Too Sensitive to Smears?

My growing sensitivity over disparagements of my Appalachian (Scots-Irish) background may be making me a bit more sensitive to insults to other groups—to an extent I had not realized. And, perhaps, too much so. Perhaps it is due to my anger at the assumption that West Virginians (inbred hillbillies, doncha know) voted overwhelmingly for Clinton because of inherent racism—and not because they (like people in, say, New York or California) actually made thoughtful choices between candidates. Though I am an Obama supporter, I can see reasons for anyone, black or white (or blue and green stripes, for that matter), deciding that Clinton is the better choice. I’m not going to denigrate them by saying that they vote only by color. Certainly, I am not going to stupidly assert that any ethnic or regional group makes its choices simply by race. Not only is it untrue for the vast majority, it carries with it assumptions about the region or group based on gross and often denigrating stereotypes.

So I probably should not have been so surprised by my reaction to this person yesterday:

She’s bilingual, German and English. We were discussing grammar, she arguing for a prescriptive viewpoint while I countered that grammar arises as description and should be treated with that in mind. Somehow, we moved into the expanding vocabulary of English (much larger than that of any other language). I said I loved that aspect of the language; she said it leads to lack of understanding.

“Imagine you were standing on a street corner in Harlem—now, I have nothing against them, in fact, I love the way they use the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary… ”

I started to say something, but held my tongue. I did not want to call her on what I was hearing as a racist comment, but my dander was rising. Still, I was extremely uncomfortable being pulled into an ‘us/them’ dichotomy by her remarks.

“ …but imagine you say to a ten-year-old you find there, ‘All men are mortal.’ The kid would not know what you are talking about.”

I was starting to get ticked off, and really should have stopped her right there. However, I wanted to give her a chance to make her point.

“On the other hand, in Germany, if I said the same thing—in German, of course—any child would know exactly what I meant.”

“First of all,” I responded, “if you said ‘We all die’ in Harlem, the kid would understand you completely. What we have is simply more ways of saying things. All you are doing is using the fact of a large vocabulary to denigrate those who don’t have as great a grasp of the extent of it as you do. That’s not really fair, and is the type of thing people latch onto for arguments for the reality of class distinction.” I was trying to remain calm, but I could feel that I was close to losing my cool.

“That’s not true. I respect them completely.”

Suddenly, I lost it. She clearly did not respect them, and was trying to use language as a means of showing herself better.

“Stop!” I raised my hand, palm out like a traffic cop. “I can’t continue this conversation.”

“Why not? I love the way they use…”

“Stop! I’m hearing tinges of racism, here, and can’t go on.”

I turned and walked away, nearly shaking, suspecting I had overreacted, but sure I would have ended up yelling if I had stayed to talk longer.

Were I a better person, I would have explained that, first of all, I did not like being drawn into her “us” against some “them” out there, simply because she and I share a skin color. I would have asked her if she would have broached her example to an African-American. That might have opened her eyes to what she was, in fact, saying. Unfortunately, as Bob Dylan wrote in “If You See Her, Say Hello,” “Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m getting soft.”

Oh, well.

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. . to denigrate those who don’t have as great a grasp of the extent . .

Even within the context of your "discussion" that brush be a bit too wide. "Those" be we.

However, I do know that many of the so-called "elite" use their greater vocabulary as something of a cudgel, a means of beating down people who haven't had quite the schooling, who don't have the grasp of the wide variety of synonyms available in English. Are we really stupider because we don't know the meaning of "micturate"? Some people would argue that we are. Personally, though I'm glad we have so many ways of saying any one thing, I don't think that knowing seven ways of saying "urinate" makes one more intelligent.


Gotta say ... John Kerry about drove me nuts with his "idear" ... there is no "r" on the end of the word "idea". So, he was Harvard ejumcated, but to me he sounded illiterate. He would string $19 words together in a sentence and at the end of it, I don't think he even knew what he started out to say.

I have heard Obama do the same thing.

Having a good vocabulary is not the same as being a good communicator.

