Words, words, words. Words are the evil that makes life miserable. Some people think if only we could abolish words, everyone would live in perfect peace, happy harmony and sweet silence. Hillary Clinton demonstrated the other day just how destructive words can be. She thought she was needling her wayward husband, and it turned out she was cutting herself.
Jake Tapper of CNN News asked her what she thought of Donald Trump’s less than admiring remarks about her, and she replied, with the words Bubba had coming: “I have a lot of experience dealing with men who sometimes get off the reservation in the way they behave.”
But in modern America any remark can be remanufactured as something to offend someone somewhere, and the activists (or advocates or whatever we’re supposed to call such special pleaders this week) pounced. “Reservation,” they said, was a word only for Indians, who were kept on them in bygone days by the white man. They demanded an apology.
The Hillary campaign fell all over itself to oblige, dispatching a top twit to reassure Twitterworld that Hillary meant no offense, and even offered a lesson in advanced linguistics. “About the use of an expression today that has some very offensive roots,” twittered Amanda Renteria, the campaign’s national political director, “divisive language has no place in our politics.”
This was a model modern apology, with no acknowledgement of who it was who said exactly what, and when the apology was not abject enough Hillary decided a more uplifting cliche was required. Her political director dispatched a second tweet: “Hillary meant no disrespect to Native Americans. She wants this election to be about lifting people up, not tearing them down.”
Twitterworld was aghast, as it always is about something, and Mrs. Clinton was denounced for sending out a top twit to offer an apology, sort of, and not abasing herself in person. Donald Trump, with his mastery of media, leaped in with mock outrage, calling it “a horrible expression.” The Donald’s outrage was offered in behalf of men, no doubt including offended braves (if any). “That’s a very demeaning remark to men, in my opinion. Was she referring to her husband? I think she was referring to her husband.”
This was another lost opportunity for a teaching moment, but in our eggshell world, where everyone walks in fear, who can blame her? Still, she could have cast her remark as striking a blow for diversity and inclusion. Native Americans of other persuasions have contributed their verbal DNA to the language, sometimes positive, sometimes not: body English, Danish pastry, Mexican stand-off, gypsy taxicabs, wandering Jew, Welsh rarebit, Dutch courage.
Making so much of so little was enough to get a man’s Irish up. The glory of the American language is its flexibility, its imaginative slang, its talent for stealing words from other languages, and above all for its relish in making words talk. It’s the ultimate respect, taking the gifts and using them with no reservations.