On spells, incantations, and the summoning of demons

February 12, 2011 at 1:17 am (By Pat)

Back in the day, people believed that you could summon demons by simply speaking their names. They also believed that speaking certain words in certain orders would cause magic. But that was a long time ago, right? Surely no modern person believes that the mere uttering of some collection of syllables has magical powers, right? I’m not so sure.

See, tonight I went to see Randy Newman in concert. My date (a friend, not a “date date”) was a 29 year old graduate student originally from Boston. She’s fairly liberal, but not generally obnoxiously so; we tend to avoid talking politics to minimize unnecessary confrontations. She’s quite bright, but comes from a low-income, not well-educated family. Both in her youth and as a college student and an adult, she has spent a lot of time with African-Americans (she’s white), and so is fairly sensitive to racial issues.

Anyway, if you know of Randy Newman’s work, you probably know of his song “Rednecks.” In the course of making fun of both southerners and northerners for their attitudes towards black people, he uses what we now call the “N-word.” The southerners, who “don’t know their ass from a hole in the ground” are “keeping the N—-s down,” while the northerners call them “negroes” and let them be free… to stay in the cages of the ghettoes of Boston, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and elsewhere.

Before this song, my friend was enjoying the concert (though she had no idea who Randy Newman was before this evening). She was tapping her toes, swaying her hands, and smiling. As he played Rednecks, though, her attitude completely changed. She sank back in her seat, crossed her arms, and stopped moving entirely. And she stayed that way for the remainder of the concert. Stayed seated during his standing ovation. And BOY was she ticked at me because I hadn’t warned her (I thought about it, but honestly I thought she would either not come to the concert, or she would spend the entire concert waiting for THE song to be played, plus I wasn’t sure that he any longer played that song publicly).

Understand, now, that she accepted the basic explanation of the meaning of the song. She doesn’t think that Newman is racist, or was trying to demean black people with the song. It was just the use of the N-word that set her off, and that she finds extremely offensive in and of itself. She is also uncomfortable, she says, listening to hip-hop music which uses that word.

This naturally got me to thinking of the recent controversy over the bowdlerization of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, by replacing the N-word with the word “slave,” which has very different meanings and emotional connotations.

Why does this word have such power? We used to have a lot of taboo words, words that weren’t said in “polite society.” By about 38 years ago, we only had seven. Today, most of the seven aren’t very taboo. I wouldn’t be socially ostracized for saying any of them at a dinner party, but for one, the “c-word.” Women really hate that word, viscerally. But that’s it. That and the N-word. You say either of those two words in most social circles today, the social circles of all the right-thinking people, the highly educated people, the proper people, and you WILL be ostracized. The context matters not. Quoting Mark Twain using the word to show how ignorant are the people using it is little different from telling some disgusting old racist joke.

Why? I really don’t understand it. I mean, I don’t use the word. I certainly agree that actually CALLING somebody that word is a horrible thing to do, and understand why using it in that sense is strongly socially condemned. I understand why it’s considered bad even for black people (mostly hip hop artists) to use the word in referring to themselves and their own social group. I certainly agree that using it in racist jokes is a very bad thing to do. Out of prudence, if no other reason, I make sure that the word never crosses my lips (I sang along with most of the song at the concert, but not those parts), because I have no desire to be ostracized and I recognize the hair-trigger sensitivity that most people have about it. But I don’t understand how the uttering of the word, in and of itself regardless of context, is and must be so universally condemned.

I can only see it as a modern manifestation of the very old phenomenon. You don’t say the true name of demons, because you don’t want them to appear in the room. Racism is our most powerful modern demon, and the N-word is its true name. All we’re missing is some mysterious hand movements to ward off the evil on the rare occasions when the word is said by some evil or thoughtless person.


  1. Melinda said,

    Pat, funny you should mention this. I’m reading “True Grit” and just read a passage where one of the main characters, La Boeuf, uses the “N” word. I was startled, then thought, “That’s how a character like that would have talked back in the days of the Wild West.”

    The author, Charles Portis, may or may not have held racist beliefs, and since the novel was written in 1968 there wasn’t the same taboo about using racist terms.

    Nevertheless, my second instinct was “Maybe I should warn my fellow cultural elitist Coen Brothers fans who might want to read the original source material that that word is in there!” As if I’m protecting them from being shocked, or they’d think I condone or agree with the agenda that’s often been behind that word.

  2. louisemowder said,

    Ah, the brilliance of the album that is Newman’s “Good Old Boys”! Those of us who bought that album in Sept 1974 (my first semester of college) understood it then as Newman’s meditation on Southern overt racism and Northern self-deluding racial hypocrisy . Newman was a boy from LA who was also raised in New Orleans, so he grew up seeing both racisms clearly. He was singing about his *own* blindness, and his own need to “raise his consciousness.” (Remember that phrase?)

    Your grad student friend wasn’t even born until 1982. It’s almost impossible for her to believe in the racism of the past – especially that of the Deep South, so automatic and habitual. For her, it may appear to be the result of a temporary madness (lasting 250 years) of a good people. Perhaps her horror of the “N word” does have a bit of the incantatory. Mainly, it seems to come from a lack of imagination, of a blindness of a similar type: the inability to imagine yourself in the Other’s shoes, or even of the humanity of the Other.

    But we were “there”. We lived through the times in question. That word isn’t some “name of the demon” for us. It is a very real and potent reminder of the tremendous power that White People had over Black people in the South, as well as parts of the North, even after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 (less than a decade before the album’s release.)

    That word was the signifier that White people could use to remind *any* Black person that they were ultimately powerless in the social structure that White people had created. White people used the word for generations to remind Black people of just how helpless, unimportant, and, ultimately, removable they were. When a White man called a Black woman or man “n!gger,” they both knew what was meant: that the Black person was a “n!gger” first and foremost. This meant that they could not expect White man’s justice, police protection, fair dealings, payment of fair wages, respect, or even freedom from physical abuse or murder.

    A few weeks ago, we watched “The Liberation of L.B. Jones,” the 1970 film that was William Wyler’s swan song. The film was based on events that-had actually occurred in the writer’s hometown. (The writer was roundly attacked for making the South look bad by airing its dirty laundry.)

    The N-word was continually used by every White person in that film, even when they were talking to each other. It was used by White people to demonstrate to each other that, now matter how powerless they themselves were in the larger scheme of things, at least they weren’t as low as *those* people. It was used by White people talking to Black people, to remind them that they had to accept whatever treatment was handed them, and could even be killed if they resisted.

    It was even used by Black people who were talking to each other. They showed each other that they did share a common, recognized, condition of undeserved degradation and misery.

    But you and I can remember all this, because we were there. Perhaps it is not so much that we have made the word into the incantation of a demon, but that we have some awareness that it was not very long ago that the word carried the real threat of social powerlessness, and the implicit threat of violence. Perhaps we recognize that it was not that long ago – actually, in *our own lifetimes*- that this word wasn’t an ironic or affectionate harmless reference to the past, but a form of verbal blow.

    It wouldn’t take very much for that word to be common parlance again among certain political subsets. I myself run into it on newspaper comment boards, or other political sites. The user always feel justified, insisting it’s accurate. There’s push-back against its abolition from our language, a common condemnation of how awful those “PC thought police” are for forbidding its usage. “Black comedians use it! Why can’t I? Black hypocrisy and reverse racism!” These comments seem to come from people who either cannot, or do not, want to remember what the N-word has meant.

    When you say “Racism is our most powerful modern demon, and the N-word is its true name,” I believe that you don’t go far enough. Demons can’t affect any change on Earth unless they get humans to act on their persuasive and seductive arguments. Racism has been our most powerful demon, period.

    Racism is our most powerful demon because it is the demon that can possess the most individual American citizens. When individual Americans begin to use the N-word, they allow themselves to become possessed by the demon.

    Americans need to do more than develop a natural antipathy to the word. They also need to understand just how much of America was possessed by the Demon. Twain shows us how total its possession was, from the earliest foundation of our country. Newman shows us that Americans were still in its grip, even 100 years later. Its dominion wasn’t so long ago that we should congratulate ourselves over having “gotten past it.” By using “that word” blithely, we are in its grip once more.

    But all our young people should learn about the days when the Demon was active, no matter how bad that knowledge makes them feel. Otherwise, they may fall under its seductive and even self-gratifying spell again.

  3. Randy said,

    Wow. Having read the post and comments, all I want to say is “Thank you all.”

  4. mockturtle said,

    I”ve always loved Randy Newman.
    I’ve always hated revisionism.
    As a white woman who was married to a black man [he detested the term, ‘African-American’ to his dying day, since neither he nor his parents nor his grandparents had ever been to Africa]. He used the n-word liberally, as was his prerogative. I did not. Back then [the early 1960’s when we married] the term ‘black’ was being used cautiously. ‘Colored’ was the accepted label. Only when blacks began calling themselves ‘black’ did it become OK and it’s never been OK in our era for whites to refer to blacks as ‘niggers’. Maybe some day that will change. But, please! Leave Mark Twain [and any other works from literary past] ALONE!

