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Friday, November 07, 2008


Oh, come on, John. Let's say Hillary Clinton had been elected, and Nader had said, "Will she be a Lady Liberty for the people, or a whore for giant corporations?"

You could make all the same defenses - he didn't really call Clinton a whore, and it's not a sexist epithet because men can also be whores, and Nader has run for president with a woman, and in fact accepting campaign contributions from big corporations is a form of moral prostitution, so it's literally true (in an expanded sense) that she's a whore. Why is everyone so gosh-darn sensitive?

But you know perfectly well how most people would take it, and so would Nader. Nobody is that out of touch with 'prevailing societal norms.' You can't sling around that kind of highly charged language, and then blame people's reactions on ignorance of historical context.

This is an extremely tiny issue, so I'm sorry to spend so much space on it, but let’s be honest here – Nader misspoke. It's not that his many enemies are out to get him, or that people are too ignorant to grasp his nuances. He misspoke. It happens to the best of us.


Great post, as usual. The vitriolic hatred of Ralph Nader is one of the more amusing articles of the mainstream liberal faith. On the one hand, it's a matter of Democratic dogma that George Bush stole the 2000 election (and rightly so). Yet at the same time, Al Gore -- excuse me, Nobel Prize-winner Al Gore (praise be upon him) -- supposedly lost the election not because of the Supreme Court or his own inept campaign, but because the egomaniacal Nader and his legion of granola-eating supporters didn't throw their support behind a guy who had no qualms about starving hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children to death.

The reason for this seeming contradiction in the liberal faith is readily apparent, of course: Nader exposes the Democratic Party for what it is -- a corporatist, imperialist gang committed to the same agenda as the Republicans, albeit with more tact and a kinder, gentler face. And this, naturally, poses a threat to the Democratic Party's monopoly over every voter to the left of Genghis Khan. Funny how you never hear these partisans attacking the much larger number of Democrats who voted for Bush...

Similarly, I suspect the mainstream liberals attacking Nader over the "Uncle Tom" comment are well aware the man is not a racist (that is, outside of the truly dull posters at Daily Kos), but with the euphoria of the recent "historic" and "transformational" election still in the air, they can't tolerate someone straying from the party line and pointing out that the new would-be emperor wears no clothes.

Chris: I appreciate the comment, but I'd also appreciate it if you could make your argument without "oh, come on" or implying that I'm being dishonest or denying what I "know perfectly well."

Analogy doesn't work here because the specific term is the crux of this entire issue. We have to look at what Nader actually said. And you certainly can't analogize my defense of what he said, which is addressed very specifically to this statement and this term.

In any case, the analogy doesn't hold because "Uncle Tom" isn't equivalent to "whore"; the meaning is very different (someone who betrays the group as opposed to someone who takes money for services rendered), and more importantly the connotation is much different. Even in the "whore" family there are wild differences in connotation and how acceptable in polite conversation the term is: escort, prostitute, hooker, whore, slut, skank ho, and more graphically descriptive variations I'll leave to the imagination. Try out your analogy with "prostitute herself to giant corporations" and you'll (hopefully) see what I mean.

And I can't imagine a better illustration of ignorance of historical context than analogizing "Uncle Tom" to "spic" or "shylock". That's clear evidence that the person in question is just angry for the wrong reason.

Nader didn't misspeak; he used the term precisely, with reference to its historical meaning. I'd agree that it would have been best not to, because like "niggardly" it's easily misunderstood (unintentionally or otherwise). But I don't see anything inherently wrong with it, and I also don't attribute the motivations to him that you do.

Charles: Thanks much for the compliment and the comment. I'd say you're right that much of the hysteria is a reaction to Nader's apostasy more than his actual words.

This is how much of our political conversation works, and to be fair, sometimes I think it is used against people in the mainstream too. That is, somebody makes a minor misstatement, or sometimes not even that, they just say something that could be misinterpreted and then everyone who hates the person swears allegiance to the worst possible reading of what the person said.

What the person actually meant is irrelevant. It gets in the way of the vitriol if you start asking that question.


Apologies for being a snarky jerk before. Let me try to engage with your specific arguments.

Your first point is canceled out by your last point. If it's accurate and defensible to call Obama an Uncle Tom, then it shouldn't be necessary to insist that Nader didn't technically call him one. I don't have his original statement at hand, but I believe Nader went on to list issues on which he believes Obama has sold out. The clear implication was that Obama is already an Uncle Tom, and will likely remain one. And Nader has made no secret throughout the campaign of the low regard in which he holds Obama.

