January 7, 2011

"Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right" . . .

So, someone had the bright idea to "correct" Huck Finn by editing the word "nigger" out of the text . . . the idea being that, because the word showed up so frequently in the book, it was being dropped from school reading lists.  Prof. Alan Gribben makes the following defenses of his decision to alter Twain's classic using more racially sensitive language:

–”Far more controversial than this reuniting of Twain’s boy books will be the editor’s decision to eliminate two racial slurs that have increasingly formed a barrier to these works for teachers, students, and general readers. The editor thus hopes to introduce both books to a wider readership than they can currently enjoy.”
–”We may applaud Twain’s ability as a prominent American literary realist to record the speech of a particular region during a specific historical era, but abusive racial insults that bear distinct connotations of permanent inferiority nonetheless repulse modern-day readers.”
–”I believe that a significant number of school teachers, college instructors, and general readers will welcome the option of an edition of Twain’s fused novels that spares the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol. Despite occasional efforts of rap and hip hop musicians to appropriate the term, and well-meaning but usually futile (from my own experience) endeavors by classroom teachers to inoculate their students against it by using Huckleberry Finn as a springboard to discuss its etymology and cultural history, the n-word remains inarguably the most inflammatory word in the English language.”

Christ, what a bunch of idiots.  Twain is much more than a "prominent American literary realist", and he's up to more than that here.  The language is very specifically a part of that.  Huck Finn is, among other things, about a boy discovering and dealing with his own racism; "nigger" belongs there, and not just because it is an accurate picture of the vernacular.  The word was as dismissive and demeaning then as it is now (even if it didn't face the same approbation), and Twain was very aware of that.  He was a man whose insights and values regarding race are much more in line with our times than with his own: you can be sure if he used the word, he used it for a very specific effect.  And yes, it should make us feel uncomfortable.  It was meant to.

Anyway, I could go on, but my pal Angie's consideration of Huck Finn is much more on point, so you should go there and read it (including the comments).

*          *          *          *          *

"Political correctness" is one of those cudgels that conservatives always beat liberals with - often for good reason, as we see above - so how do they explain away editing their second most sacred text*, the Constitution of the United States of America, during today's ceremonial reading in the House of Representatives?

Oh yeah, that's right, they just skipped over the parts that were later amended . . . you know, cleaning up the mistakes:

“We’re reading the amended version with all amendments that are currently part of the Constitution,” said Kathryn Rexrode, a spokesman for Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, who spearheaded the reading. “It will not include any amendments that were in the original but later amended.”

Like the 18th Amendment, which outlawed booze, and was later repealed by the 21st Amendment.  Or, most interestingly, that pesky "3/5ths Solution" in Article I, Section 2, which makes it clear that only free white men are full citizens of the country.

So, asked Jesse Jackson Jr. from the floor of the House, why aren't we reading the whole Constitution?

"The new Republican majority and their redacted Constitutional reading gives little deference to the long history of improving the Constitution and only seeks an interpretation of our Constitution based on the now, not the historic, broad body of law and struggle that it has taken to get there.  It leaves out the need to continue to refine the Constitution so that we have a more perfect union. ...

Or, in other words, how convenient is it that a bunch of idiots who are always babbling about "the original intent of the founding fathers" choose to gloss over the fact that said intent includes the systematic dehumanization of a race of people?

Yes, we eventually "get it right" (or a lot closer to right than it started out being), but censoring the inconvenient bits of the Constitution is specifically meant to preempt the kind of arguments that people like me have been making against "original intent" to begin with: namely, "original intent" is not a useful requisite to judgement because the document had fundamental flaws at its inception.  The Constitution is a starting place, not a goal.

It reminds me of the heated attacks that the Tea Party was making on (long dead and unable to defend himself) Justice Thurgood Marshall during the Kagan confirmation hearings: essentially, they wanted to paint the court in broad brush strokes of good (Antonin Scalia) and evil (Thurgood Marshall) because of the way Marshall supposedly deviated from the "Founding Father's Original Intent".  Marshall, as was the case with almost every famous African American who crossed the color line in some important venue, never rose to the attacks of his critics, and he wouldn't have risen to this one had he been alive . . . but I always wanted to say on his behalf, "So, let me get this straight: I'm supposed to consider as gospel the wisdom of a bunch of crackers who owned my people, who didn't even consider folk like me fully human?  You expect me to honor the intent of those fools?  How about I weight their intent appropriately in my decision, like maybe . . . oh, let's say 3/5ths to their intent, and the other 2/5ths to all the crap they got wrong.  I think thats more than fair, don't you, whitey?"

I swear to the heavens above, I don't know if these people are complete idiots, or if they think we are complete idiots.  Either way, this must end.
*  Unfortunately, I am not exaggerating here:  there are Christian fundamentalists in the U. S. that consider the Constitution a divinely inspired text, just like the Bible.


Richard said...

We've published a much cooler version of Huckleberry Finn, one with every occurrence of the N-word replaced by the word "hipster."

Bill Zink said...


Anonymous said...

This is all about limiting Free Speech. After all, censorship is everywhere. The gov’t (and their big business cronies) censor free speech, shut down dissent and ban the book “America Deceived II”. Free speech for all, especially Mark Twain.
Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

josh said...

I had no idea there was a cottage industry devoted to defiling classic works of literature to make them palatable to squeamish school boards. Can't wait for the "hipster" versions of the Burroughs' works. That would be, like, unoffensive and meta cool! What a world.

Bill Zink said...

Josh, what a fucking great idea! I'm getting to work on the sanitized version of *Naked Lunch* forthwith!

Seriously, has anyone ever heard the censored version of Eazy E's *Eazy Duz It*? It is HILARIOUS: instead of just bleeping out the cusswords, he raps the same thing "clean" . . . like, I think there was a song about picking up a pre-op tranny, and instead of saying "bitch had a dick", he says something like "she had something different down there". I'm cloudy on the specifics, since it has been over 20 years since I heard it, but it was twice as good as the uncensored version.

josh said...

Bill, that's funny. This topic gave me flashbacks to all the "clean" versions of NWA, Eazy E, et al, too. I remember that Eazy rap as something like "she got what I got" but whatever. I remember kids coming to school and catching all kinds of shit if their parents had bought them a gangsta rap cassette at K-mart. They only sold the "clean" versions. Good stuff!

Bill Zink said...

I'm serious about that sanitized Burroughs. Any suggestions? *Naked Lunch* is obvious, but maybe *Nova Express* would be better?

josh said...

Well, if someone is going to make money (or at least try) by defacing a Burroughs novel it may as well be you. How about Exterminator? For starters, it's short. This is a good thing for high school kids (not to mention high school teachers). Brevity probably explains (at least in part) how Rand's Anthem made its way into my freshman English class. Or maybe it's just that I went to high school in wacky ol' Arizona. I don't know. Regardless, it beat the hell out of having to read Atlas Shrugged.

Anyway, in addition to being short Exterminator also represents all the technical brilliance of Burroughs and the themes (sexuality, sex, drugs, political/social activism, etc) he's known for. The essay from the '68 Democratic Convention is an incredible piece of literature, journalism, and American history. What's more, there are even terrorists in it! What more could a 21st-century teen hope for?

Bill Zink said...

I have too much on my plate to actually do a whole novel, but just for grins, I'll do a few passages and post them here.

Matt said...


Over the top, but kinda funny.

Matt said...

May I also request some sanitized Bukowski? Don't forget: don't just sanitize the language, but some of the unsavory ideas as well.