Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Diamond Mining

When I spotted a 7 volume hardback set in good condition of the complete novels of Mark Twain offered on Amazon for $9, the decision to order it took less than a second. Twain already occupied some of my shelf space with novels, short stories, letters, and essays. Yet, there was material in the set that I didn't already own and hadn't read, including Pudd'nhead Wilson. Pudd'nhead Wilson is one of his true gems, and I’m glad I’ve at last read it. It rarely is assigned in school because, I suspect, educators face so much trouble over racial issues in Huckleberry Finn that they simply haven't the heart for another round over the far more egregious Pudd'nhead, even though in both cases Twain's head and heart are very much in the right place. Despite the dry folksy humor, the latter novel, set in antebellum Missouri, is one of the most brutally cynical portrayals of human nature in general, and of race relations in particular, to be found in literature.

Sam Clemens himself is not at much risk of any more serious censorship at this point than exclusion from some required reading lists. Even then, recreational readers are free to find him on their own. Nevertheless, that there is any controversy over him at all underlines the importance of the First Amendment injunction that Congress shall make “no law” that abridges “the freedom of speech, or of the press." This protection receives more lip service than anything else in the Bill of Rights, yet it also is the one most consistently and relentlessly under attack. The attackers, by and large, are people of good will trying to protect the innocence of children or to avoid offense to some class or group. Defenders argue that the way to protect children is not to deny them the benefits of growing up in a free society, and that "offense" is not a good enough reason to shred the Bill of Rights either. After all, there are those who will take offense at almost anything, from Huck Finn to rap music. (Do we no longer learn the "sticks and stones" line?) As it stands, the Amendment does not make exceptions for offensive language – or, for that matter, for sexual content. It says "no law." I see no reason to interpret it differently. (I'm of course aware that the Supreme Court, notoriously in Roth v. United States [1957], decided that "no law" really means "some laws," something only 6 out of 9 lawyers possibly could conclude.)

One always has to dig through tons of dirt to find gems, as any diamond miner knows. That is all the defense the dirt needs.

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