Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Gingrich and the Ghetto

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Over the weekend, as you may know by now, Newt Gingrich said this in a speech to the National Federation of Republican Women:

The American people believe English should be the official language of the government. We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.

Whatever the problems with this English-only view -- I do think that any political community, including one as vast as the U.S., needs a common language to facilitate communication, but it is completely ridiculous to suggest that learning other languages should be abolished (such linguistic isolationism is entirely counter-productive in a world that is growing ever smaller with the increasingly rapid and kinetic expansion of the forces of globalization, positive and negative alike) -- the particular problem with Gingrich's comment lies in his use of the word "ghetto". Just what did he mean by it?

Surely the language of the "ghetto" to which Gingrich was referring is Spanish, right? Canadians like myself may learn French alongside English, but the second language in the U.S. is, without question, Spanish.

Here Gingrich's evident bigotry turns comic. As Think Progress is reporting, on Monday Gingrich told Hannity and Colmes that he was not referring to Spanish at all. Rather:

Now, I’ll let you pick — frankly, ghetto, historically had referred as a Jewish reference originally. I did not mention Hispanics, and I certainly do not want anybody who speaks Spanish to think I’m in any way less than respectful of Spanish or any other language spoken by people who come to the United States.

Oh, I see. He said something that was quite clear, but now he's spinning himself silly. He may be running for president, after all. Can't alienate Hispanics, once, not so long ago, thought to be a key constituency for the GOP to target -- even the insular Bush speaks Spanish, although perhaps Newt thinks it was wrong of him to learn it?

Otherwise, though -- huh?

You can always count on Gingrich to hide behind revisionist history -- he's not a racist, he just writes books that celebrate the Confederacy; his presentation of the past has nothing whatsoever to do with the present -- but this is just weird. It may be that "ghetto" refers literally to a Jewish neighbourhood -- in 1516, Venice ordered that its resident Jews were required to live on the nearby island of Ghetto Nuovo, and from there the term spread -- but did Gingrich really mean that he was referring to Hebrew or Yiddish rather than Spanish?

Well, yes, that seems to what he said in his defence, but of course he was referring to Spanish. I suppose he could have used the term barrio, but that would have been too obvious. Besides, unless there's something I don't remember about my years in the U.S., I don't think either Hebrew or Yiddish is threatening the primacy of English in Gingrich's homeland. Perhaps he has in mind some final linguistic solution for America's Jews?

Regardless, what seems clear is that Gingrich thinks that any language other than English is the language of the metaphorically ghettoized Other, that is -- according to the retrograde view of linguistic identity propounded by the English-only movement -- un-American. The inhabitants of that "ghetto" may be Hispanic or Jewish or whatever, but, in Gingrich's narrow view, they are certainly not American -- not fully, not even close -- and they certainly won't share in America's "prosperity," whatever that even means.

Whatever else one can say about Gingrich, he certainly has the language of ignorance and bigotry down pat.

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