Public Comment

War and Race

By Marvin Chachere
Thursday May 22, 2008 - 10:14:00 AM

The older I get the angrier I become when word merchants—politicians, newscasters, advertisers, pundits of all sorts—twist words to hide reality and manipulate perceptions. Two words in particular, like grains of sand in my shoe, hurt ever more acutely these days. They are “war” and “race.”  

“Race” has been an irritant for scores of years, whereas “war” acquired its current harmful effects after May 1, 2003, the day President Bush declared the military mission in Iraq accomplished. These words are twisted into insidious instruments—“race” is poisonous and “war” is a bludgeon. They are common and ubiquitous on TV and print media where their distorting effects are almost never acknowledged. 

If the sole use of these two words was to name things, “war” an activity and “race” a condition, then I’d have no reason to be angry. Remember, Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asked “What’s in a name?” and used “rose” to illustrate what she imagined was the empty content of names. Unfortunately for her, she found out at the end of the play that “Capulet” and “Montague” far from being mere labels were harbingers of death. 

In the New York Times (April 23) Christine Kenneally published a article that surveyed a variety of studies linking language with perception and concluded that “For the most part (language) enhances thinking. But it can trip us up, too.” Indeed it can. 

Language is the basic means of communication and words (names) are building blocks of language. Language affects perception and perception affects action. Therefore, those for whom language is the sole means of contributing to the public good, abuse the trust of their audiences when they use “race” and “war” the way they do. 

War as metaphor—war on drugs, war on poverty, war on crime—does not arouse my ire. Also, I’ve learned, with effort, to keep my cool when word merchants, lock step with Bush, talk about a war on terror; terror is extreme fear and we need to control fear; fear is the only thing we need to fear. OK, it’s weird syntax but where’s the harm, I ask myself, in propagating a war on fear? 

The harm is not in propagating a war on fear but in wielding “war on terror” as a club to silence dissent (the Patriot Act), to justify sweeping presidential powers, to legalize torture, etc. In short, the war on terror does not defeat terror but it does push this nation farther from the lofty ideals envisioned by its founders. 

To my mind, however, the most egregious misuse of “war” is its callous use in talking about the brutal, barbaric, horrific, purposeless and costly killing that has gone on for five long years in Iraq. Bush and word merchants who follow him tell us he is a wartime president. “The nation is at war” they say. I’d laugh if the consequences of this twisted use of “war” as a name for the mess in Iraq were not so stupendously tragic.  

To be sure, there is massive, mindless killing, some perpetrated by our occupying military, some by Iraqi insurgents. No one denies that we have enemies in Iraq who will kill us any way they can; after all, our military runs and over-runs their country. But whatever you want to name it, it is not war. The enemy does not wear uniforms or carry a flag, which means our soldiers have targets only when they are targeted. Our occupying force is equipped with the most advanced and destructive weaponry the world has ever seen—helicopter gunships, drones, tanks, rockets, fighter planes, bombers, etc. Our enemies, on the other hand, have only the weapons they can carry or make at home. “Insurgency” may not be the exotic name that “war” is, but it is certainly more accurate. 

Finally, consider the fact that although the Commander-in-chief is the principal swinger of the “war” hammer he tries to keep from view the coffins in which his soldiers’ dead bodies are returned home. A week ago the highest ranking casualty in Iraq was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The family of Marine Lt. Colonel Billy Hall invited the press to cover the ceremony, yet the Corps arranged that “…no sound and few images would make it into the public domain”(Washington Post, April 23). Journalists were not allowed closer than two hundred yards of the burial cite. Evidently, the commander-in-chief can have his cake and eat it too. 

What about that other irritant, “race”? 

Well, ever since the end of slavery we’ve been tripped up by “race.” It figures prominently in the presidential campaign marathon now in play. Word merchants, ignoring the long established fact that race has no objective referent outside the minds of those who use it, propagate general questions, irrelevant and idiotic, such as whether Barack Obama is black enough, whether he can bridge the nation’s racial divide, and whether America is ready for a black president, in short: keep race alive!  

I do not doubt that a majority of voters eschew belief in racial inferiority but I seriously doubt whether voters who accept Obama as a candidate outnumber those guardians of the racial divide who insist on seeing him as an African-American candidate. Centuries of historical precedent cannot so easily be swept away. 

The template for race as an instrument for maintaining power is, for me, aptly illustrated by a story told of Frederick Douglass, freed slave and darling of the abolitionist movement in the first half of the nineteenth century. Douglass was, for the righteous movers and shakers of New England, a man of parts, a powerful orator, writer and tireless advocate for equal rights not only for blacks but for all men, including women. He toured New England, Ireland and other European cities. He addressed standing room only crowds and at the height of his fame he was called aside by his agent/promoter/handler and delicately urged to incorporate in his speeches more of the deferential manner of an ex-slave and forego the eloquence he, Douglass, had taught himself. The agent/promoter/handler seemed to fear that Douglass would lose his appeal unless he feigned inferiority, why else would he be urged to deny his own powers?  

Generalizing this anecdote and putting the case more bluntly: persons of African descent are pushed into a fabricated “race” corral where, if they do not accept inferiority, they are obliged to kill or otherwise deny their unique personal identity. Blacks are expected to be proud of being African Americans; each African-American is a stand-in for all African-Americans; the “race” category carries a subtle insistence that persons so designated commit identity suicide. You must not be all you can be, you can be only what the ruling majority allow you to be! 

To my mind Rudyard Kipling was the first international figure to fully appreciate and take pride in the controlling powers of the racial category. His writings are iconic among literature’s racial markers and chief among them is a poem he wrote and published in 1899. The first line in each of seven stanzas begins with the title, “Take up the White Man’s Burden.” Kipling exhorts America, on the verge of war in the Philippines, to step boldly on the road to empire: “Go bind your sons to exile / To serve your captives’ need, / Your new caught sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child.” 

Classifying humans by race is demeaning, denigrating and superficial. A half century ago. John Howard Griffin, a journalist, rubbed black die onto his face, neck and hands and then wandered about Negro neighborhoods in the segregated south. If you can’t imagine the humiliations he suffered, read his book Black Like Me. No further proof is needed for the fact that race is cosmetic but that it nevertheless exposes one to unpleasant and sometimes harmful treatment.  

Carl N. Dengler compared slavery and race relations in this country and in Brazil. He got the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 for his book, Neither Black Nor White. The Portuguese colonists sought to enrich themselves and their homeland whereas the English colonists sought new homes. When slavery was outlawed the English colonists replaced it with segregation, Brazil did nothing. In both countries race is a socio-economic category; in Brazil it is a matter of class, not based on skin color, but here it is a matter of caste based on skin color. 

As Clinton and Obama vie to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president the USA will find out how unbridgeable and nurtured the racial divide remains.  

I think Carl N. Dengler would agree that in Brazil, history would stamp Barack Obama first a Brazilian then an African, but USA history makes him first an African (Remember the “one drop”rule.) then an African-American. Candidate Obama is working hard to turn that around.  


Marvin Chachere is a San Pablo resident.