Magic Negroes And Magic Words

When academic bureaucrats and civic busybodies try to regulate, ban, or even criminalize "hate speech," they often rely on a core proposition — that racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual epithets are different and uniquely powerful in a way that takes them outside of normal First Amendment analysis and normal freedom of expression principles, justifying extraordinary action. This theory — what I'll call the "magic words" approach — was the rationale for the wave of campus speech codes that reached high tide in the 90s, and that (as FIRE documents) still persist. Conservatives traditionally scorned this theory, arguing that words are just words, that they only have such force as people choose to give them, and that more speech, rather than the hand of government or other institutions, ought to address such invective. Conservatives, in other words, took an identifiably conservative stance — that the marketplace of ideas is a free market, that hate speech cannot be seen as a market flaw, and that the market should police itself.

Yet some conservatives have now embraced "magic words" theory and made it their own.

No, conservatives have not conceded that being called "nigger" or "faggot" is uniquely powerful and harmful in a way that takes the matter beyond the scope of the self-regulation of the marketplace of ideas. Instead, in a fit of unselfconscious self-satire, they are complaining that being called "racist" or "bigoted" is uniquely hurtful, market-distorting, and speech-suppressing, thus taking the matter beyond the normal rules of the marketplace of ideas to a dark and scary place where more speech cannot protect them.

The most recent occasion for this phenomenon is the sad strange case of Chip Saltsman, former Tennessee GOP chair, Huckabee campaign manager, and RNC Chair aspirant. Saltsman wants very badly to be RNC Chair in 2009, possibly as a form of penance for some crime I shudder to imagine. He diminished his chances somewhat by sending out a burned CD for Christmas — not of his fave holiday tunes, but of Republican red meat satire like "Barack the Magic Negro":

The song, performed by an Al Sharpton impersonator, was written by satirist and Saltsman friend Paul Shanklin to the tune of "Puff the Magic Dragon." It played off a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by freelance writer David Ehrenstein, who characterized Obama as an archetypal cinematic "Magic Negro" — a black man who assuages white guilt, like the character played by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

The CD also contained other satirical songs enjoyed by the sort of people who could imagine themselves as RNC Chairs and who think Mark Russel is too subtle. Saltsman finds himself in a holiday tempest, with people on the left and the right rising to denounce the song — and by extension him — as offensive, as his opponents jockey for advantage. Now, this is an uncommonly silly dispute on many levels. The "Magic Negro" song itself is a play on a column written by a leftist, David Ehrenstein, who wrote a column in the L.A. Times suggesting that Obama resembles classic cinematic figures of unthreatening black benevolence. Ehrenstein mouths, without soundly refuting, the implication that Obama is not "authentically black," which is the only thing that makes the column potentially obnoxious. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh seized upon the column with delight and forged satirical songs featuring the term "Magic Nego," thus acting rather like folks who cheerfully use the word "nigger" in regular conversation because Chris Rock says it and therefore it must be acceptable. And now people are complaining about the song stripped of all that context that makes its provenance more complex than if Saltsman had simply decided, out of the blue, to start referring to Obama as "that Magic Negro."

The tumult has produced much defensiveness from the right. But one, spotted at Sadly, No, caught my eye in particular, because it embodied the conservative embrace of "magic words" theory. Rick Moran of RightWingNuthouse busts out with this:

That is, unless you’re a liberal seeking to make political hay and stifle free expression. You can criticize “Barack the Magic Negro” as unfunny or not in good taste. But when you use the inflammatory word “racism” to describe it, you go beyond critiquing the work and enter the world of pure politics. This liberals do on a regular basis and they get away with the sliming of political speech and speakers they disagree with because the press refuses to call them out on it.

