On Speaking “American”: Sarah Palin Might Have a Good Idea, After All

On Speaking “American”: Sarah Palin Might Have a Good Idea, After All September 7, 2015

Sarah Palin recently weighed in on Donald Trump’s criticism of Jeb Bush for speaking Spanish (or in Trump terminology, “Mexican”) too fluently and frequently.

Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
On the one hand, it’s great that Bush can speak fluent Spanish, she said. On the other hand, we need to be sure to send the right message. As the Guardian has it:

I think we can send a message and say: ‘You want to be in America? A, you better be here legally, or you’re out of here. B, when you’re here, let’s speak American.’ I mean, that’s just, that’s – let’s speak English,” added Palin, who was John McCain’s running mate in the 2008 presidential race.

Aside from the obvious gaffe of incorrectly naming the English language, the use of the word “American” is interesting. Most anyone who has traveled outside the United States is aware that “American” is not exclusively used to denote the United States.

Outside the U.S. “America” and “American” can refer more broadly to the Americas—from North America, through Central America, on down to South America. This includes, obviously, a large swath of hispanic and latino countries all along the way.

It’s often considered yet another instance of U.S. elitism that “American” is co-opted by United States citizens and used exclusively to reference their origin and way of life, despite the many nuances and references of the term outside the 50 states.

An Atlantic essay from 2013 cites a helpful clarification by French journalists Martine Rousseau and Olivier Houdart:

American’ is a multi-layered word, of which the meaning varies depending on context, and which can illustrate a form of set theory: all Americans (of the U.S.) are American, and yet all Americans [i.e. of the continent] are not American (of the U.S.)!

Palin clearly meant to say “English,” in her reference to the English language, but hidden in her gaffe may lie an insight something of deeper important (albeit something she did not intend to communicate).

It would be easy to dismiss this as another silly moment in U.S. (American!) politics, but it’s also yet another revelation of the movement among the farthest right (which has gained incredible steam) to resist the implications of increasing multi-culturalism with all their might. It’s about preserving the purity and stability of the status quo–and that is a disturbing motivation (or it should be).

Maybe the truth of her message is not really for immigrants or would-be-immigrants, but for herself and for any of us right here in the “good ole’ U of A” prone to think that we occupy the center of the cultural universe:

Maybe there are a lot of us who need to learn to speak ‘American’? That is, we need to repent of our U.S. cultural elitist-grandstanding and our “American exceptionalism”/nationalism.

One small gesture in that regard might be learning to speak a little Spanish–or whatever other language our new friends, neighbors, and other others might bring with them. At the very least, tolerating it when others speak it around us. More broadly, to “speak American” might mean to communicate with openness, respect, and tolerance as we all try to be better human beings–and better “Americans.”

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