Seeing context, vital nuance in art and politics – The Morning Call
I once got in trouble for satirically agreeing to a publisher’s plan to make “Huckleberry Finn” more palatable to modern audiences. The new version would change Mark Twain’s n-words and Injuns to “slaves” and “Indians”, respectively.
In my column, I took another giant step down that slippery slope, mocking that they should also clean up bad grammar and smooth out a lot of other rough edges, including references to slavery, and insert other politically correct touches. In my edited version, Huck and Jim were talking as if they were sipping brandy glasses in their London club.
The whole thing was so ridiculous that I couldn’t imagine anyone taking me seriously. But when I started reading some of my emails and online comments, I realized that I had overestimated some of our readership, which in this case included online readers from all over the country.
They set me on fire like everything from socialist to Nazi, which suggests I offended people of all political persuasions. One guy wrote in part, “Who decides what’s offensive? Well Bill White of course. While he’s at it, Bill should rewrite all those uncomfortable publications like Frankenstein, Sons and Daughters, Anna Karenina and Hard Times. It would be crazy NOT to READ something that offends you. No, instead you should impose your idea of ”offensive” on the rest of us. Because it’s American, Bill. The Nazis didn’t have the same idea in 1944. Let’s burn all offensive material!
I thought back to that column from 2011 the other day when Turner Classic Movies aired “You Can’t Fool an Honest Man,” starring WC Fields and ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his model, Charlie McCarthy. The movie is hilarious. But it’s also appalling in some of the dialogue between Fields and Eddie Anderson — better known as Jack Benny’s associate Rochester — and in a blackface scene involving McCarthy.
This does not mean that the film should no longer be broadcast or that it should be censored. But that’s why a TCM host addresses these issues when introducing the film and to conclude afterwards. He was a product of his time, when these things were considered normal, as they are not today. There are countless other examples, in art, in politics, in all aspects of life.
Context is everything. With it, people’s past and present actions are better understood. Without it, they often become confusing, even horrifying.
Context is why Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece, not an embarrassment. This is why compelling literature with problematic language or themes should be analyzed and explained, not banned, burned, or rewritten.
I could give you a long list of examples where context and nuance have been lost or ignored, starting with most of the wildly misleading television political ads that will be inflicted on us leading up to Election Day.
The context is why a constitutional amendment written about militias and muzzleloaders should not justify people today owning AK-47s and high capacity magazines. The context is why it’s so frightening to see crowds at Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano rallies raise their right arms in the air. Context is why it is so misleading and dangerous to choose the Bible as an excuse for hatred and bigotry.
Context is why teachers should be encouraged to teach children the true history of our country, not sanitized history, if we want our children to learn from the mistakes of the past. And that’s why efforts to cleanse school reading lists — and even math curricula — of anything remotely offensive or “woke” are so misguided.
The Pflugerville Public Library in Texas posted photos on Facebook last year to dramatize the point. “This is a before and after photo of what a single bookshelf in the Teen space of the library would look like if we removed all books with content that might offend someone,” the caption read. “Of 159 books, 10 remain on the shelves. We have removed books containing profanity, teenage drinking, religious content, racism, magic, abuse, sexual content, etc. But in removing these books, we also removed examples of friendship, love, courage, creativity, faith, forgiveness, reality, resilience, humor and history.
That’s not to say that families can’t decide for themselves which books they want their child to read or not. But I will suggest this: we need to trust our teachers to help our children put literature, history, and other important topics into context. We need to trust our children, with help, to deal with difficult topics in a healthy way. We need to stop injecting our paranoia and political dysfunctions into our school districts.
Our world is really complicated. Even though some of us would like to restrict our perspective to a superficial black-and-white so as not to overthink it or because it works well with the political base, it is not a way to live, and certainly not a way to govern. We need to dig deeper. We need to let our children dig deeper. It reminds me of an exchange between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.
Bergen: “I have a good head for…”
McCarthy: “Why don’t you use it?”
Bill White can be reached at [email protected] His Twitter account is