This is the silly season in Germany, where entire talkshows are devoted to the inappropriate suggestive comments of a middle-age politician to a young female reporter, or to whether the word Neger is racist and should be removed from any children's books. (The word "Neger" can be translated as the anachronistic "Negro" or the perjorative "Nigger".) In a way, I am jealous that such innocuous topics can dominate public discourse. Here in America we are grappling with an epidemic of gun violence (240 shooting incidents just yesterday).
The Neger controversy was started by German Family MInister Kristina Schröder:
When Pippi Longstocking's father is referred to as "Negro-King" or Jim Button is called "Negro-Baby" (in the 1960 children's novel by Michael Ende) Schröder intends to "replace them on the spot while I'm reading, in order to protect my child from taking on such expressions," she told Die Zeit weekly.
"Even without bad intentions, words can cause damage," she said. "When a child is older, I would explain what kind of history the word Neger has, and how hurtful it is to use that word."
Depending on how it is used, the German word Neger can mean anything from the outdated and inappropriate term "negro" to the seriously offensive "nigger" in English.
This is not the first time that Kristina Schröder raised eyebrows with her politically correct approach to the German language. Several months ago she confessed that when speaking with her daughter she referred to God as "das Gott" - using the neuter gender definitive article instead of the grammatically correct masculine "der Gott."
Should we change texts to conform to modern sensibilities? Call me a purist, but I don't believe we should - especially with a classic such as Pippi Longstocking. Even when reading to children, we can use the language to talk about the work in its historical context and how attitudes have changed.
Every few years a the same controversy flares up regarding an American classic - Huckleberry Finn - and Mark Twain's character "Nigger Jim". Fortunately, most teachers have resisted the effort to "sanitize" this wonderful novel. And last week I went to see Quentin Tarantino's new movie Django Unchained where the "N-Word" is used at least a hundred times. Nobody in audience complained - maybe because the main figure Django turns the table on the slaveholders.
But I'm willing to admit that as a white male perhaps I'm missing something here. Spiegel reporter Dialika Neufeld, whose father is Senegalese, has a much different take on the issue:"Is it acceptable to alter the original version of a text?
I say yes, when the texts in question are children's books that serve to perpetuate racist stereotypes. These books are not only read aloud to children, they are also read by children themselves, without anyone there to help them make sense of what they read. And the things children pick up from their reading, they bring with them into the classroom -- classrooms where their fellow students might have parents who come from Ghana or Pakistan. One in five children born in Germany today has some kind of immigrant background.
The worst thing for me as a child was being ostracized and insulted because of the color of my skin. And it wasn't just about language. This was the 1990s, when neo-Nazis set homes for asylum-seekers on fire and black people were chased through the streets by right-wing thugs. "nigger," for me, was neo-Nazi language."