Saturday, January 8, 2011

Viewing the World As It Is

A book publisher has generated quite a storm by deciding to replace "nigger" with "slave" in their forthcoming edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The word occurs more than 200 times in Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884, and its 1876 precursor, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which tell the story of the boys' adventures along the Mississippi river in the mid-19th century. In the new edition, the word will be replaced in each instance by "slave". The word "injun" will also be replaced in the text.

The new edition's Alabama-based publisher, NewSouth books, says the development is a "bold move compassionately advocated" by the book's editor, Twain scholar Dr Alan Gribben of Auburn University, Montgomery. It will have the effect, the publisher claims, of replacing "two hurtful epithets" in order to "counter the 'pre-emptive censorship' that Dr Gribben observes has caused these important works of literature to fall off curriculum lists worldwide."

Gribben said he had decided on the move because over decades of teaching Twain, and reading sections of the text aloud, he had found himself recoiling from uttering the racial slurs in the words of the young protagonists. "The n-word possessed, then as now, demeaning implications more vile than almost any insult that can be applied to other racial groups," he said. "As a result, with every passing decade this affront appears to gain rather than lose its impact."

This is backwards, though. It is precisely because the word is uncomfortable that we should be confronting it. Let's talk to kids about this word and other slurs. Let them answer questions like:
  • Which characters are using the word?

  • How do they mean it?

  • What other words are used similarly in the book and today?

  • Why is it be bad to call someone by a slur like this?

  • Is it okay for an author to use the word the way Twain does?

This gets kids to think about words and their power. Hiding from them (or any other "bad" thing) does not make them go away. It allows them to linger and continue poisoning the discourse around them. We need to bring them out in the open and boldly confront them. That is the only way to deal with stuff like this and move beyond it. Pretending it doesn't exist whether by Orwellian editing or not teaching it in the classroom only makes things worse.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Real Talk

From Ezra Klein.

As a sort of disclaimer, readers should know that I consider the legal arguments to be little more than motivated skepticism: If the national expansion of RomneyCare had been signed into law by President Romney, it'd be having no trouble with conservative judges and political figures.

But the same can, of course, be said about policy arguments, which are often chosen at random to support the speaker's political preferences. In fact, the same can be said of the individual mandate, which was a conservative idea before Democrats adopted it and conservatives realized they either had to abandon it or agree that President Obama was proposing sensible legislation that echoed bills that moderate Republicans had been pushing for two decades.

This is what makes covering policy frustrating.

And depressing.

History and How It's Taught, Part II

Riffing on my previous post, here is a book about American Presidents that I think would be worthwhile for kids.

Here’s a quick solution to the likely hole in your knowledge. Now updated with President Obama, Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame (and What the Neighbors Thought) shows what the men who have been president were really like as people: as men, husbands, fathers, neighbors. What their quirks were. What they were like at home. It’s a light-hearted and fun but very factual look at the many leaders of our country.
This book is a fun and uncommon look into who the presidents were as people, while mostly only touching on their presidencies. You’ll learn many facts that you’ve never heard before. The images of the presidents and their first ladies are so well done, you’ll probably come back to the book for them even more than for the excellent text. The quirky details in each image will drive you to the text to learn what they are in reference to. For example, Ulysses S. Grant’s cucumbers. Or Abraham Lincoln’s goat. Or Ike’s pancakes.

I would imagine that this book would be much more enjoyable for most kids and would get them more interested in history. We need more books like this one.

Department of Nonsensical Statements

I was listening to NPR the other day and they had Reihan Salam and E.J. Dionne on discussing what to expect politically in 2011. I like both of them and find them to typically be two of the smartest writers on both sides of the aisle. Unfortunately, Salam made a comment that rankled.

When you think about the 20 million or so civilians who work for the federal, state and local governments, they really feel threatened by a lot of folks, like me, who think that we need a more cost-effective government. And so they're likely to rally around the flag.

Is there anyone out there arguing for more inefficiencies in government? Is there anyone out there saying, "Our public sector is far too cost-effective!" No. Now there are certainly debates to be had about how best to be efficient and we should debate that issue. Conservatives typically want a smaller cost-effective government. Liberals usually want a larger, but still cost-effective government. In both cases there are goals each side wants achieved and cost-effectiveness is important to that. But there isn't anyone around clamoring for a less cost-effective government and statements like Salam's make it seem like conservatives are for that, but liberals are not which is absolutely not the case.