So, now that L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling was fired, where are we? I like to think we’re in the era of nuance. That means looking at people’s questionable statements and coming up with – get this – different responses. Which statements? Wellllll…let’s just do 25 of these since President Obama was elected in 2008, okay? (I just heard Michael Richards and Laura Schlessinger sigh with relief.)
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “I think that we are at war with Islam. And there is no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways… You look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, ‘This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.’ There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.” (Interviewer:) “Militarily?” Hirsi Ali: “In all forms.”
Saul Bellow: “Women are the rails on which men run.”
Cliven Bundy: “And because they were basically on government subsidy, so now what do they do? They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Dan Cathy: “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage’. I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to define what marriage is about.”
Stephen Colbert: “I am willing to show Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
Riley Cooper: “I will fight every nigger here!”
Paula Deen: “Well what I would really like is a bunch of little niggers to wear long-sleeve white shirts, black shorts and black bow ties, you know in the Shirley Temple days, they used to dance around. Now that would be a true southern wedding, wouldn’t it? But we can’t do that because the media would be on me about that.”
Junot Diaz: “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
Rahm Emanuel (on certain Democrats): “Fucking retarded.”
50-Cent: “Yeah i just saw your picture fool you look autistic…I dont want no special ed kids on my time line follow some body else.”
David Gilmour: “[W]hen I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women.”
Roy Hibbert: “I really felt that I let Paul down in terms of having his back when LeBron was scoring in the post or getting to the paint, because they stretched me out so much. No homo.”
D.L. Hughley: “My point is if he did what she’s alleging he did, she could still get all that she’s going to have and not bring it up now when it damages his market value that she’s going to be impacted by. If he loses that job nobody’s living in Calabasas anymore. I guarantee you, three years from now she’s going to be thinking, ‘Damn, I should have shut the f*ck up…women always running out the mouth when they shouldn’t.’… This bitch was thirsty. The bitch was thirsty. What, she gone go back to dancing? She gone f*ck her money up?”
Larry Johnson: “Think about what a clever diss then that wit ur fag pic. Christopher Street boy, is what us east coast cats call u.”
Van Jones: “The white polluters and the white environmentalists are essentially steering poison into the people-of-color communities.”
Ayatollah Khamenei: Israel’s “leaders look like beasts and cannot be called human.”
Rush Limbaugh: “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”
Bill Maher: “Obama said ‘It’s nice to know that sometimes a black guy makes plans, and it’s the white people who show up late…[Obama] was like ‘Yeah, we fuckin’ did it, we pulled it out. He had the Newports sticking right out of his pocket.”
Dennis Miller: “Elizabeth Warren? Is that the chick that says she’s an Indian?…She’s about as much Indian as that stripper chick Brando sent to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather, all right?”
V.S. Naipaul: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me… My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”
Joakhim Noah: “Fuck you faggot!”
Brett Ratner: “Rehearsal is for fags.”
Chris Rock: “Yeah, I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?”
Shirley Sherrod: “I figure if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.”
Donald Sterling: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you are associating with black people. Do you have to?…You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in. You can do whatever you want. The little I ask is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games. In your lousy … Instagrams you don’t have to have yourself walking with black people.”
Amare Stoudamire: “Fuck you I don’t have to do anything fag.”
What do all these quotes have in common? People are offended by them. They serve as checks on all of us, to see what we tolerate and what we don’t. They are ongoing referendums on morality in a society that’s rumored to have lost it. Why do some people hate the fact that we’re having these referendums at all?
If you read the comment sections on articles about these “scandals” – which I do NOT recommend doing – you will see people warning darkly about Orwell, thought police, and the First Amendment. You often see people saying, especially about “code words” like “fag” and “nigger,” that if they say it, why can’t we?
Ahem. The First Amendment guarantees you that the government will not arrest you for what you say. The First Amendment does not insulate you from public ridicule, shame, or even defamation lawsuits. Nice try. And forget Orwell, which was about government propaganda. Very few of these 25 quotes had anything to do with government, and the few that did had zero to do with official government statements.
If our last two weeks with Bundy and Sterling proved anything, it’s that you don’t have to say one of the “code words” to be considered a retrogressive reprobate. It was never about specific words, and there’s something disturbing about the implication that everything would have been just fine if Brett Ratner had instead said “rehearsal is for gay people!” or Riley Cooper had instead said “I’m gonna kill every black person here!” Uh, no. Sorry, but it’s not about code words; it’s about tone, it’s about nuance. That’s what Don Imus didn’t get. Unless someone wants to stand up here and say that Bundy and Sterling didn’t say anything wrong, we’re all going to have to accept that.
“Code words” is a telling euphemism. We live in the digital era, the time of Big Data, where it seems like everything everyone did or said is a code that can be filed, retrieved, categorized. With our mighty computing power, it seems like we might have an algorithm for everything, including prejudice. Here’s what bothers some people: we don’t. You can’t get a computer to understand that certain non-code words together – including those about picking cotton, lazy families, Instagram pictures with black people – clearly show prejudice.
That’s what we’re here for. That’s how we show our humanity. Why do you think these scandals are so appealing to people? Because we get a chance to discuss something beyond computer-driven simulations and percentages.
And I think that’s actually exactly what the “thought police” police don’t like about them. Because most of the “thought police” police come from a Christian background, and they’re not thrilled that morality is being asserted with no reference to Christian values. Just to get myself in more trouble, I’ll aver that there’s two kinds of Christians: ones who want everyone to read and live by the Bible, and ones who are happy with non-Bible readers who behave in a way that Jesus would have liked. The latter group is actually somewhat happy with the way America is going now. These outbursts prove that they’re right not to give up on loving the least of our brothers. The former group is feeling more isolated, and gets ornerier every time. Nuance is an N-word to them. There needs to be a Jesus-driven code, or nothing.
I ask you, is it really that hard to be a public figure without eventually having a Mel Gibson-like “slip up”? Some radio hosts are on the air four hours a day, five days a week. Somehow we don’t hear about them arriving on a list like this one. Somehow most of us aren’t ignorant.
I taught five college classes this semester, and I must say that I have tremendous faith in the next generation. Sure, some of my students watched Arabs portrayed as terrorists and said “That’s just how they are” but most of my classes are tolerant as the day is long. They look at most of this list and laugh. For them, that’s just the post-civil rights generation trying to sort itself out. They’re the post-post-civil rights generation. For most of them, gay marriage is as natural as respect for people with disabilities as appreciation for what every color and culture brings to the table. We are heading into a glorious populist future, I think.
Again, each of the above 25 statements invite different sorts of responses. There’s no one-size-fits-all punishment for them. And that’s a good thing. All of these statements make us think, make us actually verbally declare who we are and who we want to be. In a digital world, that’s an analog backlash, and thank God for it. Involve God in it, even.
The “thought police” police need to find a new beat.