To understand the ideology of the regime, it is necessary to look at some of the most politicized areas of speech, namely everything to do with sex and gender, and—the topic of this installment—race and ethnicity. Without exhausting our entire band-width, I can only scratch the surface. Let’s begin with a few fairly tepid examples of ethnic reclassification.
Chinamen, Burmese, and Polacks
Once upon a time, when men were men, women women, and the Mr/Ms Inbetweens safely in their closets, people pretty much called each other by whatever terms that pleased them. Hereditary antagonisms, as between the French and the English were expressed in a variety of colorful slurs. The French were frogs, apparently out of the English disdain for anything that tastes good, while the English were harmlessly referred to as “god-damns,” paying tribute to an expression as common as the African-American substitute for the definite and indefinite articles, sometimes rendered as “mo-fo,” as in “I hit the mo-fo n-word b-tch in his mo-fo head,” etc. etc.
Political and regional epithets often originated in insults. The labels “Whig” and “Tory” were names of different types of rebellious brigands in, respectively, Ireland and Scotland. Yankee was originally an insult (and still is in some places), as was Rebel. Why accept an insult with pride? It has something to do with a sense of self-worth and virility that is superior to detraction.
In these cowardly and sensitive times, however, even ordinary words that convey no hint of abuse by their origins inspire shock and horror. I remember once in graduate school, when one of my fellow-students referred to a linguistics grad student in our Sanskrit class as “married to a Chinaman.” The professor expressed horror. “What should I have said,” responded the insensitive classicist, Chink?”
Chinaman is off-limits: One must say “Chinese,” but one may not say “Burmese, but rather “Burman.” Go figure. Today, however, we had better say “Myanmaran.” Then there is Polack. Oh no, one must say “Pole.” When my friend Bill Mills and I first looked up the fine Polack-American fiction writer Anthony Bukoski, who has since become a good friend, Tony—after the obligatory case of lite beer—started whining about Polish jokes—e.g., a novelty sold in filling stations as “The Polish outhouse—the two-seater model” (one toilet stacked on another). “They call us Polacks,” he complained. To which I responded, “Well, what do you call yourselves, then?” I knew the answer: Polack. We taunted him for hours, though he got me back before the long day and night were over.
The Solidarity Movement and the pontificate of John Paul II rather deflated the Polack joke, though I feel sure it will resurface. In northern Wisconsin, one more often hears Finnlander jokes, which I suppose now have to be told as Finnish jokes. Heard the one about the first Finnlander in space? The punchline goes; “Feed the monkey.” It is a sign of ethnic self-doubt, however, to want to escape from an historical term, even if it has been used in a derogatory sense.
Jews and Jewish, Blacks and Everything Else.
Take the word Jew. If I were a Jew, I would exult in the word, so rich in cultural and historical associations. After all, Alfred Kazin—no slouch at all in this line—wrote a memoir, New York Jew, and Ben Hecht, A Jew in Love. But, oh, no, not today. One cannot describe Norman Mailer as a Jew, one has to say “Jewish writer,” though this leads to the amusingly awkward phrase one used to hear, “Jewish person.” When years ago I wrote this in a column, my friend Rabbi Jacob Neusner, a great Talmudic scholar, wrote in to ridicule the idea that anyone could object to being called a Jew. Then Jack started asking around and had to apologize. Of course, there are anti-Jewish (not anti-Semitic) terms of abuse like “k-ke,” but that particular term was used, according to some Jewish friends of mine, by German Jews against Polish and Russian Jews.
Then there is the Negro Neurosis. In the distant past, one heard the term blacks or Africans. Negro, variously pronounced (usually as nigra in the South) was felt to be more technical and polite. Higher toned negroes, however, preferred “colored” on the grounds that they were not really black. Besides, the leadership were generally light-skinned mulattos. So, colored it was, for the NAACP. But no, that wouldn’t do, so it was back to Negro (for Martin Luther King), then black (the Panthers), then Stokley Carmichael’s “Afro-American” and finally Jesse Jackson’s African-American.
Afro-American and African-American are politically subversive, because they are an attempt to persuade black people that they are part of a pan-Africanist movement that absolves them of any patriotic loyalty to the United States. That was Stokely’s stated purpose, which he explains his missions to Africa, and the subtext of Jesse’s entire career. There are blunt names for this sort of conspiracy, and they are subversion and treason.
This obsessive name-changing betrays not self-confidence but racial self-hatred. People who do not like being what they are think that by changing the term they can change the condition. A similar process has taken place in the case of graveyard to cemetery to memorial garden, from “Crapper” to close-stool to toilet to bathroom. Obviously, most of us live by conventions and do not think too much before we fall in line with some novelty, but black leaders who are forever devising new names for themselves—including the hilarious expedient of adopting Islamic Arab names, as if Arab Muslims were not the greatest slavers in history—are clearly uncomfortable in their skin.
If people do not like me or my ethnicity or race or skin-color and want to say ugly things, frankly, I don’t really care. Yeah, call me whitey, honky, cracker. I could not care less. Obviously, no decent person—much less a Christian—wants to make other people feel uncomfortable with being what they are, but, on the other hand, excessive sensitivity is not a sign of respect, much less of affection, but of fear and resentment.
Interestingly, the n-word is not only a common term of both affection and abuse among the lower classes of the people who do not know what to call themselves, but when they get mad at white people, they often use the same term. It is hard to fathom the depth of such self-loathing.
I have known few serious racists who used ethnic slurs or even told race-jokes. Racism is their religion, and it is a kind of blasphemy to joke about it. (Sam Francis once pointed this out to me.) Ethnic stereotypes, race terms and jokes, all have the opposite effect: They ease tensions and reduce the all to formulaic humor. That, I believe, was exactly the point to my fellow-student’s use of the term “Chinaman.” So long as we have to worry about which politically correct term to use, we shall never fulfill the dream of Motorist Rodney King.
Some years ago, I proposed a series of short pieces on language. The project never materialized, but it is really more appropriate for the website than the magazine. Here is the beginning:
In Jean-Luc Goddard’s film Alphaville, a secret agent (Lemmy Caution) is sent to find a colleague and to destroy Alphaville itself, a computer-designed dystopia that has reduced humanity to the level of machines. In each hotel room in Alphaville, there is a “Bible,” which is really an anti-dictionary that eliminates words like love and poetry. In America, we have been doing something very similar by redefining old words and inventing new ones. The effect (purpose?) is to destroy the clarity and precision of English and render us servile, first in speech and then in our minds. Politicians are the real masters in using words to deflect responsibility. Remember Hilary’s use of the Clintonian passive, “Mistakes were made,” to glide over malfeasance of office. Our current President is no slouch. His equivocation on the $300,000 douceur he received on buying a house was the forthright confession of making a “boneheaded….mistake.”
As a preliminary step toward liberating our minds, I propose this feature, eliminating both the bad new words and the duplicitous usages that have been introduced. The emphasis will be on 1) words that should not exist, 2) words that once had a clear meaning that has been lost in transition, 3) words that have been co-opted for wicked purposes, whether moral, aesthetic, or political, and 4) words that need to be revived.