  5. realpc said,

    The “N” word simply means negro which means black. There is nothing insulting about the actual word. African Americans liked being called black for a while, then they didn’t like it. They used to hate being called “colored people,” but now they like to be called “people of color.” How is “colored person” different from “person of color?” None of this seems rational.

    We see the same thing happening in other contexts. For example, the word “psychiatric patient” took on a bad connotation so they changed it to “client, ” which in turn got a bad connotation, so they changed it to “consumer.” But a psychiatric patient IS a psychiatric patient, and a “consumer” could be anyone.

    And when you’re in a department store you might hear salespeople called “associates.” Why? I guess associate sounds more impressive than “sales person.”

    The girl at the concert was being immature and reacting emotionally without thinking at all. It is, obviously, an anti-racist song. She reacted to the word completely out of context, which is simply silly.

    But I think words do have tremendous power. And there has not been a single scientific study ever anywhere showing that words cannot have magical power. So why have we rejected the possibility? Certainly not on scientific grounds. Just because we think we’re so smart.

    I believe that magic is real and possible, although hidden from our modern consciousness. But even if it were not, words would still have tremendous power. Language is a big deal, after all.

  6. pathmv said,

    Real, I’m afraid you’re just wrong about the meaning of the N-word. It does NOT “simply mean negro which means black.” Negro, colored, black, all of those have indeed been used simply as color references to the skin tone of those of African descent. And they have come and gone in favor in terms of polite usage and derogatory intent of those using it.

    But among English speakers in America, the N-word has meant far more than merely a dark-skinned person for the past 100 years (Wikipedia has a history). Among whites in the south, it was used to establish black people as entirely separate, sub-human. “I may be poor, but at least I’m not a fuckin’ n******” is a prime example of its use. It was also used when addressing black people directly, to immediately put them “in their place” to remind them of the then-realities of the world, of which group had the power and which didn’t. Crude people may have used it a great deal, but “refined” folk only trotted it out when they felt that a black person was getting “uppity” or other wise forgetting “their place.” Refined folk otherwise used colored, black, or negro depending on local custom and the current usage of the day. And those words themselves could be inflected to reveal greater or lesser degrees of derision and disrespect.

    But not the n-word, not for the past 100 years at least. The characters in Twain’s story did not call Jim “N****** Jim” to distinguish him from any white man named Jim. No, the characters called him that to distinguish him from any humans named Jim, and to always remind him of “his place” in the world.

    So it is a unique word. Being offended by it is not the same as being offended because some speaker has not kept current with the preferred terminology. I take offense very slowly, but if anybody were so ignorant as to actually refer to another person as a N-word, then I can assure I would take offense very quickly, and my opinion of the speaker would drop precipitously. There was never an innocent context for that word, in this society, for the past 100 years at least.

  7. realpc said,

    Of course I know what the connotation of N- is. I wonder how you could think I would not know the history and connotation of something that every single American knows. I gave examples in my comment of words that acquire a low status connotation and are replaced by similar words, that in turn take on a low status connotation. I said “psychiatric patient,” for example. There are many other examples.

    I said that of course words are powerful, and I even went farther and said I believe in magic.

    And then you replied by telling me what everyone knows, that N- implies very low status, and is therefore a big insult. And you gave a long explanation for how and why this is true.

    Hey I am female and Jewish — I think I may have some awareness of discrimination! And now I’m over 50, so I also know about ageism. If you aren’t a rich successful 25-year old white male, you know how it feels to be low status. But we get over it and get on with our lives.

    I have some sympathy for blacks, but if I were black I would not make race the most important part of my life. I think it’s boring. What if I spent most of my time talking about being female and Jewish and over 50? Oh poor me. But wouldn’t everyone around me get tired of hearing it?

    These days I am actually interested in age discrimination, which the progressives don’t seem to notice or care about. But I don’t think about it constantly or use it as an excuse for everything that goes wrong.

    Some of the stereotypes about old people are based on general facts. It isn’t fair, because we don’t all lose our memories, but memory loss is more common among the old than the young. For example.

    With blacks, similarly, there is truth in some of the stereotypes. On average they are less educated, more likely to commit crimes, to be poor, etc. No one knows or agrees on exactly why.

    And with women also. We are less ambitious and less aggressive, probably because of hormone differences. We are more loving and less violent. We have done very little inventing and creating, compared to men. Why? No one knows exactly.

    So stereotyping is complicated. There will always be unfair stereotypes, because life is complicated.

    Of course I would not tolerate malicious comments about race, gender, age, etc. But we should be able to tell the difference, and your friend could not.

  8. realpc said,

    How could I possibly not know anything about racism in America?

  9. pathmv said,

    I went through that history, real, in an effort to show that you are just wrong. The N-word is NOT the same as how retarded has changed to mentally disabled has changed to mentally challenged. As I said, “black,” “negro,” and “colored” are comparable to that example, with the precise connotation changing over recent time, as new terminology becomes favored, and the old term is used as an example of bad thinking.

    But the N-word is just simply not like that. It did not “acquire” a pejorative connotation in the past 20 years, or even 50 years. It has continuously had a strong pejorative connotation, and was used almost exclusively for pejorative purposes, for the past 100 years. In the 1950s, “retarded” was used by many people to refer to those we now called mentally challenged (or differently abled) with no derogatory intent at all. That was just the accepted terminology of the time, and was frequently used with no pejorative connotation at all. White people in the 1950s might or might not have had negative connotations in mind when using the words colored, or negro, but if they used the N-word, you can be damn sure they had negative intent. And that consistent pejorative meaning of the word goes back at least 100 years.

    The N-word has had exceedingly strong negative connotations by almost all users of the term for the past 100 years, and was almost universally intended to be pejorative by all those who used it. That’s quantitatively different than the shift in usage from mentally retarded to mentally challenged. As I noted, colored, black, and negro all were used at one point or another in recent times in a purely descriptive, non-pejorative sense, along with occasional pejorative uses. The N-word was not.

    I agree with many of your general comments on racial issues in your post, but I think you really don’t see how fundamentally different the N-word is from your other examples.

  10. realpc said,

    The negative meaning of the N- word probably developed during the period after the civil war when southern whites were really mad. They lashed out at the former slaves, because they just wanted to be mad at someone. White southerners were destroyed by the war and abolition. Ok, they shouldn’t have been owning slaves. But they did, and their lives depended on it. And they lost. Well we’re glad they lost. But I can see why they were mad and why they used the N- word so hatefully.

    So I do understand the especially vicious connotation of the N- word. I also think it is time to start getting over it. I don’t want to be the target of vicious anti-semitism, and I would not want to be called N- (in a hateful tone) if I were black. But people will always find some reason to hate someone. Hatred did not end with civil rights.

    What progressives don’t understand is the ongoing, inevitable, nature of hatred. I grew up in an ultra-liberal family where the moral focus was always on not being prejudiced against blacks. There was no concern about women or gays at that time, in my family, the focus was on blacks. Maybe I got a little tired of it? Especially when I was 30 and was raped because I thought I had to always be nice to any black, even if he looked like a rapist.

    My parents were very intent on loving blacks, and actually had black friends, even though there were NO blacks living in our neighborhood. It was cool to be ultra-liberal and not prejudiced against certain groups. But my parents were very prejudiced, as we all are, in their own ways.

    So I became a little weary of many aspects of ultra-liberalism (whatever the heck that is anyway). And therefore I am an ambivalent independent, and wound up at this blog.

  11. louisemowder said,

    “The negative meaning of the N- word probably developed during the period after the civil war when southern whites were really mad. They lashed out at the former slaves, because they just wanted to be mad at someone.”

    No, this is not historically accurate. When you read antebellum biographies or study pre-Civl War documents, you find that this word is used constantly by Whites to describe Blacks. Take a look at the census records from *any* of the states, pre-Civil War, whether Northern or Southern.Sometimes, there will be variants in spelling, such as “neegar” but it is still the same word. It is used in exactly the same way: to turn the human beings into property, without power or even the right to their own names. (They are listed by age and gender alone, usually – one of the things that makes African-American genealogical work so difficult.).

    “I also think it is time to start getting over it.” Who is supposed to “get over” what, exactly? Is it permissible to say, “Just get over the Holocaust – it’s been more than 50 years!”

    What if someone told you that you should “get over” your resentment of your family’s “focus on the blacks” and your parents’ being “very intent on loving blacks, and actually ha[ving] black friends.”? How about if you were told to “get over” your weariness of “many aspects of ultra-liberalism”?

    Pain, as neurologists have proven, is real but unique. None of us can truly *feel* the pain of another – we can’t even truly “re-feel” pain we have had in the past. Plenty of those suffering in agony have heard, “What are you squawking about? Don’t be a baby! I can’t see anything wrong with you!” Not having the pain acknowledged makes it hurt even more. It certainly prolongs it, when the doubter him- or herself has control over mechanism of relief, such as medicine.

