Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Americans are bound together by... part 2

Thanks for your comment, Dr. Bacchus. I've been thinking about this all day (while doing many other things, of course) and I noticed something.

Out of these four things that allegedly bind Americans together (shared ideals, appreciation of history, respect for the flag, and ability to speak English), only one can be objectively tested.

Shared ideals - pretty nebulous. As you pointed out, Dr. B., American people have many widely divergent ideals. And how do you determine what people's ideals actually are in practice? They make lists of them - most include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness - but the way they interpret them varies widely. Do a Google search for "American ideals" and you find some strange bedfellows.

Appreciation of history - you can't test for that either. You can test how much people know about their history (hint - not much), but whether or not they appreciate it is another question. (Of course, you could also argue that it's difficult to appreciate something you know next to nothing about.)

Respect for our flag - well, you can watch people to see if they say the pledge or burn flags. But people in every country respect their flag - that's not unique to the United States. And it's still a bit of a subjective way to judge people.

But language! Ah! There you have something you can look at objectively! Now we can tell whether someone is one of us! The only slight problem is that there's a wide continuum of speaking English. Are we to declare someone unAmerican if he or she makes grammatical errors? (No, I won't go further with that one - it's just too easy.) How about someone who's learning English? American enough? How about someone with a thick accent?

We've never had an official language before in the United States, and wave after wave of immigrants have learned English anyway and assimilated to our society. Why, all of a sudden, does it become imperative to have a law making English the official language?

I think people are bound together by kinship and friendship. I think people come to the United States because they value our economic wealth and because they like those "American ideals" insofar as they allow people to be, excuse the jargon, self-determined individuals. I think that making English an official language can only exclude these people, many of whom want to be part of America and what it stands for, and achieves no good end. I assume that one of the results would be to stop providing interpretation services and printing official documents in several languages. This would deny "American ideals" to many who need them most.

So am I wrong?


Bridget said...

You are so right, Ruth. I am angered by his statements, and completely disagree with the things he mentions as binding us together. In fact, most of those things mentioned are quite divisive. I can think of MANY people I would disagree with on issues of the flag, speaking English, etc.

I think that what his statement really boils down to is we're bound together by self-interest.

Andy Bowen said...

Yes, Ruth and missde, you're both right and I agree with you on several different levels.

However... I think you would both agree that there is a certain something (what on earth is it?) that makes the US *feel* different from other places. I don't want to qualify some aspects of this at the moment because I don't want you to dismiss me as a xenophobic ethnocentric moronic cretin. Suffice it to say, that where I live doesn't *feel* like the US, and that, I think, is what Bush in his bumbling both grandfatherly and dangerous way is trying to get at.

He's quite wrong that it's the flag, the English language, etc., but those may be symbols of what it actually is.

Imagine for a moment a hypothetical and entirely impossible situation. The US population suddenly doubles, and all of the new residents are people from Country X--pick one that you know. Now, does the US change? You bet! Does it change for the better? Well? Be honest. So what is it that makes it the US?

OK, you say, we're not talking about an influx of 150 million people--we're talking about 10 million. But, speaking here as the devil's barrister, at what point does the scale tip? When do so many people arrive that it's no longer the US of A?

And this is the question that makes people--some good and some decidedly not--many of whom have never had a friend who spoke another language, nervous.

You're right, missde: it's self-interest. But it's quite popular of late to denigrate the US and I think there's more to it than self-interest. It's what makes me, having been born outside of the US, and now having lived in a third country for more than 10 years, still quite enjoy going back to the US and feeling, at least to some extent, at home there.

Ask me tomorrow, and I'll tell you something different

Ruth said...

Hi Andy,

You know I'd never call you a --- what was it? --- "xenophobic ethnocentric moronic cretin." :-)

I think the "certain something" is those "American ideals." Though it isn't easy to explain all of them, they do exist.

With all the problems the US has, it is a society that works. The infrastructure works, the system of government works, there is civil --- do you call the opposite of civil unrest civil rest? It's calm and orderly most of the time.

People moaned and complained about the 2000 elections, but I saw a society that had a system, a procedure that was followed. Whether you agreed with the outcome or not, nobody burned tires, nobody got killed, the system just worked. And the guy that lost didn't stage a coup d'etat, he just went out of the public eye for a time and then started making a documentary about global warming.

Not that the US is the only society on earth that "works," so this isn't something that makes the US unique.

I guess I have to think about this some more.