But what does it say about us as a nation if we continue to embrace a movie that, in the final analysis, stands for many of the same things as the Confederate flag that flutters so dramatically over the dead and wounded soldiers at the Atlanta train station just before the “GWTW’’ intermission?
The above didn't appear in The New York Times or Slate. Nope. It appeared in the New York Post. I'll give you a moment to emit a gentle sigh of regret about the ironclad nature of O'Sullivan's First Law.
GWTW would never be made today. The story, characters and dialogue speak of a time and place that has mercifully passed into American history. Even if you can dispute the film's racism it undeniably displays a cavalier attitude toward slavery and the lives of American blacks during Reconstruction. Even the most robust of viewers must wince a little at several moments through out the film.
Yet all this said it is nevertheless a great work of art. One of the greatest films ever made. To deny its prominence in the American film canon reveals a totalitarian instinct that demands the subordination of art to political correctness. Therein lies a grave danger.
Each age has its idols and its hypocrisies. If each generation censors what it finds even mildly objectionable about the past what will that leave us? There is a human tendency to assume that the values of the moment are correct and true, everything that came before is false or wicked. It's a peculiar form of vanity.
When Thomas Bowdler edited the racy bits out of Shakespeare he intended to create a version accessible to young children. The modern Bowdlerizers are far more ambitious. They wish to tell adults that some films are too "racist" to be seen or discussed. Apparently watching a seventy-five year old film, a film that has been watched by the vast majority of Americans many times, would be an unbearable trauma and grave injustice.
To watch a film, to read a book or listen to a lecture is not to condone everything being shown, written or heard. To assume otherwise is to inhabit the most narrow of moral universes. Watching GWTW is no more an endorsement of slavery than reading Hamlet shows a support for vigilante justice. To demand that the sweep of artistic creativity fit within a contemporary political mould is to critically undermine that creativity.
This still leaves us with a great old film with some terrible ideas just below the surface. The educated adult keeps in mind that like all art it is the product of a place and time. That it has transcended that place and time, and its particular evils, is proof of its inherent greatness. To the young viewer this must be tactfully explained. To attempt to ban or delegitimize a great work of art, if only because it reveals the mark of its origins, shows a pettiness and ignorance that should always be opposed.
The attempts to marginalize GWTW are a tactic in the culture wars. Go after something beloved but whose underlying values the modern world now finds abhorrent. Very few people are brave enough to defend anything that can be successfully labelled racist.
Soon that thing, be it a work of art or an old symbol, slips out of the mainstream. It's never a one off victory. It's a process. As more things get labelled racist the smaller the mainstream becomes. Unopposed all that will remain is a sterile nothingness that has been suitably stamped and approved by the great good.
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