Tag: immigration

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

“Jewish Radicals” – an interview with Tony Michels

I had the pleasure of reading the book Jewish Radicals by Professor Tony Michels.  I was on a quest to learn more about the history of American Jews and in particular, find out more about the roots of social justice and radical politics in our community.  Tony’s book was well-organized, readable, and deeply informative about important topics that don’t tend to be front-and-center in our typical Hebrew school curriculum.  One thing I took away was that even among the left-wing of the Jewish community, there have always been a wide variety of ideologies.  That can certainly be a challenge and it can also be a source of richness and progress.  In addition, we often think of our ancestors as more conservative than ourselves, and this book shows that’s not necessarily true.  I’m grateful to Professor Michels for the opportunity to interview him via email and below are his insightful thoughts.  As befits a Jewish interview, I asked four questions 🙂

1) What was your goal in writing the book “Jewish Radicals”?

My goal was to assemble a variety of documents that could bring readers into the history of Jews and their diverse experiences with the socialist movement, broadly defined.   In order to be historically accurate, I wanted to cover as many left-wing perspectives as possible: anarchism, Bundism, socialism, communism, socialist-Zionism, Trotskyism, and other ideologies.  At the same time, I didn’t want to tell a history reduced to heroic struggles and victories, which I think is a temptation for many historians of the American left.   I wanted to capture the ups and downs, mistakes, ironies, sometimes humorous ironies, and so forth.

2) There seems to be a renewed interest in left-wing politics among young Jews – learning Yiddish, advocating for refugees, even confronting major Jewish organizations in recent months.  Do you see a revival of some of the spirit of the activists in your book?

I’m not sure I know enough to answer intelligently.   Like you, I have noticed a revival of interest in socialism since, especially since the recession of 2008 and the Bernie Sanders campaign.  And I have noticed an interest in the history of the old Jewish labor movement among some Jewish activists today.  In the 1960s, Jewish activists expressed a similar interest in the involvement of immigrant Jews in the labor movement and socialism, and that urge to recover the past has been evident in every decade since.  The difficult thing is that the history of the left in the U.S. is one characterized by discontinuities.  There are connecting threads between generations, organizations, ideas and so forth, but not a great many continuities.


3) What is the greatest misconception American Jews have about their own community’s political past?

Good question.   I’d say many Jews don’t understand how widespread sympathy for socialism was between the 1880s and 1930s.  I’d also add that many people—I have my own students in mind—seem to believe that all immigrants from Eastern Europe were very traditional and religiously devout, and that secularization came later with Americanized generations.  That immigrants were often daring and open to experimentation seems surprising.  And finally I’d say American Jews don’t seem to be familiar with the extensive body of writings on Jewish identity and culture, many of them produced by Jewish intellectuals writing in English and Yiddish who thought seriously about what it means to be a modern Jew in America.

4) As a historian, what do you find most rewarding and most challenging about your job?

I enjoy the detective work of uncovering the people, events, and ideas of the past.  Studying the past helps me gain an understanding of myself in relation to the world around me, and that’s satisfying.   And writing about the past, shaping a story out of whatever information I can find, satisfies a creative urge.  One thing I didn’t understand when I started graduate school was that, in a sense, history is a form of creative writing, in as much as it requires imagination to interpret documents—which do not often yield all the information I’m looking for or do so in an obvious way—and get into the minds of the people who produced them.  Writing history requires inferences, sometimes speculation, in addition to facts and evidence.


Jewish Prayer for Diversity

Jewish Prayer for Diversity

At a time in which politicians in the U.S., U.K., and other countries are pouring forth hatred against minorities, it’s important for us to remember the beauty of diversity as we stand beside out brothers and sisters in solidarity. I wrote this Jewish prayer out of love for diversity:

Blessed are you Adonai our G-d
Ruler of the universe
who created all types of wondrous people.

The Linguistic Revolution

The Linguistic Revolution


I have no intention of being objective in this essay. From the start, I want to make clear that I am resolutely in favor of multilingualism for every human being. In addition, I feel intense solidarity with all of the languages of the world, living and (for now) dead, those with many speakers and especially those with fewer. Furthermore, I am an enthusiastic supporter of linguistic diversity and insist that we must foster an appreciation for it. I will use facts, anecdotes, statistics, and stories- in short, the truth- to support my views. But I will not shy away from sharing what I believe and I think it is a disservice for writers to feign objectivity when no person can possibly be “objective”. In fact, when writers claim to be objective, they are usually serving the interests of the powers that be by faithfully repeating the talking points of haggard politicians. I will do no such thing- I am a politically active advocate and I will make a point of being clear and honest with you.

In that vein, it is important to note that the evidence I use in this essay is influenced by the languages I’ve studied and know best. This is not meant to exclude other languages- there is ample evidence from every continent for the ideas I put forth here. I just want to be clear that if I don’t have an all-encompassing or adequately diverse set of data from all around the world, it is not because I’m ignoring a particular region or language. Rather, it is because I’m drawing from what I know. I will continue to learn new languages to broaden my knowledge.

It is impo31656_580904605702_4019085_nrtant to make clear that I am a socialist, a progressive, a left-wing thinker and activist. I’ve spent many years advocating for a variety of left-wing causes including gay rights, immigrant rights, economic justice, healthcare for all, and more. I’ve grown frustrated with the “inside game” strategies of left-of-center politics and feel that the best thing I can do right now to make change is to write this essay. While politicians die and policy papers head to paper shredders, I want to write a piece that will outlast me and will inspire change for years to come. The ideas I present in this piece are intimately tied to my previous social justice work and will hopefully inspire both you and me to find new avenues for making social change in the future.


