The Same Mistakes

Forget Hollywood. Culver City calls itself “The ‘Heart of Screenland” – the real movie capital of the world. Thomas Ince started it with his first film studio in 1918 and in 1919 Hal Roach built his studios down there, and then Metro Goldwyn Mayer moved in in the twenties and took over the town. In 1939 “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” were in simultaneous production on their soundstages. Those became cultural touchstones. One was a paean to the Old South that proved that slavery wasn’t all that bad – those were Happy Darkies treated well, who loved their masters and were loved back. Everyone could see that. The other movie proved that an innocent little girl from Kansas could defeat a wicked witch and that witch’s army of flying monkeys. Everyone could see that too.

The first movie did more damage. In February it was this:

President Donald Trump reminisced about the 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind” during his rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Thursday and faced an immediate backlash on social media.

Trump asked to bring “back” the film – heavily criticized for its racist language, demeaning stereotypes of Black characters and its romanticization of slavery before the Civil War – as he railed against the awarding of the Oscar for Best Picture to South Korean movie “Parasite,” directed by Bong Joon Ho.

“I’m looking for like… let’s get ‘Gone with the Wind,’ can we get ‘Gone with the Wind’ back, please?” asked Trump. “‘Sunset Boulevard.’ So many great movies,” he continued. “The winner from South Korea, I thought it was best foreign film. Best foreign movie. No… did this ever happen before?”

Charlotte Clymer, of the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, described Trump “openly pining” for the film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as “the doggiest dogwhistle that ever dogwhistled.”

Clymer may have been overreacting. Trump was riffing. That was just playful free-association. But then all hell broke loose:

On June 9, 2020, the film was removed from HBO Max amid the George Floyd protests as well as in response to an op-ed written by screenwriter John Ridley that was published in that day’s edition of the Los Angeles Times, which called for the streaming service to temporarily remove the film from its content library. He wrote that “it continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate’.”

A spokesperson for HBO Max said that the film was “a product of its time” and as a result, it depicted “ethnic and racial prejudices” that “were wrong then and are wrong today”. It was also announced that the film would return to the streaming service at a later date, although it would incorporate “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”

The film’s removal sparked a debate about political correctness going too far, with film critics and historians criticizing HBO over potential censorship.

HBO Max returned the film to its service later that month, with a new introduction by Jacqueline Stewart. Stewart described the film, in an op-ed for CNN, as “a prime text for examining expressions of white supremacy in popular culture”, and said that “it is precisely because of the ongoing, painful patterns of racial injustice and disregard for Black lives that “Gone with the Wind” should stay in circulation and remain available for viewing, analysis and discussion.”

She described the controversy as “an opportunity to think about what classic films can teach us.”

And then everyone forgot about the whole thing. The massive racial justice protests raged on, and are still raging, and the economy had collapsed, and the Covid pandemic got worse and worse, not better. New York and New Jersey got better. Florida and Texas got much worse. No one knew who was next. And the president got more and more defensive – this Covid thing wasn’t HIS fault and everything was fine, really. That appalled half the country. What was wrong with this man? No one wanted to talk about the glories or the shame of the Old South. Let it go.

Donald Trump never lets anything go. The Old South was wonderful! The Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit and Laura Meckler report this:

President Trump pressed his case Thursday that U.S. schools are indoctrinating children with a left-wing agenda hostile to the nation’s Founding Fathers, describing efforts to educate students about racism and slavery as an insult to the country’s lofty founding principles.

Trump, speaking before original copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the National Archives, characterized demonstrations against racial injustice as “left-wing rioting and mayhem” that “are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools. It’s gone on far too long.”

So this is what he’ll do:

The federal government has no power over the curriculum taught in local schools. Nonetheless, Trump said he would create a national commission to promote a “pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history,” which he said would encourage educators to teach students about the “miracle of American history.”

He did not say whether regularly screening “Gone with the Wind” would be part of that curriculum. That was implied:

Trump is calling the panel the “1776 Commission,” in what appeared to be a barb at the New York Times’s 1619 Project. The project, whose creator won a Pulitzer Prize for its lead essay, is a collection of articles and essays that argue that the nation’s true founding year is 1619, the year enslaved Africans were brought to the shores of what would become the United States. Trump said Thursday the 1619 Project wrongly teaches that the United States was founded on principles of “oppression, not freedom.”

“Patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country,” he said. “American parents are not going to accept indoctrination in our schools, cancel culture at work or the repression of traditional faith, culture and values in the public square. Not anymore.”

It’s the New York Times’s 1619 Project versus David O. Selznick’s 1939 movie “Gone with the Wind” – two different views of the same thing – which seems to be a matter of principle:

As he campaigns for reelection, Trump has repeatedly cast education that examines the nation’s failures as a betrayal, seeking to rally his base and tap into hostility toward protesters who have taken to the streets to denounce racial injustice and police brutality.

His argument casts any criticism of the United States, even of slavery, as unpatriotic. It stands in sharp contrast to American leaders such as President Barack Obama, who spoke more frankly of the nation’s shortcomings, painting it as a country constantly striving to perfect itself.

Trump’s speech Thursday was a continuation of a message he has pushed since the Fourth of July, when he declared at Mount Rushmore, under the gaze of George Washington and other titans of the presidency, that children are “taught to hate their own country” in public schools.

That’s his thing now:

In a lengthy speech to the Republican National Convention, he pledged to “fully restore patriotic education.” And last month, when reflecting on the unrest that had erupted in U.S. cities over police brutality, he also blamed schools.

“What we’re witnessing today is a result of left-wing indoctrination in our nation’s schools and universities,” Trump said at a news conference. “Many young Americans have been fed lies about America being a wicked nation plagued by racism.”

There is no racism. There never has been any racism. In short, criticism of the United States is unpatriotic. That’s what liberals do. Liberals are unpatriotic. And now teachers are unpatriotic:

Trump’s gambit seeks to turn local schools – already beset by a global pandemic and many other problems – into another front in the culture war he champions, positioning history teachers as opponents of American greatness along with kneeling football players, police misconduct protesters and racial-sensitivity trainers. It fits neatly into his argument that presidential rival Joe Biden and other Democrats want to “Abolish the American Way of Life,” as Trump tweeted in July.

The president also has worked to rewrite what federal employees learn in racial sensitivity training. The White House compelled agencies to cancel trainings that mentioned the words “White privilege” or frame the United States as “an inherently racist or evil country.”

This is war:

While many Americans work to reckon with the nation’s racist past, Trump and other conservatives are working to preserve a narrative that casts the United States as a moral leader, as virtuous and as exceptional.

Their efforts sometimes overlap with those who seek to preserve monuments to Confederate military leaders and who cast them as heroes despite their fight to preserve the institution of slavery.

On Thursday, Trump said he would erect a statue of Caesar Rodney, who cast the tie-breaking vote to declare independence from Britain in 1776, in a “National Garden of American Heroes” that he hopes to establish. Rodney was also an enslaver, and a statue of him was removed from a city square in Wilmington, Del., in June.

Gillian Brickell is a staff writer for the Washington Post’s history blog, Retropolis, and fills in the details:

Rodney was one of the 56 men – all White, of course – to sign the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and was one of three delegates representing his colony in the Continental Congress. In early July, he was home tending to local affairs when he received word that the other two delegates were hopelessly deadlocked on the issue of independence.

“Caesar Rodney was called upon to break the tie, even though he was suffering from very advanced cancer, he was deathly ill,” Trump said Wednesday. “Rodney rode 80 miles through the night through a severe thunderstorm from Dover to Philadelphia to cast his vote for independence.”

Well, not exactly:

It’s unclear if Rodney rode on horseback, as is often depicted, or inside a carriage, as his brother later claimed in a letter, according to the Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence. And while he did suffer from a facial cancer that he covered with a scarf for much of his life, it’s also unclear if it was “very advanced” in 1776, as he lived until 1784.

Whoever might be tasked with sculpting his likeness will have some trouble, because Rodney never sat for a portrait. John Adams once described him, rather rudely, as “the oddest-looking Man in the World… his Face is not bigger than a large Apple.”

That’s curious, but this was about that other guy, Joe Biden:

Rodney came from Delaware, the home state of former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the November presidential election. And there’s something else about Rodney that became relevant this past summer: He was an enslaver. He enslaved about 200 people on his plantation at the time of his death…

A statue of Rodney stood for nearly 100 years in Wilmington, Del. But in June, during national protests over racial injustice, the mayor ordered that it be removed – along with one of Christopher Columbus – and stored “so there can be an overdue discussion about the public display of historical figures and events,” Mayor Mike Purzycki said.

Biden didn’t do that, but Biden still hates America:

“Joe Biden said nothing as to his home state’s history, and the fact that it was dismantled, dismembered and a Founding Father’s statue was removed,” Trump said.

Why does Biden hate Delaware and hate our Founding Fathers and hate America? And why does he hate slavery? That gave us America! And why doesn’t anyone teach that?

That’s what Balingit and Meckler cover:

For many on the right, any narrative that challenges American exceptionalism is by default, anti-American.

“Instead of emphasizing that America was built on slavery, we emphasize that America was built on liberty,” said Noah Weinrich, spokesman for Heritage Action, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank.

Trump is just the newest part of that effort:

Trump’s line of attack is part of a decades-long thread of conservative activism targeting public schools, said Andrew Hartman, an Illinois State University professor of history who studies culture wars. Conservative parent activists have attacked schools for teaching sex education they regard as immoral, for example, or assigning books they view as too lurid.

“This has become the bedrock of the conservative movement since the ’70s – that the public schools are secular, that the public schools are liberal or even radical and that the public schools are destroying the fabric of America,” Hartman said.

Hartman should calm down:

Albert Broussard, a professor at Texas A&M who specializes in Afro-American history and has written history textbooks, viewed Trump’s comments less as a serious policy proposal and more as an effort to stoke his base. Broussard believes it’s a backlash against recent efforts to present a more varied narrative of U.S. history.

“Trump plays to this idea of White grievance and White fear and White insecurity,” Broussard said. “The country’s population has changed racially and ethnically. I think that will continue to provoke anxiety among some people.”

But there are fewer and fewer of those people and out there in the classrooms there’s general bafflement with all this big talk:

“I am not teaching my students to hate America,” said Chris Dier, a high school teacher in Louisiana who was the state’s 2020 teacher of the year. “We are teaching our students to embrace our country, even the things that are negative. We’re choosing not to ignore the ghosts of our country’s past.”

Emma Chan, a 16-year-old student at a New Jersey private school who has had her history research published in a student journal, said her history courses had inspired neither love nor hate for her country. It was more complicated than that.

“I don’t think that there’s anything that’s so perfect or so evil that we can exclusively love or hate it,” Chan said, “especially with something as complex as a country with a history that’s so convoluted.”

To her, casting criticism of the United States as unpatriotic is unfair.

“You can love a country and feel it’s worth defending and still criticize it,” Chan said. “I think pressing for change is a patriotic thing to do.”

These two will never make it as politicians, but they’re what’s out there in the real world now:

Trump’s fight for schools to emphasize American exceptionalism is running up against efforts by students and teachers to include more voices and perspectives in history education. Students have rallied around the country to urge their schools to teach more Black history, and to assign more books by Black authors.

Amina Salahou, a rising senior at Nottingham High in Syracuse, N.Y., is part of a campaign to “decolonize education.” As the daughter of African immigrants, she complained her history courses have been too myopic.

“We definitely just learned about White America,” Salahou said. On the contrary, Salahou and other students want to see courses that highlight the achievement and contributions of Black Americans and feature the voices of marginalized people.

“Decolonization curriculum means advocating for greater or equal representation of different perspectives,” Salahou said. “It means giving students a chance to see themselves in history.”

Conservatives would rather they not do that:

The College Board, which administers exams for Advanced Placement courses, in 2014 decided to update the framework it provided to those teaching its Advanced Placement United States History course.

The changes led to an explosive debate between conservative and liberal factions of school boards. It also drew the attention of the Republican National Committee, which condemned it because it “emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”

Conservative Ben Carson, now the secretary of housing and urban development, told an audience in 2014 that by the time students finish the course, “they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS.”

That’s not likely:

Educators said they have begun teaching a more inclusive version of history not because it’s mandated but because it’s what students want. Jennifer Hitchcock, a high school teacher in Virginia, once assigned an account by a Filipino soldier battling U.S. occupation during the Spanish-American War, describing what Filipinos endured as American forces attempted to pacify the island. Students were transfixed and wanted to know more.