In fact, the left has lowered the bar on what constitutes “racism” by redefining the term to suit their own political needs. And by refusing to acknowledge any set definition of the word, the left deliberately undermines free speech by cutting off debate with liberals firmly ensconced in a superior moral position while the person being unfairly smeared as a racist is unable to defend themselves. If one tries to stand up and fight the charge, they give automatic legitimacy to the left’s argument. And if they remain silent in the face of such slimeball tactics, the smear works and sticks to the accused like glue. [emphasis added]

Here are all the tropes behind "magic words" theory as used both by leftists and rightist: that such words go outside normal discourse, that they cut off debate (thus "breaking" the marketplace of ideas), and that they leave people flat-footed and incapable of defense. Of course, its all nonsense. Moran's complaint is utterly un-conservative — it's practically Marxist. It sounds like what you would expect from Noam Chomsky or a member of a French trade union; it's a straight-up complaint that the marketplace of ideas cannot be trusted and does not work. Yet the mere fact that people like Rick Moran keep writing and talking incessantly establishes beyond cavil that calling them racist idiots does not shut down the marketplace of ideas or render them incapable of self-defense. If being widely derided as a bigoted dick is actually unfairly debilitating, how in God's name are Rick Santorum and Al Sharpton and Mike "Don't Call Me a Weiner" Savage still bleating?

Now, you'd be right to point out that the conservative embrace of magic words theory has not yet reached the point where conservatives have sought to ban the words "racist" or "bigot." But conservatives are using magic words theory as an explicit component of public policymaking. Consider megachuch pastor, popular author, Syria apologist, and inauguration speaker Rick Warren, who explicitly argued that the danger of being called a bigot made it necessary to pass California's Proposition 8:

Because first the court overrode the will of the people, but second there were all kinds of threats that if that did not pass then any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn’t think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships, and that would be hate speech. We should have freedom of speech, ok? And you should be able to have freedom of speech to make your position and I should be able to have freedom of speech to make my position, and can’t we do this in a civil way.
What they desire is approval and validation from those who disagree with them, and they are willing to force it by law if necessary. Any disapproval is quickly labeled “hate speech. Imagine if we held that standard in every other disagreement Americans have? There would be no free speech. That’s why, on the traditional marriage side, many saw Prop 8 as a free speech issue: Don’t force me to validate a lifestyle I disagree with.

Warren is using the threat of being accused of bigotry as a justification for public policy — with the implied ridiculous fearmongering warning that any minute his speech might be criminalized. Once again, it's not clear why pastors can't simply use their pulpit to respond to such speech.

The conservatives are just as wrong as the liberals on this. The correct response to objectionable speech is more speech. The pathetic mewling from the likes of Moran simply demonstrates how adequate and effective response speech can be. When Rick Moran and Rick Warren get called bigots, the market is working — it is telling them that most people don't want to buy what they are selling.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. PLW says

    "you go beyond critiquing the work and enter the world of pure politics." This is an argument that makes even less sense to me than all the rest. How can you argue that speech should be limited _because_ it is political? Isn't political speech among those sorts of speech with the strongest level of constitutional protection?

  2. says

    It sounds kind of Star Warsy to me. "If you call me a bigot, I shall enter the world of pure politics and become MORE POWERFUL THAN YOU CAN POSSIBLY IMAGINE."

  3. says

    I decided to post on Moran's blog in the comments to that post. Here's what I posted, out of a suspicion that it will be deleted:

    You know, it’s funny how liberal this sounds. Leftists have long argued for bans on “hate speech” on the grounds that certain words are inherently powerful, “magic words” outside the marketplace of ideas, and render their targets incapable of defense. That’s the justification for things like campus speech codes. Principled conservatives have refuted this, recognizing that words are words and that more speech is the proper response to dickish speech.

    But here come the unprincipled self-styled conservatives like you, ready to use liberal “magic words” theory, whining that being called a “racist” or “bigot” is uniquely hurtful, outside the scope of the marketplace of ideas, and render the victim unable to respond.

    If you are a conservative, why don’t you believe in the marketplace of ideas? Are you some sort of Chomsky reader? Or a French trade unionist?

    Here's how he responded:

    Are you a dick by choice or does being a dick come to you naturally?

    You haven’t said anything to refute me. You just plastered gibberish on my blog. Yes, sweetheart, there are “magic words” that when used by the left, automatically elevate their argument to a supreme moral plane and stifles any response that can be made in the “marketplace of ideas.” The fact that you are too dense to see it and blissfully unaware of this makes you as dumb as any liberal who ever visited here.


