I have lived long enough to have witnessed some important changes in American culture and the way Americans think, behave, and speak.
When I was growing up in South Carolina a half-century ago, every white person I knew was a segregationist and a racist to a greater or lesser degree. And if there were any white people who did not share those views, they were smart enough to keep it to themselves.
It is a tribute to the humanity of the civil rights movement and the basic decency of the American people that so much has changed — even in the South. One of those changes has been in the way Americans use language. The “N-word,” as it has come to be known, is now verboten. Its use can cost a person his social standing or her job, as it did with a right-wing radio personality recently.
Likewise, the word “racist” itself has been transformed. Fifty years ago, racist speech and behavior were perfectly respectable, even de rigueur. Whites not demonstrating sufficient hostility to blacks and a suspicion of the civil rights movement might be ostracized — or worse.
Today “racist” is one of the strongest pejoratives in the language. No one — not even a racist — can allow the word to be hung on him. It is almost comic to watch conservative politicians backtrack and stumble over themselves (as several South Carolina pols have done in the last couple of years), trying to explain that their racist remarks were misunderstood, were taken out of context, or meant in jest.
I realized the language had undergone a strange mutation a couple of years ago when I observed that my critics had begun calling me a racist in their responses to my columns and blogs. Presumably, they were angry at my criticism of white people for their historic bigotry, their subsequent distortion of history, and their glorification of violence and folly. And presumably, they took my motivation for writing such things to be racism against white people, ignoring the fact that I am white, my family is white, and the majority of my friends and associates are white.
So what does “racism” mean in the 21st century? Is it just the pejorative of last resort for those of limited vocabulary? Did the civil rights movement so effectively stigmatize the behavior that even racists find the tag a handy cudgel against their adversaries?
And what does “honor” mean today? What does it mean in the mouth of a man like Glenn Beck?
I’ve wondered about Beck’s state of mind in the past as I watched the tears stream down his face on his Fox News show. He reminds me of Tammy Faye Bakker, who used to open the faucets and streak her mascara while fleecing the lambs with her husband Jim at her side on PTL.
A few months ago, when Beck announced that he would hold a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, on the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, there was appropriate outrage and consternation. The reaction was because Beck had so clearly taken that great moment in American history and turned it on its head.
“We were the people that did it in the first place,” Beck announced last spring on Fox News.
Did what in the first place? Stood up to ignorance, bigotry, and violence? No, Beck and his Fox News colleagues have never done that. They have fanned ignorance, bigotry, and violence with their Islamophobia and homophobia. And instinctively one knows that if Beck and Fox had been around in 1963, they would have been railing against Martin Luther King Jr. and everything he stood for.
“This is a moment, quite honestly, that I think we reclaim the civil rights movement,” Beck proclaimed with no sense of irony. “It has been so distorted and so turned upside down because we must repair honor and integrity first … We will take that movement because we were the people that did it in the first place.”
And so a hundred thousand white people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28 for Beck’s Restoring Honor rally, another linguistic contortion that failed to address whose honor was being restored and how it was lost.
“Political language,” George Orwell wrote, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
There was much wind and lying at the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, and it all sounded very respectable. Such is the power of language when people no longer care or remember what words mean.
See Will Moredock’s blog at charlestoncitypaper.com/blogs/thegoodfight.