Mark Twain, Sarah Palin, Tucson, and the Follies of Censorship

Mark Twain

Mark Twain (Library of Congress No. LC-USZ62-5513)

Your elites don’t trust you. They don’t trust you to be able to read certain historical or literary documents, listen to TV and radio pundits, or even look at certain billboards and posters without getting the wrong ideas and letting them poison your mind to the extent that you turn to violence.

We’ve seen that a lot this month, with censorship efforts against a broad spectrum of source material, from Huckleberry Finn to the U.S. Constitution to Sarah Palin’s website, in the wake of the Tucson shootings.

The Huck Finn foolishness came with the news that a publisher is planning a version of Mark Twain’s novel for high school classrooms that would replace the 200-plus uses of the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” Never mind how much this alters the intent of the book (to reinforce the ugliness of the dehumanizing word by contrasting its constant repetition with Huck’s growing awareness of Jim’s humanity) or confuses Twain’s painstaking recreation of regional dialects with endorsement of his characters’ casual racism. What’s important, apparently, is to protect the sensitivities of students. (It’s not clear whether the publishers mean to protect the sensitivities of black students, who hear the word daily in rap songs but might wince at its frequent appearance in an assigned novel, or of white students, who hear the same word in the same rap songs but may not know its full, grotesque history.)

Either way, it’s incredibly patronizing. What the censors (and the schools that buy this censored version of the book) are saying is: “We read this book when we were your age, and while it failed to turn us into frothing haters, we don’t trust you to have the same intellectual and moral grounding to read this book without taking offense at historical truth or turning to hatred and violence yourselves.”

That same impulse was on display with the recent reading of the Constitution on the floor of Congress, a reading that was supposedly meant to educate both the public and its representatives in the House as to the timeless wisdom of the Founders. Except that the reading left out the parts discussing slavery, the blacks-are-3/5-of-a-person compromise, and anything else that had been amended. (Guess that timeless wisdom wasn’t so timeless.) Clearly, the stunt was more political than educational, unless the point was to teach us that certain parts of our history still make us too squeamish to discuss.

The Tucson shootings led to more discussion of censorship. The notion seemed to be that all political rhetoric should be as free from violent metaphors as possible, lest a crazy person hear it and be inspired to commit real violence. It’s the same patronizing impulse, the desire to lower all discourse to the level where even the most susceptible or easily stirred will find it bland and unthreatening. Aside from whether or not that’s even possible, it blurs the distinction between real death threats/incitements to violence (which do not merit First Amendment protection and should be easy to prosecute) and more abstractly vehement rhetoric, like Sarah Palin’s notorious gun-sight crosshairs poster that targeted Gabrielle Giffords’ district but not necessarily her personally.

For that sort of rhetoric, we have to rely on shame to do the policing. It worked for a while with Palin; if she weren’t ashamed of that graphic, she wouldn’t have pulled it from her website. Similarly, a few days after the shootings, Clear Channel (which owns billboards and radio stations that syndicate Rush Limbaugh’s show) voluntarily took down a billboard in Tucson for the Limbaugh show that was riddled with fake bullet holes and touted Limbaugh as a “straight shooter.”

Unfortunately, shame, discretion, and good taste only go so far. Within days, Palin was claiming her crosshairs were merely “surveyor’s symbols” (they are not) and accusing her detractors of “blood libel,” a phrase apparently calculated to offend liberals (mission accomplished) and to appropriate the historical language of Jewish victimhood for herself (even as the actual Jewish victim here, Rep. Giffords, lay struggling for her life in the hospital. You stay classy, Sarah). The first person to call for pundits (including himself) to tone down their violent rhetoric, Keith Olbermann, is so far the only person involved in this mess who is now out of a job.

Maybe the answer is to go in the other direction: more speech, and more sunshine on that speech. Let Palin and Limbaugh say what they please — and then make them defend it. Let Clear Channel and Fox serve as platforms for hateful rhetoric — and then ask their sponsors if they really want to bankroll such talk. Let teachers and Congressmen own up to America’s horrific racial past — and let them show us how far we’ve come since then, and how far we have yet to go. But don’t demonstrate how little regard you have for us by trying to shield us from uncomfortable truths.



Filed under Arts, Books, Censorship, Media, TV

9 responses to “Mark Twain, Sarah Palin, Tucson, and the Follies of Censorship

  1. I fully agree with your post – save a couple of instances. “For that sort of rhetoric, we have to rely on shame to do the policing. It worked for a while with Palin; if she weren’t ashamed of that graphic, she wouldn’t have pulled it from her website.”I believe the “crosshairs” map and the billboard were taken down out of respect not shame. I believe they were taken down to show sensitivity about the Tucson shooting. Rush’s ad was clearly trying to appeal to a state that honors second amendment rights to the greatest extent. Gabby Giffords was not anti-gun, she owned a gun and her husband is military. I’ve read that her pro gun ownership attitude was pretty much a prerequisite for having a chance to win office in Arizona.

    Secondly, the software used by Sarah’s PAC hired graphics company could very well have labeled the “crosshair” graphic as a number of things like surveyor marks, registration marks etc. Many industries use these, read more here;

    • Gary Susman

      Hi, Robin, thanks for commenting.
      Palin herself (or who ever writes her Tweets and Facebook posts) called it a “bullseye” map (see a screen cap of her Twitter feed here). The day she posted the map on her Facebook page (where she talked of taking “aim” and firing the first “salvo” in the campaign to defeat Democrats who voted for the health care reform bill), she announced her initiative with a Tweet saying, “Don’t Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!” So it’s pretty clear she was talking about guns and not surveyors’ symbols. Giffords may not have had any problems with guns, but she did have a problem with rhetoric that seemed to her tantamount to an incitement to violence, and she said so in the now-famous interview where she took Palin specifically to task, an interview she gave after her office was vandalized in the wake of her pro-health care reform vote. Palin chose not to respond then to Giffords’ complaint, waiting to do so only until after Giffords had been shot, and she responded by denying she had said what she was on record as having said. Perhaps that’s a sign of respect or sensitivity, but I would call it something else.

