First, listen to Tim James, Republican candidate for governor in Alabama:
Got that? This in a state that in 1990 passed the English-only Amendment 509 (with 88 percent of the vote), and from 1990 to 1998 did in fact stop providing driving tests in any language other than English. In 1998 the state’s monolingual definition of small-minded nativism lost in court. –until the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 handed down a fractured 5-4 ruling that overturned the ruling, but also put the state’s federal highway dollars at risk if Alabama did go with an English-only test. So Alabama didn’t revert.
Lawsuits continued, by people whose lives would not be changed one whit if their neighbor were taking a test in English or Swahili. (No, it doesn’t take knowing English to drive, an activity predicated primarily on sign language.) The Alabama Supreme Court handed down its own 5-4 decision on the matter in 2007, finding that the state was not infringing the state’s English-is-the-official-language obsession by providing more tests in languages other than English.
That’s the Alabama court, by the way, made famous by that nutty Chief Justice Roy Moore who liked his Ten Commandments prominently throned in the lobby of “his” court building and above the law, from beneath which Moore was removed in 2003 on judicial ethics violations). What’s Moore doing now? Why, he’s running for governor–and leading the race against James.
Desperation brings out the best of the worst. James comes from a long line of wind-sniffing opportunists. His father Fob was the governor of Alabama from 1979 to 1983, as a Democrat, when he integrated Alabama’s state government. When Fob saw Reaganism give way to Bushism which gave way to the Contract on America in 1994, he ran as a Republican that year, won, and evolved into a no-evolution, death-penalty-loving, all-prayer type of governor. In other words: the kind of reactionary ideas that work with the mob. From Fob to Tim and Alabama’s continuing devolution through monomaniacal chauvinism.
“This is Alabama; we speak English,” James says. “If you want to live here, learn it.” That might be good advice for a good many native Alabamans, if memory serves. The state isn’t known as Shakespearean English’s summer retreat. Who is James speaking to, exactly? Who is we? And at what point does a resident of Alabama become an Alabaman, someone who can rightfully call himself part of that we? When the person has shed all taints of accents, maybe color, maybe curry smells from the kitchen? What about good old Alabama crackers who happen to be deaf and mute. The Alabama department of motor vehicles permits them to take the test in sign language. Should they be disallowed? What about Chinese drivers who have a thing for sign language but aren’t deaf, or mute, or Republican: can they take the test in sign language?
The most interesting thing about James’ nativist, faux-calm seethe, is this line: “Maybe it’s the business man in me, but we’ll save money.” He claims that by giving the driving test in 12 languages, Alabama is wasting money, and that giving it in one language would save money. It might in Alabama. But what about those billions in federal aid dollars?
The irony is that more people speak English in this country today, as a native or functional language, than at just about most points in the country’s history, save perhaps that period from the 1920s to the 1950s when the country’s borders became almost as tight as the iron curtain, which wasn’t even up until the late 1940s. Immigrants are more eager than Americans to learn the language, and usually better at it (the Alabama DMV should test taker’s grammar, then see who qualifies as an Alabaman). The tests in other languages are a mere convenience, a way of making residents feel more included as they make their way into Americanness. Unless of course Alabama would prefer to have fewer foreigners.
Which is the real message in James’ xenophobia. He’s not celebrating English. He’s not upholding any sense of national culture or shared experience. He’s refuting the notion of shared experiences by brandishing language as a divider, a demarcation mark between proper Alabamans and, essentially, illegal ones: Language as the new poll tax. Then again, why take James seriously? The guy represents a blessedly dying minority in this country, for tea partiers’ sake. But bless his English-huffing heart he’s going down fighting, and English-only bongas are a last-ditch effort to make a run at a job to make popa proud, wherever popa may be (the old Fob is still around). Besides, being an ass in Alabama has never been illegal.