So now that I’ve explained the contours of this essay- why did I write it? In part, I am personally touched by the importance of languages in our lives. As of publication, I speak 7 languages: English, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Portuguese, Catalan, and French (and am studying Yiddish!). I enjoy each and every one of these languages and have found they’ve enriched my life greatly, exposing me to new friendships, travel, music, art, literature, politics, history, and ways of seeing the world. When you learn a language, you learn things you never would’ve seen in translation and you gain new, rich experiences because of it. I’ve seen firsthand the way a francophone from Senegal reacts when I speak French to him- the smile that goes across his face, the warmth that comes from knowing I respect his culture and honor one of the ways he communicates with the world. In college, I built an intense friendship with my friend Claudia in part because she’s Puerto Rican and I speak fluent Spanish. Of course we could have been friends just in English, but it would’ve been a poorer friendship for it, not to mention all the jokes that would’ve been lost in translation. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing my views with the world in different languages too, having been interviewed or quoted in Spanish, Hebrew, and Catalan media about my progressive political ideas. These ideas may never have made their way into those communities’ conversations were it not for the fact that I chose to reach out and meet them where they are in their own languages. I have many stories 7865320448_e1cd49bb53_blike this for all of my languages- the 80 year old lesbian couple I talked with for 2 hours in Montreal in French about their experiences growing up gay, the Palestinian woman I was able to talk with in Arabic about the future we envision for the Middle East, the Israeli 13-year-olds I learned Hebrew slang from while working as a summer camp counselor in Kfar Silver, the Brazilian friend whose questions about Judaism I can better answer because I speak Portuguese.

I firmly believe that multilingualism ought to be a tool for peace-building and promoting cross-cultural understanding.  When I learn a language, it is because I want to appreciate other cultures’ art, music, literature, traditions, thinking, food, and ultimately, people.  I believe learning a language is about fostering understanding and respect.  Therefore, I strongly disagree with the notion of learning a language to “learn about our enemies”.  This distorts the true purpose of language, which is to bring people together, and turns it into a weapon of capitalism and aggression.  My goal is to bring people together using language and therefore I will not promote the idea of learning languages in order to foster militarism and divisiveness.  Language is a tool.  Language can be used to promote understanding or it can be used to wage war.  This piece will exclusively be about how multilingualism can promote understanding. This is the correct and moral way to use languages and the one that aligns with most people’s desire to build a better world.

So I see the value of learning other languages and the cultural respect and creativity that comes with it. And therefore it concerns me that we live in a time in which 75% of Americans can’t speak a second language and when a language dies every two weeks, faster than endangered species. When I see how deficient much of our society is with respect to linguistic rights and diversity, I feel it is important to fix this situation and empower people to take action.

The purpose of this essay is to inspire people to start a linguistic revolution. This piece should serve as the ideological backbone to this revolution- a radical change in how we think and act with regards to language and our social structure. I’ve written an ideological foundation for social change, not a policy paper. If you’re looking for a series of policy proposals, this is not the tract to read, although I will suggest some short-term avenues for getting the revolution started. This work is focused on the ideas underlying language rights and social change, not on implementation. My hope is that the people who read this essay will start a larger movement that collectively can come up with the solutions in a democratic and inclusive process. If you want to think outside the box about how we can support multilingualism and linguistic diversity, then you’ve found the right place.

This commentary is not authoritative or all-encompassing- it is meant to be the beginning of a new discussion and a new way of thinking. I hope that people will build upon my work here and add their own ideas to the conversation. My overall goal is a society organized the needs of people rather than the pursuit of profit. While there are intermediate steps we can and should take to make things better, I think the only true long-term solution which fosters multilingualism and linguistic diversity is to create a society in which value is about what matters to us as rather than a number on a price tag.


Across the globe, there is a huge problem: linguisticide. I define this as a process by which languages, dialects, and accents are stigmatized and/or killed. This section will briefly address both processes, which are of course related.

First, let’s look at stigmatization. Many people grow up speaking a particular way- it could be a language, let’s say Navajo, or even an accent, say the Alabaman accent. Obviously the boundaries between what defines a language vs. a dialect vs. an accent are subjective and somewhat arbitrary, but for the purposes of this essay, let’s agree that these are all different forms of communication.

Let’s imagine that a Navajo job applicant enters an office in Washington, D.C., drops off his resume for a job, and then sits down to speak with the HR manager. The manager suggests they sit down for an interview, and the Navajo man follows him into the room. They sit down and the hiring manager asks “Hello!” and the Navajo man says: “Yá’át’ééh. Ąąʼ haʼíí baa naniná?” What happens next? The HR manager is likely to one of several things: 1) Ask him to repeat what he said 2) Ask what language he’s speaking 3) Tell him that English is required for this job or 4) Ask him to leave. How did it come to be that a Native American, whose languages predates English speakers arriving to the Americas by many centuries, is forced to speak English to get a job in almost anywhere in the United States?

The short answer is capitalNavajo_winter_hoganism. The Navajo language, whose roots go back to the Proto-Athabaskan language in 500 B.C.E., flourished before the arrival of Europeans to the Americas, spoken by many thousands of people. They were self-sufficient hunters and gatherers who later adopted agriculture from the Pueblos, planting corn, beans, and squash. The Spanish, and later the Americans, waged war on the Navajos. In 1864, the American military defeated the Navajo and forced 9,000 of them to march 300 miles to an internment camp, where they were starved.

The American government wanted Navajo land for settlement. Not that individual settlers made a great profit off the land, but the speculators and government officials in the pocket of the ultra-wealthy capitalists sure did. And while U.S. capitalism grew and grew and Navajo lands became the sites of industry and commerce and white settlement, what happened to the Navajo? In the late 1800s, they were forced onto reservations where over 250,000 of them still live to this day, with very high rates of poverty.

