Bob Davis: A certain je ne sais quoi — Say this about Tim James: He’s full of chutzpah
Apr 30, 2010 | 3264 views |  10 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“This is Alabama, we speak English.”

— Tim James, candidate for governor, speaking in a campaign commercial decrying that Alabama offers driver’s license exams in 12 languages

What, is he loco? If this ninja candidate was feeling angst at recent polling and looking for a way to add panache to his bid to be Alabama’s next governor, James found it. With this YouTube sensation, he can say “sayonara” to campaigning under the radar.

Or, as famed Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto might say, “Se trata de Alabama. Hablamos Inglés.”

So, what was the motivation — the raison d’être — of the man The New York Times called, “The Candidate From Xenophobia?”

Here’s a guess. In a Republican primary field with loads of gubernatorial competitors pushing the dial further rightward, James found himself in deep kimchi. One 30-second jiu jitsu move later and — voilà! — James is au courant with the “papers, please” zeitgeist springing from Arizona.

Or, as they say at the Mercedes plant in Vance, “Dies ist Alabama. Wir sprechen Englisch.”

English, researchers tell us, is a pastiche of other languages. One study found that of the 100 most commonly used words in English, 80 percent are Germanic. Another study found that 40 percent of the 10,000 most commonly used words come from French, a notion bound to make lovers of “freedom fries” see red.

All of this is to say that it takes a lot of chutzpah to act as if English isn’t a mash-up of scores of languages. Yet, James takes a serious look into the camera and says, “We’re only giving that test in English if I’m governor.”

Oy vey!

Or, as they say down at the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, “Igeos-eun allabama, ulineun yeong-eoleul sseubnida.”

It costs $28.50 for a person to take a test and purchase an Alabama driver’s license; for point of reference, that’s 21.49 in Euros, 194.53 in Yuan and 1,268.67 in Rupees.

James argues that reducing the test’s number of languages from 12 to one is a matter of smart economics. “Maybe it’s just the businessman in me, but we’ll save money and it makes sense,” he said.

A story on the Los Angeles Times’ website casts doubt upon that claim, suggesting James’ proposal might lead to a sort of economic hara kiri.

“Compared to the cost of additional accidents from untested drivers and the damage to the state’s image, it’s a drop in the bucket,” Outside the Beltway blogger James Joyner told the Times. “If one company decides to go to South Carolina or Tennessee rather than Alabama over this issue, it’ll be bad business, indeed.”

Also speaking with the L.A. Times, University of Alabama professor David Lanoue agreed, “It seems almost certain that any money saved by not administering multi-language tests would be more than offset by the legal fees the state would incur when the law was challenged in court.”

Or, as the French executives from Airbus currently angling to build an airplane manufacturing facility in Mobile would say, “Il s’agit d’Alabama. Nous parlons anglais.”

We might as well acknowledge that “Alabama” isn’t an English word. Turns out we took the land and the name from the Indians who called this area home long before Europeans started exploring it in the 16th century.

Would a James administration put the kibosh on Alabama cities with non-English names? What about Florence, which takes its name from the Italian city? Or Andalusia (Spain)? Or Elba (Italy)? Let’s not even consider what we would call the north Alabama town of Arab.

What will we call kindergartens? Will searching for a moment of zen register as a faux pas? Will turning in per diem expenses become verboten?

Must we only seize the day, but never carpe diem? Will the savoir-faire among us be forced to become more like a schlemiel?

Will our neighboring states revel in a sense of schadenfreude when the worst becomes a fait accompli?

It could set off a mêlée, if not a pogrom in cities and towns across the state.

Or, as the top executives from Honda might say when visiting the company’s operations in Lincoln, “Kore wa arabama-sh? desu. Wareware wa eigo o hanasu.”

Sadly, James’ bold ad is de rigueur in a state practically swimming in tea parties. Here Republican candidates cannot be too conservative and tough talk on non-English speakers is the lingua franca. What options does someone trailing the pack have?

The Greenville businessman decided to turn the knob past 11, apparently ignoring the praiseworthy work down by Gov. Bob Riley in attracting international companies to Alabama. With only a few weeks left before the June 1 primary, James faced up to the timetable and fading chances at electoral glory.

Though he probably wouldn’t put it this way, James is acknowledging a well-known phrase, “Sic transit gloria.”

Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at (256) 235-3540 or You can follow him on Twitter at: He offers full credit to Google Translate for assisting with this column.
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