C. S. Lewis called it chronological snobbery: the idea that present ideas and attitudes are superior to those of the past simply because they are more recent. Historian Paul Bartow calls it historical presentism and has written an important commentary ("The Growing Threat of Historical Presentism") on its contribution to the fracturing of American society and the disintegration of civil discourse. (H/T Lenore Skenazy)
James Madison’s fears of mob rule and majoritarianism is a well explored topic. Suffice it to say that in Federalist 10, he wrote to the citizens of New York that “measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”
This overbearing force today comes in the shape of tyrannical college mobs who demand any affiliation with people they don’t like be permanently removed. ... Not surprisingly, these mobs have neither a factual or nuanced historical understanding.
All of these protests of historical occurrences are symptomatic of a deeper, more grievous problem, that of historical presentism. This is defined as the application of contemporary moral judgments or worldviews to the past. Any trained historian knows that this is among the easiest traps into which one can fall.
The task of the historian, or the modern university student for that matter, is not to descend from on high and mete out judgment. ... When one studies the past, it is meant to be a deeply introspective experience. The goal is to enter into conversation with historical figures, to understand their world as fully as we can, to learn from them, and to let them challenge our worldviews.
These are dangerous times for the study of the past. Historians can no longer afford to sit idly by as uninformed or misinformed tyrannical mobs seek to stamp out the history they do not like. It is a threat to the preservation of the past. It is a threat to free speech. It is a threat to proper historical understanding.
It is a threat to the very existence of civil society.
It's also very bad manners.
Thursday, January 7, 2016 at
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We've recently been watching "Dumbo" and "The Jungle Book" on DVD. I don't think I'd ever seen "Dumbo" as a kid, but I do think I saw "The Jungle Book" at some point. In both cases I was taken aback at the blatant race stereotyping: the wisecracking band of birds in "Dumbo" and the monkey tribe in "The Jungle Book." You've got an orang-utan who wants to be human, and you make him a jazz trumpeter and call him King Louie? That would never, ever fly in a Pixar movie...
The kids don't get it, and my hope is they never will have to. My other hope is that if they do ever make the connection between Louis Armstrong and King Louie, their reaction will be one of initial disbelief: "They did what???"
For now, all that sticks with them is the story and the dancing. They'll hum "bare necessities" at some point when they're older. I could deprive them of all that for fear of their picking up some latent racism along the way, or let them innocently enjoy the good bits until one day it clicks and they have an easy access portal into the troubled racial history of the USA. I prefer the latter: if we erase the "bad" people ("bad" films, "bad" books) completely, it's far too easy to disbelieve that bad things happened.
Despite living in Mickey's backyard, we tried as much as possible to stay away from cartoon versions of classic stories—The Jungle Book and Winnie-the-Pooh come to mind immediately—because the visual and auditory memories from a movie are so strong, forever displacing whatever the child's own imagination would have provided. Not to mention the problem that cartoons are so, well, cartoonish, instead of the more beautiful and complex original stories.
All that to say it's been a long time since I've seen the movies you mention, so I don't remember a lot of detail, though I do remember loving Dumbo as a child. (If there was a book for it to spoil, I never ran into it.)
One thing to keep in mind is that not only do you see the movies differently from your kids because you are an experienced adult, but you also see them differently from the generation before you. Communication is so much different now. It's hard even for me to remember when information moved slowly and a sneeze halfway around the world wasn't heard five minutes later in our living rooms. Despite vacationing every other year in Florida, I had almost no contact with anyone of another race. I don't remember any racial stereotyping, because race didn't begin to impinge on my world till I was in high school. Louis Armstrong to me was a face on the cover of one of my parents' record albums. The crows were just funny characters—I don't remember ever thinking they were somehow supposed to represent black people. And even if they were, I don't remember anything negative about them, though as I said, it's been a long time.
Yes, I share the same squeamishness about the Dumbo crows. The Jungle Book monkeys are a bit more complex, as it also represents a wonderful performance by a significant man (not Armstrong, actually--they wanted to get him but couldn't; it's Louis Prima instead). Of course then you get into the discussion about an individual with artistic agency, making his "own" music, but having it framed, appropriated, and contextually redefined by another's project--being willingly hired to be a singing ape. (And then we can get into discussions about Kipling, his attitudes toward British colonialism, Indian caste systems, and race.) Or, more likely, not get into those discussions with 4 year olds.
My girls are getting old enough now for us to institute a rule of "you read the book before seeing the movie," as they're approaching readiness for things like Wizard of Oz and Narnia. Of course, Disney and Kipling's Jungle Books bear so little resemblance that they hardly count...
Thanks for the comment, Andy. Too true about Disney and the Jungle Book. It seems to me that not only Disney but most movie-makers reveal more of their own culture than of the originals. Take LOTR for example....
Artistically, and turning a blind eye to any racial connotations, both the crows and King Louie are fun characters - King Louie's tragic turn makes him all the more real and I often wonder if he rebuilt, or made it big again somewhere else (New York, New YAAAAARK!). I think one reason King Louie now bothers me more than the crows is that too many soccer "fans" have thrown bananas on the pitch or made monkey sounds at African players. The crows may be the more cringeworthy caricatures, but I lack the immediate connection to that kind of racism.
Of course, the big concern in my household growing up was that the song was a pretty straight-up and unveiled celebration of evolution. "You see it's true/someone like me/can learn to be hu-u-u-man too-oo-oo." Of course, throw in Social Darwinism and there it all is.
I've also been personally challenged by the fact that it's much easier to censor these kind of issues than to talk about them. There are appropriate age levels, of course, for such talks, but I've personally always been more tempted to not bring home the library picture book about segregation or slavery than to try to explain it. And sometimes I still make the decision that it's too much too soon, but I try to challenge myself to at least try more often.