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10.12.05

Entitlement vs. Spanish

Everyone's been writing about the story of a student who was suspended (but later reinstated) for speaking Spanish in school. You don't need me to tell you that the teacher and principal were way out of line. The incident struck me as a sort of low-wattage version, springing from similar impulses, of Australia's Stolen Generation and the related efforts on this continent to forcibly assimilate indigenous children. That comparison got me thinking about one of the issues that unites the various strands of progressivism: elite entitlement.

Environmentalists, feminists, fat activists, and others have differing enemies who nevertheless share a key characteristic: a sense of entitlement. Entitlement to prestige. Entitlement to call the shots in society. Entitlement not to have to think about how the laundry will get done or where your hamburger comes from. Entitlement not to have to see or hear about anything you find aesthetically or sexually unappealing. Entitlement to have everyone affirm your choice of holiday. Entitlement to set the terms of the (employment or other) offer. Entitlement to have the world rearranged to suit you, to have other people make the sacrifices to keep you happy. And so on.

This entitlement is bound up in the question of authority, since getting your own way requires being able to control others' behavior (ordering them around) and discourse (defining the terms of debate). The existence of an alternative power center not subordinate to you (or at least to a trusted compatriot). One of the most threatening such alternative power centers is a culture that you do not control, that you can't at least box in and define (for yourself and for its own members) as inferior. Speaking a language that the entitled elite don't understand is a brazen declaration of such an alternative power center.

The question of surveillance comes in here too. Maintaining one's entitlement to power requires knowing what your subordinates are up to -- a process made difficult by a language barrier. Doubtless someone will try to defend the teacher and principal by pointing out that they need to be able to hear everything the students say, lest they be planning a gang initiation or conducting a drug deal in the hallway. The need for the authorities to eavesdrop is accomplished, however, not by the authorities learning Spanish (which would perhaps be a more robust solution from a purely social control point of view), but by enforcing their entitlement to choose the language.

It's not surprising that so many of these stories of outrage come from schools. The structure of school administration, rooted in our (not unjustified) views of children's lesser status, makes it an appealing environment for someone with an overactive sense of entitlement. The job of principal thus attracts more than its share of petty despots.

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