Criticism. Essay. Fiction. Science. Weather.
If a curse is a word that offends a broad segment of the population and even shocks a few people, there aren't really all that many. Fuck retains some of its punch. (Good for Fuck, after all these years.) Cunt still tops a lots of people's list of least favorite words. And racial epithets have held onto their twentieth century status as bad words for some time now.
The defense in the trial of Nicholas Minucci, however, would argue this isn't true. A year ago, Minucci attacked Glenn Moore
in Howard Beach, Queens, New York. Moore was in the neighborhood to steal a car. Minucci didn't like the look of him and beat with a baseball bat. Moore is black. Minucci is white. Minucci called Moore a nigger as he beat him. He is being tried for a hate crime.
Albert Gaudelli, Minucci's lawyer, is advancing a two pronged defense
: First, although Minucci didn't know Moore was in Howard Beach to steal a car, his attack falls under the heading of community policing, not hate crime. "Is there anything illegal about chasing someone out of the neighborhood?" Gaudelli asked rhetorically at the start of the trial. Secondly, and more interestingly if not any more persuasively, the defense is arguing that it is impossible to prove that racial bias played a role in the attack because modern use of the word Nigger spans many races and uses.
The word has evolved. Words do that. For one thing, black folks pulled the great linguistic trick available to harassed peoples and re-appropriated their epithet, giving it some positive meanings in some situations. Since black art has long dominated American music, Nigger has found a prominent cultural stage, becoming at once a word verboten and hip.
Minucci's defense does raise an interesting rhetorical issue. Has the evolution of this word, because of its reappropriation by parts of the black community and black music's appropriation by much of the nation, has it become just another word? How are we to look at two white dudes who playfully call each other "my niggah"? An Asian woman singing along to Jay-Z's black album? What does Nigger mean as it spreads through Latino communities? After years of use by comedians and musicians, is it still the king of American curses?
It's obvious the word still leaves a lot of people uncertain. The New York newspapers have had to dance around the defense's case for two weeks, awkwardly using the word Epithet to the point of exhaustion or invoking the Voldermort-ish "n-word" to avoid invoking the curse which shall not be named. Gaudelli, meanwhile, is out to normalize the word and make it very much part of the discussion. He told one witness reluctant to say "nigger" in a courtroom, "You can use the words here. We're interested in the words here."
Unfortunately, and by the very nature of its job, the defense in the Minucci trial is not in it for all the interesting gray areas of this discussion. It wants a new black and white paradigm. Instead of an actual discussion, Gaudelli is trying to use Nigger's new ambiguity to strip it of all its pejorative meanings. He has willfully ignored the cardinal rule of any discussion about such a dynamic word: context is key. Minucci's defense claims that Nigger is harmless in "the hip hop world that [he] come[s] from." Some of the time that may be true. When Minucci and his white friends are lazing around Howard Beach and teasing each other it surely is harmless. When they are shouting it at a black man as they beat him with a baseball bat, it is not.
The defense's point that the word alone can no longer prove bias is well taken. But this is not the word alone. This is the word, a baseball bat, and a cracked skull. Context is key.
Simply because Nigger has a hateful history does not mean it cannot find some new life through reappropriation. Likewise, just because the word has taken on more varied meanings within some communities does not mean it has forever shed its pejorative essence
The discussion, an admittedly intriguing one, has touched a cord. Al Sharpton
volunteered to testify for the prosecution on the hateful history
of Nigger and the local news is obviously quite taken with the trial. Since Nigger has once again moved prominently into the American lexicon, the Minucci trial provides a starting point for an interesting linguistic and social debate.
Even the discussion itself, and not its salient points, is worth observing. The way we talk about this, how the conversation begins and who is willing to engage it, is revealing. Unfortunately, the first folks to bring it up, the first to be "interested in the words here," was this unsavory defense team. Gaudelli has set about appealing to a number of low common denominators, using the racial nature of a hate crime trial to pry open the jury's own prejudices, arguing, essentially, that in a white neighborhood like Howard Beach cracking a black man's skull is akin to being a good neighbor. He invokes Nigger to normalize it, not to understand it, and as the press squeamishly dances around the language at stake, Gaudelli and his couched racist appeal dominates the conversation. Nigger is too complex, too wrapped up in the push-me, pull-me of American race, to let the debate begin and end there.
I've been ready for Roger Clemens to be out of baseball for a long time now. After the 2003 season, Clemens announced that he was retiring, and I rejoiced. A 40-year-old power pitcher who is sometimes terrific and sometimes acts his age is close to a cliché, and it seemed Clemens couldn't have done much more with his career than he'd already done. Then Andy Pettitte, another Yankee ace, made the decision to play in Houston, where the rest of the Pettittes live, and Clemens, inspired, decided to pitch the next season with the Astros, too. The Clemenses also live in East Texas. After the Astros didn't win the World Series last season, it was widely believed that he was finally done for.
What's strange is that last year was one of Clemens' best, and he was interesting to watch again. He ended the season with a 1.87 ERA, which is just about the craziest thing anybody's ever heard of. Restated, a man facing a league stocked with Derek Lee, Andruw Jones, Carlos Delgado, and the entire St. Louis Cardinals managed to give up less than two runs for every nine innings he pitched. It breaks the cliché we all feared. Nonetheless, it looked like that was it, especially after this spring's World Baseball Classic, when Clemens said, "For me, right now, it's goodbye."
Clemens was eligible to resign with the Astros on May 1st. He talked about being interested in playing for a contender again, and the Red Sox, the Yankees, and the Rangers were all interested in him. At the end of May, though, Clemens joined... the Astros, who most likely are not headed for post-season success with or without an amazing new addition to their rotation. And here we all are again, American baseball fans inside and outside of the media, making a BFD about him. Hopefully, it pays off. Clemens' return better be either the biggest letdown in baseball history or he better do something unthinkable, as he did last season. Anything else, anything short of absolute failure or astonishing success, and Clemens won't have earned the right to have spent another off-season forcing conversation about whether or not he'd play again.