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Bill Maxwell

On ugly words and ugly history

As one who always has earned his income with words and by teaching others how to use words, I am not intimidated by words. For me, words are not diseases or weapons unless we permit them to be so. They are mere linguistic constructions to which we choose to assign value — good, bad, neutral.

At the same time, I am not naive. I know that some words are considered to be taboo by select populations.

Jews, for example, will not tolerate what they deem inappropriate use of the uppercase word "Holocaust," which refers to the genocide of European Jews in Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Under some circumstances, however, using "holocaust" in lower case is tolerated.

Keep in mind that such taboos challenge Americans' rights to free speech, and they often smother common sense.

Florida Democratic Rep. Alan Grayson, Bronx-raised and Jewish, found this out the hard way in 2009 during congressional health care debates. On the floor of the House, he accused Republicans of wanting people to "die quickly." He continued, "I call upon all of us to do our jobs for the sake of America, for the sake of those dying people and their families. I apologize to the dead and their families that we haven't voted sooner to end this holocaust in America."

Demands for an apology came immediately from Jews across the nation, followed by lectures on the meaning of "Holocaust" directed at Grayson and everyone.

Andrew Rosenkranz, Florida regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, was one of the most aggressive critics, upbraiding the apologetic Grayson for his wording. "It's an improper use of Holocaust imagery," Rosenkranz said, describing to his talk with Grayson. "It should never be used. A civil discourse regarding the health debate is one thing, but comparing it to perhaps the world's worst atrocity in the history of mankind is unfortunate and after speaking with him, he said he regrets the remark."

According to, Rosenkranz said even if Grayson, who claimed to have relatives who died in a concentration camp, was using "holocaust" in the lower case, he was wrong. Any use of the word in any form is verboten.

As I said, words do not bother me. But if we place "Holocaust" off limits, we should place "lynching" off limits, too. In fact, we should distinguish between "lynching" and "Lynching" just as we distinguish between "holocaust" and "Holocaust."

I began thinking about this during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991, after the media focused on Anita Hill's accusations that Thomas had sexually harassed her. In his closing statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas exploded: "This is a circus. It is a national disgrace. It is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves. It is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, you will be lynched, destroyed, caricatured rather than hung from a tree."

A few weeks ago, a Super PAC calling itself Americans for Herman Cain aired a slick video attacking the media for looking at allegations of sexual misconduct against the black GOP presidential candidate. The ad compares Cain's predicament to that of Thomas', ending with Thomas delivering his "high-tech lynching" speech.

I do not understand why Thomas so cavalierly invoked "lynching" imagery or why Cain's supporters did so. Although Cain did not utter the term, he did not stop supporters from using it.

"Lynching," the illegal execution of a person by a mob, probably was the most horrific practice on U.S. soil. It spread fear among blacks for generations. Historians have documented that between 1882 and 1968, 3,443 blacks were lynched.

Surely, Thomas and Cain and their white supporters know that "lynching" in America was the taking of human life by, among other means, hanging, shooting, burning, maiming, castration and dismemberment. They should know that these acts left families and loved ones devastated.

"Lynching" — an American atrocity — should be given the same elevated status as "Holocaust."

On ugly words and ugly history 11/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 22, 2011 6:46pm]
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