Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Disturbing dream about America

I just woke up from the following dream:

I was looking at a map of the United States, and it seems that a few years ago, a chunk of middle American states (mostly the ones stacked north of Texas extending all the way up to Canada) have been defined as areas which should belong to Native Americans. In fact, a big chunk of central Oklahoma and all of Kansas and Nebraska, as well as chunks of Missouri, Iowa, and maybe a little bit of Colorado have been defined as "B. B. B." I'm not sure what that stands for, but they are now an autonomous region administered by Native Americans.

So I was sitting in the window of the kitchen of my mom's old apartment on East 61st Street (only it was on the first floor in this dream, not the 4th floor, as in real life), and there happened to be a very large map of the US on the wall of the building across the street. There was a fight going on in the street over the situation represented by this map. It seemed to just be fistfights and grappling, and no one was getting bloody, so I stayed out of it. But then I saw that one guy, who had his arms held by three others, was just stabbed in the chest with a knife. I actually saw the knife being pulled out of his chest. That's when I reached in my pocket for my phone to call 911. But a police car pulled up right at that moment.

The people fighting started to scatter. I opened the windows so I could tell the cops which way they went, but one guy started advancing to the window, and I closed it, not knowing if he was a plainclothes cop or not.

Eventually I figured out he was, as a cop in a suit came to my window, which I opened. I told them I saw one of the guys who was fighting run around the corner, and that I witnessed a stabbing. The cop in the suit pulled out some papers saying they needed authorization to check my apartment for fingerprints (that fingerprint bit may have been inspired by something I saw in "Rules of Engagement" tonight). Then another guy reached right through the open window to grab something out of the kitchen. I smacked it out of his hand, and it turned out it was Woody Allen.

There was a little bit of discussion about checking the apartment, as I was sure no one came in from the street, and I wasn't comfortable with cops tromping through the place.

The theme of this dream, the fighting over the situation in America where a big chunk of it is given back to the Native Americans, was probably inspired by a debate I have been having on Facebook. It seems there is a guy who got an advertising circular from a used car dealer that included the words "Se Habla Espaniol! Trabajamos Con Tax ID!" He posted a picture on his FB page of the circular with that phrase circled in red and a yellow sticky that read "Bob- We live in America! We speak ENGLISH! 'NO BUENO!' You have permanent (sic) lost my future business."

This picture was followed by a bunch of supportive remarks, leading to accusation of a "Socialist Agenda" by the Obama administration, etc, etc, etc., and saying that this car dealer was not "pro American."

I found this quite disturbing. What's the big deal? So the car dealer speaks Spanish. In my America, we have the right to speak whatever language we want, and it is simply good business to be able to speak the language of potential customers.

Apparently there are bunches of people (some who call themselves a "silent majority") who really don't want people to use languages other than English here. Spanish seems to be the biggest target around here. Some of them are spouting a psuedo-Aristotlian quotation, "Tolerance is the last virtue of a decaying society" (which sometimes appears as "Tolerance and apathy are the last virtues of a decaying society" and sometimes it's "...decadent society"). Most of them are hollering "You're in America, SPEAK ENGLISH!"

They are actually taking offense at advertising and public signage that is not in English. They say that anything that makes it easier for someone who doesn't know English to get around and get along is hurting this country. They are calling for boycotts of businesses that speak Spanish (and presumably other languages). Some of them even admit, proudly, to defacement of advertisements in Spanish.

Another common theme among them is the stories of immigrants who came to America because they wanted to be Americans and learned English right away and assimilated. Assimilation with American society is a big thing among these folks. They claim that all these "push #2 to hear this message in Spanish" stuff is coddling lazy people who don't want to be Americans.

They claim that because the Founding Fathers spoke English, and the Constitution and Declaration of Independence were written in English, that no other language should be used in this country. They point out that a common language help commerce and gives a sense of unity.

Now I grew up in New York City, a multi-ethnic town with lots of neighborhoods loaded with non-English signage. I never saw it as any sort of threat to American society or as something not "pro-American." Heck, thanks to the signage, I know that "no se apoye contra la puerta" means "do not lean against the door." I had bi-lingual friends, and went to school right near Spanish Harlem. Half my high school was Asian. There was always a Spanish TV station or three on the dial. So to hear objections to businesses that speak Spanish and non-English signage and advertisements is to hear objections to the world in which I grew up. It sounds like they are objecting to my friends.

It is not a very far jump from boycotting businesses and defacing billboards to throwing rocks through windows and attacking store owners. Should restaurateurs refuse to serve people who speak Spanish while they are eating? Should Telemundo, Telefutura, and Univision be shut off the air? Should foreign-language newspapers be banned? Should we have education camps for non-English speakers?

This sounds like fascism. Yes, I am saying that, Fascism. Does Krystalnacht ring a bell? To get rid of all non-English advertising and signage would take an effort much like that. There are too many people in this country, citizens, immigrants, residents, visitors, and tourists, who enjoy speaking their native tongue or the language of their parents and grandparents to make the enforcement of English possible through boycotts and nasty letters alone.

If anyone wants to get ahead in this country, they are going to have to know English. But if they want to increase their customer base, it won't hurt to learn any other languages that happen to be in use in their neighborhood, or for that matter, the languages of any tourists or foreign visitors (such as students) that may come through their neighborhood. Market forces will lead to a common language being used. That is the history of language. Sure, we could force English Immersion on them, but the vehemence with which this message of "English first" is being spewed does not convince me that it would be done in a helpful and supportive way.

Furthermore, language is the preserver of a culture. Different languages, and different cultures, have different ways of seeing things, different values, different tastes, different aesthetics. Having a variety of cultures gives us a variety of ways of looking at the world and a variety of choices in dealing with the world. Just as you would want to eat different foods at different times of the day, it is beneficial to have the availability of different outlooks on the world. You may find one day that what you have learned is not helping you with your current situation. If there is someone else who has a different outlook with you, they might be able to provide a solution.

I find that permission and support of variety and diversity is a strong unifying influence. It is the promotion and effectiveness of that ideal that has carried these United States through a Civil War and a couple of World Wars (despite the hypocrisy of the sentiment at the time, what with things like Jim Crow laws, Japanese-American internment camps, Indian reservations, etc). There are few things that will anger a person like saying they cannot do something that they enjoy doing. One's right to say something, in any language they choose, seems far more worth fighting for than forcing people to speak only one language.

That psuedo-Aristotlean statement above does not hold true when you notice that ancient Rome, a society that was very tolerant and diverse, lasted for a thousand years, while the 3rd Reich, a society defined by its intolerant unity, barely lasted a decade.

So it's quite possible that this debate inspired my dream of fatal stabbing in a fight under a map of the US in which several mid-American states were given back to the Native Americans. I have no idea why Woody Allen was in there.

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