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January 27, 2008

Art and the "N Word"

In the winter 2008 issue of Dissent Darryl Lorenzo Wellington reviews two books on the “N word” by prominent black intellectuals Jabari Asim and Randall Kennedy. What strikes Wellington are the moral implications of the different attitudes toward the word each writer takes.

Whereas Asim’s approach is historical, Kennedy’s is legalistic. Asim is a syndicated columnist, a former editor at the Washington Post Book World, and currently the editor in chief of the NAACP’s Crisis magazine. Kennedy is a well-known legal scholar and a law professor at Harvard. Two black intellectuals, both middle-aged, both, one assumes, having considerable experience with racism in their personal and professional lives, have come to wildly divergent conclusions.

Kennedy’s book traces the same history, briefly, less emphatically. For him, the big lesson—its use by whites against blacks, blacks among other blacks, and occasionally by blacks against whites—is, “The N word itself is not self-defining. Its actual meaning in any circumstance always depends on its surrounding circumstances.” He lingers over the N word’s place in arguments over jurisprudence, citing discrimination lawsuits in which “nigger” was offered by the plaintiffs as evidence. Kennedy then opines on the merits of the case and whether the language on trial was derogatory, nonderogatory, or relevant at all. He usually sympathizes with the plaintiffs, but hurriedly adds the caveat that “nigger can mean many different things, depending upon, among other variables, intonation, the location of the interaction and the relationship between the speaker and those to whom he is speaking.” Kennedy also mentions LBJ’s notoriously coarse language, but doesn’t necessarily sanction him. His harshest judgment is, “In condemning public officials who use derogatory language, we would do well to remember how complex people can be.” And then he moves on. He is particularly enamored of a quote from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged . . . [instead] the skin of a living thought that may vary in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.”

Kennedy nods approvingly to a section of today’s young population, fans of Quentin Tarantino, rough-edged urban humor, and what’s known as “gangsta rap” that has made the N word a staple of its lexicon, purportedly reflecting (some would say exploiting and encouraging) authentic ghetto talk. Positioning himself as a free-speech advocate, Kennedy mocks people he calls “regulationists and eradicationists,” who, he says, “contend that nigger has no proper place in American culture and thus desire to erase the N word totally” (for example, parents who object to Huckleberry Finn).

Wellington caps his gloss on Kennedy with a judgment of his own:

Kennedy oversimplifies. One can support freedom of speech in private and, particularly, in artistic expression, but still hope to see the public uphold certain standards of appropriate speech—less as a principle of law than of civics.

At one point in his discussion Wellington apologizes for the sophomoric quality of the debate—and he’s right. It’s a debate between the presumed necessity of censorship and the virtues of free speech. And most of the people I know who are conflicted by it happen to be sophomores. For those with a little intellectual maturity (sophomore or otherwise) there is no conflict here. Kennedy’s problem is that he is grounding a poorly conceived position on artistic creativity on an unimaginative rationale for political liberty. He assumes that because art should be protected against censorship (which is right), it must also be insulated from the self-censorship engendered by criticism. In other words, he assumes that political censorship and political criticism are the same—that somehow art is antithetical to criticism. Not so. Art depends on criticism. Art is choice-making; and choice-making is a function of criticism. For example, of all the defenses would could mount for Huckleberry Finn, I should think the least impressive one would be constitutional. It is a profoundly moral work, and its use of the N word is integral to that quality. To defend its continuing publication (and use in the classroom) on the basis of constitutional privilege would certainly miss that point. Likewise, “gangsta rap” should certainly be protected from the scissors and pens of government nannies—not because its violence and sexism is too stylized to be disturbing, but because what is disturbing needs to be discussed, criticized, and occasionally condemned.

Posted by stevemack at 02:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 13, 2008

Big Think: A Youtube for Intellectuals

Further evidence of the transformation of intellectual discourse in the multimedia Age: A Youtube for intellectuals,, allows thinkers in a variety of fields to circulate short but considered comments within a wide mainstream audience.

Posted by stevemack at 11:57 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

January 12, 2008

Clinton v Obama: The Identity Tightrope

From the start of their campaigns, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have been walking shaky political tightropes, high wire acts never before tried in modern presidential elections. Since New Hampshire, both are on the verge of a netless fall.

Clinton and Obama are what we might call “Identity-Transcending” candidates. That is, both owe their electoral credibility to the fact that they exist both in and out of a politically charged social identity. Hillary is an extremely competent politician and legislator; but what distinguishes her from other competent senators like Chris Dodd and Joe Biden is that her election, in and of itself, would do as much to advance gender equality as any well crafted policy initiative. Obama is an electrifying orator and imminently wise political visionary; however, if he were not African American whose election would be a dramatic repudiation of our racist past, he would “merely” be a rising star in the Democratic Party. He’d surely be on everybody’s short list for VP—but not a contender for the top spot.

But in the twenty-first century, identity is not enough. Taken alone, in fact, it’s the kiss of death. Presidential candidates like Hillary and Obama must simultaneously represent their identities and convincingly transcend them. Both must implicitly ask voters to keep identity in their peripheral vision because for both, it is a wholly legitimate rationale for their candidacies. At the same time, both must avoid being reduced to those identities: typecast as the woman or Black candidate. That’s the road to the political ghetto where Pat Schroeder and Jesse Jackson live.

This is the tightrope that Obama walked effortlessly—and Hillary wobbled across—until New Hampshire. From the start Obama spoke soaringly, and vaguely, about hope and yes “we” can, without ever specifying whose hopes were in play or who “we” referred to. Under the rules of poetic ambiguity he could speak both of and to African Americans, and everybody else as well, without contradiction. Hillary played a less artful game: stressing the transcendent side of her candidacy while leaving it up to (women) voters to remember the significance of her gender. In Iowa, most women just forgot. But in New Hampshire, Hillary inadvertently reminded them—with a little help from the press. The result was a vote inflected more by gender than race and Hillary won. Still, no harm done—at least until somebody feels the need to hit a few nails on their heads.

Unfortunately it looks like friends and observers of both camps are now flirting with the identity game. Claims that Obama’s loss in New Hampshire was masked by racism can only reduce him to the “Black candidate.” Even though, as John B. Judis shows, this is a misinterpretation.) Ditto for the willful misinterpretation of President Clinton’s remarks about the Obama “fairy tale”—his phrase for Obama’s antiwar position that Obama supporters have asserted was a characterization of their entire candidacy. Just as ham handedly, Hillary’s argument that the great white patron, Lyndon Johnson, was more responsible for the voting rights act than the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. may inflame the defensive instincts of the Black community (surely not her intention) and thus reinforce the notion that Obama is the Black candidate, but it will also reinforce the idea that she is the gendered antithesis. That is, it helps make her the “feminist” candidate. For proof that this is a danger, just ask yourself when last heard Pat Buchanan defending women. But that’s exactly what he did on Hardball, arguing that the claim that Obama’s victory was a product of racism is an insult to women and Hillary’s hard work.

When it comes down to it, I believe that both Hillary and Obama are capable of beating any of the Republicans in the field today. By the same token, any one of them could easily beat the “feminist” candidate, or the “Black” candidate.

Posted by stevemack at 02:04 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"A Whitman for our Time."
- Jerome Loving,
"Stephen John Mack's The Pragmatic Whitman: Reimagining American Democracy, [is] The most thoroughly informed philosophical reading of Whitman to appear in decades. Mack develops the premise . . . That Whitman shares with John Dewey a vision of democracy as a 'civic religion' in America, a profoundly secularist and progressive perspective.

- M. Jimmie Killingsworth, Texas A & M University
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