Thursday, June 12, 2008

Mayor opposes sloppy language in charter amendment about language


Familiar, fear-favoring English Forced is back

English Forced is the idea that it is a good idea to prevent foreign languages from being used by government officials, supposedly because it forces internationals to learn English. In reality, there are a variety of reasons folks support English Forced, some of them (but not all of them) being foolish or sinister, or both. Among the factions in favor of it: those who think that hearing foreign languages is "forcing" those languages on them (see here), those who have a generally negative attitude toward people who are different in any way (see here), those who make the mistaken assumption that speaking in another language is an indication of legal status (see here), and those who even scare 287(g)-wielding Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall "to death" (his words).

The movement is now aiming for a Nashville comeback after its 2007 defeat. The Nashville City Paper editorialized here against the whole idea, even offering tips to the opposition. Kay Brooks criticized Nashville Mayor Karl Dean for saying that he is troubled by certain language in the proposed amendment to the Metro Charter (see here) (hat tip: Kleinheider). The Enclave's Mike Byrd takes the City Paper to task for its article about the English Forced campaign that left unchallenged the spokesman's arguments that (1) English Forced helps immigrants learn English, and (2) being married to a Japanese woman insulates him from charges of "being either prejudiced toward Hispanics or from whipping up the uglier fringes of the racist right to go to the polls in November." (Hat tip: Kleinheider again).

I chimed in later, responding to Kay Brooks in the comments section below her post:
The tone of your post implies that we are in a new American era of "handing out rights," but the USA has a long tradition of balancing competing rights and goals. Some rights and goals are simply greater than English-related or immigration-related goals. If Nashville's mayor can tell in advance that an argument that "English trumps everything" is a loser, I'd say it's not such a bad thing that we have a lawyer as a mayor.

Just ask yourself, what "right" is the charter amendment trying to take away? If the focus of the amendment's ire is that Metro communicates in other languages at times, how does that create a "right"? Such a practice may reflect - but not create - long-standing Constitutional rights related to access to justice, for example, in which case Mayor Dean is correct to see in advance that we'd lose a fight to take away such rights. Or, a Metro department might use other languages simply to enhance its ability to fulfill its mission - seeing better results when using certain foreign languages in communications. Again, that choice by Metro does not create any rights on the part of the user; if anything, it is a convenience to the government and a courtesy to the recipient. So the "rights" language is either Constitutionally unopposable in certain circumstances, or it is a straw man, and in either case Mayor Dean is wise to be troubled by the proximity of such sloppy drafting to our city's charter.

If you see this issue through the eyes of Metro departments, at stake is their power to individually determine whether additional languages will better allow them to implement their missions. Micromanaging those departments by putting an English mandate over the entire city will handicap Metro (and thus all of us, if Metro's goals are our goals) and not just our city's international residents. In an English Forced world, this predetermination of priorities would win the day without any weighing of the costs and benefits in each situation. (And if the charter amendment doesn't make this change, what real practical effect is it supposed to have?) As I've said before, Metro currently implements a variety of multi-lingual communication strategies on topics including legal rights, a child's first day of school, domestic violence, recycling, rape victim resources, financial counseling, Homework Hotline, recidivism-reducing DUI education, pet ownership tips, access to health care, and tornado siren instructions - and none of the agencies responsible for those communications have been quoted in any of the articles on the English Forced movement.

By the way, when you comment about citizenship and English proficiency, why the exclusive focus on citizens? There are more people here than just citizens. Foreign spouses can move here years before they are eligible for citizenship.

Finally, you imply that multiple languages in this country is also a new thing that could cost us dearly ("wait until he sees the bill for this new right.") Germantown in Nashville had German-language church services, schools, and newspapers for decades. At the Centennial Exposition for which Nashville's Centennial Park was created, Nashville's German newspapers were rightly lauded as one of the best methods of integrating new German immigrants, because through communications in their mother tongue they could learn about current events even while they were still uncomfortable in English. It wasn't until WWI, cowered by fear of their fellow Americans' anti-German fervor, when the German-Americans scrubbed the German language out of Germantown.

If Dean prefers to maintain our city's welcoming tradition instead of yielding to a movement tinged with fear (or worse), maybe our mayor with the law degree studied a little history, too.


  1. Yesterday I received a robo-call from the pro-English folks. I found it highly offensive and full of fearm-mongering buzzwords, like "taxpayers being forced to pay" for city materials produced in everything from "Spanish to Arabic." The hidden message of that is pretty clear: we're making life easy for terrorists and illegal aliens!

    Let's call this bill what it is: racism.

  2. These started as a joke but are now selling like crazy. Crafton must be stopped. Gets yours here:


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