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September 23, 2003

Huck Finn & The Turds of Assimilation

In an interesting coincidence, Dean Esmay is blogging about the banning of 'Huckleberry Finn', the socialist agenda of Gramsci and the overmedication of boys. I think the three are related and they as indicators of a certain amount of flabby flatulence in our society, not to mention groupthink.

Over at the YMCA there's a very healthy girl's basketball league. Every weekend, the gym is chockablock with female adolescents whisking back and forth. They run their little plays and pass the ball as best they can in the gym under long banners with the words 'Respect', 'Citizenship', 'Fairness', 'Trustworthiness', 'Responsibility' and 'Caring' ak the six pillars of character. Or rather I should say The Six Pillars. As any parent in a modern suburb must know, the Six Pillars are the copyrighted brainchild of the Character Counts organization, one of those stupendous civic organizations deToqueville admired of Americans.

Over at our local elementary school, there are no such banners. You see, since they are members of Character Counts, they are prohibited from going to the local flag store and have such banners made up. Instead they must buy them from Character Counts at something like $300 a piece. I know this because my wife suggested that the PTA save money by going to the local flag store, and the principal rejected the idea. This demostrates a conflict between Fairness and Trustworthiness. Is it more important that children have banners or that Character Counts makes a buck for their monopoly on values?

I bring this up because Americans' affiliation with civic organizations and general do-gooderism is often in conflict with common sense. And there are few activities that require the use of common sense than parenting. (I shudder to say 'parenting' because it makes it sound like a skill that can be improved by a few night school classes and membership in a civic organization). But you get my drift. Tending the Nuke (nuclear family) is a very important job, but by definition, it is something that is best taught by other families. It takes one to grow one, and not necessarily a 'village'. Part of being Old School is the implicit understanding of Family First (and feel free to make your own banners, we're fair here.) Which means sometimes you do things out of respect for a family tradition and value which isn't necessarily codified into the mission statement of some 501(c)3.

So when it comes to raising boys and girls, a parent has to rely on their gut and their extended families and other parents in their communities. Moreover, society needs parents to do just that. Parents need to rely on each other to do right and exemplify doing right. So how can it be that we get to a point at which we need to spend $300 to have an organization sell a concept to a public school to reinforce something that families ought to know? Well, there are good and bad reasons.

The bad reasons have to do with a long history of being brutally oppressive to people because of their families. If your family is named Wong, chances are (ha, chances are..) you will have a loaf of turds put on your plate called 'assimilation'. You want to be an American? Eat this, it's good for you. Forget your family traditions, you in America now boy.

The good reasons have to do with our motivation, once we establish something of value and permanence, to share our success with others. To build an open and free society means to build a strong commons. It means retaining a foundation against the frailties of human beings. Because when peril is near, anyone, indeed everyone is vulnerable.

The problem is that these motivations metastacize when they are institutionalized. What is simple bigotry one old immigrant family against the new takes on a whole new sinister dimension when a union is the bigot. What begins as a pledge to uphold virtue and value from one family's largesse becomes something entirely different when pledges and credos become ritualized. But none of this is so scary as when one of those institutions for good or bad reasons begin to replace the thinking of the people it was designed to serve. An institution should serve a reminder, not serve a whole plate of thought. An institution should nudge us forward, not make us march in step.

So when specialized institutional knowledge starts to creep up on common sense, that's when my neck hairs stand up. And this is exactly what I see in the overmedication of boys, and the copyrighting of character values and the subordination of family honor to institutional fidelity.

I started this piece to go on about boyhood, and in particular the boyhood of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and what it meant for them to buck the system and think for themselves. But I reason that if you understand what I've said up to this point, there's nothing I can say that Mark Twain hasn't. I just want to draw our attention to the conflicts inherent in trying to make the world safe.

The world will never be safe, so let our children develop their own wits. Let's try to keep our about us and employ them with honor without deferring so readily to those turds that are supposed to be good for us.