    We can only try to approximate it, imagine it, or attempt to recall pain. This is absolutely true for physical pain; it is also true for psychological pain. All of us believe that the psychological pain we feel is justified, and that the attitudes we hold as a result are correct.

    Each one of us has the choice. Do we react to another’s pain with compassionate understanding, born of the knowledge that we are all weak, suffering flesh? Does the pain we have suffered make us more empathetic, more eager to develop solutions?

    Or does the pain we have suffered – both so common to all, and yet unique to ourselves – make us more solipsistic and judgmental?

    I guess we can be both – no one is Mother Theresa all the time except for her, and she’s dead.

  12. A said,

    In a way, I find it sort of touching that your 29 year old friend was so appalled. I am in my ’60’s and lived through the ’60’s and increasingly have the yearning to be around people with whom I can simply exchange that glance of recognition—yeah, we were there, Randy Newman was there, we all lived through a tremendous and conscious, deliberate shift, and the N word is full of history. That younger people find it truly shocking in the context of our present culture, the popular versions of which strike my aging sensibilities as far more crass than the ’60’s, shows us how deeply that shift is now embedded, at least in terms of semiotics. I heard an interview on the radio with the Twain scholar who did the revision, and who told the story of how shocked and uncomfortable a little black elementary school student was the first time she was exposed to the authentic version of Huckleberry Finn in class. I felt sympathetic, just as I feel sympathetic toward the 29 year old. But it’s not art’s job to be polite.

  13. pathmv said,

    Real, I’ve got to say, it’s astounding to see, today, somebody trying to blame the South’s antipathy to and detestation of black people on the North and the Civil War. Yes, Reconstruction didn’t help matters, and was both too heavy-handed in some ways and yet not heavy-handed enough in others (he says with the comfort of hindsight), but it is not the cause of whites believing black people to be sub-human. That’s blatant revisionism of the worst kind. Whites in the South (and the North too) believed black people were subhuman long before the Civil War.

    They didn’t lash out at the former slaves “because they wanted to be mad at someone.” That’s absurd, frankly. They thought slaves were subhuman not because they were slaves, but because they were black, from Africa. It was the claimed subhuman nature of the Africans that the South used to justify slavery to begin with.

    Again, I understand and agree with the idea that we need to put a lot of old baggage behind us, and that “offensensitivity” has gone way too far in our current culture. But that’s something entirely separate and distinct from the historical reality of the N-word and the motivations of those who used it.

  14. pathmv said,

    A, interesting perspective. I had not heard the story about the elementary school student. Is the thinking with the Twain revision perhaps that using the N-word, that making school children see the full emotional reality of the old times, might actually increase current racial strife? In other words, that the intent is not (to be really and dangerously blunt) not to prevent offending anybody, but to minimize stirring up racial resentments by modern black people?

    On the other hand, I worry that if the word is taboo regardless of the circumstances surrounding its utterance, that fails to adequately deter truly wrong uses of it. Take this discussion we’re having. Clearly at least some people believe that the full-fledged taboo is the result of over sensitiveness, and it sets them off, even when they agree that actually calling somebody by that word would be a very bad thing to do. That is, there is universal agreement, in polite society at least, that the N-word is a very bad thing to call somebody, and there is never an excuse for using it in that context, but there is NOT universal agreement that the syllables must never be uttered in any circumstance whatsoever. So trying to enforce the universal taboo may cause division between people who would otherwise be allies.

    On yet another hand, however, maybe if it weren’t for the efforts to make it universally taboo, we wouldn’t actually have such wide-spread agreement that its use against individuals is absolutely taboo.

    Damn you life, I wanted EASY answers to our problems!

  15. louisemowder said,

    pathmv, the Twain bowdleriser used the same excuse that bowdlerisers always do: “I didn’t want someone’s shocked sensibilities to become the story itself, and leave the story unread!” It’s a lot easier just to cut the distracting words out of the text. It’s extremely difficult to teach “aesthetic distance”, which is what a student would need to both examine and learn from a work of art such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

    It’s possible to encourage a reader to put one’s natural reactions [in brackets], over to one side, while the “text” is engaged. That can also seem like an ultimate betrayal to a reader. “Look at all the pain and injustice! How can I without judgment!” For them, the reaction should first be about, and *only* about, rage, pain, inflamed sensibilities. Which of the two responses most honors the former sufferers – detachment and understanding, or revulsion at, and rejection of, the depiction?

    The Twain editor demonstrates the desire on the part of gatekeepers to “protect” other groups from something that might “offend” them. is pernicious. Would wars be fought so often if the true toll in human fleshly suffering were exposed? We saw images of the liberated in the Nazi camps; it is one of the reasons thatthe world would say “never again.”

    But the public was spared sight of the terrible deformities caused by the First World War. Photographs of the men with their skulls blown away, or their guts ripped open, may have been taken, but they weren’t put into newspapers. Such sights would have been “bad for morale.” That’s remained the belief to this day: if only the television news hadn’t actually shown the Vietnam war casualties, we wouldn’t have “lost the stomach” for it. (That was the rationale for tight control of the coverage of even the caskets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.)

    The taboo upon the N-word is rather the same thing. Do we abjure *any* of its utterances, even when we are discussing its history or meaning? That, to me, seems a certain way to create a whole generation of people who don’t know its history – and who may even begin to feel that it’s just a word, and it’s okay to start using it again. Actually, they argue, it’s high time to use it again – to show that we are free of all that stupid history stuff!

    Perhaps those who are unconscious of the history are the most trapped by it of all. Certainly, the longer I study it in all its intricacies, that more I discover ways that, unbeknownst to me, it has kept me in its thrall.

  16. A said,

    I agree with Louise that the discomfort of the little girl in the classroom was an opportunity for a good teacher. It was unclear from the way he told the story (evoking a certain pathos) whether in fact a useful discussion ensued.

  17. realpc said,

    They didn’t hate blacks because they were “subhuman” and slaves. Slave owners didn’t hate their slaves, anymore than they hated their livestock, or their pets. Hatred of blacks grew out of the resentment southerners felt about losing the war, and their livelihood. I did not say it was right for them to feel that way! I just described how they probably felt and their probable reasons.

  18. realpc said,

    And the N- word was, originally, simply how “negro” was pronounced in a southern dialect. The hateful connotation was attached later.

  19. realpc said,

    And yes, I do realize I am not being tribal when I look at racism from a non-progressive perspective.

    “I am in my ’60′s and lived through the ’60′s and increasingly have the yearning to be around people with whom I can simply exchange that glance of recognition—yeah, we were there, ”

    Yes, tribal. I am not criticizing tribalism — it is perfectly natural! But it has nothing to do with facts or reason.

  20. A said,

    realpc, there are lots of things—in myself, and circumstantial—that make my relationship to 60’s sensibilities not so tribal, for better or worse. What I meant by the unspoken recognition is not different from any other set of individuals who have experienced the particular zeitgeist of a strong social shift or historical turn of events.

  21. louisemowder said,

    “And the N- word was, originally, simply how “negro” was pronounced in a southern dialect. The hateful connotation was attached later.”

    This is absolutely, fundamentally, historically untrue. You would learn this through any examination of letters, documents, and manuscripts produced during the period between 1617 – when the first boat of enslaved Africans was bought into Jamestown harbor – and its usage up to, and throughout, the Civil War.

    You are simply wrong on this point, realpc. Whoever taught you this egregious nonsense did you no favors.

  22. realpc said,

    I think the general consensus is very close to what I said louisemowder. No one “taught” me this, it is widely known. Maybe you found some letters and documents from the 1600s where it was a derogatory word, I have no idea.

    No one who really hated Africans would want to own them. They were considered useful work animals. The hatred really started after slavery ended, as I said before.

    Maybe some whites hated blacks during slavery. Hatred is always possible. But they had no real reason to.

    I don’t know if you believe wikipedia, but it is one source of information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigger.

  23. mockturtle said,

    “What I meant by the unspoken recognition is not different from any other set of individuals who have experienced the particular zeitgeist of a strong social shift or historical turn of events.”

    Right! My mother wrote a memoir of the Great Depression of her childhood and the bond it forged between those who survived it. And I’m sure that survivors of the Holocaust [admittedly much worse] shared that experience in an exclusive, but not tribal, manner.

  24. louisemowder said,

    realpc,what “general consensus” are you referring to? “It is widely known”? Actually, it is not. It is a distinctly minority opinion, especially among historians of the period. Those who argue that the N-word was just a mispronunciation of “Negro” are falsifying the facts. It may be “general knowledge” among people you know, but that does not make it accurate.

    The N-word as used in this country may have always indicated a person of noticeably African origin – but until the Civil War, being a person of African descent always indicated a state of enslavement and servitude. Even in the North, where you might find “Freedmen,” there was always the *threat* of servitude, even if it was due to unlawful imprisonment and kidnap.

