'Lipstick' not the only charged term in strange political year

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 11, 2008 


Sarah Palin addresses the Republican National Convention. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT)


WASHINGTON — "Uppity." "Lipstick on a pig." "Muslim."

The words, used by politicians from both sides of the aisle, have sent reverberations throughout the highly charged atmosphere of this year's presidential election.

But beyond the flared tempers and the accusations of insults run amok, political experts say the historic campaigns of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, former presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin raise important questions about the politics of language.

"We are a country in transition," said Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington. "We are in a different world than we were just a few years ago, but we haven't shed the past, and we haven't come to terms with this new world. And we're trying to come to terms with the new rules."

The furor over Obama's reference to Republican rival Sen. John McCain and Palin's campaign for change being like "lipstick on a pig" during a campaign stop Tuesday sparked accusations of sexism from Republicans and some women's advocacy groups. Since then, the Obama campaign has tried to put out the verbal brushfires sparked by his statement.

The candidate even made an appearance on the "Late Show with David Letterman" to clear up the gaffe and inject humor into the discourse. Similar cries of sexism were issued during Clinton's bid for the Democratic nomination.

In Georgia, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, R-Grantville, and Republican 8th District congressional candidate Rick Goddard used the term "uppity" to refer to two African-Americans.

Westmoreland used the racially charged term to describe Obama and his wife, Michelle, during a conversation with reporters in Washington last Thursday. Hours earlier, Goddard used the same term to refer to MSNBC reporter Ron Allen, who is black, on the "Kenny B. and Charles E. Show," a talk show in Macon.

Westmoreland spokesman Brian Robinson said the congressman used the Webster's Dictionary meaning of the word and was unaware of its racial context. Goddard's campaign manager, Lonnie Dietz, said the retired general used the word when Allen asked about Palin's experience during an interview with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.

"Rick came to her defense and simply evoked a word that, by definition, described the reporter's demeanor as being superior, arrogant and presumptuous," the campaign wrote in a prepared statement. "To try and smear Rick's character by suggesting that he meant anything other than the definition is ludicrous."

Allen declined to comment.

Charles Richardson, the Macon Telegraph's editorial page editor and co-host of the Macon talk radio show, saw a range of responses from callers who phoned into the show to discuss Goddard's use of the term.

"I think the word has a long history," Richardson said. "I don't find it insulting, personally, but I can tell you that I bet you my father-in-law, who's 78, would think it was an insult. In fact, I know he'd think it was an insult."

In addition to race and gender, generational and demographic divides further complicate the language of politics as the nation tries to redefine what is considered appropriate in the public sphere, said Susan Tamasi, a specialist in sociolinguistics at Emory University in Atlanta.

"When we learn language use and we learn words, we don't learn them out of dictionaries, we learn them in usage," Tamasi said. "Language is used as part of communities. Sometimes words can be played with. Sometimes they could be read in a certain way. If you are in a community with racial tension, if that usage is there, you'll pick up on it quickly. Language can get very sticky very quickly."

Then there are the implications of persistent Internet rumors that Obama is a Muslim.

He isn't. However, the larger question is whether by using the term people imply belonging to that faith somehow makes him less American and therefore less trustworthy, said Tina Harris, a professor at the University of Georgia who specializes in interracial communication.

"After 9/11, any kind of association with Muslim culture is seen as negative," Harris said. "A lot of people would have a problem with Obama if he were a Muslim because we are a nation founded on Christian principles. If you have a president who is Muslim, the question becomes, 'What does that say about us?' "

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