Once upon a time long ago, a British sophisticate wrote a poem and set it to the music of a then-popular nursery rhyme. The thrust of the song, which became a staple of British Army officers’ messes, was to sneer at the uncouth, unlettered Colonials, who were so ignorant of the fashions of the time that they thought they could ape the styles coming from Italy using whatever they had lying around: “…stuck a feather in his cap / and called it macaroni”. Imagine the guffaws around the junior officers’ table!

The rude Colonials found the tune catchy and the lyrics not nearly so denigrating as their author imagined them — among other things, they thought it a bit ironic that the so-sophisticated British had to borrow their fashions from somewhere else. They adopted the song, first as a marching-song for soldiers, and later as something like an anthem. Today it’s the State Song of Connecticut: Yankee Doodle, of course.

A similar process went on with Dixie, a pre-Civil War dismissal of the culture and habits of the ignorant Southerners that was adopted by the Southrons themselves as an ironic compliment. Later, in the same vein, there was the derisory sneer “redneck”, which was already starting to be self-applied by its targets when the comedian Jeff Foxworthy seized it and turned it into a boast combined with mocking of the pretensions of the self-declared “sophisticated” (see my tagline):

No, we don’t fit in with the white-collar crowd
We’re a little too rowdy and a little too loud;
And there’s no place that I’d rather be than right here
With my red neck, white socks, and Blue Ribbon beer.

(The Johnny Russel version from 1973 is only a little before the rise of Foxworthy, but the song had been performed by Hank Thompson a good bit earlier.)

Insults don’t always work. As the examples demonstrate, it’s not at all hard to find instances of an insult being turned around, adopted by its putative target as an anthem or badge of honor and used to imply sneers at its originator. The process happens more rapidly and completely if the insult isn’t based on fact, or if it’s based on factors that the target doesn’t consider negative. Southerners really did have “hoe-down” dances on graveled lots, and enjoyed them as diversions; so “hoe me down and scratch my gravel” falls flat as an insult.

The accusation “Racist!” has for a long time been the nuclear weapon of American political rhetoric. Using it — especially when it had some tenuous connection to reality, as happened more often than not — had a strong tendency to shut down the conversation in favor of the one hurling the epithet, and when it didn’t shut the target up it did prejudice the audience in favor of the one issuing it. Unfortunately too many people have noted that effect and attempted to take advantage of it, with the result that the connection between the real racism (that does, in fact, continue to exist) and the charge becomes more and more tenuous.

Now, of course, we are advised that any least contradiction of the programs, proposals, and policies of the Obama Administration is and can only be “Racist!” This is fatuous in the extreme. Denying that a racist component exists would be equally fatuous, but (for instance) a charge of “Racist!” against the “stimulus” falls flat, especially from someone who loudly criticized the Bush Administration for deficit-financing the Iraq Adventure. Dissent is either sedition or “the highest form of patriotism”; it cannot be both, and it is not and cannot be the one for one political ideology and the other for another, different ideal.

Repeated charges of “Racist!” when the racial component is trivial or nonexistent do not convert the target, they convert the charge, which becomes itself trivial or lacking in substantive meaning. The stage is thus set for “racist” to become the new “redneck”, adopted by people who may or may not be substantively racist, but disagree with Democratic Party proposals on grounds widely divergent from race. Real racists — who do exist; never doubt it or minimize the problem — will then use the defanged term as cover, and the people who suffer from unfair discrimination based on race — there are a lot of them; never doubt or minimize that, either — will lose a valuable weapon in the dispute.

One of the characteristics of any explosive, up to and including nuclear ones, is that you can only use them once. It thus behooves you to be parsimonious in their use; if you need to blow up your enemies, but have wasted the bombs on killing snakes, you are going to be at a disadvantage. Save “Racist!” for real problems; wasting it on stifling dissent just uses up your ammo to no purpose.