I usually break out the flamethrowers to defend the Australian Broadcasting Corporation from the yellow cringing dogs of the Right (aaak- ptooey), but last night I heard something that wore even my Socialist patience out. A presenter on ABC Regional Radio was conducting a session in which listeners were attempting to answer each other's questions on the meaning of various sayings. One of the topics of discussion was the origin and meaning of the American phrase "Jim Crow". A listener, who had a timid manner to begin with, offered a quote from an American author which she prefaced by saying, "Now I'm quoting here, this isn't my choice of words.."
It turned out that the quote referred to racism in the USA and, inter alia, the epithet "nigger" was cited. The presenter interjected sternly, "I really wish you hadn't used that word...", further intimidating the caller. I busted out at that point with a few epithets of my own. I know that the word is as dangerous as nitroglycerine in the US. Media types there are cowed to the extent that they now use the expression "The N-word". Not without reason. For a white person who has any aspirations, to use the word "nigger" in any context is career suicide. A few years back a senior executive in a corporation there destroyed himself by unthinkingly using the expression "nigger in the woodpile" during a press conference. That's an ironic turn of events because that expression derives from the activities of the Abolitionists who ran the Underground Railway for absconding slaves. One of their tricks was to build hideouts for the slaves which would be concealed under a pile of firewood. Most people today seem to think that it means some kind of obnoxious intrusion, as with "fly in the ointment"; it actually denotes a dangerous secret, like "skeleton in the closet".
Lots of these sayings float around in the background of cultural memory and pass unnoticed until they're brought out carelessly into the unkind light of a politically correct day. The old version of "Eenie , meenie, minie, moe.." used when I was a child, contained the line "Catch a nigger by the toe!" Kids learned that by rote and didn't even know what "nigger" meant. If someone had bailed me up on that at the age of four and said "What is a nigger?", I couldn't have said whether it was animal, vegetable or mineral; real or mythical. I know what it means now. I know what goes with that word: Redlegs, Jayhawkers, Copperheads, Abolitionists, "Burning Kansas" (and Lawrence thereof), Quantrell's Raiders, Andersonville, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, Shiloh and on and on. And then Reconstruction and the Ku Klux Klan. That word "nigger" is soaked in blood and hate. It's been spat from the mouths of men who've hauled other men up into trees with rope necklaces or dragged them, first behind horses and wagons, then Model A Fords and more recently 4x4 pickup trucks. It's been the last word heard in this world by the ears of men being flogged on a tree or tied to a burning log or hearing also the blast of close-range gunfire or the whoomp of a firebomb.
When I grew older I discovered that I was a distant relative by marriage of Ulysses Grant and that members of my father's family live still in the United States, cousins whose names and numbers I can't even guess at. Some of their kin and mine are no doubt buried in those cemeteries that contain the tens of thousands of dead from those battles. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, those great slave-driving freedom fighters, bequeathed that also with their slave Constitution. And still it goes on. I read an article in the Weekend Australian's magazine a couple of months back (when Hillary was a contender and Sarah wasn't) in which a redneck customer in a gun shop was quoted saying, "I ain't votin' for no woman and I ain't votin' for no nigger." I suppose if he kept his word he must have refrained from voting. (Praise the Lord!) Nor should we forget Mr Rodney King and his eponymous riot. "Why can't we all just get along?" he asked. Good question. Perhaps when the aliens arrive they'll tell us what it's all about. Or the AntiChrist will. Or the real Christ. Or not.
In the meantime (mean time), we battle on fighting the bushfire of bigotry, flame by flame. Perhaps that's what that twit of a presenter thought he was doing when he chided the caller for saying "nigger". I wouldn't choose to use that word about anyone. In the context of addressing someone with it or calling them by it behind their back, I surely don't want to hear it on the national broadcaster. But really, mate. Complaining because someone referred to it in the context of a discussion about racial discrimination? Being that silly just puts fuel in the tank of the likes of Janet Albrechtsen.