The “g” word

Is John McCain a racist for using the term “gook” to refer to his North Vietnamese prison guards?

That’s the question that’s boiling around the Twin Cities today, thanks to an interview on The Uptake with Irwin Tang, author of Gook: John McCain’s Racism and Why It Matters.

Let’s be clear before we go too far here. The use of the term now cannot possibly be defended. Tang noted the term “is always a term of war,” and recalls that “the only good gook is a dead gook” was the motto of a significant number of soldiers in Vietnam. Dehumanizing the enemy was certainly nothing new to Vietnam, as this propaganda of World War II points out. It’s clearly racist now. Why didn’t America see it as racist then?


The concern is real, of course. Most genocide and ethnic cleansing stems from the racist quotient of war. Long before there was Radovan Karadzic, the Japanese were in China, for example.

We tried to discuss this on Twitter since filmmaker Chuck Olsen posted the video yesterday, but Twitter is a lousy place for discussion. Nonetheless, it must be asked, is there historical context in which McCain’s use of the term must be considered? Does the fact he doesn’t use the term constitute a political calculation, or a growing sensitivity — is this issue John McCain’s Swift Boat?

Like most issues in a presidential campaign, the genesis of the controversy is years old — 8 years old in this case. The controversy actually flared in early 2000 when he was asked about his use of the term during his campaign for president:

“I hate the gooks. I will hate them as long as I live.”

McCain offered no apology, noting his use of the term, like the use of the term by most soldiers in Vietnam, referred to his enemy:

“I was referring to my prison guards,” McCain said, “and I will continue to refer to them in language that might offend some people because of the beating and torture of my friends.”

McCain made it clear that his anger extends only toward his captors. As a senator, he was one of the leaders of the postwar effort to normalize U.S. relations with Vietnam.

Tang, appropriately, notes that it’s a racist term. “It a term used toward people you intend to kill.” Well, yeah.

But Tang also says McCain uses the term “to dehumanize foreign people of color in order to prepare them for American invasion, for example, the Iranian, who are our next intended target according to John McCain.”

Tang gives no quarter to the argument that the war context matters. “If he had used the ‘N’ word to describe people he had fought with in war or people who had captured him in war or whatnot… we would have disqualified John McCain for the president immediately.”

There’s one other context. John McCain stopped using the term 8 years ago. He apologized for using it days after defending the fact he did:

“I will continue to condemn those who unfairly mistreated us,” McCain said in a statement released Feb. 21. “But out of respect to a great number of people for whom I hold in very high regard, I will no longer use the term that has caused such discomfort… I apologize and renounce all language that is bigoted and offensive, which is contrary to all that I represent and believe.”

I posited on Twitter that charges of racism are usually intended to stop a conversation rather than start it, but at some point we have to be willing to discuss these things in a more intelligent way rather than merely hurl allegations.

Maybe this is the day.