The ancient evil and the politics of distraction
A viral video making the rounds in December bore the very descriptive title “Ten Germans Try to Say the Word ‘Squirrel’” — and nobody seemed to think that it was racist or xenophobic, even though our Teutonic friends were being held up as figures of fun for something that is deeply embedded in their culture. Indeed, the Germans seemed to be as much amused as anybody else. The phenomenon is nothing new to students of linguistics: Not every phoneme exists in every language, and it is extraordinarily difficult for adults to process phonemes that are not part of their linguistic patrimony. Anglophone adults learning Sanskrit have a desperately hard time with the difference between aspirated and non-aspirated “d” sounds, just as somebody who had been raised hearing nothing but Japanese would find it difficult or impossible to distinguish between “r” and “l” sounds in English. Native speakers of non-tonal languages have a rough time with Chinese. Welsh, Romanian, and Dutch all contain sounds that are famous for being unpronounceable by the Anglophone. A “burro” is an ass, and a “burrow” is a hole in the ground, but your typical English-speaking person can’t tell one from the other.
This sort of thing is terribly distressing to Matthew Salesses, fiction editor at The Good Men Project, an online magazine, who published a hilariously self-parodic essay titled “Racism in the Classroom: When Even Our Names Are Not Our Own.” He began with this tale of pearl-clutching terror, his soul pierced by the unsettling childhood recollections of a classmate:
He described how, when he was a boy, he couldn’t figure out what a certain newscaster’s name was. The student complained that because the newscaster pronounced his name with a “Mexican” accent, he couldn’t understand it.
There are many possible explanations for this episode. But, racism?
Setting aside the sneer quotes around “Mexican” — as though there were no such thing as a Mexican accent — it is very likely that the boy complained that he could not understand the pronunciation of the broadcaster’s name not because he was a budding ethnolinguistic chauvinist but because he could not understand the pronunciation of the broadcaster’s name, any more than the typical English-speaking man walking the streets of Bakersfield can tell the शूर from the सुर. The story calls to mind a pained book chapter in which linguistic anthropologist Harriet Joseph Ottenheimer considers the famous Saturday Night Live skit in which a bunch of painfully correct Anglos in conversation with Jimmy Smits’s “Antonio Mendoza” use ever more lamely Hispanic-ish pronunciations of common English words and phrases — “Loh-HANG-ee-less” for Los Angeles, “kah-MAHRRR-oh” for the Chevy sports car, etc. Professor Ottenheimer writes that the skit expresses “the extreme ambivalence and complexity of ideologies about Spanish in the United States,” and she worries that under some interpretations Mr. Smits might be seen as “playing into the hands of anti-Spanish sentiment.” This discussion takes place under the heading “Mock Spanish: A Site for the Indexical Reproduction of Racism in American English.” Calvin and Hobbes takes a beating, too, when the racially insensitive stuffed tiger imagines himself as a fearsome potentate called “El Tigre Numero Uno.”
We have set the bar for racism pretty low.
Rather than detecting in the story above the invisible background radiation of racism that so appalls Mr. Salesses, I myself sympathize with the boy’s linguistic frustration; I have an unusually detailed recollection of my very early childhood, and vividly remember the intense irritation I felt at my limited ability to understand verbal communication and to make myself understood in turn. I recall my mother asking me if I wanted a “half sandwich” and trying to figure out where “half” fit into my known categories of sandwiches — a universe consisting of bologna, Spam, pimento cheese spread, and fried hot dogs halved vertically — unable to understand the word and also unable to explain my inability. The unfamiliar surname pronounced with a Mexican accent would have presented a similar sort of frustration: It would sound like gibberish, but the context would suggest that it was not. Such perplexing situations are what make childhood such a terrifying time. (That terror, I suspect, is related to why we forget so much of our earliest days, the neural settling of later childhood acting as our own personal Piper at the Gates of Dawn: “Lest the awe should dwell / And turn your frolic to fret / You shall look on my power at the helping hour / But then you shall forget!”)
The emotional aspect of linguistic development is an interesting subject: Compare the first sentence of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to the novel’s final pages to appreciate James Joyce’s sensitive treatment of the subject. It takes more than being vulgar to consider the great swath of human experience and within its every fold and surprise to see everywhere and always racism — it takes faith. In the civil religion of the United States, racism is not only a deplorable set of beliefs, but a mythic character in its own right, the great antagonist of all things good, the eternal enemy, “curse of all creation, winged serpent of the pit, monstrosity.” In the American secular scripture, racism is Satan.
