WESTMINSTER, Maryland -- You knew it was going to be a busy night in Westminster when 15 protestors showed up at the lighting of the Carroll County Christmas tree.
This was Tuesday, just after sunset and just before the board of county commissioners was to listen to comments from the proletariat for and against its proposed Ordinance 12230-0227, to wit:
WHEREAS, the English language is the common language of Carroll County, Maryland, and the United States of America;
WHEREAS, the use of a common language removes barriers of misunderstanding...
WHEREAS, the Board of County Commissioners recognizes the need to protect and preserve the rights of those who speak only the English language, etc., etc., etc.
NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT ENACTED: The English language is the official language of Carroll County, Maryland.
Everyone was going to get his or her say a little later at a special convening of the council. But first, the same elected officials who were making Carroll County globally notorious -- or nationally admired -- by legislating that all residents use the language they already used anyway had to spread some comfort and joy. This wasn't going to be easy.
When I hauled up in Westminster, which is a charming and historic town tucked up against the Pennsylvania state line about an hour and a half north of Washington, the first woman I met on the sidewalk outside the county office building was carrying a placard that said WE ARE ALL IMMIGRANTS on one side and FRñLICHE WEINACHTEN on the other side, this, of course, being German for Merry Christmas.
There were about a dozen more rabble-rousers on the pavement with her, parading in support of and opposition to the proposed ordinance, while a youth choir tried to sing carols and the stalwart members of the board of commissioners attempted to get on with the ceremonial illumination of the big fir on the patio. By Carroll County standards, this constituted a dangerous mob. State troopers coiled on the capitol steps, ready for anything.
"We all came from somewhere else!" the woman with the German sign declared when I sidled over.
"The Navajo might object to you saying that," I suggested.
"The Indians came from somewhere else, too," the card-carrier insisted. "They just got here a little earlier."
"Yeah, and without visas," I noted.
"I never thought of that!" the protestor said.
I soon learned that, in Carroll County, Maryland, the would-be one-man Office de la langue anglaise is an apple-cheeked Republican lawyer named Haven Shoemaker, chairman of the county board and paramount Parizeau of the English-only regulation.
When the tree-lighting was over and I had grabbed a couple of free gingerbread cookies and a free cup of apple cider, I found Commissioner Shoemaker in the rotunda of the county office building, telling a television reporter from Baltimore that his proposed law "isn't anything that's particularly radical" and noting that 31 American states and two other Maryland counties already have official-English statues on their books.
"I guess sixty-two per cent of states are bigoted," Shoemaker shrugged.
It really was about money, he said; the county shouldn't be paying for documents to be translated into Quechua or Khmer or Fang, not that there are many Fang-only-speakers in Carroll County, Maryland. In fact, according to a recent census, 98.2 per cent of county residents characterized their knowledge of English as "very good."
When I asked Haven Shoemaker what advice he would give to aliens considering Carroll County as their new home, he said: "What I would suggest that they do is learn English."
"If folks want to speak Swahili, or Spanish, or French in the private sector, or in their own homes, they are free to do so," Shoemaker affirmed. "It's America."
"Hakuna matata," I said, and walked downstairs to the hearing room.
The chamber was packed with Tea Party activists, calloused farmhands, citified lefties and elderly couples, plus one Hispanic woman who had been a Fulbright scholar, three or four African-Americans, and an Asian dude in a T-shirt that said BORDER PATROL.
There wasn't a single seat empty, except for the chair that had been vacated temporarily by a woman who was walking up and down the aisles with a sign that said SHAME ON SHOEMAKER, to cheering and booing and applause.
I found myself at the back of the hall, next to a man named Scott Markle who turned out to be the president of the Carroll County Democratic Club. Up here, Democrats are as rare as flamingos, so actually glimpsing one in its natural habitat was a treat.
"What do you think of the ordinance?" I asked Markle.
"It's mean-spirited and meant to attract support from the far right wing the next time they run for office and you can quote me," Markle replied, so I did.
From the dais, Haven Shoemaker told us that anyone who wished to speak could have the floor for three minutes, exactly, and that everyone's opinion would be weighed when the commissioners met, after the holidays, to yea or nay the law.
The comments were anything but unanimous. A man named Jesse Tyler warned the commissioners: "do not allow the United States to become an English-optional nation." A woman named Judy Hank countered with the statement that "It does send a message that our county is anti-foreigner, not that I see foreigners rushing to our county and demanding to put up signs and whatnot anyway."
"It's not exactly the Welcome Wagon for people with open minds," said a man named Randall Yoder from a hamlet called Eldersburg.
"If the county is hemorrhaging money, if the county is being overrun by all five people, then maybe we need this," said a man named Christian Reddy. "But I don't think we need a law in search of a problem."
Mostly, the citizens of Carroll County, Maryland, wanted us to know that their own ancestors had come here from Latvia or Italy or the Rhineland, and that they all had worked hard to learn the English language and make a new life in a bountiful and accepting land.
"That's what our country was founded on -- e pluribus unum -- one from many," a man named Nason said.
"That's not English!" somebody shouted.
Even the Republicans laughed.
Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.