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The cowardly nation

Oh, I’ve thought a lot about what Eric Holder had to say about these United States as a sort of Cowards R Us.

If I had to take one side or the other (which is such a silly way to think …, but if I did …), I’d say that yes, Americans have a strong streak of cowardice in them. But then, I think probably it’s pretty likely that all humans on this planet share that same cowardly streak.

It’s the streak of NIMBY. It’s the streak of “Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell”. It’s the streak of always lining up your next lover before you give the old one the boot. It’s the streak of putting both hands on your handbag when you see a black man coming toward you when you’re walking down Main Street at 945 p.m., versus not even noticing when it’s a white man. It’s the streak of talking about residents of Newtown versus talking about blacks. It’s the streak of having your date click the locks on his car when he drives north of Fruitville on Central.

Cowardice. It comes in so many shapes and sizes.

Here’s a column I wrote for print in 2006 after “Kramer” of Seinfeld fame, went on record as a raving racist.

Sticks and stones

Sticks and stones may break some bones
But words can destroy a country.

Every time a celebrity like Michael Richards or Mel Gibson goes public with their private thoughts on blacks or Jews, it rips open the barely scabbed wounds still festering in this country –wounds that are hidden for the most part, most of the time.

We hear about their hate language because they are famous actors. The question is: how representative are they of the larger public? Surely Richards and Gibson aren’t the only people in America who spit venom when their buttons are pushed. It’s naïve to think it’s only a few oddball celebrities who harbor latent hostility toward Jews or blacks.

Are we really a country of outwardly jovial, easy-going Americans who, with just the right provocation – a bellyful of liquor or a less than impressed audience – can turn into raging racists and Jew-haters?

A few weeks ago, I was in a business meeting with about 10 other people, several of whom referred to the homeless people in Sarasota as “bums.” I was surprised at the casual use of the term; “bum” takes away the humanity of the men and women who have no homes. It’s a small word, not as potently derogatory as some and yet it has the same effect – to categorize and dehumanize a minority segment of society.

What words do we say in private that we wouldn’t want the public to hear? None, however, are as emotionally and historically charged as the real word behind “the N word.”

The real word is so charged that few writers even write the word anymore. And if they do, even fewer editors will print it. As much as I loathe euphemistic speech, I don’t want to write the full word either. It’s such a revolting, invidious word; I don’t want to give it the credence of print on paper.

At the same time, though, I have a problem with the phrase “the N word” because I resist the notion that we can – or even should — create safe, politically correct language out of words of hate.

I don’t know that it’s wise to let the historical weight and the despicable cruelty inherent in the word behind “the N word” be neatly wrapped and tied up with a PC bow so that people – mostly whites – can say it and hear it spoken out loud without being bluntly reminded of its soul-scathing virulence.

Some words – some ideas — should never go down easily. Some words should always cause the bile to rise in our throats. By moving from the real word behind “the N word” are we just giving ourselves an easy bypass of that bilious feeling, allowing us to speak at a more comfortable remove from the hate and contempt behind the pejorative?

We’ve been using “the N word” since the OJ Simpson trial, but the hate of blacks hasn’t gone away – it’s still there simmering.

I hope to never hear the word that Richards screamed over and over said in any other context than of learning and healing. And, even in that context, it’s a brutally difficult and painful word to speak or hear, or even write. It’s a profane word and I understand the impulse to treat it as such. But it’s also a uniquely powerful word directed toward a uniquely and historically disempowered people.

Is the answer to neutralize the word to such an extent that we risk forgetting or diminishing its horrific historical – and unfortunately, still current – impact and power?

After Richards’ tirade, many black leaders and entertainers have been calling for a stop to using “the N word” in music, comedy acts, and even in private. And many are heeding the call.

I don’t know what the solution is. But I do know that whatever words we use toward and with one another, whatever surface changes we make in our language and behavior, there’s still this current of hate just below the surface — evidently in the hearts of people we’d least suspect.

No amount of on-air apologies, lopping off letters, rehab stays, or interviews with Diane Sawyer, is going to change the underlying problem of hate in this country.

The evil of racism, hate and fear is still there.

How are we going to talk about it?

What are we going to do about it?

Posted on March 15th, 2009Comments RSS Feed
One Response to The cowardly nation
  1. John W. Perkins
    March 15, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    I must admit to a couple of fears that I have. None of them are as you described.

    I have a fear of heights ever since being thrown through the second story glass window in a bar fight at a honky tonk overlooking the Arroyo Seco River in California, a long time ago.

    My other fear is from recent news reports of a deadly microbe in one of my favorite foods. I now fear peanut butter.

    Other than that, I have no fear of anything or anyone.. I also have no brains..

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