With the exception of playing music together from the written page, perhaps nothing permits perfect harmony among men as much as being able to speak the other’s language. That is not to say that we cannot achieve harmony with others absent a shared language, but in those cases the language barrier is something that must be overcome somehow in order for people to understand each other in any truly meaningful way. By glorifying a multi-lingual America, Coke is endorsing the erection of billions of barriers between Americans who are already bitterly divided over whether Western Civilization is even worth defending.
Once we realize that our shared language is a cornerstone of our civil social order, and that our common language is the vital keystone which enables us to bridge our gaps, peacefully settle our disputes, and cohere as neighbors, then we may not be so quick to leave our cherished institutions undefended and vulnerable to invasion.
The marketers at Coke got the beloved American Idea totally upside-down and inside-out; instead of “out of many we become one,” Coke’s commercial sends an entirely different message: “Come from everywhere, never cohere.” E pluribus unum becomes E unibus pluram.
If Coke didn’t intend to pull the switch on us (we’ve seen their ideas for a New Coke before. Many of us still remember when the heavyweight of soft drinks fell in the Pepsi Challenge), they can be forgiven for merely an errant idea. Perhaps they were earnestly attempting to celebrate America’s lovely diversity of heritage. If on the other hand, this is a part of a larger campaign by Coke to promote, not just soft drinks, but the disastrous ideology of multiculturalism in hopes of fundamentally transforming this nation into multilingual society, then we should realize that Coke’s Superbowl commercial is at odds with the very foundations of the American Idea.
Shared Language Is Foundational
It is no easy task to translate into today’s terms the various reasons why a shared language is such a crucial component to civil society and our distinct American culture. When there are few great conservatives able to mount an articulate defense for the very foundations of our distinct and shared American culture, the American way is well on its way down the road to ruin.
Part of the problem is particular to America; because we are a nation of immigrants we tend to have an almost reflexive response to open our arms to anyone who want to be an American. We are the Melting Pot into which many cultures have added their own spice. As Lady Thatcher would remark, “Europe was created by history. America was created by philosophy.” But that doesn’t mean that our Framers believed that all philosophies were equal. “When a philosophy embraces everything it generally squeezes everything, and squeezes it out of shape; when it digests it necessarily assimilates,” Chesterton would remark in 1922 in his “What I Saw in America”.
America’s revolutionaries were fighting for independence, ironically, because they felt the King George was usurping their chartered rights as Englishmen. In their eyes it was King George who was breaking the law. Laws, we might add, that were written in English, and many of which were written long, long before King George started breaking them with the slash of his pen and executive decree. Our Declaration of Independence is a list of grievances against a tyrant in London who wielded executive power as if it was absolute and supreme and without a mandate from the masses or the consent of the propertied classes in America. It is exactly that kind of overarching executive that our Founders sought to restrain. America was to be a country governed by a system of laws, not ruled by the capricious and arbitrary wishes of rulers who didn’t even live on the continent.
Though our Framers loathed the British king, they found the inherited system of English Law quite amicable to a justly ordered liberty and prosperity. They had grown comfortably accustomed to it and so they cauterized its crucial components in a distinctly American creation; our Constitution. Though it was written in English, its political structure was the offspring of a long continuity of history that can be traced back through English Law, the customs and conventions of Western Civilization, the Roman republic where it was bound up with the poetry and philosophy of the ancient Greeks, and back to its taproot, as Russell Kirk called it, in the city on the soil that was the seedbed of our Judeo-Christian heritage: Jerusalem. America was a long time in the making, but it could be undone in a single generation if its shared English language is overrun or displaced.
Immigrants flocked to America to be a part of the American way of life. They were coming to conform to the American way, not to force their way of life on it. They weren’t all coming here each to set up their own little despotisms and they didn’t come to become hyphenated Americans, divided from their fellow Americans, to be used as pawns in some chess game of identity politics. They came here to be Americans. They assumed assimilation was part of the deal. Learning the language is an important first step. The immigrants that came may not have learned the language well, but they sent their children to schools that taught English as a first language in hopes that they could partake in the American dream.
Perhaps it is simply the polite thing to do when you are moving into a new country to learn the language. Many, but not most Americans who travel to countries in which English is not spoken still consider it important and polite to learn at least a few of the key phrases in the language of the country they are visiting on vacation so that proper respect can be paid to the places whose cultures are distinct from ours. We Americans should avoid giving our hosts reasons to label us ugly and we should tread lightly when we are in someone else’s homeland. And frankly, some of us should stop clodhopping around our own homeland. Pop culture really has become repulsive and we would be wise to remember Burke’s charming reminder that in order to be loveable we must first be lovely.
