Sunday, February 4, 2007

Reducing it all to One Word

I am not quite sure how to take all the attention that is grown around the Biden gaffe (his description of Barak Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”). It has even engendered a mild domestic argument: My wife is highly indignant over public figures allowing themselves such sloppy use of language. I am more in the same camp as Daniel Schorr, wondering why the media have chosen to indulge so heavily in this particular piece of foolishness, when one can agonize over so many other items coming over the news wires. The result is that, while I have begun to weary of "The Week in Review" in the Sunday Times, I found myself drawn into reading the entirety of Lynette Clemetson's take on this whole affair.

Given my personal passion for reading "texts and other signals," Ms. Clemetson had me hooked with her second paragraph:

There are not enough column inches on this page to parse interpretations of each of Mr. Biden’s chosen adjectives. But among his string of loaded words, one is so pervasive — and is generally used and viewed so differently by blacks and whites — that it calls out for a national chat, perhaps a national therapy session.

She then devotes the rest of her own text to an analysis of that one pervasive word: articulate. She does this by reporting on a series of interviews and using them as a point of departure for her own analysis. By the time she is done, you have to imagine that any attentive reader will be scared to death of ever using the word "articulate" again in any context. On a superficial level this is not such a bad thing: We have trivialized so many powerful words by overusing them where they really are inappropriate that I cannot admire any serious effort towards lexical hygiene, but that still leaves me working what I am going to do the next time "articulate" really is the mot juste!

Of all the data points that Ms. Clemetson provided, the one that had the greatest impact on me came from D. L. Hughley, a comedian whose performances I tend to enjoy:

“Everyone was up in arms about Michael Richards using the N-word, but subtle words like this are more insidious,” Mr. Hughley said. “It’s like weight loss. The last few pounds are the hardest to get rid of. It’s the last vestiges of racism that are hard to get rid of.”

I think that Mr. Hughley has cut right to the bone by putting this all in the context of "the last vestiges of racism." Writing from a vantage point of the experience of anti-Semitism, I would argue that those "last vestiges" can never be entirely expunged. My reading of Isaiah Berlin has led me to the conviction that there are always going to be "points of friction" across social boundaries, whether they are boundaries of race, religion, class, or (as in the example from Ship of Fools) a preference for riding a bicycle. Those "points of friction" will always be there because, like it or not, they are a part of our human nature (which is why Kant's metaphor of "the crooked timber of humanity" was so appealing to Berlin). So we can either hang our heads in Nietzsche's nihilistic shame and never use the phrase "human nature" without preceding it with "all too;" or we can try to follow Berlin's more optimistic path and accept the fact that we have to live with the imperfections of being human (best expressed in the final line of Some Like it Hot: "Well, nobody's perfect").

Having said all that, we should probably recognize that it is not in the interest of the media business to follow "the way of Berlin." Imperfections constitute the bread and butter of news, or, at least, the news stories most likely to command our attention. However, that should not prevent us, in our own efforts at "being in the world," to save a place for Berlin in the back of our minds and remember that the media business, itself, has imperfections of its own!

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