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Is Eminem really any worse than Mark Twain?

Geoffrey Christopher Rapp
FindLaw Columnist
Special to CNN.com


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LAW DICTIONARY

(FindLaw) -- Marshall Mathers, aka Eminem, aka Slim Shady, is without question the most prominent entertainer in America. He made Details magazine's "power list" two weeks ago. His autobiopic, "8 Mile," brought in a staggering $54 million in its opening weekend.

Meanwhile, his performance, and well as the music he wrote and performed for the movie, are enjoying a great deal of critical acclaim. Last week, Robin Williams (a Detroit Country Day School graduate) told Conan O'Brien he thought Eminem deserved an Oscar nomination and the right to perform at the Steve Martin-hosted Academy Awards, and many reviewers agree with Williams that Eminem will be a serious Oscar contender.

Eminem is also, as he notes in a rap song, "in trouble with the government." As he further notes, "[t]he FCC ... try to shut me down on MTV."

But if the FCC (the Federal Communications Commission) keeps going after Eminem, it will only be repeating history we'd be better off getting far beyond. The FCC may not be aware of it, but it's nothing new that the most popular man in America is also the most reviled.

The FCC, MTV and even Australia tries to censor Eminem

The FCC has issued several notices threatening to forfeit the licenses of radio stations that have played uncensored versions of Eminem songs.

Pueblo, Colorado's KKMG(FM) was fingered for broadcasting "The Real Slim Shady." And Madison, Wisconsin's WZEE(FM) received a similar warning: " [T]here is nothing about the context of the 'Real Slim Shady' which removes the material from the realm of indecency." (The FCC claims power to censor not only obscene but "indecent" material from the airwaves.)

ABC's Sam Donaldson expressed shock to the commissioner of the FCC that the Commission had taken action against "The Real Slim Shady," but the commissioner has defended his agency's actions. (Check out the lyrics.)

Meanwhile, MTV has censored Eminem too -- deleting from its coverage of its on Video Music Awards an angry faceoff between Eminem and techno-pop artist Moby. Clearly, this material was not censored for lack of viewer interest – the feud between the angry rapper and the mild-manner Vegan has fascinated the press – but for "appropriateness" concerns.

Even more striking, perhaps, the Australian government flirted with denying Marshall Mathers a visa for his concerts this summer in Melbourne and Sydney, after intensive lobbying from a group called "the Australian Family Association."

To gain access to Australia, Mathers was forced to accept a set of conditions that prohibited "vilifying or inciting discord in segments of the Australian community." In short, he was treated like a terrorist sympathizer, or pro-terror propagandist.

Twain, too, was deemed 'indecent' and 'obscene'

This is all eerily familiar. More than a century ago, a young man from Hannibal, MO, by the name of Samuel L. Clemens, published a series of essays and novels under the pseudonym "Mark Twain." His stories—and their memorable boy-heroes Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer—are, of course, considered among the greatest works in American literature. They are also among the most hated.

To this day, censors across the country strive to ban "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" from school and public libraries. ("Huck" is the fifth-most often challenged book in America.)

The objections lodged against "Huck" are many. In the past, "Huck" and other Twain works were challenged as being anti-establishment – promoting deviant river-rafter lifestyles, rather than responsible citizenship.

The modern challenge to "Huck" is usually centered on the book's frequent use of the "n word." One modern rewriter went so far as to "translate" "Huck Finn" for the politically correct reader—removing all offensive racial stereotypes and racial slurs.

But as numerous "Huck" defenders have argued, it is not Twain himself (or Clemens himself), but rather the narrator, Huck Finn, who uses the "n word" to describe Jim and other African-Americans. Twain was trying to capture American vernacular as it actually was, and that included the use of racially offensive terms. Moreover, the novel's message is profoundly anti-racist: It depicts Huck's evolution away from his society's reflexive racism.

Finally, there is some solid literary analysis suggesting the "real" Huck was actually African-American, with his speech patterns based on the way African-Americans of the day spoke – in which case the modern rewriter's effort would be like removing the "n word" from a Snoop Doggy Dogg rap album.

Eminem: The new Mark Twain?

Is Eminem really any worse than Mark Twain? That is, is the shape of the river that different than the shape of 8 mile road?

Eminem's rap music is littered with offensive, and arguably "obscene" words: "bitch," "faggot," "ass," "cock," "clitoris," and, of course, the "n word." But most listeners and government censors have not bothered to distinguish between songs performed as Marshall Mathers, and those performed in the guise of the alter egos Slim Shady and Eminem.

Marshall Mathers raps and sings some songs as himself: For example, "I'm Sorry Momma." In such songs, he never uses the "n word." He does use bad language to describe his family, such as the terms "faggot father" and "bitch." But is this really any worse than, say, the hundreds of pages dedicated to excrement in Thomas Pynchon's much-ballyhooed work of "literature" "Gravity's Rainbow?"

In contrast, Mathers's alter egos employ not only offensive language, but also offensive ideas, such as urinating on the lawn of the White House. Slim Shady and Eminem also curse establishment icons such as Tipper Gore, Lynn Cheney, and President Bill Clinton.

Sexist notions appear as well: Eminem suggests that there is no such thing as a woman "with good looks who cooks and cleans." He also makes fun of tragedy: "How can shit be so easy? How can one Chandra be so Levy?"

Indecent, obscene, or simply a mirror of the world he lives in?

But these offensive concepts and words may not actually be "obscene" in a First-Amendment sense. Eminem may be foul because that's the vernacular of his time and his generation.

The vernacular of hip-hop and rap artists is full of disgusting thoughts and language. So just as Twain had to use such language to capture Reconstruction America in Huck Finn, Eminem must use it capture contemporary angst and anger.

Oscar Wilde once observed, "The public forgives anything but genius." I think the same sentiment more accurately describes the FCC, the Congress, Lynn Cheney and Tipper Gore.

Mark Twain, in "From the Equator," said that there are three kinds of men: "commonplace men," "remarkable men," and "lunatics." As professor John Nash (and Russell Crowe) has taught us, sometimes lunatics are the most remarkable men (and women) around.

Eminem raps, "We need a little controversy/ 'cause it feels so empty without me." It's true, isn't it? Eminem has a function: to provide the FCC with something to fight, and detest.

By the end of his life, Twain was obviously disillusioned with humanity. In "The Mysterious Stranger," for example, he refers to humanity as "the damned human race." Let's hope we don't drive Marshall Mathers to the same point (he seems to be already well on his way).

Indecent, obscene, or simply a mirror of the world he lives in?

Geoffrey Christopher Rapp, a FindLaw columnist, recently taught sports law at Wayne State University School of Law in Detroit, Michigan (south of 8 mile road).



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