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Huckleberry Finn and Homeland Security

I don't think I've written here about Huckleberry Finn before. If I have, I'm doing it again. Live with it. Or Not.

A few years ago there was quite a commotion over whether or not Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn should be allowed in public schools. The problem was that many people either considered it to be "racist" or to at least perpetuate "racist" tendencies. Rubbish, of course, as anyone who has read the book would know.

Mark Twain's writings have endured for over 100 years. They are deservedly considered classics and are treasured by thousands if not millions of people worldwide. But they are also, as are all pieces of literature, products of their time. Racism and hatred were everyday realities in the "South" of Mark Twain's day. Some would argue that they still are, although I would like to believe that a little progress, at least, has been made. Banning Huck Finn would not help the fight against racism. Promoting Huck might, in fact, help put the issue in some perspective. Was Huckleberry Finn a racist? No. But he was a product of his times. Over the course of the novel Huck sees Jim for what he is - a human being deserving of the same rights and consideration as anyone else.

At the start, Huck reflected more of the values of his time, but, as he adventured further with Jim, his values changed and grew. It's easy to be anti-racist today, it is, after all, the politically correct thing to be. Not so in Huck's day. Then, it was "politically correct" to support slavery and promote the idea that the black man or the African-American was somehow inferior to the white man. But by the end of the novel, Huck was convinced that slavery and racism were wrong, even if he was unsure what he could do about it.

Those who wanted to abolish The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn really didn't know what the book was about. But let's assume that the book promotes or at least condones racism. Should it be banned? I don't think so. Even a book that condones hatred and ignorance may have a valuable lesson to teach. At the very least, it makes people aware that our currently accepted way of life and thinking was not always as it is today. We, as a race - and scientists say that there is just one human race - change and grow. Slowly, to be sure, and sometimes we slide back as with the Nazis, but the overall movement is positive if snail-like. Books, even books filled with negative ideas and values, must be preserved and made available as a record of man's past and future.

But surely there is a line. A book filled with nothing but hate, invective and misinformation should surely not be allowed to be published? A difficult question. Here, in Canada, we do have a law against pure hate literature and people have been arrested and charged for breaking this law. It's hard to oppose such a good-intentioned law, but maybe we should. After 9-11, America changed. New laws were developed, long established freedoms were curtailed or at least inconvenienced. Some dramas on U.S. television have drawn attention to these changes and their consequences. Once again, the laws are well-intentioned. They are not being put in place to limit freedoms but to preserve them. Yet the long term effect may be the opposite.

The dangers are that these laws will be abused. In the case of Canada's anti-hate law, someone has to decide what is hate literature and what is literature. Sometimes the difference is plain and unmistakable. But sometimes it's not. But even worse, the act of banning something immediately makes it more popular and desirable. Remember the phrase "Banned in Boston"? That phrase/event turned more than one mediocre book into a successful best seller - such as Peyton Place. Today, we smile at such actions, but we are faced with far graver situations. If we ban hate literature, do we protect our citizens or merely make the material more popular? And where do we draw the line between hate and literature? That's one question I can't answer.

And what of the threats to freedoms in the U.S.? In many cases, we can put up with some inconveniences at airports for more security. But again, where do we draw the line? And how can we be sure that those in power can be trusted to use their power wisely. If TV dramas are any indication (you decide), abuses of power, lack of communication, and simple lack of compassion are frequent if not rampant. This is the great danger. It is incredible to me, for example, that law enforcement agencies regularly do not communicate with each other. The argument, of course, is the possibilty of leaks. Again, to believe the dramas, the FBI is so notorious about keeping operations secret from local police forces that it has very nearly lost all respect with local forces. We continue to be treated to stories where one organization does not communicate with another. One recent show had a good ending line. The great advantage that criminals now have over police forces is that the criminals have used technology to work together while the police forces have not. This is a lesson that America's anti-terrorism organizations must take to heart.

Almost a hundred and fifty years ago, Huck Finn came to the realization that the real world is much more complicated than the world of his youth. The real world is full of shades of gray. We may think one decision is purely black and white, but it seldom is. What we must do is be vigilant and keep track of where in the gray spectrum the line is drawn. If it strays too far to the white, we must speak up and take action to restore a healthy balance.

There are very few simple answers. Vigilance, now, more than ever, is the watch word.

Finished in 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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