Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What's In a Word

Words can hurt; words can empower. The lesson has been learned a thousand times over. Still, the Forces of Niceness, the self-proclaimed heirs of a once vibrant political Left, keep repeating it – way past the point of silliness. [Lately, at the NAACP convention in Detroit, they even (symbolically) buried a certain word beginning with the letter “n.”] Thus the anti-political correctness crowd on the Right sometimes gains the high ground, to the dismay of the anti-anti-political correctness (and not always nice) remnant of the historical Left. It isn’t just the silliness that rankles opponents of goody-goodyism, nor is it the well-known fact, established long ago by Lenny Bruce, that a word’s power to offend varies inversely with the frequency of its use. A bigger problem is that a tried and proven way to diffuse tensions, not just within ethnic groups but also between them, has now gone missing. Since some time in the Carter administration, it has been out of bounds to tell ethnic jokes. This is a loss for Humor. I would venture that it is also one more cause of proletarian disunity. Given the larger tasks before us, rehabilitating ethnic humor is probably not a battle worth waging at this time. But, in listening to last night’s (July 24) “debate,” the first officially organized by the Democratic National Committee and the first with questions asked on You Tube, I could not help but think about how, in many of the issues You Tube users brought up, the emotive impact of words trumps clear thinking, to the detriment of our already degraded political culture. Here are a few examples:

1) Some of the candidates were asked about their views on same-sex marriage. Only one of the respondents, Dennis Kucinich, said he was for it; John Edwards conceded that, as a Southern Baptist, he was “struggling with the issue,” but noted that his better half has no problem with the idea. The others said they favored “civil unions.” This was John Kerry’s position in 2004. Back then, though the details were never spelled out, the understanding was that “civil union” means something less than full-fledged marriage; last night, the impression was that they are the same in all but name. Thus we have a still thriving, emotionally laden dispute over a distinction without a difference. This is a needless waste of emotion. But it does raise questions worth reflecting upon. One thing “marriage” denotes is a civil estate; one that conveys particular rights and responsibilities. By extending citizenship rights, the extent and importance of marriage rights would diminish; and the change would be all to the good. For example, family membership should not affect rights to health care; those rights should be distributed to everyone equally, regardless of marital status or parentage or any other irrelevant but currently pertinent factor. One would expect the Dennis Kuciniches of the world to draw attention to this point, not just to advertise their support for gay marriage. As it is, what they are doing, in supporting gay marriage, is proposing that same sex couples be included in the status quo. This is better than what is now the case, but it is hardly the same thing as changing the status quo by reconstituting the institution itself. To be sure, there are limits to imaginable institutional changes. So long as the family form of social organization exists – so long as children are reared in families and property passes within families from one generation to the next -- there is a point beyond which marriage rights cannot be devolved away. To the extent that the issue cannot be made to disappear, the state can and should assure that same sex and opposite sex couples are treated equally. Beyond that, it has no legitimate business. In other words, so far as political institutions go, there should be ONLY civil unions. Outside the state, marriage can and does have other functions. For the most part, these are religious in nature. But even for thoroughly secular people, marriage can have expressive meanings that transcend the rights and responsibilities that attach to the civil estate. Let that be as it may. Those who want to marry should be able to do as they please with whatever institutional support, ecclesiastical or otherwise, they desire. But keep the state out of it. It is remarkable that, in the United States, the state should be in the marriage business at all, given our longstanding constitutional insistence on the separation of church and state. Why doesn’t Kucinich and other advocates of gay marriage see this? Why don’t the rest of the candidates who get all bothered by the thought? Arguably, in 2004, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court legalized same sex marriages, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry’s electoral campaign was undone, even though he disagreed with the decision; guilt by association did him in. Maybe’ maybe not. But such is the harm emotionally laden words can do. How much better it would be if the point were just conceded – if instead of state sanctioned gay marriages there were only civil unions for everybody. If any of the Democratic candidates have a reason to disagree, they kept it to themselves last night. This is another battle worth winning but, again, probably not engaging, at least not now.

2) Some of the candidates were asked about their position on “reparations” for slavery. Again, Edwards said No, dismissively this time, but then went on to talk about programs that would benefit African Americans. Characteristically, Obama did much the same, though with less specificity about programs. Kucinich was alone again in favoring reparations. Is this another distinction without a difference? It all depends on what reparations involve. If the idea is that there should be one time cash payments to descendants of slaves – like those made to Japanese-Americans who had been interred during World War II -- then there would be a difference between Kucinich’s, Edwards’ and Obama’s positions. But then again the ostensibly left-most position, Kucinich’s, would be a bad idea. Leave aside the fact that putting reparations for slavery on the agenda would exacerbate racial tensions because most white Americans think that African Americans get too much from the state already; and leave aside too the difficulty, a century and a half after slavery was abolished, of identifying who the recipients should be. The fact is that, were reparations paid, it would only signal to most people that the debt has been paid, that an historical wrong has been made right, and that this is now the end of it. That’s why programs like the ones Edwards talked about – affecting African-Americans, but not targeting them exclusively – would do more good than outright cash payments. Reviving the better part of the Great Society or, what comes to the same thing, restoring the New Deal but with African Americans included this time around should be the order of the day. That’s what Edwards claims he’d do; maybe it’s what Obama claims too. With the ludicrous, Bush appointed, Democrat enabled Roberts Court in control of racial politics, implementing programs of this kind has become especially urgent.

Meanwhile, there are many people to whom the United States plainly does owe reparations for harms done to them, not their ancestors. Those people live mostly in Asia. There are many more of them now than there were seven long years ago. If we must talk about reparations, that’s where the focus should be.

3) Mike Gravel got hell for saying that the soldiers who are killed and injured in Iraq, like the ones before them who died or were injured in Vietnam, died or were injured “in vain.” Well, of course, they were and are. They died and were injured in vain, not just because these wars were lost. Their deaths would have been in vain even if, especially if, the United States had won. These are not just wars, wars of resistance to aggression; they are imperialist wars, wars of aggression. Even Hillary Clinton, no foe of imperialist wars, has come around to the view that the Iraq War at least is not only a lost cause, but also a bad cause. Even she, then, should concede that those who die in these wars and those who are injured in them, and the friends and family of those who die and are injured, all suffer in vain. Yet, of all the candidates who addressed this issue, only Gravel had the courage to say so. Edwards and Obama brushed the point aside, though their positions on the war imply the conclusion as surely as night follows day. No doubt they, and the other candidates too, suppose that it is somehow insulting to the dead, that it demeans them, to say that they died in vain. But, of course, this too is a linguistic mistake, another emotionally laden one. The dead and maimed from America’s imperialist wars are victims, just as are those they killed and maimed – victims of a political class that put Americans and Vietnamese, Americans and Iraqis, in harm’s way for no defensible reason. They are victims too of an economic and political system that makes it necessary and possible for political leaders to do these things. To say that they died in vain is not to condemn the dead or the wounded; it is to condemn the living who let it happen – in this most immediate and tragic case, the Cheney/Bush White House, the intelligence agencies and the military and, we must not forget, the Republicans and Democrats in Congress who enabled them.

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