Today's Chicago Tribune features "Left speechless?," by columnist Clarence Page. Page, who also serves on the Tribune's editorial board, writes:
Besides whispering to another guest on the set that he would like to de-sex the Democratic presidential candidate, Jackson also accused Obama of "talking down to black people . . . telling niggers how to behave."
Jackson has since issued two statements of apology for his self-described "trash talking." He also might issue this word of advice: If you want to whisper something that could be damaging if traced back to you, don't whisper it over a microphone.
Am I surprised by Jackson's use of the racial slur? Not really. I was more surprised to hear that so many other people are shocked, especially non-African Americans.
Ethnic etiquette has always given greater latitude to epithets expressed about one's own ethnic group, as long as they are expressed inside of one's ethnic group. That's how people talk within one's family or ethnic group, especially when you regard your ethnic group as affectionately as you regard your nuclear family.
But if we hold Jackson to a higher standard, it is because he has held us to one too.
This higher standard must be the one Jackson used in describing Jews as "Hymies" and New York City as "Hymietown." Perhaps the standard didn't apply because, as Jackson was quoted in the New York Times:
''It was not done in the spirit of meanness,'' he told an overflow crowd in the synagogue, Temple Adath Yershurun. ''However innocent and unintended, it was wrong.''
Oh, OK, since it wasn't done in the spirit of meanness and was innocent and unintended, it's not all that offensive.
Interestingly, Clarence Page has not always been so openminded about those using the N-word. When in 2006 comedian Michael Richards was, in Page's words, "spewing the N-bomb," Clarence's judgement wasn't so generous:
Meanwhile, Richards is living with his own punishment, properly condemned by the court of public opinion. Even his hip and edgy comrades in comedy are acknowledging that there still are lines of decency that none of us should cross.
A line that shouldn't be crossed unless you're Jesse Jackson, that is. Then it's not surprising. Epithets apparently are acceptable as long as they are applied with appropriate ethnic etiquette.