The fact that I don't think Obama is the right HUman for the job of president, has nothing to do with the color of his skin ... and the fact that I don't think Clinton is the right HUman for the job has nothing to do with the fact that she wears her testicles on the inside.

Coming from my socio-economic background, they are both elitists ... no matter how many shooters they can do. My brother was "escort" for the candidates when they did their swing through the great state of Montana. From his perspective Obama was much more personable than Hillary, but he is still voting for McCain in the general. [and he is a registered Dem that voted for Obama in the primary].

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If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little. ~ George Carlin

I am glad he is back in the campaign. Perhaps he will be Obama's vice presidential pick. It would be Gore and Elizabeth but it would I think be a really strong ticket.

I hope your brother will join me in thinking that McCain is really freaky. Hey he wants to cut the size of government by another 50% and he is promising to appoint conservative anti-choice judges to the Supreme Court. He also seems a bit out of it don't you think? With an extension of the Bush presidency courtesy of McCain I fear we could end up in more wars.

As I understand it WWI was a misadventure with every one getting embroiled because of prior treaties and so on and it was on and on in the trenches. It was the US that saved the day. And I think in WWII it was also the US that saved the day. If WWIII starts who will save us?

carol

that are just like my brother. They will vote for a Democrat like Brian Schweitzer, but country folk are a different breed of Dem. I don't think we can count on them to vote a party ticket in the fall.

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If it's true that our species is alone in the universe, then I'd have to say that the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little. ~ George Carlin

Roxy,
I pronounce idea, idear because I'm from New England. It's a bit of a joke because we add r's where they don't exist and take away the ones that do so car becomes cah, and yard becomes yahd and Dorchester becomes Dorchestah. While my accent isn't that severe unless I get tired, (tiahd) it's still there always ready to spring into action.

It doesn't have anything to do with income, social class or status, etc. It's just a regional accent that tends to get more pronounced as it moves north (pronounced noth).

We have a lot in common there. When I was a girl close friends of the family said Berl and Orl and called people like me goils.

Don't you think that some of the accent derives from Irish immigrants (in New Yawk) and Irish-German mix.

John Kennedy also said things like ask the way we did. I don't know how to reproduce the phonetics but the a sound is like "ai" in air. That's what My parents and I did until the schools "beat" it out of me. It was very lower crust, and I think the Boston accent was also considered lower crust at one time, or aspects of it. It definitely has a British twant not found in the Brooklyn of my childhood.

I think the Puerto Rican soft "a" has been a great improvement and sounds much more "couth" than we did.

carol

And she just forwarded to me a video sent to her by her sister who still lives in West Virginia.

The clip is: RedStateUpdate-Video.wmv

It's called the 'Red State Update' and and it has too VERY stereotypical 'redneck' characters in it ... and it is being sent to me via folks from West Virginia.

We need to calm down a little... I am not saying you are wrong but notice how the 'good ole boys' mock our 'sensitivity'!?!

Everybody makes stereotypes. Some are accurate, many are not. But we need to quit taking everything quite so seriously.

I won't hold it against you that you are from Appalachia, if you don't hold it against me that I am a native Californian, drive a Prius, and have been married four times before finding my life's true love and marrying her.

--Lefty!!!

--Lefty!!!

Aaron would you agree that the media and Hillary and Bill Clinton have been working hard to steriotype West Virginia voters -- ie hard working white Americans, etc., etc.

I think the polls do the same thing, and I think saying Obama is not "electable" because he cannot attract white uneducated voters is definitely racist.

And what about the smear against the non-college educated. As it happens a close friend of mine who never finished college (a white woman) is a leading Obama organizer in North Carolina. You figure. Why assume that the fact a person couldn't go to college means they scorn the educated or don't want a college education for their kids.

I really think a lot of this steriotyping is not indigenous to any particular region but is aided and abetted by the kind of racial profiling done by pollsters under the rubric of demographic analysis. And I think that there are a lot of push polls out their that are then sold to the public as objective demographic analysis.

