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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

New York Daily News - News & Views Columnists - Stanley Crouch: Nader's N-word flap bares tastelessness

New York Daily News - News & Views Columnists - Stanley Crouch: Nader's N-word flap bares tastelessnessNader's N-word flap bares tastelessness

Now that Ralph Nader has decided he should speak in ways that we have unfortunately become accustomed to from rappers, we are faced with a serious cultural problem.

What those who would be politically correct in our moment have dubbed "the N-word" was used by Nader when he was publicly describing his woes during the last presidential campaign. Nader broke ranks with today's speech codes by saying, "I felt like a ... ."

Once upon a time, comedian Lenny Bruce referred to himself in the same way while appearing in an obscenity case before Judge Thurgood Marshall in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. Bruce, always a square if you ask me, thought he was being hip. But Marshall felt insulted, and ruled against him. I'm sure Bruce thought that Marshall was overcome by the pieties of "white" standards.

I doubt that. Marshall was responding to disrespect of his court, in which Bruce was assuming an unearned familiarity. But Bruce was just an overrated and narcissistic comedian who felt that he was forcing our culture forward by attempting to publicly sanitize certain words - words that he felt would be cleaned of all their ability to hurt if they were constantly repeated until no one could be made to feel bad by the forbidden syllables.

Nader is a great man who has made enormous contributions to our culture by calling the corporate world out when he has found its customers and our environment suffering from irresponsible or ruthless business policies. Let us salute him.

But that does not mean Nader should not be chastised for presenting himself as irresponsibly as a gangster rapper - someone who has learned the neat college trick of claiming their thoughtless use of an insult is actually intended to sanitize the word.

That shallow idea has not persuaded racists to stop using the so-called N-word. They have not thrown it aside in favor of another more effective term for dehumanization. Any footage from a meeting of white racists proves that.

And rap has not sanitized the word. Again, Lenny Bruce is proven wrong.

The problem is not a simple one, and it will not be addressed by speech codes that assume there is but one way to handle difficult terms. There should be freedoms of speech and there should be artistic license when one is attempting to realistically render the speech of a given group of people. But beyond that, the overall answer is the question of taste.

Rap is essentially tasteless, and that which is tasteless cannot be a measure for the appropriate use of anything.

If we are to demand anything of our public personalities, it should not be that they adhere to some poorly thought-out speech code. It should be adhering to a real sense of taste that does not set aside the sting of the street, which after all can be summoned as much by subtle implication as by thoughtless recourse.

Yes, there are places and ways in which whites can use the now forbidden "N-word." One is to quote someone else, another is to make a character more real in his speech, the last is in a discussion of insults and how they came to be.

Beyond that, one runs the risk of sinking down into the hole of tastelessness, where one can be sure neither he nor she will feel alone. Not in times like these.

Originally published on June 19, 2005

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