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Jewish World Review /Feb. 1, 1999 / 15 Shevat, 5759

Tony Snow

Tony Snow Verbal vortex

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) DAVID HOWARD COMMITTED A POTENTIALLY FATAL CAREER MISTAKE on Jan. 15, Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. The then-head of the Washington, D.C., Office of Public Advocate, while talking to colleagues about budgetary matters, used the word "niggardly."

Now, we all say stupid things. No doubt Howard, who is white, felt like a dope at that instant because he used a term that was a near homonym with the "N"-word. But nothing happened right away, and one imagines Howard heaving an inward sigh of relief.

If so, he underestimated the power of demagoguery. Before long, a whispering campaign began. Within 10 days or so, the tale of his bum mot became public lore -- and like most urban legends, it took on all sorts of, um, colorations. One version had Howard grousing that he was "tired of all these (N-words) calling me with their problems." He hotly denies the allegation.

Before long, a retinue of hot dogs and race-baiters took to the street corners, demanding swift justice. On Jan. 27, they won. Howard apologized for his language and then resigned.

Note several things: The word "niggardly" has no etymological relationship to the "N"-word. Howard used it appropriately.

More importantly, nobody ever accused Howard of racism. He's a restaurateur who gave up his career to promote the candidacy of the District's new mayor, Anthony Williams. Nobody ever accused him of lacking commitment. Some mayoral aides describe him as "the glue" of Williams' election campaign. Nobody ever accused him of bilking the public. He worked long hours and took a pay cut to work for the city. Nobody ever accused him of insensitivity. He has lived in the city for 16 years. Nobody who endured through the Marion Barry era can be bereft of hair-trigger racial sensitivities.

Nevertheless, Howard is gone and, worse, the mayor lauded his decision, citing the need for people to exercise appropriate discretion when talking. If this episode doesn't capture the sublime weirdness of our age, nothing does. David Howard got fired because some people in public employ were morons who a) didn't know the meaning of "niggardly," b) didn't know how to use a dictionary to discover the word's meaning and c) actually demanded that he apologize for their ignorance.

It seems odd that in contemporary America we punish verbal lapses ruthlessly, while celebrating true crimes. On the same day Washington hotheads were defenestrating Howard, a group of millionaire rock stars -- members of Rage Against the Machine, Beastie Boys and Bad Religion -- were preparing to put on a concert to raise money for Mumia Abu-Jamal, who resides on Pennsylvania's death row for the 1981 murder of Philadelphia policeman Daniel Faulkner.

(The Musicians of Conscience evidently didn't think to set aside a few pennies for Officer Faulkner's family.)

While many people raised hell about the concert, nobody in public life defended Howard. This gets us to the sticky issue of race relations. There exists in our society teams of people who make great sums of money teaching whites and blacks how to feel maximum suspicion for one another. We call one group Klansmen. We call the other "diversity trainers." Both instruct people in the arts of hypersensitivity, especially on matters of language.

Some consider such lessons an essential element of modern etiquette. But as the late Emily Post knew, the purpose of manners is to civilize public life and make it easier for people to conduct their daily affairs in an atmosphere of pleasantness and mutual respect. The Bowdlerization crusade aims at the opposite result. It pits each against all, and it puts provocateurs in charge of setting the ground rules.

As a society, we have watched this development in near-silence, giving an impression of approval. As a result, race-baiters operate without fear of resistance or reprisal.

Our language makes us all susceptible to being suckered by the votaries of division and derision. The English tongue features more words and nuances than any other. Bigots regularly appropriate everyday words for vile uses. But do their abuses mean that nobody can use such locutions as "chink in the armor," "a nip in the air," "spic 'n' span" or "cheese and crackers?"

Racism lives. It festers when good people refuse to take on hatred's apostles. David Howard got sucked into the vortex of politically acceptable suspicion. His linguistic lynching can only make life more perilous for men and women who already hesitate to speak freely, for fear that someone will attribute evil motives to innocent words and deeds.


01/28/99: To be a ‘sell-out’ or an unelectable pol --- that is the question
01/25/99: The apogee of a trend
01/21/99:What my 3-year-old taught me
01/17/99:Don't be fooled, folks
01/14/99: Must a pol be ‘baaaad’ in order to get elected?
01/12/99: Jumpin’ Jack (Kemp)
01/08/99 : Hot air in the Windy City

©1999, Creators Syndicate