Monday, December 12, 2005

eeny meeny miny mo

there's a lot to be said for good manners.

people generally respond warmly to 'please' and 'thank you' and to the kind of jokey deference in doorways - after you, no, after you, please, I insist - that actually happens in England, much to the puzzled amusement of the rest of the planet. at the root of politeness, though, is a philosophical view of the world that is prepared to give everyone the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise, and that expects tit for tat when it comes to the diurnal dealings, as in 'do unto others as you would be done by.' there's a distasteful residue of autocratic paternalism in it - a 'gentleman', I recall, is defined by some Victorian novelist (George Eliot, I think) as someone who would never deliberately cause suffering to man, woman, or beast - but anyone who's ever been politely patronised by an English gentleman will admit that, for all his insufferable pomposity, it beats being arbitrarily insulted by an American immigration official for no better reason than that he didn't like the way you looked at him.

sticks and stones.

all mothers recite that mantra as if it were true.

but words are never 'just' words. the word 'freedom', for instance, has been added, with Microsoft's collusion, to the list of words which automatically flag a user's ISP account when typed into a Chinese search-engine. there are, however, some words and phrases that I don't, personally, like.

I don't like the phrase 'spazz out', for instance - as in 'Thom really spazzes out when he's performing Idioteque live' - because I used to have a friend whose child was afflicted with cerebral palsy - a so-called 'spastic' - whose uncontrollable limb movements and garbled speech are the reference for that descriptive phrase. I hate to think that, whenever anyone uses the phrase, 'spazz out', they're passively jeering - however thoughtlessly - at Gabriel's appearance and behaviour. I'm equally disconcerted by the widespread use of 'retard' as a mocking put-down of anyone who manifests stupidity - whether as a hereditary trait, genetic flaw, or social gaff - for much the same reason.

it happens to be the case, despite the fact that difference is the norm, despite the fact that there are far more ways in which we as individuals are different from a random collection of our fellow-humans than ways in which we are similar, that, so long as the smallest crack of distinction appears to distinguish one set of people from another, there's going to emerge a sub-set of people purporting to represent the set that considers itself superior, somehow, to the other, who will jemmy into that crack with all the resources they can muster in order to enlarge it into a chasm.

it begins in the playground with the 'norms' name-calling the 'fatties' and continues into so-called maturity with all the insults accrued historically around the diseased dogs of prejudice and bigotry. so you may insult me by nationality (paki, tinker, frog), sexuality (motherfucker, cocksucker, dyke), race (yid, raghead, sand-monkey) - and by several categories besides that are to communication as toilet-training is to development - something that ought to belong in the late-infant stage of behaviour, along with a fascination with poo and wee and where it comes from, but, alas, as so much else in the retarded (proper use, this time) canon of cultural affect, tends to become embedded way past its expiry date in the absence of grownup guidance.

I particularly dislike the word 'nigger'.

exactly why is difficult to say. my parents had no problem with it. in fact, the only problem they have with it now is that their children chide them for using it. "eeny meeny miny mo, catch a ..." "mum!" in my case (I don't presume to speak for my siblings, although I don't believe either of them would ever use the word) I've come to believe that the word 'nigger' encapsulates, in a single word, the entire weight of historical atrocity that began with the mass enslavement of millions of West African people in the early eighteenth century and their incorporation as wholesale bonded labour into the burgeoning capitalist economies of Europe and North America. I've come to believe that that unforgiveable appropriation by our two cultures - the European and the American - leaves us permanently, and literally, indebted to the descendents of those slaves, since a significant portion of our economic success was established on their unpaid labour. that belief comes from the experience of growing up in the 'sixties, when, to me and to many of my contemporaries, our thoughtless participation in the endemically racist culture to which we subscribed was challenged by the events surrounding the rapidly emerging black civil rights movement. much was achieved, then, through the selfless efforts of a multi-coloured grouping of men and women who dedicated their lives - and, in some cases, gave their lives - to the re-ordering of the social consensus into a more equitable racial distribution.

one of the only two black people I know in this tiny but perfectly formed country town I live in in Somerset is a young man who is a member of a hip-hop group - an incongruous phenomenon here (in the sense that the urban black culture it emerges from and relates to is a good ninety-minute bus ride away - in Bristol - and, en route, you could count the number of black faces you'd encounter on the fingers of one hand) but nevertheless rather a good one, I think. not my thing usually - well, why would it be? - but I have high hopes for them. they're this close to a record deal ... the group consists of seven guys - two black, five white. clearly, between them (they've all grown up together, been to the same schools, shared the same experiences) race is not an issue. the word 'nigger' is employed quite frequently in their lyrics - as it is by a large number of hip-hop artists - almost as a synonym for 'man', as in 'hey, man/nigga, how's it gon' down.'

a 'nigger' was the term by which the slavemasters came to describe their black (niger - Latin - black) cargo - a tool of production whose life was valueless except in so far as it benefited his or her white master. it is an anachronistic term - a shameful reminder of a shameful period in human history. I believe it's actually illegal, now, to use it as a racial insult. and yet we are led to understand that these young blacks are using either 'nigra' or 'nigga' amongst themselves as a term of endearment. so what does this new generation of black artists who claim somehow to have re-cycled it, disinfected, as it were, by art, intend by making it part of the culture of black youth? is there, indeed, intent, or is it just a tragically misguided provocation?

the latter, of course.

the time-honoured course of escape from the black ghetto has been through music and sport - the blues, boxing, basketball. it's obviously racist to deduce from this that blacks are 'naturally' better in these areas - the brute truth is that, for want of any but the remotest hope of success in the more white-dominated professions - has there ever been a black dentist in Surrey, let alone in Alabama? - blacks have had to channel their energies into those fields where success was not colour-dependent. and where are two men more equal than in the boxing ring? slowly, slowly, things have improved. but, in a culture in which a young black guy is still far more likely - by orders of magnitude - to be harassed by the police than his white friends, and where unemployment amongst black youth is still much higher than amongst white, the attractions of musical or sporting success still obtain as strongly as ever.

alas, for every young hip hop artist who manages to secure a contract, there are tens of thousands who are left to live in their dust, where being a 'nigger' - spell it whichever way you like, it still sounds and smells the same - can never be anything other than what it has always been - a powerless victim of a form of semantic oppression that is only further legitimised by its use, however ironically, by the oppressed. it is fundamentally misguided and staggeringly arrogant to think that it can be revived as an equivalent, amongst blacks, to 'mate', or 'dude' without there being a terrible price to pay, in terms of self-esteem, in the larger black community, where its use is only associated with racial insult. hopefully it's one of those tasteless fashion things that will quickly get consigned to the dustbin of history - sooner rather than later, before usage normalises it, because ignorance of history has never been a defence against history's very nasty habit of repeating itself.

I abhor censorship. I believe that the vilest, the most obnoxious opinions imaginable, should be freely accessible - published, broadcast, publicly aired - because I nurse a tenacious belief in the fundamental decency of the majority of people, whose reaction to such opinions is the same: to vilify and condemn them. the British BNP and National Front have been totally marginalised more as a result of grassroots activism and ridicule than any form of official intervention. I wouldn't thank anyone whose well-meaning censorship of the racist's right to free speech prevented me from giving them a verbal horse-whipping. there's not much sport in it, but if there's an 'r' in the month and you can't flush a fox, any young vermin will do, doncha know.

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