Debating the verb tense misses the point. If you were to say to me, "your choice is whether or not to be a snarky jerk", I'd know full well I'd been insulted. The question would not have come up if you didn't think I was a snarky jerk already.

Your second point is that Nader wasn't talking about race. If that's true, why did he preface his comment by pointing out that Obama "is our first African-American president, or he will be"? It's Nader who made the leap from "African-American" to "Uncle Tom", not his detractors.

Your third point is that "Uncle Tom" isn't even necessarily a racial term. All I can say is, I have never come across it outside of a racial context. "Uncle Tom" began as a highly racially-charged term, and I think it is still widely understand that way, first and foremost.

I've probably spent way too much time on this already, so I'll leave it there for now. Apologies again for being rude.

NBC news just ran some video of Obama's news conference today. I saw this when I was in a restaurant having dinner, so I didn't get to watch it to closely and the sound was off.

It looked like he had quite a few of his advisors with him but it did not appear to me that any of them were black. Did I see that right?

"Uncle Tom" shouldn't be used for the reasons John Caruso outlines--Nader should instead call him a pandering toady to anti-Arab racists, as well as a sellout to corporate interests. As an example of the first, I give you this.

His comments there were vile in so many ways I don't have the energy to spell them all out.

I don't have his original statement at hand

You can read the text of what he said right here. It only takes a minute.

Chris: No harm, and apology accepted. You definitely make the pro- (or is it con-?) argument well—I'd hate to face you in a debate. And I really appreciate it when people take the time to make thoughtful, reasoned points here.

I don't want to micro-analyze you this time around, but I can say a few things. For one, I was addressing many different aspects of this teapot tempest, so the different points I was making weren't supposed to interlock (e.g. the point about Nader's running mates addresses people who do claim he's a racist based on this statement rather than just criticizing the statement itself).

Also, it's pretty clear that we have different perceptions of "Uncle Tom". You say it began as a highly-charged racial term, but I don't see that—it's just the name of a character in a book, after all. And I don't think the description even applies now. Yes, it's a pejorative, but it's a pejorative that's specifically used to criticize the individual for selling out the group—so it's practically the opposite of racist.

Last, I don't mean to say that Nader's above criticism for this, and I completely respect your right to take him to task for it. I definitely agree it was a poor choice of words (though I don't think it was an intentional provocation—Nader was just talking to some Fox affiliate radio station in Texas, and he had no reason to think this interview would get any more attention than his other interviews). The people I'm really addressing are the ones who've gone frothing-at-the-mouth insane over it, calling Nader a racist, comparing him to David Duke (seriously), etc, etc. I think Donald had it exactly right with what he said about "everyone who hates the person swears allegiance to the worst possible reading of what the person said." There's not a person alive who'd survive this level of hostile scrutiny of every last statement they've made.

cemmcs: Actually that's the transcript of the Fox TV jackass offering his withering contempt to Nader, which I had the deep misfortune of seeing live. The interview in which Nader made the statement happened on a Fox radio affiliate earlier that day, and I've tried but haven't been able to find the full transcript (which I suspect would show that this was just one throwaway in a much larger conversation).

Sure, Obama may not have any black advisors yet, but I'm sure Jeremiah Wright will be dictating his foreign policy in no time.

By the way, Chris, I'd say Nader was unambiguously talking about the future—it wasn't the kind of conditional that might be meant to apply now (like your example). I'm sure he has little doubt of which half of the conditional will apply in the future, of course, but nonetheless when people say that Nader called Obama an Uncle Tom they're just wrong.

If you feel I dodged any of your other points, feel free to call me out....

The transcript at Dissident Voice doesn't make it clear. This is the part from the radio interview:

To put it very simply, he is our first African American president; or he will be. And we wish him well. But his choice, basically, is whether he’s going to be Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations.

I am sure the full text of the radio interview would show it was just a throwaway in a much larger conversation but this isn't about the use of "Uncle Tom". It's about the choice: Is Obama going to be for the people of this country, or for the giant corporations?

If the Obamamaniacs truly believed that Obama will be for the people and not the giant corporations, would they really be so pissed at Nader? Would it be so important to them to brand him as a senile old racist or something?

Hell, no! They would take it good naturedly -- Good old Ralph, a little politically incorrect and always the skeptic which is understandable given what he's seen and been through in his 74 years as an American but there is no reason to worry because Barack Obama really is for the people and not the corporations.