Let’s return to the language question. How does all of this impact language? Obviously dislocation, death, starvation, and economic deprivation are going to take their toll. In addition, knowing that linguistic diversity was a threat to American capitalists’ plans for dominating the Southwest, the Navajo were targeted for linguisticide. Many Navajo kids were forced to go to Christian boarding schools where they were required to only speak English and had their mouths washed out with soap for speaking Navajo. No wonder that many of these children, once they grew up, decided not to pass on their own language to their children, fearing the consequences. That is why although Navajo is the most widely-spoken native language in the United States, a full third of the tribe can’t speak the language. Out of 266,000 people, only 7,600 are monolingual Navajo speakers, and they are dying out. It is a language in danger of extinction.

So let’s imagine for a moment that instead of a Navajo man, a British woman came in for the same position and spoke to the HR manager. In her best posh London accent, the woman chats with him and delights him with her “how do you do’s?” The HR manager, self-conscious about his own Southern accent, tries to hide his “y’all’s” and drawls, and laughs along to her jokes. Little does he know that the woman is actually a working-class Welsh woman and putting on the posh accent because she’s too ashamed to speak with her own, let alone in Welsh. Meanwhile, the C.E.O. speaks however she wants and enjoys the show everyone else puts on to please her.

This is linguistic15065364000_a3d790bf9fide, the process by which capitalism does away with languages, dialects, or accents not “useful” for its own commercial purposes. In which diversity and multilingualism are a liability rather than an asset. And in which the very name Navajo is not even from the Navajo language, but rather an English derivation of what the Spanish called the Diné. That’s as great a metaphor for the U.S. Southwest as I’ve ever heard. And so here we are, in 2015, talking about linguisticide and we wouldn’t even know the name of the tribe we’re talking about if it weren’t in the language of the capitalists who conquered it.


The following are the principles of the linguistic revolution. They are not listed in order of importance- all of them are important. This list should certainly be seen as the beginning of a larger conversation in which other people who read this text could expand on the ideas delineated here.

  1. Everyone has the right to use the language of his or her choice.
  1. All languages are created equal.

Just as all people deserve to be treated with dignity just on account of being human beings, so too is it with languages. All languages are beautiful, important, and valuable. While languages may have different qualities that make them fascinating and worthy of admiration, no language, dialect, or accent is inherently superior to another.

The difference between an accent, a dialect, and a language can be fairly subjective and relative. While these terms may still be valid, it should only be for the purpose of classification and academic study, not for the purpose of devaluing a way of communicating. When teaching a language, students should be exposed to different varieties of that language (dialects, sociolects, accents, etc.) so as to familiarize them with different ways of communicating without judging people for sounding different. Even if a particular variety is emphasized for the purpose of facilitating study of a language, exposing students to different varieties of a language enriches the student’s experience and builds respect for different cultures and sectors of society. Just as all languages are worthy of dignity and respect, so too is it with accents, dialects, and varieties of a language. No dialect is superior to another, they are both simply different ways of communicating.

8951833608_343f227d68For example, many students of French (and sometimes the French people themselves) disparage the Quebecois French accent. This prejudiced view often includes implications that Quebecois French is “redneck” French, that it is ugly, that it is impure. All of these statements are wrong and morally repugnant. There is no such thing as an ugly accent- only ugly prejudices which make people believe such things. There is no inherently better way to communicate a language, therefore all accents are created equal. Each may have its own particular and unique aspects which make it beautiful, but they are all beautiful indeed. Much like when Americans disparage southern or African American accents because their speakers are often poor, when French speakers disparage Quebecois French, they are doing so not because of the actual sounds the Quebecois speak their language, but rather how they’ve been educated to perceive them. This prejudice is because of the socioeconomic, political, and cultural ideologies that poison some people’s thinking. In the particular case of French, it stems in part from the overbearing role of the capitalist French state in deciding which language is appropriate or not. Even within France, the Parisian accent is deemed the only acceptable way to speak French properly. Regional languages or dialects such as Norman, Catalan, Provençal, and others are treated with utter disdain by the state and their speakers have been systematically marginalized. Even people who simply speak with non-Parisian accents have internalized the idea that to speak with the Parisian accent is superior and more beautiful and have to suppress their own pronunciations.

To this day, France has not even signed the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages (ECRML) which would protect its indigenous minority languages because the French constitution only recognizes French as an official language. This same ideology- this anti-diversity ideology- helps explain in part why Quebecois French, proudly spoken across the Atlantic, goes against the grain of this homogenous thinking. For to speak French with a different accent, and proudly, is to challenge the very foundation of the French capitalist state.

  1. Linguistic rights stem not from geography or nationality, but from the fact that as human beings, we are all entitled to equal rights no matter where we are

Up until now, most efforts for language preservation, for example within the European Union, have focused on the rights of minority languages within specific territories. However, as soon as a Welsh person, for instance, moves to France, those rights are no longer protected. Therefore, territorial rights are no guarantee of human rights. By linking language to territory rather than the individual, immigrants are often forced to forfeit their linguistic rights when they move to a new place. Instead, people should be able to speak the language of their choice simply because they are a human being, not because of where they live.

  1. The right to speak one’s language is not contingent on citizenship, nor should citizenship be contingent on learning a particular language.

26761_906009946649_2163373_nThe ability for someone to speak the language of his or her choice should in no way be affected by whether or not that individual is a citizen. Nobody has more or less right to speak his or her language. Ideally, in a socialist world, everyone would be a global citizen and therefore his or her ability to participate in civic life would not be conditioned on speaking a certain “official language”. Unfortunately, citizenship is often tied to language. In the United States, you cannot vote until you pass an English exam. While it is desirable for people to learn the languages of places they move to, their ability to participate in the political system should in no way be prevented because they speak a different language (or don’t speak the predominant local language fluently enough).