Before this digression goes too far afield, perhaps now is an opportune point to pause and dispel another misconception: we are in many ways, ‘One Nation under God’ as our pledge of allegiance (which is in English) affirms, but that is not really how our Framers constructed it. They crafted, not One Nation but rather a loose federation of sovereign states that left almost everything important to the several states to decide. Our first amendment prevents the federal government from establishing a religion but it still permitted the states to have their own and indeed several did well into the nineteenth century. In reality the Framers didn’t want the Federal Government doing much of anything at all, but whatever it did do, all agreed it was to be done in English.
Our Founders looked back through history for morsels of wisdom for their founding principles. They gleaned the greatest stuff from Western civilization’s storied past, they selected ideas that had withstood the test of time and they were admirably attempting to build something permanent. Philadelphia was a New London, a New Rome, a New Athens, and a New Jerusalem all rolled into one. We were all on the same page and all speaking the same language. It is almost a testament to their triumph that it is generally taken for granted. History teaches us also that it is at just such times that people get sloppy and one slip can send the whole civilization into ruin. Just before the outbreak of World War II, José Ortega y Gasset wrote:
“The West came to believe that human life had come to be what it ought to be and henceforward always bound to be. Man believes that there will be essentially nothing new; assured that the world will now proceed on a straight course, neither turning nor dropping back, and so he puts out of his mind all anxiety about the future and enjoys the present, ‘self satisfied’. When people traveled to visit Rome in the early stages of the empire and saw the colossal buildings, they thought “nothing new can now happen” and had the melancholy of buildings that were built with the intention of lasting for eternity.”
We are kindly reminded of another great fall in the story of the Tower of Babel: “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do…confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
Constitutions and structures that reach to the heavens are part of any advanced society, we might assume, but as Kirk pointed out: “We must remind ourselves that beneath any formal constitution―even beneath our Constitution, the most enduringly successful of such formal documents―lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful: the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution but which nevertheless form a fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.” Is there really any question that the fabric of our cherished social reality is woven in our shared language?
The Phantom Menace of Multiculturalism
Increasingly, many well-intentioned patriotic Americans have confused and conflated the great American tradition of open-armed tolerance toward immigrants with the destructive political ideology of ‘multiculturalism’. Those that embrace the ironically narrow ideology of multiculturalism are the quickest to resort to the wicked tactic of decrying anyone who opposes them as racists. And this makes it all the more difficult to make ones voice clear above the din. Let us be clear here: this is not a racial thing, it’s a cultural thing. Multiculturalism is the road to fragmentation, dissolution, and atomization.
Multiculturalists yearn not for a wide variety of flourishing and compatible culture, but rather they desire the destruction of the things that make Western Culture distinct. Multiculturalism poses like a peacock with the united colors of Benetton, but in reality it makes all colors bleed into one dull gray. It demands invasion into every community, and it brings with it its bullish litigious toadies who care nothing for the long established, carefully cultivated, deeply cherished social order.
The multiculturalists cry “you hate all other cultures, you intolerant bigots!” Chesterton used to wisecrack that “It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” Conservatives love the infinitely proliferating variety of life! One of conservatism’s greatest heroes, Russell Kirk, esteemed variety so highly that he entered it fifth in his famous ten conservative principles:
“Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”
However, Kirk’s prescription doesn’t quite explain how one becomes a discerning patriot, a refined cosmopolitan, or an authentic bohemian Tory. Another critical distinction needs to be made. Perhaps the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton best sheds light on this particular facet of this mountainous issue by distinguishing between the cosmopolitan and internationalism:
“Cosmopolitans are at home in any city; they appreciate human life in all its peaceful forms, and are emotionally in touch with the customs, languages and cultures of many different people. They are patriots of one country, but nationalists of many. Internationalists, by contrast, wish to break down the distinctions between people; they do not feel at home in any city since they are aliens in all. They see the world as one vast system in which everyone is equally a customer, a consumer, a creature of wants and needs. They are happy to transplant people from place to place, to abolish local attachments, to shift boundaries and customs in accordance with the inexorable tide of political need or economic progress.”
