The Corner

On Whitewashing the Constitution and Huck Finn

An interesting parallel can be seen in Matt Franck’s typically insightful comments about the reading of the Constitution on the floor of the House yesterday and Rich’s typically well-done column on Huck Finn and the N-word controversy today. In both instances, the writers decry what Huck’s pal Tom Sawyer convinced his friends to do for him: whitewashing. In this case, it isn’t a fence that’s being whitewashed, it is original and historical text.

House leadership decided yesterday to read the constitution “as amended,” so that hurtful reminders of American history, like the 3/5ths compromise, wouldn’t distract from their message — which, I take it, is that the Constitution, as it currently applies to our government, limits the powers of the federal government, and Congress in particular. I sympathize with Matt’s originalist response to this whitewashing — that you lose important history when you ignore what the Founders started with and how we got here today (through the wholly proper process of amending the Constitution). At the same time, I understand the desire not to get sidetracked from the main point of the exercise. If, indeed, the main point of the exercise was to remind readers of the limitations on government power, then giving the opposition a reason to sidetrack the discussion on the warts of history distracts from that. That said, on reflection, I am with Matt at the end of the day — the 3/5ths compromise and its later correction in the Civil War amendments reinforces a point we conservatives have been shouting for some time. If there’s a problem with the Constitution, the way to fix it is through the democratic process, not the courts. By ignoring that history, the House blunted the force of its own limited-powers point.

I’ve been going back and forth with Rich about a similar concern regarding his column. Rich has an interesting — and in my view ironic — pairing of thoughts in his thought-provoking piece.

While Huck’s father is an ignorant drunk who beats and robs him, Jim desperately misses his own family, and his conscience lashes him for having once hit his daughter unjustly. Huck reflects on this and remarks, “He was a mighty good n——, Jim was.”Strike the offending word from the text and you lose the point.

But in the process of making his point, Rich himself all but strikes the offending word from the text. Well, in fairness, he keeps the thought but masks the word. Now, as I’ve told Rich, I understand his desire not to be unnecessarily offensive in making a point about the N-word. And I agree that there’s no reason to use it gratuitously — or for any purpose at all for that matter (growing up in the Deep South, I heard my quota of racial slurs). But Rich’s edits to Twain, while certainly less destructive of the original text than the book he is criticizing, nonetheless blunts Twain’s point. Rich has — under the respectable guise of avoiding unnecessary offense — made Twain a little more palatable to the modern ears. And as his own column suggests, Twain probably would have wanted you to bristle just a bit at Huck’s odd combination of malice and beneficence.


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