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.