Is it Still the Pledge in Arabic?

March 24, 2015

You’ve heard that high school administrators in the Hudson Valley apologized for having the Pledge of Allegiance recited in Arabic for one morning during National Foreign Language Week.

Americans are funny about language. The Founders of this country took pride in knowing foreign languages and visiting other countries. From the beginning until the twentieth century we had robust foreign language speaking communities in the U.S. The Army, until World War I, had regiments recruited by area, language, ethnic group, and race. As a whole, the Army was a tower of Babel and as late as the Civil War and Spanish-American War, people of all backgrounds, speaking many of the world’s languages, served in units with their own languages. Only in the twentieth century did the military break that segregation down, putting people into units without regard to their geographic, linguistic or racial background, expecting soldiers to learn the English they needed to know.[1]

Then there was the movement to prevent children from growing up with any knowledge of German. A pair of very famous U.S. Supreme Court decisions defended the rights of parents to have their children learn German. [2] Thank heavens that President Roosevelt knew German and read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the unexpurgated German, knew how vicious Hitler was and did everything he could to prepare America to defend against him.

And of course schools didn’t teach Russian after the War. God forbid you could read what they were doing. And more recently Persian. Somehow, while we proclaim the superiority of our way of life and its attractiveness for decent people everywhere, we are afraid that if Americans become familiar with the language of dictators, it is us that need to be afraid, not the dictators. Yet to protect national security we might need to encourage familiarity with foreign languages, even languages of those with whom we have a beef.

In the case of Arabic, it is a language spoken by many more of the victims of the jahadis than the jahadis themselves. Arabic speakers come here for the same reasons that refugees come here from all parts of the globe – for safety, for a chance to survive, and because they know that some Americans are warm and welcoming.

Their knowledge and their skills are valuable here, both their technical skills and their cultural and linguistic knowledge. Like all peoples, including other Americans, most are decent, kind, and industrious and a much smaller proportion aren’t. That’s humanity.

So it’s not such a bad idea that we learn that the Pledge can be and has been recited in all languages, that people can signify their devotion to American ideals of freedom, equality, inclusiveness and welcome, in all languages. For a country that claims to be founded on principles of freedom and equality, we are amazingly unwilling to deal with people who say things a little bit differently than we ourselves. Our culture is surprisingly conformist. Ultimately that demand for if conformity, and the fear it reflects, threatens our future much more than Arabic.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 24, 2015.

[1] John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in American From the Colonial Era to the Present 297-311 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986): Bruce White, The American Military and the Melting Pot in World War I, in id. 317-28.

[2] Meyer v. Neb., 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Bartels v. Iowa, 262 U.S. 404 (1923).


Back from a trip – English and guns

July 24, 2012

I just got back from a trip abroad. We were treated everywhere with the greatest respect while visiting our former exchange student and her family in Serbia and Montenegro, and then in Spain for a meeting, People were happy to help us. We had no Serbian (though I learned how to say “thank you”) and little Spanish (though I studied in high school it’s virtually gone), but they were happy to use whatever English they had. When we couldn’t communicate it was still all smiles. Somehow, only in this country do people believe that English is under fire and all traces of foreign languages should be eliminated, despite the foreign policy disaster if some Americans weren’t conversant with other national languages. Of course there is one place where English really is under fire and has been for decades – Quebec. But I’ve never heard any suggestion that we ban the Quebecois.

That’s what I intended to talk about. But the news here on my return has been overwhelming. Another senseless mass killing of people the murderer didn’t know, had no grudge against, one a six year old child. Read the rest of this entry »


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