September 09, 2005

Leave the Bushmen out of it

In today's WSJ Opinion Journal, Mark Helprin's lament "They Are All So Wrong" trashes the American political spectrum from one end to the other:

Our politics and policies have somehow been parceled out to opportunists like Michael Moore--purveyor of conspiracy theories and hatreds, whose presentation, unclean in every respect, is honored nonetheless by the controlling rump of Democrats--and to Bushmen like "Kip" Hawley of Homeland Security, father of the proposal to allow carry-on ice-picks, bows and arrows, and knives with blades up to five-inches long.

That's this Kip Hawley, now Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for the Transportation Security Administration, and this proposal. So why is he a "Bushman", with a capital B? He certainly doesn't look like an aboriginal inhabitant of southwestern Africa, nor does he seem to be a dweller or traveler in the Australian bush.

When I read Helprin's essay, I thought it was obvious: Bushmen is metonymic for "savages". This usage would a bit insensitive, to say the least. The AHD calls Bushman itself "offensive" even when used literally to refer to the ethnic group in question; though a few days ago, Language Hat linked to a piece by Steve Sailer on "The Name Game", which offers a different point of view:

The fashion of renaming the Bushmen of Southwestern Africa as the "San" exemplifies many of the problems with the name game. University of Utah anthropologist Henry Harpending, who has lived with the famous tongue-clicking hunter-gatherers said, "In the 1970s the name 'San' spread in Europe and America because it seemed to be politically correct, while 'Bushmen' sounded derogatory and sexist."

Unfortunately, the hunter-gatherers never actually had a collective name for themselves in any of their own languages. "San" was actually the insulting word that the herding Khoi people called the Bushmen. ("Khoi" is the term used by those who were labeled "Hottentots" by the Dutch. As you can probably guess by now, "Khoi" means "the real people.")

Harpending noted, "The problem was that in the Kalahari, 'San' has all the baggage that the 'N-word' has in America. Bushmen kids are graduating from school, reading the academic literature, and are outraged that we call them 'San.'"

"I knew very well," he said, "That one did not call someone a San to his face. I continued to use Bushman, and I was publicly corrected several times by the righteous. It quickly became a badge among Western academics: If you say 'San' and I say 'San,' then we signal each other that we are on the fashionable side, politically. It had nothing to do with respect. I think most politically correct talk follows these dynamics."

Some more discussion of the same sort is here, also suggesting that for many members of the ethnic group in question, "Bushman" is indeed the favored term.

But Helprin isn't suggesting that Hawley is literally one of the Bushmen of southwestern Africa. Language Hat suggested to me by email that Helprin meant this as a sort of punning reference to the followers of President Bush: the "Bushmen", get it? If that's what Helprin meant, it went right over my head -- instead, I took him to mean something like "uncivilized people who think that the way to solve problems is to use bows and knives, typified by hunter-gatherer bands like the Bushmen". This would ungenerous, not to say offensive, given that the culture of the Bushmen/San/Khoe/Basarwa seems to be rather on the gentle side. Even if it's a joke -- "the Bush men are Bushmen, nudge nudge wink wink" -- it's an unkind one. Incompetent hunter-gatherers don't get promotions and presidential medals, they starve to death.

A traditional solution to the problem of finding a metonymic substitute for savage is to use the word Neandert(h)al. This has the advantage of referring to no living people (unless you're one of those who believes that modern Europeans are part Neandertal), but it has the disadvantage of being founded on an unjustified prejudice against people with brow ridges and weak chins.

A more rational solution would be use the name of the American political group now most associated with interest in weapons, namely Republicans. To provide anatomical balance with his prior use of the phrase "rump of Democrats", perhaps Helprin should have referred to "Republicans like 'Kip' Hawley". Indeed, for enhanced anatomical and neurological parallelism, he might have contrasted the "numb rump of Democrats" who honor Michael Moore with the "brain-dead Republicans" who want to see hijackers and airline passengers fighting it out with bayonets and crossbows. Of course, I suggest this purely as an matter of abstract rhetorical balance, not to express any political opinion or any derogation of Mr. Hawley.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 9, 2005 02:15 PM