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SUNDAY, JULY 11, 2010

Capitalism a language we all understand

In the latest example of genuflecting to the supremacy of the English language, the Bonner County Republican Central Committee objected last week to the theme of the local county fair, which is “Fiesta at the Fair.”

Fiesta isn’t a good enough English word for them, so they decided to substitute “Celebrate!” in their booth, which is their right. Just as the First Amendment guarantee of free speech includes the right to shut up, the guarantee of a free press surely includes the right to play editor and change someone’s wording. To point out that they chose a verb to replace a noun seems inordinately picky.

Before anyone shrugs their shoulders and writes this off as one of those quirky North Idahoisms, it must be noted that Clint Didier, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Washington, got big applause in Puyallup last week when he mentioned one of the planks of his platform: “English is the only language.”

This was right before he did minor violence to the language by saying “America is the most kindest, givingest nation on Earth.” No one raised a hand to correct his grammar – possibly because as a former NFL tight end, Didier is a big guy – but apparently sentiment for “English first” does not extend to “English, correct.”

After hearing Didier and reading about the Fiesta flap, I wondered if the English-only folks aren’t swimming upstream against a raging runoff.

Call Comcast to ask a question about your cable bill, as I did last week, and you’ll be advised “Para continuar en Español, marque el nueve.”

Stop by a Wells Fargo ATM to get some cash, and the screen will ask if you want to continue in Spanish, Chinese, Russian or something that might be Hmong.

Go to Home Depot to get something for that remodeling project and notice the departments have bilingual signs (English is in bigger print, but you can see the Spanish without glasses, too). Stop by Safeway to pick up a few items, and you might notice the box of blueberries is labeled in English, Spanish and French. So they sell bleuets up in Canada, eh?

All of this is by way of saying the stone base below the pillar of “English first, last and only” is being chipped away by something the Republicans in Bonner County and Puyallup would recognize and should appreciate: capitalism.

There are good economic reasons for offering services in other languages. They’re called customers. If Comcast can make money by offering a dozen Spanish-language channels, it will. If Wells Fargo can attract more depositors by making it easier for them to withdraw cash, it will. If Home Depot can sell more hammers or paint to Spanish-speaking customers, the clerks won’t ask for immigration status at the checkout counter.

No one’s talking about requiring all government documents to be in Spanish or for forcing Congress to hold debates in French or making school kids learn a Chinese version of the Pledge of Allegiance. The objection of some conservatives seems to center on having ballots, signs in government buildings or some official pamphlets like the driver’s manual in anything but English.

But if businesses can make accommodations to people with limited English skills to keep them as customers, can’t the government make similar accommodations to help them as citizens?

Isn’t that what politicians keep talking about, after all? Having government act more like a business.

Spin Control, a weekly column by veteran reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items, reader comments and videos at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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