S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership, this episode of The Gabfest contains explicit language.
S2: Hello and welcome to the Slate political gap from May 20th, 2020, one of the hot button issue additions. I’m David, boss of City Council in Washington, D.C. I’m joined, of course, by Emily Bazelon of the New York Times Magazine and Yale University Law School from New Haven. Hello, Emily.
S1: Hey, David.
S2: And by John Dickerson of CBS is going to say CBS’s Face the Nation, since that’s what you’re doing, mostly now, but also other things from New York. Hello, John.
S3: Oh, David. Yeah, 81 more days
S2: fresh off his his very scorching interview with Bibi Netanyahu, which we’ll talk about in a minute. This week, it is all hot button issues all the time. First, the conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Is this time any different? Has the Democratic Party changed on Israel? Will that make a difference to the outcome of this conflict? Then the Supreme Court takes a case about a Mississippi abortion law that could be the first big step to change Roe v. Wade. We will talk about that case. Then we’re going to talk to the linguist John McWhorter about language taboos, slurs and his amazing new book, Nine Nasty Words. Plus, we will have cocktail chatter. And one thing I learned this week, who is a great, great, great barista, former Justice Breyer, he may be the best latte I have ever had. Who knew he had that talent? The situation in Israel, Gaza and the occupied territories remains just terrible. It’s terrible. As we’re taping on Thursday morning, Israel continues to fire missiles into Gaza to weaken Hamas, where I haven’t seen the last count. But more than 200 Palestinians are dead, many of them children. Hamas continues to fire hundreds of rockets, mostly inaccurate rockets, into Israel, where many fewer people, but still 10, 12 Israelis have been killed. Jewish mobs on the streets in Israel, cities have beaten and targeted Israeli Arabs and Arab Israelis have done the same to Jewish Israelis. It’s a fucking mess. Is it a different fucking mess than it has been before, Emily?
S1: Well, it’s also totally heartbreaking mess. Different. I mean, this conflict is so long running and there’s so many moments in it. I think the reaction of American Jews and Democrats is somewhat different. There is a way in which this particular round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think, is pretty clearly been more provoked by Israel in the beginning stages. So I’m talking about the decision the Israelis made to clear a plaza outside the Damascus gate that Palestinians use to congregate and meet up during Ramadan and also about the police going into Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is, you know, one of the holiest sites to Muslims to cut the loudspeakers because the Israeli president was giving a speech nearby and they didn’t want to disturb him. Then there are these evictions, which are based on a blatantly discriminatory law in which Jews can recover property. They have a claim to from before 1948, the year that Israel was born, and also the year of what Palestinians called the Nakba when they were forcibly had to leave Israel and hundreds of thousands of them. So anyway, there’s this law. Jews can reclaim land before that date. Palestinians cannot. So I look at these provocations and I think like, huh? Looks like there is a kind of stranglehold going on toward toward Palestinians in Jerusalem that could very legitimately make them feel like the Israelis are trying to force them out and discriminate against them even more than usual. And I think that was like the match that lit this fuse. And then, you know, you have Hamas and Netanyahu responding in ways that are great for them. They you know, Netanyahu is in big political trouble. Now, all of a sudden, the chances that other parties are going to form a coalition government seem to have at least temporarily disappeared because of this emergency. And Hamas is emboldened and empowered versus other more moderate forces. So it feels like this moment of terribly unnecessary human suffering, but also maybe at least in the United States. And I think in Europe, there is some sense that, wait a second, just saying all the time, Israel has a right to self-defense. We’re going to support them. We’re going to sell them weapons. They’re not going to be any conditions. Maybe that is not the right policy for this region.
S2: John, you had an interview with Prime Minister Netanyahu on Face the Nation this weekend. Did you get the sense that this was a this was a prime minister enjoying a resurgence in power? It does this. Did this feel like he was wagging the dog?
S3: He’s had twenty three months of trying to put together a coalition government and his failed four times. He is under current. He’s being tried at the moment for bribery, breach of trust. And you would think a politician in that those kind of straits would be cowed. He was he was in a very comfortable place, which was I’m defending Israel, you Americans would do the same thing if you had twenty nine hundred, which was the number at the time, rockets being shot at you by Hamas. And he was in a posture of of command and strength and talked about his service in the Israeli Defence Force. And he seemed like he wasn’t going to stop anytime soon. And this was coming just on the heels of the bombing of the building in which AP and Al-Jazeera were their offices were destroyed, which was just one of the one of the attacks in the long line. The number of children killed was 50. So we know we what Emily was saying is I think is is quite important. The tind the dry tinder that was sparked by whether it was the closing of the Damascus Gate or these evictions from Sheikh Jira, which there was supposed to be a I mean, it’s amazing how all of this happened, basically all on that Monday and was scheduled to happen on that Monday. And now the the court decision on the evictions has been delayed a month, which means this is out there to be a problem in a month, assuming that we get a cease fire relatively soon. But the question is, is defending against rockets being sent, being fired by Hamas, which is the US considers a terrorist organization, is one thing, but the conditions that Bernie Sanders and others have argued are and this is basically what Emily was saying. When you have your foot on the neck of Palestinians, as Bernie Sanders would argue, there’s no way you can ever get peace. It’s not an excuse for Hamas rockets, but it it never creates the condition for a two state solution or anything that solves this problem and that that’s a willful act by Netanyahu to not solve the problem.
