Speaking in Tongues

TRB

June 25, 1992|By TRB

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Sister Souljah has been misunderstood. When the rap singer made her now notorious observation to the Washington Post -- ''If black people kill black people every day, why not take a week and kill white people?''-- she was not endorsing the proposition that black people should kill white people. As she explains it, she was expressing not her own views but the views of a black person who ordinarily kills black people.

''I was just telling the writer that . . . if a person would kill their own brother, or a baby in a drive-by, or a grandmother, what would make white people think that [he] wouldn't kill them, too?'' So that clears that one up.

Oddly enough, the same sort of misunderstanding has bedeviled a more famous rap singer, Ice-T. In a song entitled ''Cop Killer'' (performed with his band, Body Count), he appears to endorse the murder of policemen: ''I'm 'bout to bust some shots off/ I'm 'bout to dust some cops off . . . Die, Die, Die Pig, Die.''

That seems pretty clear. But Ice-T explains that he is not recommending violence against cops himself. He is merely speaking in the voice of a fictional character ''who is fed up with police brutality.'' So that's OK.

This technique has great possibilities. We all commit the occasional faux pas, be it using the wrong fork or urging mass slaughter. And we are all tempted, when caught in misdeeds or other embarrassments, to blame someone else if possible. Who better to blame than a fictional character? It's not so much, ''The devil made me do it,'' as, ''I made the devil do it.''

For example. When our vice president publicly misspelled the word, ''potato,'' he tried to blame the cue card -- an inanimate object. It didn't work. A wiser approach would have been to BTC insist that he, Dan Quayle, was not misspelling ''potato.'' He was actually speaking in the voice of a fictional character -- say, a sixth-grader who, due to the failures of our public schools on account of the stranglehold of the National Education Association and the scandalous refusal of Congress to enact school choice, can't spell worth a darn. In fact, it would be easy to convince many citizens that Mr. Quayle has been speaking in the voice of a poorly educated sixth-grader for his entire tenure as vice president.

That, of course, is a deplorable cheap shot. But it is not me speaking. I am merely putting myself in the voice of someone with a weakness for Dan Quayle jokes. This is a public service. It is important for our leaders, such as the vice president, to understand the mentality of such people, especially since we -- I mean they -- represent most of the population. No presidential candidate can win a majority without capturing at least half of this powerful interest group. According to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the Nelson Polsby Professor of Soundbites at the Ornstein Center for Public Chat of the University of Hohum, ''The election could turn on whether Quayle-joke lovers decide that losing Dan Quayle is worth the price of losing Dan Quayle jokes.''

While Mr. Quayle tends to blame inanimate objects for his gaffes, President Bush tends to blame the Democratic Congress. This also doesn't seem to be working. Mr. Bush might want to try the Souljah technique. ''When I said, 'Read my lips: no new taxes,' it wasn't me speaking. I was just putting myself in the voice of a typical craven, demagogic, pandering, short-sighted, anything-to-get-elected-and-who-cares-if-it's true politician of the type we have far too many of in this country and that's why I'm for term limits.

''And when I said I would raise taxes after all, that wasn't me speaking either. I was putting myself in the voice of promise-betraying, big-spending politician -- fat and slobbery, if you listen closely -- to illustrate the need for a very different type of person, such as myself, to be re-elected and have a line-item veto.''

A small problem here is that the president's role in his public utterances is already fairly limited. Unlike Sister Souljah, he does not write his own stuff. The immortal line, ''Read my lips, no new taxes,'' was composed by a speechwriter, Peggy Noonan. If Mr. Bush were to speak words crafted by somebody else, and then begin attributing them to a third party, however fictional, his own role would seem almost completely pointless. Somebody might cruelly suggest cutting out the middleman and letting Peggy Noonan put her words directly into the mouth of a fictional character.

Blaming a fictional character is really just a slight improvement on the traditional Washington technique of diffusing blame into the atmosphere through use of the passive voice. ''Mistakes were made,'' President Reagan famously said at the time of Iran-contra. By whom? Never mind. But if mistakes were made by a fictional character, you could simply indict him and be done with it.

''Souljah was not born to make white people feel comfortable,'' sings Sister Souljah. ''And if my survival means your total destruction, then so be it.'' George Bush, who as it happens was born to make white people feel comfortable, could nevertheless

learn something from her technique.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by Michael Kinsley.

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