Thursday, February 21, 2008

Democrat and Canadian

Last night, I was reading an article in the New York Post (a paper that I do not ordinarily read, but a complimentary copy of which someone left in front of my door). It was a rant about Michelle Obama's "pride problem" and the supposedly elitist tendency among the Democratic base to be ashamed of the United States. Nothing unexpected appeared in the article -- just more of the nonsense on which people seem to enjoy focusing when they can't find anything substantive to say. Among the many things about the U.S. in which this particular writer expressed "pride" (by contrast to Mrs. Obama) was the pharmaceutical industry. What irked me about the article, however, was its use of the word "Democrat" as an adjective to describe a Democratic candidate for president, though I am not exactly sure why this usage made me so angry. I will hazard a guess (and provide a link here to a New Yorker article in which Hendrik Hertzberg examines the phenomenon at greater length), but I am interested in hearing readers' theories (or, alternatively, readers' feelings about the usage itself and whether it bothers them as well).

My theory is that using "Democrat" in place of "Democratic" conveys the view that it is Republicans rather than Democrats who get to decide what the Democratic party is to be called. Like a child in the school yard who bullies another by distorting his name, it is the presumptuous claiming of the right to name that is so offensive, rather than the name itself. The name, then, which may be meaningless, becomes a stand-in for all of the nasty names that one could imagine inserting in its stead. Once Republicans have the power to say what the Democratic Party is to be called, in other words, the name they come up with seems to serve as a kind of fake euphemism for the ugly names that they have in mind but would not say.

Though the following analogy is hardly perfect, it captures something for me. There are apparently people who refer to African Americans as "Canadians." I know this because someone was widely disseminating an email in which someone else had criticized the heavily "Canadian" jury in some criminal case for being excessively pro-defendant. At first glance, the email made no sense (why were Canadians on an American jury? and why would Canadians be especially pro-defendant?). In response to such puzzlement, it was explained that the word "Canadians" is used to denote "African Americans." Upon learning this, I found myself extremely offended by the use of the word "Canadians" in this way, not because I have anything against Canadians (I do not), but because this use of the word struck me as very much like use of the "n" word. As with the "Democrat party," however, I cannot quite articulate how the word "Canadian" -- when used to refer to African Americans -- sounded to me so much like a racial slur.

I realized just how much the "Democrat party" usage bothered me when I was listening to a speech by Rudy Giuliani (whose presidential aspirations terrified me) and heard him say "Democratic party." I smiled to myself and thought, "maybe he isn't that bad." If I were a fan of Hillary Clinton (or at least of her tactics), I might come up with a name for the Republicans that would have the same tone as the offending usage, but alas, I support Obama, and I thus leave it to other to propose a word to insert in place of "Republican."

Posted by Sherry Colb