Friday, January 7, 2011

Bang Head Against Wall. Repeat As Necessary.

Do you ever feel like throwing back your head and howling like a forlorn dog? I've been feeling like that a lot recently, which has made it difficult to write.

There's been a fair amount of fuss lately about a forthcoming edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the work of a (white?) academic, which replaces the 219 uses of the word "nigger" with the word "slave." I don't like bowdlerization either, but much of the criticism ginned up in the liberal blogosphere has been pointless. It's not as if this edition, published by a small regional press, is going to cause the standard version to disappear. That didn't happen when John Wallace, a school staff member in Virginia, published an edition of Huck Finn with the very same substitution twenty-five years ago; I doubt it will happen now. Does such a revision constitute "censorship"? Only in the tiniest technical sense, as far as I can see. Even if every school in the nation supplied its students with the New South edition for study purposes, the standard version would still be all over the place. Even removing Huck Finn from the curriculum wouldn't be censorship, since literally dozens of books are not in the curriculum, which changes from generation to generation. There have been at least two literary retellings of Huck Finn, both of which dealt with the issues it raises in different ways -- I was about to say, "by de-gaying" it, though that's not quite right, since it isn't gay. But ever since Professor Leslie Fiedler pointed in 1948 to the "homoeroticism" in the original (and in so much classic American fiction), many critics have tried to get rid of it. Is that "censorship"?

And I am impressed to see how many white people are quite comfortable telling black kids that they should toughen up and deal with it when white kids call them "nigger." Or even that, since they have encountered the word many times already in their lives, a few more times won't hurt. After all, they've heard the word many times in hiphop, so why should it bother them if it turns up in Huck Finn? On the whole, I'm inclined to agree with Toni Morrison's take (PDF) that trying to excise the N-word is "a purist yet elementary kind of censorship designed to appease adults rather than educate children" -- though appeasing adults instead of educating children is just what the American school system has largely evolved to do. And brushing off the problem by saying that the teacher should be able to deal with it, while in principle correct, is also ignoring the difficulties teachers face. Mark Twain's handling of race doesn't fit well into the multiple-choice tests that have taken over so much of American school time, thanks not to teachers but to various bureaucrats (and of course the highly lucrative testing industry). Just about everyone who derisively opposes the NewSouth edition seems determined not to think about the problems Huck Finn poses.

Some writers (sorry, I'm too burned out to supply enough links -- will try to fix it later) accused the editor of the NewSouth edition of thinking that if we just eliminate the n-word, that will be enough to stop racism. I think that's a straw man; I haven't seen anything to support the claim. I don't believe, when I pick on people for using "faggot" and other homophobic epithets, that stopping their use is all that's needed to eliminate antigay bigotry. But since their use is a sign of bigotry, attacking those who use them is one small part of working against bigotry. I've argued before that the best way for gay people to deal with the epithets is to reclaim them, but in the meantime, anyone who uses them in the traditional way should expect to be confronted. (As The Onion once put it: if we don't protect free speech, how will we know who the assholes are?)

Come to think of it, I think I detect some kind of connection between this jumping on the bandwagon against the NewSouth edition and some recent attempts by ostensible progressives / leftists to rehabilitate the word "faggot" as a pejorative for what one of them called "kneelers." And one of John Caruso's commenters who was especially furious about removing the n-word from Huck Finn also seems to be concerned with establishing Ralph Nader's bonafides as a manly man rather than a "shrinking violet." But of course there couldn't possibly be a connection. If there comes a day when white racism really is not a problem in the US, then it will be possible to teach Huck Finn as a purely historical document, whose language can simply be glossed by teachers. The trouble is that things haven't yet changed enough.

For that matter, as several commenters at Racialicious asked rhetorically, if Huck Finn is taught to teach white students the humanity of black people (the very kind of "politically correct" approach to literature that the critics of the NewSouth edition condemn out of the other side of their mouths), wouldn't books by black authors do the job even better? Frederick Douglass's Autobiography, for example. As Toni Morrison suggests, trying to turn Huck Finn into an anti-racist tract does as much injury to its complexity (and as she shows, its incoherence on many levels) as denouncing it as a "racist tract" would do. In the good old days beloved of many white people my age and older, books by black authors about black experience were not in the curriculum. That's no longer the case, thanks to "politically correct" demands of "identity politics" that a wider range of voices need to be heard, and taught. But the gains that have been made are always in danger of being lost, and the threat comes from all over the political spectrum.

We all have our blind spots, though, and John Caruso wrote a much better post on the US media distortion of the Wikileaks controversy. But even he weaseled, just a tiny bit, on the accusation that Julian Assange "stole" documents.

It's true that Assange didn't personally "steal" the material Wikileaks has been publishing, but if I'm not mistaken it's also illegal to fence stolen goods: the fact that you didn't personally steal them doesn't exculpate you. And it's also true, as Glenn Greenwald has been pointing out, that reporters not only receive leaked material, they encourage sources to get that material for them. The reason why so many Americans are having tantrums about Wikileaks is not that they consider government secrets to be sacrosanct -- they have no objection to the US spying on other countries to steal their secrets, for example, and would probably be happy if even Wikileaks published "stolen" material about their own pet conspiracy theories -- but because they don't want to know the bad things their government is doing. So while it's true that, in a narrow sense, neither Assange nor Wikileaks "stole" those documents, it's somewhat a waste of energy to defend them against the accusation. If Assange had personally entered the corridors of the Pentagon, rifled the file drawers, and walked out with the materials Wikileaks has been publishing, he'd be a hero even if he was legally a thief.

I was struck by a deranged commenter to one of Greenwald's posts who wrote that Assange "received stole [sic] property and should not have made them public, instead he could have shown real backbone by notifying the ones who were robbed (the American people) and returned them." That's exactly what Wikileaks did, of course: notified the American people that their military and their government were hiding these things from them, and let them know some (a very small part, since Wikileaks can only publish what others leak to them) of what their government was illegitimately withholding from them.

And ah, then, there's my RWA1 on Facebook, who linked to an attack on Hugo Chavez with the comment, "The American Left has disgraced itself by apologizing for this incipient Mussolini." Oh, come on! If Chavez really were a Mussolini, neither RWA1 nor most Americans would have any objection to him. Hell, the US got along with the Mussolini at first: he was good for business and hostile to labor, which is what matters for good relations with the US, right or far-right. When Venezuela was ruled by a dictatorship, the American Right was perfectly comfortable with it. Saddam Hussein got along just fine with the US, until we no longer needed him.

A good many years ago I confronted RWA1 on just this point. Like many conservatives he tended to get green around the gills when reminded what his tax dollars were paying for in Latin America and elsewhere, but he rallied. At first he blustered about "those goddamned Latin American generals!" I reminded him that those goddamned Latin American generals were trained, paid, and equipped by the US government, and wouldn't last a week without our support. Well, he said glumly, we had to do something to stop those countries from going Communist. (Which is neither here nor there, since the US has supported coups to overturn elected social-democratic governments that had nothing to do with Communism.)

So it goes. What has me wanting to bang my head against the wall, you see, is not the great unwashed, the illiterate, the know-nothing Teabaggers, or Fox News; it's highly educated, politically progressive (except for RWA1 of course) people who are supposedly on the same side I am, but who (among other matters) throw hissyfits over trivial matters like the NewSouth edition of Huck Finn, who feel it necessary to exonerate Julian Assange of accusations of theft. And contrary to RWA1, much of what he would consider "the American left" has been trying to distance itself from any appearance of defending, let alone apologizing for, Hugo Chavez.