When you're right you're right
Thursday, June 15, 2006
  Cheesesteak madness
If you're ordering a cheesesteak at Geno's Steaks in Philadelphia, you'd better be able to do so in English. The restaurant's sixty-six year old owner, Joseph Vento, has a sign in the window telling customers, "This is America. When ordering, speak English." Below that is another sign that says, "Management reserves the right to refuse service."

Mr. Vento's Italian ancestors had trouble learning English when they came to this country. He says that the current national debate on illegal immigration prompted him to put the sign in his window as a statement. As the grandson of immigrants, he feels strongly about assimilation. "Go back to the 19th century, and play by those rules," said Vento, referring to a time when assimilation was encouraged.

But Vento has his detractors as well. Rachel Lawton, of The Philadelphia Commission of Human Relations, claims that the sign violates the city's Fair Practices Ordinance which prohibits discrimination based on national origin in employment, public accomodation and housing. The Commission filed two civil rights complaints against Vento on June 12th.

The charge is, of course, ridiculous. Geno's Steaks will serve people of all races and nationalities, but the establishment will only serve them in English. A Mexican immigrant will not be turned down on the basis of his nationality; not if he can speak English. Likewise, a Russian or a Norwegian who couldn't speak English would not be served. As usual, this is a simple case of liberals trying to stretch the unambiguous language of our laws to make them mean what they wish they meant. There is nothing illegal about Joseph Vento's sign, but that won't stop liberals from using the power of the courts to force their ideology on other people.

The issue is, of course, larger than just the sign on the window of one cheesesteak shop in South Philadelphia. It's a question of how far we are willing to go to accomodate immigrants, how far they will be required to assimilate, the meaning of "American", how Americans see themselves, and how Americans see others.

Somewhere along the line, no one is quite sure where, the American immigration model took a hard left turn. The age-old system of assimilation (the melting pot) has been replaced with a system of accomodation (the tossed salad, the mosaic). Despite this fundamental change in the way we look at immigration, the Left wants us to believe that the current immigration debacle is no different than the immigration of years past. This, of course, is supposed to conjure up images of European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island with nothing but a suitcase and a dream. Many of these immigrants, of course, were greeted with hostility and discrimination. Therefore, according to the modern American Left, any demand that immigrants assimilate is really nothing more than "Know-Nothingism".

Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington lays out a reasonably good synopsis of the differences between modern Latino immigration and the waves of immigration before it. Here's a partial list of what makes previous generations of immigrants different, set forth in Huntington's book, Who Are We? America's Great Debate

Immigrants generally, wanted to be Americans.

Immigrants who did not convert to American values, culture, and way of life returned to their home countries.

Immigrants came from many countries, with no single country or language prodominant at any one time.

Immigrants dispersed to ethnic neighborhoods throughout the United States, with no single group of immigrants forming a majority of the population in any region or major city.

Immigration was discontinuous, interrupted by pauses and reductions, both overall, and for individual countries.

Huntington's points are well received. The current immigration situation is not just the latest edition of an old story--indeed, the quintessenitally American story--of immigration and assimilation.

Actually, assimilation in and of itself is being questioned. Though the Left would like us to believe that illegal immigrants who won't learn our language and customs are exactly like the Irish, Italians, and Poles before them, they are not. Those people were expected to make some basic changes to their behavior in order to Americanize themselves. These days, even suggesting that immigrants should be "Americanized" is considered to be tinged with racism and xenophobia. Take, for example, political theorist Michael Walzer, who states "a radical program of Americanization would really be un-American."

Americanization is un-American? While I may agree that a "radical" program of Americanization would certainly be inapporopriate (I would never expect an immigrant to change his religion upon arriving in America, simply because Protestants make up a plurality of the American population), I can't say that I understand what Walzer finds so radical. Is he referring, perhaps to learning the English langauge? Is that what he means by radical? What exactly are we doing in the United States today that even comes close to "a radical program of Americanization"? Besides ignoring all of our immigration laws, printing ballots in a dozen langauges, and offering instruction to non-English speaking students in their native langauges from kindergarten through high school, I can't think of anything.

The old immigration model has been spun on its head. As Huntington puts it, "Previously Americans expected immigrants to Americanize, to adopt the ideas, culture, institutions, and ways of life of America's Anglo-Protestant society. Immigrants also felt discriminated against if obstacles were raised to their incorporating themselves into that society. In post-1965 America, however, the pressures for Americanization have been weak or absent, and immigrants have often felt discriminated against if obstacles were raised to their maintaining the cultural identity they brought with them."

As sociologist Dennis Wong puts it, "Today, nobody advocates 'Americanizing' new immigrants, as in the bad old ethnocentric past." Indeed, this is the major difference between the immigration waves of old and the immigration waves of today. While liberals might tell you that Hispanics crossing our border (legally and illegally) are just the latest versions of "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," there are some essential differences.

