I want to contradict myself. Or at least appear to do so.
I recently wrote about the apparent futility of efforts to censor some texts. I suggested that the act of censorship oftentimes calls attention to the censorship's target. In writing this, I quoted Italian semiotician Umberto Eco on the futility of techniques to aid forgetting: "But this technique allows one not to forget something but to remember that one wanted to forget it." But now I am writing about a dangerous and frequently effective means of forgetting.
We generally think of "ideology" as meaning a set of beliefs. But it is more than that. Ideology includes the stories a group tells about itself in order to explain the meaning and origin of its beliefs. Also, ideology includes the principles that will guide that group's interpretation of its experiences. In doing these two things -- explaining the past and guiding the present -- an ideology frequently requires some forgetting or ignoring of facts that challenge its interpretations or principles.
In academic circles, this process of forgetting, hiding, or ignoring is called "mystification." Terry Eagleton, in his book Ideology: An Introduction, writes that this process "frequently takes the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts." In this way, an ideology can be "an imaginary resolution to real contradictions."
So, one could argue that the revision of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in order to eliminate "nigger" is an example of this. One could say that if we collectively forget the novels had this ugly word in them, we can more easily accept our national history; doing this could diminish the pain of prejudice, racism, and slavery. Americans like to think of themselves as freedom-loving and inclusive of all races, but that ugly word reminds Americans that this wasn't always the case. The solution? Rather than revise their beliefs about themselves, some Americans find it easier to eliminate the word. That does not undo the very real history of prejudice, racism, and slavery, but it allows Americans to pretend it does. That is, it creates "an imaginary resolution to real contradictions."
However, I do not believe this example of ideology holds true with the recent revision of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. The new edition from NewSouth calls attention to its revision; it may "mask ... social conflicts" but it calls attention to the mask. Ideology rarely calls attention to itself as a self-conscious effort to shape a story or tell story; instead, it pretends to tell "the truth" about the past or present.
A recent example that DOES illustrate the process of ideological mystification is taking place in Tennessee. There, members of the Tea Party want to revise the school curriculum to eliminate criticisms of the Founding Fathers based upon their treatment of American Indians or ownership of African slaves. This effort is particularly interesting in its honesty.
One of their requests for the state government, as reported in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, is that "No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”
Impressive. It openly says that even THE TRUTH should not obscure the reputation of the Founding Fathers. Since those truths are inconvenient, they need to be eliminated or diminished. The Tea Party wants "imaginary resolutions" to the "social contradiction" of the Sons of Liberty denying liberty to others and dealing dishonestly with nations that held North America before their arrival.
So, although I am not alarmed at the effort to sanitize Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, I do not like this proposed revision of history curriculum. The Twain scholar who has revised the novels, Alan Gribben, has done so in order to get the books into more classrooms in Alabama, where they often have been excluded because of the word "nigger." While to some degree the novels present an "imaginary solution," they will make possible a discussion of "social contradictions" by their new presence. But this effort by the Tea Party in Tennessee functions to eliminate discussion in the classroom.
Although the Tea Party folks are honest about their motivations, I doubt the revised textbooks will be as forthright. I doubt the book covers will include stickers announcing: "New and Improved! Now with less truth!"
At a news conference announcing the requests, a Tea Party spokesman said, "The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at."
Perhaps the spokesman didn't realize that he was making an argument FOR the inclusion of the contradictions between the Founding Fathers' beliefs and their practices. How can we measure the progress of liberty without understanding who had their liberty denied and how they gained it? To measure that progress, we need a discussion of African Americans and American Indians -- and women and Asian Americans and Mexican Americans and homosexuals, etc. This discussion does not detract from the real accomplishments of the framers of the Constitution, but it does set those accomplishments in clearer context.
Finally, depending upon what the Tea Party spokesman meant by "a world," his statement may also be plain wrong.
If "a world" means the European world that had extended itself to North America, then perhaps the Founding Fathers did introduce a new type of liberty. But if "a world" means simply North America, then he does not realize there were many native nations here already enjoying all types of liberty not realized in Europe.
All groups have an ideology. It is impossible to have a society without one, without many. However, we must remain aware of the ideologies to which we adhere, and we must remain aware of what our ideologies may be making us blind to or encouraging us to forget. Otherwise, our ideologies can control us rather than us controlling them. Otherwise, we will be guilty -- as the Tennessee Tea Party seems to be -- of what Emile Durkheim called "the use of notions to govern the collation of facts rather than deriving notions from them."