Black and white photo of guy with big mustache sitting at piano singing

One of the hallmarks of the Donald Trump campaign, and to a lesser extent the Republican Party, is a call for the end of political correctness. I’ve always felt a little sorry for that term, doomed to the grammatical tragedy of becoming a sarcastic pejorative before it ever had a chance to be a straightforward noun. That said, with a few highly regrettable exceptions, I’ve never had much trouble differentiating the loud, profane, obnoxious, ribald and borderline pornographic from language that hurts, demeans, dehumanizes or demonstrates power over someone else. Be polite, just like your mom told you, and you shouldn’t have to worry about anything.

I do not, and probably never will, understand the passion – indeed the desperation – of those who don’t want to give up their use of certain slurs. Ask some people not to use the R-Word, and they’ll act like you knifed their sister. But to make a small and likely ineffective argument to these folks, I would like to mention history is a harsh judge in regard to intolerance. Exhibiting offensive conduct, however acceptable by the standards of the day, makes you, at best, a period piece to be leered at, and, at worst, a stupid bigot worthy of contempt. And it can define you completely, regardless of your other accomplishments in life.

For example, when you think about the fourth Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Roger Taney, you don’t think about him as the great Jacksonian Democrat who led the charge against the Second Bank of the United States, joined Justice Story’s opinion in the Amistad case, and spend 20 years on the Supreme Court curbing the power of corporations and private money interests. No, you think of him (justifiably) as the evil son of a bitch who wrote the Dred Scott decision.

Same goes for music. When we think of Al Jolson, we don’t think of the great turn-of-the-century jazz, blues and ragtime singer who was once dubbed the “World’s Greatest Entertainer.” We don’t recall that he starred in the first talking picture, “The Jazz Singer,” in 1927. Instead, we remember him for his appallingly racist custom of performing in black face. Bing Crosby too.

During the course of a four-decade career, country music star Marty Robbins charted 17 number one country singles, several top-ten pop hits and the 1960 number one pop single “El Paso.” In addition to his musical success, Robbins scored six top ten finishes in 35 races in what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. Although something of a hack, he does retain some significance in that his songs “Big Iron” and the aforementioned “El Paso” represent the last known commercial sightings of the “Western” in “Country and Western.”

In 1966, though, Robbins wrote and recorded the pro-segregationist anthem “Ain’t I Right.” Two years after the murders of Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the song labeled civil rights organizers in the south as communist agitators (“[y]ou came down to this southern town last summer, to show the folks a whole new way of life, but all you shown the folks around here is trouble, and you’re only adding misery to their strife”). Columbia Records refused to release the song, so Robbins re-recorded it and released it in the south under the pseudonym “Johnny Freedom.” Elvis Presley’s background quartet, the Jordanaires, performed vocals on both recordings. I think about it whenever I hear Elvis records – does he know he’s fronting a bunch of Klansmen?

Another country artist, the far more talented David Allen Coe, deep sixed his career in 1982 when he released his “Underground Album” containing the song “N****r Fucker,” which a hilariously understated Wikipedia entry notes “resulted in Coe being accused of racism.” There is actually a thriving debate on the internet about whether Coe was actually a racist, or whether his conduct toward individuals of all races, creeds, colors and genders was so utterly reprehensible that it’s hard to say. Coe doesn’t win that debate either way, but in any event this song is why he’s playing Hawk’s Tavern in Lancaster instead of headlining in Branson, Missouri.

At some point self-proclaimed tough guy Phil Anselmo, former singer for the metal group Pantera, became obsessed with the right-wing concept of “reverse racism,” a pseudo-theory which holds that African-Americans are actually more racist towards whites than vice versa. Anselmo, who, in fairness, does not appear to be particularly bright, took this idea to the ridiculous conclusion that he is a persecuted minority who must defend himself. Worse yet, he started spouting off about it on stage, causing the literate portion of his audience (myself included) to head for the exit. It’s a shame, the singer for possibly the best heavy metal band ever is now just some other racist screaming into the wind.

Perhaps it won’t convince anyone, but just food for thought….

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