As I often, maybe too often, point out, we Americans are seldom more ridiculous than in our language, and we are never more ridiculous than when our language is racial. You may remember an instance from the 2002 Winter Olympics. I have written about it more than once. An American woman won a gold medal in the bobsled, and she was the first black woman ever to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.
But NBC, the network covering the Games, had no way of communicating this fact to its viewers. Why? Because it had banned, at least de facto, the word “black.” So the NBC people were reduced to saying, “She’s the first African-American woman from any country to win a gold medal.” Yes, and that includes the African-American women in France, Nigeria, Australia, and so on.
Why am I bringing this up again now? A couple of nights ago, I sat down to read a review of a book about Booker T. Washington in The New Republic. It began, “Once the most famous and influential African American in the United States (and probably the world), Booker T. Washington . . .”
Oh, come on. When will this nonsense stop? I will suggest when: when black Americans, in significant numbers, step forward and say, “Oh, come on. If you are going through these linguistic contortions for our benefit, no thank you. ‘Not in my name,’ in other words. The word ‘black’ is not radioactive, and it would be nice if white liberals stopped treating it as such.”
Nowhere is American immaturity more manifest than in matters racial. Environmental policy — including a quasi-religious stance against exploring and drilling for oil in ANWR — is possibly second. I also think of America’s strange, perverse aversion to nuclear power. Isn’t it kind of embarrassing that the French are more mature than we?
Incidentally, I interviewed Condoleezza Rice back in 2002, when she was national security adviser. She told me she preferred “black” to “African American.” Why? There were a couple of reasons: “Black” is parallel to “white.” And black Americans have been part of the American story from the very beginning. How odd to pick up “hyphenated Americanism” so late, you know?
One more quick one, before I get off this topic: I was perusing old Impromptus columns, via Google, and found that I commented on a USA Today article that told us that B. Smith, the businesswoman, had placed on the top of her Christmas tree an “African-American angel.” I found it interesting that her angel had a nationality. What are white angels? American, Danish, Russian . . .?
An end to nonsense would be awfully nice indeed.
‐Back to The New Republic: There is a review of The Clinton Tapes, by Taylor Branch, and this review contains a passage about a meeting that President Clinton had with the Chinese No. 1, Jiang Zemin.
Jiang read studiously from a text “about the glorious history of China and the folly of attempts to influence her internal affairs.” On and on he droned. At length, an exasperated Clinton interrupted. Look, he said. I don’t want to meddle in your internal affairs. I don’t even mind your prisons. I plan on putting more people in ours myself. All you need to do, Clinton confided, is to make a few gestures about human rights, and here are a couple of suggestions.
Did it really happen that way? Did the American president really say something like, “I don’t even mind your prisons. I plan on putting more people in ours myself”? Do we all understand the difference between American prisons and PRC prisons? I have spent a good part of my journalistic career discovering and reporting what the Chinese state does to people — innocent people — in prisons. Did Clinton really say that all the Chinese had to do was make a few gestures?
I suspected that Clinton regarded China mainly as a source of campaign fundraising, but I did not realize that he was as callous, cynical, and cavalier as this. I hope it’s not true. Sometimes you read something that causes an actual physical revulsion.
‐Speaking of Clintons, and speaking of assurances to China that the United States doesn’t care what Chinese authorities do to Chinese people: I saw a photo of Hillary Clinton the other day. She was in Pakistan, wearing a headscarf. I wondered the same thing I wondered when I saw former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, the Georgia radical, do the same: Doesn’t it bother her feminism just a little bit? Or is a concept of respect for Islam, and a certain kind of Islam, more important? Also, what message does the wearing of headscarves by American feminists send to women in the Muslim world who may wish to be free of this practice? Who may wish to have a choice about it?
McKinney, you may remember, went on al-Jazeera and said, smiling huge, “I am wearing the headscarf as a way of showing my respect, my support, and my familiarity for the audience of al-Jazeera Arabic.” Undoubtedly, many women watching television at that moment felt less than supported, and less than understood.
‐I’m liking Chris Christie, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in New Jersey, a lot. Why? Well, his Democratic opponents have been giving him a hard time for being overweight. They are using this as a campaign gambit. And Christie said, “We have to spur our economy. Dunkin’ Donuts, International House of Pancakes — those people need work too.” Right on.
‐In recent weeks, I have been writing about the use of the term “teabagging” against anti-Obama protesters: those who have participated in the tea-party movement. If you want to know what “teabagging” means, you can find it in Wikipedia, here. The explanation begins, “Teabagging is a slang term for the act of a man placing his scrotum in the mouth or on or around the face (including the top of the head) of another person, often in a repeated in-and-out motion as in irrumatio. The practice resembles dipping a tea bag into a cup of tea.”
