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WORD FOR WORD/ASIAN-AMERICANS; McCain's Ethnic Slur: Gone, But Not Quite Forgotten

By ANTHONY RAMIREZ (NYT) 1132 words
Published: March 5, 2000

THE brushfire over Senator John McCain's use of the anti-Asian slur ''gooks'' flared and faded within a few days late last month.

Criticized for describing his North Vietnamese captors with the racial epithet, Mr. McCain at first defended its use as justified when applied to his jailers (though not other Asians), given the abuse he and his fellow prisoners had suffered at their hands. On Feb. 18, however, perhaps with an eye to the California primary on Tuesday, the Arizona Republican apologized and pledged never to utter the word again.

End of story. Indeed, voters got to hear or read little about the episode. Some say that's only because by and large the media as well as Senator McCain have a tin ear when it comes to Asian-Americans and their sensitivities. For it turned out that Mr. McCain had used the slur repeatedly over several months while regaling reporters on his campaign bus with harrowing recollections of his prisoner-of-war days. And few had reported the fact.

(The New York Times first reported his use of the slur at the end of a news article on the Presidential campaign on Feb. 18, and noted his apology in a one-paragraph item on Feb. 25.)

Asian-Americans were left to wonder, if only among themselves: Would Mr. McCain have gotten more adverse publicity if he had uttered a slur against blacks or Hispanics? The following excerpts, primarily from Internet and e-mail forums directed at Asian Americans, capture this and other sentiments. ANTHONY RAMIREZ

The issue got the attention of Asian-Americans in e-mail forums after an article in the Jan. 3 issue of The Nation, the liberal weekly, began circulating via e-mail about a month ago. It said in part:

Perhaps the most striking example of the media's unwillingness to challenge McCain's air of moral authority is when he shocks listeners by casually calling the Vietnamese ''gooks.'' The racist and disparaging term, popularized by G.I.'s during the war, occurs repeatedly in a 1973 U.S. News & World Report account penned by McCain after his release from prison. ''The 'gooks' were bombarding us with antiwar quotes from people in high places back in Washington,'' he wrote, referring to the propaganda that his captors gave him. A quarter of a century later, while speaking with reporters aboard the Straight Talk Express in October, McCain was still calling Vietnamese ''gooks'' -- and according to a reporter who was there, no one called him on it. It's enough to make you wonder whether the reporters were thinking: Well, this guy spent five years in a prison camp, so he can say anything he wants.

In the Internet forum ''soc.culture.vietnamese,'' one participant responded bluntly:

Just a thought, but if McCain had been caught by Africans while fighting in Somalia, would he feel as comfortable calling his torturers ''niggers'' as he does using the word ''gook''? If his torturers had been Iraqi, would he use the word ''sand nigger'' with such conviction? Or had he been a human rights worker tortured in Guatemala, would he call his captors ''spics''? Seems to me the real issue isn't McCain's racial beliefs, but the fact that Asian-Americans as a voting group aren't formidable enough to make McCain wary of offending them.

Jocelyn Dong offered similar criticism (before the McCain apology) in an e-mail forum aimed at Asian-American journalists:

John McCain would do well to rethink this case of ''straight talk.''

The English language is rife with words to express a former P.O.W.'s feelings towards the men who tortured him: barbarians, sadists, savages and other epithets far more choice.

But the slur he's sticking to is the racial one. Not one that zeroes in on the unconscionable cruelty of his enemies, but one that expresses hatred of ''differentness'' -- skin color, facial features, culture.

As a presidential candidate, McCain should take a broader view of his remark by realizing how harmful it is to use any racially derogatory term, in any context. Straight talk sometimes needs to be revised. It probably wouldn't be personally easy for him, but he could set a moral example by apologizing.

But in the same forum, Stanton Tang was willing to cut the Senator some slack:

Having been raised in Arizona and having followed the Senator's career fairly closely, I cannot recall any instance of McCain showing racial prejudice. I prefer to judge him, not on one instance, but on his actions. If the term was used in context of those individuals who tortured him for five years in a prisoner of war camp, it may not be palatable to us, but that does not mean it is not appropriate.

Personally, I also am against political correctness for a very simple reason. Would you prefer to know who holds racist views and agendas openly, or would you prefer that they carry such biases in secret?

Yes, such terms offend me. However, if that person expresses their views, then the public can judge for itself (and perhaps condemn as well) those prejudicial views.

Vera Chan was also sympathetic to the Senator:

Sometimes I think we younger Americans who haven't lived through a major war or significant civil unrest just can't fathom and therefore understand how dehumanizing war is. . . . After all, how many, say, Korean- or Chinese-Americans have parents or grandparents who continue to condemn all Japanese because of their wartime experiences?

Senator McCain gets further support in a letter to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle from Frank Koucky, a reader:

Those who attack McCain (who defended an Asian nation with his life) should go read ''When Hell Was in Session'' [by a former American prisoner of North Vietnam] and learn a little about what he went through before they open their mouths. To attack McCain for speaking badly of his friends' murderers is as foolish as attacking Jews for speaking badly of SS death camp guards.

But in the Internet forum ''soc.culture.asian.american,'' another presumably Asian-American participant put forth no doubt a widely held view:

No one doubts that his torturers are [expletive] who deserve to be cursed. But the fact that he chooses to use a racial slur, in a public forum, and as a presidential candidate. . . . indicates that he is more ignorant about the issues than someone in his position should be. Although the term is meant for his torturers only, the fact that it is race-based will naturally impute all members of the Vietnamese ethnicity. And of course, it will concurrently be imputed to all A.-A.'s -- since, you know, they can't tell us apart anyway.


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