Suffer the little children
February 25, 2004 7:41 PM   Subscribe

Birth of a Nation: one of the most controversial films in american history. The film "...was banned in more than a dozen localities (and furthermore has been the most banned film in American history) because of its white supremacist sympathies, racist stereotypes, and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan..." Sex, Sin, and Blasphemy,Marjorie Heins. Given the recent controversy over Gibson's film, where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and censorship? when are these debates influenced by politcal agenda rather than sincere concern?
posted by poopy (27 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think a lot of the current drive for censorship is driven by a feeling that living in a tolerant culture means we have to be intolerant - in law - of intolerance. The hyper-sensitivity surrounding any discussions of race, religion, or, increasingly, culture (for instance, commentators on faults in Islamic culture being derided as racists, even when they aren't), means that our culture is becoming more censorious of some things while more accepting of (esp. sexual) material that would once have merited censorship.

And I think the answer to where we draw the line is that unless something actually advocates killing gays, or blacks, or Jews, or whoever, we permit it. Short of actual incitement to violence, censorship is unacceptable.
posted by Dasein at 7:51 PM on February 25, 2004

when are these debates influenced by politcal agenda rather than sincere concern?

posted by trondant at 7:55 PM on February 25, 2004

Short of actual incitement to violence, censorship is unacceptable.

So you're saying the neo-cons should have been censored?
posted by dgaicun at 8:02 PM on February 25, 2004

Are there people actually calling for censoring Gibson's film? I'm certainly not aware of any.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:06 PM on February 25, 2004

I don't think censorship is a good thing whether it's a myopic film that glorifies the Klan or a 2 hour Jesus beating. Films that are repellent are on their face that way and it shouldn't take the government to deter audiences. It wasn't the NC-17 that kept people from seeing Showgirls, it was the fact that the film sucked. American's can at times be shallow and boorish but they won't waste their time on material that's just shock and no substance. Ok, except for reality TV.
posted by shagoth at 8:17 PM on February 25, 2004

Debates are usually influenced by both. Censorship is more often used by those who disapprove of things that are contrary to their worldview/religion. There were no calls for censorship or banning of Gibson's movie, only expressions of concern, fanned by Gibson himself, and his marketing strategy. You can contrast that with the actual banning and removal of books from schools all over the country, usually because of religious reasons.
posted by amberglow at 8:18 PM on February 25, 2004

One of the most important characteristics of any censor is that they believe they have moral, emotional, or intellectual superiority over everyone else(*).

How they rationalize who should not see the forbidden thing is interesting: always bordering on outright bigotry, it reflects their strong and often irrational prejudices. But more than anything else, look at them as people who are deathly afraid. And they hate that which they fear.

Even the most "moderate" censor is as scared of what they wish to censor, as is a Taliban is of seeing a nude female. It is earth shattering. Devastating to their little world, their definition of reality.

They are pathetic creatures.

(*) Creators of 'morality plays' also fit into this category.
Think of that the next time you see a "bad guy" punished on TV or in the movies.
posted by kablam at 8:36 PM on February 25, 2004 [1 favorite]

Wouldn't The Last Temptation of Christ be a more apt for comparison? There were calls to censor that film, this time from the right. Seems to me, morality has little to do with it, the same story just gets re-politicized, over and over again.
posted by lilboo at 8:42 PM on February 25, 2004

Speaking of censorship...
posted by homunculus at 9:03 PM on February 25, 2004

I think in general it's better to expend our energies in making some good noise than in trying to silence or censor other voices.
posted by orange swan at 9:05 PM on February 25, 2004

Speaking of censorship...

Exactly, and with it coming the day before the Clear Channel CEO's appearance at a House subcommittee hearing on "broadcast decency"...

Scary world this is turning into.
posted by snarkywench at 9:12 PM on February 25, 2004

So, is it that we have a problem with "white supremacist sympathies, racist stereotypes, and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan", or that we have a problem with admitting that racism is part of American History?
posted by ilsa at 9:30 PM on February 25, 2004

It wasn't the NC-17 that kept people from seeing Showgirls, it was the fact that the film sucked.

posted by majcher at 9:47 PM on February 25, 2004

Speaking of censorship...

