A post about Huckleberry Finn. Contains spoilers for Inglorious Basterds.
AT THE END of Inglorious Basterds, Hitler and Goebbels are gunned down by Jewish-American soldiers in a burning theater.
I loved it in a way I wonder if a non-Jewish person can get.
MINE IS THE third post-holocaust generation, and those who raised us took Never forget seriously. I grew up with a Time-Life series that had pictures like these in it, and I was taught—rightly—that It can’t happen here is always a lie. Of course it can. It can happen anywhere. Grow up.
Jews of my generation are expected to remember, and for those raised more Orthodox than I was, we’re also expected to repopulate. We tend to stand against intolerance and for civil rights. Those black-and-white photographs are familiar to Jewish people my age, and if you look again at that word, familiar, and see the word family in it, you might understand what I really mean. Those are my people, and the only reason I’m not one of those grainy horrible stacked bodies is the random fact that I was born in 1966 in Los Angeles.
If we forget, it will happen here. Not just can.
I loved the end of Inglorious Basterds. It delivered bloody, righteous, aggressive, self-sacrificing victory to the precise location in my soul where, for my whole life, there’s been only generations-removed helplessness and horror.
It was things set right.
I PARTICIPATED IN a group support forum a few years ago, and one of the other participants got very angry with me about my superior attitude and unleashed a tirade in belittling, anti-Semitic language. I don’t remember it very well, but there was stuff along the lines of “little jewboy.” The forum moderator took it down despite my expressing my wish for it to stay up so people could draw their own conclusions.
After it was removed, no one could. And there was nothing for a conversation to form around. So everyone moved on. When you cave to either mob demand or personal convenience and remove “offensive” language, you protect the status quo.
“OFFENSIVE” IS IN quotes there because as popularly used, it’s a meaningless word. “I am offended” is meaningful, and if think I was in the wrong—or if I care about you enough to put aside that I don’t think I was in the wrong—I’ll do whatever I can to make it right.
“So-and-so offended me,” while a little less clear, is still meaningful enough for two people to come to an understanding.
But “That word is offensive?” That’s not even possible. Words have no dog in this fight.
Can we use our brains once in a while instead of our adrenal glands? Can we communicate instead of hoisting catchphrases like banners so our mob can rally and shout down that other mob? Can we learn to listen to things that offend us instead of believing that righteousness is sufficient reason to silence the wrong-speaker?
No? Well, I thought I’d ask.
REMOVING THE N-WORD from Huckleberry Finn is like replacing those holocaust photos with the last reel of Inglorious Basterds.
That ending sure does make me feel good, and after all, isn’t that the most important thing? Not feeling bad? Not feeling like a victim? Being able to put aside a history of oppression? Not having to learn empathy and critical thinking and examine my own assumptions about what constitutes “offense?”
What isn’t important, apparently, is this:
IT DIDN’T ACTUALLY HAPPEN THAT WAY.
Do we care?
Before anyone can change for the positive—me, you, the human species, anyone—we have to clearly see what needs changing. (Changing for the negative doesn’t require this, and is therefore much easier.) You can’t solve a problem without knowing what the problem is.
Whitewash opposes that clear vision; we even use the word “unvarnished” when we mean to say reality, truth, the guts to face ourselves. We admire those who get past their egos and improve. The one thing such a person can’t do, if he’s to sustain our admiration, reduce the world’s suffering, and all that, is Photoshop the bong out of the Christmas photo and say “What difference does it make? We all know it was there.”
Just do the work, and then take another picture without the bong next year. Don’t weasel.
I don’t want tomorrow’s history books to say Jews gunned down Hitler in a burning theater, thus averting millions of horrible deaths; and I don’t want today’s history books—because a novel from the past is not just a novel, but also a historical artifact—to say nobody used that word, in 1876, along the Mississippi.
When you remove “offensive” language, you protect the status quo. Let people draw their own conclusions. Let some be offended; nobody ever died of offense. But people have died, and suffered terribly, and in great numbers, of crimes against humanity, perpetrated to the melody of denigrating, dehumanizing language.
DON’T PRETEND THEY DIDN’T.
Leave the words in, and don’t collaborate with whitewashers. Never forget, never forgive.
And never, ever think comfort will get you farther than truth.