The Words of Twain and Palin

Two things happened last week that shocked me.  Both center around words and how words are used to divide and control as well as unite and empower.  In one week, we witnessed how a writer’s word choices affect others.  Both may be seen as offensive by some.  Both may be seen as innocuous by others.  Any yet, the removal of certain bits of each writers’ words cannot be ignored.

According to this news release from NewSouth, Inc., the publisher of Mark Twain’s newly published and updated book, The Adventures of Tom Sawer and Huckleberry Finn does many things, the least of which is to make the works accessible to new audiences.  However, I disagree with both the publisher and Dr. Alan Gribben who writes the introduction to the new book extolling the virtues of replacing all uses of the “N-word.” Instead of sanitizing the book, shouldn’t we be teaching people how to discuss the role that racial discrimination and subjugation plays in our nation, both past and present?

By removing the N-word from a part of the cannon, which most assuredly has been declining in its readership, NewSouth has guaranteed one thing:  more books will be sold, more money will be made, and more people will talk about the effect of scrubbing a book clean of offensive words.  And then, people will forget.  The day will come, mark my words, that there will be readers who have no idea they are reading an unauthorized edited publication.  And when that happens, the greatest atrocity will come to be.  Our public will forget what we allowed to happen, either through our ignorance or our apathy.

Mark Twain used the N-word, as well as other racial slurs, because it was valid for his characters based on the time and context of the books.  In other words, Twain was honest in his depiction of what the young boys in his world did and said.  To eradicate their use of hateful language because it offends us 135 years later, is as great an abomination as the hateful words themselves.  Do I use such language?  No.  I don’t condone using language to hurt others.  In fact, I find it mean spirited and small minded.  However, to deny that United States history is riddled then and now with such mean spirited and small minded language is to guarantee that such behavior continue for as long as we do as a nation.

In using authentic language, Twain held up a mirror of what US citizens allowed to happen by denigrating is members.  For the American Indian and African-American citizens today, to pretend their ancestors where not subjugated and vilified is to make the brutal treatment of those populations even more heinous.  How many people had to die to slowly change the vocabulary of the US?  Are we going to simply forget what was allowed to happen in order to make children in today’s society more likely to read a book about life 135 years ago? I think it is a very poor trade-off indeed.

Because when we delete our history, we deny culpability.

Which is precisely why the United States citizenry cannot let the removal of Sarah Palin’s now infamous “Take Back the 20” website be forgotten.  You can no longer see what Palin had published, however many folks cached screen shots of the site.  Here is one.  By removing the questionable rhetoric (and imagery), Palin is denying culpability.  She is denying her role in today’s violent political environment.  And while I am glad to see the end of that hateful image and language, I do not want people to forget that in the wake of violence, Palin’s reaction was not to lead toward reconciliation and unity, but to deny responsibility.

Palin’s aide, Rebecca Mansour, says the symbol is “crosshairs that you would see on a map” as if using a surveyor’s symbol negates the vitriolic attitude of the website.  But even that explanation smacks of the inherent use of violence that has become the norm in political rhetoric today.  Palin’s website is clearly a request for her supporters to be part of a process for removing her opposition from office, as if they were not legally elected by a majority of their constituents.  And while rhetoric is one thing, rhetoric that incites violence in quite another.  Can you give me one instance of “crosshairs” not having a negative connotation?  One instance of a non-violent usage of the term?  Palin chose to capitalize on the fervor of her supporters.  She chose to utilize the same violent rhetoric that is the norm today.  That was a political decision that has real ramifications for everyday citizens.

By scrubbing the image from her website, it appears that Palin and her political advisors are not only ill-advised regarding the use of rhetoric and symbolism, but also wanting to deny their culpability in today’s heated and divisive political arena.  It is foolhardy to blame the actions of the mentally ill on the politically unsavory.  However, Palin has denied she partook in a form of politics far removed from what the dreamers of this great political experiment had in mind when they crafted the world’s first democracy.  The United States is meant to be a place of political discourse and compromise leading to representation via the majority’s vote.  Discourse, compromise, representation.  No where in those ideals is room for hatred and the willingness to devalue another simply because they disagree with you.