I think it's important to distinguish between two different types of what you might call censorship, or censoriousness: media corporations pulling shows or anchors or performers or whoever for the wrong reasons and actual legislated censorship. I agree that the former is worrying, since in some ways it's a more insidious form of censorship (if you're afraid that you'll ruin your career by deviating from accepted wisdom, the debate of ideas shuts down). But it's not directly comparable to censorship by law.

We should be careful that we don't end up calling all broadcast decisions to uphold standards of decency censorship. Howard Stern, for instance, really is "vulgar, offensive, and insulting," and he should have been off the air long ago for basic reasons of quality and decency. I suppose your view of this hinges on the value of the content. I wouldn't call this censorship; but if he were yanked for, say, opposing the war in Iraq (this is alternate-universe Stern) then I would be tempted to say he was censored.
posted by Dasein at 9:51 PM on February 25, 2004

If Clear Channel is interested in decency, are they going to shut down Rush Limbaugh?
posted by Goofyy at 9:52 PM on February 25, 2004

I'm a far far left leaning pinko commie liberal pansy and I have to say I'm very consistently disappointed by my bretherens' tendency to want to censor what they consider abhorrent, as if censorship were a valuable tool worth keeping sharp. Consider the political correctness craze. But bring up the topic of censorship in a general way, and they'll tell you every time that it's bad bad bad. Weak.

"The epic portrayed the Klan as a noble group of loyal Southerners fighting to protect a way of life -- usually by chasing down blacks while riding horses, carrying torches and wearing hoods."

I've always thought it was ridiculous the way the old South was perceived as a noble city on a hill, a jewel of civility amid a dark, brutal wilderness.... almost as tragic as America's current delusions of righteousness (ie:"they hate us because we're free").
posted by scarabic at 10:50 PM on February 25, 2004

Worth noting, the facts that the links above may not give the whole picture: Birth of a Nation is truly regarded as a seminal cinematic piece, but obviously it came out at a time when it was both loved and loathed. From this book (which, as a native Tulsan, I found truly mind-opening and insightful):
No wonder that as the movie's premiere neard,black groups such as the NAACP gouth desperately in the courts to prevent it from being shown. Oswald Garrision Villard, a founder of the NAACP and owner of the New York Post, decried the film as "a direct inceitement to crime. It is a deliberate efforet to arouse racial prejudice and to injure a large class of citizens." It soon became clear, however, that attempts to block the movie's distribution were futile. It turned out that Birth of a Nation had been secretly previewed and endorsed by both President Woodrow wilson and Edward D. White, chief justic of the U.S. Supreme Court. "It is like writing history with lightninig and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true," Wilson said. Northern critics alomst unanimously celbrated Griffith's film as a watershed moment in American movie-making. Audiences packe theaters from coast to coast. The movie ran for forty-seven weeks in New York City alone.

"It makes me want to go out and kill the first Negro I see," said one Northerner.

"Others questioned whether their ancestors had gouth on the wrong side during the Civil War," Wade, the historian wrote. "A 'Ku Klux fever,' similar to that of Reconstruction, was revived in the North, and manufacturers responded with the production of Ku-Klux hats and Ku-Klux kitchen aprons. New Yrok society matrons held Ku-Klux balls. And on Halloween, student at the University of Chicago threw a party where two thousand young people cavorted in Klan costumes".

In the South, Griffith's mvoie was reverd as "a sacred epic." Audiences wept and cheered. In one Southern theater, a man shot up the screen trying to protect Little Sister from the beastly Gus. With his film, Griffith seemed to unite white Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line in their racial fears and hatreds. Birth of a Nation also ensured that the white-robed order would ride again.
Just a bit of perspective. Much more to it, but it wasn't solely a Dixie thing, and this film really did do a lot to reignite a, at the time, flailing Klan movement.
posted by Ufez Jones at 10:55 PM on February 25, 2004

and sorry, any typos or grammatical errors are solely my fault.
posted by Ufez Jones at 10:57 PM on February 25, 2004

Because of the controversy I really want someone to Bit Torrent this.

Now, that raises a few questions that I may possibly assume, and here are my answers. See? I already made an ass out of myself.

Q: Why would you ever want to see something like this?
A: I want to see this movie because it has been whitewalled, and it is a part of our history, a beacon of an ideaology that was shared in the early 20th century. This is very important to consider and view this and other pieces from an educated and current view.

Q: Are you racist?
A: Fuck no.

Q: Do you think other people less level headed than yourself may get 'pulled' into this set of idealisms by viewing it?
A: Maybe. But then again they might have been looking for any reason at all.

Q: Do you find truth to racism?
A: "Truth" to racism is what people may think when they think mexican immigrants are taking white peoples jobs, and this can go vice versa, as an example. Racism is all encompassing, and by that act completely removes any truth to it. There are situations where a person is simply a shithead who happens to be different than you, and you may make assumptions based on that incident. Racism is brought on by fear of change or ideas. Fear is the primary logic behind racism.

Q: Have you ever told a racist joke?
A: Ive got one. What do you call a white person dancing? An epileptic seizure. Funny, huh? Maybe you didn't laugh, but it was a little funny in its own way. Humour in this example is the brain interpreting something that clicked an emotion because of either not understanding the reason or imagining some truth to it.

Q: Birth Of a Nation should not be viewed by anyone. It should be destroyed, and we should forget about its existence, or at least mention it but never view it. What do you think about that?
A: Then we are doomed to repeat the past.
posted by Keyser Soze at 5:12 AM on February 26, 2004

found it.
posted by Keyser Soze at 5:19 AM on February 26, 2004

"It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”—President Woodrow Wilson regarding Birth of a Nation. No comparable quotation yet from W.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:25 AM on February 26, 2004

"It is all so terribly true..." Hey, Woodrow Wilson probably knows more about reconstruction than you do, and D.W. Griffith heard the tales first hand. There were many outrages during that period, and some not-exactly-precise, but thought-provoking parallels might be drawn between the Northern Army's occupation and liberation of the South, and the U.S.'s current liberation and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan -- mainly in how "ready" the occupied people are for democracy, and how the occupying army should handle the settling of blood feuds, ethic hatreds, and that sort of thing. Now "Birth of a Nation" is based on a turn-of-the-century novel called "The Klansman," which is a flat-out revision of the history of the Civil War, which has Lincoln verbalizing his determination that the war not be about slavery, but re-unification, and all that sort of thing. These southerners did not like reconstruction one bit, and who can blame them? They were racists and slaveholders! Are they supposed to become "Kumbaya" liberals overnight? And the freed slaves, they were a brutalized people, many were kept crude, ignorant and illiterate, were they supposed to exercise enlightened citizenship among the people who'd kidnapped, tortured and kept them in bondage for 300 years? These things aren't easy. And to further complicate matters, all of the African-Americans in Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (and some of his other films) are played by what are clearly sharp-nosed, thin-lipped white men slathered with blackface in one of the least successful illusions in film history. You have to go back to y2karl's brilliant 2002 post on the minstrel show to begin to understand that...
posted by Faze at 8:38 AM on February 26, 2004

Well hrm. I think that both movies should be examined and critiqued for what they are. On the other hand, it seems like a lot of political partisans are weak-kneed when faced with actual criticism and willing to cry "censorship" at the drop of a hat.

In fact, it seems that both sides are highly hypocritical. The same people who would cry "censorship" over "political correctness" are the same people who gnash their teeth at views of religion they consider irreverent.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:17 AM on February 26, 2004

I think there's an enormous difference between calling for censorship and gnashing your teeth. One is the exercise of free speech, and the other is the opposite of that.
posted by amberglow at 10:42 AM on February 26, 2004

To repeat kicking's question: Can anyone cite an example of anyone calling for Gibson's film to be banned or censored?
posted by Daze at 12:24 PM on February 26, 2004

Hey, Woodrow Wilson probably knows more about reconstruction than you do

Yeah, 'cause Princeton, New Jersey was such a klan hotbed? I'm sure he and his UVA buddies had to fight off the raging black men from attacking Virginia's pure white women all the time. Wilson also effectively said that all school children in America should have to see the film.

We could also draw parallels between the reconstruction and occupied Japan if we'd like to, or how about Roman occupied Palestine in the first century AD, (maybe there's more too this Passion /Nation connection). Doesn't make the parallels particularly relevant.
posted by Pollomacho at 1:13 PM on February 26, 2004

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