Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Best Banned in the Land

Actually, I was already primed to go off on a rant about "Political Correctness" when I encountered Mark Peters's article about the word "gay." Earlier that day I'd had a dispute with a coworker about the banning of books from public schools; I now think her concern had been inspired by an article on the subject in USA Today. Anyway, she was displeased by what she called "Political Correctness" which led to the "banning" of Huckleberry Finn, though what I think she meant was controversy over its use in the curriculum -- when I pressed her on that, she seemed unsure.

She jumped to the case of Little Black Sambo, which she also claimed was the victim of PC even though it was a very nice story and didn't mean any harm. She claimed that a few years ago she'd tried to get a copy of Little Black Sambo but you couldn't even get it in the US because of PC. I wasn't able to pursue that point with her, but a look at shows that LBS is still in print in numerous editions, and a search of the local public library shows that they have the original version and two retellings, including Julius Lester's. In those days, she said (apparently meaning her childhood and mine, we're very close in age), nobody objected to Little Black Sambo or Huckleberry Finn or Uncle Tom's Cabin. But now they're banned! (As someone said to me in another context, Oh, they are not!)

In those days, I countered sternly, racism was normal in the United States. She didn't have an answer to that, and in fact she was wrong. African Americans have been complaining about Little Black Sambo almost since it was first published in 1899. It was excluded from some American libraries immediately after World War II, before my coworker and I were born. Of course, we're both from Indiana, a state not famous for its racial sensitivity. What she meant, of course, was that nobody who mattered was complaining.

This weekend I've been browsing through the history of Huck Finn and Uncle Tom's Cabin as school texts. They've both been controversial for a long time, and one thing I wasn't able to find out (though I'm sure the information is out there somewhere, probably in printed matter) was how long those books have actually been taught in schools. When they were still new, they wouldn't have been taught because they weren't Classics; it wasn't until after the 1930s or so, partly due to the efforts of Matthiessen's American Renaissance, that American literature was taught even at the university level in the US. (Barbarians at the gates!)

Y'see, when I was in school (roughly 1957 to 1969), our reading texts were textbooks -- first of the Dick and Jane variety, then anthologies assembled by textbook publishers, with few if any novel-length texts included. We were never given copies of Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Moby-Dick, or Tropic of Cancer (just kidding! -- though I did read Henry Miller on my own during my junior and senior years) and told to read them -- not even in high school. My high school French teacher lent me what must have been her college copy of an anthology of French short stories so I could read Camus. Even in senior English our assignments came from the twelfth-grade Scott, Foresman textbook; I seem to remember reading the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in a modernized version.

Anything outside of the textbooks wasn't assigned reading, and I was virtually the only kid in my elementary school, as far as I know, who dug into the "library" shelves at the back of the classrooms and read books I didn't have to read. (A weirdo even then, you see!) I don't remember anyone but me reading the books (the Autobiography of Malcolm X!? how did that get on the shelves?) in the high-school library either, though surely someone else must have... But I'm wandering afield here.

The point is that while some large cities must have had advanced classes for elite students in their public schools, and perhaps elite private schools might have used real books instead of textbooks, in the ordinary public schools the textbooks ruled. If, despite the publishers' vigilance, something controversial got into the textbooks, the teachers probably would not have assigned it, and there was little danger that most students would read anything in the texts that hadn't been assigned. So the whole question of "PC" in this connection is a red herring, because the textbook and school systems were set up to avoid controversial material -- and the books I'm talking about have always been controversial. Uncle Tom's Cabin stirred up a major shitstorm in its day, prompting a counterpropaganda campaign from the slave states. Its enduring popularity after the Confederate Rebellion was the product of stage productions, including minstrel shows, which reduced it to sensationalism: "In fact," Darryl Lorenzo Wellington wrote in The Nation in 2006, "there were 'Tom shows' in the late 1800s and early 1900s that completely excised the story's antislavery message. Throughout the early 1900s, the familiar characters were cheapened by overuse in product advertisements." (You say you want a pair of Nikes -- Well, you know ... )

Huckleberry Finn similarly had its critics long before "political correctness" was a gleam in Nat Hentoff's eye. As this contemporary white high-school teacher says,
It is quite surprising to students that the concerns that people had in the 1800s when the book was published had little to do with race, little to do with language, but much more to do with deportment, much more to do with how a young person was supposed to behave. That opens their eyes to how the book stays the same but the attitudes toward it change.
According to Jonathan Arac, "It was only after the Second World War that Huckleberry Finn achieved massive canonicity in the schools ... ; yet these same years were the time that the assertion of African American civil rights, most strongly symbolized in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), brought new voices into play concerning the relations of whites and blacks" (21). My co-worker is unaware of the reactions black students have had to Huck Finn and to white students' response to it, and she seems not to care, or at least not to see this as a problem. What matters is that white students should have the right to be exposed to this great book, and in school -- they shouldn't have to read it on their own. As Arac writes, "It would seem that if you are an African-American child who does not like to go to school because some other students feel empowered to talk like the hero of the assigned book and call you 'nigger,' that is your sickness, not a matter of public concern" (ibid.). As I told my co-worker, I'm all in favor of teaching the conflicts and encouraging students to understand the complexities of the treatment of race in books like Huck Finn, but I wonder how many teachers are competent to do that, or have time to do so now that so much of their time has to be spent prepping their students for standardized tests.

