Melting Pots and Swamps

President Obama sits down for beer with Harvard scholar Gates, police Sergeant Crowley and Vice President Biden in Rose Garden

A few weeks ago, I was bouncing around WordPress, which is my social medium of choice these days…my internet coffee klatch. I plopped “old movies” into the search box. I like old movies, even the black-and-white ones that have newspaper headlines spinning toward you, and where women are “dames” and the actors use cigarettes as fashion accessories.

Several article titles came up, and one in particular caught my eye: reviews of the 1937 and 1954 film versions of the acclaimed A Star is Born (also filmed in 1976, and again this year).

“Cool! Gotta read this,” I thought.

I’d seen the 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason. It’s about a young singer-actress whose star is rising, and whose actor-husband is descending into alcoholism, career suicide, and eventual real suicide. It’s a wrenching story, as well as an awesome musical.

And the WordPress article was also great. This reviewer didn’t just fling around the adjectives “awesome” and “great” …like I did above. She had a robust vocabulary, which is saying something in these days of tweets, texts, emails, and emoticons. She also went into revealing detail about infrequently discussed film topics, like the importance of supporting actors and the use of Technicolor.

She also stated that the 1954 film used “blackface.” Blackface is a popular topic now, ever since the firing of TV personality Megyn Kelly. For younger readers, or those who might live in Indiana, blackface was the practice of white entertainers painting their faces black and pretending to be African-American. The 1920s Jazz Age entertainer Al Jolson was the most well-known practitioner. By the latter 20th century, the practice had fallen out of favor, and is today considered insensitive, with many calling it racist.

jolson

Al Jolson

Anyway, the WordPress reviewer accused the film of having—and I quote verbatim—an “appalling display of racism.” Pretty severe accusation. I’d seen the 1954 version of A Star is Born, and I didn’t remember anything approaching racism. So, I clicked the hyperlink she conveniently provided, which took me to a YouTube clip of Dorothy (Judy Garland) dancing to and singing George Gershwin’s classic “Swanee,” which Jolson had made famous. Although Garland had a chorus of African-American dancers behind her, she was not wearing blackface. Neither was anyone else in the clip…at least, that my strained, macular-degenerative eyes could make out. I didn’t see anything that might remotely be construed as being racist.

I thought, How can a scene with a singer-actress (Garland), portraying a singer-actress (Vicki Lester), who performs a legendary 1950s rendition of a popular song, written in 1919, that was loosely based on a song from the 1850s, be considered an “appalling display of racism”? Is it because the song was once done by a white cat wearing blackface? Isn’t that a sociological and chronological leap? Would Rosa Parks have considered Garland’s innocent dance number racist?

garland

Judy Garland, singing and dancing in “A Star is Born”

Controversy is catnip. So, I submitted a reader comment at the bottom of the article. First, I praised the reviewer for her perceptive and well-written piece. Then, I politely took issue with her claim that inclusion of “Swanee” in the movie was racist, and that the movie included blackface. I went into some junk about Al Jolson, which was probably too much information. But I think I stayed close to topic, and was respectful. In other words, I wasn’t my usual arrogant prick.

I’m guessing that the writer, who looked fairly young, felt compelled to join the “shaming” chorus that inevitably accompanies our confused country’s frequent identity crises. Although, it’s possible I’m wrong on all this. Maybe I’m a throwback dance number myself, and displaying my own racial insensitivity. Could be I’m a flip-flopper. After all, I’m one who despises the football team nickname “Redskins” (at one time a derogatory term for Native Americans) and supports warehousing of certain inanimate Confederates. But I was anxious to at least hear her viewpoint.

However…she didn’t publish my comment. I was bummed.

Which brings me to this essay’s title. While there are a lot of negatives to instant communication and social media—silliness, egotism, stupidity, rudeness, hostility, encouragement of sloth, real “fake news,” fake “fake news,” bad English, five-letter words beginning with ‘T’—there are a few positives. One of them is strangers of different backgrounds—our vaunted “melting pot”—being able to share an ecosystem of different ideas, which is a characteristic of democracies. Diversity doesn’t just imply race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexuality, it also means diversity of thoughts and opinions. But if one party decides there will be lotsa give, but no take, then the melting pot becomes a putrid swamp. Nobody changes, nobody grows.

I’m used to this roaring silence from my elected representatives. But not from a real person.

I would have loved to hash it out with this writer…to participate in a sort of internet “beer summit,” and eventually arrive at a safe haven of consensus after running up the bar tab with ex-President Obama. Perhaps she’d have revealed to me my “whiteness” or “maleness.” Maybe she could have explained to this vintage man what she meant by her being an unapologetic “SJW.” (Does anyone know what an SJW is? I’m assuming it’s an acronym describing her marital status, race, and gender. Like I said, I’m a vintage man, and acronyms trouble me.)

