Monday, January 10, 2011

Huckleberry Finn & The Slippery Slope of Censorship

The newly published revision of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn demonstrates an incredibly increasing American illiteracy and it is an unconscionable defacing of literature. The author’s use of the so called “N-word” has long been a source of contention among the book banning set as well as the political correctness crowd who want to cleanse our national rhetorical landscape of any word or term that offends their brittle egos. It’s also a blatant attempt at rewriting a dark moment in U.S. History.

It seems that they have won this round. But, then why wouldn’t they – a Texas state school board has begun deleting Thomas Jefferson from their U.S. History textbooks. In our cyber age of mediocrity we no longer have to accept being challenged, we can simply remove the offending thorn and not be troubled by it again. Ignorance must indeed be bliss as so many people seem to be intent on remaining in such a state.

Forget for a moment that Mark Twain was a satirist writing in a pre-civil war period when we still had a slavery institution and blacks were crassly and cruelly referred to with the N-word; forget for a moment that Mark Twain was an ardent abolitionist and a harsh critic of southern attitudes and culture. Forget for a moment that in Huckleberry Finn it is the young Mr. Finn and his companion, the escaped slave Jim, who are the only truly shining examples of a rarified and noble humanity, editing Huckleberry Finn not only defaces a great piece of American literature it softens the historical reality of the time by attempting to make it “polite,” “decent” and acceptable to easily offended readers.

Deleting the “N-Word” to make it more suitable for “black education,” as one article I read suggests, is nonsense. It belittles the whole notion of black history and assumes that African Americans, as a whole, are somehow less sophisticated than the culture at large. This, of course, is patently false. Huckleberry Finn holds up Jim as an example of true humanity and gives the book one of its noble themes – an attack on the institute of slavery. If the story was told from a strict abolitionist viewpoint it would not have the cutting impact that it does.

Being white many people will no doubt object to where I land on this issue. I do appreciate that. I have not been subjected to the dehumanizing cruelty of racism. But, let me be clear. This is not strictly about the replacing of the word nigger – let’s not be coy regarding this word as it is central to the debate – it is about allowing political correctness to whitewash truth. Just because the truth is an unsavory reality, such as slavery in this country, it is still a truth that must be examined head on.

I get the objection to the word. It is offensive and outside a discussion on Huckleberry Finn as a piece of literature and U.S. history its use is unacceptable today. I would no more use this word than I would any other racially motivated slang term. But, if I’ve learned anything about studying history it is this – history, like death itself – enjoys a delicious irony. The N-word is still so prevalent in our culture albeit in a rather subversive way. The N-word is in movies, music and popular fiction to the point that it makes the debate over Huckleberry Finn ludicrous. The illiteracy of those who misunderstand Twain and his intentions compound the problem.

If the N-word is unacceptable in Huckleberry Finn then it must be unacceptable in every other aspect of our culture as well. This is the crux of the issue. The word will still remain in use and not just among the white supremacist, KKK crowd either. In no small way, every time someone in the black community uses the N-word, regardless of what their justification may be, they continue to keep alive its use in our post modern vernacular and, in some cases, identify themselves by the word. The N-word cannot be acceptable in a sub-culture if we seek to eliminate it in the larger culture around us.

This isn’t a simple case of some angry white guy being pissed off for not being able to say what I want with whatever words I want. The N-word is an ugly word and its etymology suggests the ignorance of the white southerners who originally coined it. I don’t wish to be a part of that culture of ignorance. This is also not a slam on the black community who has endured so much throughout our history. It is not even a suggestion that they should alter or change their part of our culture. These are simply just observations.

This is just a warning to those who don’t wish to have their thoughts policed. The revised edition of the Huckleberry Finn is not exactly a first amendment issue per se. You can still readily obtain a copy of the unrevised edition. In a consumer culture such as ours it’s simply another choice. The editor of this edition does present a decent argument for his work, although I disagree with his assumption that it does not diminish the impact of the novel as a whole.

The ultimate challenge that this type of editing presents is that it places us on the slippery slope of censorship. The first amendment does not have a “decency” litmus test included although truly decent people choose their words justly. The first amendment does not protect us from being offended. However, it does give us the right to respond and to challenge those who give us offense.

Revising a work by eliminating offensive materials is not exercising first amendment rights; it’s censorship, pure and simple, regardless of the intentions behind it. Threats to liberty never come in large overt gestures it is simple acts such as the one discussed here that slowly erode liberty making room for the more overt gestures that may never happen because we willingly become beggars to our own demise. The recent revised edition of Huckleberry Finn is not only illiterate it is dangerous and may have far reaching implications to individual liberty.

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