    There was never a time in this nation’s history when the term did not connote the powerlessness of the person thus called. It has never been an innocuous description.

    You are also incorrect when you say that “No one who really hated Africans would want to own them.” When you read the journals and letters of plantation owners along the Mississippi, or in the South Carolina rice plantations, you find that the owners *hated* their slaves. They feared them, as well. They hated their customs, their religions, their songs, and their very bodies. They needed them, of course, as a necessary means to keeping their fortunes – but they hated them. For one thing, enslaved humans are not brute beasts. They have wills; they can make plans.

    This is not, of course, true of every plantation. But there are enough documented cases of complete and almost insensate brutality inflicted upon slaves to support the judgment that hatred was the reason.

  25. pathmv said,

    Does it really make much sense to try to distinguish between hating a group of people and considering that group to be subhuman beasts of burden? It would seem to me that the N-word is equally derogatory whether it signifies pure hatred or, as realpc acknowledges, that the group so called is considered the equivalent of oxen.

  26. wj said,

    real, louise,
    Perhaps you two could provide some links to places where your very different views are given. You may not convince each other, but it would give the rest of us (those who are not particularly familiar with the background) some place to start.


  27. pathmv said,

    In order to remind all that not all segments of our society have advanced, I reluctantly point to this scary site (warning, extremely disgusting and offensive from the domain name on down).

    Using a Google tool to show the comparative use of words in English-language books over time, we do see this interesting graph comparing the use of the N-word and the word “Negro” in printed books in the Google database since 1600. This shows us fairly conclusively that the word “Negro” (capitalized; the Google database for this is case-sensitive) has been the preferred written term in English for a very long time. If we look at the N-word by itself, we see that the frequency of use of the word correlates clearly with the Civil War and periods of increasing racial strife in this country.

    In support of the general thesis louise and I have described, I will cite to A Treatise on the Intellectual Character, and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States, and the Prejudice Exercised to Them, With a Sermon on the Duty of the Church to Them, by Rev. H. Easton, “A Colored Man”:

    The principle assumes still another feature equally destructive. It makes tho colored people subserve almost every foul purpose imaginable. Negro or nigger, is an opprobrious term, employed to impose contempt upon them as an inferior race, and also to express their deformity of person. Nigger lips, nigger shins, and nigger heels, are phrases universally common among the juvenile class of society, and full well understood by them ; they are early learned to think of these expressions, as they are intended to apply to colored people, and as being expressive or descriptive of the odious qualities of their mind and body. These impressions received by tho young, grow with their growth, and strengthen with their strength. The term in itself, would be perfectly harmless, were it used only to distinguish one class of society from another; but it is not used with that intent ; the practical definition is quite different in England to what it is here, for here, it flows from the fountain of put pose to injure. It is this baneful seed which is sown in the lender soil of youthful minds, and there cultivated by the hand of a corrupt immoral policy.

    Here’s a hideous passage I stumbled across, a narrative of a man describing the best and safest way to kidnap and enslave a “free n*******” from down Maryland way. He goes into detail about the kidnapping itself, how to spirit the man away, what to do if the boat captain pays any attention to the man’s squawking about being free, and how to get right with the local “squire” at the destination, to cut off the boat captain’s objections… and THEN how to sue the boat captain for detaining his “property,” and getting a judgment (based on false swearings) to discourage that captain and others from any similar protests in the future.

    For a fine example of the pre-war (and, I’m sure post-war) Southern delusion about slaves and slavery (particularly the attitude that everything in the South was just fine until those pesky abolitionists started stirring up trouble), see “Abolitionism Unveiled, Or Its Origin, Progress, and Pernicious Tendency Fully Developed,” by Henry Field James (of Kentucky).

    Back on topic, we come to a passage in New Monthly Magazine, vol. 97, published in 1853:

    I should explain that among the coloured race of America whether free negroes north or slaves in the south the word “nigger” with them means a bad low fellow and has nothing to do with any shade of colour. A very black fellow will call a very light mulatto a “nigger” if they fall out, who will perhaps answer “No more nigger nor you.” Among themselves their masters and mistresses are but “white niggers” It ingeniously gets rid of the ugly word.

    This clearly shows the negative connotations of the word, and that it is not some mere synonym for skin tone.

    And with that, I must return to work.

  28. realpc said,

    [What if someone told you that you should “get over” your resentment of your family’s “focus on the blacks” and your parents’ being “very intent on loving blacks, and actually ha[ving] black friends.”? How about if you were told to “get over” your weariness of “many aspects of ultra-liberalism”?]

    I don’t resent my family at all. I am “over” old resentments or disappointments with my parents. If we cling forever to old resentments about the past, we would never appreciate the present. We would remain stuck in the bad old past.

    We can accept what happened, try to understand how it hurt us, and then go forward.

    I did have many bad experiences because of my parents’ ultra-liberalism, especially their rejection of monogamy. But their concern for black people never hurt me at all. I have merely noticed the hypocrisy.

  29. justkim said,

    I am reminded of an occasion from my own time in grad school. One of my best friends was a black woman who was funny, smart, and insightful. She was focusing on Renaissance English Literature, because, as she said, she already knew about all the black literature. One day, we were discussing a news story about (I think) a politician who had used the word “niggardly” and the resulting firestorm. I was completely taken aback by her vehemence that the word was horrible and shouldn’t ever be used. She knew what the word meant and that it had no relation to “the n-word”, but she was adamant in her stance. I let the subject drop, but I remember being disappointed and feeling that she was letting ignorance win.

  30. pathmv said,

    kim, thanks for the reminder. That was an aide to the Washington DC Mayor, back in 1999. His resignation was hastily accepted, but the Mayor later thought better of it and reinstated him.

    And that story, to me, goes to one of the core issues I was raising. There was no evidence of racist intent. There was no indication or allegation that the aide was using the word niggardly (which does not etymologically stem from any of the similar-sounding words for black) as a way to use the N-word with plausible deniability or anything like that. No, he said the wrong bad syllables. It is a strict liability offense; motive and intent do not matter in the slightest. The social punishment isn’t even based on the ignorance of the speaker. It should take more to brand some person with a label as opprobrious as “racist.”

  31. realpc said,

    “Does it really make much sense to try to distinguish between hating a group of people and considering that group to be subhuman beasts of burden? ”

    “Subhuman” is considered such a terrible insult, but I don’t see why. Do we hate and despise all the other animals just because they are not human? I think “nonhuman” would be a nicer term than “subhuman,” because we have no good reason to think we are higher than the other animals. But I think you know what I mean.

    Women have often been, and in many places still are, considered subhuman. Does that mean husbands hated their wives? No, not usually, they just considered them of lower status.

    Yes, slaves were considered subhuman by some whites. I don’t know how prevalent that belief was. Slavery has been practiced in practically all times and places, and often it had nothing whatsoever to do with racism.

    Racism and slavery are actually separate things, which happened to come together in America. Racism is the belief that some races are more advanced, more highly evolved, than others.

    It was a scientific belief for a while, related to Darwinism, but it is not longer generally believed. Now scientists think that our physical evolution stopped hundreds of thousands of years ago, so all the races are at the same intellectual level.

    Linguists have found that the languages of so-called “primitive” people have the same kind of complex structures as our modern western educated languages. That pretty much settled the racism debate. Also, even if they have very simple technology, all human cultures have complex social structures.

    Anyhow, “subhuman” should not be considered the same as “despicable.” Unless you hate your pet dog or cat, which I doubt.

  32. pathmv said,

    Gee, real, I’d love to discuss that with you, but I just don’t think you have the brains for it. It’s not that I despise you or anything, you understand, it’s just that I don’t think you’re quite human. More animal-like, really. I quite like you, you understand; it’s not that I think you’re despicable. But since you’re a non-human, there’s just no point in discussing philosophy and language; such concepts are above you.

    Now tell me, real, does the addition of “I don’t hate you” actually make any of that last paragraph less insulting?

    As far as your historical understanding, it’s become clearer and clearer that you’ve never read any significant history of the south or the attitude of southern whites towards slaves and black people (between which they made no significant distinction prior to the Civil War). Skim through just a few of the links I posted, and you will see. Sure, you’ll find plenty of whites trying to morally justify their treatment of their “n*****s,” and a lot of their arguments sound a lot like yours. They love their slaves, you see. And of course they take good care of them! Why, don’t a man take care of his ox, or his horses? Why wouldn’t he take good care of his investment. Why, he only whips ’em when they really need it. A laborer, you could dock his wages if he don’t work right, but a slave, how else can you punish him? And that’s all that kind really knows, anyway. THESE are the types of arguments that southerners have made for a very long time.

    You are correct that racism and slavery, historically, have been separate things… in OTHER places. In America, it was not. American slavery was always based on racism, and a belief that black people were not truly human, were only beasts for working.