S2: Emily, you and I both spent a bunch of time in Israel and, you know, I my ex-wife is Israeli. I have her relatives who are in Israel I adore. It’s a beautiful, wonderful country, but it really feels like it’s gone through a huge change, all in the wrong direction from my perspective and in the past 20 years that it’s become much more nationalistic. The leftist kibbutznik element that that dominated its first 40 years is has practically vanished. A lot of the people who might be counterweights to what’s going on have moved to the US or elsewhere. Meanwhile, conservative and right wing Jews from around the world have flocked to Israel, fleeing in many cases anti-Semitism or in response to anti-Semitism in France or in Britain or in Russia. And they tend to be extremely right wing and extremely nationalistic. And the ultra religious Jewish communities have surged in population. It just feels like it’s on the the image in one’s head about what Israel is is just so completely outdated. And we need a totally different paradigm to look at it than we did when we you and I were growing up.
S1: Right. Which is so tough. I mean, for me, it’s honestly heartbreaking. I grew up in a family that for generations had lots of feelings of fidelity and love for Israel. I don’t have family in Israel, but I lived there for a year. I’ve spent other time there. Like you said, I have really close friends there. But when I lived there, it was the time of the Oslo Peace Accords and there was some sense that there could be a two state solution. There could be, you know, economic benefits for everyone. Like that was what former Prime Minister Shimon Peres was talking about. And it seemed like, you know, Yasser Arafat at the time, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, like he didn’t seem like the greatest partner, but it just seemed like it was possible you could imagine a world of working something out. And ever since then, that hope is just like dissolved. And what you have is terrible conditions for Palestinians that are untenable in, you know, what we call the West Bank or the occupied territories and in Gaza. And you have an Israeli government and kind of ruling coalition or party driven by Bibi Netanyahu, I mean, led by him now for many years that has tried to create more and more barriers to any kind of real two state solution. And so now we’re in the world of the one state solution, which could mean an end to a Jewish majority. I mean, you have to give people citizenship and a vote if you are going to rule over them. Otherwise, you really are in this land of apartheid where that historical comparison, which, you know, used to be very taboo to say. But now Israeli human rights groups are starting to use that word. I don’t think it’s a perfect comparison. South Africa has its own history. But the basic idea that you don’t have equal rights and citizenship for millions of people whose lives you govern, how do people continue to justify that? And that, I think, is this fundamental problem that this conflict is highlighting. And I think it’s why so many Americans, including liberal American Jews, are just horrified by this.
S2: John, do you think that the the internal fissures in the Democratic Party over this are significant and will result in policy changes and then sort of a second part of it? Does it even matter? Does it does do is US policy so important to Israel these days that that the disapproval of of some Democratic Jewish senators really makes a difference to what happens in Israel?
S3: Well, I guess I mean, it would make a difference to the extent that it change the the three point eight dollars billion a year that goes to Israel in financial aid, which makes it the largest cumulative recipient of U.S. assistance since World War Two, plus the military assistance. So so presumably there could be a threat to that, although there doesn’t seem to really be one. It could also matter if it affects a Democratic president, which it doesn’t look like it’s going to matter because Biden has has had a long standing position as pro-Israel. He’s getting some heat from the left part of his party, but he’s getting heat from the left part of his party on a lot of things. One of the key things he’s decided about his presidency and about the world is I got to stick to the priorities. And right now he’s got covid in the economy to deal with. To the extent that he has a national that he has a big, messy national security issue, its with China, Russia and refugees in the border. He is concerned and has to be concerned about sending a lot of time, effort and attention into something that has bedeviled American presidents for decades. And then finally, I’m not sure in the Democratic Party, while there is anger and while there are voices in the Democratic Party that are different and new, that this is driving the bus in a way that ultimately is going to matter that much, I. It’s interesting in the evolution of the party, but it is it is it determinative? I don’t think so.
S2: We don’t talk about Israel much on the gaffes. And that’s a that’s, I think, a conscious choice. I don’t know if you guys agree with this. Like, I don’t particularly like to talk about it because I feel like the issues are really hard to do justice to in a short time. And there so it gets so hot and so, so contentious and the responses generated are so hot and so contentious. And it’s sort of like for what purpose? And I kind of almost feel that way that that that that reflects my view about what the US foreign policy should be. There’s been this over investment in Israel as a pillar in American foreign policy. And I just feel like we could do so much more to improve the stock of human well-being in the world. If the attention, the energy, some cases, the money, the almost the least important part and the moral exhortation went towards like Burma or Honduras or Venezuela, and that the amount of stress and and consumed calories around Israel are disproportionate and disproportionate in ways that don’t really help anybody, don’t improve the situation and don’t don’t make peace or a peaceful Middle East any more likely. I don’t know. That’s that’s my that’s my sort of stupid my stupid belief.
S3: One of the things that makes this a little bit stickier for President Biden is, well, one thing is he said he’s going to return America’s moral standing in the world. And so his left is saying to him, OK, if you want to do that here, you, the Palestinians are a perfect place where you can assert it. And the US has some leverage. But the US also lacks some leverage to the extent that Israel has a much more belligerent view towards Iran and has been attacking Iranian sites. And so you have either the fact that if you don’t have a dialogue with Israel, Israeli leaders to keep them from attacking Iran, they can unleash even more fire in the region. Or you need the Israelis to attack Iran because Iran is developing a nuclear weapon faster and they have capabilities to stop it. And so it’s so U.S. national interests in Iran affect the response to what they may believe inside. The administration is overreaching on the part of the Netanyahu government with respect to the West Bank and Gaza and Hamas.
S1: Yeah, I don’t think I know whether I think the U.S. should be more or less involved for the sake of the Palestinians and the Israelis and the conflict as opposed to like the United States has lots of other things to do. And as you said, David, there are other parts of the world that might benefit more. It’s just so hard to figure out the way back now. But I will. I do. I am stuck on the point that unconditional aid and support for Israel does not seem to be achieving positive ends right now. And I mean, I don’t mean to minimize the trouble for Israel of having rockets coming in from Hamas. On the other hand, the Israelis have an Iron Dome that is blocking almost all of those rockets and the Palestinians don’t. And so that’s why I think Israel’s response seems disproportionate, like even by international law standards and why so many more Palestinians are dying. And I just don’t know how to get past that. I’m not I don’t really think I’m supposed to.
