- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 15, 2002

They used to burn books outright, whole bonfires of them. Or ban them in Boston. Or keep an elaborate Index of forbidden books.

Now they've come up with something worse, for it's more subtle. They've found a way, these literary vandals, of appropriating an author's name and authority and even his work by gutting it. By cutting out the flavor and texture and details, they can reduce literature to a pale imitation thereof.

No wonder children and other innocents exposed only to the bowdlerized version of some great work of art wonder what's so great about it. They may think that's all there is to it.

When did I first notice this kind of thing was getting out of hand? I think it was at a banquet honoring a lovely lady for her many contributions to the community. In her gracious acceptance speech, the honoree quoted Edmund Burke, which is always a good idea, but this was a slightly trimmed and edged Burke, one in keeping with the gender-free language of the characterless times.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil," the lady quoted him as saying, "is for good people to do nothing."

An alarm bell rang in the back of my mind. What Burke had actually said (in a letter to William Smith on Jan. 9, 1795) was: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Men, not people. Here was another small sacrifice to the gods of political correctitude. A small thing, you might say, just a one-word change. An innocent slip. Not if it's repeated again and again. Not if author after author is denatured.

Look at what's happened to New York's once widely respected Regents Exam, which used to set the national standard when it came to statewide tests for graduating high school seniors. The mother of a student, who had been an English major herself, ran across a text on the Regents English exam that didn't sound right. Something had been left out.

When she examined other texts, they, too, had been expurgated. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chekhov, William Maxwell, Elie Wiesel all had been cut and trimmed.

She found that over the past three years, on at least 10 high school English exams, the words of the authors had been altered. Why? The reason is evident when you note the phrases that were stricken out:

"Man, who was created in God's image, wants to be free as God is free: free to choose between good and evil, love and vengeance, life and death." Elie Wiesel in his essay, "What Really Makes Us Free."

"Whoa they're not getting married after all. She's gay. And you had no idea." Ann Lamott in "Bird by Bird."

Anything Jewish is stripped from Isaac Bashevis Singer's writing, though his Jewishness is at the core of everything he wrote. You might as well try to cut the Catholicism out of Walker Percy.

A portion of Ann Dillard's memoir, "An American Childhood," about the visits of a white child to a library in the black part of town is shorn of any mention of race, even though the point of the whole passage is what she learned when she crossed the color line.

A news story in Sunday's New York Times supplies other details of this systematic mutilation. The approved texts, it concludes, "had been sanitized of virtually any reference to race, religion, ethnicity, sex, nudity, alcohol, even the mildest profanity and just about anything that might offend someone for some reason."

In short, students are asked to write essays about the meaning of certain texts after much of the meaning has been edited out.

God save us from these educantists; there is nothing they won't mess with.

The censors follow something called Sensitivity Review Guidelines, which are designed to rule out the flavor, texture, sound and maybe the essence of the passages selected for the test.

What excuse can there be for this practice?

According to one official, the aim is to avoid making students "uncomfortable in a testing situation." As if the function of literature were to make the reader comfortable, rather than oblige us to re-examine comfortable old assumptions and confront new truths.

Past, present, future all are cheated by this kind of literary vandalism. The integrity of the past is compromised. Students in the present are deprived of the real thing. And the future may inherit only a diluted version of what has gone before.

Who is most ill-served by this kind of censorship? Maybe it is the censors themselves. By sacrificing the integrity of the word, they give the next generation moral permission to distort their meaning, their vision of the truth.

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