  1. Less-commonly-spoken languages deserve special protection and support.

French_workers_with_placard_during_occupation_of_their_factory_1968While there are benefits for global and international communication/solidarity for people to learn widely-spoken languages like English, French, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Hindi, etc., this should not come at the expense of other languages. There must be a balance between the two and we must promote multilingualism not only amongst minority language speakers, but also amongst those who speak the most widely-spoken languages. That is to say, a Latino immigrant to the U.S. would benefit from also learning English, but so too should American-born English-speakers take it upon themselves to learn other languages, meeting immigrants and people around the world “half-way”.

In addition to encouraging the people who speak widely-spoken languages to learn other languages, the latter need sustained support. This means enhanced education programs (both for native speakers and majority-language speakers), multilingual signage, access to public services in their languages, promotion of arts/culture/literature, access to media, access to technology such as phones and computers in Cofiwch_Drywerynone’s native tongue, and more. Welsh speakers, for example, have been fairly effective at reviving their language by using many of the tactics above so that a once almost-dead language now has nearly 600,000 speakers, the most of any Celtic language. Yet to the contrary we find the example of the Tibetan language, whose activists are regularly imprisoned by the Chinese government simply for promoting their language. Although perhaps less extreme, similar examples can be found to this day in how the French government treats regional languages and how the Turkish government has oppressed Kurdish language activists. It is unfortunately a story we see all too commonly around the world.

  1. All people have the right and responsibility to be multilingual.

The ability to communicate with people from different backgrounds and cultures is how we build solidarity and community. There ought to be an added level of requirements and emphasis for people who speak the most widely-spoken languages, as they are the least-likely to feel a need to speak another language. Minority language speakers are frequently already multilingual and often speak languages most in danger of disappearance. At a bare minimum, we should expect every single human being to be fluent in at least three languages by the time he or she is 18. Ideally, people should speak four languages or more by middle age. One of these three languages must be a language spoken by less than 10 million people in order to promote the survival of less-commonly-spoken languages. Language learning should also not end with high school. It should continue into college and into adulthood. This is not a pipe dream. In some countries, it is already a reality. For instance, in France, public school children learn French and two other languages during the course of their education. In this respect, the United States is far behind much of the world in giving its children a global and multilingual education.

Although some people would argue for one supranational language like Esperanto or choosing 2 or 3 of the most widely-spoken languages for everyone to learn, these would lead to a decrease in linguistic diversity. Linguistic diversity is in and of itself a richness and moral value which stems from the idea that we are all entitled to express ourselves how we want. By being able to choose the way in which we communicate, we are acknowledging the fact that human beings are different and that is a good thing. There is no reason to fear the immigrant speaking Spanish at a restaurant or the Indian man with an accent doing tech support for Dell. A socialist May_Day_'13,_strikers_in_Union_Square_-_19130501revolution must respect our right to be the people we want to be, including how we speak. By being able to speak the languages of our choice, our souls are nourished and we can find greater fulfillment, something that is important in addition to the material benefits revolution can offer.

Furthermore, a supranational language or forcing everyone to learn only the most widely-spoken languages are not tenable long-term solutions to increasing communication across the world. Because people are unique and communication changes with time, languages often develop into dialects and new languages.  Take, for example, Latin, which developed into French, Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Occitan, Portuguese, Romanian, Italian, and more.

  1. A majority-language in one country may very well also be a minority-language in another country.

So long as there are national boundaries, it is important to note that in some contexts, one language can be a majority language and in others, it could be a minority language in need of extra support in order to be preserved as a vibrant language community. For instance, in France, French is the only language recognized by the state and is in a position of heavy-handed strength. However, in Canada, although it is an official language, it is a minority language spoken by about a fifth of the population and thus needs additional support to continue its vibrant traditions. For this reason, I more often than not use the terms “widely-spoken languages” and “less-widely spoken languages” or variants of these when speaking of languages that have many vs. fewer speakers. When I use the term “minority language” I mean specifically languages which are spoken by minorities within a larger political boundary (e.g. Spanish in the U.S.- Spanish is a widely-spoken global language but within the U.S. it is a minority language).

Panneau_de_signalisation_multilingue_à_Issers_(Algérie)It is also worth considering that minority languages also have linguistic minorities whose rights they should respect. That is to say a Moroccan who immigrates to Quebec, while respecting the need to learn French, also has just as much right to speak his or her native Arabic and/or Amazigh. It strikes me as hypocritical for a Quebecois to (justly) protest Canadian treatment of French but then to expect the Moroccan immigrant to abandon his or her language. It would benefit Quebecois society to have bilingual French-Arabic (and other language) schools so that all languages are preserved. This solution could apply to other minority-language regions like Catalonia and Wales. To learn one language is not necessarily to lose another. This is not a zero-sum game. Rather than displacing a language, multilingualism is the solution to preserving all of the world’s languages.

  1. People migrating to an area that primarily speaks another language should (and already often do) learn the local language, while not being forced to abandon their own.

This is often already done through the educational system but should also be promoted outside of schools through community outreach programs and free classes. Classes should be free, scheduled regularly, convenient, and accessible. However, under no circumstances are immigrants to be discouraged from speaking their native languages regardless of where they live. Local residents should be encouraged to learn the languages of immigrant communities. Bilingual or multilingual schools must be established and required for all global citizens.

  1. While many widely-spoken languages grew through colonialism at the expense of less widely-spoken languages, it is not a reason to discard the language.

