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1. “Look at Me, I’m Not PC, Proud of My indignity!”
The “hate affair” between me and Gustavo Arellano is mostly one-sided; I think that examining the proportion of gratuitous insults in our comments to and about each other should make that clear. So, as I do not hate Gustavo, let me make one thing clear off the top: I do not want to get him removed from his gig teaching as an adjunct professor at Cal State Fullerton. I’m not being coy here; I would loudly object to any effort to remove him from that position simply because he can at times be an offensive dunce.
Gustavo is knowledgeable (even if less so than he thinks); he’s a good speaker; his celebrity makes him a treat for students; and I expect that he is not so thunder-strikingly stupid as to say in the classroom what he said yesterday in the pages of the OC Weekly: that he thinks that the use of the term “illegal immigrants” (at least by a privileged few, such as him) is a good thing.
I do think that he needs a good kick in the ass for being anti-intellectual. And he is certainly that. He’ll dismiss this as “bloviation,” which means “speech or writing that is wordy, pompous, and generally empty of meaning.” I’ll admit to “wordy”; I’ll merely hope that it’s not pompous; but I think that he only wishes that the criticisms of him and his pals were “empty of meaning.” That’s what he wants others to think; anyone who wants to come forth and agree is welcome to do so — but be prepared to defend your assertion.
Now, I need to post a warning right here up front: in discussing his post of yesterday, I’m going to have to use a word that I really don’t like to use, that I never use outside of quotes and only then when it seems to be necessary. You know it euphemistically as the “N-Word”; I need to use it because that words provide the context in which Arellano’s blithe and self-comforting assurances about the use of the similarly offensive (he might celebrate it as “non-PC”) although less intense term “illegals” have been most tested and studied.
Gustavo has a theory, which is good. (I suspect that he may not even believe it himself, which is not.) In any event, it’s a coherent justification of why it’s OK to use that term, and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. That he does not know the history of attempts to co-opt the “N-word” is sad; that he doesn’t care to know is worse.
2. The Scientific Theory Supporting Cool People Like Arellano’s Use of the Term ‘Illegals’
Flippant, but not edgy. Theorized, but deluded. Gustavo Arellano explains why he likes — and plans to go on using — the terms “illegals” and “illegal immigrants” in his self-described “infernal rag’s” pages. It turns out that he has a theory.
Yep: we do things differently around here. And that’s why I’ve always declined the requests of activists to drop the “i-word”–illegal immigrant and all its derivatives–from our pages, a movement popular nowadays in mainstream journalism, from the Associated Press to the Los Angeles Times. But our case isn’t a rash, “edgy” decision–not even close.
There are many reasons why we’re opposed to dropping “illegal immigrant” from our infernal. The most truthful, if flippant, response I can offer is that we have a deep problem with banning any words from our pages, no matter how reprehensible–our business is words, to use according to need. And we’ve used many terms to describe people without papers: we’ve called illegal immigrants illegal immigrants, DREAMers, undocumented folks, unauthorized immigrants, illegals, and even jes plain ol’ immigrants.
Which leads to our main reason for using “illegal immigrant”–because we should. We operate in Orange County, California–Hate City, USA, where we’ve been fighting Know Nothings longer and harder than any publication in the country not named Intelligence Report (the quarterly magazine of the Southern Poverty Law Center). We’ve chronicled the rise and fall of all the hilarious haters who taught America how to use the issue of illegal immigration for political gain, from Harold Ezell to Barbara Coe, Harald Martin to the Minuteman Project, former Newport Beach councilmember Dick Nichols (who said there were too many Mexicans going to the grassy areas of Corona del Mar State Beach) to Dana Rohrabacher and far too many other losers to list right now.
And if there’s one lesson that we’ve learned in our nearly 18 years of reporting on these pendejos, it’s that they don’t like when we take their language and flip it on its head–the sociological concept of reappropriation. By using their terms without shame, by twisting the life out of them, we render them useless in their ability to harm during one-on-one incidents; do it enough, and I believe you effect change on a national scale. Intelligent minds can disagree on this point, so all I can offer is our experience, the sense of deflation the other side feels when we use their noxious language, turn it against them, and laugh at their stupidity for using it in the first place. I remember an appearance I once did on KPCC-FM 89.9–I can’t remember right now if it was with Larry Mantle or Patt Morrison–but I remember going toe-to-toe with Coe using her argot against her and infuriating her so much that the host essentially had to give them a time-out. And this has happened more than once during other radio appearances.