S3: You know, Secretary of State Blinken has said this, that Israel has an extra burden, given its military superiority, to take extra care in its actions against Hamas and that the argument is so. And thinking of it that way shifts the argument from whether Israel has a right to defend itself. It surely does, though, as we’ve already discussed, that’s not the whole of this conversation. But nevertheless, if you’re talking just about the defending part, that it has a right to defend itself. In 2002, when Israel responded to an attack, it was George W. Bush, a Republican president, who said that Israel’s response had been heavy handed.
S2: But I mean, just even the fact that you’re you’re citing a comment from President Bush in 2002 under similar circumstances suggests the futility of it all, which is that we had this discussion in 2002. We had this discussion repeatedly between 2002 and 2020, notably in 2014, when there was the 51 day conflict between Israel and Hamas and over Gaza. And, you know, circumstances have, I suppose, circumstance have changed or no peace process left and things have happened, but basically nothing has changed. And therefore, when nothing has changed and the same thing keeps happening, you have to ask yourself, why are we doing this? And I guess your point, Emily, that unconditional, unconditional aid is a is a good place to start, which is like, well, if if it’s not achieving the ends that we want, maybe we should just not have it or make it conditioned or or just as I said, like like spend all our time on on what’s happening in Colombia.
S1: Yeah. I guess my. Is actually think things are getting worse, right, like the two state solution is receding and so continuing to stick with the status quo when things are getting measurably worse seems bad.
S2: Slate plus members get benefits and our topic this week, we’re talking about the object that defines you or defines you to others. So I guarantee you that John Dickerson is going to have something amazing, some incredible example at his fingertips. So go to sleep. I’ve really
S3: been on a roll recently of of late pluses that I’ve just rummaged out of the bottom of
S2: that. They’ve been amazing discussions, amazing discussions. Emily, what is DOBs versus Jackson Women’s Health Organization and why is it so important?
S1: This is the Supreme Court case in which the court agreed to hear a challenge to a 15 week ban on abortion for Mississippi. What’s so important about this case is that it is a direct attack on the legal framework behind Roe versus Wade and also Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, which is a really important 1992 decision affirming Roe. What upholding the 15 week ban would mean is that states can completely pretty much there are a couple of minor exceptions in the Mississippi law, but that they could effectively ban abortion from almost everyone who seeks it after 15 weeks. Whereas Roeland cases say that if you’re seeking an abortion before viability, which is like twenty three, twenty four weeks, the state can make some restrictions, but they can’t impose an undue burden on your access to it. And there’s just no question that this Mississippi near total ban would be an undue burden on women if that was the framework you are using. And so when the court changes that, which presumably it will, that will be the end of the legal framework underpinning Roe and Casey.
S3: Can Emily, can I ask the question about viability without excluding the important topic, which is the fact that it basically seems, given the way Gorsuch and Cavnar ruled on the Louisiana case last year and Amy CONI Barret’s public remarks, it seems almost predetermined what the outcome will be. But maybe that’s too cynical. But on the question of viability, tell me where the science is with respect to 15 and that definition of viability.
S1: Viability is the fetus can live on its own. And the actual moment of that has shifted to a small degree based on developments in treating prematurely born infants. But 15 weeks is the first part of the second trimester. So it is true that probably like 94, 95 percent of abortions take place in the United States before 15 weeks. And of course, that is a good thing, especially for health and safety, for people who are having abortions, because the first trimester like fewer complications, fewer risks, etc. But there are people who don’t have access to abortion easily during that period or who don’t find out they’re pregnant or who get results from genetic testing and other kinds of information about the fetus that make them choose to have an abortion at 15 weeks or later. And so that’s why this is such a big deal. It’s thousands of abortions, probably not tens of thousands or certainly hundreds of thousands. But it’s this it’s a it’s still a window that matters deeply.
S2: Have so many questions about this case. What what are the grounds on which the court could uphold this law that don’t completely vitiate Roe? Could it does it vacate Roe for them to uphold this law?
S1: Well, I mean, if it vitiates Roe and Casey, the 1992 decision, that’s like super important. It’s the one where the undue burden standard comes in because of the legal framework. Right. So if you’re going to say like you can’t have an undue burden before viability and then you fight over what an undue burden is, an absolute ban is obviously an undue burden. So that whole framework goes out the window. I don’t really see otherwise how you keep it. I mean, I should say that that framework has been under attack, like from lots of different camps since it started. Like, it’s not necessarily the best or the only way to have rules about abortion, but it has been our framework. And it seems unlikely that this very conservative majority is going to come up with a better framework from the point of view of a constitutional right to access to abortion for people seeking abortions.
S3: Isn’t viability also a ground for lots and lots of debate? I mean, obviously, fetal heartbeat was has hasn’t fetal heartbeat been defined as viability, even though it doesn’t mean can live on outside the womb?
S1: Oh, I mean, fetal heartbeat is like six weeks. I know. I guess speed is a very beginning. Oh, but people do need to get around viability.
S2: The state legislatures, like we think viability means a fetal heartbeat. That’s what we think. That’s what infinite wisdom.
S3: Exactly. And so what I’m wondering if in this case, they. They say this doesn’t get it, this doesn’t is the intent to destroy Casey or basically say this doesn’t run afoul of Casey because there’s viability and we’re just it turns out it’s become viable. It’s your viable earlier. So we’re just moving the date up because of technology.
