Out, Darned Spot!

times-bowdler

In 1807, Thomas Bowdler published The Family Shakespeare, “in which nothing is added to the original text; but those words and expressions are omitted which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family.” And no, the famous line isn’t changed to “Out, darned spot!” but rather “Out, crimson spot!” which in fact is a bit of an improvement to the original text as it makes it perfectly clear to younger people that Lady Macbeth is referring to the king’s blood.

There are two major editions of The Family Shakespeare; the first one was largely or entirely the product of Harriet Bowdler and omitted a few plays (Romeo and Juliet chief among them) entirely because they could not be thoroughly sanitized without becoming incomprehensible. It was published anonymously, because Harriet did not think it appropriate for women to have their names on a public document. For the second edition, Dr. Thomas Bowdler put his name on the book and reversed some of Harriet’s more enthusiastic changes, in addition to restoring the deleted plays. Readers who are curious about the Bowdlers and the critical response to The Family Shakespeare can read more here.

As with Rudolf Diesel, society has paid Thomas Bowdler the supreme compliment of lower-casing him; one can occasionally read that something was “bowdlerized”, meaning that it has had the offensive (or exciting) content removed. The massive changes in social norms over the past fifty years means that we’ve changed what and how we bowdlerize; today we focus more on violence than sex, where the Greatest Generation censored sex more than violence.

The newest chapter in Dr. Bowdler’s legacy, however, isn’t about sex or violence; it’s about a word.


The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn is one of those rare books that’s been censored by both conservative and progressive activists. Upon its publication, it was often kept out of children’s hands because it was considered morally dangerous. In this era, it’s not the message that offends, but the words. One word in particular.

This word has to be referred to in this blog as “the N-word” because I’d like to keep my job. Note that I could write “fuck” and all the rest on this blog without suffering any job penalties. I could make fun of Christianity or Jesus. I could write all manner of obscenity and filth. But the “N-word” is sacred. It is the one word that a human being cannot say in polite society, although the various historical epithets for homosexuals, including “homosexual”, are gradually joining it. To say it is to render yourself unemployable, destitute. If you say it and are physically attacked or even killed, the media will say that you had it coming.

So we’re not gonna say it here. And we are not going to let Mark Twain say it, either. An increasing number of school districts are banning the book and others that contain the word. Never mind that the primary purpose of Twain’s book (and of To Kill A Mockingbird, another book that comes in for the same criticism) is to elevate the humanity of African-Americans and whites alike. The word itself has magic power.

There is a new version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn coming out. The editors have replaced the magic word with the word “slave”. I’d suggest that is problematic in and of itself; it reinforces the ridiculous and ignorant idea that slavery is somehow uniquely connected to African-Americans, when in fact slavery was business as usual for the entire world all the way into the nineteenth century and it victimized everybody from the Chinese to the Greeks. But the most logical substitution, “black”, probably wouldn’t satisfy everyone. It’s now racist to call people “black”. You could try “African-American”, but that strains the bounds of credulity to think of Huck Finn even saying “African-American”. So “slave” it is.

The new edition’s editors, like Dr. Bowdler, plead the case that they are trying to save Huck Finn, not kill him; that many young people will now have a chance to read something that they otherwise would be forbidden. Twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, I would have called this hypocritical and despicable. I’m afraid that I no longer feel that way.

Censorship is a vile and disgusting practice — when it is aimed at adults. It was ridiculous that D.H. Lawrence was prosecuted for obscenity; it is unfortunate that John Updike had to alter the early versions of Rabbit, Run. It is equally repugnant that you can now get fired or shunned for writing the “N-word” or expressing unpopular sentiments regarding various Beings Of Light and/or protected classes in American society. If there is a true Enlightenment to come in the future, no doubt its beneficiaries will have equal contempt for the Spanish Inquisition and the Gawker Media Group.

Applied to children, on the other hand, censorship is a feature, not a bug. There is far too much in our modern media culture that is not appropriate or healthy for children, particularly with regard to sex and its various deviations. We may protect our precious snowflakes from having to hear the N-word from Mark Twain, but they will hear it a million times from rappers. I may be #PornEducated according to my Lulu review but today’s teenagers truly are porn-educated. How can we expect the next generation to form healthy relationships when they are constantly bombarded with violent, degrading pornography from one corner and social-justice consent/rape garbage from the other?