It is no accident that American progressives put so many of us in mind of our Puritan ancestors: not for their virtues, such as they are, but for their sanctimoniousness, their humorlessness, their grim little mouths set permanently in rictuses (surely Mr. Salesses would insist on “ricti”) of self-satisfaction biting down on disgust. Like the accusers in 17th-century Salem or the contemporary Wahhabist eager to behead such witches as may be found lingering upon Saudi soil, the progressive sees the work of the Archnemesis everywhere at all times — especially when there is something to be gained from doing so.
As in the case of witchcraft, trials on charges of racism admit spectral evidence. Martin Bashir on the IRS scandal: “Republicans are using [it] as their latest weapon in the war against the black man. ‘IRS’ is the new ‘nigger.’” Touré on Mitt Romney’s vocabulary: “[He] said ‘anger’ twice. . . . I don’t say it lightly, but this is niggerization.” Jonathan Capehart: Mentioning that Obama went to Harvard is racist “because it insinuates that he took the place of someone else through affirmative action, that someone else being someone white.” Lawrence O’Donnell: “The Republican party is saying that the president of the United States has bosses, that the unions boss him around. Does that sound to you like they are trying to consciously or subconsciously deliver the racist message that, of course, of course a black man can’t be the real boss?” Janeane Garofalo: “Do you remember teabaggers? It was just so much easier when we could just call them racists. I just don’t know why we can’t call them racists, or functionally retarded adults. The functionally retarded adults, the racists — with their cries of, ‘I want my country back.’ You know what they’re really saying is, ‘I want my white guy back.’” Karen Finney on Herman Cain: “They like him because they think he’s a black man who knows his place.” Chris Matthews: “It’s the sense that the white race must rule . . . and they can’t stand the idea that a man who’s not white is president. That is real, that sense of racial superiority.” Etc., ad nauseam.
Touré’s concept of “niggerization” is very subtle, so subtle, in fact, that only the most discerning of sensibilities — presumably Touré’s — can detect it, like one of those world-class master sommeliers uncovering notes of burnt pencil shavings in an ’82 Bordeaux. The less subtle forms of that phenomenon — for example, using the famous racial epithet on national television — have been in the 21st century restricted to members of the political party that Touré supports, for reasons that are no doubt subtle beyond the brute understanding of the uninitiated. And that is the state of play today: When Robert Byrd, a Democratic senator and Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, helpfully elucidates the concept of “white niggers” on the evening news, that’s an unfortunate episode that demands sympathy for the wretched old coot. But when the Associated Press accurately transcribes the current president’s faux-folksy “g”-dropping — “Stop complainin’,” etc. — the verdict from MSNBC is not just “racist” but “inherently racist.”
Except he really does talk that way. Sometimes. And if you’ve ever noticed that Barack Obama’s propensity for slipping into ersatz southern cornpone preacher-speak correlates with the complexion of the audience being addressed, you might wonder who, exactly, is behaving in a way that is “inherently racist.” But such thoughts are unthinkable.
It isn’t just politics and the president. Jesse Jackson on Dan Gilbert’s dealings with LeBron James: His actions “personify a slave/master mentality.” A Dallas county commissioner flipped out over the “racist” name of devil’s food cake, and insisted that the astronomical term “black hole” was similarly “racist.” (Challenged by some constituents on his acuity, he replied: “All of you are white. Go to hell.” Still in office, not a racist.) The NAACP doesn’t think “black hole” is racist, but it thinks that a space-themed Hallmark audio card is actually saying “black whore.” In a Buzzfeed piece on racial “microaggressions,” a young woman complained that she was victimized by racism in the form of having been picked to play the part of Dora the Explorer in a school skit “just because I’m Mexican.” Dora the Explorer, for the record, is not Mexican, but instead belongs to a demographic cohort of recent vintage: generic Latina.