There is beauty in all languages, even ones that have gained immense power due to the bad policies of a small cadre of capitalists. However, measures must be taken to preserve or restore those languages that were displaced to ensure they also have a future and people can regain some of their history and culture. For instance, an indigenous Peruvian should continue to study Spanish as a national and regional language, but should also be educated in Quechua to preserve his or her local identity. Multilingualism is not a zero sum game of “either/or”, but it is true that if we are to create some sense of balance and justice, local languages must be fully recognized in addition to more widely-spoken languages. Language activists must realize that the true fight is not against Spanish, for instance, but against the wealthy capitalists who conquer and divide Spanish-speaking workers from Quechua-speaking workers. A society in which both of these groups learn and respect each other’s languages is one in which workers will build solidarity to challenge the forces that divide them unnecessarily. Diversity is a sign of strength, not weakness. The way to promote intercultural understanding is first and foremost by learning each other’s languages. While some nominally communist (but actually totalitarian) societies like the Soviet Union have viewed cultural and linguistic diversity as a threat, I think modern socialists ought to see it as an opportunity to promote a wide range of thought and discussion which can bring people together by respecting each other’s differences. The answer is not to erase people’s differences and forcibly homogenize people, but rather to celebrate and ultimately understand them by learning to communicate in other groups’ languages.

  1. Language and culture have always been transnational and always will be.

The long-term socialist goal of doing away with borders would actually help preserve cultural traditions. For example, Catalan is spoken in Spain, France, and Italy. If there were no political boundaries, this language community would have more opportunities to collaborate. The same could be said for Chicano and Tejano culture between Mexico and the Southwest in the U.S. Or languages that never had a state apparatus such as Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Socialism would and should preserve diversity rather than demanding conformity.  The system I envision wouldn’t erase cultures, it would actually create more contact and understanding between them.


  1. Languages must be used for good purposes.

Languages can and should be used to promote intercultural understanding, worker solidarity, art, music, literature, culture, and peace. These things we ought to promote and celebrate. We ought to be wary though of those who use languages at the behest of capitalists and their allies, such as the CIA or the military. We must encourage these people to use their talents for good rather than cruelty. Furthermore, when teaching languages, we must emphasize that they should be used to good ends.

  1. Linguistic justice must be a part of a broader movement for social justice.

So long as we have an economic system based on profit rather than need, linguistic diversity will shrink. One cannot put a price tag on the value of a language- it is an entire worldview, a way of thinking, culture, music, art, and more. A capitalist system that treats languages as nothing more than vehicles by which to sell products cannot adequately address the needs of the 99% of the world’s population who are workers, especially those speaking less-commonly-spoken languages. In the never-ending search for profit, large corporations seek to unravel cultural differences and at best show only token respect for linguistic diversity. Large corporations use languages to promote their cruel agenda of exploitation rather than using them for their designed purpose- to communicate and build understanding and peace. Companies such as Coca Cola will never show a real interest in marketing its products in Hawaiian, Navajo, or Breton because it assumes and expects these consumers to speak the more widely-spoken languages and therefore it saves Coca Cola money if it doesn’t have to reach out to the public in these less-commonly spoken languages. In a socialist system in which the global citizenry can decide its own future, it can show due deference to the need to preserve languages without having to justify the “costs”. After all, this is a moral issue.


Languages are beautiful and valuable in and of themselves. However, in addition, they can also be a valuable tool for building solidarity across cultures to build a better, more progressive socialist society. Multilingualism offers people greater flexibility and empathy in thinking and therefore creates the potential for more innovative approaches to healing the world, resolving interpersonal and intercultural conflicts, and bringing about social change and peace.


This work outlines a progressive ideology about language and linguistic rights. Some of the values I discussed in this book will be more readily and sooner achieved than others. All are worth fighting for. That being said, if you’re wondering “Where do I start?”, here are some guidelines for how to make our society a more just place using languages:

  • Fight for economic justice and grassroots socialism. The closer we can get to a society oriented around need and people rather than profit, the closer the day will come when all languages will be protected and celebrated. A good start would be raising the minimum wage, but this should be only the beginning of our involvement in fighting for economic justice.
  • The more people speaking more languages the better. Advocate for schools to continue world language programs and insist on adding more language options.  The United States has always been multilingual and we should celebrate that.  Push school systems to add more bilingual or immersion programs in a wide variety of languages.
  • Write about linguistic rights, education, respect for immigrant languages, or any of the other topics covered here- could be a blog, a tweet, a letter to the editor, an op-ed.
  • Learn another language yourself- take a class, find a tutor, and immerse yourself in another culture. Invite others to join you or share your experience with family and friends to encourage them to do likewise. It’s never too late to learn! I learned French at age 29 and am continuing to learn new languages!
  • Start a discussion group in your community in one of the languages you speak. Use it as an opportunity to get native speakers and second-language-learners to interact and build bridges.
  • Start an advocacy group in your community to support linguistic diversity and education. This could be as simple as a Facebook group, it doesn’t necessarily need to be a formal non-profit.
  • Share this essay with your family and friends to get them thinking about these issues.
  • Create a group in which native-born residents and immigrants get together to teach each other/help practice each other’s languages. Invite the press to observe.
  • Advocate for multilingual signage in your community- contact local lawmakers to pressure them on this issue.
  • Help civil rights organizations advocate for multilingual government services – particularly the justice system and social services. If they’re not already advocating for this, explain to them why this is an important issue for the civil rights agenda.
  • Ask that local law schools require students to learn multiple languages in order to better represent the community.
  • If you have children, make sure they’re learning several languages in and outside of school.
  • Encourage schools to study multilingual literature, in the original and in translation when the students don’t speak the language.
  • Set up multilingual non-profit or co-op bookstores/libraries.
  • Demand that your local library purchase and carry more books in different languages.
  • Encourage local schools and lawmakers to celebrate a new holiday, “International Language Day”, in which there would be festivals, ceremonies, music, art, etc. celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity
  • If your mother tongue is not the official language, organize protests for recognition. You could stage a “speak in” in which you go to a government office and speak your language.
  • Ask that local businesses use multilingual signage and train multilingual staff. Businesses could band together to provide affordable language training to their staff.
  • Increase the use of different languages in the media. For example, petition public media (in the U.S., NPR and PBS, for example) to use a variety of languages to communicate with the public. In addition, start multilingual newspapers, blogs, community radio programs, etc. Create or participate in Facebook groups in different languages.

