Archive for January, 2011

Huck Everlasting
January 5, 2011

mark twain Category:Mark Twain images
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Sad to say, when it comes to recent misguided attempts to detoxify Huckleberry Finn, Kevin Drum misses the point entirely:

It’s simply no longer possible to assign a book to American high school kids that assaults them with the word nigger so relentlessly. As Twain scholar Alan Gribben, who led the bowdlerization effort, explained, “After a number of talks, I was sought out by local teachers, and to a person they said we would love to teach [Tom Sawyer] and Huckleberry Finn, but we feel we can’t do it anymore. In the new classroom, it’s really not acceptable.”

Given that choice, I guess I’d bowdlerize. After all, the original text will remain available, and teachers can explain the wording change to their classes if they want to. (Though even that’s probably difficult.) And frankly, I doubt that the power of the novel is compromised all that much for 17-year-olds by doing this. In fact, given the difference in the level of offensiveness of the word nigger in 2010 vs. 1884, it’s entirely possible that in 2010 the bowdlerized version more closely resembles the intended emotional impact of the book than the original version does. Twain may have meant to shock, but I don’t think he ever intended for the word to completely swamp the reader’s emotional reaction to the book. Today, though, that’s exactly what it does.

I left my psychic time machine at home, so I can’t really comment on Mark Twain’s original intent. But even if we exhumed and reanimated the bones of Samuel Clemens, and he insisted that he agreed with Alan Gribben entirely, I would still oppose bowdlerization. Original authorial intent is irrelevant. The text is the text is the text.

The fact that the text means wildly different things to different generations of readers is a feature, not a bug. More the point, it is completely unmanageable, unless we intend to rip the guts out of whatever classic literature we hand our children. Would Drum be willing to take the original Hamlet out of the classroom and replace it with a version that paraphrases all of Shakespeare’s poetry into modern idiom? Surely Shakespeare intended that his audience hear those words in whatever version of English to which they are most accustomed.

That hasn’t happened yet because we consider learning to grapple with Shakespearean language a valuable part of a child’s English education. Of course, you could argue that Huck Finn presents a different type of case: Shakespeare’s language is merely difficult, whereas Twain’s is ugly and hurtful. But that too is a feature, not a bug. As Jamelle Bouie says:

But erasing “nigger” from Huckleberry Finn—or ignoring our failures—doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t provide racial enlightenment, or justice, and it won’t shield anyone from the legacy of slavery and racial discrimination. All it does is feed the American aversion to history and reflection. Which is a shame. If there’s anything great about this country, it’s in our ability to account for and overcome our mistakes. Peddling whitewashed ignorance diminishes America as much as it does our intellect.

Teachers who respect the integrity of literature and want to assign Huckleberry Finn have two choices: they can let their students wrestle with the constant thudding reminders of America’s racist past, or they can assign something else. I know Finn is part of the high school canon these days, but there are other books out there just as worthy. Hell, it’s not even the only worthy Mark Twain book out there.

But those who do teach the book should do both its beauty and ugliness justice. A nation that can’t find it within itself to do that is a nation of cowards.

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The Game [Theory] is Rigged
January 2, 2011

Jimmy McNulty, The Wire
Image via Wikipedia

Thus story thus far: Andrew Sprung criticizes political scientist/political science blogger Jonathan Bernstein‘s “joyous cynicism” regarding the political process. Or to put it another way:

No one, I’m sure, would quarrel with Bernstein for highlighting the possibility that a party leader in McConnell’s position might enhance his party’s interest by putting up resistance to ratification of  this treaty even if he personally believed the treaty to advance U.S. interests — at least, if he knew that the resistance would ultimately fail.

Where Bernstein (judging from his blog’s Comments section) does disturb many readers – me included – is in his suggestion that it is politicians’ right, indeed their duty, to be guided entirely by such calculations. He argues, in effect, that the law of political survival is a necessary, natural, sufficient and therefore desirable prime mover of politicians’ words and actions.

Fellow political scientist/political science blogger Seth Masket replies:

I don’t want to speak for Jon here (I’m sure he’ll have a good post along these lines up shortly), but my response to this is as follows: I don’t celebrate this system. But to complain that politicians will be guided by political calculation is like complaining that businesspeople will be guided by profit maximization or that athletes are too obsessed with winning. It’s not a character flaw; it’s their line of work. Indeed, hoping for politicians who are untethered from political calculations is not only naïve, but sometimes quite dangerous.

But of course, Sprung never once wishes aloud for “politicians who are untethered from political calculations.” His disagreement with Bernstein (and by extension, Masket) is not over whether politicians should make political calculations, but over how they should determine the ends to which those calculations are directed. Is a good legislator one who makes his political calculations based primarily on (A) moral concerns, or (B) rational self-interest? Bernstein and Masket seem to prefer Option B, and this is exactly what Sprung finds so cynical.

Maybe the features of Option B that so disturb Sprung would be more apparent to Bernstein and Masket if we looked at how other sectors of society function on Planet Option B. You guys know what that means: it’s super happy fun thought experiment imagination time!

Consider the policeman. Not just any policeman. I’m talking about Policeman McNulty. What is Policeman McNulty’s job? Most people would argue that it is to maintain order, uphold the law, and keep the innocent residents of his jurisdiction (the sleepy little hamlet of New Hamsterdam) safe. As long as the NHPD rewards officers based solely on how well they fulfill those responsibilities, and does so with perfect efficiency, all is well.

But one day, mean old Commissioner Burrell decides to institute an arrest quota. Policeman McNulty now needs to bust a certain number of people per week in order to keep his job. McNulty realizes that unless he dramatically steps up his weekly arrest rate, his job is in grave danger.

Now, McNulty wants to be good po-lice. But what does that mean, exactly? In the New Hamsterdam of Planet B, it would mean responding to the incentives provided by Burrell, and boosting his arrest rate by any means necessary. This, Option B tells us, is not just part of what it means to be good po-lice: it supersedes the traditional role of the police officer, because rational self-interest dictates that it would.

But if McNulty starts cuffing jaywalkers and planting crack on people who deserve little more than speeding tickets, are we really going to argue that he is good po-lice? Or would we instead argue that he should ignore rational self-interest and fight for principles above the network of punishments and incentives built into New Hamsterdam’s law enforcement bureaucracy?

When it comes to the NHPD, Worldview B seems not just wrong, but deeply, deeply cynical. Furthermore, we have little reason to believe any different when it comes to the real world of politics.

That said, I don’t think Bernstein and Masket accept the premises of Worldview B out of conscious cynicism. Rather, I think career political scientists are likely predisposed to see a certain beauty and elegance in the system they observe that can all too easily be conflated with a sort of ethical purity. Just as Einstein saw God in physics, the biologist sees it in biology, the economist sees it in economics, and the political scientist sees it in political science. To not find some kind of magic in the subject to which one dedicates a lifetime of scholarship — that would be cynical.

But a little bit of perspective shows us that beauty in game theory is not the same thing as moral worth. We need to hold our elected officials to a higher standard than mere responsiveness to incentives. The fact that they might rarely meet that standard does not make us naïve, so long as we acknowledge those failures and their causes.

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