Volume 12, Issue 20 ~ May 13-19, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Multiculturalism: The Latest Buzz

I don’t want to adjust to another language. This is the United States. I think they ought to adjust to us. The people who come here should become Americanized and speak the language.
— William Donald Schaefer at a meeting of the State Board of Public Works: May, 2004

That said, the you-know-what hit the fan. To hear the buzz and read the words, one would have thought that George W. Bush had announced that Saddam Hussein would be his running mate next fall. Reporters, talk show hosts, their callers, editorial writers, anchormen and columnists have had a field day.

Of course there are some who might say that even the butcher of Baghdad would be a better choice than incumbent veep Cheney, but let’s not get sidetracked. William Donald Schaefer not only spoke those words but he believes them. He’s not taking them back, and he offers no apologies.

Moreover, Gov. Bob Ehrlich has publicly backed him up, and so what do we now have? A controversy that won’t go away: a tempest in a teapot that has made a mountain out of a molehill. A few weeks back, more than a few of the citizenry, I dare say, could not have accurately defined multiculturalism, and now it is the latest buzzword.

The Making of a Mountain
The whole issue started when the former mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland and now state comptroller ran smack into a communications problem no longer unusual in either this state or nation. At a McDonalds in Annapolis, he wanted to order fast food. But it wasn’t fast. Seems he doesn’t know Spanish very well, and the young lady taking his order doesn’t know English very well. Simple as that.

So look what’s happened since then. Both Schaefer and Ehrlich, whose roots go back to Germany — and not too far back on their family trees — are now vilified by some as being anti-immigrant. More than a few somehow find a way to toss racial intolerance into the picture, which is not easy to fathom seeing that the current governor chose as his lieutenant a black while the former mayor-governor’s unprejudiced record in civil rights issues speaks for itself.

Matters of Perspective
Hey, we’ve got a state going broke, our military being killed in Iraq, big elections coming up, schools falling apart, our Chesapeake Bay deteriorating, growing numbers unable to afford health care, corporate greed impacting our economy, global warming threatening our society and so many other big events and ills. Yet everything from gossip and letters to the editor to radio talk show chatter and newspaper editorials remains focused on verbal communications between an elderly man and a young woman over, shall we say, breakfast. Who’d have thought?

Then again, in this day and age anything is possible. So perhaps it’s appropriate we try to fathom the uproar.

Alas, that’s not as simple as one might think. In these times, a person in the middle, whether by actions or words, is vilified by both those to the right and the left.

Changing Times
As readers of this column probably know by now, this writer has not since first filling this space more than a decade ago, hesitated to jump from the proverbial pot into the proverbial fire. So why not continue to live up to that reputation? Do the governor and the ex-governor have a point? Methinks, in some respects, they do.

First, allow me to make it plain that like all but Native Americans, my ancestry goes back to immigrants. And I must confess the decided majority were from English-speaking Great Britain, and also that the first arrived here before the French and Indian Wars. Yet, with the rare exception, I’ve not heard within the family any adverse criticism of immigrants and their reluctance to abandon the language of their homelands.

When I was a youngster, it was not uncommon to hear the elders within immigrant families speak in their native tongues among themselves; some of the elders never spoke much English at all. They really didn’t need to.

The women mostly stayed at home and most of their interactions were with their children and other relatives. The menfolk were, like most immigrants, laborers: no real communications skills necessary. Even so, most made the effort — and many successfully — to learn the language of their new country. There were few problems.

Changing Culture
But things have changed. As many lower level jobs have moved overseas, and communication plays a more significant role in our current employment picture, things don’t mesh as simply as they once did. Many jobs now involve verbal interaction — anything from taking an order at a fast food joint to telemarketing.

Look, let’s face it. At some time or other, we’ve all accepted or endured inconveniences when language communications have gone amiss, whether in business transactions via the phone or, like Don Schaefer, trying to place an order. Generally, it’s no real problem, and it really wasn’t with the former gov; it’s just that he mentioned his frustration publicly.

But there are times, I’m sure, when business has been lost because of mis-communication. If, in a fast food outlet for example, there is a communication breakdown and it takes a minute or two longer to complete a transaction, it can add up to lost dollars.

Nearly all who come to our country come, as those in the past, because of the American dream. But to some that dream does not include taking on our language — and that does not settle well with many who see it as diluting their American dream.

Within most of them multiculturalism is not unwelcome; it’s just that they believe those who come to pursue the American dream should make an effort to learn our language, especially if there is to be effective interaction between the two, shall we say, cultures. Language is the key to understanding and interaction in our complicated society.

After All
Perhaps, in a way, it’s for the best the former and present governors brought this subject out in the open; it had been pretty much a let-sleeping-dogs-lie situation until their remarks. Hopefully, the debate will prompt us to think about multiculturalism and tolerance, while on the other hand prompting the newcomers to appreciate the values we place on our language and make more of an endeavor to learn it.

Come to think of it, if such is the case, perhaps all the hullabaloo is worthwhile after all — if we all consider both interests, and try to understand more than the two different languages going beyond far enough to understand where the other is coming from — and why. Enough said …

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Last updated May 20, 2004 @ 12:47am.