Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Reality? None of That, Please.

Sometimes we wonder what the corporate chain media really think about their audiences these days, or if they think about them at all. Based on the evidence, we’d have to conclude that they view the reader/viewer as a borderline dolt who can’t handle too much reality.

We were moved to ponder this state of affairs by the Houston Chronicle’s front page story earlier this week on the ill-advised and blatantly unconstitutional proposal by the apparently under-employed white mayor of Brazoria that his town outlaw the word nigger. The Chronicle devoted 20 or so inches of copy to this development without actually using the word whose “aggressive or offensive” utterance the mayor would like to make subject to a $500 fine, instead employing the tiresome, cutesy non-word “n-word” in both the headline and lede and elsewhere in the story.

In this, however, Houston’s leading daily newspaper was only following the lead of Brazosport’s leading daily newspaper, The Facts, which published essentially the same story two days two days earlier and also steered clear of nigger while dropping n-word again and again. And again.

Having grown up in these latitudes, back in the day when a white person’s use of nigger still had a fearsome and unsettling effect, we fully understand the squeamishness, particularly on the part of white news executives who hate to be awakened at home or have their golfing interrupted by frantic underlings terrified of making the wrong call and offending one too-easily-offended sector of the “community” or other. (Although, come to think of it, we can’t remember if we’ve ever heard a white person actually call a black person a nigger to his face. We did hear the word on the playing fields of our youth, often, and as a pre-teen let loose with it our self a time or two or three, although at least we had the raisin’ to be inwardly ashamed by our utter lack of integrity [take our word for it]. In all of these instances, now that we think about it, there probably wasn’t a black person within 5 miles of the slur. We didn’t know any blacks, and neither did the other white kids. It’s easy to do that stuff when there’s no real consequence for your ignorance.)

Yeah, hearing other white folks drop down a nigger or two always made us uneasy, and still would, except that it’s been a long, long time since we’ve heard a white person use it, unless it’s in the clinical sense in which we’re using it here (take our word for it). But these days we don’t flinch, inwardly or outwardly, when we hear nigger, because it’s almost always being emitted by one young black male when greeting or addressing another young black male or when both are in deep, heated discussion on theoretical physics or the roundness of some young lady’s behind. It’s become sort of a password to male bonding for males who aren’t deep into nuance. Recently the Chronicle sports columnist John Lopez called on NBA players to stop using the n-word (not nigger, mind you) and in doing so presented the interesting news (to us, anyway) that white players in the league call black teammates nigger, and vice versa. We were left to wonder whether these were American whites, or Eastern Europeans and other foreigners (either way, they must be dumber than they look). Lopez was astride his high horse, post-Kramer, but we could see where he was coming from: He’s probably weary from hearing it all the time while sitting courtside.

It’s become like that Lenny Bruce routine from the mid-‘60s, wherein the sometimes-wise junkie comedian ranted on about how the targets of nigger or queer or kike themselves should start using those slurs to divest them of their power.

It doesn’t work quite that way, but when the media reflexively resort to the chummy non-word n-word it turns the whole issue into a joke, which maybe it is. Just like the silly proposal by the mayor of Brazoria---who even told The Facts and the Chronicle that use of the word isn’t a problem in his town (ain’t that like government, always primed to tackle the non-problems)---the media’s flogging of n-word gives the real word a whole lot more due than it deserves.

Related: Slate’s Jack Shafer on a new book explaining the media’s Unpseak. Check it out!

Semi-related: We heard Hillary Clinton tell Katie Couric the other night that voters didn’t really know her because she had been
caricaturized over the years. We admire a presidential candidate who has enough command of English to make up her own words.