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Jewish World Review March 3, 2003/ 30 Adar I, 5763

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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On Planet Offended, eenie-meenie-ain't-no -mo | When it comes to sensitivity, America has no rival. Today our surrender of reason to emotion seems nearly complete.

For evidence look no further than the March 4 trial in which two black women are suing Southwest Airlines for discrimination after a flight attendant uttered the following: "Eenie, meenie, minie, mo; pick a seat, we gotta go."

If you've been taking your vitamins and eating plenty of brain food, you may be experiencing the first hint of a primal scream just now. You also probably understand without excessive mental strain what the attendant meant:

"We're taking off. If you don't have a seat, pick one." Pretty please with sugar on top. But the two women, Louise Sawyer, 46, and Grace Fuller, 48, heard it another way.

"It was like I was too dumb to find a seat," said Fuller. When the other passengers tittered, Fuller says she felt "alienated." As a quick aside, who doesn't feel alienated when packed into a large flying missile potentially aimed for tall buildings?

Meanwhile, isn't it possible the other passengers thought the attendant, then-22-year-old Jennifer Cundiff, was cute? That her attempt at humorous cajoling and gentle prodding met qualifications for appreciative tittering?

But no, Sawyer and Fuller are certain that the rhyme was directed at them specifically because they are black. Could they also possibly be dangerously self-absorbed? Just a thought.

The basis of the complaint is that the Eenie-Meenie rhyme used to include a racist slur, and indeed it did. I'm old enough to remember when people used the n-word. I also remember my parents telling me that nice people didn't use that word and that if I did, I'd be beaten to within an inch of my life.

Of course, today my parents would be locked up for offending my tender sensibilities, and I'd be in foster care. As it turned out, I remembered always to say, "Catch a tiger by the toe."

Cundiff, on the other hand, is young enough to be my daughter and says she never heard the racist version. She says she learned the rhyme from fellow Southwest employees who use it to motivate passengers to sit down and buckle up.

One would have thought that such an obviously frivolous lawsuit would be dismissed or never filed. The women's claims of physical and emotional distress in fact were thrown out. But U.S. District Judge Kathryn Vratil determined that, because of its history, the rhyme "could reasonably be viewed as objectively racist and offensive."

No it couldn't, but the trial will make good copy, so I shouldn't complain. When your livelihood depends on the consistent stupidity of human beings, one can only bask in today's unparalleled bounty.

Still, our culture of extreme sensitivity -- and the environment of intolerance it creates -- portends a scary future when all aspects of our lives, from thought to speech, are regulated and micromanaged by allegedly well-meaning bureaucrats with legal powers to prosecute or otherwise ruin.

A recent example of the latter can be found at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where Martha Lamb, a guest lecturer in social work, lost her job by citing an old racist expression that offended some students.

The example was indeed offensive and proffered in the spirit of demonstrating how things have changed since Lamb was a student in North Carolina in the '60s. People used to joke, she said, that the NAACP really stood for "Niggers Ain't Acting Like Colored People."

Fast forward, Lamb is no more. After some students walked out and the rest eventually dropped the course, the diagnosis was that Lamb's historical anecdote so offended students that they couldn't learn anything. University officials have said that Lamb violated the school's policy requiring teachers to provide a "comfortable" environment for students. Lamb resigned in early February.

Clearly racial slurs are unacceptable, but is history also off limits? And by what logic should education ensure that students always be comfortable? Understanding and enlightenment, purportedly the goals of education, do not come pain-free, I've noticed.

But what matter? Present-day sensitivity trumps discomfort-causing reality. For her lack of sensitivity, Lamb now faces a future tarnished by insinuations of racism.

Meanwhile, Judge Vratil and the two offended women -- forevermore imprinted in broader minds as the Eenie-Meenie Sisters -- are taking the American judicial system down another notch, away from reason toward a future defined by bureaucracy, the ultimate expression of which, we might note, is oppression and tyranny.

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