Posturing About the “N-word”

What do I mean by “posturing” about the “N-word”? Am I saying that everyone uses it and is merely pretending to be shocked by the stories about George Allen and James Webb using it as young men?

No. I don’t know anyone who “uses” it. But never having it pass from one’s lips? Come on. Let’s be honest, and fair, about all this.

By the time you read this you will probably know more about when and where and how often George Allen and James Webb, the candidates for the US Senate seat from Virginia, used the word; also whether they engaged in shameful misbehavior toward blacks when they were in their late teens and early twenties. As I write, the charges are that Allen and Webb used the N-word more than occasionally, and also partook in cruel pranks with blacks the target.

My guess is that both men will dig in and deny pranks. The misbehavior in question is too over-the-top to explain away as routine frat-house rowdiness. Allen is alleged to have driven around looking for a black family’s mailbox where he could insert a severed deer’s head after a hunting trip. The charge against Webb is that he and his buddies would drive around during the night and point and click the triggers of empty rifles at blacks out for an evening walk. The question will be only whether there is a way to verify that these incidents actually occurred. If they did, both men’s political careers will come to a screeching halt.

But using the N-word will be different. There appear to be too many witnesses for them to deny that they ever uttered the word. My guess is that they will admit that they used it, but only occasionally, and never in a mean-spirited or confrontational manner.

I submit that that case be made. (Whether it fits Allen and Webb, I have no way of knowing.) There was a time when the N-word was in the same category as the other expressions for members of ethnic groups that were understood to be rude and vulgar and not to be used in polite company. “Nigger” was comparable to “guinea,” “spic,” “bohunk,” “kraut,” “limey” and “greenhorn,” fighting words if used to insult a member of the group, but not a word that was shameful to utter if, say, describing someone else’s conversation, or perhaps as part of a harmless joke, such as the Polish jokes of today. (I have heard it used, for instance, where the butt of the joke is rednecks.)

It is only in the last ten years or so that there has been social pressure to move it into the same category as the F-word and some of the other scatological words forbidden by the FCC for television and radio broadcasts. We are now told that it is ill-mannered to employ it even if in the process of criticizing those who use it; for example, to say, “I can’t believe it, but Bob still calls blacks 'niggers.'” James Webb is being criticized for using the term as part of the dialogue in his novels. (I had to weigh whether it was appropriate for me even to type the word as part of this column.)

I don’t think any of us would think twice if we heard a television commentator make the following statement: “We have a duty to teach our children not to use terms such as dago and chink and the N-word, when describing members of minority groups.” The commentator would think it appropriate to use “dago” and “chink,” but make the indirect reference of “N-word,” rather than say “nigger.” That is a remarkable change in public thinking.

A good case can be made, of course, that the N-word should be placed in a separate category from the disparaging terms for other ethnic minorities: the other groups did not experience slavery, Jim Crow laws and lynchings. But that does not mean it is fair to react to everyone who let the word slip from their lips back in the 1950s and 1960s as if we discovered a tape of them using it last week at a Ku-Klux Klan rally. It is not the same thing.

One has only to look at the old librettos from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas or Mark Twain’s novels to see that there was a time that the word was used by people who meant no harm to African-Americans. I have no way of knowing what was in Twain’s and Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s hearts, but I suspect that they thought they were doing nothing very different from what John Ford used to do when he cast Victor McLaglen as a brawling, drunken, simple-minded Irishman in the old John Wayne westerns.

There is another angle to consider in all this. Accuse me of paranoia, if you wish, but I am going to say it anyway: why do we so seldom hear stories about embarrassing things said by liberal Democrats when they were young? Is it that the 1960s leftists never said things that would make them uncomfortable if we found out about it today? Anyone over the age of 50 knows better. The Weather Underground and the Black Panthers were not typical of the peaceniks of the 1960s. They were the extremists among the extremists. But there were lots — lots — of campus leftists during those years who employed the rhetoric of Herbert Marcuse, Frantz Fanon, Regis Debray and Noam Chomsky to describe their contempt for the place they called “Amerika” and the “pigs” in the military who defended it.

I can remember students of mine chanting Maoist slogans in sit-down strikes and anti-war demonstrations; colleagues who mused about whether they were selling out because they continued to take their pay checks from the “establishment” at the same time “idealists” such as Bernadine Dohrn, Mark Rudd and Fred Hampton were taking “direct action”; graduate school professors who made the case for those who decided the time had come to “get a gun” in their “struggle” against capitalist imperialism.

Many modern Democrats in government and the media came of age during those protest years. I guess it is possible that the Clintons, John Kerry and John Dean and the journalists and editors who devote their lives to defending the Clintons never engaged in any such rhetoric (although there must be some reason why Hillary’s senior thesis is still kept under wraps by the authorities at Wellesley). But my hunch is that there are many stories out there that could be told about prominent modern Democrats by people who sat cross-legged with them at the protests and teach-ins of the 1960s, stuff at least as interesting as the stories about Jim Webb and George Allen using the N-word.

That the media are more interested in covering up such things than in smoking them out says a lot about whether the press plays a partisan role in our public life. Newsweek editor Evan Thomas once speculated in public that the media’s liberal bias is worth about 7 to 10 percentage points to the Democrats at election time. That sounds about right to me.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the N28ew American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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