The most obscene thing we do to our children, however, is to expose them to the relentless, addictive derangement of electronic devices and social networking. Yeah, I played a lot of video games as a child; more than most, as I was able to cajole my father into getting me an Atari 800 before my teens. But I also went outside, rode my bike, had actual experiences in the actual real world. “Screen time” isn’t real time. Not to children.

I don’t let my son watch television while the sun is up, and if there’s an alternative to playing a tablet or a video game I usually force him to take it. Twenty years from now, I’m sure John will tell one of his side pieces that “my jerk of a father was always making me go outside and ride an actual gas-powered motorcycle when all I wanted to do was curl up on the couch and play Minecraft.” Sorry, kid.

Perhaps we need Dr. Bowdler to return, to replace iPads with baseball gloves and Facebook with long bikes to nowhere. But what we truly need is a return of Dr. Bowdler’s mindset: that children are gifts from God, that their souls should be guarded with the same effort we devote to their physical safety, that the best way to grow a flower is not to dump a ton of brine on it from a truck but rather to water it carefully and in a timely fashion. In other words, we should let children be children, not burden them with the soggy, rotten detritus of our twisted and perverse society. There will be time enough for that when they are older. Censor if you will, bowdlerize if you must, but educate if you can and protect at all costs. Who cares if the spot is damned or crimson?

34 Replies to “Out, Darned Spot!”

  1. Orenwolf

    Our parents thought walkmans and portable radios would be the end of the world, too.

    the non-declarative-statement version of that reality is twofold: 1) Children are going to be entering an adulthood none of us (no, not even us techy types) are either adequately prepared for, nor can we prepare them for and 2) studies out there are mostly inconclusive, because this shit is all too new.

    Plus, you have to consider definitions of worse: Is the (probably hypothetical) kid who spends 100% of his leisure time outdoors and doesn’t know what the internet is likely to be fostering a healthy adulthood? What about the kid who spends all his leisure time outdoors in organized sports, only to find that – shock – he’s not good enough to actually turn any of that into a career? Physically they are probably better off (sports injuries aside I guess), but what about in terms of earning potential or socialization in general? And, which of those should actually be more important to a parent?

    I’m sure the answer, like so many other things, comes down to “moderation” but that’s a copout too, because what *is* moderation in these circumstances?

    I don’t envy parents these choices, but I do take solace that we mostly seem to work ourselves out in the end, provided we weren’t single-tasked or sheltered too much.

    The American Academy of Pediatrics has finally come out with some recommendations, though, at least for younger children: http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/10/pediatricians-revise-thinking-on-screen-time-ditch-ban-for-kids-under-2/

  2. Tomko

    Since the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis we have been living witnesses to the fall of western civilization.

    Professional sports, pornography and cheap food have displaced religion as Marx’s oft-quoted opiates.

    As we continue the decline we will look to strong men to turn the tide and return us to the fabled greatness of our past. They will not be successful: but Shakespeare, Twain and Lee will endure.

  3. viper32cm

    Hear, Hear, Jack, well said. This is something that I’ve been struggling with for a while as my wife and I are hoping to be parents in a year or so. I’ve gone so far as to propose that we just declare it to be sometime in the 80s and 90s, i.e., some electronic devices but no massive connectivity. I have enough vintage computer equipment to make it believable, but then I realize I’d turn our lives into that shitty M. Night Shyamalan movie “The Village.”

    “The most obscene thing we do to our children, however, is to expose them to the relentless, addictive derangement of electronic devices and social networking. Yeah, I played a lot of video games as a child; more than most, as I was able to cajole my father into getting me an Atari 800 before my teens. But I also went outside, rode my bike, had actual experiences in the actual real world. “Screen time” isn’t real time. Not to children.”

    I did too, but I think our “screen time” is a lot different than their “screen time.” You had to work to make your Atari 800 work and had to apply a lot of problem solving and comprehension skills. You had to know what you were doing to program in BASIC, operate the archaic disc or tape storage systems, etc. And it didn’t get much better when we moved to DOS-based systems. I remember working for what seemed like days to properly edit config.sys and autoexec.bat files to make sure I had enough conventional memory just so I could play Falcon 3.0. Today, technology just works without much assistance and certainly without any need to look under the proverbial “hood.”

    Also, while I know kids still play at lot of video games, I think what we did with our old 8-bit computers and early 16 and 32-bit machines was more inline with traditional play. I played “cops and robbers” or “allies vs iraqis” on the playground. When I got home, I used my computer to play out my fantasies of being a F-16 pilot or learned a ton about WWI and WWII playing the various flight sims and strategy games that were out there. The opportunity for navel gazing on social media just wasn’t there, and I think that makes a difference.