S1: That’s like a really, really weird definition of viability, scientifically speaking. Whatever some conservative anti-abortion state lawmaker lawmakers say, I mean, I guess I’ll say this. What you could see is the court saying minimizing the significance of this because it would still allow for first trimester abortions, which are more than 90 percent, and then leaving for another day. The next challenge, which is the fetal heartbeat slash six week ban, which is the total ban on abortions, which then lots of states would adopt. And so first you would have a wave of states that adopt this 15 week standard that Mississippi has. And we kind of watch that for a little bit. And then, you know, it’s also, I think, really crucial to think about how the politics of this will play out. And I wonder what you guys think about this.
S3: Go ahead, John. Well, no, I should just add that I that I just realized that the court in accepting the case, said that all pre viability. The question at issue is whether all pre viability prohibitions on elective abortions are unconstitutional. So I’m answering my own question, which is the core viability. They’re not making a viability case. But I thought, OK, so sorry about that. Anybody can refuse, but now we’ve solved that problem. There you go.
S2: Before we get to the politics question, actually, I. I was wondering, Emily, why is Mississippi faffing about with a 15 week ban when the state legislature, very Republican state legislature, very conservative, would happily, fully ban abortion? Why not make it a two week ban? Why do they bother?
S1: Because this has been so there have been two strategies in the anti-abortion movement for a long time. One is the total bans on abortion. You’re talking about an even criminalizing abortion and like really trying to eradicate it and root it out and give it no legal foothold in American society. The second strategy is incrementalist. It’s OK, let’s say, like not this particular procedure or really long waiting periods or give women false information that abortion is riskier than it really is, et cetera, et cetera. Let’s see if the Supreme Court will go for those kinds of steps, will limit access, will gain a kind of toehold and then will like throw the knockout punch later. And I would say this 15 week ban is like a middle like it’s a pretty big shift, like I was saying. But it’s not the same thing as banning abortion entirely. And it also, numbers wise, has a smaller impact than what are called trap laws, these regulations that would essentially make it so impossible to run a clinic that you shut down the clinics, the small number of clinics still standing in certain red states like Mississippi and Louisiana, like the Dakotas, like these places where there’s very little access would have those laws, if upheld, would have ended access entirely in those places. And this is a little bit different, but it really, really changes the Roe Casey framework
S2: on the politics. I guess I sort of feel this is this is when you cash in, so. The Republican Party and conservatives have done all this work to control the court. They’ve done all this incredible labor to make sure they get the justices they want. And they blocked used used chicanery to block a president from nominating a justice and and cram through a justice. When another justice died. They did it so that this day would come, so that the court would issue rulings on abortions and other hot button issues that are wildly against the popular will. So it’s the moment of cashing in. It will embolden Democrats, but embolden Democrats. And then what? Like you’ve emboldened Democrats. But the law, the law has been changed. The circumstances of the country have been changed. And this this shift in actual how people actually live their lives and their access to abortion or their access to guns has been now codified by the Supreme Court. And so I do think the political impact will be a benefit, probably Democrats electorally in some fashion, but. So what?
S3: Well, you mean so much so what with respect to abortion rights, because if it because of the way it benefits Democrats electorally and I think you’re probably right, less so Republicans, because it’s when your rights are being threatened, tends to excite more than when they’re when it’s the fulfillment of the judicial strategy conservatives have put in place since Reagan. It could conceivably energize enough voters to keep the House or Senate so that that might matter for Democrats to keep the House.
S2: Yeah, you keep the House and Senate and and maybe you get some maybe you get to keep the House and Senate. Probably this won’t even shift enough votes to do that. Even if this ruling came down. It’s more just that that I guess I feel like there is this way in which we talk about politics as though politics is the end, like the control is what matters. And in fact, what we see here is this is if these laws are upheld and conservatives get this grand victory on abortion, that’s the end. That’s what you’re trying to do. Well, you’re trying to cause these enormous policy shifts in in life and these changes in the ways that people live. And so it’s a it’s a vast triumph whether or not it causes some sort of minor electoral backlash.
S3: Well, I don’t think it’s I mean, it’s not minor. If Democrats don’t win Georgia, you don’t get the American rescue plan. I mean, it’s not minor. You get control of the houses does matter. But relative to this specific issue, you you’re totally right. And I would just add to your point that it’s not just the courts, but it’s control of the legislatures in which there’s a there’s an extraordinary number of, I think, twenty three abortion related cases and 61 abortion restrictions, which is the most since 2011. So that matters to at the at the local court level and the local political level.
S1: I mean, I guess I would just say, like, I’ve been obsessed with this topic of like what happens when the Supreme Court lurches, takes a big step to the right and the country doesn’t want to go there. And the thing about abortion is that if it returned to being state based, which is like the direction these conservatives are presumably moving in, then you could still have red states in which, like there was a new set of laws and they were restrictive and they were in line with the political beliefs of the people who lived in those states. Like we don’t totally know the answer to that because they haven’t had a chance to legislate to actually do that. And so that’s sort of one set of questions about state legislatures and state politics. And then there’s another set about national politics, which is like over the short, medium or long term. Do people become does the Supreme Court become a weapon for organizing on the left the way it has been since the nineteen eighties on the right? And is that a big shift in American politics that goes along with other potentially progressive trends? And then eventually, you know, the composition of justices changes maybe in some dramatic fashion where Congress steps in? Or also does the court moderate itself? Because even though we have these five, five and a half committed conservatives, they know that it’s super risky to get very, very out of step with American politics. I will say I do think that the grand victory is about abortion, like that is the primary goal of the people who work so hard to get these conservative appointments. And and so I guess, like, I wonder if that’s the trait, like the court pulls back on certain other things, but like abortion law really does change in the United States.