Last April, around the time of the first tea-party protests, Anderson Cooper was interviewing David Gergen. (Cooper is the acclaimed anchorman for CNN, as you know.) Gergen was saying that Republicans and conservatives hadn’t “found their voice” and were “searching for their voice.” Cooper smirked, “It’s hard to talk when you’re teabagging.”
Some people claim that those who use “teabagging” against conservatives do not really know what they’re doing. They use the word in innocence. And this must be true of some. But if liberals in the media don’t know what they’re doing — how come they keep smirking when they say “teabagging” or “teabagger”? It happens pretty much daily.
Return to April — the beginning of all this — and listen to David Shuster, a host for MSNBC:
“For most Americans, Wednesday April 15 will be Tax Day, but . . . it’s going to be Teabagging Day for the right wing, and they’re going nuts for it. Thousands of them whipped out the festivities early this past weekend, and while the parties are officially toothless, the teabaggers are full-throated about their goals. They want to give President Obama a strong tongue-lashing and lick government spending.”
Shuster said that Fox News personalities were “looking forward to an up-close-and-personal taste of teabagging.” Etc., etc., etc. And, all the while, MSNBC had on the screen “TEABAG MOUTHPIECES.”
According to this article, Shuster’s performance “was mellow compared to Rachel Maddow’s April 9 program.” Maddow is another MSNBC figure. “Air America radio contributor Ana Marie Cox, who also appeared on that program, and Maddow teamed up to use the word ‘teabag’ at least 51 times in a 13-minute-long segment.”
Are we supposed to joke about the name “Cox”? Anyway, you may wish to remember these things when liberals, and others, say that no offense is meant when the Left calls the tea-party protesters “teabaggers.” Nothing to do with a sexual practice, not at all.
Readers keep sending me examples of the use of “teabagger” and “teabagging” by liberals in the media. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, Gwen Ifill of PBS. Sam Tanenhaus, Paul Krugman, both of the New York Times. And then you have any number of Democratic politicians. Readers, from their mail, are divided about what to do about this.
First of all, about a million readers have said to me, “I’d rather be a teabagger than a teabaggee.” But beyond that: Many people think that conservatives ought to fight this term. More specifically, they think that conservatives ought to embarrass the Left about it. For instance, some conservative on television, when another person uses “teabagger,” should say, “What do you mean by that? Would you care to explain to the audience? Where are you getting that?”
This reminds me of something. Occasionally, in debate, a liberal will use “neocon,” in a most unfriendly way. (Sometimes a kind of conservative will, too.) And I’ll ask, “What’s a neocon?” Charles Krauthammer told me recently that he does the same thing. And your opponent can be reduced to sputtering. All he knows is that “neocon” means “bad person, war supporter, most likely Jewish.” I have done the same thing with the word “Zionist.” Some anti-Israel person will use the word “Zionist,” not meaning anything positive by it, and I’ll say, “Hey, what’s a Zionist?” That will leave an opponent sputtering too.
Back to the “teabag” epithet: Some readers think that conservatives ought to “own the insult,” i.e., adopt it and turn it into something positive. They send many, many examples of this sort of turning in the past. The word “Christian,” for instance, has an interesting history.
As for me, I fear it’s too late to remove “teabagger” from general discourse, at least from the discourse of liberals. I think they are too wedded to it, for one thing. But I think it would pay to fight it, yes — or at least force liberals to own up to what they’re doing. If you want to hate the anti-Obama protesters — the tea-partiers — fine. (Although wouldn’t disagreeing be better than hating?) But so vulgar and nasty a term should not be used so freely, so openly, with no penalty whatsoever — with no sense of shame or impropriety on the part of users.
‐A reader from Sudbury, Mass., has a nifty idea, I think — or a “neat idea,” as Oliver North once said. An idea for “a piece of performance art,” as our reader puts it. “Cover a Prius in right-wing bumper stickers (gun from cold, dead hands; Palin 2012; Nobama, etc.) and park it in Cambridge or Brookline, recording the reactions of passersby.”
Many, many worse ideas have been carried out, in the field of art and others.
‐Speaking of bumper stickers, a reader writes, “I spotted something on the rear window of a large SUV — perhaps a Suburban: ‘To err is human. To forgive is divine. Neither is official USMC policy. Semper Fi.’ Laughed so hard I nearly rear-ended the vehicle.”
‐A little language? A little punctuation, in particular? A reader responds to my Impromptus of Thursday: “Jay, thank you for knowing where to put the comma in ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.’” Oh, you’re welcome!
‐Finally, let’s consider a name. Reader writes,
I thought of you when receiving notice that a new “deluxe edition” of Huey Newton’s memoir, Revolutionary Suicide, is coming. The name of the jacket illustrator is Ho Che Anderson. How lucky can one person be? I’m sure there are lots of folks walking around Ann Arbor, Berkeley, etc., bearing the name of one chic, revolutionary killer. But two? This illustrator is truly blessed! Maybe I’ll make you a gift of the book for Christmas.
This reader is all heart. Thanks, ladies and gents, and catch you soon.