Thursday, June 18, 2020

What's in a word?

Michael - Thursday

It’s heartening to see that the BLM demonstrations have spread across the world as well as across the US. Even more encouraging is the clear majority of Americans who support meaningful change—once more well ahead of their leaders. So it’s not surprising that many organisations and companies are also joining in. Whether this is entirely from a commitment to the cause or whether it’s to come in line with their customers isn’t too important. It’s happening. It makes one think that at last there could be action that goes on longer than the final demonstration.

In this context, it’s natural that publishers and owners of video materials are considering how consistent their approaches are with the overall direction things are taking. Recently, we saw Gone with the Wind pulled by HBO Max. They said the 1939 film was "a product of its time" and depicted "ethnic and racial prejudices" that "were wrong then and are wrong today." Presumably, they’re saying that the film should have been made differently in 1939, and it’s been pointed out (correctly in my rather uninformed opinion) that the setting was as much fiction as the story was. Still, it remains the (inflation corrected) highest grossing movie of all time, so HBO wants it back, this time with some sort of  "an explanation and a denouncement" of its "racist depictions." Interestingly, they added that it was important not to change the film to avoid giving viewers the impression that the prejudices of 1939 never existed. Still, I wonder what GWTW would be like set against a more realistic backdrop of the Civil War period. Might be pretty interesting. But I understand what they are saying. I think.

The broader question is what to do about the volume of literature that fits into the category of reflecting –even encouraging—the prejudices and stereotypes of the time. How about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice? I’d like to believe that people see Shylock as a bad person rather than as a somehow “typical” Jew. Should the play have a footnote excoriating the offensive prejudices of that time?

As a writer and more importantly as a reader, I’m against state censorship in general, but where the aim of the material is to persuade people to an offensive position or to encourage a criminal undertaking (such as child pornography) one can support it. Beyond that, publishers have a pretty good idea of what is acceptable. They’re in business. Yet they have been willing to push the boundaries of what governments think is appropriate for their citizens even when it lands them in hot water. DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Nadine Gordimer. There’s a host of authors who’ve helped move public opinion whose work would have been censored at the time as offensive to social norms.

I was disappointed to see one of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers episodes being withdrawn by the BBC streaming service. The colonel, a long-term guest at the hotel, makes disparaging comments about West Indies cricketers based on their race. Cleese was angry with the BBC and rightly so. The colonel is a prejudiced fuddy-duddy, a laughable relic of belief in the empire and British superiority, a stereotype in his own right. It’s completely appropriate that he talks this way. Far from encouraging racial stereotyping, we see because of who he is, as well as what he says, how stupid and ridiculous such an attitude is. Even Basil Fawlty is shocked! The BBC considered the matter, took the point, and reinstated the program.

An example from our own genre is James McClure’s Kramer and Zondi series set in apartheid South Africa. He may still be the best crime writer from South Africa, winning the UK Crime Writers Association’s highest award, the Gold Dagger. In the books, his dialog is full of language I wouldn’t even quote in this blog. But that’s how white policemen (among others) spoke then. The books illustrate how stupid it all is. For a start, Kramer was the senior white detective and Zondi was his sergeant. Kramer wasn’t stupid, but Zondi was the smarter. While it was impossible for Kramer to say that, he relies on Zondi. In one book, Kramer swears to his commanding officer that he “won’t tell a living soul.” But he wants to tell Zondi because he needs his support to solve the case. So he develops an elaborate argument, based on apartheid philosophy, that actually a black can’t be a “living soul,” and so he can spill the beans without breaking his oath. Offensive? Of course. But the point wasn’t lost on the South African censors. At one point some of the books were banned in South Africa. Exactly by using this language, the context, and a little judicious exaggeration from time to time, he was showing up apartheid for the scam it was. First rank writers can do that.

It's a complex subject. I'm not sure how it will, or even how it should, play out.


  1. Your observations are prescient, Michael. The question is whether it will be a knee-jerk stampede or thoughtful parsing toward doing the right thing. It's not going to be pretty, but history demands a reckoning, and the epiphany is upon us.

  2. I suppose we have the same issues with statues. Glasgow was built on the back of the tobacco trade, and I have no doubt, the slave trade. Most of those merchants were philanthropic, feeding, educating many slum dwelling children in the city….. while trading in human flesh. So, it's a mixed bag. IMHO, the statues should stand as they are, and new ones commissioned to stand across from the old ones showing the horror behind the wealth. We erase history at our peril. As somebody said, the same anti slave protestors spent one day pulling down a statue, and the next queueing up outside a store that has a bad track record of child labour.

  3. I'm afraid logic and consistency aren't going to play a big role in this, Caro. Personally, I'm more worried about the books than the statues...

  4. Michael, I think the main thing about GWTW, is not that it portrays how life was during and after the Civil War, but that Margaret Mitchell's attitude toward it--in the way she described it--and the movie's also was approving of it and romanticized it. The movie, and even more so the book, portrays the founding of the Ku Klux Klan as a brave and necessary effort to curb the uppity behaviors of freed slaves. The efforts of the "carpetbaggers" to suppress their vigilante activities come across as despicable. The movie is a much better told story than the book. But in both the portrayal of blacks is patronizing and/or racist in the extreme. I say good riddance.

  5. Exactly my views, Annaamaria. The book and film, both of which I've never viewed, glorify slavery, plantation life, etc. The truth about the murderous white supremacy is not told. The horrors of slavery are not told -- the beatings, torture, rapes, family separation, even killings, are not told.
    I say good riddance, too.
    This is a new day. Young people of all nationalities are saying "enough is enough. Stop racism." People are listening. The majority of U.S. residents think protests are justified and see the truth about police violence and that it is systemic. It is time for the old racist movies and books to go into the dustbin of history and for new books and movies celebrating a multinational country and people of all cultures to be produced. It's time for new ideas, and to throw out the outdated, old ones.