Thursday, January 06, 2011

I guess we should change 'No Country for Old Men' to 'No Nation...', huh?

I'm as annoyed as anyone about the decision to expunge from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn the 219 instances of the word niggerand don't even get me started on the idea of changing Injun Joe's name to Indian Joe. I guess next they'll change the title character's name to Burt Finn because Huck, after all, rhymes with fuck. But I'm surprised that so many observers seem, well, surprised. We didn't see this coming? After Dr. Laura and such? Has no one ever gritted his teeth through Mel Brooks' comedy classic Blazing Saddles as edited for AMC, TNT or (irony of ironies!) The Comedy Channel? The sanitized Saddles is only half as funny, but worse than that, it's sacrilegious. The first time I chanced upon the denatured version of that scene where Sheriff Bart makes his inaugural ride into Rock Ridgeand I realized that they'd crapped all over one of the top-5 funniest punch lines in the history of American cinemaI almost put my hoof through the TV screen.

Art is art, folks. It evokes a sense of time and place. It captures and conveys atmosphere, ethos, mood. It interprets and illuminates controversy. It challenges the status quo. You're not supposed to huck with that.

But there's a bigger point to be made. Here's a newsflash for you: People have an absolute right to be racists (and homophobes, and misogynists). Writers have a right to produce bigoted literature
not just Mark Twain in 1884 (although Twain was, of course, being satirical), but Joe Blow, today, in 2011. That's another thing that irks me about most of those who've attacked the decision to publish the sanitized Finn: They justify the book's offensive language based on the fact that it's an "iconic historical work" that "captures the feeling of a troubled time in American history." That's true, but it's a cop-out and, in a way, it's a counterproductive position. Twain, were he alive today, would have just as much right to produce a book in which he wrote without the irony, calling blacks niggers in his own authorial voice. And just in case the question is buzzing around your mind, yes, writers and filmmakers also have an absolute right to keep churning out material that portrays Italians as brutes and mobsters (or, conversely, the kinds of dim-witted bimbos and guidos who populate Jersey Shore), even though some Italians may take umbrage, and even though my grandkids' feelings might be hurt by such portrayals. (I'm not saying that's the case. I'm just saying, even if...)

This goes back to my abortive series on free speech, which was supposed to have at least three parts but, for reasons I can't quite recall, ended with part two. So I'm glad this Twain thing came up, because it brings to prominence an issue that needs to be discussed openly and "without preconditions." (And if you don't get the quoted reference, my-my; has it really been that long since the election cycle of 2009?) We do not at present have a right to discriminate against certain classes of people. But we do have a right to believe that certain people ought to be discriminated against. And we have a right to actively support legislation that discriminates against certain classes of people. We even have a right to argue for a constitutional amendment that repeals the 15th and 19th amendments, thus barring blacks and women from voting. To my mind, we have a right to argue pretty much anything we damn please ... and then that argument, whatever it is, gets sorted out in the marketplace of ideas. We run it up the flagpole. If no one salutes, so be it. If lots of people salute, we craft new legislation around it.

See, we need to recognize that laws are temporary and malleable. We tinker with the law all the time. We even tinker with the Constitution. Ergo, there should not be any penalties for espousing acts and policies that are, at the moment, illegal or even "immoral." Slavery was legal until America rose up and changed all that. Drinking (alcohol) was legal, then illegal, then legal again. Being gay and in the military was effectively illegal; now it's legal, or about to become so. We change our collective mind on the very largest matters of all. Abortion, which many still regard as murder, was illegal, then it became legal; who knows what will be the case in the future. Ditto capital punishment.

It is not, and should never be, illegal to believe and/or advocate "outrageous," "unconscionable" things. As a father and grandfather with four grandchildren, I detest pedophilia, as I suppose most Americans do. It is difficult for me to convey to you how strong that sentiment is. At the same time, I detest attempts to preemptively silence groups like NAMBLA. What are we so afraid of, that we can't even let them have their say?

I repeat: We are allowed to think the way we think, as long as we act in accordance with current law. I hope and pray* that we never lose sight of that distinction.

* I don't really pray, in the traditional sense, but it's a good idiomatic phrase.


Tyro said...

Do you know what the motivation for bowdlerizing it is?

I can imagine that some people might find it offensive and off-putting (though I suspect that it's closer to the truth to say that some people fear that some other people might find it offensive). Surely a big part of the point of reading books to understand people and times, especially when they think differently from us.