    I still have my old Tandy Color Computer 3, and, if I can help it, I’d like my kids first experience with computers to be through that old beast. “Ok. Type “10 PRINT ‘HELLO WORLD’ and then type ‘RUN’ Congrats, you’re a computer programmer. Let’s see what else we can do.”

    • Robert

      Agreed. My boys are 10 and 12. I don’t often explicitly set limits on their screen time, but I have always encouraged them to do things outside as well, usually with me…most of what they learn is caught rather than taught (forget where I heard that). And they both have written BASIC on my original, still working Commodore 64. We also ride dirt bikes, race go-karts, go stargazing, one plays the flute in band, the other is on a basketball league. I’ve built a miniature bmx + skate park in my back yard, to the extreme annoyance of my suburban neighbors and all the “stranger danger” moms up and down the street.

      They play plenty of video games too. Get involved and they will follow your lead, usually 😉 Your kids will be lucky to have you as a parent.

  4. BC

    I have mixed feelings. Part of me says to pick and choose what’s useful, so I buy stuff from Amazon and read Wikipedia, but leave Facebook and social media alone. The other part says the world will eventually force its way into everything so we’ll just be brains in jars and there will be no distinguishing what’s “real” and what isn’t, so we might as well accept it.

    I hadn’t read that Lulu article from last year. Hilarious.

    Also, your Mazda article was just sent out. I recognized that beard.

  5. ArBee

    My comment should be taken with a grain of salt, because I was John’s age in 1959, and technology has seen to it that the rules of that time no longer apply. Still, I cringe when I see the young wasting these precious years gazing into a device of some kind. Youth is for doing those things that you will not be able to do in later years, whether it’s hitting your first homer, challenging your best friend to a foot race or just imbibing the sweet sounds and smells that only the very young notice. Ruining your eagle eyes by peering hour upon hour into some machine? What a hideous waste of your fleeting youth.

  6. Mental

    So much of this is also parental driven. I constantly tell my students to stay of their phones, at least one per class. But all to often the student is replying to a text by a parent.These parents demand instant responses from their offspring and find the answer “I was in class.” as unacceptable.When children are being picked up early, more than 80% of the time, they simply text their child and expect them to walk to the front of the school. They show me the text; “Can I go?”

    No. Have them get out of the car an sign you out in accordance with the procedures, then the front office will call me via the intercom (still have them) and I will release you. The huff I get from the teen pales by comparison to some of the hissy fits I have watched parent have when asked to actually leave their vehicle.

    Its not the kids who are always entitled, its the parents who believe their every whim should be indulged and the children are reflecting that.

    While working parking at a school football game, I have parent that want our drop off spot moved because their student athletes have to walk “too far.” I have had parents attempt to intimidate 14 year old cadets with oversized crew cab trucks because they don;t want to drive an extra 200 ft and I had a parent complain they had driven to one lot and then had to drive to another. I do not exaggerate to say I was standing in the rain during this rant.

    I replied; “I’m sorry, I am a public school teacher standing in a parking lot on a Friday night, are you feeling unappreciated?”

  7. Pete Dushenski

    Using “Nigerian” or “Negro” is pretty effective in raising libertard eyebrows without “the community” granting them permission to burn you at the stake. It’s pretty precious watching them squirm as you utter that first syllable only to slip through the sidedoor of their hilariously simplistic “I R OFFENDED” algo.

    No idea why “Kike” or “WOP” or “Slant” or whatever never took the mainstream attention and attendant vitriol to the same level, but we have to leave some mysteries for historians I guess. The reemergence of the appellation “coloured” after some two generations of it being political incorrect will surely amuse future generations as well.

    • Will

      Always love how “Negro” is really just the spanish word for black, so if you want to use it, just speak a few spanish words before you say anything. People aren’t very bright when it comes to this.

        • Pete Dushenski

          Lel. It’s not even clear to me that the “problem” with being “racist” is in any capacity diminished by saying “n-word.” After all, the point of words is to convey meaning, to draw a picture in the listeners head of what you’re imagining through an agreed upon sequence of breaths, lingual, and vocal cord manipulations. So when I say “n-word,” you still think “nigger,” yet somehow I’ve tripped no imaginary landmines, said nothing doubleplusungood, and I’ll still go to heaven, or so the theory of ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand “morality” goes.

