Reader objected to D-G using term "red man," and Paul Greenberg is feeling aggrieved | Arkansas Blog

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Reader objected to D-G using term "red man," and Paul Greenberg is feeling aggrieved

Posted By on Tue, Jun 16, 2015 at 3:57 PM

Someone pointed out to me a Paul Greenberg column from this Sunday that I had missed, in which the D-G's editorial page editor expresses dismay that someone objected to an editorial that used the term "red man" to refer to Native Americans. 

The column grumbles (and grumbles, and grumbles) that the big, bad forces of political correctness are ruining things for those wizards of verbal creativity who really, really want to be able to use derogatory racial slurs without anyone getting in a tizzy. Just think of all the word play that will be lost! My stars! 

It is a small irony of this genre of column, which really amounts to its own cranky cottage industry, that writers ostensibly bemoaning an assault on language almost always descend into clichés. Is there a turn of phrase more stale than "Language Police?" Than "politically correct"?

Here's the thing: I think that writers should be free to use the language as they see fit. And I certainly don't think that common usage makes someone sexist. But as someone who writes publicly a lot, let me suggest that the columnists whining that they are being unjustly bullied and intimidated (Language Police Brutality?) are, uh, overstating the case. Here's Greenberg: 

As in the old Soviet Union, where dissenters, composers, and other politically unreliable types could never be sure they were following the party line. Since no one knew just what it was at any given time. So a Shostakovich or Babel could be hauled before a people’s court on any grounds or none at all. The object of the game was not to enforce any clear rule but to make all suspect. And fearful.

Anyone who prefers plain English just doesn’t understand the game. Dare stand up against the Language Police and you’re subject to being labeled a racist or sexist—and being bullied into submission. 

I can think of a few differences between this situation and totalitarian regimes, but let's ask ourselves, is Greenberg really being bullied into submission? It seems to me that he's … the editorial page editor of the statewide daily newspaper! The inspiration for this column was an email from a reader! When will the bullying and intimidation end? 

Greenberg's column meanders toward a lament that we're a "nation of victims" and a "nation of grievance collectors." It never, apparently, occurs to him that his own column is an exercise in grievance. The poor, pitiful victim: the writer who cannot handle the notion that readers might be offended by a tasteless joke flippantly using the term "red man." No one is censoring Greenberg, of course; but someone is criticizing him! It's just too much. 

The one thing Greenberg never bothers to do is address the original editorial. Here it is, in its entirety: 

In more Pulaski County news, its county judge—Barry Hyde—has written the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs opposing the Quapaw tribe’s proposal to put 160 acres of its land in the county into trust. The tribe claims to have no plans—at present—to build a casino on that tract of land. But in case it’s now the red man who speaks with forked tongue, its proposal for a land trust should be denied. The state already has enough ways for Arkansas’ most desperate and gullible to gamble away the rent money, including the notorious Arkansas Lottery.

When it comes to gambling in Arkansas, enough is more than enough, thank you.

Get it? Instead of "white man speaks with forked tongue," the supposed expression of indigenous peoples in America facing near genocide from European settlers and their decedents, it's now the red man who speaks with forked tongue. In his column, Greenberg writes, "here’s one old newspaperman who’s going to go on using plain English as best he can." I'd say this is less a matter of plain English and more a matter of poor taste. 

Would Greenberg, if he met a member of the Quapaw tribe, say, "Hey, red man!"? I bet he wouldn't, despite his "refus[al] to be intimidated." When terms become widely viewed as derogatory, most polite people have no trouble carrying on without them. I suspect that's why the column never gets around to defending the actual usage that offended (Greenberg half-pretends that maybe the reader was offended by the "man" part, artfully dodging any defense of the term "red man").

Does that leave plenty of room for provocation and satire and humor and blunt talk (not to mention honest misunderstandings)? Of course! But if a newspaper man or two decides that it's perhaps not worth using "red man" in service of a half-baked joke, I think the language will survive.

And some newspapermen, I suppose Greenberg among them, may choose to keep on shouting "red man" until they're red in the face. Delusions of martyrdom aside, that won't get them sent to the gulag, or censored, or bullied. It's just possible that some readers might decide that they're jerks. 

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