich on issues ranging from immigration to Social Security. But I wonder, how could someone so intelligent have such a knack for saying things that are so inappropriate? Whatever they call the political equivalent of social skills, Gingrich missed his serving.
Just days after scoring a touchdown by proposing that illegal immigrants be given a "path to legality" if they're working in the United States, the former House speaker fumbled in handling another hot-button issue: language.
Addressing a group of conservative voters in South Carolina, Gingrich declared that there is an urgent need to establish English as the "official language of government."
And yet, there is no urgency. English isn't going out of style. In fact, it has the remarkable ability to override immigrants' native languages over time. Pick your study and you'll see: Regardless of where immigrants come from, their children are predominantly English speakers and their grandchildren tend to speak only English. What we do need urgently is for politicians to stop being so cynical that they would use the language wars to score political points with one group at the expense of another.
This is the Gingrich game plan. His line about "official English" got an enthusiastic round of applause from conservatives. He was trying to assuage concerns on the right over his humane approach to immigrant workers.
The language line might well have done the trick. At least it succeeded in changing the subject.
There's a cadre of Americans out there who are forever looking over their shoulders because they're terrified that foreign languages (read: Spanish) are drowning out English. This was the crowd that Gingrich was pandering to by declaring that all government forms, documents, communication, ballots and other materials should be printed only in English. These people are not really concerned about language; mostly, they're worried about where they fit in a cultural landscape that is rapidly changing. And rather than learn Spanish, they'd just as soon ban it.
It's offensive. Not just the concept itself, but that someone would dare suggest it in this day and age. As a former assistant professor of history, Gingrich should have at least a rudimentary understanding of how divisive language can be in our society -- and has been since the 18th century when Benjamin Franklin used English as a club with which to pummel newly arrived German immigrants.
Official English laws almost always degenerate into a loyalty oath, as if one group of Americans is demanding of another: "Pledge your allegiance to the United States! Speak English!"
In our modern era, language has most often been used as a weapon against Latinos. This includes both immigrants and native-born U.S. citizens who have, besides speaking English, chosen to maintain their Spanish. Some of those immigrants have been naturalized, and they vote. And along with native-born Latinos, they're not likely to be enthusiastic about a candidate who threatens to make English the country's "official language." Those who have served in the military would probably feel as if they don't have to prove their allegiance to anyone. Others will see it as an attempt to marginalize foreigners, or those who sound like foreigners, and put them in their place.
This is a community that understands you have to read the fine print. The problem isn't with declaring English the official language of the United States. The problem comes when it's time to enforce that edict by punishing those who don't fall in line. Mexican-American senior citizens have clear memories of going to elementary school in the Southwest where, in the 1940s and '50s, students were paddled for speaking Spanish.
Now we have to ask: If there were an official English law, would a government worker who speaks Spanish on the job, in an official capacity, be reprimanded, suspended or fired? Moreover, would this punishment be meted out even though -- as the federal courts have ruled in striking down as unconstitutional state versions of official English laws -- those government workers have a First Amendment right to speak whatever language they darn well please as long as it doesn't interfere with their job?
Is this the America Newt Gingrich has in mind? If so, for all his expansive knowledge on a variety of subjects, he doesn't know the first thing about the country he wants to lead.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.