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'The Tongue Can No Man Tame'

by Christopher Brauchli

The tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil. -- The General Epistle of James

The fault lies not with its proprietor, but with his tongue. It keeps saying things that surprise both proprietor and hearer and in two recent cases its utterances were completely unexpected and, indeed, unwelcomed, suggesting as they did, a bigotry to which neither of the tongues' proprietors acknowledges subscribing. In mid- October their tongues separately took off with startling pronouncements. The first came from the tongue of former Nobel Prize winner, James D. Watson.

Mr. Watson received the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962 for deciphering the double Helix of DNA. In 2007 his tongue entered new territory. Echoing sentiments of an earlier Nobel Prize winner it made a pronouncement both startling and racist. Mr. Watson's errant tongue expressed gloominess at the prospect for a solution to the myriad problems facing Africa. It was quoted in the Times of London as saying that its master was "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" even though "there are many people of color who are very talented." Elucidating, it explained "All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours-whereas all the testing says not really." Such a pronouncement is startling at any time but being made when the free world is led by a madman of diminished mental capacity, surrounded by advisors of equal intellect, it is all the more startling.

Happily for Mr. Watson and his admirers, when informed of his tongue's wanderings, he promptly disavowed its utterances, thus redeeming himself. In a statement to the Associated Press he said: "I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief." (Imagine George Bush disavowing his tongue's utterances that there were weapons of mass destruction, things were going better in Iraq, etc.)

(This was not the first time that a Nobel Prize winner's tongue assumed its master's award gave it license to make racist utterances. William B. Shockley, a Nobel laureate who received the prize in physics for his work with transistors, eventually left the world of physics and began teaching at Stanford University where he formulated a theory that led him to promulgate the idea that African Americans were inherently less intelligent than Caucasians, a theory never disavowed by him and one that took considerable luster from the medal he had received as a Nobel prize winner. )

A day after Mr. Watson spoke, the tongue of another prominent American took flight and with an oratorical flourish that gave life insurance companies information that should increase their profits, denigrated minorities. The tongue took off while John Tanner, chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division, was making a speech to the National Latino Congreso in Los Angeles. One of Mr. Tanner's responsibilities in the Justice Department is the protection of citizens' voting rights, The tongue, whose master had recently expressed support for a Georgia law that requires voters to show identification cards before voting, told the Latino audience that a disproportionate share of elderly minority voters did not have identification cards. Acknowledging that that was a problem for them, according to reports of a video posted on YouTube, the tongue went on to say: "That's a shame, you know, creating problems for elderly persons just is not good under any circumstances" Continuing, but not making matters better, it went on to say: "Of course, that also ties into the racial aspect because our society is such that minorities don't become elderly the way white people do. They die first."

The tongue then explained that there are lots of inequities in the U.S. and anything that "disproportionately impacts the elderly has the opposite impact on minorities. Just the math is such as that." That was a startling bit of information for the tongue to impart and it is unlikely that the utterance will qualify Mr. Tanner or his tongue for a Nobel Prize. (It may affect premiums paid by minorities for life insurance since if the companies are aware that minorities have shorter life expectancies than non-minorities the premiums minorities pay for life insurance will almost certainly be higher than those paid by insureds with longer life expectancies. Quoting Mr. Tanner's tongue: "Just the math is such as that.")

Given the opportunity to disavow the tongue's utterances, a Justice Department spokesman said Mr. Tanner's remarks had been "grossly misconstrued." He went on to explain that "nothing in his comments deviated from his firm commitment to enforce the law." That may be, although Mr. Tanner's support for Georgia's voter identification law would suggest he and his tongue are not as out of synch as supporters of voting rights would have had a right to expect from the chief of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

--Christopher Brauchli; brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu For political commentary see his web page, http://humanraceandothersports.com.

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