Matt Yglesias and others have raised their collective eyebrows at the fact that Jay Nordlinger of National Review Online was willing to very casually deploy the derogatory term “wetback.” As it turns out, Nordlinger is a repeat user of this word. In 2006, Nordlinger wrote that for many on the right, George W. Bush was “big-spending, wetback-lovin’ squish.” And going back away, I discovered that other National Review writers have used the term “wetback”, notably the magazine’s resident light verse writer William H. von Dreele, who wrote in 1979 that his love of Mexican tomatoes could only meant that “I’m a wetback to the core.”
Words, of course, only have meaning in the context in which they are used. On at least one occasion National Review employed “wetback” in a defensible way, in an article from February 14, 1986 by K.E. Grubbs Jr. deploring anti-immigrant sentiment titled “Just Another Wetback.” But the other uses of “wetback” have all been as an offhand slur, the type of derogatory term you habitually use when talking about an inferior race.
I thought it might be useful to do a quick survey of ethnic slurs by the National Review crowd. This is only a cursory treatment based largely on memory, and I’m sure that one day some enterprising graduate student will do a full-dress monograph on the subject. But here’s what comes to mind:
One. In 1967, William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, wrote an editorial attacking the African-American politician Adam Clayton Powell under the headline “The Jig is Up, Baby.” At the time many objected to the implied smear (“jig” being a slightly archaic but still offensive slur). Buckley claimed, rather unconvincingly, that he meant no offense. Buckley’s pose of innocence when it comes to ethnic slurs seems especially implausible since there are many reports that the n-word flowed freely in Buckley’s circle. In 1989, Spy magazine published this instructive account of back-stage shenanigans at National Review: “Race relations is also a popular subject. In November 1986 NR ran a cover story, ‘Blacks and the GOP: Just Called to Say I Love You,’ that outlined possible GOP strategies for attracting black voters. Presiding over the traditional post-issue recap, Buckley quipped, ‘Maybe it should have been titled, “Just Called to Say I Love You, Niggah.”’ During another editorial meeting, Jeffery Hart reflected wistfully that ‘under a real government, Bishop [Desmond] Tutu would be a cake of soap.’” Talking to the writer Wilfrid Sheed, Pat Buckley (William Buckley’s wife) once noted that an acquaintance “worked like a nigger for the Nixon.”
Two. Willmore Kendall, a key early editor, was absurdly fond of the phrase “the wogs begin at Calais.” The supposedly-witty Dreele did a variation of this as recently as 1997, writing “Calais is where the wogs begin.”
Three. In 1979, Joseph Sobran complained that if you were working on a history textbook you have to “include celebratory little passages on all the vocal pressure groups: women and minorities, or chicks and spies as you’ll wind up wanting to call them.”
Four. A 1968 James Burnham’s review of Norman Podhoretz’s Making It started by saying that “among the classic masks assumed by Jews in dealing with the zig-zag of destiny is The Clown.” Later in the review there is this very curious sentence: “Though he resented the break in his program for making it, and hated the first months, those Army experiences did seem to push his semantic nose into a certain amount of reality.” The phrase “semantic nose” really makes no sense at all unless we see it as a strained pun meant to suggest the idea of a “Semetic nose” – i.e. what Burnham is suggesting is that “the army did a good job of rubbing Podhoretz’s Jewish nose into reality.”
Five. In 1969, the anthropologist John Greenway wrote an essay for National Review arguing that “without war and raiding and scalping and rape and pillage and slavetaking the Indian was as aimless as a chiropractor without a spine. There was nothing left in life for him but idleness, petty mischief, and booze.” Greenway asked “Did the United States destroy the American Indian?” and answering his own query replied: “No, but it should have.” When Native Americans objected to this article, Greenway wrote a response in Hollywood mock-Injun gibberish dialect, which ran like this:
“How! White brother readum chicken tracks of red brother, makeum paleface heart heavy; tears of sorrow ﬂow all over ﬂoor of teepee like great river.
Lo, many moons ago Injun smokeum peacepipe, promise Great White Father puttum down tommyhawk, no makeum war forever more. Now me thinkum, Injun speak with forked tongue.
D. Chief Eagle he says he invade white brother own hunting ground and castum lance at white brother. What kind talk this talk? Maybe D. Chief Eagle heap big silly humbug; maybe better watch out, you thinkum? White brother maybe lift up Injun hair pretty damn smart, hey? Maybe bury hatchet in D. Chief Eagle head, he come up here steal land, steal women. Makeum damngood Injun right quick, by Chrise.
Heap Big Chief Medicine Man
The interesting thing in all this is that National Review is an intellectual magazine which putatively represents the more civilized strand of American conservative. One would hate to imagine the language used by cruder, more uncouth right-wingers.