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 speaker and hearer and in two recent cases the utterances were completely unexpected and, indeed, unwelcome. They, suggested a bigotry to which neither of the tongues’ proprietors acknowledges subscribing.
The first belongs to 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 was quoted in the Times of London as as “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” even though “there are many people of color who are very talented.” Elucidating, Watson 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 error, he promptly disavowed his 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 utterances that there were weapons of mass destruction or that things were going better in Iraq..
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 while denigrating 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, as you can see from this video, 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, he 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.”
Tanner 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 to impart and while it is unlikely that the utterance will qualify Mr. Tanner or for a Nobel Prize it may affect premiums paid by minorities for life insurance.
Given the opportunity to disavow Tanner’s utterances, a Justice Department spokesman said Mr. Tanner’s remarks had been “grossly misconstrued” and 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 is not as out of synch as supporters of voting rights would have had a right to expect from the chief of this Justice Department’s civil rights division.