These are all suggestions to get you started, but none of them are written in stone. Take these ideas and run with them. Collaborate with your friends, family, and neighbors. The most important thing is to start making the case that all languages are beautiful, inherently equal, worthy of respect, and need to be incorporated into our lives wherever we live.


The goal of this essay was to spark a linguistic revolution. I shared with you the problem of linguisticide. I’ve outlined a variety of principles for this revolution and a variety of ways to get the process started. How do we make this revolution real? By joining the conversation, adding your ideas, and taking action. Only by coming together and fighting for what we believe will we be able to make this world a better place for speakers of all languages. To quote the phrase on a beautiful piece of art my mom gave me that’s now hanging in my dining room: ¡Sí se puede!


I encourage you to read my other blog posts at https://culturallycuriousblog.wordpress.com/ about language, culture, progressive politics, and more.  Thanks for reading my essay and please share it with your friends and family.  I look forward to hearing your thoughts!

Mil gracias,


Un interview avec Québec solidaire

Un interview avec Québec solidaire

Québec solidaire est un parti progressiste au Québec.  Je trouve que c’est très intéressant et à certains égards un source d’inspiration politique pour mon pays, les États Unis.  J’avais eu le plaisir de faire cet interview avec Benoit Renaud, membre de la Commission politique de Québec solidaire et porte-parole pour la région de l’Outaouais. Aussi, il était candidat dans la circonscription de Hull aux dernières élections.  Merci beaucoup à lui pour faire cet interview avec moi.  Voici les questions et les réponses:

1. Il y a un débat au Québec sur l’immigration.  Quelle est votre perspective sur ce thème?  Est-ce qu’il y a une différence entre votre parti et le Parti Québecois?

Le nouveau chef du Parti québécois a déclaré, durant la course à la chefferie, que chaque année, avec les 50 000 immigrantes et immigrants qui arrivent au Québec, le camp souverainiste perd l’équivalent d’une circonscription aux élections (sur les 125 que compte notre Assemblée nationale). Il s’est rétracté par la suite, mais il avait exprimé ce que bien des nationalistes pensent depuis le référendum de 1995, soit que les nouveaux arrivants sont gagnés d’avance à la cause de l’unité canadienne.

À Québec solidaire, nous croyons au contraire que l’avenir du mouvement pour l’indépendance se trouve du côté des jeunes et des minorités, bref des personnes qui n’ont pas été convaincues par le discours nationaliste du PQ, mais qui pourraient se rallier à un projet démocratique, écologiste et de justice sociale. Nos résultats aux élections tendent à démontrer que nous sommes le seul parti capable de convaincre de nouvelles personnes de voter pour un parti indépendantiste.

2. C’est sûr que la langue est toujours un sujet important au Québec.  Comme parti souverainiste et aussi très progressiste, comment proposez-vous trouver un équilibre entre la préservation du français et les droits linguistiques des immigrants?

L’objectif de la Charte de la langue française est de faire en sorte que les membres de la majorité francophone du Québec (une minorité au Canada et une toute petite proportion de la population du continent) puissent vivre en français dans leur propre pays. Pour ce faire, il y a notamment des incitatifs pour que les lieux de travail de 50 employés et plus fonctionnent en français. Nous croyons qu’il faudrait abaisser ce seuil parce que bien des entreprises sont plus petites et échappent à la loi. Nous sommes d’accord avec le Parti québécois sur cette question.

En même temps, nous reconnaissons les droits historiques de la minorité anglophone de disposer de ses propres institutions (hôpitaux, écoles, universités, municipalités…) qui fonctionnent principalement en anglais. Pour ce qui est des autres groupes linguistiques, que nous appelons allophones (autres langues), nous souhaitons qu’ils apprennent en priorité le français et participent aux institutions de la majorité. C’est pourquoi les enfants d’immigrants doivent fréquenter l’école française.

Présentement, plus de la moitié des nouveaux arrivants parlent déjà le français à leur arrivée au Québec. Un autre quart apprend le français par la suite. Cette proportion de 75% de francophones et de francisés est presque suffisante pour maintenir l’équilibre linguistique à long terme. Présentement, 80% de la population du Québec est francophone, 8% est anglophone et 12% se partagent les autres langues. Il faudrait faire juste un petit effort de plus pour éviter toute crainte d’un déclin à long terme du français. Au lieu de cela, le gouvernement actuel a réduit les budgets des organismes qui s’occupent de la francisation des immigrantes et immigrants. Il devrait au contraire reconnaître l’apprentissage du français comme un droit et faire en sorte que l’offre de cours suive la demande.

La protection du droit de travailler en français est importante pour les immigrantes et immigrants allophones aussi. Autrement, on les oblige à apprendre deux nouvelles langues pour pouvoir obtenir un emploi, ce qui n’est pas raisonnable!

3. Aux États Unis, on a un système bipartiste.  Les américains de gauche on a peur de voter pour un troisième parti.  Comme parti de politique alternative, avez-vous quelques recommandations pour les progressistes américains?

