"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 6 January 1998. Updated every WEEKDAY.
The Nth Degree


[ive been workin on the railroad allll the livelong day]

As we approach the Anything Goes

millennial decline of the United

States of Gomorrah - feature

films depicting HIV-infected

kids raping one another, comedy

networks churning out edgy

sitcoms with crudely cut

construction-paper cuties

mocking the poor and starving,

mainstream networks plastering

Dennis Franz's flabby gluteus on

our high-res TVs in the name of

gritty realism - it is almost

reassuring to know that there is

one verboten word left in the

English language.


Of course, we're talking about

the dreaded N-word, and we don't

mean Netscape. You know: Chris

Rock hates 'em, Ice Cube used to

be one (with attitude), and John

Lennon believed women share

their burden on a global scale.

The word is "nigger," a word

that carries with it more than

400 years of injustice and

oppression, a word that causes

an immediate stiffening of

spines, clenching of jaws and

buttocks; an adrenalin shot to

the heart that briefly touches

on all the pain African

Americans have suffered,

continue to suffer, and reserve

the right to suffer in the

future. (Even Webster's opines

its taboo-ness, allowing the

definition to morph into an Anna

Quindlen-style op-ed piece.)


But "nigger" is also a word that

we have allowed to grow swollen

with both meaning and the

negation of meaning. A word that

- outside the lyrics sheets of

Death Row Records and streetspun

colloquialismo - we have,

ironically, empowered rather

than neutralized. From

Tinseltown, we hear that Spike

Lee wants Quentin Tarantino to

stop using The Word in his

movies. "I'm not against the

word, and I use it, but not

excessively.... Quentin is

infatuated with that word," Lee

told Daily Variety, noting its

use 38 times in Jackie Brown,

and painting an interesting

portrait of himself sitting at

Cineplex Odeon Bed-Stuy, abacus

in hand - an embittered

mathematician of lexicon



[and what do i get for paaaay?!]

We hear that The Word cannot

even be used in the heat of

athletic battle, where almost

everything else goes: An NHL

Capital was suspended for three

games for using The Word on the

ice. And in this highly

sophisticated day when expletive

deleteds make way for actual

fuckability (Bill Cosby's Turner

Classic Movies lamentations

notwithstanding), we find that

even the fourth estate avoids

the use of it: A recent LA

Times article that reported on

an Elks Club brouhaha

surrounding The Word didn't once

mention the word the entire fuss

was about.


But without questioning its

Olympian offensiveness, in this

day when almost everything else

goes, it may be worth reflecting

on the power The Word wields and

what may be hiding in the spine

of its biography.


After Capital's icer Chris Simon

was suspended from a game where

fisticuffs and insults about

opposing player's wives rectal

proclivities are commonplace,

one Washington Post sportswriter

opined that if he used The Word

at his job, he, too, would be

suspended from work. But the

modern workplace - even one as

competitive as that at the Post

- is not half as heat-of-battle

as the steroid-laden,

tooth-covered war arena of a

hockey rink; the comparison

isn't apt. Major league sports

allows individuals to make

gratuitous references to

fornicating one another's

daughters, whereas that probably

wouldn't win applause at your

water cooler, even if you work

at Denny's. The problem, once

again, isn't the degree of

insult but that specific word.


[this does not really rhyme]

For hockey, there's an element

of selectivity, at least in

terms of major league sports as

a larger entity. (One can't help

but ponder that if skater Simon,

a Native American, played

football for his hometown, he'd

be called a Redskin every day.)

But for society as a whole,

there is also a degree of

paternalism over condemning The

Word. Not so much on behalf of

African Americans, mind you, but

on behalf of hockey fans, Elks

Club members, and LA Times

readers, whom the powers that be

clearly don't entrust with that

most sacred of American rights,

the right to let people jerk

their own knees.


It seemed like NHL management

feared that life would have

proceeded as normal for offender

Simon; fans (especially hockey

fans) probably wouldn't have

felt outraged and therefore

compelled to form a Million

Zamboni March. This, NHL ruling

classers seemingly agreed, was a

tragedy. So they decided to

chastise Simon with an official

penalty the way the fans should

have been counted on to punish

him with booing, boycotts, and

barroom bitch-slaps. Seen in

this light, such penalties are a

cop-out, a way of letting

America off the hook for its

purported callous indifference.


But there's another element

about our heightened sensitivity

to this epithet: White America's

public opposition to the use of

the word "nigger" is in inverse

proportion to how much White

America seems to care about

anything else having to do with

Black America.


It may be true, that the

rejection of The Word is because

our language (as opposed to our

thoughts) is the only aspect of

Black life that Whites feel they

have control over (as opposed to

urban squalor, gang violence, or

pay inequity). But it also

factors in that as White America

phases out welfare and

Affirmative Action - programs

designed, in no small part, to

correct the sins of the past

against Black America - perhaps

the increasing vociferousness of

White condemnation of The Word

is less a result of a big-time

guilty conscience and more the

small pang that itches



[so long good night ... ]

"Sure, we'll remove all

mechanisms to combat racism,

feed the poor, end the violence,

employ the jobless, heal the

sick, and teach the uneducated.

But, uh, we sure won't ever use

that bad word again! See how

easy it is to move forward when

we meet one another halfway?"


Regrettably, it may be that in

this post-O. J., post-Farrakhan,

post-Clarence Thomas world our

election of "nigger" as Worst

Word of the Era is, for many of

us, the only race issue left

that is so, well, Black and


courtesy of James Bong