McCain’s bilingual blues

Let’s hope McCain’s new website means he understands that the use of Spanish, and many other non-English languages in America, is here to stay, and the idea of declaring an official language is officially defunct.The general election campaign hasn’t even started yet, and already Sen. John McCain is flip-flopping.

This week, he launched a sleek new Spanish-language website, announcing “Estamos Unidos Con John McCain” (“We Are United With John McCain”).

But almost two years ago, McCain voted for an amendment to declare English as the official national language. And last March, he skipped a vote on an amendment that sought to block lawsuits by employees challenging English-only workplace rules.

Like most Republican politicians, McCain faces a dilemma when it comes to pursuing the Latino vote. If he courts them too strongly by maintaining a moderate stance on immigration, he may be seen as not being a “true” conservative. But if he neglects them, he may have trouble in certain key states.

The Latino vote, particularly in Florida, was crucial to President Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004. But it was also a barometer of flagging support for Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections. This drop-off was due in part to the hard line taken by the anti-illegal-immigration wing of the party, which called for massive arrests and deportation.

That wing keeps flapping about the need to make English the official language, even though the vast majority of Spanish speakers in the United States are U.S. citizens, born or naturalized.

What’s more, there is nothing in the Constitution that mentions the need for an official language, and there is nothing inherent in democracy that requires the use of English. The availability of government services in different languages is justified by the 14th Amendment, which requires that citizens not be denied “equal protection of the laws.”

McCain’s Spanish-language website is part of a good old-fashioned American effort to market his campaign to millions of law-abiding citizens. These are the same citizens for whom the world’s biggest multinational corporations spend millions of dollars to market their products in Spanish.

Supporters of making English the official language should consider this: If they apply their rule literally, we may have to rename some of our favorite states, like Colorado (Red) and Florida (Filled With Flowers).

Strict enforcement of such a law might mean taxpayers would have to pay for the cost of redubbing all of John Wayne’s movies, making sure he says “guy” instead of “hombre.” Or it might require English-challenged California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to change his signature line to “Till I See You Again, Baby!”

Let’s hope McCain’s new website means he understands that the use of Spanish, and many other non-English languages in America, is here to stay, and the idea of declaring an official language is officially defunct.

Ed Morales is a contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and is the author of “Living in Spanglish.” He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.