S2: I’m not sure that there’s, you know, that nice democratic long, long, longer game will mean there’s you know, there’s still going to be decades and decades living under this quite conservative jurisprudence that is now infected or affected, I should say, maybe more or less pejoratively affected so much of American life. And I’ll share your point, Emily. Oh, we may see that that these red state legislatures adopt abortion policies that are consistent with their their what their people believe or what their public believes. I mean, we I think we can be pretty skeptical of that in the sense that how many of them a whole bunch of them have those trigger laws, which is that abortion is going to be fully banned. The second there’s a there’s a a overturning of Roe. Well, that’s my point.
S1: And is that what the people in those states want? We’re going to find out. The other part of this that I have to mention, because it’s another thing I think about a lot is that because there are now abortion pills that we’ve learned, especially during covid, people seeking abortions can take on their own safely. There’s a sort of pragmatic like practically speaking, there is this huge monkey wrench in the idea of really, really eradicating abortion. Now, legally speaking, the red states can afford. Actively, you know, they can make it a crime to, like, order these pills over the mail and they can start opening people’s mail and they can like, you know, prosecute anybody who provides advice, like they could do all that stuff. The thing is, you know, opening tons of mail from like that’s a really intrusive step. And so, you know, it. Look, I’m not suggesting I think it’s a good idea for people to have to self manage abortions on some black market from buying pills from India, which is essentially what is starting to happen. But it’s really interesting how safe and effective that is. And there’s before we get to some of the scenarios I was just talking about, there’s this interim step that’s in the control of the Bush administration, which is that currently one of the two pills that you take has very, very strict rules about how you can access it. And that is up to the Food and Drug Administration to change. And so there is already a lot of lobbying going on and movement to get the federal government under the Bush administration to make that change, which would have some kind of incremental effect on all of this. So that’s something to watch for.
S2: John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy and music history at Columbia. He hosts Slate’s language podcast, Lexicon Valley, which is a delight. If you don’t listen to it, you should. He’s the contributing editor of The Atlantic, and in his spare time, he writes books and his new book is A Doozy. And it’s wonderful. It’s called Nine Nasty Words English in the Gutter. Then, Now and Forever. It is so good. I urge you. We will we’ll talk about it and you’ll get a chance. But don’t miss Roger fucked by the Naval.
S4: That’s what I was thinking, he wrote.
S2: You’ll know. Yeah. And you’ll never listen to eeny meeny, miny, mo again. It’s that. It’s loaded. Yeah, it’s incredible. So, John, welcome to the laughs. It’s so great to have you here.
S4: Thank you for having me.
S2: You have that you say in the book, I’m going to read your words back to you. Profanity has known three main eras when the worst you could say was about religion, when the worst you could say was about the body and when the worst you could say was about groups of people. So I want you to quickly sort of explain what you mean about that. And then I also want you to predict, like, if you can, what is the what is the area which which is going to be profane in the future. If you have any idea what might be profane, if it’s not about groups of people, which is where at the stage right now.
S4: You know, David, that’s interesting because I am not a sci fi guy. And so that’s not my natural mode to imagine what it’s going to be like in the future. But here, you know, the question is beaconing. Yeah, it starts with God. It used to be that the way that you were profane was to be profane. It was to engage in blasphemy. And that’s the idea that to say, oh, my God, unless something really tragic is happening, is to take the Lord’s name in vain. That to us feels rather gestural except for certain subgroups of people. But it was in earlier English that that was the way that you profaned. Then once particular hangups arise about the body and sex and what comes out of it and what goes into it, then that sort of thing goes from being salty, which means that you can have a person running around being taken seriously whose name is Roger Navel to being profane, which is that for a good two hundred years, fuck doesn’t even turn up in dictionaries at all. You would never know that existed. You just have to kind of guess from other ephemera and then society gets away from that post counterculture. We let it all hang out. You might think of it as kind of an advance, but it’s not that we don’t have other things that we are very concerned about and have a lot of controversy over. And now you could have seen it coming. It is slurs of groups, the idea that you take a subgroup of people and subject them to unwarranted abuse and name calling and stereotypes. So now, although we don’t call things like the N-word profanity, we don’t call tomato’s fruits either. It’s really anthropologically the same thing. Our profanity is now the N-word, the F word that refers to gay men, some words that refer to women that I’m not even going to go near. That is our profanity that we shield our children from that we’re not going to say on this show, etc. as we move further. My guess is that there are trans issues that I now find so new and so developing that I didn’t address them in the book. That’s going to be a realm. I think body image is also going to become sacred in that sense. And for reasons that I think we all understand, it’s getting to the point that you have to be very careful talking about that and should in my in my opinion, as we move on, it’s going to be something we can’t imagine. Ask somebody in 1950 if they could imagine how we carefully treat the N-word or that F word with six letters. It would have seemed like science fiction to them. I’m thinking climate change, the impending doom of the planet that’s going to get sensitive as it becomes ever clearer that something is really terribly wrong. That is the sort of thing that taboo. Ends up kind of clustering around, so
S1: as you’ve already kind of started getting at the end what is obviously become a very charged topic, particularly in American workplaces and universities of late, and that includes places where I work, Slate, The New York Times. We are not going to talk about the specific case at Slate. It’s a complicated situation. None of us are part of it. And the people at Slate have asked us not to discuss it on this show. But I do want to ask you about your idea that the N-word has come to become taboo and what that means. And so one of the things you write is that it’s become clear. Over the past year, our racial reckoning has shaped attitudes about the N-word or among a certain few who scare the rest of us into pretending to agree. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that and the tensions you see emerging around this issue, this problem of who is shaping the dialogue and whether you think that, you know, most people, even most black people see this word as taboo.