OK, that’s a theory. To be fair to him — and I know that my doing this may come off as pompous and I’m soooorrrryy!!! — the proper thing to do is to take apart his assertions and consider them separately, a tool of inquiry sometimes known as “the analytic knife.” He’s trying to explain why his decision has legitimate merit rather than just being a way to be a non-PC “bad boy,” tweak the civil rights community, and attract attention, get a rise out of people, and stir controversy. Let’s see how well he applies the veneer of legitimacy.
(1) “He hesitates to ban any words from his paper.” Really? Perhaps he can point us to use of similar words for Jews and Arabs, Blacks and Asians, women and GLBTs, in the Weekly. He may find some — especially the latter pair — but will he find them all? If so, will he defend along similar lines?
(2) “We should” use the term “illegal immigrants” because — and I’m going to dress up his response more clearly than he did in this paraphrase — “it reflects the OC environment in which the Weekly operates.” I don’t see (and he doesn’t explain, in the process of patting his publication on the back), why the casual use of the term is justified because other people use it pejoratively — it’s not like using another term leads to readers not understanding that this is the group that racists call “illegal immigrants” — and if it needs to be explained, it can be.
It’s one thing to write “Dana Rohrabacher calls this group ‘illegal immigrants'” and it’s another to write “illegal immigrants don’t like it when Dana Rohrabacher calls them by that name.” The difference should be pretty bleeding obvious: it’s evident in the use of internal quotes. In the first example, the term is identified as coming verbatim out of Rohrabacher’s mouth and no endorsement by the author is implied. In the second, the term is coming out of the author’s pen and its endorsement by the author is explicit.
Those are just the preliminaries; now we get into the actual argument.
(3) “Pendejos … don’t like when we take their language and flip it on its head.” Really? How much did Rush Limbaugh dislike it when, earlier this week, he claimed that he was justified in using the word “niggaz” to refer to African-Americans because many rappers and youth have used the term? How much did his fans not like it. They all seemed pretty damned happy to kick dirt in the collective face of an already deeply wounded African-American community, from what I could tell.
Beyond that, Arellano presumes that he has “flipped it on its head.” Read this sentence of his again:
“we’ve called illegal immigrants illegal immigrants, DREAMers, undocumented folks….”
Any of that seemed “flipped on its head” to you? Or is it just casual baiting of those who’d object?
(4) “By using their terms without shame, by twisting the life out of them, we render them useless in their ability to harm during one-on-one incidents.” First of all, note the arrogance of Gustavo’s declaring that no DREAMer called an “illegal” in a “one-on-one incident” can be harmed by the term once it’s been “reappropriated.” Perhaps it’s true that no editor and syndicated feature writer who is here legally and who pulls down a healthy paycheck for an anti-PC persona that delights gabachos can be harmed by it — he’s in a position to judge that — but he’s in no position to say that “reappropriation” of a term like that loses its power to harm.
Beyond that, by whose standard has he judged that his use of “illegals” has “twisted the life out of” it? He seems convinced that he’s doing a great job, but he also seems pretty easily convinced of that. I don’t think that he’s “twisted the life out of” terms like “illegals” or “illegal immigrants” at all. Thinking otherwise seems to reflect a class privilege.
(5) “Do it enough, and I believe you effect change on a national scale”: he may believe it, but there’s no basis for that belief. It’s a convenient stance for him to take, but it’s wishful thinking. Show me how often it’s worked. We’ll get to this when we look at “reappropriation” of the term — brace yourselves — “nigger” below. (Note that it’s in quotes. There’s a reason for that: it’s a quote.
(6) “All I can offer is our experience, the sense of deflation the other side feels when we use their noxious language, turn it against them, and laugh at their stupidity for using it in the first place.” I don’t buy it — do you? You may be able to do it when you say something like “people whom Barbara Coe calls, quote, illegal immigrants, unquote,” but even that’s unlikely. Arellano may think that he’s “turned it against them” — but again, he seems awfully easy to convince. I doubt that many listeners to the same unless he’s in effect putting the word in quotes and them blasting them for its noxiousness. But then it’s not the use of the term itself that’s doing the work — rather, it’s the accompanying criticism. In the Weekly, the term is used without what critics call “problematizing” it. (Because they’re saucy!) So if Arellano is laughing at Coe’s stupidity, I’ll bet that Coe and her fans are laughing right back at his.
(7) “I remember going toe-to-toe with Coe using her argot against her and infuriating her so much that the host essentially had to give them a time-out.” I hope that someone can find the tape for us to dissect. I will bet that if Arellano actually flustered by “using her argot,” it was because he followed it up with an attack on that argot. You don’t use to use that argot outside of quotes to attack it.
