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When Asterisks A***ck

by James Lileks

It’s been a bad year for free speech so far. Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, for example, is undergoing one of its periodic Bowdler-bouts. So far the name’s unchanged, but give them a while; by 2016 it will be known as Tinyfruit Nordic Person to be inclusive towards those with different berry preferences, and appeal to people who are not inclined to admire Sibelius. Huck is taking flak because it contains the word “n****r,” so a new version of the book uses the term “slave.” Still offensive. A writer on the New York Times op-ed page, Lorrie Moore, argued that high school shouldn’t teach the book at all. “The remedy,” she said, “is to refuse to teach this novel in high school and to wait until college — or even graduate school — where it can be put in proper context.”

Imagine a grad student pushing 30, haggard, overworked, tired of grading papers, tired of trying to make another crop of students give a fig about Gatsby — really, all those rich people with problems, boo-hoo, hope your boat sinks in that stupid current. But it’s worth it, because after two years they take you in a special room, and you put on thick mitts and this strange helmet like the one welders wear, and the chairman of the department takes out THE BOOK from its lead-lined cask, with tongs. “We think you’re ready for this,” she says with an indulgent chuckle. “The offending words have been blotted out, of course, but if you use this special black-light pen they’ll be visible.”

A swagger in the grad student’s walk that night, eh? “Yes, I saw it. Oh, it was just as bad as they say, but really, but if you’ve got enough education you can summon up reserves of context if the situation requires. I dare say I could handle some uncorrected Norman Mailer proofs at this point.”

Then there’s the case of the F-word in Canada. Not that one. The other one. A 1985 song by Dire Straits includes the gay slur — or rather did, until someone complained, and bleeps were added to shield the ears of those who react to the HORRID WORD like the Wicked Witch coming in contact with water. Again, context matters; the song is written in the voice of an appliance mover, discussing the sweet life musicians must lead. Hence the title: “Money for Nothing.” “The little [HORRID WORD] with the earring and the makeup / Yeah buddy that’s his own hair / That little [HORRID WORD] got his own jet airplane / That little [HORRID WORD SARAH PALIN PROBABLY USES WHEN DESCRIBING MEN WHO DON’T SHOOT ELK] he’s a millionaire.”

The song, to put it mildly, is not on the side of the character who sings it. But someone might believe the word’s appearance in the song is an endorsement of homophobia. The singer also says: “We gotta install microwave ovens / Custom kitchen deliveries / We gotta move these refrigerators / We gotta move these color TVs.” Admit it: Just reading those words makes you want to move refrigerators. Language is an awesome force.

And so we must watch our words. Our tone. As we learned from the Tucson shooting, our rhetoric must be mild as the bleat of a lamb. The wrong syllables, some contentious phonemes, an abrasive collection of consonants — it’s like dumping Miracle-Gro on kudzu. If a pundit says a bill should be killed, a previously non-political citizen will rise from his chair and decide a politician named Bill or William or Willa or maybe Clarence should be silenced. Should someone say something is in the “crosshairs,” there will be a call for Sarah Palin to shave her head bald, lest her tresses trigger another maniac.

Sorry, “trigger” is a bit too much. These are sensitive times, and surely the Tucson TV station that covered the shooting is rethinking their call letters, KGUN. Makes me want to pack heat just looking at the station’s logo.

These concerns don’t fit a lively society with a tradition of free speech, but it seems we are determined to have neither liveliness, traditions, nor freedom. The Left, which once defined patriotism as peppery invective that would redden the cheeks of Genghis Khan, now reacts to vigorous speech like a hemophiliac at a knife-throwers’ convention. It would be easier if we stopped using words altogether, and just used thumbs-up and thumbs-down . . . but no, that would bring back memories of Romans and the bloody games of the Colosseum. Best if we all just nod yes, and smile. It’s not the disagreeable speech that bothers them, really. It’s the disagreement.

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