In 1999, David Howard, an aide to D.C. Mayor Anthony Wlliams, made headlines because he used the adjective “niggardly” in reference to the city’s budget. Howard was white, and a black colleague objected to what he perceived as a racial slur. The word evidently has Norse origins: nigla means to worry about small things. Howard resigned but after an internal review demonstrated, amply, that no racial slur was intended, he was offered a different job by Williams.
I thought of this incident today when the homepage of Politico has two items about controversies surrounding word choice. And the front section of the Washington Post has a third article about another incident.
Vice President Joe Biden is in hot water because he reportedly told Democratic colleagues that the GOP Tea Partyers were acting “like terrorists.” Mind you, there are different kinds of terror in life and, so, different kinds of terrorists, but since the 1970s and the attacks at Munich and the killing of Aldo Moro, through the attacks of 9/11, the word terrorist means someone without sovereign authority who uses indiscriminate violence to achieve a political end. It could be argued that the prospect of a national default were terror-filled. It could be noted that for weeks, many commentators, on both sides, accused the other of holding the government “hostage” (something terrorists do, but also something some bank robbers do). And, it can be further noted that politicians should be able to say one thing in a private meeting that would not be appropriate on the floor of the Senate. I give Biden a pass.
Pat Buchanan, a sharp-tongued conservative, is in trouble because, in an interview with the Rev. Al Sharpton, he referred to President Barack Obama as “your boy.” Now, there is a very ugly historical association of using the word “boy” to refer to black, male adults. And, Buchanan has a tradition of race-baiting. If you recall his speech to the 1992 GOP Convention, with its invocation of mobs and lawlessness, while addressing an almost exclusively white audience, you will know that Mr. Buchanan is well advised to mind his words. But, in this instance, I am prepared to give Buchanan a pass. The phrase “your boy” clearly was meant to indicate a partisan affiliation, not a racial slap at the President.
Finally, Congressman Doug Lamborn apologized for describing his desire not to be associated with the President thusly: “I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby, and you get it – you know, you’re stuck, and you’re part of the problem now, and you can’t get away.” In this context, it is clear that Lamborn used “tar baby” the way Br’er Rabbit did, and the way the dictionary does, to indicate a “sticky situation.” Yes, the word has been used in southern slang as a derogatory word for blacks. Lamborn is from Colorado.
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There is something dangerous about repeating cultural tropes that have been used to justify racism in the past. When someone calls a Jew a “shylock” that is a sign of racism. When someone uses the N-word to describe a black person, that is a sign of racism. Pat Buchanan’s invocation of mobs and lawlessness in 1992 was far more dangerously racist than his calling Obama “your boy.” And, the most dangerous kind of racism expresses itself more subtly. You will recall the campaign ad run by Jesse Helms in which a pair of white hand opened a rejection letter, and the voice over said, “You wanted that job. You needed that job. But they had to give it to a minority.” That is racism.
Three issues present themselves from these incidents. First, words have meanings. When Mr. Howard used the adjective “niggardly” it was ignorance and ignorance alone that accused him of a racial slur. Yes, some words have historical associations that are offensive, but “niggardly” is not one of those words. Other words, like “tar baby,” require context and, in the case above, the context is obvious. And, there is a difference between saying someone is a terrorist and saying they are behaving like one. Just because the hearer does not like what is being said, they should not have cultural carte blanche to exercise a heckler’s veto over such speech. For one thing, crying wolf makes it harder to hold those who do dabble in racist stereotypes accountable when something truly offensive is said.
Second, there is a danger of our political speech becoming anodyne. I am all for respectful dialogue. I am all for avoiding ad hominem attacks – although, I reserve my right to deliver them occasionally against a small number of especially miserable fellow humans from Maureen Dowd to Herman Cain. But, I also do not want our politicians so fearful of giving offense that they become unwilling to draw sharp distinctions, to inveigh strongly when they feel strongly. If they do it too often, or too recklessly, their verbal sorties will come back to bite them in the behind. But, politics is a tough sport and I do not mind a bit of tough language in its pursuit.
Third, those who worry that such harsh speech can further polarize the political landscape have not been paying attention. Our politics is already polarized. Even very sophisticated people can make the mistake of thinking that if they are reasonable and if their speech is reasonable, their political opponents will mimic them. I think it is fair to say that President Obama completely misjudged his political opponents in the debt ceiling negotiations. His overly sweet reasonableness did not occasion anything but further intransigence from the other side. Obama needs to learn how to dig in and to put up his fists.
So, everybody, take a deep breath. The world is not going to come crashing down because a politician gets edgy. And, before condemning anyone for using words you find offensive, grab a dictionary first.