          Anyways, it’s in no way, shape, or form clear that words can themselves be racist in the first place. Last I checked it was actions that could unjustly discriminate based on skin colour, gender, etc., and the chasm between words and actions is exactly that between theory and practise, which is again exactly why you don’t want a University Economics professor for a portfolio adviser. He’ll show you his fancy mathematical model and advise that you bet on Hillary 2016!

          Last but not least, discrimination is how we tell the poison berries from the healthy berries. It’s more than natural, it’s essential for survival and prosperity. It’d be impossibly expensive to live without heuristics, to judge each individual on their own merits in every and all circumstances. We simply have to make some assumptions lest we never make it past the end of our own driveways in the morning.

  8. Apuleius

    God forbid we converse with our children and address life’s hard things. Never mind looking our various histories directly in the face to understand how things were and how they got to be the way they are now.

  9. ComfortablyNumb

    Excellent, Jack. Particularly germane too, since I’m reading this as I hold my napping 8-month-old daughter while the older kids practice for the school Nativity play.

  10. -Nate-Nate

    I wonder what brought this on ~ I bet there’s an interesting story behind it .

    I agree fully, my Teenaged Fioster Boys always tell me i’m the only Adult who talks to them about reality instead of the parade of foolishness so many Parents give these days .

    I am *SO* glad I’m not a Teenager in these times .

    -Nate

  11. jz78817

    This is what you get when people have kids because “it’s what you do.” I think many people put way more thought into buying a TV or a phone.

    It’s not like it’s new, either, just different forms. Here we chuck a digital pacifier into their hands so they shut up and don’t bother us. In the past Brits with the means shipped their kids off to boarding school because raising your own children was for peasants. Amazes me how many parents treat their kids as toys or pets; useful when they want to parade them around and show off, but content to lock them away when they’re “inconvenient.”

  12. Tim

    Sometimes I wonder if we do us all a disservice by not using the n-word. After all, the people to whom it refers use it constantly. You see it everywhere, in film, in music, but the word itself is only “allowed” to be used by that one slice of society.

    That in itself ought to be deemed racist. For us all to use it must surely make it less racist.

  13. link3721

    Excellent post, well written. My wife and I have been more proactive in making sure we show our kids a good example with limiting screen time. I think the social media stuff is worse than things like video games though. Social media is too much about showing off for others. Video games are about having fun and giving the brain a workout (with the right games).

  14. Daniel

    Agreed on the general sentiment that children should be able explore freely in an age-appropriate environment with a focus on preserving their innocence.

    I don’t understand your conclusion that Huck Finn should be sanitized though. I didn’t read Huck Finn until late high school, and the language was part of the lesson. At what age would you expect someone in public school to read the book?

    • jz78817

      the notion of “childhood innocence” is part of the problem. kids are naive and unlearned. Watch how they bully and shred each other at school and come back here and say how “innocent” they are.

    • Jack BaruthJack Baruth Post author

      I think the issue is that the “N-word” is now unacceptable at all levels of society. So it’s not a case of kids having to wait for high school. Until it’s edited, they won’t have a chance to read it at all.

  15. Domestic Hearse

    I’m a dreadful parent. My white kid made friends with an African-American kid from equally bad parents.

    As these teenaged girls passed each other in the school hallway, they’d loudly say:

    “Whassup my crackah?”

    “Whassup my niggah?

    In earshot of faculty, staff and fellow students. Perhaps they both were tired of being bowdlerized, and were making a statement about what actually gives power to words. Or they enjoyed sticking their fingers in the eye of authority, and liked to watch the adults squirm for once.

    • -Nate-Nate

      Oh the HORROR ! .
      .
      My once young Son actually_dated_ some Black Girls when he was in his Teens ~ he also dated Chines, Japanese and some wild Chicanas too =8-) .
      .
      In the end he married an Irish Girl with lovely green/gray eyes .
      .
      -Nate

  16. DirtRoads

    I was about 10 years old, back in the late 60s, when I first read Huck Finn. Didn’t affect me in the least, but then again, I was 10 years old in the 60s. There were far more serious things going on then, like oh I dunno, Viet Nam, hippies, then a few years later a student getting shot at Kent State, blacks looking for “civil rights” (whatever that was) getting firehosed in Georgia, that kind of thing.

    We said “eeny meeny miney moe, catch a nigger by the toe…” and nobody thought anything of it. I’m glad there’s more of an awareness of offensive language, but like many things, it gets taken too far. When a black man or woman can call me a cracker it’s OK, but if I call him or her a nigger, I’m ostracized and castigated. Fuck that. What’s good for the good is good for the gander, is the old saying.

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