Monday, March 6, 2023

Whatboutism - Roald Dahl and "Cancel Culture"

There is more than a little irony that the party that wants to remove books from libraries for objectionable content, criticizes the other side for editing books to remove objectionable content.

Whatboutism or Tu Quoque is the classic grade-school taunt of "I know you are but what am I?"  The Soviet Union was famous for this.  If we criticized them for killing off millions of their citizens and throwing millions more into gulags for criticising the government, they could come back with an "Oh yea?  Well what about the blacks being lynched in the South?  What about that, smart guy?  What about that!"

And that sounds like a snappy comeback until you realize that the two things are not even remotely comparable.  Lynchings, while abhorrent, were illegal and not officially sanctioned by the government.  Yes, there might have been a Sheriff or two under those Klan robes, but on paper, at least, what was being done was against the law.   In the Soviet Union, what they were doing was the law and the people doing it were above the law.  In addition, while lynchings were abhorrent, there were not millions upon millions of them.  Stalin committed genocide. Comparing that to the actions of the Klan is like comparing a handful of sand to the beach.

But that is the beautiful thing about whataboutism - it is a quick, clever comment that takes paragraphs to debunk, and by then, the whataboutist (and the press covering him) have left the room, laughing.

Roald Dahl has always been a problematic writer - most are.  I was never into his writings as a kid.  My brother read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and saw the original movie (I was too young to go).  In retrospect, it is a creepy book, in that Willy Wonka was basically a child abuser. During the tour of the factory, various children are "eliminated" in dark ways (and initially appear to have been killed).  They survive the ordeal, at the end, but go through a lot of physical abuse along the way.  Recovered early drafts seem to indicate that Dahl wanted to "eliminate" even more children, but the number was edited down perhaps for length reasons, or perhaps his editor thought the book was turning into a child-snuff novel.

I digress here, but editing books in subsequent editions (as Dahl himself did) is nothing new, and in fact, is quite common.  Sometimes it is to correct typographical or formatting errors, sometimes because an author changes their mind about something or got some fact wrong.  Sometimes it is to rewrite history, as Bill Gates did, to change "The Internet is a fad" to "I saw, early on, the vast potential of the Internet!"  When you are Bill Gates, you can do that.

According to some sources, Charlie himself was supposed to be black - but was changed to white at the suggestion of an editor, who thought white child readers would better identify with a white main character.  I am sure Governor DeSantis agrees with that editorial decision!

The Ommpa-Loompas were more problematic, being written originally as pygmies from Africa who were basically enslaved by Willy Wonka.  Kind of an odd message to send to children, but at the time it was written, it wasn't considered controversial - after all, "everyone" knows that Africans are a lesser species of mankind - right?

So, editors (and Dahl himself) did a snip here and a tuck there - back in the 1960's! - to make the books more palatable - and to sell the movie rights as well.  Yes, it's all about the money.  It is like George Lucas editing Star Wars so that Han didn't shoot first.  That was also a crime, but you don't see people crying "cancel culture" over that do you?

Oh, wait, was that an example of whataboutism?  Mea Culpa!

Oddly enough, the reasons for doing so were the same.  When the original Star Wars came out, it was entertainment for adults, as well as children.  But a lot of the themes in the series were a little dark - with people being gruesomely murdered on a regular basis, and whole planets being blown up. Then there is the whole incest thing between Luke and Leia - because the whole brother/sister thing wasn't written until the sequels.

So they edited Star Wars to make it more family-friendly.  Han didn't shoot first, because anyone who has ever watched a Western knows the "good guys" don't shoot unless shot at, and Han is a "good guy" - or was, once the movie was edited (badly, I might add).   Now, Star Wars is safe for Disney!

So they edited Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to make it safe for the kiddies - and avoid an NAACP boycott of the movie in 1971A half-century later, the GOP cries "foul!".  There was nothing "dirty" in terms of sex scenes, to edit out, but the racism (which was also edited out of the Johnny Depp movie as well) and other coarse language was changed.  And Conservatives are outraged!

Well, not so much outraged as happy to have ammunition for a round of whaboutism.  As the Nazis dance around a pile of burning books, they can scream at the top of their lungs, "What about Roald Dahl?  You  Democrats canceled him! Ha-ha, losers!"

But of course, there is a big difference between editing a book and wholesale banning of books. In Florida right now, they have pulled every book off the shelf of school libraries. None will be allowed back until reviewed and approved by a board appointed by the Governor.  We are not talking about changing a word or two, but banning books outright.

And no doubt, under DeSantis, black pygmy Oompha-Loompas enslaved in a chocolate factory would pass muster under these new laws.  In fact, I suspect only the edited version would be banned.

I was never into Dahl, but not because his books were creepy and weird (something Johnny Depp picked up on by riffing on Michael Jackson in his playing of Wonka).  All literature is pretty creepy and weird, if you think about it.  Most books portray violence and sex - even children's literature.   These are things that interest humans.  Turn on the television - all there are, are cop shows and murder mysteries - and everyone, it seems, is having an adulterous affair on television.

Granted, maybe primary readers like Dick and Jane are pretty innocuous. But once you get into YA or "Young Adult" literature, it starts to get dark.  Young girls love to read Vampire romances, where sexual titillation is always on the horizon and someone is always getting bitten on the neck or staked through the heart.  Pretty gruesome stuff and I am sure many on the Christian right would find it satanic as well.

But that is the nature of literature - all literature.  It is written to provoke and inspire.  You don't have much to write about, if all you write about is an endorsement of the status quo, or a mere recitation of pleasantries.   In that regard, all literature - all good literature - has been controversial, at least at some point in time. Every author - every good author - has had the words "indecent" and "subversive"  used against them.  Most wear it with pride.

I for one, am not too worried about kids reading a "sanitized" version of  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  It won't scar them for life to not learn about enslaved pygmies in a candy concern.  The rest of the book, might.  But then again, there is sort of a life lesson in the book - the children who succumb to their basest instincts end up getting their comeuppance.  No doubt, the GOP would edit the book further to have the factory the subject of a leveraged buyout by Veruca Salt's wealthy parents.  After all, young Charlie should pull himself up by his boostraps!  Just giving away a candy factory to a "poor" is Socialism!  And we can't have that, can we?

Of course, this is all a distraction, like sexy M&Ms and the whole overblown "trans" thing. They want to make it seem like they are doing something, when they are, in fact, doing nothing at all.  It is like the bill introduced in Florida - clearly unconstitutional - that proposes that Bloggers can fined for saying bad things about Governor DeSantis.  This from the party of "free speech" and "the constitution."

You know something?  I give up!

And I guess I am going to be fined by the State of Florida, now, just for blogging.

Free Speech Absolutism, my ass!