Friday, January 7, 2011

Politically Correct Censorship

The internets have been rife with opinion over an Alabama professor's plan to censor Mark Twain's "Huck Finn" and eliminate words that might be "offensive" to our 21st century politically-correct ears.

Should teenage students read novels filled with n-word references? Is that even appropriate for public school curricula? At least one publisher doesn’t think so.

New South has put together a volume of Mark Twain’s two most famous novels that bucks several publishing traditions. Here’s how they describe it:

In a radical departure from standard editions, Twain’s most famous novels are published here as the continuous narrative that the author originally envisioned. More controversial will be the decision by the editor, noted Mark Twain scholar Alan Gribben, to eliminate the pejorative racial labels that Twain employed in his effort to write realistically about social attitudes of the 1840s.

Gribben points out that dozens of other editions currently make available the inflammatory words, but their presence has gradually diminished the potential audience for two of Twain’s masterpieces. “Both novels can be enjoyed deeply and authentically without those continual encounters with the hundreds of now-indefensible racial slurs,” Gribben explains.

So, is this political correctness run amok? Another example of how easily we destroy our cultural heritage and fictionalize our collective history in service to presentist hyper-sensitivities?

Before I answer the question, I should note it's not just replacing Huck's use of the word "nigger" with "slave" that has changed, but "Injun Joe" is now "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" is now "half-blood," among others.

I concur with most people that the use of these words today, in today's society, is inappropriate and quite indefensible. But Huck Finn and his author aren't from "today's society" and don't reflect today's cultural values or norms.

Huck is a testament to the times (the 1840's) in which he appeared. As GWU's Margaret Soltan put it, “If his speech upsets you, that’s arguably all the better, since your response dramatizes the violence of the word, and the harsh reality of the attitudes it conveys.”

So to answer the question above, yes, this kind of censorship is political-correctness run amok. I realize "offending" people is something we go to extremes to avoid in today's society, but I can't find anything in the Constitution that says we have a "right" not to be offended.

Speaking of that document, Congress yesterday "Huck Finn-ed" the Constitution during its much vaunted recitation and read a sanitized version of the original.
In fact, there is only one version of the Constitution - and it wasn't what the lawmakers read aloud. What the Republican majority decided to read was a sanitized Constitution - an excerpted version of the founding document conjuring a fanciful land that never counted a black person as three-fifths of a white person, never denied women the right to vote, never allowed slavery and never banned liquor.
We don't do partisan politics here at TPE, so we'll skip over that aspect and just focus on the idea of a politically-correct version of the Constitution. When you read columnists exhorting this "new Constitutionalism" one wonders which version, precisely, they are talking about.
Constitutionalism as a guiding political tendency will require careful and thoughtful development, as did jurisprudential originalism. But its wide appeal and philosophical depth make it a promising first step to a conservative future.
Right, one where we can simply whitewash our original sins in favor of a partisan, Disney-like version which has nothing to do with reality.

The fact is that the Constitution is a flawed document (see also: the Amendments). As Constitutional scholar George Carlin put it, "This country was founded on a double standard: it was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free."

Have we improved? Of course, but not because we have sanitized or whitewashed our ignominious past. We only grow stronger as a culture if we acknowledge the more sordid aspects of our beginnings, be they depictions in popular literature, or the controlling legal document which governs our society.

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