S4: Well, you know, there was a time when you didn’t use the N-word as a slur that was utterly unthinkable. But with a certain amount of taste, you were allowed to refer to it in conversation, especially since usually you were going to be criticizing it. And, you know, all of us back then thought of ourselves as living at the end of time, just like we do now. That felt perfectly right. Something has happened over the past 20 years where the idea is that you are not even supposed to incarnate that sequence of sounds for any reason, including words that sound like it, including sometimes words in Mandarin that people say that they were offended by because it happens to sound like the N-word. That’s new. And I think if you’re 21, you don’t realize that that’s new, because when things were the way they used to be, you were only one years old. But if you’re 40 or older, you can look back and realize that things were quite sophisticated in nineteen ninety five. And I know that’s I’m getting a little bit old man shaking his fist and saying, get off of my lawn, but I’m not that old. I think that what’s going on at this point is that the word has become taboo. You know, we read about this in anthropology and so, you know, maybe it’s some island, it’s indigenous culture where people do not utter a certain sequence of syllables because that was the name of some figure who passed away who was a deep significance. And you commemorate her by not uttering those words. And we read that and we think, oh, how quaint. But actually, it isn’t quaint because we’re doing the exact same thing with that word. And many people might say that that is fine, that that’s how we acknowledge the truly painful and destructive history of that word. But then again, we have to realize that not everybody would see it that way. And I certainly don’t. As a black person, I do not feel that this development over the past 20 years is something that I need. And I speak for more black people than many would think. I don’t know if it’s a majority, but I think I should say that Hotsy Coates has written in this vein and he and I agree generally on nothing. But he and I do agree on the idea that to not be able to utter this sequence of syllables portrays us as delicate in a way that feels condescending. And I think that I wish that we could go back to the way things were back in 1995. There were computers, there was color, there was psychotherapy, there was depression. It was the same world as we’re in now, except not as much Internet. And yet a white person could utter that word almost always in condemnation. And that was considered OK with taste. You’re not going to say it over and over and over again, but the word has become taboo. Now, I just feel that it’s a it’s a rather peculiar and frankly, performative development. But maybe that’s just me.
S3: John, let me ask you a question, which is, I think adjacent to this, which is you’ve also written about the basically the fact that we are perhaps in a moment of the greatest disagreement over the basic meaning of words and racism was was one of the ones you also picked. And so from take it from the standpoint of if the purpose of language is to get closer to a common meaning of the world in which we live, what you’re diagnosing more broadly is just mass confusion in the way we communicate.
S4: Yeah, and language is messy. The linguist in me knows that. But there are two. Well, three there are three words that I consider the messiest in the English language. One of them is the N-word because of the fact that black people can use it with one another to mean something else, etc. and that’s a whole story. But then the other two are date. When you talk about two people having dated, what does that mean? You know, if we’re not if we’re not in an Archie comic book where it’s not about going to pops and having a malted dating can mean anything from two people who went out to see a movie and didn’t do anything else to two people who had sexual intercourse regularly for five years. Date has no meaning. It’s just a euphemism, really. I’ve always found that fascinating in the same way. Systemic racism. Is a really tough term because people mean different things by it and to the extent that one wants to say that something called racism, although what kind is responsible for any discrepancy between white and black in society, that’s simply not true. And yet we’re being told by many people that that’s all you need to know to analyze sociology when it comes to black people. And I think that most of those people truly believe it. But then an equal number of people look at the complexity of the social history and realize that this is a usage of the term racism that is so creative, so metaphorical that it impedes understanding among all but about 17 people, mostly in the academy and the media and who go to cafes and college towns. It’s a tough, tough term. And during this racial reckoning, we’re being told that it is God, that systemic racism means that there are these disparities and the solution is to get rid of the racism, to be anti-racist. Wow, that’s tough because that’s vastly oversimplified, hopelessly impractical. We’re in a tough time because race matters. Certainly, Professor West, you were correct. And he’s not one of the people who’s purveying this, actually. But, yes, race matters. But what do we do about it? And eliminate the racism and be an anti-racist is frankly a third grader solution. But we’re told that if we say that we’re racist, this is an open.
S2: John, you may not have looked at this, but I’m curious about Huckleberry Finn. What happens to when words become taboo as the N-word has become taboo? What happens to archaic works that are important, that are associated with it? Is it I have a theory which I would like to test, that Huckleberry Finn has quietly vanished in just the last few years from from schools. But I wonder if you think can this book survive?
S4: It should survive, because if we’re going to view it as simply this piece of work written by a whitey that has the N-word used a lot in it. It’s dumb. That vision of the book is anti intellectual, it’s anti artistic, and it’s performative because anybody knows on a certain level it was a different time. The character depicted in the book would have used that word and would have had it applied to them. You can take that as a lesson. We can talk about whether or not you’re going to utter the word, but to quietly disappear it because that word’s in it is primitive. There needs to be a way of discussing the usage of the word, especially in the past, engaging, not just discussing, but engaging.
S2: It’s just a very quick question. Is the N-word taboo in non American English speaking countries?
S4: It’s becoming that way. It’s it’s especially happening, I’m told, in Germany, where the usage of the word is undergoing a complete overhaul on the model of what’s going on here. But what it means in these languages and how they read the word differs from place to place and even region to region in these places. But they were using it the way we were using it in 1995. The idea being you don’t say the N word, but you can talk about it. It’s hard to say, though, because, for example, nake in German doesn’t quite mean the N word. It means Negro. In the pre 1966 sense. These things get subtle, but no, we’re taking it to a place that it had not been before and some people are modeling themselves after. And I’m not sure that we’re providing a terribly compelling model in this case.