The most obvious of these essential differnces is langauge, and the unwillingness on the part of newcomers to learn the English language. The difference now is that these latest newcomers come largely from a single language background, and often operate as a block when they get here, demanding that other people learn their language and not vice versa. As Huntington explains, "In the mid-nineteenth century, immigration was dominated by English speakers from the British Isles. The pre-World War I immigration was highly diversified linguistically, including many speakers of Italian, Polish, Russian, Yiddish, English, German, and Swedish, as well as others. The post-1965 immigration differs from both these previous waves because now almost half speak a single non-English langauge. 'The Hispanic domination of the immigrant flow,' as Mark Krikorian observes, 'has no precedent in our history.'"

No single language has ever dominated immigrantion as it does today. The only immigrant group that ever comprised nearly the share of immigrants that Hispanics now make up were the Irish during the Irish Potato famine of the 1840's. Most of these immigrants, however, were fluent in English and therefore did not demand that the United States become a bilingual society to suit them.

The dominance of Spanish-speakers in contemporary immigration is reflected in the sheer numbers of immigrants coming from each country. In 1960, the number of foreign born residents of the United States hailing from the top five immigrant nations were as follows:

Italy: 1,257,000
Germany: 990,000
Canada: 953,000
United Kingdom: 833,000
Poland: 748,000

Take note that no single language dominates here, except perhaps English. Certainly residents of the UK would speak English, while Canada is bilingual English-French society. The other three countries are all non-English speaking, but no single language dominates.

Just forty years later, those numbers were quite different.

Mexico: 7,841,000
China 1,391,000
Phillipines 1,222,000
India 1,007,000
Cuba 952,000

In the year 2000, Mexico had 1.64 times as many immigrants as the top five countries from 1960, combined. It's also important to note here, that the figures cited here are only for legal immigrants, which does not even begin to account for all immigrants, and the figure for Mexican immigrants is probably much too low. The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 350,000 illegal Mexican immigrants entered the United States per year during the 1990's. As Huntington writes, "Roughly two thirds of the post-1975 Mexican immigrants, it has been estimated, entered the Unites States illegally." If we assume that the 2000 figure for Mexican immigrants who entered this country represents only the one third who entered legally, then the actual number of Mexican-born residents of the US is three times that number, or 23,523,000. In a country of 298 million people, this represents a significant minority, and a serious challenge to the dominance of the English language.

Besides Mexico, however, there is another Spanish-speaking country on the list--Cuba. Those two countries, combined with the Puerto Rican population residing in the US (who are not immigrants), and the smaller number of immigrants originiating in Central and Spanish-speaking South America, make up a substantial language community that is not easily dissolved. There is no such precedent for this in the history of the United States. English is being challenged as the national language of this country for the first time ever.

While elite opinion makers, business leaders, and politicians may seem zealous in their attempts to accomodate the Spanish language, the general public is generally not so enthusiastic. Over and over again, American voters approve English as the official language of their states and localities, over the objections of politicians, clergy, and other opinion-shapers.

Florida, for example, had a measure on the state ballot in 1988 to declare English the official language. Despite being opposed by Presidential candidates George Bush and Michael Dukakis; Florida's governor, secretary of state, and attorney general; The Miami Herald, the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, and several Hispanic organizations, the measure passed with an astounding 85.5% of the vote.

Between 1986 and 1988, four states had ballot questions concering making English the official language of their respective states. In all four instances, the movements were opposed by newspapers, politicians, and big business. In all four cases, the voters approved them. In only one of the three states--Arizona--was the vote even close, with a slim majority of 50.5% of the voters choosing English as the official language. In California, 73% of the voters voted yes, in Florida, 85.5%, and in Colorado, 64%.

Between 1998 and 2002, four states--California, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Colorado--had ballot questions that proposed ending bilingual education. The measure failed only in Colorado, where only 44% voted in favor. In California, that number was 61%, in Arizona it was 63%, and in Massachusetts it was 68%.

Obviously, Jospeh Vento is not alone. Most Americans agree that English is the language of our country, and see no benefit whatsoever from becoming a bilingual society, with Spanish achieving equal standing with English. Nonetheless, the nation as a whole appears to be moving in just that direction, as business and government leaders run roughshod over the will of the people, in order to accomodate foreigners who will not learn our language. Joseph Vento has become an icon of those who are resisting the not-so-gradual shift toward Spanish as an American language.

Time will tell if the ludicrous "civil rights" complaints against Vento will be dismissed or not. It has no basis in the law, because no one is being discriminated against based on national origin. Vento, to this point, is defiant. "I would say they would have to handcuff me and take me out because I'm not taking it down," said Vento.

Next time I'm in Philadelphia, I'm going to stop by Geno's and order a greasy Philly cheesesteak. In English.
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