I was pretty sure when I clicked on William Saletan’s piece “Ted Nugent Called Obama a Mongrel Like It’s an Insult. It’s Not.” (the headline that appears on the article’s page is “In Defense of Mongrels”) in Slate magazine that I would disagree with him. I just wasn’t sure how. I don’t generally recommend this as a starting point for discussion, but I was unable to avoid it this time, since I firmly believe that it’s indefensible to call someone a mongrel, especially when that someone is of mixed race and especially when it’s modified with “subhuman”. I couldn’t conceive of any reasonable defense of the word and now, having read the piece, I still can’t.
Saletan’s piece is tongue-in-cheek and my principle objections are to the uncautious headline-writing that Saletan has no part of and to the selection of this incident to teach us about hybrid vigour. Sure, it would be great if everyone were a little more knowledgable about genetics and the benefits of cross- and selective breeding, especially given the current debate over GMOs in our and our livestock’s food. Still, at the risk of sounding overzealous, I say that hooking people in with the catchy and topical context of calling a person of mixed race a mongrel is wrong.
He’s wrong about the problem with calling someone a mongrel and wrongheaded in trying to “correct” it without even a mention of the word’s history and current usage. It’s just not OK to make a joke that boils down to “We can call people of mixed race “mongrels” because of hybrid vigour, hahaha,” when the word “mongrel” and its verb “mongrelize” have been at the heart of some seriously bad stuff.
He’s just not quite with the cultural climate:
A mongrel, according to Merriam-Webster, is “an individual resulting from the interbreeding of diverse breeds or strains.” The Oxford dictionary gives a more precise definition: “a dog of no definable type or breed.” Many people use mongrel as an insult because they think it’s better to be purebred than to have mixed ancestry. They’re wrong. Mixed ancestry is healthier.
Firstly, I’m not sure too many of the people currently using the word mongrel to refer to people (Google informs me this is mostly Aryan nation-types) would agree that mixed ancestry is better, whether or not people of mixed race are healthier. Plus, Saletan doesn’t actually make a case that “hybridization” between white and black people actually is healthier. He compares…dogs. And then early hominids. Sure, early Homo Sapiens picked up some handy traits from Neanderthals and Denisovians, but the argument that people of mixed race pick up resistance to disease or some such from their multiple racial backgrounds rests on the idea that people of different races are significantly genetically distinct in characteristics other than physical appearance. Unless Saletan would like to present us with evidence that certain genetic disorders are uniquely racially linked and at such high prevalence that endogamy within that race leads to a high risk of babies with that disorder, that just sounds like racism.
The other of Saletan’s mistakes is alluded to in his own writing. “Mongrel” when applied to a person isn’t derogatory only because it assumes single racial lineage is superior to mixed, but because it’s a word people use about dogs. For evidence, I present the fact that a Google search for “mongrel” turns up the Wikipedia page on mongrel dogs, not the Mongrel (disambiguation) page, which would turn up if “mongrel” were used to describe various hybrid plants and animals just as often as dogs, as Saletan suggests. It is also of note that the word “mongrel” doesn’t appear on the Wikipedia page for hybrid plants and animals, and the page about mongrel dogs explicitly defines a mongrel as the stock of dogs who mated “without planned intervention of humans”, as opposed to a cross- or mixed breed, who is intentionally bred of varied stock. (Should I even mention the nastiness around talking about two people getting married and deciding to have children with the language of breeding? Is everyone else with me on how that’s especially bad given the history of black people being literally owned by white people?) Wikipedia isn’t a definitive source on biology or taxonomy or dog breeding, but it is a good barometer of public understanding of a concept, because of its wide readership and authorship.
So yes, William Saletan, it is an insult to call someone a mongrel. And joking that hybrid vigour makes it OK is putting a carpet over the hole in the floor. You’re going to end up with more people falling into the basement.