That's Not What They Said, Part 1

Bloggified by Jake on Friday, January 15, 2010

Being a writer, this might not be the best stand for me to take, but I wish people would come to realize words really aren't that important.

The proper thing for a sufficiently pompous wordsmith to say here would be something about how language is man's greatest accomplishment and that the correctly chosen word can be more powerful than an army. The truth is that ideas are powerful and words that express those ideas derive power by association.

Entire books have been written about how political operatives study the impact of words to push forward their agendas. Years ago, we saw it with the use of "death tax" versus "estate tax." "Death tax" conjures up an image of someone having to pay just to die. Totally unfair! "Estate tax" puts one in mind of someone living in a big house on a hill with a a large twenty-four seat dining table in a dining room with original oil paintings by Michelangelo and Rembrandt and a rotating bed with pink chiffon and zebra stripes and a bathtub shaped like a clam and an office with orange and white stripes and an all red-billiard room with a giant stuffed camel and a disco room with his own disco dancers and a big backyard with Grecian statues, S-shaped hedges and three swimming pools. Screw that jerk, he should pay for having all that stuff I don't!

More important than what someone says is why they said it. The fact of the matter is there are a lot more ways to say something wrong than there are to say it right and most people are too lazy, too ignorant, too apathetic, or all three to make sure every sentence out of their mouths has been fully edited for content.

What upsets me is the ever-growing tendency of the fringe media to latch on to someone saying something that might be construed as offensive for some reason and make it out to be a deliberate attack. Most recently, the right-wing has blown up Senate leader Harry Reid's comments about Barack Obama's lack of a "Negro dialect" as proof that the Nevada senator is a racist. What fails to be addressed is why a racist would encourage a black man to run for president and then campaign for him.

Instead of considering what Harry Reid was thinking, we focus on the fact that he used an outdated term that is considered offensive to many. It doesn't prove that he hates black people. It suggests that he doesn't hang out with many of them. It suggests that he's out of touch. It suggests many things that might make voters reconsider whether he is the best choice to represent them, but it in no way suggests racism.

The right-wing is far from the only dog in this fight. Keith Olbermann regularly prompts me to change the channel when he fixates on one word or phrase uttered by a Republican and declares him the Worst Person in the World. Off the top of my head, I recall Rep. Lynn Jenkins of Kansas being called out for saying the Republican Party was looking for a "great white hope" because of the phrase's racist origins.

In 1910, the phrase was coined by people who couldn't stand Jack Johnson, a black man, being heavyweight boxing champion. It became the nickname of James Jeffries, a former champion who came out of retirement "for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro."

The thing is that term "great white hope" has evolved in the past hundred years and now has more to do with rare, inspirational, phenomenal talent that defies the odds than the refusal of white America to accept a black athlete as equal to a white one. Newspapers are looking for a "great white hope" that will keep their industry alive. Green Bay Packers fans dubbed Reggie White "the Great White Hope" for triggering the team's turnaround from perennial NFC doormat to Super Bowl champions. NBC is looking for a "great white hope" to spark its primetime ratings.

What Rep. Jenkins meant was that things were kind of bleak for the GOP following the 2008 election and it needed a shot in the arm. Something along the lines of "I don't know exactly what it's going to take to turn things around, we need someone out of the ordinary to step up and lead us out of the wilderness." When Jenkins responded that she was unaware of the racial connotations of the phrase, Olbermann noted that she'd voted to support a bill pardoning Jack Johnson for violating the Mann Act in 1913 and therefore must have known the history of the phrase.

For the record, the bill was passed by unanimous consent, meaning there was no debate and anyone on the floor pretty much just said, "Yeah, whatever. Let's get through all this procedural bullshit so we can debate stuff that matters a little more than the gesture of clearing the criminal record of a guy who's been dead for sixty years."

Similarly, Olbermann attacked another Republican for calling someone a "pansy." His assessment was that the man in question was a homophobe or, if he's not, he should look into the origin of the term "pansy."

Technically, I believe the term "pansy" originates from the flower of the same name. To call someone a pansy is to compare them to a flower, weak, wilting, non-threatening. "I'm tough, you're not. I'm like a rock, you're like a pansy." Pansy, like "sissy," may have become an anti-gay slur, but the vast majority of people use it to mean someone who is weak and cowardly. It's intellectually dishonest to condemn people for saying things they didn't mean and/or to imply they are ignorant for using a common term or phrase without knowing it's etymology. When you already disagree with so much that your opponents are saying, why do you have to make up things to be outraged about?

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