Enter Coca Cola, the quintessential transnational immortal megacorporation, which is not a person, need we be reminded; though it has rights like a person, like a superhero, can leap to many countries in a single bound, and, like a supervillain, can exhibit a conniving slipperiness in evading legal jurisdictions. Do we really think it cares more about the established social order than it cares about selling its soda in every corner of the world, turning every different person into the same kind of customer? Let’s shelve that question for the moment, step back in time to the beginning and consider what language really is.
The Dawn of Man and the Great Dynamo
Walker Percy explained to us that what makes man man is language. His semiotics indicated that we are sign-making-and-using animals.
“Extremely recently in the history of the Cosmos, at least on the earth—perhaps less than 100,000 years ago, perhaps more—there occurred an event different in kind from all preceding events in the Cosmos. It cannot be understood as a dyadic interaction or a complexus of dyadic interactions. It has been called variously triadic behavior, thirdness, the Delta factor, man’s discovery of the sign (including symbols, language, art). This phenomenon occurred in the evolution of man.”
In addition to explaining how the origin of the species is tied indissolubly with man’s crossing the triadic threshold (something which, by the way, confirms both Creationism and most evolutionary theories) Percy goes further in demonstrating the rise of man by telling the astoundingly inspiring story of Helen Keller’s discovery of language.
“Keller would later say that it was the very moment that she realized her teacher was signifying the word ‘water’ while she poured cold water over her hand, that it was a transfixing, transcending experience for the young deaf, dumb and blind kid. A new light came into her face. She spelled “w-a-t-e-r” several times. Then she dropped to the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning around asked for my name. I spelled, “Teacher.” All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched, so that in a few hours she added thirty new words to her vocabulary.”
No other creatures but humans have crossed that triadic threshold. All other creatures are locked into an environment with which they can only communicate with diadic communication. Once a creature crosses that threshold, and the spark of language is fired within the consciousness, that being no longer continues to exist as a merely reactive organism within their given environment, that being becomes a sign-user and becomes a self, “at which point a whole world opens before them.”
Language takes a creature out of a preternatural state and raises that self to a higher level of consciousness. People who stay in this perennially primitive state Breyssig called ‘the peoples of perpetual dawn.” A new day had dawned for young Keller. Most children learn language a little more gradually, and Miss Keller didn’t start writing Shakespearean sonnets in the months following her breakthrough discovery. We’ll leave the question of how a human reaches the high noon or the third level of consciousness for a later, wiser time but the point here is that language is more than just the means men use for communication; it is an end in and of itself and, as Percy has proved, the beginning of man himself.
When small men cast long shadows a civilization is nearing its sunset. Percy also contemplates what progressives might wish to do if they become convinced that human life doesn’t really take shape until man learns to speak: the good doctor presaged the horror in his psychological novel The Thanatos Syndrome.
In any language there is a tremendous amount of embedded knowledge, of collective customs, of subtle distinction, of stored wisdom. Actual and precise meanings are often lost in the translation and certainly cannot be transmitted by merely taking a class with Rosetta Stone. The English language is more than the means we use to transmit our shared culture, even as it has roots in other languages. The great bequest of English Literature is a repository of much of the best that has been said and done in Western Civilization. It is the story of man’s heroic and tragic story and his climb from the swamp to the stars. And when we reached the moon, our astronauts beamed back messages in English.
Skilled and talented people who don’t share any language might perceivably sit down and make beautiful music together because they have learned to read sheet music. Two talented dancers might meet on the dance floor for a titillating tango that knocks our socks off.
Practical Living Made Comfortable
Aside from the essentially human superfluities like poetry, the stark simple practicalities of having an official language are also abundantly evident. Two cultures cannot exist in the same place. Think of a row of houses on any neighborhood block. Is it really a neighborhood if nobody can speak to one another? Why would anyone want to live on a block like that? Or raise children in that confusion? That’s the kind of neighborhood one moves to to get away from civilized society or to hide under the cover of anonymity.
When we loosen the ties that bind us to our neighbors, a civilization unravels. What can sever us from our neighbors more than not being able to talk with them? Perhaps the only thing more destructive is being able to communicate with them and having nothing in common, or worse, having beliefs that are in direct conflict with our own. Alas, progressive America gets angry when any American tries to define what “our America” is in the first place. In his brilliant essay, Multiculturalism, R.I.P., Roger Scruton puts in a nutshell what we westerners share:
It is not an arbitrary cultural imperialism that leads us to value Greek philosophy and literature, the Hebrew Bible, Roman law, and the medieval epics and romances, and to teach these things in our schools. They are ours, in just the way that the legal order and the political institutions are ours: they form part of what made us, and convey the message that it is right to be what we are.
