Hateful Words -- and Signs of Hope

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 28, 2006

I'd like to say a good word about Michael Richards. And before you jump to any conclusions, Mel Gibson, too. As long as I'm at it, why not throw in Sen. George Allen? I'm sure I've overlooked others who have recently waxed bigotedly, but these three will do. This is what I have to say: Thank you.

I say this not because I approve of what they've said but because their remarks have been so roundly condemned that I can see the responses only as signs of remarkable progress. This is particularly the case since the statements exist solely in the ether, largely disconnected from the actual harmful deeds that have often followed such words. In these cases, we have moved past ugly behavior to ugly words. We consider them deed enough.

Let's start with Gibson. In July, he was stopped by a traffic cop and ticketed for driving drunk. As if to prove the allegation, he berated the officer with a mouthful of anti-Semitic venom that, when it surfaced -- as all things do -- on the Internet, shocked much of Hollywood, not to mention the rest of the known world. This was not my reaction, since I had already written that Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ" oozed anti-Semitism. Surprised I was not.

Nonetheless, after Gibson's arrest, a funny thing happened: nothing. In a town where Jews are numerous (Los Angeles), in a business where Jews are both numerous and prominent (entertainment), and in an industry where pettiness, jealousy and score-settling thrive in the insistent sunshine, no one accused Gibson of even a single other anti-Semitic incident. He had not said anything, fired or promoted anyone, refused to do business with someone, or done anything with or to anyone based on ethnicity. In other words, his drunken outburst does not seem related to his day-to-day behavior.

The same applies to Allen. He's no liberal, but he is a long way from the stereotype of the Southern senator of old. As a younger man, he could be racially insensitive, even offensive -- Confederate flag in his home and all of that -- but particularly as the most recent election loomed, Allen scurried to get with the program. Even before he called someone "macaca," single-handedly introducing a whole new racial epithet into an American lexicon already rich with them, he had co-sponsored the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and appeared with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a hero of the civil rights movement, to express remorse for slavery. This is odd behavior indeed for a bigot.

Now we get to Richards. The appalling heat of his outburst was taped and shown over and over again on TV. Just on that score, his rant has a power the others lack. And he used the "N-word," as it is ridiculously called, an epithet without peer in American history as a prelude to violence or, in the mouths of some blacks, a hearty sign of comradeship.

In Richards's mouth, the word was clearly no variation on hello. But here, too, the words seem uncoupled from any action. If he is a racist -- and I will not argue with those who insist he is -- he is a distinctly lethargic one. As for his audience, once upon a time it might have stood up and cheered as he insulted the heckler. Instead some people walked out, others booed and Richards himself has been banned from the club.

This is the case now with all such remarks. They are like the phantom pain an amputee feels in a missing limb. They trigger an almost vestigial fear that something awful will follow, or that the remark, often uttered in anger or while drunk, is a clue to what society really feels. But what follows is not an outpouring of support. Instead there is a roar of universal condemnation -- either an expression of national abhorrence or, if you insist, a chorus of hypocrisy. Either way, the effect is the same. We will simply not put up with raw bigotry.

It is odd, I know, to see these remarks as signs of progress, but that's what they are. All of them were followed by a sharp societal rebuke and serial regurgitations of apology, sorrow, shame -- a groveling to a (self-appointed) higher authority (Rabbi Marvin Hier, Abe Foxman, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton) who can issue a Get Out of Jail card so that lives can be resumed. We have come so far that it is not the vilified group that's hurt by the insult but the person making it. Richards fights for his professional life, Gibson licks his wounds, Allen lost the election -- and a durable cliche is stood on its head: In America, injury gets added to insult.

cohenr@washpost.com


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