  33. pathmv said,

    Was talking about this thread with my aunt, also a lifetime resident of the south. She reminded me that using the N-word, among whites, was generally considered low-class by the 50s and 60s. Upper-class whites used the term “niggra” (rarely in writing, it was a verbal slang form of Negro), and was a softer word than the n-word, without nearly as much venom or contempt.

    She also reported an experience from her college days. When her college’s team played the big rival from the neighboring state, if one of the rival’s black players made a strong hit on one of her team’s black players, many (white) fans would shout: “Hey! What’s your n****** doing, beating up on our black?”

    And another anecdote to remind us that the issue remains alive today… A couple of years ago, my local college team was using something of a 2 quarterback system. Both players were fairly young; one was white, the other black. The white player had a better arm, but was prone to throwing interceptions. The black player had a weaker arm, but could run better, and didn’t have the problem with interceptions. Both players were getting playing time, but the white player was the usual starter.

    I was watching one game at a local sports bar. In the 3rd or 4th quarter, we were struggling, and the white player through (yet another) interception. Somebody in the bar hollered out: “Put the n******* in!” Several people did look around in shock, but there was hardly a hue and cry or universal stunned silence in response; no shunning of the malefactor.

  34. karen said,

    It seems the way this word is used today- it is acceptable for blacks to use, but not whites. I’m talking tunes, here- rap, etc. And, culture. Black vs white- still.

    Maybe the young student that read Twain and was shocked by it because she received a rude awakening to see what this word was really all about historically, and that was why she was so hurt. Why would someone think that using this word, w/these attachments of violence and ownership over- why would anyone use them in the familiar as terms of recognition and endearment?

    Her culture(assumption admitted) relishes the ~power~ of the word, the power that now ~they~ can use it- and misuse it- and that it is no longer hurtful; as long as white folks keep it offn’ their tongues. If you are white, it’s purely racist(IMhO, how can it be anything but, no matter who utters the word?). Can we reinvent the past like that? Or, are we going to have to toughen our skin(of any colour and shade) and use it any old way until the power is rubbed off and it’s just a word w/no power.

    It seems that any beaten down identity(slave,woman,gay-etc)is going to have to grit their teeth and fake it til they make it. That’s equality, isn’t it- pretending shit doesn’t hurt until it actually doesn’t and acceptance is a given? One can’t be equal and victim, both- in these instances. That doesn’t mean we accept abuse willingly, i guess it just means we learn that we are bigger than words, and let a few things begin to roll off our backs- no more knee-jerk reactions of hurt. Even when it does.

    Or, am i being uppity?

  35. realpc said,

    This is a silly conversation pathmv. Racisim is all about status, and so is anti-racism. I get tired of the obsession with status after a while. Yes I understand that status is important, to a degree, but beyond that it’s just self-obsession.

  36. karen said,

    `When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

    `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

    `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’
    So, i just surfed amba’s blogroll, and i jumped into Staghounds w/both feet. I found this above, interesting to and fro and it seemed so pertinent to the point i was trying to make. Isn’t that a weird coincidence?

  37. realpc said,

    “It seems that any beaten down identity(slave,woman,gay-etc)is going to have to grit their teeth and fake it til they make it. That’s equality, isn’t it- pretending shit doesn’t hurt until it actually doesn’t and acceptance is a given? One can’t be equal and victim, both- in these instances. That doesn’t mean we accept abuse willingly, i guess it just means we learn that we are bigger than words, and let a few things begin to roll off our backs- no more knee-jerk reactions of hurt. Even when it does.”

    Amen to all that, Karen. That’s what I guess I was trying to say.

  38. Tim (the former Theo Boehm) said,

    Ah, but real, obsession about status has, for the past 45 years or so, substituted for thought among those concerned with humane arts and letters.

    Status isn’t just one aspect of life. It is the ONLY thing permitted to be considered in polite academic circles.

    As this discussion shows, the mental gymnastics needed to accommodate past perceptions of status to our modern received wisdom can lead to results that are, as Humpty Dumpty says, “most unsatisfactory.”

    The past really is, if not an unknown country, at least one very difficult to fathom. Cotton Mather, for example, could write of “desperate Wickedness” among those who would treat African servants (a polite English term of the day) as irrational animals, incapable of understanding the Word of God. He also worked tirelessly to promote and defended the then-African practice of inoculation against smallpox from charges that it was the product of unthinking savages, showing great sympathy for African people and their accomplishments.

    He also, for a time, owned a slave.

    As we say today, “Go figure.”

  39. pathmv said,

    real, you’ve once again retreated to making general comments about racism and the proper approach to dealing with that problem. But I was never arguing with you about any of that. I was, rather, showing how you were completely misinformed about the actual historical facts of the meaning of the N-word over the past several hundred years and the actual historical facts about southern (and northern) attitudes towards black people prior to the Civil War. I’ve never once tried to make this discussion about “status,” but it would be nice if we could proceed with the debate based on actual historical facts.

    And I continue to be confused by your bizarre belief that it makes a meaningful difference if southerners didn’t “despise” or “hate” black people, but rather found them to be “non-human,” an animal for labor and nothing else. We might get farther if you would actually address the points others are making, rather than retreat into vague generalities about the general issue of racism.

  40. pathmv said,

    karen, of course words can have different meanings. They regularly do. But there are also historical facts about the usage of words. And, as I think we’ve demonstrated above, the N-word had a particular meaning and connotation and usage that’s been pretty consistent for the past several hundred years. Nobody’s yet come forward with any examples of the N-word being used as an equivalent of colored or black or Negro. No examples of northern freedmen being described using that term, unless the term was used by a a bigot to indicate disrespect or hatred (or thinking him an animal, if you insist on the distinction).

    Remember that the entire discussion started when real said that the N-word was just another word for black, like colored or negro, that had become the disfavored term over time, just as “retarded” has given way to “mentally challenged.” And that’s just false. It’s false. There is no basis in historical reality to support that claim. Antagonism to the N-word is not just being overly sensitive and demanding that others use the most current preferred terminology.

  41. louisemowder said,

    Realpc, earlier some of us described “distancing” oneself from a topic or a word that is personally upsetting to us … taking the ego out of our immediate responses to engage with the topic on a more analytical or intellectual basis. This is an attitude of leaning that does not ignore the personal meaning or response, but that “brackets” it – puts it to one side.

    Perhaps it’s an approach you might try. When you were asked “who is supposed to “get over” what?”, and asked to put yourself in a similar position, you *only* answered the question as if it were all about , and only about, you. It’s admirable that you have put all your old resentments behind you I agree that “We can accept what happened, try to understand how it hurt us, and then go forward.” However,that is the sort of detachment from pain that even Buddhists find near to impossible to attain. It’s very difficult for everyday walking-around non-monks to achieve that state of enlightenment.

    One thing that I hope we can both agree upon is that none of us achieve that detachment from pain because someone else *told* us to. *None* of us achieve that detachment because another person ignored our true feelings and said, “Just get over it already!” I don’t see why it still bothers us!”

    If we treat each other with compassion and acknowledgment of the very real pains we have suffered – as all humans do – then we can help each other heal.

    If we treat each other with a form of contempt, as in “Just grow up! Grit your teeth and take it!,” then all we breed is further resentment. This resentment is *doubly* increased if the person telling us to “get over it already!” is someone that we believe is somehow responsible for our pain to begin with.

    All the categories that you dismiss as “victims” – “slaves, women, gay, etc.” can point to a social and belied system that made them powerless and rendered them, yes, less than equal/. (By the way, do you have *any* idea how dismissive your use of the “etc.” in that list sounds?)

    It’s not that society “made” them equal. As human beings, they were *always* equal to the powerful. They just were never regarded as such.

    Now it is not that they perceive themselves as “victims.” These groups – women, non-White people, gay people, the handicapped – see themselves as equal participants in a system that has traditionally treated them as less than equal. They look at their present situations, and they see two things:
    1.) that they still suffer injury from inequality built into the social or economic systems that were created by the powerful, and that they had no real part in creating;
    2.) that the people who benefit from the built-in advantages dismiss the injuries that lower status groups did, and still do, suffer, by saying things like “Grit your teeth and eat it.”

    A person can be both a “victim” (as you call people who suffer) *and* be equal. Being a victim does does make you “less equal.” Equality is given by our birth and by the Constitution. No amount of suffering can erase it.

    There is a name for what the “sufferers in the land of the equal want.” It is Justice. “Justice” does not always refer to some monetary award, either. Sometimes it’s enough to get an acknowledgment of wrongs and pain caused, and an honest, non-defensive, attempt o understand and to improve. The demand for Justice is a constant, and will continue until the issue is resolved. . It is not a “knee-jerk reaction of hurt,” even if you perceive it as so.

    You can decide *for yourself alone* that you are willing to be
    “bigger than words and let a few things slide.” If and when you study the history of the Civil Rights movement *throughout* the 20th Century, you see that American blacks, for instance, let “little” things like words slide for decades. the words still burned, but job opportunities. the ability to be unmolested in their homes and places of business and physical safety were more important.