Maybe I could have explained my liberal proclivities, to assure her that, despite our disagreement on this subject, I’m still not one of them. A few pejoratives directed at the hemorrhoid currently in the White House would surely have had us clinking our beer glasses (to Obama’s and sub-bartender Joe Biden’s delight).

Maybe I could have politely explained my theory of pulling back too far on the bowstring, which causes the archer to not only miss the bullseye, but overshoot the entire target. Which can create an ugly backlash like what occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, or at the polls in November 2016.

Alas, I didn’t get the opportunity. No beer summit with Obama and Biden. So much for the free exchange of ideas I anticipated.

Speaking of free exchange of ideas, does anyone care to, um, add ripples to my putrid swamp with a comment? As tough-guy actor Robert Conrad used to say in those battery commercials: “C’mon. I dare ya.”

Beer_summit_cheers

Peace, brother.

6 thoughts on “Melting Pots and Swamps

  1. Congratulations Pete, you have eloquently explained how it feels to be a moderately conservative old white male honky like me struggling to get along in our ever-expanding PC-SJW-WTF culture. The most important forms of diversity are those of thought, of ideas, of opinion, of perspectives, of historical context. Hallelujah!!! Well, except for morons from Indiana.

    • Thanks, Tad (hope you had a nice Christmas). Moderately liberal old white males like me are struggling, too. A lot of folks (especially in our institutions of higher learning) consistently beat the identity diversity drum, but ignore that diversity of ideas and opinions are more important. Education does not mean indoctrination. You give students information, to enhance their knowledge, and let them arrive at their own conclusions.

      (My Indiana reference was, of course, tongue in cheek, since I live close to the state line. I love Kurt Vonnegut, James Dean, and the speedway’s also pretty cool!)

  2. Pete, I can’t remember the Garland version of Star very well. But I’m sure that you’re correct in your assessment. The blogger who deleted your comment probably realized that.

    Like you, I don’t know what SJW is.
    Happy New Year to you and yours!

  3. Hi Peter! “Social Justice Warrior” has put her stamp on you. I share your frustration. How many times have you written to the editor, and never seen it printed in the daily paper?

    I have experienced something recently which was disturbing, and frustrating. I purchased some Union and Confederate toy soldiers for our grandson. The full complement is 12 pieces per side, each with a flag bearer. When the six-piece Confederate flag bearer set was not available in the store, the retailer gave me her supplier’s website. I went there, and ordered the missing six.

    Because the website didn’t provide a clear image of the contents, I submitted an order comment to the effect, “make sure the Confederate Flag is included”. I received an email back from the vendor cancelling my order, with the explanation that the flag was no longer available. “It had been repainted”.

    I note your reference above to storing a few “inanimate confederates”. Tongue in cheek, perhaps, it depends upon the person. In Canada there is a movement afoot to remove our founding prime minister Sir John A. MacDonald’s statue from a library in Ontario because it is offensive to First Nation subscribers. Queen Victoria is on shaky ground in Victoria, BC for similar feelings. So: do we re-write history, or just bury it? Or do we suck it up and learn from the mistakes of the inanimates?

    I hope you sent a copy of your post to SJW. She may have just fluttered off to another task, and never came back.

    On a completely different note, I just finished a fascinating book called “Longitude” by Dave Sobel. It is the story of John Harrison’s 18th century pursuit, design and manufacture of a time piece that would accurately tell mariners where they were when out of sight from land. If you haven’t seen this book, I recommend it.

    All the best!

    • Ahh. Social Justice Warrior. I thought “SJW” might be “Single Jewish Woman” or something. (Guess I could’ve Googled it, but I was lazy.) Another acronym conquered!

      Yeah, these endless identity squabbles are tiresome. Lotsa liberals go way too far, and lotsa conservatives lack empathy. As with “Merry CHRISTmas” versus “Happy Holidays,” I guess I’m in the middle somewhere. Chief Wahoo and “Redskins”? Get rid of it. Repainting Confederate flags on toy soldiers? Gimme a break! As far as Confederate monuments go, I feel there are subtle and tasteful ways to remember the Lees and Jacksons without glorifying them in the city square, which, if I were black, would really piss me off. This “Southern heritage” bullshit is just that. Tony Horwitz, author of the excellent “Confederates in the Attic” (and “Blue Latitudes,” about James Cook) wrote a short and sharp history of rebel memorials, and there’s more than meets the eye (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/is-the-confederacy-finally-about-to-die-for-good/2017/08/16/289e4db8-82b3-11e7-902a-2a9f2d808496_story.html?utm_term=.e922fed6e5b7).

      I know about “Longitude” but haven’t read it yet. I’ll add it to my list! (I’m reading a great history of Columbus’s voyages right now, by Laurence Bergreen).

      Thanks again, Phil!

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