The Corner

Culture

On Representative Wilson’s Cynical Slander of General Kelly

Per the terminally naïve Chris Cillizza:

On Thursday afternoon in the White House, chief of staff John Kelly laid into Florida Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson in harsh terms.

“A congresswoman stood up, and in a long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building,” Kelly said.

In an interview on CNN’s “New Day” Friday morning, Wilson alleged that “empty barrel” is a “racist term.” She didn’t explain why.

All of which made me curious: Where does the phrase “an empty barrel makes the most noise” come from? And is there any sort of racial component to those origins? Or to its current usage?

As Cillizza quickly discovers in his post, the answer to the latter two questions is “No.” Indeed, the answer is not just “No,” it’s “You have to got to be kidding me.”

That being so, one would have expected his conclusion to be blunt and to the point: “Representative Wilson,” he should have written, “slandered General Kelly. I came across nothing in my investigation that suggests otherwise.”

For some reason, though, he wrote:

as far as I can tell, it’s wrong to call what Kelly said racist.

“As far as I can tell, it’s wrong”? As far as I can tell? A United States Representative tries to smear a Gold Star parent as a racist, and the response is a brief etymological adventure followed by a “probably not”?

Still, it could have been worse. At MSNBC, the usual suspects have found some interesting ways of justifying the claim. Lawrence O’Donnell, a man who could find racism in the heating element of a toaster, spent much of last night outdoing himself:

One theory: MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell devoted almost 20 minutes of his show on Thursday night to Kelly, Wilson and “empty barrel.” O’Donnell suggested that due to Kelly’s boyhood in a Boston neighborhood that was still largely segregated, his choice of words to describe Wilson was intentionally “dehumaniz(ing)” to the congresswoman.

“She was nothing but an empty barrel to him,” said O’Donnell. “He refused to give her the dignity of a name.”

Sure, Lawrence. That’ll be it.

On Twitter, meanwhile, Joy Reid chimed in with the class and sophistication that we’ve come to expect of her:

Thus it was that a phrase that has been attributed to Plato, and used by Plutarch, John Lydgate, William Shakespeare, and Abraham Lincoln — always outside of anything even approaching a racial context — became maybe, sort of, perhaps a racial slur, the best case against which from the ostensibly neutral press was “as far as I can tell . . .”

Shame. Shame on Representative Wilson. Shame on Lawrence O’Donnell. Shame on Joy Reid. And shame on Chris Cillizza, too, for lacking the guts to call this what it was: a slander. There is no quicker way to damage the fight against genuine racism than to suggest that everything you dislike is bigotry, that all criticism must be motivated by animus, and that even the most innocuous of commonly used phrases must, deep down, have sinister racial connotations. An empty barrel indeed.

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