S1: So one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how we’re having enormous attention to language and huge fights over it, which like you’re a linguist in some ways, like I would imagine you might find that welcome. It’s like you’re you know, you’re on your home turf. On the other hand, we’re kind of having it in this way that sometimes feels symbolic to me. So instead of, like, really addressing material conditions, all the problems in American life that lead to real racial disparities for people who are poor and working class, like lots of people in New Haven where I live, I’m sure where you live to instead we’re having this like much more narrow conversation about signalling. And I wonder whether it feels to you like the language has kind of taken over as a form of political action in this way that is preventing or fending off other kinds of change.
S4: You said it. Yeah, we’re having all of these conversations about language, which is about manners. A lot of it is very Jane Austen, to be honest. And some people would say, but no, the issues are more urgent. But there’s a proposition. It’s the tacit propositions that are always the most interesting. What people are saying is that before we have change in society, we have to have all of these careful little debates and defenestration about language. We have to talk in a certain way before the change can happen. But who says, you know, if I put it out there just like that, who said what model are we basing that on when in the past that we have to change language before we change the conditions, say, for people living in tenements, for people working in effect. Where they’re locking the doors, was that all about what we have to change the way we talk about young immigrant women working before we get on the ground and change things so that the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory doesn’t happen again? Nobody would have had any idea what that meant. We’re being told that now. And I think if you bring that out into the sunlight, you realize that a lot of it is because it’s fun to dump on people for having said things the wrong way, especially if you’re living in a peculiar year where most group human interaction exists over Zoome. When the history is written, a lot of 20, 20 and into twenty twenty one is going to be seen to have been about the format that a lot of these meetings took place and where you have the nasty chat on the side where people can’t smell each other and feel each other, you’re not going to meet that person in the hall afterward. All of that makes it just ripe to start jumping people for little things that they said. And that’s why a lot of this has really gone overboard since last June. Here’s what the objector is now saying. Why can’t we do both? Why can’t we both obsess over the language and be activists on the ground? I would say that, for one thing, the obsession over the little dances that we do sucks the air out of things. And it diverts, as you’re saying, Emily, energy from actually doing what Martin Luther King and A.. Philip Randolph and even Dubois. And if you want to get into it, Booker T. Washington, we’re doing which is get out on the ground and change lives for real people. I’m afraid that feels a little grueling or even dull compared to saying how dare that person say a word in Mandarin. That sounds like the N-word. And frankly, it is less fun, but that’s how you change people’s lives. And we are really missing something. The radical proposition is instead of policing little aspects of behavior and language, why don’t we get back to grassroots activism being all that we do?
S2: John McWhorter is the author of Nine Nasty Words. I just cannot recommend this book enough. We didn’t get into a lot of that and we didn’t even mention a whole bunch of the nasty.
S1: And the book is in the book.
S2: So fun.
S3: Yeah, it’s a joy to read and listen to.
S4: Thank you.
S2: Let’s go to cocktail chatter. John Dickerson, when you are sitting around in Dickerson mansion. With a snifter of brandy. And your beloved Sharpey on your lap, what will you be chattering about?
S3: Well, the first thing to do is clean up little chatter from last week when I mentioned the groundbreaking study into sperm whales and the conversations they were having with each other. I forgot to mention that the writer of that piece was Craig Welch, who wrote it for National Geographic. Now, I’m going to mention this very cool feature. It’s a feature by Torero Moves Asawa in the New York Times called Here A Harlem Choir Rejoice Again. And it’s essentially a reconstruction of the Harlem Choir in the age of the pandemic where everybody can’t get together and sing collectively. Now, you’d think David would be the one to do this chatter given his love for collective singing. But the Bethel Gospel Assembly reconstruction that they did is really amazing. You have to wear headphones to listen to it, check it out on the Times. And it’s got an accompanying article that’s also very interesting. But listening to it, when you have been deprived for 18 months of the sound of public voices in a in a space was was quite transporting.
S2: Emily, what is your chatter?
S1: I have one more Supreme Court case that I am super interested in this week. It’s a decision. The case is called Edwards versus Binoy. It was a decision about whether people who’ve already been convicted and whose cases are not on direct appeal had a right to ask for a new trial under a ruling from last year from the Supreme Court that said it was unconstitutional to be evicted by a jury that wasn’t unanimous. So last year, in an opinion by Justice Kavanaugh, the court said these non unanimous jury verdicts have this racist history. They come from the end of reconstruction. There are really bad and we think this is unconstitutional. You’ve got to have all 12 people on the jury agree if you’re going to be convicted of a crime. So then you might think that if you had this unconstitutional foundation for your conviction, that you might have a right to try to appeal this. And in this new decision, the court shut the door on that what’s called retroactive application. But it almost actually also shut the door definitively on any kind of retroactive application of a new constitutional right and criminal procedure. So there had been this idea that if the court makes a watershed change, that was the the the word that like maybe it might apply to people who are sitting in prison because of this unconstitutional set of circumstances that led to their conviction. Now that idea is gone, which is like dramatic. And in the two states that had nonunionized juries, Oregon and Louisiana, it is still possible that state courts and state prosecutors and state judges could let people out under state rules. And that’s actually happening in New Orleans right now. The new D.A. there, Jayson Williams, has made this part of what he calls undoing Jim Crow because of the racist past of these laws. But from the point of view of the federal courts, the shutting of the store is quite a big deal. And there’s a really interesting fight going on in these opinions, these dueling opinions between Justice Kavanaugh, who wrote for the majority and Edwards versus Binoy, and Justice Kagan, who wrote for the dissent, the way they’re talking about, you know, how you make law, how the court makes changes from previous precedents is like, I think really going to be part of the conversation on the court going forward between the six justice conservative majority and these three remaining liberals, moderates.
