Discussing bilingual education back in 2007, Newt Gingrich referred to Spanish as “the language of living in a ghetto.”
This year, a political ad backing Gingrich pillories rival Mitt Romney for speaking French. “Bonjour, je m’appelle Mitt Romney,” it shows the then-Winter Olympics CEO stating in 2002.
The other day The Daily Show with Jon Stewart made fun of Jon Huntsman for speaking Mandarin during a Republican debate. The angle: how foolish the candidate was for imagining that demonstrating his facility with a foreign language would do anything but harm his political chances.
Point well taken, and how sad that it should be so. There was a time when speaking foreign languages signaled accomplishment, worldliness, and smarts. Today, the head-in-the-sand attitude dominating the right-wing political establishment ensures that anything smacking of a language other than English must be somehow “anti-American.”
It ties in with the us-against-them narrative that defines today’s right. As journalist Sam Tanenhaus put it in his 2009 book The Death of Conservatism, “Movement conservatives remain wedded to the politics of shared enmity and to the rhetoric of accusatory protest.” In this culture, that “shared enmity” goes towards not just political opponents but foreigners of any stripe and the foreign lands they come from.
The ability to speak anything other than English, even if job-related (Ambassador to China, anyone?), has become a strike against any political figure. Republicans are bashing each other with it now; in the past and in the future, they’ll level accusations of “foreign-ness” against their Democratic foes.
Once again, what kind of a name is “Barack Hussein Obama?” And even John Kerry was castigated for having relatives in France and speaking French.
The sad thing is that although this facet of anti-intellectualism permeates the right-wing political narrative, it isn’t really the lay of the land. We still teach our kids foreign languages in school. We still inquire about foreign language ability when we solicit potential employees at our increasingly international companies. We still buy Rosetta Stone software packages in large numbers.
Most actual Americans aren’t so insecure in their nationhood that they have to disparage foreign language abilities. But politicians’ fear of the taint of anything outside the bounds of True Belief and American Exceptionalism leads them to paint an awful picture of a nation of know-nothing blowhards.
It’s time for a new paint job. Monet, anyone?