    There came a time, though, when the words became imperative to eradicate, because the very words – the N-word, for example – were the tool that was used to belittle, torment, and dehumanize them.

    We all suffer, especially in today’s economic reality. Power rests with those who collect more money in the course of a day than we will see in a year’s employment – or even ten years’. Money buys government. Laws and tax changes are passed to benefit the powerful. We in the lower 99% pay our taxes, and the money goes banks and corporations, where it is paid out in billion-dollar bonuses. Corporations own both sides of the Media – from Fox to MSNBC. Corporations were just granted the same rights to free speech as human beings – and they can spend as much as they please to make their “voices” heard.

    In the meantime, the power structure created by the wealthiest fuels sectarian tensions, so thatthe people cannot unify.

    Look at this discussion. It started off as a meditation about the power of words as talismans. It has devolved into a discussion of “us” vs. “them,” “victims” vs. “the independent.”

    Once again, rather than focusing on the pain that all humans share, and how we can find similarity and comfort each other, we are debating whose pain is greater.

    realpc, it must be a blessing to move past the pain of injuries you believe you suffered unacknowledged. I, too, have worked hard to move past former injuries. It’s been a lot more complicated for me, though, than simply “putting my mind to it.” That approach was like a crown put onto a decaying tooth – it looks great, but the hidden infection can become a life-threatening abscess.

    May we all have the grace to use your strength, our understanding, and our compassion to move beyond our limited consciousnesses to truly comfort others in this vale of beauty, love and woe.

  42. pathmv said,

    Tim, certainly it’s difficult or impossible to fully know and understand the past. But beginning about 300 years ago, people, even pretty every day people, started writing a LOT. Thanks to the wonders of the modern age, we can read a lot of what they wrote without even getting up and going to the library. And from all they’ve written, we can get a pretty good idea about some things, in particular about the meanings and connotations of particular words at different periods of time.

    Karen, to touch on your point about who can use the N-word today, it’s not as clear cut as you suggest. A significant portion of the black community strongly disapproves of the use of the N-word by black hip hop artists. We don’t hear about that quite as much, because within the black community, there’s still a pretty strong impulse to not air their group’s dirty laundry out where white people can see it. It’s true that if a white musician were to sing a song calling some black man or group of black men by the word, there would probably be a media stink about it, while there’s not when a black musician does the same thing. But I would be willing to bet that no major public event, things like the Grammys or the Emmys or the Oscars, would allow a song to be sung using that word, regardless of the race of the singer.

  43. pathmv said,

    One more comment on the “get over it” bit. As I’ve pointed out with a couple of examples, there’s still a lot of actual, real, honest-to-God racism out there. Not nearly as much, thankfully, but it’s not gone.

    Moreover, what is the time frame for “getting over it” supposed to be? I have friends who are old enough to have very clear memories of being required to drink from the “colored” water fountain, and use only the “colored” restrooms. I know an interracial couple who, to this day, when they are traveling, have the white wife go in to rent a motel room while traveling and making an impromptu overnight stop, because experience has taught them that when the black husband does it, there are “no vacancies.”

    If you, as a white person, want to tell black people to “get over it,” then you damn well better be the first person up on the line fighting real racism wherever it still exists.

  44. karen said,

    “All the categories that you dismiss as “victims” – “slaves, women, gay, etc.” can point to a social and belied system that made them powerless and rendered them, yes, less than equal/. (By the way, do you have *any* idea how dismissive your use of the “etc.” in that list sounds?)”…

    Louise, the train of thought in this particular comment and the wording of it– are mine, not real’s. Real was pointing this out of my ramble to something she agrees w/.

    I agree w/about everything you are saying, Louise. I know i’m fairly ignorant in a lot of social discussions- so much to learn!!- but, i do disagree w/you here, in a sense when you say:

    “A person can be both a “victim” (as you call people who suffer) *and* be equal. Being a victim does does make you “less equal.” Equality is given by our birth and by the Constitution. No amount of suffering can erase it.”

    … if only to say that we are all CREATED equal- as per the Constitution. So, i am going one step farther and into the womb to those who cannot voice their own equality as belonging to those who can be included in the victim/equal list.
    Do i know why we don’t accept that as truth? No. Sadly.

    My use of “ect”. If that makes me seem dismissive, i am sorry. I used it honestly because i know there are so many more and important examples of injustice of equality out there that i couldn’t think of at the moment, hence the e.c.t. If it makes me seem higher up on the ladder than i am– i’ve been sufficiently chastised into sliding back down to rung one:0).

    One thing i have learned– skin doesn’t count when it comes to letting some things slide, apparently. I only speak w/limited experience as my association w/ what is or is not acceptable is through what i watch or hear on the TV, radio or movies. “The Blind Side” shows the pecking order w/in communities and the words used to degrade those of lower status- w/in the same color.

    I also want to say that i was thinking more of being a woman in a male-oriented(read:sexist)industry when i was speaking of gritting teeth and letting things slide – as farmer’s wives or daughters are litigated to being “milkmaids” or seen and not heard. Not much of late, in this era(generation?)– but in not too distant yrs past. I told my Dad once that had i been born w/a penis he would have made me his partner. Proudly displayed it in the farm name–______________& Son. I wasn’t thinking the n-word and skin when i said that, although the use of the word as used in 1999 by the mayorial (i think i made up a word)aide is kinda the use i meant. A lot was made of it in the heat of the moment that probably made the person who used it feel like crap, only to be fired and then re-hired? A little duck-like action would have helped.

    All my humble opinion, btw.

  45. Tim (the former Theo Boehm) said,

    To make my meaning a little more plain, I only caution that, as someone who HAS gotten up and spent considerable time in non-digital libraries among dusty volumes of forgotten lore, it remains no easy task to comprehend the past. Words have meanings, but they are slippery things. Those who do not acknowledge this, but would otherwise lecture us, are likely to find them serving as banana peels on the podium steps.

    Pope put it best, as we can make him out through the fog of 300 years:

    Our sons their fathers’ failing language see,
    And such as Chaucer is shall Dryden be.
    So when the faithful pencil has design’d
    Some bright idea of the master’s mind,
    Where a new world leaps out at his command,
    And ready Nature waits upon his hand;
    When the ripe colours soften and unite,
    And sweetly melt into just shade and light;
    When mellowing years their full perfection give,
    And each bold figure just begins to live,
    The treach’rous colours the fair art betray,
    And all the bright creations fades away!

    We are, of course, as far from Pope as he was from Chaucer. It is a testament to the power of the printing press, Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope himself, and Dr Johnson that we still speak something like Pope’s language. But bright creations, as well as darker ones such as the word under discussion, have had their treacherous colors change. I think a little circumspection is good when declaring certainty about daubs on the original palate.

  46. justkim said,

    As Pope was the the author of “The Rape of the Lock”, I wonder what his reaction would be to the uproar I’ve seen his poem cause in an undergraduate English class.

  47. pathmv said,

    Tim, I remain confused as to whether you are making a general comment, or are specifically asserting that my (and many others’) understanding of the historical meaning of the N-word is inaccurate. There are plenty of words where I would agree with you, and be cautious in the nuance of them. But I am quite certain of the stand I have taken about the general historical usage and connotation of the N-word as described herein.

  48. A said,

    To my mind, the N word used by a white person encapsulated the message: I (or this society) can kill you, with impunity. And used by black folks, among themselves, signifies having scraped by, still here. I think the shock of the grad student and the elementary school student (it’s interesting they are both female) and the use of the word in rap music (is that exclusive to male rappers?) are two ends of the same spectrum, which is a slow process of taming the demon, to get back to the post that started this discussion. And replacing the word in a work of literature is a really pathetic detour.

  49. realpc said,

    It’s easy to focus intently on racism, because it is obviously unfair, and to overlook more subtle forms of unjustified hatred. This kind of intent focus lets people feel righteous, lets them ignore so much of the unkindness in their own hearts. I am not advocating racism, for god’s sake. Just saying the problems are so much deeper, the roots are so tangled.

    Like all social mammals, we are tribal. But modern ideologies demand that we love and accept all members of our species equally. Don’t discriminate, don’t judge, don’t prefer one over the other. This is not humanly possible.

    So you might form your own little multi-colored tribe, and congratulate yourself that you love and accept every type of person. But the differences are superficial, and there is a good chance all the members of your tribe share deeper similarities. There is a pretty good chance that one of the things you share is hatred for certain other tribes.

    Oh but your hatred is justified and rational, you think. The tribes you hate are greedy, ignorant, superstitious, warlike. The stereotypes you have of them are valid, unlike the unfair stereotypes that racists have of blacks and other ethnic minorities.

    But that’s what I am skeptical about. Your images of enemy tribes are caricatures, drawn from the extreme fringes. You never bothered to ask them what they believe, because you already “know.” They are Other, not like us, they are bad.

    I work at a scientific organization. It is a fact that almost none of the scientists attend church, at least not publicly. If any of the scientists is secretly religious and wants to attend church, they must somehow keep it a secret.

