The Race Gestapo pounced on Donald Trump recently for comparing the House’s Constitutionally dicey attempt to impeach him to a “lynching.” Apart from the political motive of damaging Trump, the uproar illustrates once again how illiberal identity politics racializes language, turning words into ideological weapons that serve one faction’s own power and influence rather than the people it supposedly represents.
Much of the criticism of Trump was quickly exposed as hypocritical, morally incoherent, or just plain ignorant. The Associated Press, for example, faulted the president for “stirring up painful memories of America’s racist past.” Seriously? All we’ve been doing for more than half a century is “stirring up” racial grievances in politics, curricula, and popular culture. Historical racial offenses are repeated ad nauseam, even though many of them took place long before the end of legal segregation in 1964. And we know why. The race industry and identity politics are predicated on grievances over racists offenses for which white people must feel guilty.
And if such offenses are lacking, either they will be invented, like the myth that the police target black men for extra-legal assassination; or recycled from history, as in the current outrage over Trump’s use of the word “lynching.” Without grievances and the white guilt they provoke, activists and political factions have no leverage over lawmakers for getting regulations that privilege their interests.
What these ideological ploys actually reveal, though, is not the persistence of racism, but how much black lives have improved since even before the Civil Rights Act, and how discredited and ostracized old-school public expressions of racist attitudes have become. If these views still had widespread political and social power, nobody would have to invent racist hoaxes a la Jussie Smollett, or redefine racism into ever more subtle manifestations, or create psychological fictions like “implicit bias.” As any black man over the age of 60 can tell you, during segregation nobody needed such magnifying glasses to see racism in action. It was brutally obvious.
The absurdity of this historical vampirism––this feeding off the suffering of the past for one’s own political benefit–– was obvious in Illinois Representative Bobby Rush’s tweet to Trump: “What the hell is wrong with you? Do you know how many people who look like me have been lynched, since the inception of this country, by people who look like you.” Well, numbers are vague for “since the inception” of the U.S., but we do know how many have been lynched since the 1880’s, the period that saw Klan membership begin to surge, and violence against blacks increase. The number is about 4700––less than the number of blacks who “look like” Bobby Rush and are murdered every year, mainly by other blacks who also “look like” Bobby Rush. It’s peculiar that the murder victims of long ago can stoke more dudgeon than the vastly larger number of those today, or that sharing superficial physical features give one a proprietary stake in past suffering. Could it be today’s victims don’t have the political utility of victims from history?
In truth, lynching as a word and a historical fact does not belong to the activists of one demographic, for lynching wasn’t just directed at blacks. This form of extra-legal execution was used against miscreants and innocents of every ethnicity, from the frontier towns of the west, to the mining towns of the Sierra and the anarchic streets of Gold-Rush San Francisco. Its frequency generated a gruesome joke: “Hang him first, and give him a fair trial later.” That’s why a quarter of the lynchings mentioned above were of whites. And the largest documented mass-lynching in the U.S. occurred in New Orleans in 1891, when 11 Italians were lynched for the murder of the police chief. There is no linguistic or moral rationale for giving exclusive possession of the word “lynching” to the black activist elite.
The claim that because a black person today “looks like” oppressed black people of the past, he is owed something by society became widespread in the Sixties when the Civil Rights movement began morphing into illiberal identity politics based on grievance and superficial appearance. A significant example can be found in the Cambridge Union debate in 1965 between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. The motion to be debated was “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro,” which reminds us how stale the New York Times’ “1619 Project” is. During the debate Baldwin passionately proclaimed, “I picked the cotton and I carried it to market, and I built the railroads, under someone else’s whip, for nothing. For nothing.”
With this rhetorical flourish, the global celebrity and best-selling author armored himself with the misery of his ancestors, and clouded with emotional drama a discussion that should have been based on rational arguments buttressed by empirical evidence––just as elite race-mongering activists do today.
Moreover, it is a sign of the Republican establishment’s cession of such political manipulation to the left that a Wall Street Journal editorial scolded Trump’s “off-hand and self-indulgent” use of the word “lynching,” because Trump doesn’t have the “political and historical standing” that Clarence Thomas had when he called his confirmation hearing a “high-tech lynching.” The “standing,” of course, comes from physical appearance, just as it did under Jim Crow. One doubts the Journal got so editorially exercised in 1998 when 7 Democrats––including Joe Biden, who called Trump’s use of the word “abhorrent––– characterized the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton as a “lynching.” Biden of course, recently issued a groveling apology for this 20-year-old racialist faux pas.
And it once again bespeaks the Republicans’ acceptance of the other side’s weaponizing of words that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Trump made an “unfortunate choice of words,” and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said, “That’s not the language I would use.” Why not, other than fear of the race-industry commissars? Enough with the linguistic preemptive cringe.
The most egregious example of linguistic segregation, however, is the preposterous use of the euphemism: “N-word”. It would be one thing if, as most respectable black people believe, black and white alike should be condemned for using the actual word publicly. But one can’t escape the word in the public square, where it is used with gusto in rap lyrics, television shows, comedy routines, and in student conversations I hear on campus. This creates a striking incoherence: a word that is presumably so traumatizing that it must be euphemized even when it is not being used against a real-life person, is also widely used publicly by some blacks as a street-hip colloquialism for “guy” or “dude.”
And isn’t it remarkably condescending and patronizing to assume that a people who survived 400 years of bondage, racist violence, and legal segregation can be devastated just by seeing the word in print, with quotation marks that indicate the word is not directed at a black person, but is being referenced as a word? But the “N-word” euphemism is not about protecting black people from trauma. Apart from Ivy League snowflakes, most black people can take care of themselves without the help of black race-hustlers and “woke” white people, most of whom have had little to do with the great variety and diversity of blacks in America. It’s about an activist clique using history and language to leverage power.
Just as identity politics keeps alive the Jim Crow “one-drop” rule by focusing on appearance, so too segregating based on race who gets to use certain words recreates the mentality of “separate but unequal.” It does nothing for those blacks mired in economic and social dysfunction, benefiting only the progressives who exploit this habit for their political aims. And it divides Americans by stoking racial resentment and white guilt, all for a mess of political pottage.
Like history, the integrity of language has become a casualty of politics, proving the timeless truth of Thucydides’ observation about linguistic degradation during civil conflict: “Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them.” And that’s a dangerous habit, for pace Andrew Breitbart, “politics is downstream of” words that have lost their meaning and integrity.