Sounds like the same china-doll mentality which goes to great lengths to protect kids from pedophiles, knife attacks, muggings and violent crime even though all of these are on the decline and were never big dangers to being with. Now we're protecting them from disturbing ideas. Bah.

Steve Salerno said...

Actually, the publisher putting out this kinder, gentler Finn says his heart is in the right place: It's not so much that he's bowing to PC pressures, but that he's trying to get the book removed from a list of "taboo literature" that prevents so many schools from assigning Finn nowadays. My reply would be, 1, Why not work instead on changing the minds of the schools (and the attitude that occasions that policy)?, and 2, If you have to kill the essence of the book in order to make it palatable, have you really accomplished what you set out to do?

Wouldn't that be a little bit like publishing a version of American Psycho that contained no violence?

a/good/lysstener said...

I disagree with you here, Steve. What would be so strong about adopting a cultural policy of "let's all just be nice to each other"? If you're going to talk about people advocating things, why not have them advocate that for starters?

Steve Salerno said...

Alyssa: I have to say, I'm not quite sure how to even respond to that.

a/good/lysstener said...

P.S. I meant "wrong", not "strong". Sorry!

Steve Salerno said...

Yes, I got that.

Anonymous said...

I don't get the title of your post.

Tyro said...

Well if "Catcher in the Rye" gets censored and kept out of libraries and classrooms because of some mild swearing, it shouldn't be a big surprise that Huck Finn would fall at the same hands. You're right, I don't blame the publisher, I blame the petty zealots who are willing to sacrifice learning and complexity in the name of "protecting" children.

@AGL - As for just being nice, I think we need to appreciate the experiences of others and novels like Huck Finn are one of the best ways to let us really imagine having a different life. Huck's unfamiliar or even unappealing views make it more, not less, important. I know what it's like to live with today's PC sensibilities, I don't know what it was like to live beside real slaves and yes, dehumanizing them was a part of life.

What's wrong with covering up the past is that it serves to hide or downplay the real struggles and harm that people faced.

(Of course, if Huck Finn is not allowed now then maybe a bowdlerized version at least has a chance of being read. Lesser of two evils?)

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: As my favorite gradeschool teacher, Mrs. Donahue, used to say: Sound it out.

RevRon's Rants said...

"What would be so strong about adopting a cultural policy of "let's all just be nice to each other"?"

Would that we were inclined to do just that, Alyssa, but in order to "just be nice," we must first acknowledge those areas wherein we aren't - and haven't been - nice to each other. We'd be much more likely to set aside racism if we could first acknowledge it, then attempt to understand its causes.

Huck was a racist, yet at the same time, a sympathetic character. As such, I think he serves as a viable model for improving the current discourse, which demands the vilification of anyone whose ideas are different from one's own.

Huck was also a product of his time and his culture. By getting to know that culture and the predominant influences of that time, we afford ourselves the best possible chance of letting go of those predominant influences residual power over our collective (tribal) psyche.

Matt Dick said...

I don't know what put me in mind of this except that it was recent and has to do with appripriateness. My daughter (11 year-old 6th-grader) was given an extra-credit assignment last night by her science teacher: to watch the episode of The Big Bang Theory and summarize the science discussed.

The Big Bang Theory is a show about scientists. The *episodes* are very often about masturbation and sexual fantasies and normal sitcom adult situations.

I am not against having a conversation with my daughter about sex and masturbation, but I guess i don't need an American sitcom to be the progenitor of that discussion. If it were high art, that would be different, I *do* think Mark Twain would be a fine starting point for discussing with my daughter the ideas of race relations, the word nigger and the placement of art in time. The Big Bang Theory ain't no Huckleberry Finn.

Plus it's just a weird assignment.

Steve Salerno said...

Matt: If it's any consolation, I agree. Of all possible springboards for a classroom discussion of cosmology, a sitcom seems like a most unusual choice indeed. You almost wonder if your daughter's science teacher didn't realize what the show was actually about.

Right before I left San Diego (1994), there was a controversy about a gradeschool teacher who felt he had a moral duty to better acquaint students with gayness--to help destigmatize homosexuality and promote the idea that "gays are people too." Which is, I suppose, fine (though I dislike the idea of teachers politicizing the classroom, especially when they have a subjective agenda). But what he did was assign them to read several works by prominent gay authors, at least one of which contained numerous references to fist-fucking, rimming, etc. Parents were up in arms, and understandably so, in my view.