    Ok, that is one example, one that I know for certain because I have been there long enough to know. To me, that is shocking and sad. But most progressives would probably see nothing wrong with it.

    I see the progressive tribe growing, gathering new members among college students. The hatred they feel can be pretty virulent, rivaling the white southerner’s contempt for the freed slaves.

  50. realpc said,

    But I should add that I don’t think the scientists I know hate religious believers. Maybe they just feel they have are misguided and ignorant. I used that as an example because I am a little outraged that we believers have to hide our faith these days, in order to survive.

    I do see extreme hatred among progressives though. I am sure you have all seen it.

  51. louisemowder said,

    realpc, there is a difference between the haters of religion, the irreligious, and the spiritual believers who do not follow a religion. It’s the difference between active persecution of religion, and a live-and-let-live attitude. You can see that variety in our Founding Fathers. John Adams was a devout Unitarian; John Jay was an Episcopalian; Benjamin Franklin was a confirmed deist. No one is sure of Washington’s religion.

    The ones who didn’t go to church didn’t hate or look down on the other’s faiths. They believed that each person finds their way to God through their own path.

    Have you ever *asked* the non-Church going scientists how they regard the church-going? Are you extrapolating what you think they must believe from their statements?

    Can you also tell me about the “extreme hatred among progressives” you see. What form does it take where you are? How are you defining “hatred”? When you say that progressives are “hateful,” do you mean thatthey are “full of hate,” or that they themselves are “detestable, odious, offensive”? (There are two meanings of the word “hateful.”

  52. realpc said,

    “Have you ever *asked* the non-Church going scientists how they regard the church-going? Are you extrapolating what you think they must believe from their statements?”

    I have a friend who is one of the 2 church-goers. He told me there are only 2 of them, out of 100 or so scientists, and they keep it secret so they won’t be ostracized or considered strange. They have to find a church that is out of the way so they won’t be spotted going in. I am not exaggerating. I could never ask the non-church-goers about this, because I can’t “out” the church-goers! Yes, being religious is much worse than being gay now, in progressive circles!

    And I was recently accused of being crazy by a family member, because I have made the mistake of admitting to her that I believe in god!

    “Can you also tell me about the “extreme hatred among progressives” you see. What form does it take where you are? How are you defining “hatred”? When you say that progressives are “hateful,” do you mean thatthey are “full of hate,” or that they themselves are “detestable, odious, offensive”?”

    By hateful I mean full of hatred for certain groups and individuals. No, I don’t think progressives are odious! I mean that would be kind of silly to interpret what I said that way.

    The extreme progressives I know HATED G. W. Bush passionately. They saw him as worse than Hitler. Kind of strange, since GWB was very progressive for a Republican.

    The extreme progressives in my family also HATE any Republican who happens to be at all succesful. And they HATE Christians so much they will practically go into convulsions if Christianity is mentioned around them.

    Yes, some members of my family are borderline insane. But I don’t think they are all that different from extremists in general.

  53. karen said,

    I was not going to write again(:0))- but, i just wanted to clear one thing up. I was having trouble w/my internet connection and i tried twice to comment earlier– maybe it isn’t meant to be.

    I would never suggest that a person w/a different ethnicity than me should ever just ~get over~ their history. THAT would be so callous. I was just suggesting that we all learn to be a little less offended at certain times– like the example “justkim” gave & Pat affirmed about how one word, not even related to the offensive word- was enough to get an official fired from his(her?) job for using it. I thought that was a little hyper-sensitive-to me, anyway. Especially when it was explained and acknowledged that the word was used correctly and had no connection to offense.

    Louise, I wrote the comment that real snipped a paragraph from- that included ~disadvantaged~ list of ~victims~. And, i included the “etc”– not to be dismissive- per notation– but, because i thought that was how to use “etc”– when a list of an innumerable amount of things or people is so long, that instead of missing any– we use that word, but i am sorry for any unintended slap in the face of anyone. I thought i used it honestly.

    As a woman in a male dominated industry– i still work beside my husband on our farm– i know a little about sexism and being under-appreciated for any contribution to our decision-making and workload(still- sigh). Things may have softened in some areas and even in some ways since i was a kid, but not much. At all. I grew up w/this battle and actually found the balls to tell my Dad that if i’d been born w/a penis, he would have given me my rightful legacy and made me a partner– and i would have our family farm, instead of still living the fiasco of a fantasy of taking over Allan’s family farm– such a lengthy, painful story to tell- and still not finished. All balls and no penis- heh.

    I say ~disadvantaged~ because, as a woman– that is what i’m called in the field of Ag, which gives me a borrowing edge over a male. I think it’s a quota thang, so most of our loans are in my name, 1st. Did i mention that a local doctor– so smart and so educated– asked my husband’s profession and when told he was a dairy farmer, turned to me and said: “So, what are you? The milkmaid?”- to which i replied– “From birth.” I’m still really angry about that sacasm, even though he probably meant to be funny. oh- ha ha….. ha.

    When i spoke of gritting teeth and bearing it, it was kind of a pep talk to myself and an explanation of how to keep going onward, stalwart soldier… speaking of my own and wondering if we couldn’t all just answer smartly and forget some of the sting. It was not about history to be forgotten or gotten over– hell, how could anyone possibly forget the pain of the greater struggles of our brothers and sisters of the past? It would be wrong to forget. The future, though? Are we doing our best going forward?

    I would also take your comment, Louise, about equality being a “life-given””Constitution striven” right one step farther and on into the womb, as we are not all born equally, but we are certainly CREATED equally. These millions of victims cannot even defend themselves– they can’t voice any will– even their silent screams are denied.

    I would stand at the front of the line in defense of their equality as i would any individual, anywhere.

    Mmmmmmmmm- i did say one thing to clear up, didn’t i? ooops.

  54. karen said,

    Definition of stupidity: me.

    Just basically double-posted because i thought for sure that the 1st comment was never recorded& i never looked for it. Well, i’m fairly accurate in both accounts- yup, consistent in all loyalties and frailties:0).


  55. Randy said,

    Karen: No need to be sorry!

    What happened was that your original comment got trapped by Akismet, our spam-catcher, and was awaiting human approval before appearing. (I probably was approving it about the same time as you posted the second version.) Once approved, a comment then ends up appearing in order of time originally written. Thus, unless you are looking for it, on a long thread like this, it is easy to miss.

    FWIW, I think the spam-catcher is designed to hold extremely long comments for approval, as you aren’t the only “regular” whose longer comment has been held in purgatory awaiting absolution, ablution, or annihilation. ;-) (The idea behind that part of the program is probably that most long comments tend to be nothing more than a zillion links to Viagara retailers or porn sites.)

    If you want to delete one or the other, let me know.

  56. karen said,

    Thank you for the laugh and the absolution, Randy.

    I guess they can both stay- & someday soon i’ll explain all the goings-on up here. Soon:0).

  57. louisemowder said,

    Karen, I appreciate your position completely. It *is* impossible to make a complete list of all the categories that could claim “victim” status. In some fields of philosophy, those groups are referred to as “the Other” – in that they are Other than the dominant, powerful, law-giving party.

    I think that those of us who have occupied, or still do occupy, one of the categories, especially that of Female, recognize how difficult it is for people on *both* sides of the equation to bear the burden of expectations and limitations based purely on an inborn or societal status.

    I, too, have gritted my teeth and borne it. In almost every field, there has been an implicit hierarchy based on gender. The most blatant was the financial field; an industry that prided itself on its “big d!cks,.” When I was a stockbroker eons ago, the only female in an office of 35 guys, they would say it to your face, just to see your reaction. At the time, it was frustrating, because I didn’t want to even have to deal with such adolescent behavior; it felt like I was being inauthentic to my own values to simply “take it.” Now I think that those men were actually scared themselves, and they were trying to convince themselves that they were at least better off than the woman.

    Of course, when that attitude actually affects your safety, income, or livelihood, the you enter a realm where you want justice.

    We are all so scared, and hurting, underneath our bluster.If we can give up the defenses we build – the ones that create these walls of discrimination and separation – we might be able to comfort and help each other. It would be such a blessing!

    But first perhaps we can recognize our commonalities.

  58. LouiseM said,

    @ Karen…It’s too bad heart + brains did not = penis when it came to long division over the family farm. If that were the case, you’d be ahead with something leftover–what used to be called the “remainder” in days of old math. I enjoyed the reading both posts, considering 2 > 1(in new math!).

  59. karen said,

    Thank you, Louise.
    I think i actually have it much easier than professional women in the workplace– i always say to those that work w/the public how happy i am that i work w/cows- people are so complicated.

  60. realpc said,

    “In almost every field, there has been an implicit hierarchy based on gender. The most blatant was the financial field”

    I work in an almost 100% male industry. But now everyone has to be politically correct, and pretend they don’t feel superior to the females. In a way it’s even worse, because I can’t even hint that I feel discriminated against. They would immediately assume I was taking them to court. So they pretend they are utterly tolerant and liberal, all the while radiating testosterone. And I pretend I don’t notice.

