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Code words, poor choice of words, and forbidden speech

Updated: Feb 8, 2019

Ron DeSantis, Florida's Republican candidate for governor, got raked over the coals for race-baiting after he used the words "articulate" and "monkey this up" in reference to his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, who happens to be black. It was not just the commissars of political correctness who came down on him. Conservative, lyin' New York Times columnist David Brooks also took him to task:

I don’t know what’s in DeSantis’ heart, or whether he was trying to invoke racial stereotypes. I do know that, evidently, he doesn’t hang around many African-Americans, because if you were to spend your normal parts of your day among African-Americans confronting difference, you know that saying the word articulate is a code word, and you know the word monkey, that’s a code word. And so either he’s got some nasty tendencies within himself, or he just doesn’t get out much. And neither is good. (PBS NewsHour, August 31, 2018)

Jonah Goldberg, senior editor of National Review, flagship of American conservatism since its founding by the patrician William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955, offers a slightly different take, with which I have some sympathy. Goldberg argues that DeSantis is a Trump sycophant who won the Republican primary by beclowning himself but not a racist. The column includes a laundry list of demeaning and laughable instances of DeSantis toadying to the scoundrel in chief and his base. I have no reason to believe Goldberg is making this stuff up or plagiarizing from The Onion, even though it sounds like he could be. In one example he describes an ad that opens with DeSantis's wife saying,

"Everyone knows my husband, Ron DeSantis, is endorsed by President Trump. But he’s also an amazing dad. Ron loves playing with the kids."

DeSantis is then seen encouraging his toddler daughter to "build the wall" with toy blocks. He reads from The Art of the Deal to his 4-month-old son. "Then Mr. Trump said, 'You’re fired.' I love that part," DeSantis coos to the baby, behind a graphic reading, "Ron DeSantis: Pitbull Trump Defender." (The Dumb Effort to Paint DeSantis as a Racist, National Review, August 31, 2018)

Goldberg sees the whole thing as pathetic and declares that he is "not a fan of how DeSantis ran or what he symbolizes in the new, Trumpified GOP." In his opinion the use of "articulate" and "monkey" was a poor choice of words that is being blown out of proportion "because the media is so determined to weaponize every alleged misstatement — by a Republican. (Democrats get to make easily weaponized gaffes all the time.)" I do not agree that it is only Republicans who get this treatment, but we can put that debate aside until another time.

As Brooks says, we cannot know what is in DeSantis's heart. The political company DeSantis keeps does not dispose me to give him the benefit of the doubt. Even so, I do not see what good comes of going ballistic over this sort of thing.

As for those words. "Monkey this up" seems to be a term coined by DeSantis. A Google search turns up only his remarks about Gillum. By contrast, a search for the term "monkey around," with which I am familiar, takes me to Merriam-Webster :

to do things that are not useful or serious : to waste time · We just monkeyed around all afternoon. · a young scientist monkeying around in the lab

Maybe DeSantis was making a coded appeal to Republicans of racist and white-supremacist bent. These are people who may not be the brightest of bulbs but even they probably did not need prompting to pick up that Gillum is black. Goldberg rightly notes, "...a Trump sycophant running against a black man doesn’t need clever code words to attract racists. He’s got that demo sewn up already."

It so happens that condescending use of "articulate" when describing a black person, as if articulateness is unexpected, or it is exceptional for a black person to be articulate, came up in conversation at a happy-hour rendezvous with two friends the week before the Florida primary when one of us mentioned that she had just learned that some blacks find being called "articulate" objectionable.

I had been blissfully unaware of this, although it seems to be nothing particularly new, and was already mulling it over when the DeSantis brouhaha hit. What should be made of racist jerks when they use "articulate" with a despicable wink and a nod? Or when someone like me uses it in a manner that could be perceived as condescending out of thoughtlessness rather ill intent? Or when a person of color misperceives the intent?

Consider Barack Obama. He is articulate. Am I forbidden to say this when in the same context I would say it of others regardless of their race? What am I permitted to say? That he is well-spoken? Eloquent? Intelligent? This leads to absurdity.

We stand best against racism, sexism, homophobia, &c., when we cultivate habits of respectfulness, decency, and civility in our flawed selves and culture. It is always hard and uncertain work, more so in an era when racist and neo-Nazi ideologies that were for a time shameful, dirty little secrets are once again openly endorsed. The impulse to compile a codex of forbidden words and parse every utterance for offense may be understandable, but it can lead all too easily to puritanical self-righteousness and judgment. I do not think it takes us where we want to go.

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