Monday, March 26, 2007

What's In a Name?

By Drew

Mitchell’s article last week about The Mikado brought to mind a number of connecting thoughts, or at least thoughts I'll try to connect.

According to my Dover edition of The Mikado, there are two lines that were altered in the 1940s “to avoid giving offense.” In one, during the “little list” song, Koko refers to “the nigger serenader and others of his race” (in reality, Gilbert was referring to blackface minstrels). In the “more humane Mikado” song in Act 2, there's a reference to one who is "blacked like a nigger" (same point of reference). Traditionally, these are now rendered as “the banjo serenader” and “painted with vigor,” respectively. (Interestingly enough, there is also a line early in Act 1, referring to Japan, stating “For where’er our country’s banner may be planted,/All other local banners are defied!” One wonders if this were considered offensive in the 1940s as well.)

It makes sense to change these lines, not only because they’re anachronistic, but because they have nothing to do with the general plot. They’re lines which simply give color to the songs (no pun intended) but don't affect the story.

Now, the reason I find this interesting is that last week there was this story about a parents’ group in St. Louis Park, Minnesota trying to get Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn removed from the high school’s required reading list because of repeated references to the “n-word,” which, because we’re all grown-ups at this blog, we can categorically state was “nigger.” Ken Gilbert, one of the parents pushing to have the book removed from the reading list (he was careful to point out that he’s not trying to ban the book), says use of the word should not be tolerated “in informal conversation or popular entertainment.” According to Gilbert, "There's no word that brings you to a lower level. ... It makes children feel less than equal in the classroom." Predictably, the whole thing has found itself if court, where so far the school district has been successful in keeping the book on the list.

A group of teachers, parents, administrators and community members examined Gilbert’s request and ruled in favor of the book, determining "the literary value of the book outweighed the negative aspect of the language employed."

This may be true as far as it goes, but it also misses the larger point. Twain’s greatness stems not merely from his literary prowess, but his ability to paint a historical picture of America and her people as they were at a given time. And in that period of time, “nigger” was a word that a whole lot of people used, many of them without prejudice. In our more enlightened times we can understand how offensive that is today, but that isn’t how people saw it at the time, and if we’re not going to engage in revisionist history (one of the liberals’ favorite techniques), we have to understand that we can’t use today’s standards to gauge yesterday’s behavior. It just doesn’t work.

Twain’s book is not just entertainment – it’s a historical document, a portrait of our heritage. Take away that aspect and you remove much of Twain’s significance – or any great artist, for that matter. Many’s the bad joke about the abstract painter who just “paints what he sees,” but nonetheless that’s an essential part of art – to hold a mirror to society and reflect it back.

Let’s consider more contemporary examples, starting with Norman Mailer’s World War II novel The Naked and the Dead. In that book, Mailer (at the behest of his publishers) used the euphemism "fug" in lieu of the f-bomb (hey, we may be adults here, but even we have our limits). The substitution has been a source of much humor over the years – it drew far more attention to the word, making it stand out, than would have been the case if Mailer’d simply used the f-word as it was.

Contrast that to a movie like The Departed (or almost any movie rated PG-13 or below), where you’re going to hear the f-bomb all over the place. The defense of the use of this word usually consists of something like, “this is the way people talk in real life,” which I can verify to be substantially accurate. Some of it is gratuitous, some the result of lazy writing. But there’s no doubt that, however distasteful, using the word in context serves a purpose. To have a gangster, in the heat of the moment, exclaim something like “darn” or “shoot” just wouldn’t be believable. The audience wouldn’t accept it, nor should they. And that’s just a part of life – you can hear language worse than that at any school playground.

Perhaps some time in the future we’ll have reached a point where words like that aren’t used in polite company anymore, but does that mean we’d be going back and changing movies like The Departed? Not if we’re smart, because in doing so we’ll be destroying that looking glass that shows they way we were at a given point in time. Whitewashing everything that’s gone before us, trying to protect people from seeing the truth as it was, is not only fruitless, it’s dangerous. It doesn’t give us real life at all, just some sugarcoated fairytale impression of life. It prepares our young people poorly for facing a world that isn’t nearly as genteel as we’d like to pretend it is, and it makes a joke out of the idea that we can prevent the errors of the past by learning from them.

To wrap this up, let’s take a look at a discussion last week over at Amy Welborn’s blog about Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In this case the controversy is not over racism, but anti-Semitism (which, I suppose, is a form of racism, but of a different kind). Is Shylock, as portrayed by Shakespeare, an example or an indictment of anti-Semitism? As one of Amy's commentators pointed out,

[Isaac] Asimov argues that as offensive as we might find this, it simply isn't "antisemitic" in any modern sense of the term, because for Shakespeare and his audience, Shylock was simply a *literary* stereotype, not a jab at anyone whom they expected ever to meet in real life. In other words, the "Jew" was a stock villain for literary and dramatic purposes, the same way the "Soviet agent" or "Commie spy" was a stock villain in so many Cold War-era movies and novels.

Another commentator, friend of this blog Tim Ferguson, mentions “If it makes us uncomfortable, then that is a testament both to the realism of the play and also to the societal and individual growth we have undergone as we continue to digest the Gospel generation to generation.”

We should remember that the word “kike,” which is (rightly so) deeply offensive to Jews, was in fact coined by American Jews in the 19th century to refer to those Jews who had immigrated more recently than themselves and were less educated. Wikipedia says it was used with affection; other accounts I've seen suggest that it was a somewhat derisive term, meant to draw a distinction between the Americanized Jews and the less-assimilated newcomers, whom they would try to help out.

The point here is that words mean things, particularly in specific contexts. To try and separate that word from its original context is not only wrong, it's intellectually lazy. As I pointed out in my Leni Riefenstahl piece last year, one must have the ability to separate the morals of the artist from the morals of the art. In the same sense, one must take works like Huckleberry Finn and view them not with contemporary values but as living witnesses to a time past. That's what makes them timeless - Huckleberry Finn tells it like it was; maybe we wish it hadn't been that way, but there it is. The inability to understand this - make that the refusal to understand it - shows that we are still a young, and immature, country.


  1. Just who gets to determine what is a "permitted" word?

    Is there a Winston Smith whose job it is to eradicate words and characters that no longer are deemed proper such as "Shylock" from the 16th century, "Nigger Jim" from the 19th century, and from last month, according to City Pages, that carboniferous blog that chronicles contemporary culture, some of Garrison Keillor's characters?

    Garrison has apparently offended articulate members of the homosexual community by making fun of their lifestyles.

    Is that forbidden too?

  2. It's absolutely forbidden, Ray. Anything that might cause a smile, you know...

  3. drew: These days the n-word is offensive only if used by a non-African American. African-Americans use the word themselves constantly. Not all African-Americans but, in particular, the youth and and some under 30. They will tell you they are reclaiming the word or else everyone else they know uses it too.

    If the people in question can't even get on the same page with an derogatory term, how can the rest of us be expected to? Should we be expected to?

    I find the word horrible and I never use it but it's hard to make a convincing case for removing Huck Finn from the reading list when you hear that particular word dropped everywhere and by the people it's supposed to insult. If your only reason for removing the book is that word. Huck Finn is fine literature. The characters are some of the best realized in literature.

    Some Japanese find Mikado offensive because the characters names are meant to be silly sounding. It's a Western look at what people thought Japan and the Japanese were-perhaps stereotypical in the same way Merchant can be perceived towards Jews. However, I'm by no means suggesting neither should ever be performed. I love Mikado . I get goosebumps whenever I hear the intro. I can never have enough Shakespeare.


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