Entry from December 1, 2008

Sympathy for last week’s victims of terrorism in Bombay, India, has finally put an end to a lonely holdout in the media by The Times of London against the forces of political correctness. In today’s paper, an editorial, “Mumbai in The Times“, announces that, henceforth, it will change its adherence to traditional English usage and start referring to Bombay, as almost all the rest of the culturally “sensitive” media does, as “Mumbai.” In noting the change, the editorialist attempts to rationalize it thus:

Cities and countries have an inalienable right to choose their own names. This is, in essence, a democratic process, and The Times respects it. We respect our readers in equal measure, and they have known Mumbai as Bombay, an Anglicisation of the Portuguese Bombaim, for 223 years. But they have also long been aware of Mumbai as an alternative — an alternative that has grown from a statement of identity derived from the eponym of Mumba-Devi, the Hindu Mother Goddess, to the name used by most Indians and, in the past few days, the name used by most of the world.

This is a pretty feeble argument, it seems to me. The name used by “most Indians” is naturally an Indian name. But the English name is and has been for centuries Bombay. Isn’t it equally natural for English speakers to use the English, rather than the Indian name — unless they are speaking Hindi or Marathi? Cities and countries may have the right to choose their own names in their own languages, but why should they also have the right to choose their English names which, in keeping with a general English practice, often differ from the local ones?

Or is this customary practice due now to be changed by the fact that English is the world language of our times? If so, then Florence in Italy should become Firenze in Italia and Cologne in Germany should become Köln in Deutschland and Saragossa in Spain should become Zaragoza in Espa a. Hundreds of other cities and countries that have English names that are different from the local denomination would also have to change. Fortunately, there is no measurable demand that we should change our language to suit the Italians, the Germans or the Spanish. The reason why such changes as these never seem to be mooted can hardly be just tradition, since the names of Bombay and Burma (Myanmar) and the other insistent name-changers also go back centuries. It is more likely a form of cosmetic multiculturalism.

That is to say, we show our goodwill and lack of “chauvinism” — i.e. a preference for speaking our own language — by adopting the preferred designations not of European nations but of those mainly inhabited by “people of color,” as the current academic jargon chooses to call them. That’s as opposed to “colored people,” of course, which would be borderline racist, just as “negro” is borderline racist in the description by Ayman al-Zawahiri of Barack Obama as a “house negro” By the way, when I was at school and “Negro” was the acceptable designation for African-Americans, we were taught that it should always be capitalized, as it was the name of a race. But people with politically-inspired grievances often enjoy making demands of those they see (or pretend to see) as their oppressors (or former oppressors) just because they can. They know that the once-dominant culture is now paralyzed by guilt and self-doubt, and they see its sensitivity to such demands for change as a confirmation of that guilt and, therefore, the validity of their own grievances.

You’d think that this amusing little dance of the sensitivities would be changing as we enter the “post-racial” era of Barack Obama. As Marie Arana pointed out in yesterday’s Washington Post, “Unless the one-drop rule still applies, our president-elect is not black.” Why, then, do we so often refer to him as black?

To me, as to increasing numbers of mixed-race people, Barack Obama is not our first black president. He is our first biracial, bicultural president. He is more than the personification of African American achievement. He is a bridge between races, a living symbol of tolerance, a signal that strict racial categories must go.

But she glosses over too easily that “black” is what BHO calls himself. And why does he? For the same reason why my shoe-shining friend, Danny Williams, says that black people are not going to stop “playing the race card” just because Mr Obama is president: “It’s too good of a card to give up.” Similarly, Indians and Burmese and other former colonial subjects will go on playing on the guilty feelings of their quondam sahibs and those connected to them only by race for so long as the latter insist on feeling guilty for being white.

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