I heard a commentator this morning on a local radio station complaining about the PC people who object to the use of Indian names for sports franchises, such as the Washington Redskins. He says, nobody bitches about “The Fightin’ Irish,” do they?
I suppose he wouldn’t mind teams named the Savannah Shines, the Chattanooga Chinks, the Columbus Kikes, Waco Wetbacks and, just to bring things up to date, the Rehoboth Ragheads.
Also, I suspect it was Irish Americans who predominated on the rosters of the Notre Dame teams that originally got called the Fightin’ Irish. How many Indians have played for the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins or Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves or any of the many other sports teams that have adopted names of Indian tribes (the commentator’s complaint was occasioned by the recent dropping of the name “Fighting Sioux” by the University of North Dakota)?
I hasten to add, this comment was made over the airwaves of New York City, supposedly a bastion of liberal sensibility (don’t you believe it). Would we be as PC if it wasn’t socially unacceptable to express our prejudices (and rank ignorance) openly? Are we so much less tribal than we were fifty years ago? Some of the young are, I think, because they have actually grown up among people of different backgrounds, but I continue to marvel at what comes out of my friends’ and neighbors mouths’ when they are speaking unguardedly (as well as the prejudice I still harbor myself despite what I think and feel consciously).
A good reason to read the literature of the past, if you need one, is the way it gives us a social snapshot of the time in which it was written. Mark Twain was sympathetic to Afro-Americans but despised, absolutely hated, Indians. That apparently passed for PC at the time (see Roosevelt, Theodore). Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is rife with anti-Semitism, some of it the author’s, but the characters manage to escape Trollope’s prejudices, with a couple of the Jewish ones ending up the most sympathetic, even tragic. If this were a German novel of its time, no one would have to wonder how the Nazis managed to do what they did.
That’s why Trollope is a great writer: the artist, not the man, is in control. You can watch him rev up his contempt for Jews, just as you can watch him try to talk the reader into believing that a particular character (I’m thinking of the “she-cat” American “witch” who follows her British lover to England to try to talk him out of reneging on his proposal of marriage) is loathsome for other reasons. In most cases, though, when the characters actually walk on stage we take their side, not Trollope’s (no, he’s not playing devil’s advocate, though he might possibly be dissembling). Lesser writers can not let down their guard like that, allow the inner man or woman to take over despite what they believe consciously.
Maybe I should send that radio commentator a copy of…but what is the great American Indian novel? The Invisible Man of the indigenous peoples. If it exists, shouldn’t I know it? And, if it exists, doesn’t the fact that I don’t know it mean that it has been suppressed or at least marginalized? No doubt someone reading this can recommend a great but obscure classic. But, why obscure? For all our denial and dithering about slavery and its consequences, we have not only Ellison’s book but plenty of others, including that original blockbuster of white guilt Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Isn’t it odd that our Original Sin should remain so undocumented–unless you count all those cowboys-and-Indians films and pulp fiction by Zane Grey and his descendants, which are hardly what I have in mind?
No wonder that commentator could say what he did with such righteousness. To him Indians are just those guys who scalped beautiful women and burned honest settlers’ homesteads. And then lost to John Wayne and Alan Ladd. Anyway, in the spirit of equal time and equal opportunity, my entry for the PC-free team name is–are you ready?–the Bronx Bigots.
It’s already one of the most banned books in the United States. Why bother to ban it all over again?
These days it’s mostly the “N” word that gets the book taken off school library shelves. There are still plenty of people, mostly of the older generation, for whom that word is so fraught that they don’t want to see or hear it used under any circumstances, even in a work of literature. Perhaps in past days the reason Huckleberry Finn was kept from the impressionable minds of the young had more to do with its presenting the South in an unfavorable light. But my contention after four readings of the book is that it should be banned now, right now, because it contains downright seditious material.
It should be prohibited on at least two grounds: First, the book is unpatriotic, is in fact anti-American. Second, it is immoral. In fact it goes right to the heart of the bedrock of our morality and makes of it a mockery.
I’ll address the second offense first. I’m referring, of course to the episode in one of the small towns along the Mississippi that Huck visits. A local storekeeper is being harassed by a fellow townsmen who stands outside his store and holds him up to scorn. The shopkeeper warns the man that if he doesn’t desist he will be shot dead. The harasser does not desist, and the shopkeeper shoots him, much to the delight of the other townspeople, who seem to enjoy a good killing to break up the monotony.
The scene then shifts to the shopkeeper’s home outside of which an old-fashioned lynch mob has gathered (both these scenes could have been lifted out of a Hollywood Western, no doubt inspired those Westerns, however indirectly). The shopkeeper, a man of few words who means what he says, appears on his porch with a gun and challenges the crowd to do what they have come for. He not only challenges, he ridicules, telling them that one or two of their number are “half a man,” but the rest are no better than an “army” which — and here comes the sedition — is no better than a “mob of cowards“!
But my first reason for banning the book is even more serious. The incident with the shopkeeper could possibly be written off, with some expert academic help, as not really the author’s opinion but only that of the character. But Huck Finn’s long wrestle with his conscience about allowing Jim the slave to go free, to aid and abet him in the quest for that freedom, occupies much too great a part of the book not to question the author’s intent. When, despite knowing it is not only criminal but morally wrong to deprive someone of their property, in this case their human property, Huck Finn does so anyway, accepting the fact of his guilt, even of his condemnation to hellfire, as a consequence, he makes it clear he has done exactly what his conscience told him not to do.
What’s a conscience for if not to guide us toward good and away from evil? Do we really want to give our young people the message that conscience is only a repository for whatever society accepts as right or wrong at that particular moment? If so, are we prepared to take the consequences?
I say it isn’t worth the risk. Therefore, I submit Huckleberry Finn should be removed from all public and academic library shelves, with the exception of special permission to be granted for its perusal by accredited and approved scholars whose intent is the study of seditious literature for the purpose of protecting society from its corrosive effects.
I hope you will write your congressperson to urge him or her to pass appropriate legislation without delay.
(For my thoughts on reactions to this piece, I invite you to read the follow-up I wrote to it called “Ban the N-Word?”)