I never watch Fox "News," but saw the video of Nader (for whom I voted) and Smith. I was astounded at Smith's stupid, snarling, sneering persona. Who IS this guy? Is this characteristic of the "news" at Fox? Do people actually watch this garbage? How low can you sink?

RK!=0AFrom "Dumass-cus News" (by Kdelphi)=0APresident-Elect=A0 Barack Obama=
is said to be banned from many "liberal" US websites for his racist remark=
about "mutts like me"! The "audacity"!=0A=0A=0A

Of course--I made this up--it is yet to be confirmed by intelligent sources....

Actually, Rosemary, Smith is one of the better ones. Which is pretty terrifying.

Yeah, what's ironic is that I'd been watching Smith on Fox for an hour (off and on) before his assault on Nader, and the guy was practically swooning over Obama; his eyes had this glazed, dreamy look and he was all praise and rapture. I got the impression he had a serious man crush going on. Very odd given that it was Fox, but it certainly made it easier to understand his smoldering contempt for Nader.

(The transcripts and video I've seen don't include Smith's reaction afterward, when he delivered maybe the most pettish, sneering performance I've ever seen.)

I watch Fox News whenever I get the chance (not often, unless I'm visiting a friend who has better cable than me). It's very instructive.

John, I really like hearing what you have to say, along with others, here.

One of the things you said was: "All that said: is "Uncle Tom" better avoided in public discourse? Yes—because it's easily misconstrued or misrepresented, especially by people who have no idea what they're talking about. But that mainly reflects a hypersensitivity to any race- or gender-specific language in this country, and not anything inherently wrong with the term itself."

I have been struggling with it because I understand why race is a very sensitive subject in our country. There is a history there that is not all that distant and we did have a significant movement when voting in a black President this past week. I voted for Nader and I have many concerns about Obama, but that aside (and I realize it is hard to put all that aside!), I do like that our country can have an African American in such leadership now. And, I believe we should be sensitive to our history when we choose or words. I like that Nader is forthright and sometimes a bit fierce, but I know he can get this point across without using terms related to race in this way. I bet he could even address these concerns he has about OBama not serving minorities well and being subservient to the big corporate powers - straight on - without using labels that could take the attention elsewhere and create negativity. (Well, of course, he has already proven he can).

I guess I would like to see Nader come out and address it over the Internet. Maybe he feels as many fans do that it is just one more attack and let's not give attention to it. However, there are many jumping all over it - some with half decent reason and many just to bash him, and they as usual, hardly contemplated what he meant.

Perhaps too we should all be writing in to Fox news... It does infuriate me that he was cut off just as he started to explain the etymology...

I think that race is TOO sensitive an issue. Dancing around it doesnt solve anything.

Being politically correct is not the same as not being racist.

Being politically correct is not the same as not being racist.

Do you mean politically incorrect? Is that a reference to my comment? Oh God! Did I say something I didn't mean to say? Should I be worried? Have I offended anybody?

Kat: I do like that our country can have an African American in such leadership now.

Agreed. For me, that's the main (or only) bright spot in this election.

I like that Nader is forthright and sometimes a bit fierce, but I know he can get this point across without using terms related to race in this way.

Absolutely...and as you say, he has. In fairness to him, I think it's important to remember how often he's had to express this exact same thought about Obama, day after day, in speeches, interviews, articles, conversations, etc, etc, for nearly a year now. No doubt he varies it from time to time just to retain his sanity—and in this one instance, he chose a phrase that rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But it's only this one instance that we hear over and over, not the hundreds of times he's said the same thing in other words.

This is from an interview with Nader at Counter Punch.

AC What about you calling him an Uncle Tom on Fox?

Nader: On Fox I said that as the first African American president we wish him well. The question is, will he be Uncle Sam for the people or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations which are driving America into the ground. Fox cut it off after “corporations”.

He is less vulnerable to criticism and harder to criticize because of his race. When I said he was talking White Man’s talk, the PC people got really upset.

It doesn’t matter that he sides with destruction of the Palestinians, and sides with the embargo. It doesn’t matter that he turns his back on 100 million people and won’t even campaign in minority areas. It doesn’t matter than he wants a bigger military budget, and an imperial foreign policy supporting various adventures of the Bush administration. It doesn’t matter that he’s for the death penalty ,which is targeted at minorities. But if you say one thing that isn’t PC, you get their attention. I tell college audiences, a gender, racial or ethnic slur gets you upset, reality doesn’t get you upset.

