by José de la Isla
HOUSTON – Newt Gingrich is only 64 but already he’s afflicted with memory lapse. He has conveniently forgotten his own past.
Addressing the National Federation of Republican Women in Washington, D.C., March 31, the potential GOP presidential aspirant claimed bilingual-education classes are teaching students “the language of living in a ghetto.” They must be eliminated, he insisted, and so should ballots in languages other than English.
Encouragement of bilingualism — which he once described as “a danger to the fabric of our nation”— should never be permitted at government expense.
But hold on a minute.
Is this the same Newt Gingrich who as Speaker of the House in 1998 sent out at government expense a proclamation in Spanish saluting Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo holiday? The one that had us Hispanic political junkies doubled over in laughter?
Under Newt’s signature was the identifier El Hablador de la Casa.
Literal translation: “The Loudmouth of the House.”
“Presidente de la Camara de Representantes” was Gingrich’s correct tltle at the time.
The proclamation also weirdly singled out for praise two Cuban-American colleagues (not Mexican Americas for whom by heritage the celebration is more appropriate). Evidently, national heritage and origins make no difference to the then-Speaker. That’s like saying, “Oh, she’s Danish or Greek, what difference does it make, it’s all European?”
Not all Hispanics are carbon copies. Gingrich should make himself a whole lot more culturally literate if he has any further political aspirations.
Lately he has been dropping hints he might run for president in 2008 if a clear Republican frontrunner hasn’t emerged by Labor Day. So it’s too early to know whether language purification would be a centerpiece for his campaign.
What is becoming clear, however, is that he’s a leader in the ranks of scare-yourself
nativists who have a hard time accepting the world as it is.
Specifically, Gingrich told his cheering audience of 100, “We should replace bilingual education with immersion in English so people learn the common language of the country and they learn the language of prosperity, not the language of living in a ghetto.”
Does this mean he opposes President Bush’s National Security Language Initiative in the State Department? It provides U.S. students, from kindergarten through university, training in critical foreign languages, such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi and Farsi.
At least 47 million U.S. residents speak a language other than English at home and 14.6 million of them are school-age. This diversity gives us a linguistic base. It’s a national security, economic and diplomatic asset of growing importance.
James Crawford, of the Institute of Language and Education Policy, puts it succinctly, “Why should any nation limit its horizons to a single language when the global economy rewards those who can accommodate diversity? Why choose isolation from other cultures in a time of change?”
Let’s not play dumb. Gingrich’s reference is not really about language at all. It’s a swipe at Spanish (in code language “bilingual”), immigrants and any supportive programs to that national economic engine.
Gingrich may well reflect another crack in the Republican foundation that could render it unviable later. A national party needs feasible policies appealing to a growing population.
His recommendation is to make the nation vulnerable by appealing to a shrinking population base. His shtick on bilingual education may not be his biggest policy issue but it is the most telling about the shipwreck he proposes.
Worse still, he wants to turn schoolchildren and newcomers who want to become part of our fabric into villains and victims.
Where is the “opportunity state” Gingrich so famously spoke for in the ‘90s when he was the architect of the “Contract with America?”
It’s out the window, according to El Hablador de la Casa.
[José de la Isla, author of “The Rise of Hispanic Political Power” (Archer Books, 2003) writes a weekly commentary for Hispanic Link News Service. E-mail email@example.com.] © 2007.