Be Careful: That Phrase Is Loaded

Here we go again, having to hear political candidates and television commentators exploit some of the most brutal and disgraceful chapters in history to score points.

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

The phenomenon is familiar. It is also of consequence nationwide. But it is arguably felt more keenly in New York, which is America’s communications capital and is thus blessed with more on-air gasbags per square foot than Starbucks has shops.

The spark for this latest bout of history abuse was word that Herman Cain, the businessman and motivational speaker who seeks the Republican presidential nomination, was once accused of sexual harassment, a charge that Mr. Cain denies. Circling the wagons, conservative commentators like Anne Coulter and L. Brent Bozell III lost no time denouncing the report as amounting to a “high-tech lynching.”

That loaded phrase, of course, echoed Clarence Thomas’s plaint 20 years ago when sexual harassment charges arose while the Senate considered his appointment to the Supreme Court.

Mr. Cain, who like Justice Thomas is black, has in the recent past similarly donned the cloak of racial victimhood. “They’re going to come after me more viciously than they would a white candidate,” he told The Washington Examiner in May. Invoking Justice Thomas, he continued, “I’m ready for the same high-tech lynching that he went through — for the good of the country.”

This casual use of a word like “lynching” appalls people who feel that it trivializes one of the great stains on the collective American conscience: decades of vigilante murders of blacks by white mobs. I talked about this a few years ago with Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor who had earlier stirred a controversy of his own with his book “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.”

“People who were really lynched didn’t live to tell the story,” Professor Kennedy said with exquisite understatement.

But this is not the only horror from the past cheapened by political exploiters. The Holocaust, the slaughter of American Indians, slavery, Jim Crow — all have been gratuitously invoked, by both the political right and the left.

Mr. Cain has characterized the Democratic Party as a “plantation” for black voters. Rush Limbaugh said the same thing in July 2010, calling Democrats “white plantation owners.” In September, the conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan said on MSNBC that African-Americans had been harmed by “liberal propaganda on the liberal plantation.”

When the Democrats firmly controlled Congress, some in the Republican minority likened their situation to working on a plantation. Five years ago, Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democrat and then a New York senator, turned the tables. Capitol Hill with the Republicans in charge, she told an audience in Harlem, was like — you got it — a plantation.

Never mind that life in the legislative minority is, you know, not quite the same as the lot of a slave in the antebellum South.

After Mr. Buchanan’s remarks a few weeks ago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson chimed in, telling Politico.com that he found the plantation analogy an insulting and “not-so-subtle symbol.” But Mr. Jackson has resorted to facile slavery imagery himself. Observing the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he said that it “looks like the hull of a slave ship.”

Representative Charles B. Rangel of Harlem could not resist a glib Jim Crow metaphor of his own at that time. He called President George W. Bush “our Bull Connor,” a reference to a notorious police chief in Birmingham, Ala., who decades ago turned attack dogs on blacks demonstrating for equal rights.

There isn’t enough space available here to chronicle the frequent abuse of words like “Holocaust” and “Nazi” to describe modern controversies or even relatively petty annoyances — whether it’s Glenn Beck comparing President Obama’s policies on stem-cell research to “the final solution” or Ted Turner likening Rupert Murdoch to “the late Fuhrer.”

At least in the sexual harassment kerfuffle, Mr. Cain has exercised a measure of self-restraint. He said nothing publicly this time about lynchings or plantations. Instead, he described himself as the victim of “a witch hunt.”

If Wiccans took offense, we’re unaware of it.


For more local news, including dissent between Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former Mayor Edward I. Koch about New York’s fiscal problems, lingering damage from Saturday’s storm, the arrest of two food vendors outside the Metropolitan Museum, and the conviction of a Brooklyn police officer for planting drugs on innocent people, see the N.Y./Region section.

Here is what City Room is reading in other newspapers and blogs.

Half of New Yorkers do not consider themselves supporters of Occupy Wall Street, according to a recent poll. [Capital Tonight]

Macy’s announced plans to open the world’s largest women’s shoe department in its $400 million redesign. [DNA Info]

In the city’s schools, suspensions have been on the rise, while serious crimes have decreased in the past year. [SchoolBook]

Some of those suspensions have been of kindergartners, a fact troubling child advocates, who claim other consequences would be more effective for children so young. [New York Post]

Local law firms saw a slight increase in jobs from 2010, after declines the previous two years. [Crain’s New York]

An Adam Lambert fan says he has been inundated with antigay phone calls since he covered Chelsea in posters seeking a magazine with the gay pop idol on the cover. [DNA Info]

New York’s redistricting could help Asian-Americans gain fairer representation, advocates say. [Daily News]

The developer of the World Trade Center Tower has secured the rest of the funds needed to complete its construction. [Metropolis/Wall Street Journal]

A Bronx man is likely to testify against police officers he accuses of trying to cover up an assault against him, The Daily News reported. [Daily News]

The future looks grim for an East Village elder-care center, just two months after another nearby center closed. [East Village/The Local]

The Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer, wants to halt Columbia University’s planned expenditure of $150 million in West Harlem. [DNA Info]

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