Monday, June 2, 2014
President Obama and Language Neutrality
I suppose it was inevitable that the election of President Obama to the highest office in the US would remain framed by his color. As a candidate, Barack Obama said that Americans must “reckon with race and with America’s original sin, slavery”. Except that America’s original sin was not slavery but its mistreatment of its indigenous native-Americans. If invisibility is a crime then Barack Obama contributed to that crime through his omission and through his historical inaccuracy. The truth would not have made him less of a national leader even if it meant that he had to frame the debate around justice rather than race.
If we ignore the occasional ‘mistake,’ President Obama has barely mentioned race during either of his terms as President. There are those activists who decry this course of inaction as a wasted opportunity to help to ‘rebalance the scales’. But others say that it is sufficient that he is before the public eye every single day and it is his presence as President and Commander in Chief of the Armed forces that encourages people across America to ‘be comfortable with’ a different aspect of American society and therefore his presence alone, encourages acceptance.
On those few occasions when President Obama did mention race (such as in the case of the death of Trayvon Martin) it caused a national controversy that brought raw feelings of prejudice back into the foreground and reanimated a racially uncomfortable America. As a president whose skin color is not white he has had to be better, purer, and more holy than his white colleagues. In fact, in some respects it is just like being a Jew! Although in America, Jews have been able to revel in the occasional notoriety of their coreligionists. African Americans have not yet arrived at that particularly dubious point of self-acceptance in their battle for integration. I am not going to get into any arguments about his mixed race background because like Jews under any fascist regime playing a percentage game and defining the Blackness or Jewishness of a person only plays into the racists hands.
The US President may indeed be incompetent; his foreign policy failures are legendary. I cannot recall another President whose record of failures was as long and as ignoble. His domestic challenges seem to have been no less and yet not significantly greater than Presidents that preceded him but instead he has suffered one failure after another and while his opponents have been in disarray throughout his one and a half terms of office he has failed to exploit the Republican Party’s chaos. His presidency has seen cuts to Social Security and Healthcare reform that divided the nation; as a Democrat he has failed to reduce unemployment or poverty. By many of his one time supporters Obama is viewed as a neo-con who has inflated government secrecy while assaulting one of the golden calves of the American self-image, civil liberties. By those on the opposite aisle he is viewed as a socialist threat to American values. Their constant attack on one of his few policy successes, the establishment universal health care, has made it impossible to dispassionately address the real budget and entitlement challenges that America has.
But this is not the problem that I am addressing here. President Obama is the first Black (African American) President of the United States of America. His race may have molded his character but it did not shape his ability to form judgments nor did it create his intellect. As President, Obama should be judged solely on his actions; on his successes (and forensically) on his failures. There is a strong suspicion that the constant attacks on his policies errors by certain members of the media are being driven by an agenda that is, at least in part, inspired by his color. But the mainstream media, across both print and electronic outlets have taken on board that any criticism of the Obama presidency which mentions his color is rightly considered both irrelevant and an act of racism
For the most part the European press and media also do not talk of individuals in terms of their national or ethnic background unless it is deemed pertinent to the article. When they refer to the Polish President or the Traveler (Gypsy or Tinker) community it is always in context. This policy mirrors the mainstream media experience with the Obama administration discussed above. But there appears to be a clear exception. The European press does seem to have a love – hate relationship with “its Jews” and hence, its addiction to referencing “its Jews” with never a requirement for context.
Since it annihilated two thirds of its Jewish population in World War 2 Europe loves its past Jewish landscape and its gorgeous panoply of (dead) Jews. But in the present, it rarely manages to have a good thing to say for live Jews and does little to nothing to protect them from assault while rarely failing to blame them for their own deaths. After all, if we only listened to our betters and did as we were told then everything would be perhaps, ‘alright’.
To be twice as good and to receive half of the credit for what you achieve is also very Jewish. Obama, as the first Black American President cannot take comfort in his parallel injustice.
In Britain, the excuse from the Left wing Guardian newspaper is that Jews cannot be trusted to act judiciously or morally when confronted by anything relating to the State of Israel unless they display openly their anti-Zionist credentials. (I am sure that the New York Times is broadly similar). Therefore Jews must not be permitted to enjoy any responsibilities that may have an impact on the relationship with Israel. It should not need emphasizing that I have never read or heard this argument with reference to any other ethnic or religious group because it would be racist to expound on this doctrine of bigotry under any circumstances. But it does explain why the President has trodden so carefully on the issue of race-relations. As a man of non-white complexion living in the White House he faces the same prejudice.
The Left and its Muslim allies have frequently used this racist fallacy when discussing the Rights of Jews. It is now consistently used against Jews and any Pro-Israel supporters in the struggle against BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). An African American president may enjoy immunity from such prejudiced reporting but fear of igniting a negative reaction appears to have prevented him from attracting attention to any issues of race that continue to blight the nation.
Unfortunately we are indebted to our televisions (and today, other electronic communications devices) for much of the sub-conscious programming we receive. It is responsible for a great deal of what we now think. We should not be grateful. Perhaps it is because I am sensitive to this subtle incitement to prejudice that I also recognize the wrong we commit when we label the first African American President by his color. It isn’t political pride, it is subtle indoctrination. Labeling creates associations and too often, an emotional response.
The cliché that we should judge people on their results and not on their skin color is only possible if we commit ourselves to language that is neutral. Neutrality of language means a duller society. Comedians, Jew and African American alike, exploit their own group foibles in their acts but they also reinforce the greater society’s prejudices. ‘In’ jokes inevitably demean someone or some group. So we are as guilty as the bigots for reinforcing negative stereotypes precisely because we do not take them seriously.
A degree of nihilism has entered into language and as a result we have lost that self-control that encouraged us to consider our actions first. Think about rappers, their treatment of violence and demeaning of women. Language informs us, it molds our attitudes and imprints our thoughts about how we relate to others.
Neutrality of language may make society duller but it also constrains society and the hurtful instinct that fear and weakness inspires. We need to recognize this fact. Perhaps then we will truly judge others by their achievements rather than by their physical characteristics. Only then will we as a society reject the bigot.