Of bigger concern is that when the evidence is removed (it will survive only as long as cached files are circulated), the same thing will happen with Palin’s rhetoric as with Twain’s missing N-word.  People will forget.

How long will it take before the US citizenry is no longer horrified that a 9 year old child, born on the day which heralded the marked change in the use of violence in our political rhetoric, was gunned down?  We have entered a time when our democracy is at a cross-roads of sorts.

Will we learn from the tragedy of Tucson and the deaths and injuries sustained there?  Or will the words this past weekend evoked simply fade away, as if they did not exist at all?  The public cannot allow, through ignorance and apathy, future citizens to forget what we allowed to happen.  We allowed the politics of the United States to devolve into a shouting match, which most just turned away from in disgust.

I hope the end of the “Great American Experiment” doesn’t come via apathy and amnesia. Words matter.  Some words are chosen to help illuminate a societal ill, and others are chosen to exploit one.  The question is this:  does living in a democracy with all the freedoms that democracy allows matter enough to you?  If so, make tomorrow’s United States of America worthy of the dreams of a little girl who wanted to be a leader.  And if not, do nothing.  For through apathy, we will negate the lives of all who have sacrificed everything in the name of democratic freedom.

10 thoughts on “The Words of Twain and Palin

  1. Agree with the first half of your post….I don’t think it’s ever a good idea to go back and edit someone’s published work, especially if it changes or dilutes the meaning. And while we rightly object to the n word today, removing it from the book makes the book inauthentic.

    While I do believe there needs to be a return to civility in our country, and a respect for the opinions of others, and not just in politics, I think there is scant evidence to call our political environment “violent”. I disagree with everyone who is essentially blaming the right in this country for the tragedy in Arizona the other day. What happened the other day in Arizona is the fault of one man, and one man only—a crazed, mentally ill lunatic. What happened to personal responsibility and accountability? He alone is guilty. There are too many examples in this country of people’s bad behavior being blamed on someone or something else.

    As for Palin’s website? I don’t think it was in good taste at all, I’m not a huge fan, but I think it’s a slippery slope to start blaming individuals or groups for the sins of others, when there is absolutely no evidence to back up they were even loosely linked.

    Sorry to have to disagree with the second half of your well written post, but this is how I see it. Now don’t come and get all up in my grill bc that would be violent!

  2. Everything is connected to everything else, eventually. That includes words, how they’re used, how often, and level of saturation, as the Ad folks would say, etc. Unfortunasaytely, in some cases the effect of “speaking it into the real” can have devastating, long lasting ill effects, for individuals and society as a whole.

    It’s easy to say and true, that an individual is responsible for that individual’s actions. It is also true that environment, including political environment effects all of us on one level or another. Those who are inclined towards violence are as susceptible to suggestion and influence by prominently displayed rhetoric as the general populace.

    In other words, what goes around comes around.

    You did a fine bit of writing about something that you obviously feel very strongly about, something very hard – gut wrenching – as you say. That’s a brave and difficult thing to do.

    Good on ya, Kristina, and Bless your Heart.

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  4. Thank you for articulating what has been in my heart and mind since the tragedy. Our mentally ill are also part of the fabric of America. We can’t just pretend these vulnerable people don’t exist when extolling vitriolic statements publically. I agree, people need to take responsibility for their actions – in this case the shooter AND the people who nurse the cultural atmosphere of anger (I love the term “manufactured outrage”) and demonizing folks of different opinions. Check out the Coffee Party Movement. I like what they have to offer.

  5. I’ve said it before. But this one really does need to be published somewhere. Spot on.

  6. It feels as if I have spent the last few days repeating the same “the edits are ridiculous” comments, but you seem to have covered everything I can think of.

    If nothing else, the publisher is a genius at generating free media saturation.

  7. Good and interesting post. Haven’t had my eldest read the unexpurgated version yet – was postponing that discussion. Perhaps it’s time.
    You’re right about the initial flurry of interest giving way to forgetting.

    As for part 2 – can’t say there was a link between the shooting and Sarah Palin, but to try to conceal or misrepresent the gun sights afterwards was pretty pathetic – and the blood libel comment very unfortunate.
    (I’ve a bit about Patricia Maisch here

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