Monday, January 10, 2011

The Other N-word

Of course, that word is Nazi.

It was directly or indirectly evoked last week in editorial cartoons about a new edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaced the word "nigger" with the word "slave."  There was much debate following announcement of that edition, and almost all of it negative.

Some of my friends may have been surprised when I posted "Goodbye, cruel word" and stated that the new edition didn't bother me much.  They may have been surprised because I teach American literature, and I have taught Huck Finn before.  As a literature professor, aren't I supposed to protect the importance of words and the sanctity of the artist's statement?

Yes and no.  Words are important.  But stories have lives of their own after publication, especially when they become as culturally significant as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn have.

I understand what the cartoonists were doing.  When you communicate in a medium as highly compressed as an editorial cartoon, you need to communicate as quickly and efficiently as possible.  For instance, a lab coat on a person in a cartoon could communicate either a scientist or a medical doctor.  But if you put a stethoscope around the person's neck, the image immediately communicates "medical doctor."  That stethoscope has become iconic for that profession.  Sometimes these iconic images outlive their real-world predecessors.  Look through The New Yorker cartoons and you will see businessmen in fedoras and carrying briefcases.  Although you may have found those hats on the street in the 1950s and 1960s or in an episode of Mad Men, you won't see them on Madison Avenue today.  Briefcases, yes.  Fedoras, no.  Yet they remain in some of the cartoons.  Their iconic status remains.

So, if you are a cartoonist and you wish to communicate something quickly and powerfully about repression or excessive use of government power and/or some kind of intolerance, you might depict someone in your image as a Nazi.

That is what these cartoonists did.  Despite the fact that the analogy makes little sense.

In his illustration, Pat Oliphant refers to those wishing to sanitize Twain's novels as the "political-correction Nazis."  In Michael Keefe's version, we do not have the word "Nazi," but we do see what we would call a German staff car flying flags that may or may not have swastikas on them and filled with dogs and men with tall caps.  These are all signs of Nazis that we have learned to identify from hundreds of World War II movies.

The problem here is that the "Nazis" wishing to "correct" Twain's novels are not government officials.  It is a private concern, a company producing an edition to be used in a Big Read Event in Alabama.  It seems more like the National Socialist Party of Hitler's Germany to burn a book rather than replace one word with another.  Or if they did allow an offending book to be printed, they would require an extensive rewriting, and not such a cosmetic change.  Although he may be called a "slave" in this new edition of Huck Finn, Jim remains a human owned by other humans who attempts to escape this fate and who is still clearly the target of prejudice and hatred in the antebellum South.

(We should note that the Alabama Big Read will use Tom Sawyer and not Huck Finn, but the latter novel has dominated the recent discussions about censorship probably because Jim is more central and "nigger" appears in it more often.  Huck Finn could also be dominating the conversation because it is the book more often taught, since it speaks more powerfully to race and class issues in American history than does Tom Sawyer, which is perceived as "just" an adventurous book for young people.)

One could say that a government entity is behind the censorship, since the National Endowment for the Arts sponsors Big Read events.  But it is unclear to me that the NEA requested Twain scholar Alan Gribben to make the changes when he was tapped to edit the volume officially connected to the Big Read.  But there is no requirement that those who participate in the Big Read use the NewSouth edition.  I am sure that school districts that participate will most likely order the new edition, but again they may not. 

None of this so far sounds very coercive or violent or mean-spirited, which are qualities we associate with Nazis.  Just ask Indiana Jones.

Nor is the effort to create a "nigger"-free version of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn also an effort to supplant all other versions, as Keefe's cartoon imagines.  Gribben's edition will exist alongside the MILLIONS of other copies of the novels already in existence.  And his edition very self-consciously calls attention to the changes it has made.

My previous post considered not whether these changes were right or wrong, but whether they were effective.  For me, this is little different from editing a film for broadcast on network television or altering Cee-Lo's lyrics.  Everyone listening to his latest hit knows he isn't saying "forget you" to the woman who spurned him.  Everyone reading Gribben's edition will know "slave" has taken the place of "nigger."

The strangest thing about the Nazi imagery is that the most recent efforts to ban the novels from schools or libraries have been from African Americans.  For instance, in 1998 the U.S. Court of Appeals heard a case brought by an African American mother seeking to have her daughter and "all other similarly situated individuals" not be required to read Twain's work.

Black Nazis?  NWA meets the SS?  Kind of a strange idea, if you ask me.  And definitely not depicted that way in the cartoons.  Nazis are usually the victimizers, not the victims.

Would Oliphant and Keefe have been willing to draw their cartoons that way, with African Americans showing up at the library to remove Twain's novels?  I don't think so.

I was open to Gribben's edition because I have never had the word "nigger" thrown at me in anger.  I do not know that pain, but I can imagine it.  And I can imagine it could interfere with one's enjoyment or participation in the novels' reading.  And if someone who otherwise would not read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn WILL read them because he/she can avoid the pain of that word -- I don't have a problem with that.

As cultural institutions, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn are large enough to withstand the change.

Oliphant and Keefe's cartoons also raise the issue of overusing powerful words rather than avoiding them.  We went through this in 1995, when Rush Limbaugh was criticized for talking about "feminazis."  If anyone with whom we disagree and whom we perceive as militant or extreme or repressive can then be equated with a military-political complex associated with killing millions of people and starting a world war that killed millions more, then "Nazi" has lost much of its meaning and much of its power.  And if we let it lose that, we might lose touch with the pain caused and injustices enacted by Nazis -- and if we do that, we might be more likely to think Nazis aren't that bad and allow them among us again.

1 comment:

  1. This was a very good commentary, Scott. I agree with you. 100% actually. The Nazi metaphor is so old by now.