    • Jeff

      I read your article about Blacks not represented in the Oscar nominations. My comment is; minorities will never achieve equality until people like you stop reminding us that they are a minority. People are people and you should stop segregating .

      • Gary Susman

        Hi, Jeff, thanks for commenting on my Moviefone article about the absence of black nominees at the Oscars this year for the first time in a decade. (Though it’s off-topic for this post.)
        I’m not the one doing the segregating; I’m just the one pointing it out. You seem to think that racial discrimination will disappear only if we all pretend it already has disappeared. I’m not sure when pointing out discriminatory behavior became a worse offense than practicing such behavior.

  2. “Palin was claiming her crosshairs” – I hope you viewed the whole segment from your link, Giffords was tryin to tie in the vandalism done to her office door and Sarah’s district target map as violence. There were no bullets or pellets found in her office. I don’t think that would have even required a response from Palin, it would have seemed illogical at the time, office doors get vandalized on ocassion.

    • Gary Susman

      I don’t think Giffords was trying to blame Palin’s gun rhetoric for the vandalism, which happened the same day as Palin’s Web postings. No one has claimed the vandals read Palin’s material or that they used a gun to shatter Giffords’ door. (Though I do believe it’s awfully cavalier to dismiss the vandalism as something that simply happens “on occasion,” since the timing of the attack, hours after the health care vote, suggests it was politically motivated.) What I do think Giffords was saying was that, in a climate where such politically-motivated vandalism occurs, and where (according to Giffords’ more veteran colleagues in the House) the level of rancor and bitterness is unprecedented, it’s irresponsible for Palin or anyone else to add fuel to the fire with rhetoric and imagery that could be seen as an incitement to violence.

      • I didn’t use the word “blame”, but if she was trying to tie the crosshairs graphic with violence, one could safely assume she was trying to blame. Giffords also talked about violence in the Tea Party; there hasn’t been a single arrest for violence in the Tea Party. Here’s the clip, see for yourself (I’m surprised you haven’t seen it but can confidently comment on it)

        Office doors get vandalized on occasion, there’s nothing cavalier about it, just stating a fact. What you missed was the point I made in response to your remark – why would Sarah Palin respond to Giffords regarding a vandal incident (something that happens occasionally)?
        March 26/2010 Albemarle County, Virginia — Republican HQ (2nd incident within a week).
        Oct. 25/2010 Denver — The Denver County Republican HQ vandalized twice this past weekend.
        Oct. 21/2008 Murfressboro, Tenn. — The Republican HQ in Murfreesboro was vandalized, and workers there said they have received threats. (2nd incident).
        You get the picture, just google “republican offices vandalized”
        Assuming Giffords office door being vandalized was politically motivated is still an assumption; it could have been vandals creating mischief.

        The current level of rancor and bitterness is not precedence. You’re kidding yourself. Sarah Palin, rhetoric and symbols does not incite violence; otherwise there would have been violence from the Tea Party. Obviously you conveniently forget the violent imagery generated from the left. Blame the guy who is responsible for the violence – the shooter.

  3. Gary Susman

    Robin, we seem to be talking past each other. No one has explicitly blamed either Palin or the Tea Party for the vandalism of Giffords’ office. Giffords did, however, blame Palin for throwing gasoline on an already combustible situation with her armed-struggle rhetoric. It’s that accusation that prompted no apparent response from Palin until Giffords was shot, months later.
    I don’t think vandalism against Giffords’ office, mere hours after the health care vote, is just mischief, just as I’m sure you don’t think vandalism against Republican offices is just mischief. (And I would agree with you there.)
    I don’t know if the level of rancor and bitterness is truly unprecedented; that’s the assessment Giffords attributed to her more senior colleagues in the House. However, there does seem to be an unprecedented amount of politically motivated violence against people (not just vandalism), some of it directly connected to particular statements by right-wing figures (see here and here). I’m not sure what “violent imagery generated from the left” you’re referring to (or whether it comes from anyone as prominent and respected as Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Michelle Bachman, and Sharron Angle are on the right, rather than just obscure lefty bloggers and protesters), but if it’s inciting actual violence against conservative people, then that’s certainly wrong, too. Yes, responsibility should ultimately fall on the perpetrator. But shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is also a prohibited act, and politicians and pundits who do that should be held accountable, too.

  4. Jim S.

    As for the level of rancor and bitterness in the halls of government, it has been even more rancorous in the past. In the 19th century, there was at least one instance where a Senator (Charles Sumner) was caned on the floor of the Senate (5/22/1856), by a Representative (Preston S. Brooks) from the House. Sumner could not resume his Senatorial duties for 3 years after that incident. We’re not seeing anything that violent there now.

    As for the Arizona shooting, it’s ridiculous to try and connect disparate events to the shooting, which was committed by a mentally ill man who had no real political motives in doing what he did. Why is it that the affixing of blame has become the most important issue, overriding fixing the problem? It seems that the problem is left to just fester while the finger-pointing and pontificating takes center stage. Affixing blame doesn’t solve anything. Fix the problem, and worry about who’s to blame for it afterward!

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