Dunderheads 1, Irony 0

Atrios cites Jonah Goldberg’s utter misunderstanding of a Mark Twain letter on censorship as evidence for the proposition that conservatives as a class are so without a sense of humor as to make themselves ridiculous.

Atrios certainly has Goldberg’s number; Goldberg, in making an argument about censorship of materials intended to be viewed by children, cites the following letter written by Mark Twain to a librarian who appealed for his help against a proposal to deny children access to Huckleberry Finn:

Nov. 21, ’05.

Dear Sir, — I am greatly troubled by what you say. I wrote Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn for adults exclusively, & it always distresses me when I find that boys & girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this by my own experience, & to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean, sweet breath again this side of the grave.

Most honestly do I wish that I could say a softening word or two in defense of Huck’s character since you wish it, but really, in my opinion, it is no better than those of Solomon, David, & the rest of the sacred brotherhood.

If there is an unexpurgated in the Children’s Department, won’t you please help that young woman remove Tom & Huck from that questionable companionship?

Goldberg’s astonishing commentary on this:

…Mark Twain himself wanted his book banned from some libraries … Now, I’m not in favor of pulling Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn from libraries, but let’s at least give a small nod to the fact that some material actually can be banned from libraries without the sky falling.

Of course, the irony here is so broad that none of my usual readers needs it explicated, but just in case Jonah Goldberg or one of his readers might be reading this perhaps I should unpack the argument for him. Twain is pointing out that the arguments made in favor of censorship in the name of traditional values would result in banning the Holy Bible, which many regard as the very root of those values. Ergo, censorship is a bad idea.

[UPDATE Goldberg concedes that “It’s entirely possible that Twain was being sarcastic.” And it’s also, I suppose, at least within the realm of possibility that the Pope says mass. Incredible!]

“Ha ha,” I hear you say. “Typical. Dumb dittoheads. No sense of humor at all.”

Not so fast. No doubt you, dear reader, are aware that Plato was an advocate of censorship, believing that his young “guardians” should be brought up hearing only martial music and bombastic patriotic poetry. So we were taught by Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper.

But now take a look, if you will, at Republic II, 376c-385. Plato’s Socrates, talking to a group of young intellectual conservatives, has no problem convincing them that censorship of reading material for the young is a good thing. He then immediately introduces as examples Homer and Hesiod, the closest thing to canonical sacred texts known to Athenian society, and they’re so thick they just keep saying “Yes, Socrates.”

It’s the very same joke Mark Twain made, and for two millennia now people a lot smarter than Jonah Goldberg have been reading Plato’s irony as if it were sober prescription. What makes this misreading even more astonishing is that Plato, later in the same text, makes a famous claim that the ideal polity would ban dramatic poetry altogether, and does so in a dialogue, a species of dramatic poetry.

As I was taught this material by Paul Desjardins, the ironies go much deeper, starting with the fact that the polity constructed in the dialogue is not in fact the city that embodies justice, but instead a luxurious city to meet the luxurious taste of Glaucon and his rich, idle friends. (372c-375). The “guardians” — not, in the text, rulers, but warriors — are necessary only because the city-in-speech being built is unlimited in its desire for wealth, and therefore will fall into conflict with its similarly intemperate neighbors.

Personally, I can’t imagine writing or speaking without the use of irony in its various degrees, starting with the sarcastic “r-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ght!” and moving up the scale of subtlety. But the warning is there. Even a supreme literary artist — which Plato undoubtedly was — proved unable to overcome the natural thick-headedness of his readers, and wound up being identified with the very position he was satirizing. “Against stupidity, the gods themselves contend in vain.”

UPDATE here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com