Zero Tolerance, Zero Intelligence

Over the weekend we came across one of those stories that leave us dumbstruck with outrage, and this one had nothing to do with President Donald Trump. It starts at a high school in Wisconsin where a black security is repeatedly called a “nigger” by a black student, at last warns the student “don’t call me nigger,” and ends with the security guard getting fired for violating the school district’s zero-tolerance policy regarding employees’ use of that word.
“Nigger” is indeed an awful word, and we don’t doubt that the school district was well intentioned in its efforts to banish it, but it’s permanently a part of the language and sometimes necessary to address its awfulness. We’d feel less than forthright if we were to euphemize the student’s language as “the n-word,” and we’re sure that any savvy high school security guard knows he would sacrifice all his street cred if he ddid the same. Go ahead and fire any school district employee who hurls the racial epithet against another human being, but c’mon, give a brother who’s taking a stand against it a break.
These “n-word” controversies have been occurring for decades now, and there always something sadly ridiculous about them. Back in the ’70s Mel Brooks had a hit with a western spoof called “Blazing Saddles” repeated the word dozens of times, always getting a hearty laugh from audiences that understood he was mocking the people who talked that way, but the movie is largely out of circulation and wouldn’t be made in this day and age. Most school districts ban Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” because of its constant use of the word, even though it’s one of America’s greatest works of literature and ranks with Richard Wright’s “Native Son” and Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” as the nation’s most compelling anti-racism novels. Never mind a certain masterpiece by the great Joseph Conrad that has the word right in the title.
America’s always vibrant low culture has had similar controversies. The “hip-hop” subculture that sprang out of America’s ghettos and barrios and into the suburbs made great use of the term, although they pronounced and spelled it “nigga,” with the “gangsta rap” group calling itself Niggaz With Attitude making millions off it. It was arguably an effort to appropriate the word and use it as a term of respect and endearment, just as the Indiana Hoosiers and Oklahoma Sooners and Kansas Jayhawks use those old slurs as college nicknames, but we left that to our black friends and avoided use of the word. The fad seems to have faded, as fads tend to do, but there are still some black people who understandably take offense at the word even it has an “a” rather than a “er” at the end, and that security guard is apparently one of them.
We wish him well, and apparently most of his townsfolk do as well, so there’s hope he’ll be reinstated with a proper apology soon. Here’s hoping, too, that someday there won’t be any fuss about that awful word.

— Bud Norman

Politics is Down-Sewer From the Culture

On a slow news weekend The Washington Post tends to feature stories about contemporary popular culture, and they always make us feel old and out of touch. The paper’s weekly update about Saturday Night Live’s opening sketch mentioned someone named Tekashi 6ix9ine, along with actress Lori Loughlin, whose name we learned only after she was arrested in that big deal college admissions scandal, and lawyer Michael Avanatti, who of course is best known for representing pornographic video performer Stormy Daniels, whom we’d never heard of until she broke her nondisclosure agreement with President Donald Trump.
Judging by the Post’s extensive coverage, we’re apparently the only people in America who don’t watch “Game of Thrones,” and despite our lifelong literary bent it had not previously occurred to us wonder where’s the great millennial novel. The contemporary popular culture questions on “Jeopardy!” almost always stump us, and we can’t converse much with the under-40 set about anything but politics, sports, and the weather.
Our mostly disgruntled younger friends assure us that we’re not missing out on much, and based on our occasional and brief encounters with the contemporary popular culture we tend to believe them. We looked into this Tekashi 6ix9ine fellow — apparently that last name is pronounced “six-nine,” but spelled according to modern educational standards — and we’re told by Wikipedia that “His musical career has been marked by an aggressive style of rapping, while his controversial public persona is characterized by his distinctive rainbow-colored hair, excessive tattoos, public feuds with fellow celebrities, and legal issues.” Given all the great Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee and Hank Williams and Duke Ellington and Ramones records and other great American music in our extensive collection, we saw no reason to look any further.
Although we took a sociological interest in the big college admissions scandal we didn’t bother to investigate Loughlin’s work, as she’s apparently mostly starred in sit-coms and cable channel movies we’e never heard of. For reasons solely related to our political punditry we checked out a couple of Stormy Daniels’ performances, and you can go right ahead and call us old-fashioned, but all we can say is that she’s no Hyapatia Lee. People seem to like “Game of Thrones,” which we’re told features a lot of nudity and violence, but we’re not about to pay cable bills to see that when there’s so much of it for free on the internet. As for the awaited great millennial novel, we’d advise to the youngsters to read such timeless classics as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” and “The Things That are Caesar’s.”
Although the current popular culture doesn’t provide any refuge from the current politics, we suppose we should be paying more attention. Cultural conservatives have long said that “politics is downstream from culture,” and way back in in the ’72 Pat Buchanan was rightly observing that President Richard Nixon had won the election but lost the culture to the dirty hippies, and the downward trend seems to continue. We fear to see where it might go next, but probably out to take a look through our slightly opened fingers. Something eerily parallel does seem to be going on.
The current President of the United States was previously a star of one of those wretched reality shows, and much like that 6ix9ine fellow he has an aggressive stye of rapping and a flamboyantly weird hairstyle and a weird way of spelling words, and although he doesn’t have any tattoos we’re aware of his controversial public persona is clearly characterized by feuds with fellow celebrities and legal issues. We’d also note that Trump is the main reason Stormy Daniels is now a household, with countless husbands and horny high school students nervously erasing their search engine history. Except for the soft-core porno photos of the First Lady that are just a few clicks away on the internet the Trump presidency the Trump presidency has been blessedly free of nudity, but the president does seem to relish violence, and a lot of the more high-brow critics are claiming that “Game of Thrones” is a metaphor for our times. Nobody seems to read books anymore, and that notably includes the President of the United States, so even if the great millennial novel does appear it probably won’t make much difference.
That’s just the sorry state of the political right, too, and we shudder to think about what the political left that has been cheering on the decline of American culture since at least the ’60s might wind up nominating. We’ll keep listening to Bing Crosby’s crooning and watching Frank Capra’s sappy cinematic tributes to small-town Americana, and hope for a comeback of the more dignified American style of politics it fostered.

— Bud Norman