This most senior Democrat on Capitol Hill was apparently making an oblique reference to Bill Clinton, the white trash Hillbilly former president. Head of the NAAPCPC (National Association for the Advancement of Politically Correct People of Color) Kweisi Mfume called Byrd’s remarks "both repulsive and revealing." Byrd apologized, saying, "I had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone of another race."
Days earlier, as this column noted, an African-American senior editor of Washington Post World Jabari Asim had declared: "Bill Clinton isn’t black! It’s time to bury the ridiculous and insulting notion that the former president is anything but white."
What are we to make of this? Has Bill Clinton, officed in Harlem but housed in wealthy Caucasian Chappaqua, New York, become such a pariah that it insults both whites and blacks to have him called one of their number?
But Clinton was honored at last weekend’s NAAPCPC "Image Over Substance" Awards in Hollywood. The disgraced ex-president, in his new self-deluded role as Bwana Bill, told the applauding gathering: "That’s why I went to Harlem, because I think I am the first black president."
Senator Byrd has been widely regarded as the most literate and poetic of lawmakers. He is famed for giving hour after hour of rambling grandiloquent oratory that quotes Shakespeare in praise of his little dog Billy. Many Leftist intellectuals doubtless recognized in Byrd’s latest remarks a sly reference to Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay "The White Negro."
But most Leftists, true to our times, were, like the bloodless Alan Colmes of Fox News Channel’s Hannity & Colmes, quick to denounce and distance themselves from the latest outrage by a Democrat officeholder, but never willing to demand his removal or resignation. Many reminded us that Byrd in his youth was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. (So, too, they neglected to remind audiences, briefly was President Harry Truman.) Should this surprise us, when the Democrats have always been the traditional party of Ku Kluxers and racial division? But the propaganda aimed at Americans this week concealed that.
Byrd must remain in office for the six year term to which he was elected last November, those conducting his media show trial made clear by omission. Without him, Democrats would fall one seat behind Republicans in the Senate. But you are now supposed to view Senator Byrd as an oddity, the only surviving relic of a bygone era, the last politically incorrect Democrat.
In his recantation, Byrd himself said that the offending phrase he used "dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today’s society."
But should Senator Byrd be condemned, or should he be granted protection and absolution under the Americans with Disabilities Act? Last spring Dr. William von Hippel, Associate Professor of Psychology at Ohio State University in Columbus and colleagues published their study of such outbursts. They concluded that those 65 and over seem more Archie Bunker-like, more prejudiced, not only because they grew up in more discriminating times but also because their aging brains are not as quick to "stifle" politically incorrect thoughts and expressions as those regimented by our more "sensitive" era.
Senator Byrd, 83, may be the innocent victim of a brain that is losing its ability to self-censor, of a handicap that causes him to cast off his mental chains. We clearly need to be more sensitive to the insensitive.
"We should be more understanding, because it is harder for older people to be non-prejudiced," says von Hippel. "But that doesn’t let them off the hook. By no means are we saying that they have to act in a discriminatory manner or that they have absolutely no control over what they say or do."
Where are the Gloria Allreds and other civil liberties lawyers to defend poor victims of their own disinhibited aging brains?
In retrospect, perhaps we should have extended Americans with Disabilities Act protection to L.A. Dodgers general manager Al Campanis, then 70, who was fired in 1987 after telling an interviewer that blacks "might not have all the necessities" to be a field manager or general manager in Major League Baseball.
Perhaps such legal protection should have shielded Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, then 68, who was fired as a CBS football analyst in 1988 for telling an interviewer that so many blacks were successful in sports because "the slave owner would breed his big black with his big woman so that he would have a big black kid. That’s where it all started." A decade later big black retiring Green Bay Packer superstar Reggie White, then 36, would lose an analyst’s job at CBS Sports and lucrative endorsement deals with Campbell Soup and Nike shoes for saying that Jimmy "The Greek" had been right.
And many others have been punished for politically-incorrect things they said that might have been caused by a medical condition, loss of brain inhibition. Among these martyrs of what could be a syndrome akin to Gilles de la Tourette’s are baseball owner Marge Schott, pro golfer Frank Urban "Fuzzy" Zoeller, golf commentator Ben Wright, and baseball relief pitcher John Rocker.
And now we can add to this list of outspoken martyrs Senator Robert Byrd.
In the never-ending Culture War, where incessant battles rage to seize the moral high ground and capture control of society’s symbols, the states remain battlefields – and not just over the Confederate flag, whose place in the Mississippi state flag will be put to voters in a few weeks.
In South Dakota a new law will require the renaming of 39 towns to remove "offensive" words. Negro Creek, for instance, will become Medicine Mountain Creek. Negro Gulch will, oddly enough, be renamed Last Chance Gulch.
Similar politically-correct renaming laws have been adopted in Maine, Montana and Minnesota. An effort to force through such legislation in Idaho was thwarted, bringing down vile denunciations from the political Left.
Most Americans find it easy and reasonable to accommodate the sensitivities of African-Americans who want to delete place names with the obsolete word Negro (the Spanish and Portuguese word for the color black, from the Latin niger, as in the nation Nigeria) in them.
