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Feb. 14 2010 - 9:13 am | 52 views | 3 recommendations | 0 comments

Political correctness is as American as apple pie

Reading this excellent Ta-Nehisi Coates post on the “John Mayer rule” and the dangers and rewards of getting trashed with members of other racial and ethnic groups, two things occur to me. The first is that this discussion, with its involved treatment of the semiotics of different manners of giving racial offense and the navigation of racial/social boundaries, is the kind of discussion that many people in America would dismiss as so much useless identity-politics navel-gazing; they’d say talking about these issues at such length and in such depth only exacerbates and reproduces racial divisions. The second thing is that a lot of people in European countries would also feel this kind of discussion is hopelessly torqued-up. The third thing is that both those people in America and those people in Europe would be wrong, and the reason is that most people in Europe can’t even follow a discussion of racial semiotics and social boundary-navigation at this level of sophistication, while most Americans can. And the fact that Europeans generally don’t yet get to this level of sophistication in their discussions of racial/ethnic relations is part and parcel of their inability, as yet, to achieve American levels of racial/ethnic integration.

What I’m trying to say is that American racial hyper-sensitivity isn’t the reason why America is bad at integration. It’s part of the reason why America is good at integration. In European countries where they make fun of this kind of talk, you generally find that the reason is that they haven’t developed the vocabulary to talk this way.* It’s not that they don’t have prejudice and racial discomfort. It’s that they’ve never had to think about it much, because nobody has yet forced them to. When they are forced to think about it, the stuff that comes out of their mouths is often, to an American sensibility, somewhat juvenile-sounding. Americans are mostly rather provincial and unsophisticated in making international comparisons, but our discourse about racial and ethnic relations is really impressively deep, and it’s one of the best parts of American culture.

* I should say that to the extent that Europeans don’t make fun of this kind of discussion, and instead engage in similar discussions, this isn’t true.


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    About Me

    I've reported from Vietnam since 2003. I'm now the Hanoi correspondent for the German-based, English-language wire service Deutsche Presse-Agentur, and was previously a Hanoi-based stringer for the Boston Globe and for Voice of America. Before that I reported from West Africa, and before that from the Netherlands; my articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Nation, the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times. I've got a thing for languages, and have picked up Russian, French, Dutch and Vietnamese. I used to write scripts for the children's cartoon shows "Arthur", "Doug", and a few others. I got a degree in interactive telecommunications back when most people had never sent an email. In April 1991 I predicted the USSR would collapse into its constituent republics and that Boris Yeltsin would become president of Russia. Since then most of my predictions have been rather less accurate, so it was probably a fluke.

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