Until the other morning my candidate for supreme foolishness in this fickle period, when the winds of spring keep blowing up more winter, was the Argentine ruling junta. Nobody else could be so dumb. Now a clear gold-plated winner has emerged. Happily, this one stands closer to home, thus removed from sticky international war-and-peace stakes.
I nominate two people to share the crown. Both are connected with the nearby Virginia school, named for Mark Twain, that wants to ban "Huckleberry Finn."
One, whom the paper identifies as John Martin, the principal, has recommended removing Huck from the school's curriculum. The other, a John H. Wallace, said to be an aide there, served on the school's Human Relations Committee. That group unanimously asked the principal not to let Huck's story be used in classes.
Wallace gave the following reasons:
"The book is poison. It is anti-American; it works against the melting pot theory of our country; it works against the idea that all men are created equal; it works against the 14th Amendment to the Constitution and against the preamble that guarantees life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Wow. Huck certainly hasn't improved with age. I knew he was bad, but didn't realize just how dangerous an American he really is.
Huck always was a problem. Even from the beginning, when the widow was trying to make him a better person, there was something incorrigible about him.
He wanted to be better, of course. Remember that time after supper when the widow got out the book to teach him about Moses and the Bulrushers? He was anxious enough to show how well he learned.
"But," as he said, "by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people."
Typical. Huck's basic nature was always getting in the way of his better instincts. Try though he did, he just couldn't please. Still can't, obviously.
He had an ornery streak, too. Like asking the widow to let him smoke right while she was reading to him from the book. Naturally, she wouldn't. "She said it was a mean practice and wasn't clean, and I must try not to do it any more," Huck said. "That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don't know nothing about it. Here she was a-bothering about Moses, which was no kin to her, and no use to anybody, being gone, you see, yet finding a power of fault with me for doing a thing that had some good in it. And she took snuff, too; of course that was all right, because she done it herself."
Hopeless, for sure, and I'm delighted to discover how well we've learned that lesson. Now, at last, we can protect innocent children from such taints.
The complaint about Huck, though, involves none of the above. It's that Huck is a racist. He's therefore subversive, and destructive of all those good American attributes the school aide cites.
Huck surely would agree. He was, after all, a child of his times who grew up in a slave state in the days before the Civil War. His creator endowed him marvelously with the mannerisms, attitudes, language--and prejudices--of his day, and brought him to life just after the Reconstruction Period 100 years ago when those characteristics were still dominant in America.
Poor Huck had a problem with his prejudices, however. They kept colliding with his conscience. That's always difficult for anyone. With Huck, it was especially so. He was blessed (he would say cursed) with an innate sense of decency and fair play (he would hate those words), even though he kept trying to pretend otherwise.
How else could you explain his actions, repeatedly, in taking such risks to protect and save his friend, Jim, the runaway slave, on that series of adventures while they floated so memorably south down the Mississippi and forever into our imaginations.
That time when the skiff carrying two men with guns pulled alongside, for instance. The harshest of that grim pair demanded young Huck tell him if any men were aboard his raft. "Only one, sir," the boy replied.
"Well," one of the armed men said, "there's five niggers run off tonight up yonder, above the head of the bend. Is your man white or black? "
Huck had a problem with that one, having been taught by the widow to tell the truth. He failed again, and lied.
When they tried to come aboard to search anyway, Huck compounded his faults. He told an even greater whopper. It was his old pap lying deathly ill in there, he said. And, would you believe it, he made those tough men think his poor father was stricken with highly contagious smallpox, a scourge of that age.
Huck was so pitiable a liar that he got those men to leave behind two gold pieces before they fled in panic.
He gave one to Jim. But then, you see, Huck could explain that one. Although Jim was black and a slave, his color and his race weren't his fault. Huck thought of Jim as being "white under the skin."
About equality and all the rest, well, Huck wouldn't know about that. He was no philosopher. All he knew was he had sort of an idea about their raft. That came out of having to share it with a runaway slave and also with two low-down humbugs and frauds who pretended they were dukes and kings and wanted the others to do all the work.
"It would have been a miserable business on the raft," Huck thought to himself, "to have any unfriendliness on the raft; for what you want, above all things, on a raft, is for everybody to be satisfied and feel right and kind towards the others."
Pretty simple idea, but he was a simple boy and obviously not up to the sophisticated understanding of democracy as taught by some of our public schools in the America of 1982.
When Huck's story was first published nearly a century ago, it was savagely attacked for its coarseness, gutter realism and degrading, immoral, irreverent qualities. It was banned by the Library Committee of Concord, Mass., among other places, and deemed totally unsuitable for young people.
Twain found it amusing that they would ban Huck and leave around such a suggestive work as the Bible, with its tales of adultery, prostitution, murder, slavery and other assorted sins and brutalities.
"The truth is," he said later, "that when a library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and and doesn't anger me."
So right on, Mark Twain School of Fairfax, Va. Now accept your namesake's advice and take the next necessary step. Ban the Bible!