“The whole adage of not repeating the mistakes of our forefathers is the one that I hear over and over from my students,” Hitchcock said. “They just don’t want to make the same mistakes.”

Sure, but Donald Trump does. There’s nothing like a lost cause. That has kept many in the South feeling good about themselves for a hundred and fifty years now. There’s something in the thick sweet air down there. Deep in their bones they know they lost that Civil War – that’s rather obvious – but they want to be seen as noble losers in a good but righteous cause, in a tragic but romantically heroic way.

The American South is filled with such people, flying their Confederate flags and weeping at the gallant sacrifice of the Flower of the South, the true gentlemen of long ago. They haven’t the slightest idea why any local black person would be upset by any of that – gallantry is a wonderful thing. It’s that Lost Cause of the Confederacy thing and they won’t let it go. They can’t let it go. It’s who they are, and it’s no coincidence that the original Tea Party crowd was heavily white and Southern, even if they longed for the white-bread world of America in the fifties. That was just a slight adjustment in the lost cause, where the bad guys became Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and the hippies of the sixties, not Union soldiers. The Republican Party itself has become the Party of the South – that’s where almost all of their electoral votes are – and maybe now they can rewrite history. The Old South was the Real America before the whining liberals ruined everything. And slavery wasn’t all that bad. “Gone with the Wind” proved that.

The South will rise again. Teach that in schools. Yes, keep making the same mistakes.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Same Mistakes

  1. Rick says:

    Down South?

    “Deep in their bones they know they lost that Civil War – that’s rather obvious…”

    I’m not convinced of that. A friend of ours down here in Atlanta who grew up mostly in Macon, Georgia, once told us she was never taught in school that the South had lost the war! She said it wasn’t until her family moved to Ohio when she was in high school that she learned the North had won.

    So much for an American common narrative!

    It always seemed odd to me that all those Southern “Tea-Partiers” celebrated something that happened in Yankee Boston, also not realizing that the intent of the original Tea Party was largely a defense of the right of rich local merchants like John Hancock to continue smuggling, just like they always did, maybe to keep the cost of imports down, but not so much to do with “Taxation without Representation”. But whatever.

    But while I have always been a bit puzzled about this “cancel culture” business that Trumpers keep talking about, I have to admit I might agree with some of it, especially when it comes to banning a mostly-benign movie like “Gone With the Wind” as “racist”.

    Yes, they have a point that the book it came from, being the perspective of an early 1930s authoress who grew up in the South, hearing all those tales handed down from the days of yore that plantation owners “treated their slaves like family” and that, once given their freedom, those “uppity ungrateful darkies” really lorded it over their defeated masters, but also overlooking that Scarlet imagined she was exercising some birthright to slap Prissy silly, simply for not knowing nothing about birthing no babies, which certainly served as an insufficient example of how white people actually dealt with black “members of their own family” who didn’t do as they were told. And in truth, we can be pretty sure that episode of the movie mostly sugar-coats actual history.

    But frankly, my dear, I never really liked that movie anyway. I remember telling my boss at CNN when he told me that his boss, Ted Turner, held that film in high regard — that I thought it was a “chick flick” that glorified some spoiled bitch who never did learn to act like a nice human being. (Besides that, shouldn’t a war movie have more scenes of men shooting at each other?)

    And okay, maybe people who don’t share my own grasp of the historical context of this bullshit flick should probably only see it in conjunction with an explainer of some sort.

    About that NY Times Magazine “1619 Project”? I really don’t know that much about it, but from what I’ve read, I do see some possible problems.

    The first, the least of them, is they’re leaving the impression that it’s named after the first year African slaves arrived in North America, when in fact that’s not actually true. Slaves from Africa were first brought into Georgia and South Carolina in 1526, almost a century before 1619, when they landed in Virginia, but these were brought by the Spanish, not the British, which I suppose makes a difference because the British colonies eventually became ourselves, although some might see that distinction as arbitrary.

    But the project presents a different problem in its intention, as it says, “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of [the United States’] national narrative”, along with a suggestion that 1619 might now be considered the “nation’s birth year.”

    This reminds me of an 1890s American history textbook I once bought at an antiques fair, that I discovered, on arriving home, was probably designed for use in Roman Catholic schools since every chapter seemed to focus on either a particular travail or achievement of Roman Catholics in America. How odd, I thought, that Catholics found it necessary back then to place their own selves at the very center of all American history.

    But this is exactly what the 1619 Project seemingly hopes to do for African Americans. While I confess that other versions of the American story might be faulted for making African Americans feel sidelined in their own land, the solution is not to arbitrarily declare that the country began only once their own ancestors arrived on the scene, which would be like Donald Trump tracing the history of the country only as far back as when his grandfather arrived from Bavaria in 1885.

    (My personal belief, by the way, has always been that 1776 was not our nation’s birth, and that everything preceding March 4, 1789, when our new Constitutional government called itself to order in its provisional capital in New York City, was merely the pre-game show, since the previous U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation was not really of a nation made up of states, but instead merely a collection of individual nation states in their own right, each being, in a technical sense, just as sovereign as France or the Netherlands. In fact, some of these little nations were even ruled by presidents, rather than governors. In truth, what was referred to as the United States only became a nation once the country that our Constitution called for, came into being, which was in the spring of 1789.)

    In any event, who really thinks Donald Trump (who is probably the first American president ever, since Abe Lincoln himself, to be inaugurated without ever having learned that Lincoln was a Republican: “’Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,’ Trump said while addressing attendees at the National Republican Congressional Committee Dinner. ‘Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that’ … appearing to be unaware of the fact that the GOP is commonly referred to as the ‘party of Lincoln’”) is the right guy to be preaching to the rest of us about the shortcomings of American education?

    In fact, I’m thinking he might have learned of Lincoln’s politics had he actually taken that SAT that he reportedly paid someone else to take for him.

    But still, I agree with Trump — (Quick! Could someone please gag me with a spoon?) — that we would have a hard time teaching anything about the founding of the country if we erased from our collective memory any record of any founder who owned slaves, since the knowledge of they’re having done that should serve as a great example of a major feature in our founding — that we are a nation that allows itself to correct its mistakes and improve over time, and not be dragged down to hell by realization of all the things we’ve done wrong — a realization that every American kid should be made aware of.

    And only someone who refuses ever to apologize, much less admit to his mistakes, since that would be a sign of weakness, could disagree with that, nor even comprehend why the majority of Americans — that is, those of us who won’t end up voting for him! — actually don’t want to see their country made over in his likeness.

    In fact, anyone having even vague knowledge of our founding era probably knows that many, if not most of our founders — even those who themselves owned slaves — knew slavery was evil and a trap that the country, at some point in its future, would have to extricate itself from.

    But Confederate generals and whatnot? Forget it!

    Rather than being American heroes, those people were the kind of folk we traditionally teach our children not to be — turncoat traitors who killed Americans, and who also happened to be fighting for the perpetuation of a right of humans to own other humans. These people contributed no more good to our story than Benedict Arnold did. All Americans and their children need to know that we don’t celebrate American traitors and villains.

    And don’t forget, we’re talking here about a guy who confessed to Bob Woodward that he gets along better with autocratic leaders than with democratic ones:

    “It’s funny, the relationships I have, the tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them. … But maybe it’s not a bad thing. The easy ones I maybe don’t like as much or don’t get along with as much.”

    He can’t seem to understand why, but he prefers the company of jerks like himself, and doesn’t so much like our American allies. This is an American president who doesn’t really understand his job, nor does he even understand his own country. Why would any democracy want to grant any such chief executive jurisdiction over the education of its children?

    On the other hand, to be fair, there may be legitimate reasons to beware of Joe Biden, who very possibly could be much much worse than Trump!

    In fact, I heard the other day that he recently said he was “happy to be back in Vermont”, when he was actually in New Hampshire!

    Have you ever heard of anything so frightening? I get goosebumps on my neck just contemplating the possibility that this guy could one day be running our country!

    And besides, this Biden guy is in his goddam seventies! What do we do if he dies?

    Unlike his opponent, of course, who comes with a built-in advantage in that, if he were to die, nobody would panic.

    Rick

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