I followed the SAGO mine disaster very closely and especially the story of the guy who was saved (I think) by the other miners giving him oxygen, and what he had to say about the mine companies. He had been planning to go to get more education and get out of the mines. The problem he faced was that working in the mines paid better than other jobs and he needed to support his family while going to school. That sort of thing.

There was universal anger in that community about the failure of the mine owners to make adequate provisions for safety such as masks in working order and stored oxygen, and also I believe some question about the way the shafts were dug etc. But the people in town need those jobs and it is not easy to go against mine owners especially under the Bush administration.

I bet that a lot of what is on people's minds is fear that environmental regulations will result in mine closures and loss of jobs. I don't know why they trusted Clinton more than Obama, maybe its just that Bill Clinton was president etc. I think that may explain why they voted for George Bush, ie because Republicans disregard concerns for the environment.

Let me say though that it scares me that the way race was brought into the primary campaign with the hoopla around Wright, plus nasty lies that Obama is really a Muslim, may be influencing voters around the country, especially if they are reinforced in evangelical conservative churches that are aligned with the Republican party. There is racism still throughout this country, for example against brown skinned people--Hispanics and Muslims most noticeably, just listen to Lou Dobbs show for example.

There's a lot to learn looking at the history of the early post-civil war agrarian populist movement which originally included whites and blacks. Or the pre-civil war anti-immigrant populist Know Nothing movement. Stirring up racial, religious and anti-immigrant sentiments is a tried and true way of destroying potential protest movements.

I do not mean to imply that the Clintons or most reporters are attempting to destroy the Democratic party by attempting to play the race card, although I definitely think there are Republicans who are prepared to do so, but I don't think we can ignore the consequences, intended or not-intended of racial profiling for "demographic" purposes or to prove a candidates electability or non-electability, or deliberate lies being circulated about Barack Obama's religious preference.

carol

I am up to my neck in North Carolina politics and I can definitively tell you that the "race card" is played as much by African Americans as it by any other group. This election cycle has had outrageous levels of intimidation based completely on race --unparalleled in my experience. When I complained that my car was vandalized at a local Dem party event --just around my Hillary sticker on my window--I was told derisively by some party members that "Well, get used to it--you white folks have been in charge for too long and did this to us, so now we are doing it to you!" The race based politics in NC right now are very concerning. African American activists are targeting Dem incumbents who have endorsed others in the primary instead of the chosen slate of African Americans. In one case, the candidate (who won the primary in a largely black district) has a long record of poor ethics, just got evicted from his law office for failure to pay $56,000 in back rent, put three college degrees on his credit card and then promptly declared bankruptcy because,as a bankruptcy attorney,he would have most likely have known that tuition was not protected from repayment UNLESS it was on a credit card, he left the police department in disgrace for charges of falsification of his timesheet to the tune of $16,000. He has allegedly ripped off a poor undocumented immigrant mother with four children by refusing to pay her for $1500 of work she did at his home, according to reporters from the Spanish language press, because he knew that she would never come to the law enforcement with the complaint. He threatens others with violence(he threatened my partner with violence for not supporting him), defames good honest self sacrificing incumbents and is generally unacceptable to many members of this community. It does not matter how low this man stoops. The prevailing opinion in many of my black colleagues (and former friends) is that he is to be embraced because he is black. Period. And anyone who dared to endorse the white incumbent he turned out in the primary is threatened with retribution by the African American activists. The tricks are dirty as they ever got in Rove's playbook. Is this NOT RACISM? The answer I get is "no-it is not, because now it is black people who are just trying to get even." I have never been so discouraged about race relations than I am today.

And from one who has sat in different prominent African American churches on many occasions, I must say once and for all, that REVEREND WRIGHT IS NOT AN OUTLIER--he is more mainstream than anyone wants to openly admit because it might hurt Obama. I have heard the same rhetoric that came from Wright's mouth from many ministers. Many of the NC ministers have been somewhat vocal(sotto voce) in the past week about their support of Wright--but not so loudly that it gets picked up by the mainstream media. It is not racism to be offended by these statements. These are not foul lies and unrealistic charges to question Obama's long standing affiliation with Wright.

