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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Operation Huck Finn

Sometimes, it's interesting how seemingly unrelated events in the news arrive from different angles and practically SCREAM to be joined together to make a point, if only people were paying attention. Such is the case with these stories from the past two weeks:

Cleaning Up Huckleberry Finn -- Alabama publisher NewSouth Books, Inc. announced plans in January 2011 to publish an updated edition of Mark Twain's classic novel, with all 239 instances of the N-word replaced with the word "slave." The new edition renewed a decades old debate about the value of Twain's language in making the point of the book versus the angst produced by the raw language in modern classrooms for students and teachers alike. (see #1)

America's New Libyan Adventure -- President Obama commits American military resources to establish and support a no-fly zone, making the theatre safe for a rag-tag band of "rebels" to establish a new pax-democracy using nothing but 30-year old Toyota pickup trucks and a few semi-automatic weapons and shoulder-fired missiles. (see #2)

Corporate America Begs for a Tax Holiday Before Repatriating Overseas Earnings -- In the same week that stories of how General Electric not only paid no US federal income taxes for 2010, but actually received a credit for over $3 billion dollars, 60 Minutes took the time to visit the "corporate headquarters" of a few US firms -- in a sleepy little town named Zug in Switzerland -- which allow those firms to pay only 16 percent on major portions of their income rather than the American tax rate of 35 percent. An interview with Cisco CEO John Chambers featured a plea for special "tax holiday" legislation that might tempt firms such as Cisco to bring back hundreds of billions in profits. The key word there is probably "might." (see #3 and #4)

America Remembers a Deadly Milestone in Labor Relations -- Well, sort of. New York City marked the one hundredth anniversary of a deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City that killed 146 workers locked in their factory by management that provided momentum to a labor movement that eventually improved safety for ALL workers. At the same time, many other Americans and pundits continued piling on union labor as one of a few key contributors to all that ails the country. This despite the fact that labor only accounts for 8% of the total US workforce and that many state and local budget issues stem from a collapse in property tax collections caused by the financial crisis and fraud, something produced entirely by Wall Street banks and non-existent regulatory oversight. (see #4)

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Probably top on my list of concerns about America is the sheer number of people who are not only ignorant -- of basic finance, of technology, of how the government is supposed to work and what a government is for, or about history and religion -- but PROUD of being ignorant. The origins and rationalization of that pride may vary. They might stem from some sense of religous spirituality that evolved to a point where faith supersedes logic and facts. They might stem from a cynical attempt at populism and a desire to avoid the appearance of "putting on airs". In many cases, they might just reflect the path of least resistance --- bein' ignert's just a lot less work, after all.

Regardless of the origins, the results wind up the same. This is the ignorance that produces ideas like:

AIDS is God's curse on gays. (Uh, noooo, it's a condition resulting from an infection by a virus that kills key defenses against infections humans can normally defeat with ease.)

I'm rich because God chose me. (Uh, that's possible but it's equally possible your fortune is really the result of a few fortunate decisions amid a larger financial bubble and your "prosperity Gospel" belief that God chose you to be wealthy and chose your neighbor to be poor is really after-the-fact rationalization for being in the right financial place at the right financial time.)

A zero-down ARM for a $500,000 house with only $80,000 in income is safe cuz home prices always go up. My real estate agent told me. (Uh, how can home prices continually rise when incomes are flat and productivity is nearly flat? Where are all those dollars being used to pay those ever-growing mortgage payments coming from if not actual hours worked? DEBT. And hey, dummy, your real estate agent could care less if you default on your mortgage six months later. As long as you close, they collect their commission and are out of the equation.)

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Rather than some new military "Operation Odyssey Dawn" in Libya to defend some indirect principle of freedom, America would be better off pursuing a project we'll call "Operation Huck". At $10.00 per copy, Operation Huck would cost a mere $3.07 billion (the cost of about six days of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan) and provide The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in its unabridged full glory to EVERY CITIZEN who would be required to read the original text cover to cover. The purpose of the operation would not involve forcing everyone to read a book with "the N-word" in it. Instead, the mission of the operation would be for all Americans to reach the climax of the book at the same time and maybe enable the collective "ah ha" moment we so desperately need.

The common analysis of Huck Finn cites Twain's use of dialect and frequent use of the N-word as literary devices in service of the following dependent series of goals:

A) truly capturing the level of education and sophistication (and lack thereof) of the mid-1800s American population

B) capturing the particular ignorance of the protagonist in the story, Huck, using the literary device of the naive narrator that tricks the reader into thinking ahead of the narrator

C) using a and b to heighten the tension around Huck's gradual realization of the humanity of slaves and the inhumanity of those who kept them, despite their genteel social veneer

D) bringing it all together at the point where a confused little boy thinks he's committing a sin that will damn him to Hell as he finally agrees to help Jim escape when in fact he's doing the moral thing but has been so twisted by his religion and upbringing that he is morally disoriented

E) thus depicting for American readers the true nature of the country's "original sin" and the problems that must be faced with race relations -- if an ignert 10 year old boy can figure out the real truth, surely the rest of us should be able to

In hindsight, I think Huckleberry Finn can be abstracted one more level beyond the moral issue of slavery and its damage to the country. Twain's masterpiece has survived because it's really a universal cautionary tale of the dangers of willful ignorance in any realm -- with slavery just as an example in a period piece setting. Willful ignorance seems to be America's lasting "original sin."

Do Americans think roads pave themselves? Do Americans think sewers just appear wherever they want a home? Do Americans think fresh water aquifers serving millions of people rebuild themselves after 100 years of service? Do Americans think firefighters just show up for free to risk their lives to stop a fire at your home? Do Americans think doctors magically become brain surgeons by "believing" how to do it? Do Americans think three telecom giants owning all the wires and spectrum and TV networks will tell them that GE buried dioxin in their town? Do Americans really believe it's appropriate for the US to continue loaning out military assets for every natural disaster or "humanitarian" intervention while our friends continue to steal our tax base from under us with artificially low tax rates? Do Americans truly believe that 8% of the total workforce belonging to unions produced the financial meltdown of trillions of dollars in complex, fraudulent financial instruments? Do Americans think no other nations have the financial muscle or political / moral interest to cover the cost of a no-fly zone to topple a terrorist dictator in their own regional backyard? Do Americans think all employers will voluntarily ensure safe working conditions and reasonable work hours while the CEO makes 230 times the average worker?

Maybe America IS the world's one indispensable nation. We're indispensable because we're the sucker. We're the sucker at the table in dealing with our own trans-national, tax-dodging corporate goliaths and the sucker at the table in dealing with the rest of the world community, a community more than willing to let us bankrupt ourselves playing cop on the beat for their regional conflicts while blaming us for desecrating their soil as we do their dirty work.

But everything will be all right. We have "faith." And all of us could be rich someday and don't want to pay high taxes.

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#1) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/18/60minutes/main20044663.shtml?tag=mncol;lst;3

#2) http://dailyherald.com/article/20110402/news/704029870/

#3) http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2011/03/did-ge-really-pay-no-us-taxes-in-2010/73178/

#4) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/03/25/60minutes/main20046867.shtml?tag=mncol;lst;1

#5) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42273592/ns/business-us_business/