Wednesday, July 30, 2003


I was watching "Tough Crowd" with Colin Quinn last night--that's the Politically Incorrect-esque program where Quinn discusses current events and political questions with his comedian guests. He usually plays the hard-nosed, no-bullshit, voice-of-common sense guy that usually ends up irritating my delicate sensibilities. My tolerance for listening to any sort of punditry on TV has plummetted these days. I don't like listening to disagreeable arguments when they can't hear me argue back. Or feel the hurt as I fling things at the TV. Quinn wasn't rage-inspiring last night, but he did (all in the guise of common-sense guy) try to make a point which a lot of people try to make, and which is at best wrong, and at worst, completely offensive.

It was his opener: apparently some story hit the major news media (NYT, WaPo, etc.) about some woman who was beating up some little girl in the neighborhood and yelling something charming to the effect of "We don't want no spics or nig--rs* in this neighborhood." I missed the full story, but that was the point. And Quinn's point, in turn, was that if this had been a person of color calling a white person "cracker" or "honky," it would have never made the media. He said that the media is trying to perpetuate the myth that everything in race relations is just how it was 50 years ago.

I'll probably agree with him that this is a better item for local news rather than national. And I'll leave aside his patently ridiculous belief that a media outlet reporting instances of racial conflict is trying to convince the world that it's 1950 rather than simply exhibiting an example of racisim persisting in our society. What really bothers me is his conflation of derogatory terms. You see, I'm reading a series of essays by Stanley Fish right now, who is a notorious academic/lefty/multiculturist upon whom the PC banner was foisted. He brings a lot of academic weight to bear in his arguments, and while he is shakier on some points, on this one he is on sure ground.

To wit: in order to proclaim that the term "honky" or "cracker" is morally or psychologically equivalent to "nig--r" is to sever those words from the historical context that gave rise to them. The white (usually man) who is implicated in the first terms, has always been ascendant, dominant, and free from the types of oppression visited upon the black population. It is essentially free of meaning other than a casual insult, because it does not signify anything other than the intention to vilify. The other word, however, explicitly recalls a very specific history and a very specific set of associations. The word goes hand in hand with disenfranchisement, exclusion, violence, and subhuman treatment. "Cracker" cannot possibly. Fish states, and I agree, that such words must be understood in their historical context in order to be at all intelligible. Colin Quinn takes one criteria, namely: does a given word/action display racial content, and decides that any such word or action is equivalent and equally deplorable. That would be fine and acceptable had history never happened, and if we were all disconnected beings meeting in space. But words have meaning, history bears upon our perceptions, and to fail to take this into account is to perpetuate the very inequalities that we purport to eliminate.

I imagine I would not get very far into this diatribe on Colin Quinn. The guests last night just accused him of trying to be "that white guy" who won't back down to black people. Keep it up, they told him, and when the NAACP turns up the heat, he'll be tap-dancing on BET just like Trent Lott.

*I realize that I fully typed out one epithet while masking the other. This is completely a product of my own associations. I know this may represent a level of hypocrisy on my part. I intended to simply write them both out, but the second term was too repellant and I couldn't do it. The first is still a disgusting epithet, but it doesn't seem to carry with it the weight of systematic violence and terror that the second does, and I think that is why I am still able to write it.


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