Friday, January 14, 2011

It's Complicated - and It Depends

While we wait for Pat Quinn to decide whether to sign the abolition bill in Illinois, I've been grumbling over language.
I actually wrote a fair chunk of a post trying to draw together a series of disparate bits and pieces on the recurring (in this blawg) theme that words matter.  (It probably recurs more than that link indicates, since I'm pretty sure I haven't stuck that label on every post I should have.)  But the post didn't work because, well, the bits and pieces were too disparate.  I can tie shit up, but there were too many stretchers there.
And, frankly, I'm not sure I have anything useful to say about what happened in Tucson the other day.
A crazy person, maybe acting alone or maybe not, shot a lot of people.  A bunch of them died.  It shouldn't have happened.  Sarah Palin didn't make him do it.  Neither did MSNBC.  None of it has anything to do with blood libel or cross hairs.  Arizona gun laws (or lack of them) might have made it easier, but horrible gun crimes occur all across the country, and you cannot show that this one wouldn't have happened if only the local laws were less generous to gun owning (or monster clips).  Or if we did a better job dealing with mental illness.  Or if they'd set up metal detectors at the Tucson city limits.
I mean, maybe.  But maybe not.
And every proposed remedy, which may or may not have prevented this and may or may not prevent some other horrible event, comes at a cost.  
Someone pointed out the other day that if we'd reduce the national speed limit to 25 mph, we'd significantly reduce traffic fatalities and save a lot of energy.  Sure.  But at a tremendous cost in productivity and jobs.  And an enormous change in our lifestyles.  People who like the idea of living off the land in a cabin in northern Minnesota probably have a different idea about how the cost-benefit analysis of that 25 mph speed limit works out than I do.
As the answer to every legal question is, "It depends," so the answer to every policy question is, "It's complicated and nuanced."
Which is why I want to talk about Mark Twain.  And the Constitution.
Because they're simple (in a complicated an nuanced way).
We honor Huckleberry Finn.  The greatest American novel.  The source of everything.  (No, I'm not putting in links to praise for the book.  There'd be no stopping point.)  And as the folks who catalog these things will tell you, one of the most banned books in America.
Ostensibly, the problem with Huckleberry Finn is that it uses the word "nigger."  Cause offense that.  Nasty word.  Don't let anyone near it and it will go away.  Except it won't.  And racism certainly won't go away just because we stop using a particular racist term.  I'm not saying we should use it.  It's normally deeply offensive coming from anyone white, and there's no advantage in being offensive for its own sake.  On those occasions when racial identification matters, there are far better ways to express it.  But the word is out there, and there's neither point nor ability to pretend it isn't.
Anyway, the real problem with Huckleberry Finn isn't that the word "nigger" appears it it.  The real problem is that Jim is the book's moral center and that Huck ultimately comes to understand and accept that racism and slavery are evil.  That's what scares people.  That's why they want it banned.
See, reading Huckleberry Finn is about confronting who we are, facing up to ourselves.  That's radical.  And dangerous.  Words matter.  Twain knew it.  And he used it.
Then there's the Constitution with that elegant and eloquent and noble Preamble.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
That's great stuff.  But it was a pretty limited conception of "We the People."  Really, it was "we the white, male, property owners."  That changed through the oxymoronic conceit of a bloody civil war and the post-war, Reconstruction Amendments.   But it took, in some sense, Representative Barbara Jordan's soaring, and searing, rhetoric at the opening of the Nixon impeachment hearings, to make that point plain.
Earlier today, we heard the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States: "We, the people." It's a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was completed on the seventeenth of September in 1787, I was not included in that "We, the people." I felt somehow for many years that George Washington and Alexander Hamilton just left me out by mistake. But through the process of amendment, interpretation, and court decision, I have finally been included in "We, the people."
Wow, again.
Because the Constitution as written is a deeply flawed, seriously racist document.  It approved slavery.  It counted slaves as less than full people.  It was a revolutionary document, but the revolution had its limits, and equality wasn't high enough on the list of revolutionary ideals.
And it came to pass that on the floor of the House of Representatives, in open session, they did what they'd never done before:  Read the text of the Constitution. Aloud.  For the first time ever.  Which is pretty cool.  And pretty much something that should be done from time to time.  
And of course, they screwed it up.
In the effort to save it.
They took out that slavery stuff.  And the 3/5 compromise.  Because, you know, they'd been superseded by amendment.  And, as Dahlia Lithwick pointed out in Slate last week, they left in other stuff that had been superseded by amendment because . . . .  Well damn, because they were intentional or sloppy or stupid or making a weird political point or twelve or who the hell knows.  Regardless, of how and why it happened, though:
In other words, in addition to taking it upon themselves to whitewash past constitutional errors, House Republicans today compounded the sin by inventing a choose-your-own-ending document they tried to pass off as official. 
Which brings us back to Huck and the "n" word.  (And Tom Sawyer and "i" word ("Injun" as in "Injun Joe.")  Because, as you've likely heard, there's a new edition that uses a scalpel to slice and dice those words out.  "Nigger" is replaced by "slave."  (Because, I suppose, African-American's don't mind being thought of as slaves though they find it offensive to be called "nigger.")  And "Injun" will now be "Indian."  
Words, as I say, matter.
There are consequences to the fact that the Constitution included the 3/5 compromise and explicitly allowed human slavery.  And it does no disservice to We the People to be reminded from time to time that it wasn't a universal "We" and, frankly, still is only grudgingly.
And it matters, though in different ways, that Huck didn't refer to Jim as "slave Jim" though Jim was in fact (OK, in fiction, but you know what I mean) a slave.  Twain knew what he was doing.  He said so, right up front.
IN this book a number of dialects are used, to wit: the Missouri negro dialect; the extremest form of the backwoods Southwestern dialect; the ordinary "Pike County" dialect; and four modified varieties of this last. The shadings have not been done in a haphazard fashion, or by guesswork; but painstakingly, and with the trustworthy guidance and support of personal familiarity with these several forms of speech.

I make this explanation for the reason that without it many readers would suppose that all these characters were trying to talk alike and not succeeding.
I talk a lot in these posts about how governors and prosecutors and courts and too many of We the People are inclined to bury their collective heads in the sand and avoid finding out whether they've convicted (or executed) the right guy.  "You'd think they'd want to know," I keep writing.
Because, well, you'd think they'd want to.  Just as you'd think that they, we, might want to acknowledge who we are and from whence we came.  
You'd think that those who care about the Constitution would want to acknowledge some of its history while they spout the importance of its original understanding.
And you'd think that an English professor would get that words matter even when they aren't pretty.
But you'd think that complexity and nuance weren't just really awful things, too.
And that because words matter, we should honor them rather than hide from them.
I leave you with Shakespeare.
   . . .
What do you read, my lord?

   Words, words, words.

   What is the matter, my lord?

   Between who?

   I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.

   Slanders, sir: for the satirical rogue says here
that old men have grey beards, that their faces are
wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and
plum-tree gum and that they have a plentiful lack of
wit, together with most weak hams: all which, sir,
though I most powerfully and potently believe, yet
I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down, for
yourself, sir, should be old as I am, if like a crab
you could go backward.

    Though this be madness, yet there is method
in 't. Will you walk out of the air, my lord?

   Into my grave.

   Indeed, that is out o' the air.

    How pregnant sometimes his replies are! a happiness
that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity
could not so prosperously be delivered of. I will
leave him, and suddenly contrive the means of
meeting between him and my daughter. -- My honourable
lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.

   You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will
more willingly part withal: except my life, except
my life, except my life.
Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii.

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