Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Two Marks: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn & Money For Nothing

Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail (Jan. 14, 2010)
If we needed further proof that the standards of literacy and education in North America have diminished rapidly, the recent decisions to censor both Mark Twain's classic novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Dire Strait's satirical song "Money For Nothing" now takes us to pretty embarrassing new depths. That these two events should bookend the current heated debate over the contribution of political rhetoric to the tragic Arizona shootings is hardly accidental. We seem to have lost touch with the true meaning of speech, so much so, that we can no longer tell the difference between what's morally offensive and what isn't.

Mark Twain
In the case of Mark Twain's 1884 novel, a book written during the post-Civil War era, Twain was addressing the turbulent racial tensions that had escalated due to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation to end black slavery. He created a narrative about a young white American in conflict with his culture, one who sought a new form of freedom while journeying down the Mississippi River. Twain also introduced into the story the black character, Jim, a former slave who Finn befriends and learns from. In doing so, Twain sought to attack the growing problems of segregation, prejudice and the continued lynchings by having this main character refute the accepted norms. As Twain once said after the book was published, "A sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience." To achieve this, Twain had to write in the context of the times, from what he knew and the language that he heard, in order to create an authenticity of both character and place. One of the offensive words, of course, was the use of the word "nigger" which was common coin at that time. (Since Jim was also once a slave, he could hardly sound like a Harvard grad in the book either.) None of Twain's nuances seemed to get through to NewSouth Books, however, who have now published an edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that replaces the word "nigger" with "slave" and changes the character Injun' Joe's name to Indian Joe. Besides formalizing American slang in the case of Injun' Joe, which then unwittingly makes Indian Joe seem even more derogatory than Injun' Joe, the use of the word "slave" for "nigger" is hardly the proper term for a character who has just earned his freedom. Oh art, where is thy sting?

Suzanne La Rosa, of NewSouth Books, rationalized their decision to alter the text. "We saw the value in an edition that would help the works find new readers," she explained. "If the publication sparks good debate about how language impacts learning or about the nature of censorship or the way in which racial slurs exercise their baneful influence, then our mission in publishing this new edition of Twain's works will be more emphatically fulfilled." But how do you spark debate about language and censorship when you create an altered text that future generations will take as the authentic one? Where is the debate when you eliminate the very words that sparked the controversy in the first place? The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is already recognized as a moral work, one that pretty much demands that educators prepare their students for the harshness of the world it depicts. Unfortunately, bureaucratic censorship bodies chose to infantilize young students by not allowing informed dialogue to develop. Why? Because they are afraid of hurting people's feelings. But Twain's work is about feelings being hurt, about endured pain and the struggle to address and conquer injustice. How can students and readers confront that reality if these moral arbiters deny them the sometimes painful process of learning about it?

Mark Knopfler
As for the censoring of Dire Straits' "Money For Nothing," by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council, because of the use of the word "faggot" in the lyrics, it's now evident that Americans aren't the only ones who have the market cornered on ignorance. The song, which first appeared on the band's 1985 album Brothers in Arms, is a satire of corporate rock told from the point of view of a working-class character who's watching music videos and making derogatory comments about them. According to the song's composer Mark Knopfler, it's also clear that the guy envies the lives of these pampered stars. "The singer in 'Money For Nothing' is a real ignoramus, hard-hat mentality -- somebody who sees everything in financial terms," he told Rolling Stone in 1985. "I mean this guy has a grudging respect for rock stars. He sees it in terms of, well, that's not working and yet the guy's rich: that's a good scam. He isn't sneering." To achieve that, Knopfler wrote the song in the vernacular of the character he was portraying. The sentiment is hardly one that Knopfler himself is endorsing. But censors become self-righteous under the belief that they are protecting homosexuals from defamation without using any analytical skills to determine whether the song endorses anti-gay sentiments or not. They see the word and assume that they are silencing a homophobe.

It's chilling that, years after Lenny Bruce broke the language barrier by performing uncompromising satire, censorship bodies still have the pervasive powers that they do. But those powers reveal nothing learned, nothing new. They still have no grasp of the nature of parody, or even the function of irony. We live today in a climate of fear with a strong desire to repress what we don't care to understand. We may have access to all this information, but we have little desire to discern knowledge from it. Is it any wonder that rhetoric now fuels political debate? It's being used to incite buzz rather than thought. "There's a reason for unruliness in art," The Globe and Mail said in their editorial about the controversy. By airbrushing the unruliness from both Twain and Knopfler, they've not only neutered the power of art to say things we don't want to hear, they've deprived us of things that sometimes need to be said.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Beginning in January 2011, Courrier will be presenting a lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. An interview with Kevin about Film Noir can be heard on CBC Radio's Fresh Air. An article in the Torontoist on the Noir series by John Semley is here. NOW Magazine's film critic Norman Wilner highlights Roads to Perdition here.

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