3. The History of Reappropriating the N-Word as a Guide to the Expected Success with “Illegals”
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory tried to “reappropriate” the N-word in the title of his 1964 book, “Nigger: An Autobiography.” He explained his purpose a hell of a lot better that Arelleno did his:
You didn’t die a slave for nothing, Momma. You brought us up. You and all those Negro mothers who gave us the strength to go on, to take that thimble to the well while the whites were taking buckets. Those of us who weren’t destroyed got stronger, got calluses on our souls. And now we’re getting ready to change a system, a system where a white man can destroy a Negro with a single word. Nigger. When we’re through, Momma, there won’t be any niggers anymore.
At the end of his introduction, which I didn’t find available in Google Books Preview, as I recall he reassured his Momma that, from there on out, she should understand that anytime anyone used the word “nigger” in the future, they would just be advertising his book.
I don’t think that you can do “reappropriation” any better than that. This was a very popular and influential book, too. It’s nearing its 50th anniversary. Well — did it work?
I think that you, Dear Reader, know the answer to that.
African-American Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy gave a speech that I attended at Columbia Law School in (I think it was) the spring of 2002. He spoke about the book that he was working on, which came out in January 2003: the only other one in Amazon that uses “Nigger” alone in in its main title: “Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.“ You can get a sense of it from its introduction.
How should nigger be defined? Is it a part of the American cultural inheritance that warrants preservation? Why does nigger generate such powerful reactions? Is it a more hurtful racial epithet than insults such as kike, wop, wetback, mick, chink, and gook? Am I wrongfully offending the sensitibilities of readers right now by spelling out nigger instead of using a euphemism such as N-word? Should blacks be able to use nigger in ways forbidden to others? Should the law view nigger as a provocation that reduces the culpability of a person who responds to it violently? Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be ousted from his or her job for saying “nigger”? What methods are useful for depriving nigger of destructiveness? In the pages that follow, I will pursue these and related questions. … I have invested energy in this endeavor because nigger is a key word in the lexicon of race relations and thus an important term in American politics. To be ignorant of its meanings and effects is to make oneself vulnerable to all manner of perils, including the loss of a job, a reputation, a friend, even one’s life.
That, if you’ve been wondering, is what a serious academic, scientific, and ethical study of the use of a pejorative term looks like. Arellano’s assertion that “oh, this cheeky thing I like to do in radio interviews makes things better because I am so smooth” is pale, callow, and juvenile by comparison. This is a pretty intellectually heavyweight county; he shouldn’t get away with it here.
An academic argument can be made that there are legitimate reasons to use the word “nigger”: in the discussion of major works by white authors Mark Twain (Huckleberry Finn) and Joseph Conrad (The Nigger of the Narcissus), in discussion of lyrics by white artists John Lennon (“Woman is the Nigger of the World”) and Elvis Costello (“Oliver’s Army”), but especially in the works by cultural figures subject to the category itself, such as Gregory, Gil Scott-Heron (The Nigger Factory), and Ishmael Reed (Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media: The Return of the Nigger Breakers) and actual academic studies related to the questions that arise, some of which address just this sort of controversy. But a blithe reassurance that a similarly demeaning term like “illegal” actually helps things — because it’s convenient to think so — is a mark of deliberately cultivated ignorance.
Arellano says that a national Latino civil rights leader, Alex Nogales of the National Hispanic Media Coalition, gave him a pass once he promised to explain his reasoning for using “illegals” non-ironically as a matter of house style. I imagine that that ultimate offer by Nogales, who called Arellano to convey reader complaints, may have been preceded by a long pause, a slow exhale of air, and a resigned shrug — if I get his phone number I’d be glad to call him and ask! — but it was probably also a reflection of the perception that it was not such a big deal because, after all, Arellano is “just a clown.”
Well, he’s a clown who edits an alt-weekly in the 19th largest metropolitan area in the nation — just between San Diego and Portland, Oregon — so when he starts yammering about how his use of a disdainful and injurious term for a group of people of which he is not a member is just a way of softening the term, he should be held to the standard appropriate of someone in a position where he should know what he is doing. And, apparently, he doesn’t. Nowhere near it.
And he expects not to be called on it. He’s wrong there as well.
Note to prospective commenters: Use the terms discussed above in a reasonable and non-gratuitous manner and your comment stays up. Don’t do so and they may not. Arellano himself has free reign here to write what he wants below, if anything, without any censorship.