Thursday, March 19, 2015

"Macho A**holes," "Wogs," and Other Terms of unEndearment

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No more words, Thersites; peace!
I will hold my peace when Achilles' brach bids me, shall I?
— Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida 2.11

            When Right-wing folk complain about "language police" and "political correctness," they're frequently complaining about what my mother would have called decency in language, and simple manners, and I think she would have been pleased to learn that we've reached a point in America where it's pretty much taboo for White folk, in public, to use the word "n*gger." Personally, I'd prefer if we went for a couple generations with "n*gger" taboo outright, maybe especially among young Black males — and I'll throw in for taboo also casual use of the word "bitch." If one wants to refer to a female dog, let's go back to the old word "brach," which can also be used for the "bottom" in an unequal male/male relationship: in Shakespeare's bitter satire, Troilus and Cressia, the on-stage satirist, Thersites, reduces the epic, love of the Greek heroes Achilles and Patroclus to just another form of lechery and dismisses Patroclus as "Achilles' brach," later repeated as "Achilles' male varlet," and, since Patroclus doesn't know this meaning of "varlet" gets made totally explicit as "his masculine whore" (5.1).
            If people want to call other people whores of the male or female variety, let's insist that they do so outright. "Ho'" seems to be dropping out of fashion, and we could at least have a moratorium on "bitch" and "bitches," and nothing would be lost. There's nothing you can say with "bitch" that you can't say with "brach," and there's no way nowadays you can just throw "brach" around as a cliché buzz-word, sounding relatively cool just filling out a sentence.
            ("Varlet" I'll give you as a freebie, although in the sense of "bitch" it never really caught on.)
            A complete taboo on "n*gger," though, comes with a price, and going over part of that price is the transition between this introduction and topic indicated in my title.
            Consider the story told by Sudhir Venkatesh, at the time, a University of Chicago graduate student doing a sociological study in one of "projects" on Chicago's South Side. Venkatesh asks the gang leader J.T., "How does it feel to be black and poor?"
 “I’m not black,” he answered, looking around at the others knowingly. “Well, then, how does it feel to be African American and poor?” I tried to sound apologetic, worried that I had offended him. “I’m not African-American either. I’m a nigger…. Niggers are the ones who live in this building. African Americans live in the suburbs. African Americans wear ties to work. Niggers can’t find no work."
I've heard, anyway — this one I couldn't track down on the web, but there are some fascinating articles of a more earnest sort — I've heard or read somewhere that some of J.T.'s contemporaries can do extended shtick on all the variations of terms for …, I put it their people and the realities these words point to. Loss of "n*gger" may, for a while, make it harder to speak and hear street-level analysis of race issues in America.
            On balance, though, a taboo on "n*gger" is a good idea: for a while, at least if we can move toward the "Utopia" that Arthur C. Clarke presents in his 1953 novel — soon to be a Major SyFy Miniseries! — Childhood's End (ch. 8). In "The Golden Age" given to us before the end of our species, we meet a character of ultimately sub-Saharan African descent and are told that "A century before," in our time, "his colour would have been a tremendous, perhaps an overwhelming, handicap." In the future-present of this novel, "it meant nothing. The inevitable reaction that had given early twenty-first-century Negroes a slight sense of superiority had already passed away." Indeed, race relations were so ideal that "The convenient word 'nigger' was no longer taboo in polite society, but was used without embarrassment by everyone. It had no more emotional content than such labels as Republican or Methodist, conservative or liberal" — although Clarke didn't live to hear "liberal" pronounced by the more immoderate sorts on Fox News.
            There are two other terms of abuse, though, related ones I'd like see come back, a return useful for naming some unpleasant and dangerous realities.
            The first is "macho asshole," which I was surprised to learn was a term and concept pretty much unknown to my students in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. For my students — at least for those who spoke up — "macho" was a positive term, and linking it with "asshole" surprised them, even allowing for any surprise from a professor's saying "asshole" in class. (I noted in my policy statements and made clear in my speech that the one absolute taboo I observe is not pronouncing the name of God [YHWH]; beyond that my rule was decorum in the technical sense — appropriateness to context — so those who attended class regularly wouldn't be shocked to hear me say "asshole," followed by my standard apology to the anus [an innocent orifice and an important one in evolution].)
            Macho assholes are arrogant bullies, and recent attempts to rein in school bullies are right-minded and long overdue but, as practiced, often a variety of kid-bashing: such small-scale macho-assholitry is presented as a problem of boys and some mean girls, distracting from bigger and more general problems across the culture.
