Politics & Media
Apr 14, 2008, 06:43AM

Too Much Offense Taken

American journalists ought to loosen up.

Lacey.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

The phrase “politically incorrect” is now, more or less, out of style, a victim of promiscuous overuse after it first surfaced on college campuses in the 1980s—Brown University, then the “hot” school, was central in its dissemination, as I recall—which, linguistics aside, is a shame because Americans are touchier than ever today about what’s written or said in public. I can’t stand pack journalism clichés, thinking of current favorites like “back in the day” or, among reporters covering the presidential campaign, “a path to the nomination,” but it’s come to a point where the instances of “politically incorrect” behavior has multiplied so prodigiously that it’s time to call a spade a spade. Those last five words, obviously, wouldn’t get past most copy editors, with the supposed racial overtones, even though it’s a pretty nifty description. Likewise, one risks knee-jerk raised eyebrows, if, upon seeing someone, the greeting is, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age.” Never mind that it simply means a long time, allegedly derived from the British expression “in a crow’s age.”

Now let’s really wallow in the quicksand. At an awards dinner in Arizona last week, Mike Lacey, executive editor and part owner of a chain of weekly newspapers (Village Voice Media), did the unforgivable and referred to a late, white colleague of his as “my nigger.” The controversy was immediate and Lacey, performing the pro forma perp walk for the thought police, issued an apology. The website Gawker, for one, which regularly targets “asshole” Lacey for his perceived evisceration of the Village Voice, delighted in providing a video clip of the incident. I’ve known Lacey for 25 years or so and he’s a fearless journalist, as well as hilarious and ribald, and he’s not a racist. Be that as it may, what really rankles me is that newspapers who detail such indiscretions feel compelled to pander to readers, referring to the “n-word,” as if they’re addressing a Sesame Street audience.

Only the most insensitive, or stupid, writer would use the pejorative “nigger” in a story, and rightfully so, but are Americans so squeamish that they can’t handle the word in quotes? Besides, as syndicated columnist Mark Steyn pointed out last week, referring to a Washington Post article about the plight of a Virginia student who was reprimanded for sexual harassment, there are far more egregious examples of sanity gone amok than the verbal slip-up of a fellow like Lacey. As Steyn relates, the case involved a kid named Randy Castro, who last November “slapped a classmate on the bottom” at recess, and then officials called the police, and the young man was written up as a “sex offender.”

Randy Castro is six years old.

The British media, by and large, isn’t so over-delicate in its language. That country has its own journalistic problems—the onerous libel laws really stick out—but magazines like The Spectator (a mostly conservative, if contrarian, weekly that puts its American counterparts to shame) at least treat readers like adults and let them make their own judgments. The Spectator’s “High Life” columnist Taki, for example, is not only very funny but “politically incorrect” as well. He refers to New York City as the “Big Bagel,” which could be construed as anti-Semitic at first blush, but Taki’s writing spares no one. Writing about the Bears Stearns meltdown last month, he says, “As we all know, human greed has no frontier, but the Bush administration is unique in its ignorance and incompetence. Where were the federal regulators when all this reckless lending was taking place? In Iraq, I suppose, taking kickbacks from Halliburton and Cheney.”

Speculating upon further economic distress in the U.S.—Taki divides his time between London, New York and Gstaad—the columnist predicts a mass takeover of distressed companies by wealthy foreign investors. “Ah yes,” Taki writes, “I almost forgot. China, Dubai, Kuwait and other such great democracies will end up owning large chunks of American financial institutions, which means that the next time you see American banking big shots they will be wearing a chequered tablecloth on their heads.” At The New York Times or Washington Post, to note the obvious, a op-ed columnist would have no problem making cracks about the Bush administration taking unsubstantiated “kickbacks” in Iraq, but describing an Arab as a “towelhead” or “raghead,” as Taki regular does, would lead to a suspension and enormous uproar in the fraternity of media watchdogs and ethicists.

Earlier this month, Alexander Chancellor, commenting in The Spectator on Prince Charles’ ban of foie gras from his table—and royal banquets—was exquisitely on-target in pointing out the doddering scold’s hypocrisy. While not whole-heartedly endorsing the force-feeding of geese to enlarge their livers, Chancellor argues that the “gastronomic delight” is unfairly targeted by activists because it “smacks of privilege and self-indulgence,” and that other animals are treated with more cruelty. “Compare it, for example, with hunting with hounds or pheasant-shooting, two sports in which Prince Charles in his time has enthusiastically indulged. You can’t eat a fox, and while pheasants are, of course, edible, that’s not why people shoot them: it is for the fun of the kill.”

Chancellor, unlike Taki, isn’t so free with his verbal violations, but you’d be hard-pressed to find such a balanced rationale in favor of foie gras in the American media. A meal without the goose liver wouldn’t, and doesn’t, bother me—it’s far too rich—but it’s nonetheless refreshing to read at least one publication that doesn’t hew to the current fear of causing offense.

  • I agree wholeheartedly that American journalists should be able to write without constant fear of moral reproach, but I also think Lacey said something offensive and inappropriate. He has the right to say whatever he wants, but others have the same right to call him on his idiocy and insensitivity.

    Responses to this comment
  • im not so sure if everything here follows logically. i mean the six grade sex offender doesn't really have much to do with political correctness in journalism; its not like the local paper called him that, just some teacher. And as for the foie grass, i dont really think an american newspaper would have a problem with pointing out the hypocrisy in banning goose stuffing but hunting pheasants (except for the fact that having royalty is stupid). And about the guy referring to arabs as ragheads: knowing the immigration/employment issues going on in england right now, you don't think using a term like ragheads is just pandering to the racism and anger of those conservative british whites who don't like the growing arab presence? Especially in the context of: "All them rich ragheads are carpetbagging our banks." I think alot of political correctness is a waste of time, but i am gonna be a patriot on this one. I don't really see how this is about free speech either (not said here but said elsewhere about Lacy) as noone reasonable says that saying nigger should be a crime, but that you shouldn't say it, and only an idiot would use it so casually without realizing the consequences. Besides some rich old white dude trying to sound hip by calling someone his nigger probably means everything he knows about black people is from his TV. Terms like nigger and coon (never mind the history, the only people who I've heard say coons to mean raccoons are old farmers) tend to drop from you're vocabulary if you spend any time with black people. One more thing, in the third paragraph you say the "...use the pejorative “nigger.”" I'm pretty sure it goes without saying nigger is a derogatory term, unless you have a really naive view of racism and think saying something like "them niggers sure do love watermelon" is ok because theres nothing negative in the sentence. Just saying.

    Responses to this comment
  • It does not go without saying that nigger is always pejorative. See: hip hop for examples otherwise.

    Responses to this comment
  • I pity any non-black person who uses the term publicly and then defends themselves by citing rappers' use of it. It doesn't mean the same thing at all in different contexts.

    Responses to this comment
  • I'm not saying use in one context excuses it in another. No where does my comment say that, I was just supporting the author's use of the qualifying adjective "pejorative"

    Responses to this comment
  • I agree with that completely. The term can clearly be used non-pejoratively if you pay any attention to contemporary hip-hop/black slang. Maybe in those cases the word is used inappropriately, but that's a whole different story.

    Responses to this comment
  • I agree, loosen up people!

    Responses to this comment
  • Hey, where's "Eatsmacoroni" been?

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment