Ebay will no longer list certain Dr. Seuss books, and the Dr. Seuss Foundation has decided to “recall” six titles. The reporting on the subject, even in the Wall Street Journal, was too cowardly to tell us exactly what in these six books was offensive, but we are given to understand that they contained anti-wokeness.
Following hard on the heels of this courageous cancellation, Turner Classic Movies has decided to “reexamine” 18 “troubling and problematic” films of the past, including “My Fair Lady,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” and “Psycho,” all of which are now considered deeply sexist or racist or both. (This despite the fact that “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” for example, is explicitly and aggressively antiracist.)
That TCM’s list contains just 18 movies shows how little the woke brigade knows about movies. I grew up watching classic films almost exclusively, and can think off the top of my head of more than 200 movies that the modern Left would find offensive for one reason or another: Women in traditional roles (sometimes even happy about it), other cultures being mocked (and mocking us back), blackface routines (like Fred Astaire’s extraordinary homage to the African American dancer Bill Robinson), and more besides.
It’s hard to think of a single film from more than a couple of decades ago that wouldn’t upset the Left in some way. These films are products of their times, and often great masterpieces. They can’t be blamed for reflecting prevailing prejudices any more than you could blame someone for believing in a geocentric solar system before Galileo came along.
What’s next? Will it turn out that Pepé Le Pew normalized rape culture? According to the New York Times, the answer is “yes.” So how do we deal with all these former cultural icons?
The Arrogance of Presentism
You can get rid of all of these “bad” things, you can erase every single one, but then you might as well give up any hope of understanding the past. Though it is odd to have to explain this, the past was different from the present, just as the present will be different from the future. Times change, as do cultures, modes of thinking and living, and prevailing societal mores.
By acting as though the only way to deal with the past is by pretending it never existed at all—insisting that the only virtuous people in all of human history were those prescient enough to think exactly as we think today—we are saying that no culture is so perfect as our own and no human being so good as ourselves. Applied to race, this attitude would be called “racism.” Broadly speaking, the appropriate term is “ethnocentrism”—the tendency to believe that the way one lives is better than the way everyone else lives. It is a viewpoint unconsciously held by the youth of almost every generation, as well as by many adults who remain children of the mind. It is the inevitable result of arrogance mixed with ignorance, the first flower of the young intellectual.
We have on one hand the prevailing attitude among most Americans that skin color is unimportant. We have on the other hand the Smithsonian’s publishing a chart (since removed) showing that “rugged individualism,” the nuclear family, hard work, punctuality, and politeness are all examples of “whiteness.” That is the woke view.
Hiding (barely) behind this view is the plain assumption that nonwhites are inferior and need the special help and protection of white women sociologists at the Smithsonian. It’s not much different than Joe Biden saying minority communities need special help getting vaccinated because not all Hispanics and African Americans can figure out how to get online. Dare we call that racist?
It is ironic that the Left is seeking to whitewash our cultural history by pretending it never happened. The more sensible among us wish to preserve history as history—the good and the bad—for instruction, for education, and, yes, for entertainment.
I happen to enjoy reading Anthony Trollope, one of the greatest of all Victorian novelists. Many of his books contain a dose of anti-Semitism, which was prevalent in Great Britain at the time. The woke Left thinks because I’m Jewish this should bother me. But it doesn’t. Why should I deny myself the tremendous enjoyment to be found in his unbelievably charming work? The man shared a common contemporary weakness. Some of his beliefs were undoubtedly wrong. Many were right. I have learned from both. I didn’t need protection from having my feelings hurt, because I am not an infant.
Cancel Culture as Big Entertainment Burnout
But there is good news: Cancel culture. Cancel culture is actually great for America. It means that the self-important, self-indulgent, bloated, and buffoonish legacy media and legacy entertainment industries are imploding. They have reached the red giant phase. Out of ideas, out of fuel, they can do nothing but consume themselves, swelling with impotent rage until, one day in a flash, they collapse and become white dwarfs: lifeless reminders that a star once was there. It will be all over for them, but entertainment and culture in America will flourish.