The question of the nationality and ethnicity of fictitious characters known to us mainly through cartoons is a hot zone of bizarre 21st-century racial politics, as Megyn Kelly of Fox News found out when, in the course of pretending to believe that Santa Claus is real, she noted that he is a white man. This was in the context of a discussion about a daft column by Slate’s Aisha Harris, headlined “Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore.” In that column, Ms. Harris describes the pain and humiliation she felt at having the image of a white Santa inflicted on her as a child, noting with disapproval that “even some black families decorate their houses with white Santas.” She suggested replacing the jolly old saint with a penguin. Penguins are awesome, even if there are none near Santa’s North Pole HQ, but unlike Dora the Explorer, Santa Claus has a pretty well-established point of origin: The character is not only white but Dutch, which makes him so white that if it weren’t for his rosy cheeks you’d lose him in a snowstorm. In other news of fictitious ethnicity, Hamlet is a Dane and Othello is a Moor, and Stephen Dedalus is an Irishman with a non-Irish surname. But things being what they are, Ms. Kelly’s affirmation of Santa’s white-guy status was a national mini-scandal, while Ms. Harris’s odd confession of being disturbed by images of people who are racially unlike her was not. One of these things is much closer to racism than is the other.
“G”-dropping, phoneme deafness, dessert, playing hardball with LeBron James: Practically anything can be racism in the 21st century — except racism. Internal memos from Senator Dick Durbin’s office reveal that he took special care to sabotage the court nomination of Miguel Estrada because “he is Latino,” a fact that made him “politically dangerous.” Jesse Jackson can use anti-Semitic epithets all day, Philadelphia mayors can attest that “the brothers and sisters are running the city” (small boast!), Joe Biden can mistake Apu from The Simpsons for documentary evidence about the lives of Indians in the United States, and Robert Byrd can use the most offensive racial epithet in the English language in front of millions of people, but . . . can we talk about “microaggressions” instead?
The Left needs racism, because unlike their good, old-fashioned Marxist forebears, the postmodern Left’s politics is not rooted in economics or history but in narrative — the most adolescent narrative: Good Guys and Bad Guys. (You could call it Cowboys and Indians, but that would be . . .) If the other side is Hitler, then almost anything is acceptable, because Hitler can’t win. But, unfortunately for the inventors of national crusades, you don’t get a lot of Hitlers. So Hitlers must be invented. This is one of the reasons every social issue adopted by the Left (and a few adopted by the Right) becomes the “moral equivalent of war” — War on Poverty, War on Drugs, etc. Hitler was many things: nationalist, socialist, central planner, advocate of substantial “investments” in national infrastructure projects, in favor of generous spending on the arts. And, of course, a racist. The GOP checks off none of those boxes, the Democrats check off a few, but Republicans are Hitler because somebody on Fox News said Santa is white. It makes sense, if your worldview depends on its making sense.
At this point in history, the Left needs a spectral standard of evidence when convicting its opponents of racism because there is so little actual evidence to be found. Right = Racist is an article of faith on the left, facts be damned. The Republican party has relatively few black officeholders, which is taken as evidence of Republican racism. But the Republican party is also extraordinarily solicitous of its black officeholders: Mia Love is in many ways an impressive mayor, perhaps the best mayor Saratoga Springs, Utah, ever has had, but it is difficult to believe that a middle-aged white male Mormon Republican who could not manage to win a House race in Utah would have become a superstar of comparable incandescence. But the Left’s story is that Republicans have few black officeholders because they are racist, and if they try to encourage black candidates, that’s racist, too, just another quest for a “black man who knows his place.” So Republicans are racists both when opposing affirmative action in the public sphere and when practicing it in the private sphere. And Democrats are pursuing virtue when they block a judicial nominee simply because he is Latino. Those are the new rules.
The old rules were better. To accuse a person or a movement of racism is a serious thing. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. had a deep appreciation of that fact, which is one of the reasons he often pointed out that Barry Goldwater was not himself a racist, though he opposed civil-rights measures for which the Reverend King and his associates fought and bled. Perhaps there is something about the literal bleeding for a cause that makes men more serious. Another reason that MLK did not call Senator Goldwater a racist is that he did not wish to look like a fool, the charge being utterly unsupportable. But, really, how reliable was the Reverend King on this issue? His heavily Anglicized pronunciation of German names suggests, to the educated ear, a lack of full appreciation for “the extreme ambivalence and complexity of ideologies about German in the United States,” and perhaps more than a bit of pandering to “anti-German sentiment.”