Angry Asian Man is a blogger who offers excellent coverage of racism against and media treatment of Asians; I find his work indispensable as a father of Asian kids. Today he's got a post about John McCain's use of the slur "gook" in the context of previewing "Gook: John McCain's Racism and Why It Matters," a new book by Irwin Tang. Angry Asian Man has blogged about McCain's use of the term before, inspired by the recent re-circulation of a 2000 news story about McCain's unapologetic use of that word in the 2000 campaign:
Arizona Sen. John McCain refused to apologize yesterday for his use of a racial slur to condemn the North Vietnamese prison guards who tortured and held him captive during the war.
"I hate the gooks," McCain said yesterday in response to a question from reporters aboard his campaign bus. "I will hate them as long as I live."
. . . .
"I was referring to my prison guards," McCain said, "and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends."
. . .
"I will call right now, my interrogator that tortured me, a gook," McCain said. "(I can't believe that) anybody doesn't believe these interrogators and prison guards were cruel and sadistic people who deserve the worst appellations possible."
McCain said he does not consider the comment an epithet.
"Gook," he said, "is the kindest appellation I can give."
After a few days of bad press, McCain offered what I would characterize as a halfhearted apology and semi-retreat from his defiant position of a few days before:
“I will continue to condemn those who unfairly mistreated us,” McCain said in a statement released Feb. 21. “But out of respect to a great number of people for whom I hold in very high regard, I will no longer use the term that has caused such discomfort… I apologize and renounce all language that is bigoted and offensive, which is contrary to all that I represent and believe.”
I buy that he decided not to say it any more because of the political cost. But based on his previous defiant defense of using it, I don't buy the sincerity of the apology.
What should we think about this?
Angry Asian Man's take is not nuanced:
. Here, "gook" was clearly being used as expression of resentment. The fact that McCain was a P.O.W. does not excuse him from harboring these feelings. Why is this even under debate?
I agree, though through a somewhat more winding path. Look, John McCain was held captive by the NVA for nearly five years, treated despicably, and tortured. Plus, he was encouraged by his training, superiors, comrades in arms, and culture to use terms like "gook" to dehumanize the enemy, in a race-based propaganda method as old as armed warfare. I understand and sympathize with his bitterness towards his captors and even towards the entire NVA. I even recognize that his stubborn defense of using a racist epithet to refer to his captors comes from a human frailty to which we are all heir. I would forgive him as a person for these things.
But he's not asking merely for forgiveness as a person. He wants us to elect him President. of the United States. He gets held to a much higher standard.
McCain's "when I use that epithet I'm only talking about my torturers" justification is what I call the "Chris Rock Said So" excuse for racism, inspired by Chris Rock's "I don't hate black people; I hate niggers" routine. It's frequently used to justify racial slurs commonly used against an entire ethnic group based on the qualification that when the speaker says it, he or she only means some sub-group worthy of condemnation. This is not a defense we should accept. First, it tends to promote and normalize use of racial epithets. Second, it shows a categorical confusion. A sub-group of an ethnic group might indeed be guilty of contemptible behavior, but that has nothing to do with their ethnicity — using it as a justification and excuse for calling a racial epithets suggests that the group's contemptible behavior is a result of , or tied to, its ethnicity.
So if John McCain were my friend or grandfather rather than a man asking for my vote for President, I would forgive him. I'd criticize his use of the term, and demand that he not use it with me (and especially not in the hearing of my children, which I would not forgive), but if he respected those restrictions I would chalk it up to his five years of torture and not expel him from my life. But again, John McCain is not my grandfather. My grandfather was a World War II veteran, steeped in the ubiquitous anti-Japanese racist propaganda of that era, who was on a ship in the South Pacific and lost his best friend to a Kamikaze attack. But he was also a man who never used a racial slur in my hearing, and once scolded me very sternly as a teen for using one while we looked at his wartime pictures. If John McCain wants to be President, we can expect as much racial decency as my grandfather accomplished. We can expect him to recognize that his slur is not confined by the justifications and limitations he erects around it, but promotes broader and less nuanced racism.
John McCain got off easy on this issue in 2000 because he didn't get the nomination. He shouldn't get off easy this time. To his credit, I haven't seen anything indicating that he used the slur since 2000. But his initial use and defense is not something that can be dismissed easily. I'd like to hear him address it and demonstrate more than a "I'm sorry you were offended" understanding of the impact of racial language.
I rather hope that I don't have to explain to my kids someday why the President of the United States argued that it was acceptable to use the term "gook."
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