Posted by mbowen at September 23, 2003 12:29 PM

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The banning of any Mark Twain book is ridiculous from JohnHays.net
I've heard through the years many reasons for banning various writings of Mark Twain. I'm not a great believer in banning books and banning books by Mark Twain is absurd. Cobb has an opinion about many things, maybe even about Mark Twain and Huckleberr... [Read More]

Tracked on September 23, 2003 07:51 PM

On Institutional Values from aldahlia
"Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management... [Read More]

Tracked on September 25, 2003 09:04 PM


Addendum: It was never Huck Finn for me. I was uncomfortable with the Nicky Cruz and David Wilkerson school of literature. Robert Lipsyte's 'The Contender' was more palatable but it was still all about street gangs and the life of crime. What worked was Flannery O'Connor and Frank Conroy and Richard Wright and Stephen Crane. I think if I was a more rural type, Zora Neale Hurston might have worked for me and I've heard many many stories about 'The Bluest Eye' and 'White Rat'.

I always saw myself as Tom Sawyer, and all my adventures in the 'hood, I guaged against Tom Sawyer, the kid who split the difference between Huck Finn, and cousin Sid the dweeb who finked when Tom unbuttoned his collar.

I've heard the theory that Huck Finn was based on a black kid but that Twain couldn't write him as that, and I've heard that everyone had those mannerisms. It doesn't much matter to me either way.

I like Mark Twain. Always did, always will.

Posted by: Cobb at September 23, 2003 08:22 PM


i checked out the "character counts" website - and you are absolutely correct: $296 for some lousy banners.

but i have some questions.

has "character counts" copywrited these qualities? can't someone at the school run up a bunch of nice big banners on their home printer and post them?

if CC really HAS copywrited these qualiites (hard to believe - but things much harder to believe than this occur every day) - then why can't someone print up banners with "honesty" "equity" "follow through" etc., emblazoned on them?

finally - what is wrong with our society today that we cannot discuss this concepts without having nicely packaged sets of "banners" from CC with which to do it? do these kids every have the opportunity to discuss what the concepts behind these lovely banners REALLY mean? that "respect" means acknowledging differences - and yet having the courage to discuss these differences?

Posted by: peg at September 23, 2003 11:18 PM

Well, there's some kind of deal that the CC folks make with individual schools or the district. What you get is a whole program with guidelines and materials. So in one way it's part of the education business. It works out pretty well, but you could imagine that a creative PTA could come up with exactly the same kind of program. When you buy into it, Caring is red and Responsibility is purple (if I remember correctly). So there are things like classroom materials and awards that are all part of the theme.

At our local school, there is an awards ceremony each month and kids are awarded for the theme of the month: Citizenship for example. So after a while, everybody expects that the CC themes etc. are a regular part of the school. It does make a big difference, and don't get me wrong, I'd rather have it than not have any values emphasized or have them emphasized from a religious perspective in a public school. I'm just rather disappointed that this is something purchased rather than organically grown from the community.

On the other hand, when I look at the demographics and family profiles of where I live, it makes sense that this kind of thing would happen. I miss my old neighborhood.

Another thing that irks me is that there is only one man employed at the entire school, and he's the janitor. But that's a whole other story.

Posted by: Cobb at September 24, 2003 01:44 AM


I went to the website too, unless the other banners are hidden somewhere the $295 is for the organizational banner - not the individual banners (which I don't find for sale). If the school is a member of the organization then (per the website again) they have a license to use CC!'s logos and service marks (see membership page). Is there a possibility that the principal is misinterpreting the membership agreement? I have found that when I deal directly with this type of organization (youth group stuff) they make an effort to accommodate. And I never take a bureaucrat's word for anything without seeing documentaion.

Twain is great and so is Native Son but I never got much out of Flannery O'Connor - too dark. Did you read Heinlein as a kid? O'Henry remains a favorite with me - always a nice twist to finish a story.

Posted by: RDB at September 24, 2003 10:47 AM