Making movies in the 1910s was a tiny, nascent field in which a complete film required a handful of people to produce from start to finish. The video game industry started out in the same manner in the 1980s, when best-selling games with almost universal market-share among children were often developed by a single coder, or perhaps a team of two or three.
Movies reached maturity in the late 1930s and eventually required hundreds of crew members and millions of dollars to produce. Video games followed a similar course, with perhaps a hundred software developers working on a single title, each specializing in a small aspect of the overall experience.
These legacy industries have now progressed from maturity to decadence, and are in the process of collapsing under their own weight. The biggest titles take many years to finish, even a decade sometimes. They soak up a (small) national GDP’s worth of budget and can involve thousands of people—so many that it can take 20 minutes just to flash their microscopic names across the screen when the credits finally roll.
Disney has nothing left to do but remake old films and complain that the recent “Star Wars” sequels failed because their fans are racist and sexist. The video game “The Last of Us Part II,” a six-years-in-development sequel to one of the most popular releases of all time, was a social-justice fiesta: Professional critics loved it. Actual gamers hated it, and it got a 3.4/10 on Metacritic, until an organized campaign to purge low reviews finally succeeded in getting its fan score up to just above 5/10.
With the ready availability of cheap cameras, sophisticated editing software, free physics engines, developer kits, and internet distribution platforms, we’re coming full circle: Movies can again be made by just a handful of people and get hundreds of thousands or millions of views online. Bestselling video games can again be produced by just one or two developers and receive global distribution via Steam (“The Stanley Parable” is a good example). Dozens of culture shows online have vastly more viewers than any cable TV network.
Cultural power is shifting, decentralizing—one might say diversifying. And it is actual, meaningful diversity—that is, diversity of thought rather than diversity of appearance. More people in more places are contributing, and they are increasingly beyond the range of the woke artillery. If platforms like YouTube and Instagram start restricting and banning them, make no mistake: It is the platforms and not the content that will be replaced.
Preserving Our Heritage
The danger is not that the future will fail to emerge, but that the past will be erased. The one card these legacy industries hold is their ownership of all the content produced by their more imaginative predecessors. And the internet, for all its advantages, also gives cancel culture a tool beyond even Orwell’s imagination: It is much easier to revise past articles, books, movies, and TV shows when there are no physical copies to be amended or destroyed.
For the legacy-culture elites, correcting previous insensitivities, redacting faux pas, deleting history, is now as simple as cutting an offensive scene—or even an entire episode—from a streaming service. The content is simply not available anymore. Perhaps it never existed. You may find one or two niggling references online, but you’ll never see the offensive scene itself: The legacy media will refuse to say exactly what has been removed, for fear of reprinting racist and sexist content. The internet will be purged.
Giving away that DVD box set of “Friends” may come to seem like a huge mistake. And how can future generations tell if they’re reading a redacted version of Huckleberry Finn if the original has simply ceased to exist? Sure, we have physical copies now, but with each passing year, there will be fewer of them.
And no doubt, in the near future, platforms like Kindle will make it easy for books to be continually re-edited as new offenses come to light. You, the reader and owner of the book, won’t even be able to tell that anything has been changed—and you certainly won’t be able to find the original.
The Ministry of Truth would have loved that.
We need a privately funded public library, an alternative Library of Congress: Every book, piece of music, radio show, and movie, every video game, will be preserved in its original form and available to anyone with a library card. For digital content, you could actually use a blockchain to prove its originality (there we go, finally a useful application beyond currency). Think of how much offensive content there must have been in the Library of Alexandria—and how much better off we’d be if it had survived to instruct us.
The past cannot hurt anyone. It can help everyone. Save all of it—every word, every frame. The future will thank us.