What is it about epithets that ticks people off? When a Planet correspondent called a city employee a “duplicitous insect” in these pages, we received a couple of tsk-tsk letters from other readers, including at least one who has been known to have even more colorful words in her spoken vocabulary. Now Fremont’s admittedly colorful Congressman Pete Stark, a hearty 72-year-old, has created an uproar in a congressional committee by calling a Republican colleague “a little fruitcake.” Mind you, this was after said colleague had told Stark to “shut up,” a phrase which was considered very rude when we were growing up. An acquaintance who comes from Congressman Innis’ district in Colorado reports that he has always been, shall we say, an eccentric fellow himself. Stark’s “fruitcake” allusion is probably derived from the expression “nutty as a fruitcake,” and could be therefore taken to be merely descriptive, except perhaps the “little” part, since Innis is twice the size of Stark.
It appears that creative language is what seems unfair to some listeners. If the city employee in question had been characterized as “not exactly candid,” presumably no one would have objected. If Pete Stark had told his fellow congressman that he was crazy if he expected Stark to shut up, possibly the police wouldn’t have been called. Or at least that’s what the Republicans on the committee have been saying. They claim they were genuinely afraid that Stark might be running amok.
Just to prevent this kind of confrontation, children used to be told that “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Recent discussions of outlawing “hate speech” have brought forward examples of speech which might do as much damage as actual blows, but that’s a tricky call. The old van which is used by the Berkeley Oakland Support Services Urban Gardens project was towed not too long ago, on the anonymous complaint of someone who reported it as an abandoned vehicle. When BOSS employees tried to find out how something like this could happen, they were told that the city couldn’t release the police report because it was a “hate crime.” Why a hate crime? Because a vandal had scrawled the words “whitey will pay” on the side of the van several days before it was towed. A police spokesperson said that the mere presence of those words made the matter a hate crime. Some might say they are simply a statement of fact, or perhaps even an offer of reparations. In any event, they’re no excuse for keeping BOSS personnel from finding out what happened to their truck.
There’s a proposal making the rounds to add new rules to the city of Berkeley Commissioners’ Handbook specifying how the commissioners may or may not talk to one another. Even more restrictive rules are proposed
to control how citizens address commissioners. Presumably the police will not be called to enforce these rules, but the way things are going in this country, you can’t be too sure.
All of the other Democrats on Stark’s congressional committee were out of the room at the time of the fracas, caucusing in an anteroom to decide what to do about a particularly high-handed Republican power play. They contend that the Republicans actually called the Capitol police to break up their caucus, and the fruitcake story was just a cover-up. If that’s true, it’s more serious. Nancy Pelosi made a statement deploring the use of police power to intervene in the processes of the U.S. congress, and she has a point.
It’s just one more step in the direction of turning the whole country into Texas. Molly Ivins has kept us posted on the shenanigans of the Texas Legislature over the years, but we thought it couldn’t happen anywhere else. Creeping Texafication now seems to be a real threat in Washington.
Becky O’Malley is executive editor of the Planet.