Can Obama speak truth to the white power structure? There’s every indication he doesn’t want to. For example, in February he stiffed the State of the Black Union annual meeting in New Orleans. He’s a very accommodating personality.

cemmcs--I said (a double negative--poorly worded) that NOT being politically correct (which is just as way of trying so hard to tiptoe around race that we have people saying things like "Af Ams voting for Obama had nothing to do with his race. I dont care if he was purple" Which , of course , therer a no "purple" people),or saying you "have black friends" and saying what you think, is NOT the same as being racist. I meant that people who are very pc are often racist and trying to convince themselves of how open-minded they are.

Of course Af Ams voted for Obama for reasons other than race--but race was certainly a factor.

Actually Jesse jackson made a similar criticism in a much less elegant manner. We have a Af Am Pres. There is no time like now for discussing race. But not in the media's fawning attempt to prove how "progrssive" they are.The gloating over how "racist everyone else is" it jsut a bit too much.

Obama seems more comfortable with his race than his supsporters do --and in talking about it. I havent seen him shy away form it--but, when people brought it up--his supporters defend him--from what? He has been around white people all of his life!.It is ridiculous. I saw him address the Af Am community one day (the guys with the sign) and he didnt answer the way they wanted--but he seemed comfortable. Still some rich suburban white kid had to try to shut everyone up. They are nOT helping him.

Actually, when it is used to drown someone out, "yes we can" can be as offensive as "USA!". (Yes Iknow it means something else with UFW--but the surburban neo-liberal are nothing of the kind.The upper class liber al well intenioned, we feel your pain, we are all reponsible blues.

John, yes, that is the one bright spot for me too - that we are at the point we could have an African Amer Pres. And yes, Nader has made his points over and over... and unfortunately has to cram them all in, when interviewed, in a very short allotment of time. We all make mistakes when under pressure, and he has had more than his share of it. I guess I believe however that when you make a mistake you don't leave the elephant in the room. But, he would have to think it was a mistake and it doesn't appear he does. That is absolutely his decision to make and at least what it does for some of us is create a good opportunity for thinking, especially as race is - in a varity of ways - a factor in this election.

To everyone here - thanks for writing your thoughts: I think the issue of political correctness and sensitivity to historical issues of race is a provacative one that people should continue to discuss and contemplate. Our country is not a very old one and we have had some terrible (to put it midly) things happen based on the race to which people have been assigned at birth. We are not past all of the heartache those deplorable events have caused nor have we entirely escaped active discrimination and its associated cruelty. So, for me, it isn't about being politically correct and stuffing these issues down deeper - staying quiet - it is about discussing these things in a way that leaves people (individuals and whole groups) feeling respected as much possible. We can keep on being fierce and forthright as necessary while keeping in mind some of these greater issues when we speak. Humans are so capable of being that complex and creating peaceful environments.

Just wanted to add: (Thanks for the CounterP interview post, cemmcs). In it Nader said, "I tell college audiences, a gender, racial or ethnic slur gets you upset, reality doesn't get you upset." I wouldn't separate slurs from what is real BUT I will say that it is sad our young (and older alike) don't care more about the rest of reality - these issues Nader presents. And - Nader is right: there is so much more we could all be doing about it.

"Imagine democracy"

KDelphi--Sorry. I missed that it was a double negative. I made a careless mistake. It wasn't bad wording on your part. It was bad reading on my part.

Apart from that, I was attempting to be humorous. Just pretend I didn't include that first sentence and while you're at it, feel free to pretend the rest of the comment was hilarious.

cemmcs---LOLOLOLOL--no really. Its funny now that I read it.

That is something I was complaining about earlier--there is no "inflection" in type. I just type like I talk, sometimes....and I have made some people angry--being sarcastic (but it comes off as a bitch) or trying to be funny (and it doesnt work). I'll try not to be too sentitive. I've been hanging around a site where q bunch of "smarter than me or you " PhDs hang out (hell, my dad and sister are/were phDs--but they didnt/dont tell me every 5 minutses!)and they are constanlty "correcting" me.

I have the luxury of posting one year later, a few days before Obama's first State Of The Union Address.

Uncle Sam or Toady?

Answer: Toady

But you already knew Nader wasn't really asking a question.

(ps, As I typed this, 9/11 paranoia came on little cat feet, begging the thought, 'I don't have a luxury, the luxury of knowing what surprises are in store in the days prior to Obama's address'. Obama has a real need for one to distract people from reality.)

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