Either cancel antisemitic Dahl completely or leave his books alone

The language in his novels pales in comparison to the author's hatred of Jews


British children's author, short-story writer, playwright and versifier Roald Dahl (1916 - 1995), 11th December 1971. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Daily Express/Getty Images)

February 24, 2023 10:21

One of the lesser-known tirades in the portfolio of anti-Jewish rants released by Grime star Wiley when he, um, had a bit of a moment a while ago, was a video which he posted on social media. I can’t find it now, which means I assume Twitter finally decided, in an out-of-character moment, to care enough about antisemitism to press the delete button.

But I remember that in it, Wiley walks around, as conspiracy theorists of all types like to say, “just asking questions” The principal one he asks, over and over, is: “Why? Why? Why did that happen between them and Hitler. Why did Hitler hate you? For nothing?”  

I bring it up now, because whether Wiley knew it or not, asking that question put him in a long tradition, exemplified decades earlier by another well-known antisemite, Roald Dahl. As I’m sure you know Puffin have republished his children’s books with a series of edits designed to tone down perceived offensiveness in his writing.

Words such as “fat” and “ugly” have been removed; references to witches wearing wigs rewritten to allow for the (completely true) fact that many women wear wigs who are not witches; “small men” has become “small people”.

The re-writing involved has been ham-fisted (it’s not impossible to re-edit a children’s writer for modern tastes, but in so doing you need to at least retain a flavour of the original prose). So far, however, no-one has edited an interview he gave in the New Statesman in 1982 where he said: “There is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity…I mean, there’s always a reason why anti-anything crops up anywhere. Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason.”

It’s a great example of a particularly British clubbable disdain for Jews, embodied in the word “stinker” – a public schoolboy expression more appropriate for someone who steals from the tuck shop than for a perpetrator of industrial genocide - but it’s also more universal than that.

Because throughout history, from the baselessness of the Blood Libel to modern “globalist” haters – and including of course all the propaganda put out by the stinker himself – a key element of antisemitism has always been a sense that the Jews are responsible for their own misfortune. If bad things happen to Jews, that isn’t racism: Jews deserve it, apparently, because they are globally controlling/money-grabbing/objectively hideous.

Nonetheless, I found myself this week on Twitter arguing against the bowdlerisation of Dahl’s books. This is because of all the usual reasons – the need to separate art from the artist, a suspicion of corporate sensitivity, a sense I have that people have forgotten that the presence of laughter doesn’t always indicate mockery (although often did in Dahl’s case) – but behind it was a feeling that the sensitivity readers are missing the bigger picture. One example shows this well.

In the original text of Matilda, there is a fantasy section where the heroine “goes on olden-day sailing ships with Joseph Conrad. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway, and India with Rudyard Kipling.” That has now been changed, so that Matilda goes to “nineteenth century estates with Jane Austen. She went to Africa with Ernest Hemingway, and California with John Steinbeck.”

I know why these have been changed. Austen is there so the authorial names aren’t all men, and Kipling has been swapped for Steinbeck, as Rudyard is associated with British colonialism.

But here’s the problem. Nineteenth century estates, like the ones Austen wrote about, were mainly financed by the slave trade. John Steinbeck has been portrayed as a violent misogynist by his first wife. And Hemingway, who survived the sensitivity edit, was also a misogynist, and a mad trophy-hunter of magnificent wild animals. Oh, and by the way, a writer who describes a central character in The Sun Also Rises, as a “rich Jew” and a “kike”

Point being, if you dig deep enough, everyone, especially great writers and artists, is problematic. But in a universe where – sorry to say it - Jews don’t count, some problems are, it seems bigger than others. These good progressive people making these edits deleting Kipling and Conrad because of their historically sinful associations are doing so to buff up the legacy of – I’m going to put this in italics - Roald Dahl.

Who thought the innately unpleasant character of the Jews was the real reason for the Holocaust. So I think: either cancel him properly – take his books off the shelves, like we might the work of another unapologetically racist writer, or leave his writings be, but don’t fiddle whilst Jews burn. Removing the word “ugly” from his books does not remove Roald Dahl’s real ugliness.

February 24, 2023 10:21

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