Thursday, September 14, 2006

Arnold has no reason to cringe

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California recently expressed contrition regarding remarks he had privately made during a session with his aides. The remarks pertained to the ethnicity of State Assemblywoman Bonnie Garcia. "I mean Cuban, Puerto-Rican, they are all very hot... They have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them that together makes it," Schwarzenegger said.

I'm really having trouble seeing what there was to be ashamed of here. The reason these remarks are volatile at all is that American culture has been taken over by far too much political correctness. Both left-leaning and right-leaning comedians like George Carlin and Carlos Mencia would regard the furor over Arnold's remarks as unnecessary, not to mention a sad sign of the times.

I was pretty comfortable joking with my black coworkers about race when I worked in DC, and while I'm aware of the "politics" that underlie all such exchanges, I think we need to take the stick out of our collective ass and realize that, while racism is a real problem, we do also tend to see racism where it doesn't exist.

By one definition of racism, any general claim about an entire race-- be it positive or negative-- is racist. But racism is a more nebulous reality than that: its existence often requires not only malicious intent but also someone to take offense. To declare a remark racist, you need more than a clear-cut set of criteria: you need the maturity to understand that racism is sniffed out on a case-by-case basis. Bright-line definitions might make such a task seem easier, but they blind the mind, if I may paraphrase the Tao Te Ching.

The Democrat challenger to Schwarzenegger in the gubernatorial campaign, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, seized upon the governor's remarks (which may have been obtained illegally) and thought he had a slam-dunk. The problem is that the object of Schwarzenegger's comments, Garcia, wasn't perturbed by what The Bemuscled One had said:

Garcia, who is Puerto Rican, told the Times the governor's remarks did not bother her.

"I love the governor because he is a straight talker just like I am," she said. "Very often I tell him, 'Look, I am a hot-blooded Latina.' I label myself a hot-blooded Latina that is very passionate about the issues, and this is kind of an inside joke that I have with the governor."

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson called the governor's remarks "a small part of a long conversation that is taken totally out of context."

"The governor respects every member of the Legislature and holds them in the highest regard," Thompson said in a statement. "It is not uncommon for him to have fun and joke with the members while they're working, especially during very tense negotiations."

Schwarzenegger's communications director, Adam Mendelsohn, said the governor's office would not release the tape publicly because it was a private conversation.

The recording is full of frank and comic assessments of fellow Republicans from Schwarzenegger and his staff.

America has a freedom of speech problem, and the problem primarily affects white folks these days, generating fear and discursive paralysis. This has a direct bearing on our politicians, most of whom are white. Here's vintage 2002 Carlos Mencia on the subject of PC-generated paralysis:

[After razzing various ethnicities for twenty minutes] And you see? Everyone got picked on; everyone had a fabulous time. (applause) But, no! No! This is what people are afraid of: us enjoying making fun of each other. Listen-- look at me, white people, when I say this (laughter): Do you know how many white people have died in the history of America so that we could have the fundamental freedom of speech to say what we feel? See, I wish that you had my freedom of speech. I wish that you knew what it was like to really have fun. But some o' you don't, and you think you do. Please-- tell my jokes at your job on Monday! (long laughter, applause) We go too far with this stuff. We go too far with political correctness.

I think Carlos has it right, and Arnold has nothing to cringe about.

I'll grant that stereotypes can be dangerous, but let me ask you this: can you spend even a single day without uttering a remotely general claim? I'll answer the question for you: you probably can't. Speaking in generalities is part of life, and included among those generalities are stereotypes. Stereotypes are dangerous, but not inherently evil. That's the PC attitude that needs changing: the self-righteous, nearly fundamentalist dogmatism of people who fear to offend anyone. When it comes to something like race, we should all do ourselves a favor, take what lessons we can from our comedians, and relax. Robin Williams, who leans decidedly leftward, also noted the PC problem in his Broadway routine when he broke off from a bit about Osama Bin Laden to observe that some in his New York audience were obviously displeased with the ethnic humor. It was a moment for Williams to point out the hypocrisy of such people, and he did so deftly.

Folks, tell your ass to kiss the stick goodbye.


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