Sanity Injection

Injecting a dose of sanity into your day’s news and current events.

What is the connection between Belgian socialism and English as the official language of the US?

Posted by sanityinjection on July 23, 2008

Even many of those who follow international politics may be unaware that the small European nation of Belgium is facing a severe constitutional crisis. There has been serious talk of the country splitting in two, although this seems unlikely for the present. The root of the problem is the antagonism and distrust between Belgium’s French-speaking and Dutch-speaking communities.

Before I get to how this is at all relevant to Americans, let me go back a bit. Belgium became an independent nation in 1830 when it broke away from what is now called the Netherlands. The main difference was a religious one – Belgians are mostly Catholics while the Dutch are mostly Protestant. The other difference was that the Belgian clergy and upper classes spoke French rather than Dutch. Thus, in the new Belgium French was the official language. The Dutch-speaking or “Flemish” population did not like this much, and over the next century gradually gained enough political power to make Belgium a bilingual country.

After World War II the math changed. The steel industry of the French-speaking south (“Wallonia”) declined, while the service-oriented economy of the Flemish north grew. Economic power shifted north even while the majority of the population, and the political power remained in the poorer Wallonia. Decades of welfare state socialism meant that the wealth produced by the Flemish was taxed by the government and redistributed through government programs to the French-speaking Walloons.

Matters came to a head beginning in 1968 when the bilingual Catholic University of Louven was split into two separate universities, one French-speaking and one Dutch-speaking. This lead to increasing autonomy for the two regions of the country, which now mostly govern themselves. But many of the Flemish increasingly are tired of economically propping up the poorer Walloons, and the political power of those who would split the country into two is growing.

OK, now how does this all relate to the US? We are fortunate because with the exception of the South during the civil war, we’ve never had a large, dissatisfied minority group concentrated in one region of the country that could try to split away (though Utah’s Mormons came close at one point.) And even then, Southerners and Northerners shared a common language and heritage.

However, in the 21st century the demographics are changing. The Latino population of the southern and western states is growing by leaps and bounds. And more and more of the Latino immigrants in these states are not learning English. Now before I go any further, I have no problem with *legal* Latino immigration. Latinos work hard, serve in our military and contribute financially and culturally to America just as other ethnic groups have. Most Latinos view America as the land of opportunity and are happy to be here.

The problem, though, is that Latino communities are increasingly starting to demand that public business be conducted in Spanish, to accomodate the growing Spanish-speaking majorities. This would further discourage residents in these areas from learning English, and lead to a situation where one half of the country can barely even communicate with the other half. Combine that with the rise of Latino political power while economic power remains mostly in Anglo hands, with a left-wing Congress funding welfare programs for the Spanish-speaking states, and pretty soon we’ve got another Belgium right here in the US. Only it will be the Anglo north calling for separation.

Far fetched? Not over a period of decades, it’s not. It only took about 70 years for Belgium to go from bilingualism to separatism. The conclusions I draw are these: Immigrants who come to the US *must* learn English, and the public business of our country must always be conducted first and foremost in English. In the past, I have been opposed to declaring English the official language of the US because it effectively already is, and it seemed like an unnecessary provocation to do this. But I am starting to think it may well become necessary to prevent first cities, then states, from gradually supplanting English with Spanish and laying the foundations for a fundamental division of our country.

Let me be very clear: For me, this is not a racial issue. America is a better place because of its ethnic diversity. What we must avoid though, is creating a linguistic, economic, political, and cultural divide that breaks down along geographic lines.

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7 Responses to “What is the connection between Belgian socialism and English as the official language of the US?”

  1. tubby said

    I agree with your points, specifically that legal immigrants in communities with growing political power should be required to conduct their federally-recognized businesses in English. I think this is a separate issue that is necessary to avoid the growing cultural divide that you describe. However, I’m not sure the analogy holds firm when you consider the fact that the majority Spanish-speaking immigrants (legal or otherwise) are in menial jobs that most Americans wouldn’t consider. This workforce is a major component of our economic system, thus I’d argue that their implicit economic power gives them more “street cred” that the Anglo North should respect.

    Another random thought: If you think about, as an example, the conservative-minded Cuban immigrants who believe we should secure our borders from illegal entries, you realize that these are guys who counter your point. The more legal, tax-paying, patriotic immigrants we have in this country, the less likely we are to see cultural divides. Now, I don’t know enough about the demographics to know whether the number of these guys is going up or down (but I’d guess it’s going down…)

  2. sanityinjection said

    Your comments are thoughtful as usual. You know, I hear a lot about how immigrants are taking jobs that most Americans refuse to do. What evidence is there of this, really? Sure there are a lot of Latino janitors, for example, but I’ve met plenty of Anglo janitors too. Ditto for maids. Immigrants who don’t speak English will take whatever jobs they can get, but that’s not the same as saying that the rest of us turn up our noses at them.

  3. Dan said

    Good arguments.

    From a business perspective, I would add another point: it’s bureaucratic and expensive to support additional official languages. If the understanding is that the primary language is English, you will learn English if you want to participate.

    We should provide sufficient resources to educate someone who wants to learn English when they immigrate (such as better funded ESL classes, or even a solid year of English in public school before moving on to other subjects currently taught bilingually). The cost of a decent English education up front for our immigrants should be significantly less expensive, and more importantly in my mind significantly less bureaucratically, then compensating at all other levels of our governmental organization.

  4. sanityinjection said

    Update: This article on the success of Spanish-language television in America’s cities alludes to my concerns. I must acknowledge that sometimes I watch Spanish-language TV myself, especially during the World Cup. But for me, it doesn’t act as a barrier toward assimilation or learning English:

    http://wcbstv.com/topstories/Spanish.TV.News.2.786699.html

  5. sanityinjection said

    Dan – I agree that additional funding for ESL classes would be a wise investment.

  6. I believe that Belgian example is exactly what Hamilton warned against and that adherence to laws and assimilation of language are necessary to the ultimate success of the American republic, which depends upon “the preservation of a national spirit and a national character,” among native born and immigrant alike.

    “But I am starting to think it may well become necessary to prevent first cities, then states, from gradually supplanting English with Spanish and laying the foundations for a fundamental division of our country.”

    Consider the policies of “safe haven” cities, states and counties which actively refuse to cooperate with ICE as to the status of illegal immigrants, including those convicted of crimes. This to me aught to be considered akin to suthern succession or even southern defiance of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. It is active repudiation of the laws of the land set forth by the Federal government. For good or ill, those laws cannot be selectively acquiecesed to or ignored. I see the language issue as a back door “soft” repudiation of the unofficial, official language. I do not want to see a Quebec of the south-west made up of California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Colarado and Texas.

    For the benefit of other readers, I’m linking to an American historical perspective of the language issue <a href=http://politicalthirdrail.wordpress.com/about/the-english-language/here.

  7. whoops. here!

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