In his recent article on the fifteen lies at the basis of our culture, Aristotelian Father James Schall explained that “A culture is a complex composition of the manners, rites, language, laws, ideas, and customs of a people. These sources describe what a given people hold to be true, or at least valid. How they act to one another, how they build things, how and what they punish and reward, how they think of birth and death—all these make up the outlines of a given culture.”
It is our very language that enables us to transmit that complex composition. Do we really want to have to dig out our trusty decoder rings each time our neighbors try to tell us something? Do we really want to ensnare our legal system into a situation where all our laws not only must be multi-lingual but will mean different things to different people? We have enough trouble with understanding our own language in matters of law.
Civilizations become more complex as they advance. If the language barrier prevents a deep understanding of that complexity, the civilization will likely decline and be overcome by another, more coherent, more vigorous, or more violent civilization. Orwell warned us of the assault on language using the tactics of blurring the meanings of words and reducing a language down to as few words as possible―so easy anyone could speak newspeak, and, with brother watching, everyone had better speak it or else expect a visit from the thought-police. Without sharp, shared meanings, words become brittle tools that break in the hands of their noble users and become destructive weapons in the hands of the deconstructionists and destroyers. Kirk considered the work of defending and defining our language a vital vigilance:
“The defense of inherited culture must be conducted here and now, with what weapons may be snatched from the walls—here on this darkling plain at the end of the twentieth century. With Eliot, we conduct…a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating…
We tend to take for granted how much harmony we enjoy in America because we share a language. That’s not to say that many of us aren’t bilingual, but it is our shared language that most makes us American, even though that language is English.
People give it little more notice to our shared language than the air we breathe. Ortega writes that “No human thanks another for the air he breathes, for no one has produced the air for him.” It just is there. It is natural, and it apparently never fails. This is the way the mass man perceives the whole social order, but, Ortega adds:
“Civilisation is not “just there,” like air. It is not self-supporting. Civilisation is artificial and requires the artist or the artisan. If you want to make use of the advantages of civilisation, but are not prepared to concern yourself with the upholding of civilisation—you are done. In a trace you find yourself left without civilisation. Just a slip, and when you look around everything has vanished into thin air.”
Now, please don’t misunderstand; I love going to Polish festivals and hearing Poles speak Polish. The church to which we’ve recently been going still offers a mass in Polish. I love Italian Quarters, Mexicantowns, Greektowns, Irish bars, Spanish dancers, Japanese gardens, German beer, and Austrian Economics. Most Americans are mutts. I am the son of two Hoosiers myself, and I grew up in a northwest Ohio town that each year held a German Polka festival over the Fourth of July weekend. When I go back to my hometown I can still hear faintly in the background of the townsfolk’s speech the thick German accent of their grandparents, and in my mind I can still fondly imagine the Oom-Pah-Pah bands pounding their rhythm as the festival polka’d on into the long hours of the night, the sound of it—more an energy than music—wafting across the village into my childhood bedroom window as I lay awake listening, wishing for the day when I could stay out that late and polka with one of the local fräuleins.
Another interesting element about where I grew up in Ohio’s pickle, potato, and tomato country was that Mexican migrant workers came up for the growing season. There was little conflict and many stayed and melted right into our little community of some eleven hundred souls. Some of these German and Mexican immigrants were more from my hometown than I was, as I only moved to town at the fully-formed age of seven. Many of these sons of immigrants were the best of friends growing up. There was no language barrier but more importantly the cultural lines were gone; they were as American as apple pie. Indeed one Mexican family in particular had come up a few generations back and become tremendously successful in the canning business. They were among the most admired people in town. When I was a little amigo, I worked in my family business and for a little while my boss was an older Mexican transplant named Cookie. It would be generous to say that Cookie never quite mastered the English language, and so he must have felt like he was always talking to Elmo when he was giving this little monster orders.
I might have been disappointed that my friends weren’t always able to sing their old country’s favorite songs in their native language–our church’s pastor had a family of Norwegians straight from Minnesota who all had a strange way of saying their O’s–but we stood united singing our nation’s songs in English. This union, this allegiance, this is what makes us fellow countrymen and bands of brothers. Can you imagine men fighting and dying in foxholes for country and for each other if they didn’t all at least speak the same language? The crux of the flaw in the Coke commercial is this: we watched a beloved American song sung in a myriad of languages rather than showing a myriad of people singing it in English.
