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Mark Olmsted: Se Habla Fear: Monolingualism and Its Discontents

3 September 2010 Huffington Post No Comment Email This Post Email This Post

I find it highly amusing to keep hearing the leaders of Tea Party America hold up Western European Social Democracy as the type of society we must avoid becoming at all costs. What is it, exactly, they find so horrific? The universal health care? The excellent public transportation? Four weeks of vacation a year? True, Europeans don’t go to church as much as they do in Texas, but denouncing them as Godless probably has more to with the fact that they worship soccer. Who but atheists could love such a non-violent sport?

It’s doubtful most evangelicals even think Catholics are true Christians, much less could tell you where the Vatican is. In fact, I would bet everything I own that upwards of 80% of the types selling “Yup, I’m a racist” t-shirts at Liberty rallies have never even been to Europe, much less lived there. Xenophobes aren’t afraid of Xenon — they’re afraid of everything foreign, i.e. unfamiliar. And that starts with language.

My mother is French, I learned it quite well over several summers and three semesters there. I took every course I could fit in to pick up Spanish and Italian, with some grounding in Latin and two semesters of German for variety. I edit film subtitles for a living. I’d feel very comfortable in Switzerland, but I certainly wouldn’t be an oddity there. Here, not so much.

Among other things, my lucky linguistic legacy has left me thoroughly unintimidated at the idea of learning a foreign language, and has sensitized me to what a rare sentiment that is. Virtually everybody has taken at least a stab at a foreign language in high school, and the inability to remember any more than a phrase or two, if that, leaves a lot of people feeling stupid. It’s not too different from math — if there was a country called Arithmetica there’d probably be a lot of resentment against that too.

This feeling of inadequacy in those who have always lived within borders and never across them has fed immeasurably into the current wave of nationalism, xenophobia, and rabid anti-intellectualism. It foments such phenomena as sneering at President Obama’s Ivy League smarts and imagining Hawaii is a foreign country. This attitude goes hand in hand with the elevation of all pursuits that don’t require much exertion of the gray matter, i.e., guns, football, church, shopping and watching TV. The ultimate manifestation of this thinking-phobia is a dumbing down of textbooks and a slavishly literal interpretation of the Bible. Anything to increase the possibility that “just folks” will feel accomplished instead of ignorant.

This would be fairly harmless provincialism but for some very toxic effects. When Birther Bob goes to Target and hears Consuela arguing with Raul, he feels excluded. He even wonders if they’re talking about him instead of the price of toilet paper. Likewise, when Baptist Betty has zero understanding that Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world, much less any capacity to find it on the map, then it becomes woefully easy for her to imagine that “30% of all Muslims are terrorists” — as a Tennessee mosque opponent insisted to Aasif Mandvi on The Daily Show.

Beck’s “I am a Nightmare” rally might as well have been called the “Million Fear March.” And yet it is we who watched who had reason to be most afraid. They don’t want their country “back.” They want it backwards.

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