S2: My chatter is about a novel I’m reading, it’s called Children of Time by Adrian Czajkowski, it’s from 2015 won the Arthur Clarke Award, which is a sci fi award. And it’s a stunning book. I think I heard about it from Ezra Klein one way or another. I think I saw it in Ezra’s Twitter feed or something. But it imagines a planet, another planet that has been terraformed where for reasons I don’t want to give away. Evolution has taken a very strange turn. And animals that we see in one way on earth are extremely different. And also the survival of the human species is at stake. It is kind of like, if you can imagine Planet of the Apes, like on steroids with no apes and a different planet. It is awesome. I love it. It’s really fun. I’ve been sort of been this awakened by a book in a long time. I’m not saying it’s great literature. It is just a it’s an incredible imagined world and raises a lot of really deep questions about about consciousness and communities and and humanity. So Children of Time by Adrian Czajkowski. Listeners, you have tweeted so many good chatters to us at at Slate Gabfest. And we’ve had the chance to hear your voices talking about them. And this week, our chatter is from Susan Bates’.
S5: Hello, Gabfest. This is Susan Bates from St George, Maine. My cocktail chatter today is a book, A Moral Man, A True Story and Other Lies by Derek Delgaudio. A while ago, you recommended his show on Hulu in and of itself. His memoir is just as good.
S3: Yeah, I can’t wait to read it. It’s on my stack.
S2: I love the idea of John Stack.
S1: I know. Like, that’s a good place to be. That stack,
S2: that is our show for today, The Gap. This is produced by Justin Frank. Our researcher is Bridget Dunlap. Gabriel Roth is editorial director of Slate Audio, June Thomas as managing producer, and Alicia Montgomery is executive producer of Slate podcasts. Please follow us on Twitter at at Slate Gabfest and tweet your chatter to us there for Emily Bazelon and John Dickerson and John McWhorter and David Plotz. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you next week. Hello, Slate, plus
S3: the slate plus this week is about is there an object in your life that if somebody saw it, they would think, oh, that’s David Plotz or that’s Emily Bazelon? Or if that weren’t the case, is there one that you kind of associate? Is there essentially an adult blanky in your life, something that is to you so of such totemic importance that it has a extra weight in your life? And in my case, I’ll go first. Having set up the premise, it was that Field Notes has put out of a film this week that was a compilation of all the films it’s put out over the 50 issues, field notes that they’ve done where they’ve made films of them. And I realized as I went back and looked at my collection of field note notebooks over the years that I carry with me, that that would probably be it for me. The field note notes books that I’ve carried in my back pocket or a notebook of that kind that I’ve carried since I was 18.
S1: David, you go next.
S2: OK, I can think of two in my case, maybe three. I’ll do I’ll do them quickly. One is I’m always on a bike when I can be. And I think my I’ve had a couple of beloved bikes and those bikes seem very I feel like a centaur sometimes that the bike is as much part of me. Another one is that I am as I’ve talked about, I’m a huge bubble tea drinker. And a few years ago, a colleague of mine that was obscure, Abby Inman, bought me five steel bubble tea straws engraved with a thing that I apparently shout at myself when I’m trying to exert myself, which is come on plots. And so these bubble tea straws that say, come on plots on them, I carry them around all the time. I’m always trying to get a bubble tea. Just look, I’ve just looked over my computer and I see a picture of myself holding a bubble tea on a frame with my daughter. So I, like,
S1: kind of have nothing on this. Like, it makes me real. So part of the reason is, John, your answer had to do with, like, the material version of your kind of creative inspiration and your thinking in your work. And because all of my efforts like that are on my computer, which is the most boring object imaginable, like I don’t have any physical manifestation of that really. And while I’m a total creature of habit, I tend to replace all the things like I could pick sneakers because I value like tromping around, walking, running, hiking so much in my life. But I don’t have, like, a particular pair of sneakers. I just like, you know, replace sneakers when they run out. So what I’m going to go with is a locket that I have from my grandmother. It was her locket and it has two pictures in it. One of me, when I was very small and one of my younger sister, Laura, and I tend to wear it whenever I’m like anxious about something in a kind of like, you know, good luck charm amulet kind of way. It makes me think very kindly of my grandmother. The only problem is I have two other very dear sisters, Jill, a data, the locket. Does it have room for all four of us? So it has a kind of sense of like incompleteness in it. And then I kind of like that about it because I always think about all four of us together when I’m wearing it. But it also goes to show, like what happens, there always are more people to take into account, especially in large families.
S3: My mother’s rosaries has a similar amulet quality in that you describe. I mean that
S1: I mean, if I think of, like, the thing that I lost that would literally, like, destroy me, it’s that and I do actually worry about it a lot. I don’t wear it very much because if I lost it, it would like I would really, really have trouble getting over that, which I suppose is actually also true about my wedding ring. But I just don’t take that off.
S3: This is a version of the what one thing would you grab if the House was burning? Question.
S2: Yes, my child, I, I just remembered another thing, actually. Sorry, which is that so I used to commute to New York to go work it out with Obscura, as I’m sure I talked about endlessly. And I had a backpack. It was a daughter, a daughter, gigabyte backpack or something, which is what I because I would go up for two nights and three days and I would have my clothes in this backpack and I would just schlep around New York with this backpack. And when I left out with Obscura, the Atlas Obscura asked me for the backpack and they created a monument in in the desert and they bought some land in Arizona and they created the plots plot, which is like a and they built a metal shed and they put my backpack and like a museum exhibition label on my backpack in this metal shed in the desert in Arizona, in Holbrook, Arizona.
S1: Is that on all the like Atlas Obscura monuments you have to visit list if you’re in Arizona?
S2: It’s definitely a place
S1: trying to plot the plots
S2: plot. It’s called. Yeah, I’ve never been there because it happened right before a pandemic, I think.
S1: You need to go for sure.
S2: I should go,
S1: that should be on your bucket
S2: list. I don’t know where Holbrook, Arizona is. Well, I have to find out, OK. Plus, goodbye.