Just a few days before I had this exchange with my co-worker, I had one on Facebook about the movie Heathers with an old friend there. She claimed that Heathers couldn't be made today because of "PC" , since the Columbine High School shootings were so similar to some of the events in the movie. I asked her what PC had to do with it. Movies like Heathers were not exactly a dime a dozen in the 1980s either, and it was made not by a mainstream Hollywood production company (which wouldn't have touched such a project) but by a small, financially troubled company that went belly up shortly after Heathers was released. One reason it could be made was that the filmmakers didn't have marketing people breathing down their necks, worried about how it would play in Peoria. When I first saw it in a theater in 1989, I kept asking myself how such a dark, disturbing film had ever been made and released.

My friend replied:
Duncan, I'm using "PC" in the broader sense of offending mainstream sensibilities. I agree that Heathers was clearly in the realm of fantasy, as was "Rock 'n' Roll High School," and a number of other cult movies that did feature blowing up... a school (even an empty one). Some of the violence is actually cartoonish, and it's obviously fantasy. But a lot of people would be protesting, instead of laughing, even ones who might have smirked at these earlier movies (but wouldn't admit that now). I don't buy the idea that media makes kids do things like blow up or blow away classmates. I do think that if you are a parent and your kid seems to gravitate toward entertainment that seems ... dark ... then you need to explore what the attraction is. Columbine could have been prevented, if only a couple of parents had poked their noses into a garage in suburban Colorado, after all.
It's at least as true that Columbine could have been prevented if only a couple of parents had poked their noses into the harassment, bullying and persecution of non-conformists that was going on Columbine High School, as it does in schools everywhere to this day. (Usually the people who are hurt or killed are not the bullies.) I don't buy the idea that media makes kids do things like blow up or blow away classmates either, but I think that if you are a parent and your kid seems to gravitate towards "entertainment" that consists of slamming their classmates against lockers, kicking them in the stomach, and urinating on them, then you need to explore what the attraction is. (If a fascination with "... dark ..." entertainment were a warning signal of outbreaks of violence, then we'd have seen one, two, many Columbines in the past twenty years and more.) The fact that my friend could write such things just as American media were romanticizing gay-youth suicide and wringing their hands about bullying is, I think, a revealing statement about mainstream Christian America in itself.

But the really revealing thing is her definition of political correctness as "offending mainstream sensibilities": she has it exactly backwards. Mainstream sensibilities aren't offended by fag jokes, misogynist jokes, or racist jokes; mainstream sensibilities are offended when someone objects to sexism, racism, and antigay bigotry -- it's those objections which are called "PC." Or, to put it another way, if it offends you, you're being PC; if it offends me, I'm just tired of being kicked in the face by feminazis, radical fairies, America-haters, and blacks constantly playing the race card. At most, what is called "political correctness" is the mainstream's guilty conscience: mainstream Americans are aware that there have been some less-than-nice, even downright embarrassing aspects to American culture in the past, and they're prepared to make a few cosmetic adjustments so they can pretend to themselves that things have changed. (Having a dark-skinned President with a funny name is a great boon to many of them, because they can believe that it cancels out everything that happened before 2008; others feel that equality is all very well, but having a dark-skinned President with a funny name is Going Too Far.) But at bottom they don't really get it, they don't really view The Other as fully human, and wish that all these uppity Others would shut up and go away. All they want is to have America to themselves, like they did in the 1950s, when everybody was happy and there wasn't all this PC -- is that so wrong?

So, back to Mark Peters and his foolish article about "gay." Peters is presumably heterosexual, or at least adopting a heterosexual male stance. If a mainstream American major motion picture has a character declare that electric cars are gay, and if mainstream Americans go berserk because the line is cut from the trailer -- not from the film itself, mind you -- then that shows that any objections to the joke (which wasn't really a joke at all, according to Peters) are oversensitive. Again, as I said earlier, this would make no sense if "political correctness" referred to what offends mainstream America, because it's fairly obvious that mainstream America wasn't offended by the joke at all. Saying that electric cars are gay is not, contrary to Peters, the same as saying that they're "lame." It means they're unmanly, and cars are for American heterosexual males a vital phallic symbol: they go vrooom, they are powerful, they are fast, they spurt out stinky smoke (or did, until gay PC environmentalists made them stop). If you're going to make a normal heterosexual male drive a faggy electric car, why not go the whole nine yards and cut off his balls? It's as gay as your parents chaperoning the dance, as Vince Vaughan went on to say by way of "clarification." Because only a fag wouldn't mind his parents being at the dance, keeping him from any chance of getting any pussy.... Maybe I'm overinterpreting, but I don't think so, because I can't see a contemporary Hollywood film giving Vaughan's line to, say, Cameron Diaz or Judi Dench addressing a group of women.

Do I think that the line should be taken out of the movie altogether? Hell, I don't think it should have been taken out of the trailer. Since it was in the trailer, I can suppose it to be representative of the movie's general tone, and I'd rather know that in advance so I can avoid the film altogether. (I wouldn't have wanted the trailer for I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry sanitized either; it would have been false advertising.) Movies about overaged boys who confuse their cars with their dicks are very rarely worth my money or my time. And that brings me to the next point about "PC": it isn't just organized campaigns against bigoted attitudes that offend mainstream America, but any individual dissent at all. In my experience, I am not even supposed to say that a movie is sexist, or that a joke is racist, or that a song lyric is misogynist, because it shows that I'm a PC tyrant who doesn't want mainstream America to have any harmless fun. And where is the harm in saying that electric cars are gay, huh? Nobody's killed by that. If I refuse to spend my money to support infantile Hollywood comedies in order to show how open-minded I am, that's my right (though just barely), but at least I can shut up about my objections. In that sense my friend is right: nobody is as Politically Correct, in the sense of not being able to tolerate disagreement with their political stance, as mainstream Americans.