These statements of Wright are consistent with a pervasive belief system ,albeit radical and confrontational, that Obama wishes to at once be a part of because that solidifies his support in the African American community --and also wishes to distance from because it would be anathema to the white voters if they knew how mainstream this belief system is in some African American churches. By accusing the Clinton campaign of playing the race card, Obama gets to play Both Sides Now.

To look at a particular demographic segment(ie white, blue collar voters) is a completely legitimate and long standing standard practice in polling. To suggest that it is the media or the Clintons who are pushing this is a faulty assertion. It is loudly touted that Obama has 93% of the African American vote and this has frequently been presented to the public that Hillary cannot gain any of the African American vote. How is this any different than saying that Obama is losing the white vote?

You are correct--there is racism in this country. And sexism. And ageism. And mean ol' case-of-the-red-assism which knows no boundaries of race, class or creed. But to soft pedal the need for precision in language, couching the desire for a common parlance as "racism" is going a bit far. It is hard enough to get two humans to successfully communicate when they both share a lexicon. It becomes impossible when the population is intentionally self-shaved into functional fractional codetalkers. I'm all for the Oxford English myself. Or perhaps we should just resort to sign language. I have sympathy for Aaron's friend for I read in her remarks the desire for common parlance. Her laughter and attempts at levity only further express her anxiety about a world that continues to fragment further into tribes, and into gangs and into gangs of one (a goof with a gun and a bad attitude).

Any member of any profession knows that one way to assert your professional "special" status is to use the lingo and language specific to that profession--it is a way to distinguish oneself from the teeming masses and helps the professional group identify with one another. It reinforces your special "groupism". Academics, social scientists, healthcare workers, musicians, engineers, politicians etc etc etc all have their special lingo. As do subgroups of the population who also wish to limit their membership by language, including elitists, middle class lawn mowingists, mommyists, drug dealers and users, theocratists, ex-cons, alcoholics, poker players,street thugs,adolescents, golfers ,dog lovers, bankers and other moneyists etc ad nauseum.

People crave affiliation. People are determined to divide into tribes of "Us" and "Them". You can no more stop this than you can plug up the sex drive as it is located in the primitive brain and is unresponsive to higher cortical functions. It is the drive to survive. Dressing it up in Kumbaya "can't we all just get along?" and "thems that don't wanna are all racists" is unrealistic. Embrace the differences and the desire for differences and work WITH it. Understand that the brain is hardwired to distinguish gross salient features into "friend" and "foe" and all the anger and handwringing cannot alter this because it is for survival. Understand that your friend has not become your foe Aaron because of the desire for a common language. She too craves affiliation and may feel increasingly alienated by our fractured civilization and its growing violence.

or Why Southerners go to school to rid themselves of their accents. Language is often about status, about belonging to certain classes or regions.

DEFord, good points.

It reminds me of the time when two beloved friends from Alabama --writers, novelists, one whose short fiction appears in The New Yorker the other whose non-fiction articles appeared in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair -- visited me in Connecticut.

One morning, we went to a McDonalds to pick up coffee and all the little McDonalds uniform wearing noodniks had a gay old time laughing at my friends as they were ordering -- you know, because they talked funny.

But if the little McDonald troopies weren't so steeped in their own smug superiority over their way of speaking and had perhaps ventured out into the world, they might have recognized that the language they just found hysterical was indeed one of the dialects of the upper class and very rich.

Language is just language. It isn't an IQ test.

as well as the book Talking and Testifying. Dialects, gulahs, and regionalism of living languages do have their own syntax and rules (as just one example: My mother she follows a rule common to many languages -- just not one from standard American English, more about that at a later date -- a syntax that names a subject (My mother) and then comments about that subject (she went to the store). Speech that follows that syntax is not "proof" of lesser intelligence, it's proof of following a consistent linguistic rule characteristic a particular dialect.)

Odd that the polyglot woman would not recognize that certain languages are appropriate to certain situations. And so if one wants to survive in Rome among the "natives," then one speaks... ah, er, "roman."

Aaron, tell that hotey totey lady to re-read her S.I. Hayakawa and leave us purveyors of new coinages alone!