Just a quick glance shows us how words have been used to assassinate people’s character. Words like pedophile and sexual predator have been used to mis-characterize gay people in an attempt to criminalize them. Words like useless and ugly have been used to re-characterize children’s self-images, sometimes driving them to suicide. Words like thug and “gangsta” were used in attempt to justify the slayings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. And, let us not forget that when they began their struggle, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela we branded with the labels terrorist, although these figures' near universal acclaim has all but wiped out the slurs of the past.
It is the very power of words that should cause us to pay great attention to them. Too often, we use words without really understanding the extent of their meaning. One example that has gotten a lot of recent attention is Ted Nugent’s characterization of the president, in which he said he was ashamed that it was possible for “a Chicago communist raised, communist educated, communist nurtured sub-human mongrel, like the Acorn community organizer gangster Barak Hussein Obama to weasel his way into the top office of authority in the United States.”
It is not remarkable that Mr. Nugent said what he said. He has a long history of saying outrageous things and, ordinarily, I might suggest that it is better to ignore such statements – outright dismiss them and move on without giving them another thought. But Greg Abbott, the current Attorney General for the state of Texas and the presumed Republican candidate for Texas governor invited Mr. Nugent to the campaign trail, implicitly endorsing Mr. Nugent’s position. The words, being endorsed, and the questions that they raise now could not be ignored.
Several notable people have condemned Mr. Nugent’s characterization of the president, but to date Mr. Abbott is not one of them. (We’ll look at that more at the end.) Current Texas Governor Rick Perry said that he had a problem with calling Obama a subhuman mongrel. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul has called on Mr. Nugent to apologize. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer pointed out the use of the term “subhuman mongrel” in Nazi Germany to justify the extermination of the Jews and questioned the language the Nugent used as terms that motivate a specific base.
There is no doubt about that. Yes, the term subhuman mongrel deserves particular admonition, but every term that Mr. Nugent used had specific and clear embedded connotations which we should examine at least briefly.
Nugent starts his characterization by evoking place. The use of Chicago attempts to tie Mr. Obama to the Chicago political machine. A possibly fair characterization, it does, however, miss the role of money in politics entirely (see, for example the Koch Brothers) by trying to locate the problem of corruption to a heavily Democratic city.
Nugent then repeatedly characterizes Mr. Obama as a communist. Communist is an epithet that has been used to slander people since the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Bizarrely, Mr. Obama sits to the right of most if not all leftist leaders outside of the United States. It is a gross mischaracterization that is used to evoke the same fears of the Cold War. Nonetheless, evoking the threat of communism has been an effective rallying cry within right circles in the United States where the term inexorably links the person or thing labeled by it with oppression and the loss of freedom. In short, communism characterized as evil though there are no limits to the terms application by the American right on people and things they do not like.
Mr. Nugent goes on to suggest that Mr. Obama is a subhuman mongrel, which on its face simply dehumanizes the president by implicating that he is a beast or a monster and, implicitly, as Blitzer points out, justifies his slaying.
Then Mr. Nugent reminds us that Mr. Obama was an Acorn community organizer. This reference is an attempt to label Mr. Obama as a terrorist, bent on destroying America. It revives the failed talking points raised in the presidential campaigns.
Next Mr. Nugent calls Mr. Obama a gangster, which is a transparent labeling of the president as a criminal. Mr. Nugent then evokes Mr. Obama’s middle name, Hussein, in order to draw attention to the accusation that the president is a Muslim and unAmerican.
Finally, Mr. Nugent says the Mr. Obama weaseled his way into office, indicating that Mr. Obama is patently dishonest, a claim that conservatives have leveled especially in the wake of the Affordable Care Act implementation fiasco. It sets up a potential call for impeachment.
Indeed, Mr. Nugent, later in the same interview, calls on the Democratic leadership and the US Attorney General to be incarcerated for their “treasonous” acts.
There is no doubt Mr. Nugent’s characterization was expertly crafted. His word choice evoked a set of images which paint Mr. Obama in an exceedingly negative light. They are images which resonate with the disgruntled right, who have expressed their anger openly since the day Mr. Obama was elected to his first term. Blitzer is not wrong about Mr. Nugent’s ability to stir up support. He is indeed skilled in evoking a series of images that motivate a very disgruntled subset of voters.
It should not be lost upon us that Mr. Nugent’s characterization is as hyperbolic and ridiculous as Chris Rock’s line on young white men as potential mass murders– “I’m getting in the elevator and these two high school white boys tried to get on with me. I just dove off. I said ‘Y’all ain’t killing me!’ […] if you’re white and under twenty-one I’m running for the hills!” The difference being though is that Chris Rock is a comedian and Mr. Nugent, by all accounts is dead serious.
That is why Mr. Abbott’s silence is so important. In refusing to condemn Mr. Nugent, Mr. Abbott leaves a lot of questions, questions relevant to any assessment of how he will govern if elected, unanswered. Does he believe that language like "subhuman mongrel" is appropriate to characterize any person? If so, what are we to do to that person? Does Mr. Abbott believe that Mr. Obama is a criminal who ought to be tried and jailed? Does he believe that Mr. Obama is unworthy of the respect of a human being, and if so, on what basis?
Given that Mr. Abbott’s office decides to restrict the freedoms of many people, these questions are not incidental and without complete answers, we might be inviting someone who is willing to use sensationalized, hateful, and hyperbolic rhetoric to make policy decisions. Mr. Abbott's campaign is that he is fighting for Texas family values. Clearly by being silent on this, he seems to indicate that hate and vitriol fall into that category.