And most find it fair and reasonable to accommodate the sensitivities of Native Americans who wanted to change South Dakota’s Squaw Teat Creek to Rattlesnake Creek or Squaw Lake to Serenity Lake. The word Squaw in some Indian languages refers to a prostitute or to female genitalia.
But how far are you willing to go in this kind of Orwellian 1984-like revision of names and history?
Last October, as this column discussed, the City of Denver struck a behind-the-scenes deal to remove the name Christopher Columbus, regarded as a mass murderer by many Native Americans, from its Columbus Day celebrations. Its annual parade on that day was to be renamed the Italian Pride Parade. When this secret deal, brokered in part by Clinton Administration operatives in Washington, D.C., came to light, the parade became a focus of protests and recriminations.
Suppose that for political correctness you wanted to remove the name Columbus from our culture. To avoid offending the sensitivities of some, what new name would you assign to the capital of Ohio, Columbus, and the capital of South Carolina, Columbia? What would you rename the nation’s capital, the District of Columbia? And do not forget the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, Al Gore’s politically-correct Columbia University, the Columbia Broadcasting System CBS (also known as the Clinton BS network), the Roman Catholic service group Knights of Columbus, the Canadian province British Columbia, our South American cocaine supplier Colombia, and all the hundreds of other places from which names reminiscent of Christopher Columbus must be expunged.
At what point would you no longer honor the demands of the offended that maps and histories be re-written to suit their desires? When will feminists demand that Bill Clinton’s favorite vacation spot the Grand Tetons, named by lonely French explorers who saw these mountains as huge breasts, be renamed so that they no longer offend women? When will the "differently-abled" demand that the Colorado town of Cripple Creek be given a new, less hurtful name?
Remember when humanists demanded that New York towns such as Cobleskill and Fishkill be renamed to remove the hateful word "kill," only to be told that "kill" in these names was a Dutch word meaning "stream" or "creek" and had nothing to do with killing. (If you have such feelings, then demand that Mexico rename its city Matamoros, "Moor killer," which very much refers to the killing of people of a non-Christian faith.)
In recent days we have watched the Moslem fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan, the same folks we armed with Stinger missiles to fight Soviet occupiers, busily smashing statues of Buddha as well as any symbol they could find of any other non-Muslim religion. We fancy ourselves above such iconoclasm, yet our governments also eradicate the very names and histories of places that offend the politically correct elites. And while we pretend to believe in separation of church and state, we allow the Internal Revenue Service to decide which faiths are "valid" religions to be given tax exempt status and which are not.
That same federal government is pondering whether to pay reparations to the descendants of black slaves, effectively transferring society’s wealth to one racial group from all other groups.
Unknown to most Americans, that same federal government is quietly laying the basis for paying the equivalent of reparations to many Mexican-Americans. The Clinton-Gore Administration initiated a study by the General Accounting Office aimed at determining and potentially recompensing lost property rights of Spanish and Mexican citizens that the U.S. pledged to preserve in the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By this treaty Mexico ceded to the U.S. lands that today include parts of Texas as well as New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and California, and land claims remain in dispute in all these states.
The ongoing GAO investigation, to be completed in December 2002, was initiated by a 1999 joint letter from Republican Senator Pete Domenici and Democratic Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, a state where only 24 percent of Mexican land claims were honored. This is a heavily Mexican-American state where up to 10 percent of voters support Green Party candidates and the state tilted to Gore last November by only about 500 votes – after 500 votes suddenly appeared, as if by magic, for Gore in one County’s vote totals. "The lingering controversy over the….land grant claims," wrote Domenici and Bingaman in 1999, "has created a sense of distrust and bitterness….in New Mexico."
Whose names are on the land is important. One New Mexico lawmaker has even introduced a bill to rename his state "Nuevo Mexico," as it was and is called in Spanish. This should bring pride to the Navaho, Zuni, and Hopi Native Americans who also saw the Spanish as European colonial conquerers – and some of whom probably initially greeted as liberators those Yankees who displaced the Spaniards and Mexicans. Why not rename the state with words of its native peoples?
In Alta California, which Americans call California, Spanish settlers resisted being governed by a Mexican government that had won independence from Spain. The Mexican army suppressed them, and many Californios welcomed Yankee gringos as liberators who freed them from the Mexican yoke. The first Spanish explorers believed they had found an island and named it for the fabled Queen Califia and her magical island of talking animals. The anti-clerical Mexican government would confiscate Spanish missions and their vast land holdings. A decree by President Abraham Lincoln restored those missions – but not the immense acreage they once controlled -- to the Roman Catholic Church.
All these conquerors imposed their will upon the Native Americans – but also co-mingled with them. Today 85 percent of Mexicans and more than 35 million Americans have at least some Native American ancestry. Today, because of the horrors of slavery, most African-Americans carry some genes not just of European ancestry but of the most aristocratic, plantation-owning European-Americans. And if you look back a mere 200,000 years, we all are African-Americans or Asian-Americans. We are the world-roving, history-moving mix we all are. We should forget the past and not be fooled by the divide-and-conquer, black-vs.-white games politicians use to manipulate us. We should start building a future big and free enough for all of us to cohabit in harmony.