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Speaking in Tongues

By Russ Smith | Posted 5/19/2004

Supporters of Bob Ehrlich--at least those who aren't Neanderthals--must be hoping that the governor, after the past two weeks, is nightly reciting Ralph Kramden's self-flagellation from The Honeymooners: "I've got a big, fat mouth!"

I reject the notion posited by Ehrlich's detractors that when he said earlier this month that multiculturalism was "bunk" and "crap" it was purposely designed to shore up his Republican base in the state, especially those who are xenophobic (although they may not actually know how to spell that word). The governor's too savvy for that; making those intemperate remarks on talk radio was just boneheaded, an indication that maybe he was having a crummy day.

It's one thing for Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, now a dotty 82 and apparently content to play the state jester role that the late Hyman Pressman once so ably fulfilled, to get in a snit over a McDonald's clerk struggling with her English. It's quite another for Ehrlich, in the prime of his career, to allow potential Democratic challengers such a wide opening to blast the first-term chief executive.

Maybe this is naiveté at work, but I believe what Ehrlich meant in his ill-advised comments was not a slap at the immigrants who are so vital to the future of Maryland's economy and heterogeneity of communities throughout the state, but rather a criticism of those, especially academics, who'd rewrite American history via pandering to special-interest groups.

Here's a true story. Fourteen years ago I was on a two-hour car ride along with a family friend and two of his buddies, heading back to New York City from Long Island. Somehow the topic of geography came up, and I asked the three of them, all recent graduates of prestigious universities, the seemingly simple question of how many states were in this country. One said, haltingly, "53?", another guessed 52, and the third, to my visible disgust, bet on 48.

Taken aback, I asked the budding young professionals just how they could be ignorant of such a basic fact. One of the fellows, now a surgeon, quickly retorted: "Look, man, I might've been absent the day we covered that. Besides, my prep school concentrated more on basket weaving in Africa and how Americans screwed the Indians than dates and figures."

As a way to conclude a conversation that was getting a bit contentious I queried the trio as to whether even one of them could tell me what year the Civil War started. The blank stares, as if I was the kook, were sufficient to change the topic to the current baseball pennant races.

I'd wager that Ehrlich agrees with a recent statement from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who, when questioned about the prison abuse in Iraq, said "America is not what's wrong with the world. I read all this stuff--people hate us, people don't like us. The fact of the matter is, people line up to come into this country every year because it's better here than other places, and because they respect the fact that we respect human beings."

Nevertheless, Ehrlich gave Mayor Martin O'Malley--this year, thanks to the school board, embattled on a far less grand scale than Rumsfeld--an opening to emerge from uncharacteristic obscurity and use his high-school Spanish to tell a WBAL-AM radio audience on May 11 what a know-nothing the governor is for not applauding the beauty of Maryland's melting pot, diversity, acceptance of people of all religions, languages, creeds, and customs. O'Malley laid it on thick, all but citing former New York Mayor David Dinkins' trademark quote that NYC was a "gorgeous mosaic."

O'Malley did say, "Few of us would be here if our non-English-speaking relatives hadn't struggled for a few years--or decades--to learn English. This is something we should try to remember if we're inconvenienced for a few minutes during the course of our daily routine because someone is learning English."

Not surprisingly, the flap allowed The Sun and The Washington Post to get their shots in at a man they'll certainly oppose in 2006. The Sun's May 13 editorial, "No Bunk," was just silly, condemning Ehrlich and Schaefer in German, Spanish, French, and English. On the same day, the Post editorialists made a more valid point, that Ehrlich ought to speed up the backlog of Maryland residents waiting to take English classes. However, the paper also said that politically correct multiculturalism is found only on the "fringes of academia," a willful flight from reality.

Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, who annoyingly refers to Ehrlich as "Bobby Governor," used his May 13 column not only to claim the governor was pandering to "angry white males" (an anachronism) and "Joe Sixpack," but more disturbingly repeated the claim of left-wingers that attacks on multiculturalism smacked of the Third Reich. I know and like Rodricks, and he's a lot smarter than that.

As for Ehrlich, whose star is rising in national GOP circles because of his staunch anti-tax views, one would hope he's learned when to keep his yap shut and yield the floor on criticism of immigrants to boobs like Schaefer.

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