Sanitising history

posted in: Life and things | 4

When I went to university I studied history. One of the reasons was my own family history – that is, what my family endured during World War II in Amsterdam.  It was all relatively fresh back then. My four sisters were all born before the war and the older of my two brothers was born just after the Germans marched into Holland. In Australia, many of my friends’ parents had been in the army fighting the Japanese. The memory of the war years was a part of life.

But as the years turn into decades and those who survived start to die off, memories fade and facts become fuzzy. In particular, the horrible reality of the Holocaust has, for far too many, become a late-night movie shot in tones of sepia, something that wasn’t real. Some world leaders (and others) state the Holocaust never happened. And in Europe and America and Australia, too, angry young white men wave Nazi flags to show their superiority. They wave a flag that their grandparents fought to tear down. Have they forgotten, or did they never know?

I read an article in The Australian the other day – I won’t link it because it’s a subscription newspaper. The headline is “Golden oldies out of tune with the taste tests of today”. As you’d expect, it’s about musical lyrics from the sixties and seventies which these days would (apparently) cause people to raise their eyebrows.

Examples include:

  • Summer Nights from Grease: That line “did she put up a fight?” had to go (see above)
  • Rolling Stones’s Brown Sugar: “Hear him whip the women just around midnight” is not acceptable and Mick Jagger no longer sings those words.
  • Beatles’s Norwegian Wood: Apparently about a man who is annoyed with a woman who won’t sleep with him, so he burns down her house. Can’t have that. (To which I’ll add it had never occurred to me that’s what the song was about until I read the article)
  • Johnny Cash’s A Boy Named Sue: Gender stereotypes.
  • Etc

Artists have been forced to change the words, or the songs are no longer played by some broadcasters.

This isn’t new. Enid Blyton’s gollywogs had to go because they were seen as demeaning black people. That connotation never occurred to this avid reader. Gollys were just dolls.

Agatha Christie’s excellent 1939 murder mystery And Then There Were None was originally titled Ten Little Niggers, after the children’s rhyme of the same name which plays an important role in the plot. You’ll find the words of the rhyme – several different versions – in this article. But the word ‘nigger’ was deemed offensive in the US, so the name was changed for that market. And I accept that’s fair enough. That’s marketing. For instance, Jack McDevitt’s book Slow Lightning was called Infinity Beach in America for the same reason.

These days, the title Ten Little Niggers has been changed to And Then There Were None for everybody. I suspect ‘ten little Indians’, which was the version of the rhyme I remember from my childhood, was just as offensive. For me it was a counting rhyme with no particular connotations at all. In fact, I don’t see how words in this sort of context can offend. Sure, words can be weapons – either in person or on social media, cruel epithets flung at people. But something like a book title?

Then there’s all the tub-thumping about statues. In the US it’s the Civil War monuments. In Australia, Captain Cook’s statue has been defaced. In Holland people argued about the statue to Coen (governor of Batavia in what is now Indonesia) in his birthplace of Hoorn. In Oxford, Cecil Rhodes’s legacy is under attack. Benjamin Franklin is criticised for owning slaves. Lord Nelson is criticised for participating in the slave trade.

All of this bothers me. It’s white-washing history, trying to sanitize the past to fit in with what’s acceptable now and I think it’s counter-productive.

These events happened. Those beliefs were common, and acceptable. If we try to pretend none of it ever happened, we’re kidding ourselves. That’s how you end up with white supremacists waving Nazi flags as though that’s the New Order to which we should aspire. Isn’t it better to accept that bad things happened in the past and move on? You know, actually LEARN from history?

Going back to the musical lyrics, one has to ask if the current gangsta rap music is going to be held to the same standards as the golden oldies from the sixties? Or is it okay for current music to talk about sex, drug-taking, rape, and murder? The rappers themselves contend they’re ‘singing’ about the reality of inner cities, where poverty, drugs, and despair are a way of life. Songs written in the sixties and seventies likewise reflected the era.

Perhaps in fifty years or so, when the current hits become the golden oldies, they’ll be sanitised then.

4 Responses

  1. Laurel C Kriegler

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Greta. My Mom was a child of WW2 – grew up in London, and clearly remembers the bombings. I did not grow up with racism – yes, I grew up in South Africa in the dying years of Apartheid, but my parents ALWAYS treated EVERY person as an equal human being. I never once heard any people being put down for any reason at all. And like you, stories and rhymes were just that, stories and rhymes…and dolls. No hidden meanings or associations at all.

    Thank you for saying this.

  2. marj

    So many are trying to change history these days. Sometimes sanitising, but also, often, exaggerating the bad things.
    But we cannot change what happened and should not try.

  3. Mona Karel

    some good points here. I was not aware of the level of evil in the Congo until recently but I did know about slavery in the South, and I question monuments to those people who fought to continue to own slaves. In spite of reams of words written we really don’t know much about our history. Some dates, some names, some pretty or not so pretty pictures…going back millennia. It often takes an excellent writer to bring home the horror of our wars (Cream of Man soup, anyone?) Never mind the true reason for those wars.
    THANKS for the nudge to keep learning

    • Greta

      I take your point about the monuments to people who fought to keep slavery alive (and others). These things are rarely black and white. Southern soldiers died fighting for a cause. German soldiers died fighting for the Nazis in WW2.

      The US has come a long way if it’s got to the point where having a monument to supporters of slavery is considered wrong. So it’s not a bad thing that people are asking questions. That’s how we learn. Maybe if the statues weren’t there, the questions wouldn’t be asked.

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