On Tuesday night I had this dream in which I was debating politics with a conservative journalist who kept referring to President Obama as “the black president.” I got really irritated with this, and kept trying to patiently explain to him that while it was acceptable to describe Obama as “the first black president” (although he actually identifies as biracial) it was not acceptable to refer to him as The Black President, as if that was his title. Because this implied that Obama is not the American president, but some shadow leader who doesn’t serve the entire country.
In the dream I was totally articulate (you know how you are in dreams?), and yet this reporter would just not listen to me. So I picked up a fork from the table at which we were sitting and threw it so hard that I impaled it in the reporter’s thigh.
Then, when he still refused to accept my argument, I did it again.
I’m not particularly proud of the fact that my most satisfying dreams are about making flawless rhetorical arguments and stabbing right-wingers with dinnerware. Hanna says if these are the kind of dreams I’m having, I might have to go sleep on the couch. But in my defense, walking home from class on Tuesday night, just before bed, I was listening to this Fresh Air story on the CPAC conference and the new face of American conservatism.
Now there’s a lot that I find upsetting in this report, not least of which the fact that the center of gravity in right-wing politics seems to have shifted to the libertarian right of George W. Bush. And they’re talking crazy-talk.
dream fantasy about the dinner fork was, I think, inspired by this bit about Sarah Palin.
GROSS: So I should mention Sarah Palin. Where is she now on the conservative movement? Where does she fit? How much influence does she have? Or maybe influence isn’t even the right word. How much faith do people have in her, like?
Mr. WEIGEL: Well, tea party activists and conservatives have a lot of faith in her for different reasons. Tea party activists respect her because they think she’s one of them, and conservatives like the way she’s attacked by the media.
They – Palin spent a lot of time, recently, attacking media figures who use what she calls the R-word to describe the developmentally disabled. You know, that’s not a political quest that makes sense, but activists who are very oppositional and think that there’s a big infrastructure out to get them, really respect her for that. So she’s not as much a leader as somebody they identify with.
So let me be clear here. Using the word “retarded” to talk about developmentally disabled folks, or as a slang word for “stupid” (“that’s retarded”) is an issue. One that activists whose blogs I read have been raising for quite some time, and one I also believe Palin is within her rights to talk about.
The thing is, I would take her much more seriously if she (and the conservatives who identify with her) too me and my people seriously when we raise issues about how language has real-world consequences. Like when we talk about God language, or the use of casual use of words like “rape” and “gay,” calling grown women “girls,” or parents “breeders.” Feminists and other activists on the left have been talking for decades about how language matters. And we’ve been consistently derided as being too fucking serious for our own good. We’ve been accused of being “the language police” and laughed out of town for being “politically correct” (which has mysteriously turned from an inclusive goal to strive toward into something legalistic to be avoided at all costs).
So it’s really, really hard for me to take Palin & co. seriously when they suddenly decide they’re all about defending certain folks against marginalization through language. Not because I don’t agree with them (on this particular point, if nothing else), but because it never mattered to them until now, and I have yet to see them take that personal revelation about the importance of language and realize how others might have the same experience over different words. A little bit of empathy will get you a long way, people. Go away and exercise those muscles, and then come back and talk to me.