Il faut être patient! Avant d’arriver à fonder Québec solidaire et à finalement faire élire un premier député nous avons passé par un chemin complexe de regroupement de forces politiques diverses qui a pris plus que dix ans. Aussi, il est primordial d’enraciner cette nouvelle force politique dans des mouvements de mobilisation populaire. Pour nous, il y a eu la Marche mondiale de femmes en 2000, le Sommet des Amériques en 2001, le mouvement contre la guerre en Irak en 2003, etc. Il faut donc combiner la convergence des forces politiques existantes avec l’émergence de nouvelles générations de militantes et de militants. Les jeunes et les femmes ont un rôle clé à jouer dans un tel processus.

Au Québec, l’argument à l’effet qu’il faudrait voter pour le PQ parce qu’il serait « moins pire » que le Parti libéral ne tient plus. Le PQ au pouvoir a fait « pire » que les Libéraux à plusieurs occasions, notamment avec des lois répressives contre le mouvement syndical ou avec sa proposition de « charte des valeurs » qui était une attaque à peine voilée contre les minorités religieuses et culturelles du Québec. J’aime bien l’expression de Michael Moore « the evil of two lessers », qui me semble résumer le problème.

4. Est-ce que vous vous inspirez de partis en dehors du Québec?  Par example, en Grèce on a le parti anti-austerité “Syriza” et il existe presque la même chose en Espagne – “Podemos”.  Ou peut-être est-ce que vous avez des amis politiques dans le monde francophone?

Nous entretenons des liens de plus en plus étroits avec diverses forces politiques de gauche ailleurs dans le monde. Au début, nos regards se tournaient surtout vers l’Amérique Latine, avec les développements au Venezuela, en Bolivie et en Équateur, notamment. Plusieurs de nos membres ont participé aux Forums sociaux mondiaux. Plus récemment, nous avons échangé avec des mouvements et partis de gauche en Europe, dont ceux que vous mentionnez, mais aussi Die Linke (Allemagne), le Bloc de gauche (Portugal), le Front de gauche (France), et Scottish Left project (Écosse). Beaucoup de militantes et de militants de QS peuvent discuter de politique en anglais ou en espagnol, ce qui facilite les liens avec ces groupes.

Lors de notre dernier congrès, nous avons ouvert les travaux avec un panel international qui incluait une militante écossaise et un représentant de Die Linke. On évoquait alors l’émergence d’une internationale de la solidarité, contre l’internationale de l’austérité. Des représentants de Québec solidaire ont aussi participé à des rencontres de ces partis et nous comptons multiplier ces occasions d’échanger et de collaborer.

5. Pourquoi est-ce important d’avoir un parti souverainiste comme le vôtre au Québec quand il y a déjà un parti indépendantiste – le PQ?

Notre vision de l’indépendance, tant sur le pourquoi que sur le comment, est très différente de celle du PQ. Nous croyons que l’autodétermination de la population doit être au cœur du projet. C’est pourquoi nous proposons l’élection d’une assemblée constituante qui aura comme tâche de proposer une constitution pour le Québec. Cette assemblée serait le résultat d’une démarche de démocratie participative sans précédent. Pour nous, c’est cette souveraineté du peuple qui peut donner un élan vers l’indépendance. Tandis que le Parti québécois est toujours pris avec le modèle monarchiste hérité de l’empire britannique qui consiste à concentrer l’initiative et le pouvoir entre les mains du premier ministre, pendant que le peuple joue un rôle d’appui passif.

Aussi, il ne suffit pas de réaliser une indépendance formelle, légale. Bien des pays sont en théorie indépendants mais sont pris au piège d’une dépendance économique. L’exemple récent de la Grèce est frappant à cet égard. Nous proposons un projet social, économique et écologique qui permettrait au Québec d’échapper, au moins en partie, à la dictature des marchés financiers et des entreprises multinationales.

6. Il y a maintenant une politique d’austérité très forte au Québec.  Comment proposez-vous confronter cette philosophie dangereuse?

Il y a déjà une mobilisation sociale d’envergure au Québec sur cette question. Comme parti politique, nous pouvons intervenir à plusieurs niveaux pour appuyer ce mouvement. Nos députés prennent la parole à l’Assemblée nationale pour dénoncer l’austérité à chaque occasion. Nous présentons aussi des alternatives à l’austérité avec nos propositions de politique économique. Enfin, nous organisons des échanges parmi nos membres sur la question de l’austérité et des mobilisations contre ces politiques.

Cette année, les 500 000 travailleuses et travailleurs du secteur public provincial sont en période de négociation de leurs conventions collectives. Les syndicats du secteur public constituent une force considérable qui est déjà en bonne partie mobilisée contre l’austérité. On peut s’attendre à une confrontation majeure cet automne avec le gouvernement. Québec solidaire sera du côté des travailleuses et des travailleurs dans cette lutte et nous souhaitons qu’elle se transforme en une mobilisation populaire large contre l’ensemble des politiques d’austérité, en s’inspirant de la grande mobilisation du printemps 2012 qui avait été provoquée par la grève étudiante.

Economic justice

All too often, progressives, liberals, lefties, do-gooders, whatever you’d like to call us, spend a lot of time arguing with each other about which issues matter the most. For example, Cynthia Tucker argues that “climate change is our most pressing issue.” One could find examples of this on many issues, ranging from gay rights to immigration to racism. One potential reason for this fragmentation is the role of non-profits and foundations in segmenting what are otherwise very connected communities and issues. I’ll save discussion of the roots of the issue for another post, but in this post I’d like to discuss the framework we need to use to bring all these issues together, mobilize the people, and make progress: economic justice.

Economic justice is the most important framework for making progress.