    I feel smarter already.

    My followup:

    Liberals are generally thoughtful enough to come up with elaborate speech codes with forbidden words and definitions and such. Have you put any work into a speech code necessary to protect the feelings of people like you? I mean, I get that “racist” and “bigot” are magic hurtful words that should be treated differently, and that can’t adequately be addressed (at least by some special people) by more speech, but what else? Do you have a list?

    By the way, I may have wronged you by assuming that you were a hypocrite when your views are actually consistent. Do you, in fact, support speech codes that treat some words—racial epithets, etc.—as being outside the normal marketplace of ideas, and therefore requiring special intervention?

    Also, in response to this:

    Are you a dick by choice or does being a dick come to you naturally?

    I gave him:

    I’ll ask Mom, but I think it was mostly upbringing.

  4. RobF says

    Nice essay, Ken, and a good example of how those who presume to sit in judgment of others typically whine the loudest when any sort of judgment blows back in their faces. See also: those who rail against others having some sense of entitlement to things they "have not earned" will scream and pitch a fit when something they haven't really earned is taken from them, and so on and so on.

  5. Kevin says

    You're right, but I don't think you're being fair to Warren – worrying being charged with "hate speech" is a lot different than worrying about being called a bigot. The latter is sticks-and-stones stuff, the former can land you in real men-with-guns-come-and-get-you-if-you-fail-to-appear court in some places, and Warren may be worried about California becoming one of them.

    Which is entirely orthogonal to the question of gay marriage, but I'm saying you're mischaracterizing his argument, not that he's making sense.

  6. says

    Kevin, I'm not sure about that. It seems to me that Warren is being deliberately vague as to whether he's talking about the prospect of being accused rhetorically of hate speech (which is an actual danger, though not one we should care about) or the prospect of being prosecuted for hate speech (not an actual danger, absent a dramatic change to the Constitution of the United States or to interpretation thereof). I will look for another quote I've seen from him where he expressed it as "being accused of bigotry," which seems to suggest the former rather than the latter.

  7. Kevin says

    People are looking to that case in Canada where a minister was formally banned from commenting on homosexuality, and wondering whether it could happen here.

    I agree with you that it's extremely unlikely, because of the First Amendment – but I'm sure people 150 years ago would have thought than an interpretation of the Second that didn't allow gentlemen to carry pistols on their person in high-crime areas was impossible, too.

    That said, the idea that being called a racist or a bigot is also "hate speech" is ridiculous. I had thought, rather, that these days "racist", like "fascist", is one of those words that the left reaches for when they can't productively attack your actual theis.

  8. says

    This is well put, and I'm glad I stumbled across it. I think you're absolutely right about conservatives taking an un-conservative position, though apparently what you think of as core conservative principles Moran thinks of as idiotic hairsplitting–he's some blowhard. But what I get from his diatribe, mostly, is jealousy. Wouldn't it be great to have words you could use to cut off debate and leave you "firmly ensconced in a superior moral position"? And then to have "the press" let you get away with it? I don't know about Moran, but there are a few right-wing nutcases who think that the conservative white man is the new black, and more than a few who drift in and out of that sense of themselves depending on the circumstances. I think, from that perspective, it's outrageous and intolerable that the usual suspects still get to claim the magic words.

    This idea that the accusation of racism is beyond the pale and unanswerable has come up in some long exchanges I've had with irate commenters on my blog. I think Kevin is right, that the word is thrown out in place of a substantive response, or as thoughtless outrage, so to some extent the sensitivity is warranted. But there's usually a sense that the real problem is that the wrong people are using the word. And, exactly as you said, there's this very strange conviction, coming from people who are venting their spleen in some forum or another on a daily basis, that their self-expression is at the mercy of the PC types who think they're racists. One of the funnier aspects of these arguments was finding out what I must be thinking, because it's what people like me think ("if I had said that YOU were a 'slave to the metanarrative,' would you have accused me of using 'racist' language, since I had used the word 'slaves'?"–the whole verbose comment, from an professor of economics, of all people, is here).