Sanctity of Published Work

Unlike writers who work for the stage, screen or television, published authors have the security of knowing that their books will forever remain the same, the purest form of expression untouched by others.

Until now.

We are living at a time when certain groups have sprung up who serve as surrogate word police, alerting publishers of words or images from past books that should be changed to reflect today’s sensibilities.

First there was the cleansing of Dr. Seuss books in 2021 whose books have sold more than 700 million copies.  The estate of Ted Geisel (Seuss) expunged six of his 60 books due to racial stereotypes.  The only way to find them is at a library or by buying overpriced used books.

People easily forget that during the time when these artifacts were created, they were acceptable in that society.  When understanding history, one is supposed to see it through the eyes of those who lived during that time period, not the present time.

The most recent children’s author under attack (by the way, why children’s literature is the epicenter of such scrutiny is anyone’s guess) is Roald Dahl, another popular author with more than 300 million books sold.

Among the hundreds of changes, Augustus Gloop from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the boy who gorged himself on chocolate and ended up falling into a river of chocolate, will no longer be described as “fat” but “enormous.”  By the way, “fat” and “enormous” are not exact synonyms. 

Also, the Oompa-Loompas will be called “small people” instead of “small men.”

What triggered this whitewashing of Dahl was Netflix which owns some of his titles and is interested in dramatizing them for their streaming service.  That’s when Inclusive Minds, one of the word police groups, combed through Dahl’s works and found offensive material.

The group emphatically denies on their website that they “do not edit or rewrite text,” yet this is exactly what results from their findings..  Such irony is one Dahl would have relished if he were alive today.

Unlike the Dr. Seuss situation, a compromise was recently announced by Puffin who publishes Dahl’s books.   Due to the intense pressure of notable people like author Salman Rushdie, who himself has been a victim of censorship, and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who said that “works of literature [should be] preserved and not airbrushed,” Puffin will continue publishing the original versions as well as the censored version.

This reminds me of what happened back in 2011, when a version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published with the N-word replaced with the word “slave.”  The earthquake of such a controversy rippled through op-ed pieces across the country.  However, the original version was never threatened, and continues being published today.

If there is material in a book from the past, the wrong way to deal with it is to erase it as if it never existed.  Instead, use the offensive material as teachable moments.

That’s what I did when teaching Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  The villainous thief Fagin is a Jewish stereotype.  Dickens mostly ignores using his name, dehumanizing him by referring to him as the Jew.  A Jewish acquaintance of Dickens pointed this out to him and so, on his own volition, he went back and removed most of those references.

Sharing this story with my students opens up an opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism.  However, we still read, study and discuss his important novel which mainly focuses on society turning a blind eye to childhood poverty—an issue that still resonates nearly 200 years later.

When I taught literature, I would get my students excited at the notion that Charles Dickens is talking to them from 150 years ago.  This is how he saw his world, a vision that was captured and forever sealed.  There are no video or audio recordings of his voice.  The vocabulary and sentence structure represent his voice.

And now strangers from another century want to alter author’s voices.

I was watching an old Dick Cavett show with Groucho Marx from 1971. The two were talking about the word “lady” and how inappropriate some felt it was, especially those in the Women’s Liberation movement.  “Woman” was considered a more appropriate word to use. 

Today, however, “woman” has become a dirty word for some, to be replaced with “they” to eliminate any whiff of gender.  Who knows what people will think of “they” come 2073? 

If one must examine every artifact from the past and judge it on current trends, then put a disclaimer next to the item, but leave the original work alone, as is. 

I see much to criticize in our culture today.  Let’s work on fixing the way we live now.

One can’t change the past, but one can change the present.  That’s where the focus needs to be.

Rants: What is it about . . . ?

What is it about . . .?

What is it about grown adult men in the prime of their life out and about during weekdays as if they have no job?

As a retiree, I’m always surprised to see men in the 20-40 age range at the Y exercising at 9 or 10 in the morning.

Whenever I see men out in public during business hours, I think, “What mischief are these guys up to?”

It makes you wonder how many of them work for organized crime or are scofflaws siphoning off government programs such as welfare and social security disability.

Which leads me to my next “what is it about”:

What is it about today’s economy where unemployment is extremely low yet businesses struggle filling positions? Restaurants, retail stores and supermarkets are under staffed and have been ever since the pandemic. 

I would like to see a study on the percentage of adults are not employed and aren’t seeking employment, and how are they contributing to society in a meaningful way. Some journalist should look into this.

What is it about the electric bicycles known as E-bikes which have taken over the highways, that go as fast as cars, yet require no licensing and no plates?  These are renegades dangerously driving around us without stopping for anything.

Instead of the government looking into outlawing gas lawn mowers and stoves, why no regulations or legislation about a matter like E-bikes which has the potential of raising the already high death rate on the road?

Speaking of gas . . .

What is it about the price of natural gas which has increased to the level of a monthly mortgage payment?

I came as close as I ever have in my life of fainting when I opened my most recent SoCalGas utility bill.  From November’s $179 to December’s $274 to January’s $660—and that’s for two people.  WHAT?!?

While I had read in the newspaper about the spike in the natural gas market, I still wasn’t prepared for that number.

I called the gas company to find out what is going on and got a recording saying that “no one can answer your call right now” and directed me to go to their website.  No email was provided for customers’ concerns.

By the way, nothing on the message mentioned the exorbitant high bills that customers across the Southland are receiving.

When I went to their website, I was anticipating a banner across the screen saying something like, “We understand you almost had a heart attack when opening your latest gas bill, but let us explain.” 

Instead, one has to hunt around under their “news” tab to find an article about the spike in natural gas prices buried among more trivial articles.

Two weeks ago, I contacted my local state representatives, Assemblymember Laura Friedman and State Senator Anthony Portantino, who have not responded to me at all.  The least they can do is bounce back a form “thank you for your comments.”

The most aggravating thing about this isn’t the money, but the lack of communication on the part of SoCalGas.   How about an insert with everyone’s bill explaining what is happening?  How about acknowledging the outrage customers have by updating the recording on their company phone line?  Instead, you get the sense the attitude is, “Shh, don’t say anything and the problem will go away.”

It makes one want to boycott gas appliances.