Almost all issues and communities are affected by economic justice. For example, 24% of 18-44 year old lesbian and bisexual women are living in poverty in contrast to only 19% of heterosexual women. A UCLA study found that “gay men earn 10 to 32% less than similarly qualified heterosexual men.” One study of low-income immigrants found that 26% were paid less than the minimum wage and 76% were not paid for overtime. As of August, the unemployment rate for blacks (11.4%) was more than twice that for whites (5.3%). The U.N. has also found that the poor will face the brunt of the effects of climate change. Indeed, the roadblock in the way of passing climate change legislation is economic too: big fossil fuel companies.

Economic justice is effective in mobilizing the people. For example, while many think of the Arab Spring as only a reaction to lack of political freedom, it actually started as an economic movement. Tunisian vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated when the authorities robbed him of his livelihood by taking his vegetable cart, sparking massive protests. In 2011, Israelis united to take to the streets in record numbers (about half a million people) to protest economic conditions. In the words of student leader Jonathan Levy: “All the non-rich people in Israel, no matter if they’re secular or religious, old or young, reali[z]e that we’ve abandoned some really important battlefields in this country, that is [the] economy, and we only dealt obsessively with security problems.” In the U.S., the Occupy Wall Street movement reignited the issue of economic justice for Americans, with over 7000 people facing arrest to bring this issue to light. The fruits of this movement have been seen in protests inspired by it around the world. For instance, in Hong Kong, the most recent Occupy Central protests came about because people felt that “only very wealthy people can have a voice in politics” and because of the “stark inequality” in the city.

Economic justice is a popular issue. In 2014, Democrats did abysmally at the polls losing the Senate and even more House seats, but economic justice issues did very well. For example, referendums to wage the minimum wage were successful in conservative states: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. In Alaska, where Democrats lost their Senate seat, the ballot initiative passed with almost 70% of the vote. While only 14% of Americans have a favorable opinion of Wall Street, 77% of Americans would agree to tax hikes to preserve social security.

Some people would like to divide the issues we face into ever smaller and more separate categories. Listen closely, progressive advocates: we need to recognize that the fight for economic justice is the best way to unite us and achieve our goals together.

(Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Freedom and Jobs, which called not just for civil rights, but also funding for job training, a public works program, and a $2 nationwide minimum wage, a legacy we should remember today)

Multilingual America

In 2011, Texas State Senator Chris Harris told an immigrant rights activist that using an interpreter to translate his Spanish testimony was “insulting“.  One can find examples of this disheartening “English only” attitude in many parts of the United States, although it is particularly rich for a white man in Texas to tell someone to not speak Spanish in a place that used to be part of Mexico and where Spanish was spoken before English.

“English only” activists like this Senator would like us to believe that English has always and should always dominate the linguistic landscape of our country.  They want us to think that unlike in today’s multicultural America, in Early America, people only spoke English.

In this post, I intend to prove them wrong by demonstrating that America has always been a multilingual place, even in colonial times and the early years of our nation.

Many of our founding fathers were multilingual.  Benjamin Franklin taught himself French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, and Greek.  James Madison knew Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.  John Adams spoke French and Latin.  The most impressive polyglot was Thomas Jefferson, who spoke French, Italian, and Latin, had some reading proficiency in Greek and Spanish, and may have spent time studying Gaelic, Welsh, Arabic, and German as well.  He advocated for his daughters and young correspondents to learn French and (gasp) Spanish “because of the increasing diplomatic importance Spain would presumable hold in U.S. foreign relations.”  According to the book Language Loyalties by James Crawford, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush was also an advocate for multilingualism.  He wanted German and French taught in schools and for German to be preserved as an asset for the new nation.  He said that people who feared Germans in Pennsylvania were “narrow-minded” and that “a man who is learned in the dialect of a Mohawk Indian is more fit for a legislator than a man who is ignorant even in the language of the learned Greeks.”


(Thomas Jefferson’s Paris house memorial)

Early Americans used many languages besides English.  According to Crawford, “[p]rior to the arrival of the Europeans, more than 500 languages were spoken in North America.”  He notes that “[m]any churches offered services in different languages” and that there were French and German language schools, societies, and libraries in both the North and South.  In fact, none other than Noah Webster (of dictionary fame) suggested that our primary language not even be called English and said that “circumstance render a future separation of the American tongue from the English necessary and unavoidable.”  In Webster’s view, the way Americans speak would become as different from English as “modern Dutch, Danish, and Swedish are from…German.”  New Amsterdam (today’s New York) was incredibly diverse where “18 languages were spoken on Manhattan Island as early as 1646.”  In what is today New York, “English not even introduced into Dutch schools until 1774.”

The Early American press was multilingual.  In 1732, Ben Franklin published Philadelphische Zeitung, the first ever German or non-English paper in what is today the United States.  Crawford notes that “acceptance of and support of French and German newspapers” was common throughout the country.  Die Freyheits-Fahne was founded in Pennsylvania in 1814 and there were at least eight other German papers and at least two French papers in the state by the early 1800s.  Americans even founded a French language paper in South Carolina, Echo du Sud, Moniteur Francais, in 1801.  The book Language Loyalties notes that the Continental Congress even issued publications in French and German to persuade the local population to join the revolutionary cause.  One of those documents was the Articles of Confederation, which you can find here in French.

Philadelphische Zeitung

(Ben Franklin’s German paper published in Philadelphia)

In conclusion, people like State Senator Chris Harris want you to believe that speaking languages other than English is un-American.  However, our history shows that America has always been a multilingual place.  Speaking other languages is as American as Ben Franklin and as patriotic as Thomas Jefferson.

(Plaque honoring Ben Franklin’s arrival to France)

I’d like to extend a special thanks to Rachel Jirka, the Research Services Librarian of the Society of the Cincinnati, who generously offered her time to help me research this piece.