A window into Sam's mind

With a pidgin characterization of John Huang's fundraising motivation, Sam Brownback reinforced public suspicions of an Anti-Asian animus pervading Senate Governmental Affairs Committee hearings:

"No raise money, no get bonus."

This happened during a witness interrogation in July 1997, as Sam's committee investigated Asian-American (repeat: Asian-American) campaign contributions.

Karen Narasaki, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium: "It is only day three of the hearings, yet they have already begun to degenerate into stereotyping and demeaning imitations. What can we expect next week? Senator Brownback squinting his eyes and faking buckteeth?"

Senator Daniel Akaka (D, Hawaii), a native Hawaiian, gave Sam the benefit of the doubt: "I really feel he didn't mean to slight anybody."

Defenders immediately began constructing inocuous interpretations of the remark. Brownback said almost immediately he intended no slight by it, and in a way it's conceivable.

It may have been an unconscious slip, a phrase that had been cycling through his mind through days of exhausting hearings, and lo and behold it just popped out. Those things always sound worse when they get outside people's heads. But they're also clues to what's going on inside those heads. With politicians like Sam we need all the clues we can get.

It's a lot like House majority leader Dick Armey's remark (January 27, 1995) in a press interview, calling Representative Barney Frank "Barney Fag." An accident. So do we absolve him? No, it's not that easy. Here's a passage from "What 'Barney Fag' Teaches Us about Prejudice," an essay by Richard D. Mohr (February 1995):

Between intention and accident falls revelation... Though the F-word hurled at gay men packs the same wallop as the N-word hurled at blacks and the C-word at women, tapes of the interview confirm Armey's claim that his use of the F-word was unintentional. He hadn't planned to use the term of Frank. It wasn't hurled. It slipped out.

But Armey's further defense that the use was purely accidental - "a stumbled word" - rings false. Both "frank" and "fag" are common one-syllable words and Frank's name is hardly a tongue-twister. As a fall-back, Armey claimed that alliteration made him do it.

The slur was neither an intentional action nor an accidental event. It lies between the two, but well within a zone of personal responsibility. Armey is blameworthy -- in a way that is revelatory for understanding how discrimination frequently works. The relevant moral analogy here is to involuntary manslaughter: because you fail to have your brakes checked, you run over a child in a crosswalk; even though you didn't intend to run over the child, the child's death is not a blameless accident; you are responsible for it.

I don't think Sam has anything against Asian-Americans personally. What I do think is that he was internally revelling gleefully in the political damage these hearings were doing to the DNC. He could not keep himself from relishing how very Asian the Americans in question must appear to a very bigoted public. Bigotry is an important political base for Sam.

Sources: the Kansas City Star, "Brownback issues apology for remark," The Associated Press, 07/11/97; "Senator's remarks defended / Brownback didn't intend to slight Asians, colleague says," James Kuhnhenn, 07/12/97
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