Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Immigrant National Anthem

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As men moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, "Come, let's make bricks and bake them thoroughly." They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth."

But the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other."
So the LORD scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel -- because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth. -- Genesis 11:1-9 (NIV)
"Nuestro Himno," the Spanish-language and groovy-Latin-rhythm version of the old British drinking song currently playing host to Francis Scott Key's sole masterwork, has raised hackles among those who fear that this represents one more step towards a Canadianized future. A bilingual America where immigrants change, rather than assimilate to, the predominant language and culture is different, certainly. But many would welcome a shift to Canadian values, so "Canadianizing" is hardly a clear epithet.

Of course, it's true that having multiple languages can produce tension and discord within a country. Moreover, there is undoubtedly a cost associated with bilingual programs. Estimates obviously vary greatly depending on whose numbers you believe, but it is undisputed that it costs more time, effort, and money to use two languages instead of one. In a word, it is inefficient. Note that this does not mean it is useless; it is very helpful to know multiple languages because multiple languages exist elsewhere. But this very state -- multiple languages existing -- is undeniably less efficient than a hypothetical world / nation having one single universal language.

This efficiency has been recognized from time immemorial. Whether you believe the Genesis story of Babel is literally true, or merely an ancient myth, either way it demonstrates that people have always thought they could do more if they had a common language. According to the story, God thought so too. A single language means unity and cooperation. Unity and cooperation mean efficiency. Efficiency means power – the power to do more, whatever "more" may happen to be.

Everyone wants to "do more." If anything is the universal language of the American spirit, it is "doing more."
We must do more to reduce poverty. We must do more to help workers build the skills they need. [W]e must do more to reduce our future demand for oil. [W]e must do more to strengthen homeland security for all Americans. Our Mexican and Canadian borders are entirely too porous and we must do more to close them.

But is this American spirit, always doing more, really an unbridled positive? Is this spirit of Babel, the drive to acquire more and more power, to centralize a nation so that it will "not be scattered," so that "nothing they plan to do will be impossible," a goal in itself? In fact, this spirit was negatively invoked by the plainsmen of Shinar to challenge God. As the list of quotes above show, disparate people with disparate goals all call for the power to do more to enact their vision. The history of the modern state has been one of increasing power, sometimes used well and sometimes used ill. The power to do more can be wielded by President Bush or Senator Kennedy or Mao Zedong or Pol Pot. Fear of "doing more" was what led the constitutional framers to set up a fragmented government, inefficient at anything but the most basic functions. God scattered the people of Babel so their evil would not be concentrated; modern history shows the state busily undoing God's work. Maybe instead of fear, we should be hoping that Nuestro Himno will cause an American Babel.

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