Saturday, January 8, 2011

Euphemasia – Huck Finn and the Founding Fathers

There’s an Op-Ed this morning in the NYT by Adam Kirsch, Editor of The New Republic, protesting the racial Bowdlerization of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (replacing “nigger” with “slave” throughout) and the omission of the so-called “three-fifths compromise” from the reading of the Constitution when Congress opened this week.  Mr. Kirsch called his piece “First Drafts of American History,” and, in that context, I think he is right to complain of the changes.  But life is full of contexts.

First, the more trivial problem of the Constitution.  That document’s text is hardly in danger.  It is the organic law of the land, and it will always be available in its original version for lawyers and scholars and anyone else to read.  What happened in the House of Representatives on opening day was not a reading of the Constitution; it was political theater featuring a reading of the parts of the Constitution that were relevant to the theatrics.  I see absolutely nothing wrong with omitting from that reading whatever cannot be called legally misleading, and if the three-fifths compromise is no longer operative, the House does not advance the project of comparing government’s recent actions to the current version of its authorizing law by including it in a reading of that law. 

The object of the deletion is not to rewrite history.  (I would say “whitewash,” but the unintentional puns and allusions would be confusing.)  The purpose is to shine the light of current organic law on the actions of Congress.  I’m not here to protest any Congressional action as unconstitutional, especially the mandatory aspects of Obamacare, which are fine by me.  But I would defend the decision not to read parts of the original document that are both offensive or embarrassing and no longer operative.  I would be very much against an attempt to publish what purports to be the text of the Constitution without all of its original verbiage, but what the House Republicans did in reading the House’s marching orders seems to me exactly right.

Then there’s Twain.  The problem with Huck Finn is that it’s taught too early.  If it’s as great a book as the experts say – who am I to judge such things? – why isn’t it first taught late enough in school to make ‘nigger” bearable?  On the other hand, if there is a good reason to teach Huck to youngsters, the subtleties of Twain’s views on racism embodied in his method are beyond their ken (which, of course calls into question the reason to read the book in the first place), and they should, indeed, be protected from the surface-level nastiness.

The danger in fiddling with Huck  is not that kids won’t get its anti-racist drift without its real words.  Kids won’t get its drift with its real words.  The problem is that the kids’ text will somehow become the text, that editions that include the original wording will be shunned by libraries now that there’s an anodyne version available, that politically correct colleges will take the easy way out and teach the inoffensive Twain.  What the House of Representative read last week does not purport to be the ur-text of their governing document.  But euphemizing Huck Finn seems to me a dangerous precedent.

The change to Huck Finn is of a piece with other accommodations to dullness and decay in our national way of going.  Should class size be calibrated to an historically high level of absence so that each teacher gets to teach a full classroom?  Should we drop caveat emptor because consumers are too dumb to protect themselves from deceit?  Is the revision of Huck Finn not just the nanny state assuming we aren’t smart enough to read the original?  And is the nanny state right?  Or should we work on toughening our skins?  Will we become too dumb to govern ourselves?   Have we already?

Anyway, I’m fine with that the House did and not fine with what they did to poor Huck.