Our Past, Look Away, Look Away

We began this week with the news that a new n-word-scrubbed edition of Huckleberry Finn is being published.  The reaction in most places where literary people congregate was mostly negative.  Huckleberry Finn has been considered Mark Twain, photographed by Matthew Bradycontroversial ever since it was first published. It is in the list of books most commonly banned by school boards.  In the early years, it was controversial because of its respectful portrayal of a black man and his friendship with a young white boy.  Ironically, the reason most cited for banning the book these days is the use of the word nigger.  It was a harsh word in Twain’s time and he used it specifically for both its authenticity and to make a powerful ironic statement.  Since then, however, the word has become one of the most offensive words in the English language and evokes a visceral reaction just reading it (and when typing it as I have just discovered).  Given modern sensitivities, it’s understandable that parents and educators would want to protect schoolchildren, particularly African-American children, from the pain and discomfort of confronting that word in class.

At the same time, Huckleberry Finn is one of the pillars of American literature, and it’s a shame that teachers should be prevented from teaching it, or feel uncomfortable teaching it when they are allowed, so the desire to have a cleansed version of the classic is, while misguided, understandable.  The hypocrisy and intolerance that Twain masterfully laid bare in Huckleberry Finn is the reason why it is such a powerful book, so while the word nigger has become a much more universally offensive word than when Twain used it, its casual usage in the text only serves to amplify the irony that was already there.  It’s a violent word that carries with it five hundred years of cruelty.  Twain was a committed anti-racist his entire life and if he were here with us today he might take note of the current controversy and say, “That’s exactly what I was trying to say.”

While it’s understandable that we don’t want young schoolchildren and their teachers to feel uncomfortable, hiding from our history by cleansing the text hurts us as a people and a nation even more.  It’s like modern Confederacy fetishists claiming that secession was a state’s right and it wasn’t about slavery, or Haley Barbour claiming that the racism in the Mississippi of his youth “wasn’t that bad.”

It may well be that Huckleberry Finn is not appropriate for elementary and middle school students.  It’s biting satire and irony alone require a certain level of maturity that most younger students have not yet acquired.

Later this week, we saw that schoolchildren are not the only ones being protected from the harsh truths of our history, but also the House of Representatives.  The newly elected Tea Michelle Bachman, Fetishist-in-ChiefParty members in the House decided to open their session with a reading of the Constitution.  This in itself is ironic because while they have spoken of the document as if it were some divine revelation handed down from the demi-gods who founded our country, they don’t seem to understand anything that’s in it.  To avoid confronting the fact that the constitution, as successful as it has been, was in its initial form a compromised and flawed document that has required, to date, twenty-seven amendments, they chose to exclude the reading of the parts that are no longer in effect.  The most notable of these parts is the one where slave are considered three fifths of a person.  How could it be that this divine scripture could contain such an idea?  Weren’t the Framers (or was it the Founding Fathers, Tea Partiers don’t know the difference) divinely inspired and all-wise?  Or were they well-intentioned but humanly flawed men who did the best they could under difficult political and economic circumstances and were constrained by the prejudices of their age.

To ask those questions and to face the truths of our history is not to denigrate their legacy.  Instead, it is to recognize how the document they created has been used as a framework for continuously creating a more perfect union by bringing to pass things that they, in their own time, could not.

The Founding Father Fetishism of the Tea Partiers prevents them from understanding any of this and threatens their faith-based belief in our nation’s moral perfection, so they just skipped the parts that don’t fit.

This same group of Tea Partiers, who came to Washington declaring themselves “Constitutionalists” whose goal is to restore constitutional government, have decided that they need special classes on the Constitution from a Supreme Court Justice.  While I’m not against members of the legislature seeking out expert advice on constitutional matters, I find it unseemly that they have arrived in the nation’s capital as elected legislators and are asking for remedial help in doing the job they claimed they were qualified to do.

The Supreme Court Justice who will be providing these remedial classes is non other than Antonin Antonin Scalia, Batshit CrazyScalia, who was also in the news this week.  In an interview, Scalia declared that the Constitution does not provide woman (and presumably other minorities too) with protection from discrimination.  This declaration decidedly moved Scalia from the realm of just plain crazy into the realm of batshit crazy, although some might argue that he made that jump years ago with his dissent in Lawrence v. Texas.   Somehow, the equal protection clause of The Fourteenth Amendment doesn’t seem to say what everyone thinks it’s said for nearly one hundred and fifty years.  As a “strict constructionist” he has argued that the “original intent” of the The Fourteenth Amendment was that it applied to the slaves who had been freed by the Civil War.  It doesn’t actually say anything like, “The provisions of this amendment only apply to slaves who have been freed by the Civil War,” so Scalia may be a strict constructionist  of an imaginary Constitution.

He furthermore argued that if women want constitutional protection, the legislature should create an amendment.  This is rich.  There was a decade long campaign back in the seventies for an Equal Rights Amendment.  It was supported by all sorts of leftwing radicals, including Gerald Ford.  The ERA was never ratified.  The legal argument that led to its defeat was that it was not necessary because the equal protection clause of The Fourteenth Amendment already provided the protections offered by the ERA.  It was a reasonable argument at the time and the wording of The Fourteenth Amendment is intentionally broad so that weasels like Scalia can’t play games by saying that because it says that this group is named, it doesn’t apply to any other group not explicitly named.

The group named in The Fourteenth Amendment is “persons.” That’s a pretty big group.  If you’re a  person, you’re protected.  Mr. Strict Constructionist seems to have decided that women are not persons.  Amazingly, Mr. Strict Constructionist also recently decided that corporations are persons.

Up is down, down is up, we are living in interesting times.  Mark Twain would be amused.  Or horrified.

Update 1/10/2011:

Jill Lepore’s article about the historic battle over constitutional interpretation at NewYorker.com.

© 2011 – 2014, Fred Bubbers. All rights reserved.

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