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.