We need a Language Police.

Of which, of course, I’d be Chief.

Our jurisdiction would be broad:  grammar; punctuation; semantics.  But our most important task would be punishing language abuse.   Today’s perp:  The NYT.  The charges are based on a sentence fragment in today’s Times that is superficially just crappy writing, but is in fact stunningly offensive.  In an article discussing Michelle Obama’s white ancestors, the writer makes clear that the family of the First Lady’s white great-great-great-grandfather owned her great-great-great grandmother.  At the time their child — Mrs. Obama’s great-great-grandfather, Dolphus T. Shields — was conceived, the white slave-owner was 20; his slave only 15.  The article continues:

Such forbidden liaisons across the racial divide inevitably bring to mind the story of Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings. Mrs. Obama’s ancestors, however, lived in a world far removed from the elegance of Jefferson’s Monticello, his 5,000-acre mountain estate with 200 slaves. They were much more typical of the ordinary people who became entangled in America’s entrenched system of servitude.

Just a bunch of random, ordinary people of, you know, a couple of different skin colors, who — passive voice! — became entangled, you know, like you do when you are charging too many electrical devices and the cords end up on the floor, or your dog puts one too many rope toys in front of the back door and, you just, you know, become entangled.  No one’s fault.  That lethal system of violently-asserted racial superiority, oppression, and death was just lying around entangling ordinary people.

Rachel L. Swarns, you are under arrest for First Degree Language Abuse.

Ms. Swarns — who has apparently written a book about Ms. Obama’s multiracial ancestors — goes on to perpetrate this egregious sentence, which may form the basis of a referral to my colleagues with the Journalism Police or possibly the History Police.

[Ms. Obama’s great-great-great grandmother] had more biracial children after the Civil War, giving some of the white Shieldses hope that her relationship with [the white slave-owner] was consensual.

W.T.F.  There is no universe in which the sexual relationship between a master and a slave can be consensual.  Nor did the end of the Civil War magically turn former slaves and their former owners into free agents.

I get the motive for this:  we don’t want to offend the tender feelings of Mrs. Joan Tribble — “a retired bookkeeper who delights in her two grandchildren and her Sunday church mornings” — by suggesting that perhaps some of her distant ancestors were, um …. how can I say this delicately yet factually? … slaveowners.  Because of course “[s]ome of Mrs. Tribble’s relatives have declined to discuss the matter beyond the closed doors of their homes, fearful that they might be vilified as racists or forced to publicly atone for their forebears.”

How the hell can we teach history if we’re unwilling to just tell it like it is?

4 thoughts on “We need a Language Police.

  1. Jenny

    On a 2008 visit to Monticello, I asked where Sally Hemings bedroom had been (during the years she slept in the main house). Answer: At least as of 2008, the room historians believe belonged to Sally Hemings had been converted for use as a public women’s bathroom, an arrangement suggestive of on-going denial about the well-documented history of sexual exploitation of enslaved women by slaveholding men.

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