Discomforting Truths About Bilingual Ballots

By George Will
Published in The Social Contract
Volume 6, Number 4 (Summer 1996)
Issue theme: "The battle for official English"

John Silber, the sandpapery president of Boston University, might have been elected governor of Massachusetts in 1990 were he not given to speaking his formidable mind as bluntly as he did when a voter asked what we should teach our children. "Teach them that they are going to die," he said. And have a nice day.

His point was that children need a sense of reality, beginning with the fact that life is short and that living nobly may depend on an early understanding of that brevity.

Recently he was in Washington among the politicians, displaying his penchant for uttering discomforting truths. He is a philosopher by academic training and his testimony in favor of repealing bilingual ballot requirements was a model dissection of ill-conceived compassion.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act, as amended in 1975 and subsequently, requires bilingual ballots in jurisdictions with certain demographic characteristics pertaining to linguistic minorities, English deficiency, illiteracy and low voter turnout. But as Representative John Porter (R-IL), another advocate of repeal, noted in testimony, all this is patently peculiar because since 1906 any immigrant seeking citizenship has been required to demonstrate oral English literacy, and since 1950 has been required to "demonstrate an understanding of English, including an ability to read, write and speak words in ordinary English." Applicants over 55 who have lived here at least 15 years are exempted.

Deval Patrick, assistant attorney general for civil rights, testified against repeal of the bilingual ballot requirement, warning of "the pernicious disenfran-chisement resulting from lack of English proficiency." He regards bilingual ballots as instru-ments of compassion for people who are "limited-English proficient" and exhorted one and all to "recognize, respect and celebrate the linguistic and cultural variety of our society." He said repeal would "resurrect barriers to equal access to and partici-pation in the democratic process for American citizens who do not speak English very well."

How can bilingual ballots produce "equal access to and participation in the democratic process?" What is at issue is accommodations for people who cannot read English language ballots, and the law of the land is supposed to be a barrier between such people and citizenship.

It fell to Silber to say why bilingual ballots are of "constitutional consequence, amending in effect the very concept of United States citizenship." The naturalization statutes clearly presuppose that English is the language indispensable for life in America, where all the founding documents, and all the laws and all the proceedings of legislatures are in English. Citizens not proficient in English are, Silber said, "citizens in name only" because they cannot follow a political campaign, talk with a candidate, or petition a representative, and providing them with a bilingual ballot merely makes a mockery of civic life.

Silber stressed that in no other nation do so many people, spread over so large an area, speak the same language. This nation is a creedal nation, founded on shared affirmations, not on ethnicity. Here, Silber said, ethnicity is "a private matter." Various ethnic groups celebrate their saints and other sources of communal pride. However, the government properly recognizes only Americans, not ethnic groups. In opposition to that principle, bilingual ballots "represent a dangerous experiment in deconstructing our American identity."

But of course. For some of the diversity-mongers who advocate bilingual ballots, such deconstruction is precisely the point. They think it is oppression for one American identity to be "privileged."

Silber says such deconstruction is how nations die.

Have a nice day. □

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