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March 30th, 2017

Insight

You can't say that

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published June 16, 2015

  You can't say that

"When I was in college, there were certain words you couldn't say in front of a girl. Now you can say them, but you can't say 'girl.' "

--Tom Lehrer

Another editor here at the newspaper paper has passed on a complaint about one of our editorials, specifically the phrase "red man" as a synonym for American Indians -- excuse me, Native Americans. It's not clear from this email whether it was the "red" or the "man" or both that raised our reader's hackles. Either could have attracted the attention of today's Language Police these politically correct days.

Our always-on-the-alert verbal monitors may not be aware that man embraces woman, as in the title chairman -- of a House committee or an American corporation. Traditional usage tends to elude our verbal overseers. Why that should be, I gave up trying to figure out long ago.

Besides, the political dos and don'ts that govern these things may change without notice, depending on the target of the moment.

That way, the accused remains subject to the Authorities' always changing verbal whims. 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. ("Change your ways or we'll boycott your business.") Or maybe just send you an email informing you that you've offended and are In Trouble with the world's right-thinkers, or in this case left-thinkers.

But there are always those stubborn types who refuse to be intimidated. Count me among them. Because here's one old newspaperman who's going to go on using plain English as best he can. The poor old language needs all the help it can get.

There was a different and better time when writers like E.M. Forster wrote of "the aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky." Back then we admired those who rose above whatever physical or social disabilities they might have.

A president like Franklin Roosevelt might be celebrated or detested because of his politics, but not because he was paralyzed.

Some of us grew up scarcely noticing that our president was in a wheelchair or on crutches, and then the fact was only incidental. Which was how he preferred it. It would have been impolite to call attention to it.

But now identity politics has made disability almost all that counts in our politics. Or a history of being discriminated against. Or any other grievance. No wonder it can sometimes seem as if we have become a nation of grievance collectors. Why not? It pays off -- in political power.

Today, to quote Joseph Epstein in a recent issue of the Weekly Standard:

"Owing to the spread of victimhood, we have today a large aristocracy of the suffering, the put-upon and the unlucky. Blacks, gays, women, American Indians, Hispanics, the obese, Vietnam veterans, illegal immigrants, the handicapped, single parents, fast-food workers, the homeless, poets and anyone else able to establish underdog bona fides can now claim to be victims. Many years ago, I watched a show on television that invited us to consider the plight of unwed fathers. We are, it sometimes seems, a nation of victims."

Victimhood is no longer something to be overcome but celebrated. And the can-do American spirit has become the can't-do, which is not a good sign for any country.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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