Unethical Scrubbing by the Left and the Right
Societies have a legitimate interest in defining their cultural values, and they do this in a variety of ways. Many involve the law, whereby societies formally disapprove of particular types of conduct and inflict punishment on those who engage in them. Other methods involve conscious choices, expressed over time by cumulative decisions on the part individuals, families, groups, entities, institutions and communities, regarding what values and conduct deserve to be encouraged, rewarded, memorialized, and institutionalized, and which ought to be shunned, condemned, discouraged, and marginalized.
It is a never-ending process, involving ongoing debate, examination and analysis. Two methods that are unfortunately employed by both the Right and the Left to express and enforce cultural values were on display in the U.S and Great Britain.. Both go beyond the legitimate tools for the important societal function into unethical territory.
In Liverpool, England, the City Council was considering a proposal to change the names of all city locales linked to the slave trade, an enterprise deeply entrenched in Liverpool’s history. Ah, rewriting history! that favorite pastime of totalitarian governments, used in the hallowed name of political correctness and public “re-education”! In its well-meaning effort to emulate the Soviet Union, Red China and Orwell’s 1984, Liverpool was also attempting to follow in the footsteps of many U.S. communities that have decided to remove the names of Confederate generals and slave-holding Founding Fathers (like Jefferson and Washington) from school buildings, as well as the always ethically confused American columnist Richard Cohen, who has campaigned tirelessly for the removal of J. Edgar Hoover’s name from the Washington D.C. building that houses the F.B.I. Eliminating references to unpleasant, controversial or complex history cripples cultures rather than strengthens them, as the practice lobotomizes communities and leaves them vulnerable to repeating history’s errors. If it is right for Liverpool to eliminate references to slavery in its local landmarks, then why shouldn’t Poland raze Auschwitz Birkenau and turn the area into a skateboard park? For that matter, how can London continue to allow the Tower of London to be its greatest tourist attraction? Talk about human rights violations!
Luckily, the Liverpool City Council came to its senses, although for a nonsensical reason. One of the streets to be purged of its shameful name under the proposal was a little road named after James Penny, a wealthy 18th century slave ship owner. That’s right, Penny Lane, made famous by the Beatles song. Heaven forbid that Liverpool should sacrifice a Beatles landmark to the relatively trivial mission of rejecting its slave trading past! Let’s get our priorities, straight, for Heaven’s sake! So Penny Lane is keeping its name, as it should have all along, and the Council is doing the right thing after all, though for the wrong reason. Preserving history and cultural memory is what is important; keeping Beatles fans happy is somewhat less crucial to the survival of civilization.
Back in the U.S.A., U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled in favor of major Hollywood studios by declaring that “DVD scrubbing” companies like CleanFlicks, CleanFilms, Play It Clean Video and Family Flix USA are violating copyright laws when they remove “objectionable” content from movies before selling them to sensitive viewers. This is the Right’s approach to cultural management: stifling artistic expression, turning works of literature, stage and film into pale bowdlerized imitations of what the original artists intended. It is the equivalent of plastering a tube top over “Venus de Milo,” or painting denim jackets over Rubens’ nudes to which many of the advocates of DVD scrubbing would probably respond, “And your point is ?”
The Scoreboard’s point, and the court’s, is that an artist’s work is not theirs to distort to fit their own tastes and taboos. An artist owns his or her artistic creations, at least until they have been around so long that they enter the public domain (which is why you can sell versions of Reuben’s voluptuous ladies wearing denim jackets). If they don’t want to hear the Duke tell Lucky Ned Pepper in the climax of “True Grit,” “Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!”, they can watch “High Noon.” They have no business changing Rooster Cogburn’s classic challenge to, “Go for your gun, you nasty boy!” If they think a Tupac Shakur rap epic is vile, they can buy some Sinatra; it’s wrong to change his lyrics about “ho’s” into an ode to Ho-Ho’s. If they think Ravel’s “Bolero” is sexually suggestive, they can listen to some Brahms; they may not change it into “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Once a society allows third parties, committees and organizations to alter art to what they think is “appropriate,” the power of all art to convey ideas, emotions and sensations will be stifled and diluted. That is bad for everyone, though this is something that some people appear incapable of understanding. They see nothing wrong with Rhett telling Scarlet, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot.” Pity them. But keep them away from the libraries, record stores, museums and Blockbusters.
It is interesting and alarming that the Left embraces totalitarian tactics when it seeks to scrub history, while the Right imitates the Left’s politically correct language police when it attempts to scrub DVDs. Both activities are well-intentioned, and both fall into one of the oldest and most dangerous ethical fallacies of all: assuming that the ends justify the means without truly understanding what the real ends are likely to be.