Saturday, February 03, 2007

Can it be racist to call somebody 'articulate'?

Short answer: unfortunately yes, but the short answer misses the bigger point. And for the record, I'm assuming M-W's definition c here:
expressing oneself readily, clearly or effectively.
Joe Biden should never, ever have run for president, certainly not after his campaign fell apart over plagiarism the last time around. Others have shown that in his most recent political suicide attempt he was misquoted, but that doesn't even begin to reduce how offensive his characterization of Senator Obama was. To call any political figure 'clean' is extremely dangerous; to use the word like he did is unthinkable — i.e., I would expect that from Trent Lott. Anyway, Biden's campaign rocket got off the launchpad exactly far enough for the explosion to be visible for many miles around. Worse yet, he's going to drag his own rotting carcass around the country to campaign even though his chances of going anywhere are, as Elvis Costello put it so long ago, less than zero. Like the really hard-edge Wisconsin hockey fans yell when an opposing player is laying on the ice: "Shoot him like a horse." (Yeah, they get brutal.)

One piece of wreckage that's fallen from the sky in this disaster has been whether it's racist to say that an African-American is 'articulate'. As others have said (forgive the lack of links, I'm doing this on a short break from figuring out how language works and don't have time to track them down), this is a markedness thing, where it's being asserted that it is unusual for an African-American to have this trait. A few months ago, in fact, I had a discussion with a friend and colleague whose views I take very seriously and somebody I have great respect for, especially in terms of how to think about race and ethnicity in our country today. He said that a high school student had spoken at a pretty official community meeting he was at and that she had been described as 'articulate'. He was worrying about precisely this point: was it racist to describe her this way? My reaction was that any high school kid who can speak with poise at an event like that earns the adjective. But this shows how the issue is out there among thoughtful, well-informed people. And it's certainly easy to imagine it being used in a way that we might reasonably understand as reflecting racist beliefs.

That's only one layer of the story. As was pointed out at some length on Al Franken's radio show yesterday, 'articulate' is widely used about politicians, even for Biden, they said. I think we need, no, we have to have, articulate political figures and the problem is precisely that we cannot assume that major political figures are. I am utterly baffled that such ill-spoken people as Bush get elected. (I don't mean his affected dialect or constant misspeaking, but his fundamental failure to get across basic points, time and time.) And don't get me started on Cheney, (shouldn't the Devil be well spoken?), Donald 'Bad Acid Trip' Rumsfeld, Condi Rice (she was the top administrator at a top American university? No wonder higher ed is going to hell), or Tony 'Spokesliar' Snow. And it's not party-specific — none of the new Congressional leadership really seem to know how to make me believe either, and Kerry and Lieberman were embarrassing on this count. Have you ever heard any of these people be compelling on any single point? Yet they dominate the national scene.

Being a powerful public speaker has become a marginal skill, all the more so with the passing of Molly Ivins. In fact, an alarmingly limited number of people on the national political stage strike me as truly articulate: among politicians, Clinton (him, emphatically not her) and John Edwards. Maybe it is just something about what I personally find 'clear' and 'effective' and expressing oneself 'readily' but few politicians can do it. But back to the point: The one extended speech I've heard from Barack Obama, at the 2004 Democratic Convention, fit that bill. He painted a picture of a country that I want to live in, and he told a compelling personal story along the way.

What's striking about that speech is maybe not that it came from a person of African heritage, but more that he wasn't raised in the tradition of southern oratory, something which crosses the color more freely than almost anything. This regional association with effective political speech wasn't always there. FDR and JFK could do what I'm talking about, but Cuomo's 'shining city on the hill' speech may have been the last compelling piece of political speechifying from a northerner I remember offhand.

We need to be listening closely to Obama and others in the coming months, in terms of what they say and how they say it. I guess this is just a rambling, inarticulate plea for a political scene where we have a lot of articulate leaders.


Anonymous said...

So Joe Biden is kind of a tool.

Now, if you are a white guy who calls a smart black guy articulate, you are a latent racist? Well, I don't buy it.

Here's just one of the problems: We're being sold a bill of goods on a daily basis, telling us that street thugs in rap videos are "culture" and they are "speaking" a truth that white folks can't understand because of our white privilege. Everyone knows this is bullshit, but we play along because no one wants to deal with what is essentially reverse race baiting.

Now, when whites, rather than showing latent racism, show latent RESPECT by calling a black guy "articulate" (translation: "hey, you don't talk like a jackass!") we're accused of being the last vestige of racism. The real racism problems out there (and there are real racist problems in America) are being completely ignored in favor of this sort of petty crap because some black leaders want to perpetuate stereotypes. It's bullshit.

Mr. Verb said...

See the more recent post above on this topic, and the comment posted by Nancy. As soon as I get a free minute, I'll do another post on this topic.