Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Biden Time (or The Knee-Jerk)

I don't think it's much of a secret that I am huge fan of Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE), and now that he is running for president, I have maybe the first candidate of my lifetime that I not only find acceptable, but that I am actually enthusiastic about.

I have always said that on the evening of 9/11, if I could have swapped our current (and then-)President with any other human being on earth, it would have been Joe Biden. He was cool, he was confident, and he looked like he knew what the hell he was talking about. He was a thousand times more presidential that day than Bush has ever come close to being.

Another reason why I like J.B.: I think he is one of the most straight-shooting politicians I have ever seen. It's a very tired and cliched observation to say someone "tells it like it is," but it is very refreshing to have a politician that doesn't engage in safe corporate speak, spouting lazy and trite platitudes. Like, oh, say, our current president.

This absence of a filter, however, gets the guy in trouble every once in a while. The most recent controversy was in an interview where he was heaping praise upon fellow Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama. Said Biden:

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy, ... I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Now, even out of context, that is a pretty iffy quote to get bent out of shape about. What did he say? That Obama is one of the first African-American candidates without significant baggage? (Seeing as how Jesse Jackson has had a child with a woman who was not his wife, Al Sharpton has the Tawana Brawley fiasco, and Alan Keyes is out of his fucking mind.) It's a real stretch to say that Biden was intimating that because Obama is "clean" that he was saying that most blacks are not. A real big stretch.

But to me it really typifies one of the great problems in this country's race-relations: the Knee-Jerk Reaction.

This is another in a long line of (what I consider to be) overreactions in the media to otherwise innocuous, irrelevant or misinterpreted statements about race by prominent whites. The Biden quote is an example, it seems to me, of people looking for something to be offended by. The statement above, at face value, is glowing praise for Obama; it can't really be interpreted any other way. He was basically saying, "This guy is the golden child, and we're all chasing him." But somehow, Rev. Jesse (who has become something of the Black Vito Corleone) had to get involved to sign off on Biden as not being a racist. Why does Jesse get to make this call every time someone's purported racial views come into question? Why can't it be Dave Chappelle or Tony Dungy or Forrest Whitaker?

Jesse eventually said that he considered Biden's comments to be non-racist, yet he -- for some inexplicable reason -- evoked the names of Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond in his comments. Said Jesse:

"In speaking with Senator Biden, he assured me that he regrets that his remarks were misinterpreted. He was serious and contrite. To me, this was a gaffe, not a statement about his philosophy or ideology. The press should not confuse Senator Biden with Trent Lott’s embrace of Strom Thurmond, which celebrated Strom Thurmond's segregationist background and ideology. That was not helpful, but harmful to a nation. "

Why should Biden be contrite when his comments were not racist? Does it serve any purpose to have people apologize for things they didn't do wrong? Is this causing progress? Are we better off microanalyzing a known progressive like Biden over a poor choice of words, or might it be better to go after hate groups and white supremicists? Also, why even put him in the same category as Lott and Thurmond. Thurmond was a well-known segregationalist in the 1950s and to even mention him in the same paragraph as Joe Biden is an insult to Biden.

If someone says something offensive, insensitive, or racist, it should be brought forth and addressed, especially if the person is in a position of power or influence. But with every black leader crying "wolf" we get nothing but (pardon the expression) white noise, and it becomes impossible to distinguish truly hateful or damaging speech from a slip of the tongue. We are starting to lump together actual racism with perceived racism, and that is a very dangerous thing.

In 1999, David Howard, the caucasian aide of a black mayor in Washington, D.C. was talking about about a budget, and used the word "niggardly." The word "niggardly" means stingy or miserly, and has absolutely no connection, similarity or common etymology with that other uber-offensive "N" word. Due to this error in phrasing, Howard was forced to resign his post. But the reason he was forced to resign was because of the ignorance of his audience, particularly the person who raised the stink in the first place. The word he used was not in any way offensive by definition (unless there were a bunch of penny-pinchers in the audience), and those who were offended by it should not have been. They should have maybe opened a dictionary and looked the word up to understand its meaning, before making a knee-jerk reaction to a sound that came into their ears. I don't care what anyone says, whoever was offended by this was an idiot. An idiot who needs to broaden their vocabulary. (The Water Buffalo Incident is another good example of this.)

Let's take anothe recent incident, where Cosmo Kramer started shouting the "N"-word to a bunch of black hecklers. Now, this was about as poor a career move as one could make. Not only was he not that funny, but he really was insensitive and hateful. Nothing good came of it.

However, do we really need to spend our time and energy going after Cosmo Kramer? He looked like an idiot, but do you think there is anyone out there who really thinks he is a racist? He obviously got frustrated with a heckler, and took the lowest and most vile route he could to try and get under the heckler's skin. It's like when someone says something insulting, and you go after their biggest "weakness." (And no I am NOT saying that being black is a weakness, folks, save your postage.) In this case, Cosmo just went after someone's soft-spot, nothing more. It did not require a meeting with Jesse and Al. It should not require him to have to defend himself as a non-racist. Why doesn't the heckler, who called Kramer a "cracker-ass motherfucker" have to apologize? He was just as big an asshole, and did the exact same thing that Kramer did, by going after the racial issue.

The upshot of all of this is that we are actually, in my opinion, further away from racial peace in the U.S. and A. because we are so afraid to speak our minds. White people are scared to death to talk about race in this country, because God forbid something gets misconstrued, we are opened up to a lawsuit, a forced public apology, or a good ol' fashioned ass-kicking. Whites are never going to be open about race -- our suppressed prejudices, our misconceptions or even our appreciations of other ethnic groups -- for fear of saying the wrong thing and being labeled with the dreaded "racist" tag. If even a compliment as laudatory as Biden's for Obama can be used against Biden (a man with a rather stellar record on race-relations, I might add), how can a caucasian like me be expected to openly discuss race in a mixed setting? We are missing out on a lot of valuable dialogue because so many people are just too afraid to speak.

We all have fears, biases and misconceptions about other races. I have a lot of problems with certain aspects of African-American culture. I also have maybe ten times as many problems with aspects of white culture. The difference is that I am able to openly discuss my problems with white culture -- and open a dialogue -- whereas any observation I might make about my issues with African-American culture might conceviably be interpreted as me being a racist.

Unlike our president, I do care about black people. And I don't wait for Black History Month to acknowledge and appreciate that we would not be as strong or beautiful a country without our black brothers and sisters sharing it. But we need to be able to talk to each other about our problems with each other without having to worry that one comment or viewpoint could label us with a Scarlet "B" for "bigot."

One of the reasons we are not as advanced as we should be racially is that we are reluctant to put all the cards out on the table. It's time to listen to each other and stop turning to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to determine for us whether or not we should be offended by someone's comments.

And I would hate to see Joe Biden -- a man who could do great things for black people in this country -- to be dismissed by the black community because of a simple verbal faux pas. If we elect him, I'll buy him a thesaurus, I promise.


Paul said...

You know a democratic candiate who wouldn't say something as stupid as that...my man dennis kucinich.

But you know who would use the "N" Word?...ECP. I don't care what people think I am just going to say it....F Nickleback!

millisa said...

Don't know much about this Biden fellow other than this incident - but I agree 100% about people catapulting into the I'm Offended pool. In the future maybe our politicians will be able to pause and rewind live commentary and transmit revisions to each group that might be offended by the original. Kind of like one of those 3rd grade 'choose your own ending' mystery books. And to clarify, by 3rd grade I don't mean AJ. (The thesaurus won't show you that one.)

p.s. Your writing is the cat's pajamas.