Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pointless Censorship; or, Would you please pass the oar, N-word Jim?

Dear Mary,

I was going to start off this post with the Family Guy clip that it now seems everyone is referencing in relation to this whole Huck Finn dustup. But I couldn't find it in a simple google search and gave up. As my generation is wont to do. I'm sure someone else has it on their blog post. Go look for it there.

I first heard about it on twitter, the read this story over at the Times, and since censorship and books are a couple of my soapboxes I figured I would weigh in. I can't write about politics with any depth or sensitivity, I can't discourse on the troubles in Pakistan and Kashmir. I don't want to go into the Tea Party Mandate that apparently exists, somehow.

So the main point of the book (not necessarily the discussion around the book, though the Room for Debate has many good points.) is that replacing the n-word and the i-word will make the book more accessible to high school students, will get it back on reading lists, will revive and modernize and update an apparently stale classic that no one much cared about because it had what the bad language in it. Of course, racial epithets are not what is keeping kids from reading these days. High school students are naive enough to think that we are post-racist now. That electing Obama ended the war. It's a nice thought, I guess, but what it means in the context of this debate is that kids don't care about the word. Or to misquote Inigo Montoya, "I don't think that word means what you think it means."

If the point of this censored edition is to get kids reading Twain again, it might work by accident. I mean, nothing sells a book like controversy. That's how I got into Burroughs, Miller, Bukowski, the 無頼派, and so many more. Though my hope will be that they turn to an unexpurgated edition. And I still don't hold out much hope. I believe the parlance is "too long did not read."

Which brings me back to why. Why do this at all? Do the publishers really think that this was all that was keeping kids from reading? Not the impressive graphics and interactivity of video games, not the pabulum being spoon-fed at the box office, not Facebook and Farmville, and every other conceivable means of waisting precious time and bodily fluids? Why? Why take out the word? Not that this is really about a word, even that word, so shunned and verboten that it cannot be named or spoken (look at the flack Ebert is taking for his position, treading the ground that no white man may yet safely tread). Is it about offense? Yes, the n-word is offensive. Incredibly so. But that was Twain's intention. He was a satirist and a social critic. He wasn't telling a ripping good yarn to make the children sleep easy at night. He was ripping apart polite society and showing the rot underneath the fresh coat of whitewash. It was offensive then, it is offensive now. Has usage changed, and connotation. Yes. Naturally. But "slave" certainly doesn't carry nearly as much of that pain and baggage. Who said reading was meant to make you feel safe and comfortable? Who said it wasn't meant to make you angry and try to better yourself, better your society? Or is Holden going to be scrubbing FUDGE off the walls next week?

Frankly, I still don't see the reasoning. Maybe they will make some money. Maybe some more people will read Twain and this [CLEAN] copy will be the gateway drug that gets them reading The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Or maybe they will still find it offensive and scale back to the decent, god-fearing retelling know as VeggieTales Big River Rescue. It seems such a trivial thing, in the big picture. It comes down to whether or not you like shopping for CDs at Wal-Mart. But not all reading is good reading. And the more we change our classics the less they stay the classics. Might as well just break down and translate Shakespeare into English while we're at it. Because that's all that's keeping kids from reading, right? Or we might want to looking into the deeper issues. Might want to wonder why kids would rather spend two hours watching the same 30s youtube clip than reading a good book. Might. But this is probably easier.

I yearn for you tragically.

A.T. Tappman, Chaplain U.S. Army

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