            For eight years, George W. Bush swaggered his way across the world scene, and he and his merry band bragged that "the gloves are off" and showed their manliness with shooting friends in the face (accidentally, Mr. Cheney claimed), kidnapping people, torturing people, and invading weak countries.
            Since the backlash against the 1960s — starting in the 1960s — popular culture in the US has habitually celebrated cowboy cops and "rebels" with badges and guns, who "Serve and Protect" far less than cutting Constitutional corners, "kicking ass, / And taking out the trash."
            Some of my students, who'd grown up on video games, had problems recognizing the rather blatant point that the James Cameron and Gale Anne Hurd Terminator movies (1984, 1991), were centered on a literal deconstruction of the ultimate macho asshole: a/the Terminator.
            Pop Quiz.: What actor plays the male protagonist in The Terminator?
            Answer: It's Michael Biehn, who plays Kyle Reese, a normal human male who feels pain and is brave and helps save humanity. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the villain: The Terminator, who is the ultimate macho man, impervious to pain, a stone-cold killer, and, it turns out — for the ethical point of the movie — not a man at all but a machine.
            And, of course, the final hero in the Terminator is "the final 'girl,'" Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor.
            Villains are often more memorable than protagonists, and for a nasty set of pop quiz questions on Shakespeare's plays, a teacher can always ask for the names of the technical (male) heroes or protagonists of, say The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, and/or Richard III.
            (If you missed that one, the answers are the bland non-entity Portia romantically wants to marry in Merchant — named Bassanio; Macduff, the Thane of Fife in Macbeth; and Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond and a minor character in Richard III.)
            Still, Cameron and Hurd are explicit in their Terminator films, and it says something that my students, and a whole bunch of other people, deep down inside identified more with the obsessive killing machine than with more humane and human humans.
            And so on for Rambo, Dirty Harry, and the whole set of fictional and real-world bad boys in media from film to games to rap.
            The older macho sorts were bad enough as role models, but they at least tended to be the Terminator sort: the strong, silent type. As American popular culture juvenilized and the male ideal got younger, the understated truly dangerous man got pushed off to the side by the motor-mouth, trash-talking street punk: the loud and pugnacious macho asshole.
            Given current ideas of manliness by, especially, cops and street kids, it should come as no surprise that encounters between the two can get deadly.
            And the frequent violence becomes even more understandable if we take seriously expressions like "taking out the trash" — which brings me to "wogs."
            As the Wikipedia entry saith, "wog" is "a racially offensive slang word referring to a dark-skinned or olive-skinned person from Africa or Asia," but, as the article goes on immediately to note, there is the expression from at least the time of World War I, the "The wogs begin at Calais." This sentence is properly enunciated with a Colonel Blimp, pukka sahib, Rule-Britannia accent, with "Calais" carefully mispronounced to rime with "malice" and one's nose at a steep angle, smelling excrement. Significantly, in Australia, "wog" can (still) be used pejorative or affectionately for "Mediterranean and Middle Eastern immigrants."
            I want to stick to pejorative-abuse and put to use the obvious imprecision of "wog."
            Wogs are the "trash" of the world: all us "wretched refuse" as seen, not compassionately, but disapprovingly by macho assholes and their wimpier, less demonstrative allies. For Colonel Blimp and, with variations, his American cousins, having the wogs begin at Calais was progress, or that stereotypical, reactionary snob was in a particularly generous mood: more often the wogs began in lower-middle-class neighborhoods and could definitely include the uppity working poor, to say nothing of people who "can't find no work" and are "the undeserving poor."
            In America as in England for much of its history, the wogs can be our fellow citizens, living a couple neighborhoods away. They can be wogs in our view because that view is endemic to our family and neighborhood and/or because some powerful group or other has engaged in a "wogification" program, villainizing the other people and making them emphatically, capital "O," Other.
            When macho assholes have to deal with people they see as wogs, there is going to be trouble. When macho assholes deal with people, especially male people, who have had to practice at least some macho assholitry to survive on the streets — there will be blood.
            Arguably worse, when even generally decent people learn about the deaths of distant strangers they/we ever-so-unconsciously see as wogs, the results will be mild sympathy but little practical help.
            And so we get a big portion of the horrendous US statistics on homicide, including police deaths in both senses: death of police and death and injury by police; and so we get in December of 2014 the murder of over 100 children in Pakistan, and even concern over that not lasting two US news cycles.
            We've got the phenomena; we've got the problem; let's bring back the words. 

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