Chesterton warned that “Nine times out of ten a man’s broad-mindedness is necessarily the narrowest thing about him. This is not particularly paradoxical; it is, when we come to think of it, quite inevitable. His vision of his own village may really be full of varieties; and even his vision of his own nation may have a rough resemblance to the reality. But his vision of the world is probably smaller than the world…hence he is never so inadequate as when he is universal; he is never so limited as when he generalizes. This is the fallacy in the many modern attempts at a creedless creed, at something variously described as…undenominational religion or a world faith to embrace all the faiths in the world… These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.” America is a land of many creeds but a land that shares a language, and most of us would like to keep it that way.
Multiculturalism’s Unavoidable Contradictions
In the hilarious spoof Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, our amicable globetrotting protagonist’s father ironically remarks: “there are only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people’s cultures and the Dutch.” Contained in that deadpanned joke is a whole treasure trove of meaning. Two cultures can exists side-by-side but two cultures cannot exist in the same place at the same time. If we say that the we must tolerate other cultures, the most intolerant thing to say is that a distinct culture doesn’t have a right to exist and should be supplanted. If the enchanting old Dutch culture would become supplanted by a different or a myriad of cultures, is it really Dutch anymore? Can we really say we love the splendid variety of cultures if we demand they all be integrated into one another?
And here we come face to face with the essential negating contradiction within multiculturalism itself: if no culture is better than another then why is multiculturalism better than allowing individual cultures to cultivate themselves? If multiculturalists truly loved culture, they would just let it be. To each his own.
People deluded themselves when they become enticed by the idea that their culture will become fuller of more dazzling colors and satisfying variety when variety itself is pursued as a guiding principle. The result in reality is rather a dull conformity where all colors bleed into one, into grey streets and gaudy streets; discordant, not harmonious. Those that are applauding Coke’s subtle attempt to make America multilingual do not see where the idea is leading our country; they don’t envision the resulting unintended consequences. Many Americans, attempting to be magnanimous, confuse being welcoming to immigration with being impartial to the disputes over assimilation. Here Chesterton is instructive:
“Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference which is an elegant name for ignorance. Tolerance is the virtue of the man without convictions. Merely having an open mind is nothing. The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid. Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”
We might use Wilhelm Röpke’s words to describe multiculturalism’s failures which “are so numerous and blatant that it is astonishing that the underlying theory seems to digest these failures without losing prestige. It is even more astonishing that the protagonists of this approach are so utterly unrepentant.” Scruton boils it down and describes a recipe for our melting pot that will ensure we avoid turning into an unsavory stew:
For what is being brought home to us, through painful experiences that we might have avoided had it been permitted before now to say the truth, is that we, like everyone else, depend upon a shared culture for our security, our prosperity and our freedom to be. We don’t require everyone to have the same faith, to lead the same kind of family life, or to participate in the same festivals. But we have a shared moral and legal inheritance, a shared language, and a shared public sphere.
The fastest way to destroy a culture may be to simply supplant it with one that doesn’t speak its language. When men cannot communicate with their neighbors, we have slipped back from an elevated society back into barbarism. This is a battle for our shared culture more than our common language, but our common language is a key ingredient of our cherished American culture and deserves a stout defense. And when we see it being paraded off a cliff someone should stand athwart it yelling “Stop!”
So is Coke taking a rather tall step in the march toward multiculturalism with its multilingual Superbowl Ad? It is not likely that the marketing gurus over at Coke intended to tear us apart, tear at the very fabric of our shared society, vitiate the very roots of our values, or turn neighbor against neighbor by undermining the very means we use to enrich and share our lives with each other. Instead they probably wanted to do little more than whisper sweet nothings into the ears of all Americans who are proud that out of many, we have become one.
Perhaps they didn’t know any better and they did not see where the idea is leading us. Perhaps they were being so open-minded that their brains fell out. Perhaps they didn’t expect that singing one of our beloved national ballads in a language other than English would cause such an uproar. But they surely spent an awful lot of money to run that message, didn’t they? Maybe that was the uproar was the point, but it’s a rotten way to sell a soda. The next thing you know they’ll be trying to pull the wool over our eyes and mass market spicy soda by convincing us it makes us individualistic if we drink it.
In America, you’re at liberty to choose from a seemingly endless variety of soft drinks in whatever quantities you’d like, but we have only one American language. It is English, and most of us don’t think we should have to press one to hear it spoken.
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