  61. louisemowder said,

    “So they pretend they are utterly tolerant and liberal, all the while radiating testosterone. ”
    Would it be easier if they were blatant?

    I admit I am a bit confused about the environment you work in. You said, “I have a friend who is one of the 2 church-goers. He told me there are only 2 of them, out of 100 or so scientists, and they keep it secret so they won’t be ostracized or considered strange.” You’ve discussed your impressions with other Christians. But have you *ever* tried to get into a conversation with the scientists themselves?

    Scientists are supposed to have logical, reasonable, and fact-based rationale for their positions. Perhaps you can learn something about what *they* actually believe about God. At leas t then you wouldn’t be stuck just having to assume and imagine what you think they believe. Perhaps they don’t “hate” religion at all – but have private and more various views. Give it a try! At least you will be testifying as to your own faith.

    It’s the same with their “hatred” of former President Bush.What are their explanations for their intense dislike? Do they have facts upon which they base their judgment? Perhaps by sharing your viewpoints in a non-judgmental way, putting aside your prior assumptions, you can learn more about what they truly think, and why. You may be able to give them viewpoints and positions that might change *their* minds.

    As scientists, remember, they will always listen to proven facts. If you are willing to listen and to contribute, you will feel a lot happier in your work environment.

    Talking to people on “the Other Side” is always enlightening. They so often turn out to be people just like us – only with different points of view. Those points of view always teach me something (even if it’s about what they value), which is tremendously helpful

  62. louisemowder said,

    of course, realpc, when I was a stockbroker (back in my 20s!) I found it easier to sidestep their comments than to confront them Confrontation (an emotion) was exactly what the guys there wanted, because they were used to it. (The metaphorical “pat on the head” was always at their ready.)

    In other fields dominated by men, I ended up taking a Socratic approach, following Benjamin Franklin’s example. That at least broke them free from their automatic approach. It also led to much better relations in the office.

    Now that my husband and I have our own business, I simply don’t have to deal with men who treat me like a “little woman.” My husband can. There are plenty of other people who’ll appreciate my skills and work ethic. The ones that won’t – lose out.

  63. realpc said,

    [Scientists are supposed to have logical, reasonable, and fact-based rationale for their positions. Perhaps you can learn something about what *they* actually believe about God. ]

    You have absolutely no idea where I am coming from. i have talked to many scientists and read many scientific books. I consider myself a scientist. You read me all wrong.

    [It’s the same with their “hatred” of former President Bush.What are their explanations for their intense dislike?]

    I never said the scientists I work with hated President Bush. I was talking about some of my relatives.

    [Talking to people on “the Other Side” is always enlightening.]

    I am not on any side. If you had ever read any of my posts or comments you would know that.

    If you are willing to listen and to contribute, you will feel a lot happier in your work environment.]

    I listen and communicate plenty. You missed my point.

    [As scientists, remember, they will always listen to proven facts.]

    And on any controversial subject, there are no “proven facts.” If there were, there would not be a controversy.

    Maybe I wrote my earlier comments in a hurry and the meaning was unclear. You missed most of what I meant, maybe because you have never read any of my posts on this blog.

  64. karen said,

    “And on any controversial subject, there are no “proven facts.” If there were, there would not be a controversy. ”

    I don’t really believe that one, real. I think– esp on the abortion issue– there are many facts, including the fact of when life begins. It’s the individual values attached to the facts that give them their priorities and their weight. And emotion. Lord, we all have enough of THAT to go ’round.

    On the issue of scientists– i wonder what the value of $$$$ and prestige to be gained can do to the open perspectives + logical thinking patterns of scientists? Being one, it seems– is no longer a science:0).

  65. louisemowder said,

    Well, real. Excuse me for confusing the groups that you are having difficulty with. You don’t like progressives, whom you perceive to be full of hatred. You think that the scientists look down upon religious believers. Yet you say you are “not on any side.”

    Perhaps I *do* miss your points. It may be that I simply do not agree with your points – such as the origins of the “N-word.”

    For instance, you state:
    “And on any controversial subject, there are no “proven facts.” If there were, there would not be a controversy.”

    There are many, many issues that have proven facts and yet remain controversies. Tax policy and its economic consequences is a huge one. Climate change is another. Peak oil. We have many, many facts about these issues – facts alone do not settle the controversies. The *values* that people bring to the debates are where the controversies come from.

    Of course, you are absolutely correct on one point. I have not read every entry you have made on this blog. Whether or not that makes me unqualified to respond to your comments, to know where you are coming from, is, again, a value judgment. All I did was respond to your positions as they were stated here and now.

    The question still remains unanswered: You’ve discussed your impressions with other Christians. But have you ever tried to get into a conversation about religion and belief with the scientists themselves?

  66. realpc said,

    “I have not read every entry you have made on this blog.”

    I didn’t say you didn’t read every entry. I said you did not read any.

    “But have you ever tried to get into a conversation about religion and belief with the scientists themselves?”


    “You don’t like progressives, whom you perceive to be full of hatred.”

    Wrong. Just because I perceive someone as full of hatred doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I think all human beings contain a lot of hatred, and love also. Love and hate are found in everyone, which is my point. You can’t stamp out hate.

  67. louisemowder said,

    Actually, real, I did read all of your posts in this thread, as you know. The problem here is that I didn’t understand just what you intended to say. There could be a number of different reasons for that.

    For instance, I admit I still am confused by some of your positions. Is your position that you like progressives, even though you find them “full of hatred”? You say that “all human beings contain a lot of hatred.” Do you include yourself as well?

    If you would be kind to me once more though, could you please tell me what the scientists you spoke to about religion said in your discussion? Those details would really be enlightening.

    I had no desire or intention to irritate or offend. I shall bow out from here on in. Thanks for your patience.

  68. realpc said,

    [You say that “all human beings contain a lot of hatred.” Do you include yourself as well?]

    I don’t think I am non-human.

    [could you please tell me what the scientists you spoke to about religion said in your discussion?]

    I would have to write several books for you, to explain all that. Which, I am sure, you don’t want to pay me for writing.

  69. louisemowder said,

    realpc, have you got some antagonism towards me? I bear none towards you, even though some of your responses have been almost insulting.

    If you believe that I have committed some offense against you, please let me know if I should make amends.

  70. realpc said,

    louisemowder ,

    I can’t imagine how you would expect me to tell you all about all the conversations I had with scientists about religion, over the years. It seems like you are challenging me. This is something I have thought about for my whole life. Since maybe you are new at this blog, maybe you would not know that.

  71. louisemowder said,

    Yes, real, I am new at this blog. “Challenging” you? Is that my offense?
    I didn’t ask about “all the conversations” you had. That is a straw man fallacy. I asked you to provide me with some insight into the discussions you had. Since you have been thinking about this issue your whole life, (as have many of us) I was hoping that you might share some specifics regarding your insights, which have so far been couched in generalities.

    For instance, do most of your fellow scientists follow Dennett’s extensive arguments? Are they more Kungian? I only asked because this issue, too, has been a passion of mine for more than 30 years.

    Of course, if you are guarding those issues for a book which you intend to publish, you might feel it is foolish to give them away for free. At least throwing out a few specifics in this setting, however, might whet the appetite of your potential reader(s) for your work.

    You stated that you “have talked to many scientists and read many scientific books. I consider myself a scientist.” As a scientist, do you want corrections on points where you make factual, logical or rhetorical error.? Should they only come from people that have been “on this blog” sufficiently long?

    Please, just let me know what the rules are about commenting. How long should simply read quietly until I have been here long enough to make comments? Every “tribe” – like a group of regular blog posters – has its rules, as you’ve noted. I had no wish to come across as a troll. If you could tell me what the rules are, I promise to follow them.

  72. realpc said,

    I am sorry louisemowder, I had no idea you were genuinely interested and that you have also been thinking about this subject. It really is an extremely broad subject and I would not know where to start talking about it. I am at work but seem to have some time right now, if you want to bring up something more specific. I originally came to Amba’s blog, years ago, because of her interest in Intelligent Design.

  73. realpc said,

    The areas i considered important to the subject of religion and science, have been, mostly:

    – biological evolution (blind chance vs guided evolution)

    – artificial intelligence (can human beings create genuine intelligence)

    – parapsychology (is consciousness created by and confined to the physical brain, or not)

    I have been interested in the concept of complex systems. I believe consciousness is universal, not created by brains, and that “matter” is made out of information. I feel I have pretty good scientific reasons for what I believe.

    Physicists have failed to explain matter, biologists have failed to explain life, and computer scientists have failed to create genuine intelligence. That doesn’t necessarily mean they never can succeed. But in my opinion they never can succeed, and decades of failure suggest I could be right.

    A hundred years of parapsychology has provided pretty good evidence that consciousness exists beyond physical brains. However, the evidence has been ignored by mainstream science because there has been a preference for materialism.

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