That Dam dog is back: When offence transcends time

There’s a parallel stream of consciousness covering historical issues of race that advises us to treat it as both ‘product of its time’, and something we should stolidly endure, like decorative but draughty windows in a period house.

There’s a good example in the current issue of Index on Censorship magazine, taken up by Kunle Olulode, director of Voice4Change England, an advocacy group for the country’s Black and Minority Ethnic voluntary sector.

He believes that progressives who single out “parts of our culture that are out of step with modern life” are in danger of censoring art. Racist cultures from our recent past produced racist literature, art, TV and movies that live on into our more ostensibly tolerant, sensitive era. But the problem, says Olulode, “is not the film or the TV programme, but our reaction to it today.”

Why should our reaction be problematic? Because, he says, “an atmosphere is being created where there are whole historical spaces that have become taboo no-go areas for broadcasting”. Racist words and stereotypes should not be airbrushed out of old works, as though uncomfortable, they provide a vital insight into the past.

Well, yes, but in fact there are few things that will set off outraged accusations of censorship better than an attempt to query racist, sexist or homophobic content in historical cultural works. Rebecca Solnit wrote thoughtfully last week about this trigger effect in response to the reaction she got to a recent blog referencing Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, which for all its literary merit, is still a novel about a man “serially raping a child over a period of years”.

She had no desire to ban the book because of this, she was literally just saying, maybe in both senses of the phrase. But her critics were apparently upset and convinced that the “mere existence of her opinions and voice menaced others’ rights”. Solnit treated the anguished, angry, arrogant reprimands with weary patience. “Guys: censorship is when the authorities repress a work of art, not when someone dislikes it.”

In my own time at Index on Censorship, I used to call this kind of thing the “Dambuster Dog Syndrome”. This was in wry honour of the excellent 1955 movie, The Dambusters, an account of the WWII Allied air attack on Germany’s Ruhr dams.

The mission commander, Wing Commander Guy Gibson, in real life and in the film, had a black Labrador named after a well-known racial epithet. Racial Epithet was run over by a car on the eve of the raid, and in memoriam Gibson used his name as code word for a successful strike on the target. This is why, in film and real life, the climax of this extraordinarily courageous feat of arms was marked by joyful racist abuse in the air and back at base.

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US cinema distributors dubbed over Racial Epithet in 1955 to avoid offence over there, where he became ‘Trigger’, like the Lone Ranger’s horse. But there was outrage when British TV stations cut the original name in 1999 and 2001. More than once I was called up as a spokesman for Index to condemn this ruthless abrogation of free speech and act of historical revisionism. Officially Index said the cut was “unnecessary and ridiculous,” left holes in the film’s plot and as a 1950s film “should be kept in context”.

Truth is, I felt sorry for Gibson. In relative terms of contemporary technology and the hands-on way the airmen applied it, the raid may well have been the most complicated and dangerous military operation in history. Gibson brought it all together and won a Victoria Cross for it. He was 24 years old at the time. The same age that singer Ed Sheeran is now, by way of disorienting comparison.

Why not rename the dog Trigger for the film? Does Gibson the boy hero really need to be permanently enshrined as a casual racist? Even if he was? The “product of his time” defence hardly counts. There were enough West Indians serving in the RAF in 1943 to justify self-restraint from a senior officer. It had been well established as a derogatory word in the UK for centuries. That year many British citizens were becoming concerned by the segregation and racism among US forces gathering in the UK. So he knew. Does it make this extraordinary hero less of a man? Maybe.

But to give Racial Epithet the Dog a softer name in the movie infuriates those who argue that such sensitivity is the thin end of a wedge of ‘politically correct’ censorship. Such works should not be judged by modern norms, they say, but as products of their time, allowed to stand proud in their disconnected offensiveness, regardless of how the world changes around them.

Yet might it be so, to borrow from Oluode, that thanks to this principled intransigence, “an atmosphere is being created” where there are whole historical spaces that have become “taboo no-go areas” for critics of racism, sexism and homophobia?

“There is a common attack on art that thinks it is a defence. It is the argument that art has no impact on our lives, that art is not dangerous, and therefore all art is beyond reproach, and we have no grounds to object to any of it, and any objection is censorship.” Rebecca Solnit

The “product of its time” defence is a standard response to people who critically analyse sexism or racism in historical culture. As US cultural commentator Noah Berlatsky writes, as an excuse it’s quietly ubiquitous, but also wrongheaded.

“None of this is to deny the importance of historical context,” he writes. “But one important historical context is that inequities of race, gender, and class (to name just three) have been around for a very long time, and aren’t going anywhere. When creators address those issues, whether well or poorly, they are speaking to us. It’s a lot more respectful to argue with them than it is to pretend we have evolved past the need for ears.”

Olulode cites the 70’s TV show Love Thy Neighbour, which pitched a ‘comically’ stereotypical white racist against his black neighbour. He argues correctly that the series has historical significance that makes it worthy of study, like Leni Riefenstahl’s pre-war paean to Nazism, Triumph of the Will, which he also cites.

Like Triumph of the Will, clips of Love Thy Neighbour are extensively available on YouTube. You can judge for yourself, free of censorship. No modern UK TV documentary on 70’s representation of race is left incomplete without a clip. It’s understood, and remembered, for what it was. Nevertheless its 57 episodes over seven years – excluding the movie version and the short-lived Australian & US spinoffs – are not likely to get a re-run on UK TV.

It’s not censorship. Comedy has moved on. Modern viewers expect their satire to be sharper. I remember Love Thy Neighbour’s use of racist set pieces as hard going, but each episode would always end in a satisfying way. The racist white man and sometimes the black man next door – when his one-upmanship overtook good sense – were always the final subject of ridicule. Their patient, good-natured wives, white and black, would always have the last word.

But to call Love Thy Neighbour’s humour ‘broad’ just doesn’t do it justice. It’s dated and unfunny and as a commentary on stereotypes, it’s stupid-looking up against The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, never mind South Park or Modern Family. It’s worth a look, but not much more, let alone sitting through 28 hours’ of it.

“A historian who finds excuses for such conduct by references to the supposed spirit of the times or by omission or by silence, shows thereby that his account of events is not to be trusted.” C L R James

Does that mean we should laugh it off? Perhaps Gibson thought naming his dog after a racial epithet was supposed to be funny. Certainly Love Thy Neighbour thought it was, even if after decades it isn’t any more. The trouble is that unless you adopt that vaunted ‘sense of humour’ about historically contextualised racism, the full weight of moral outrage falls upon you.

“But seriously,” as Rebecca Solnit wrote, “you know who can’t take a joke? White guys. Not if it implicates them and their universe, and when you see the rage, the pettiness, the meltdowns and fountains of male tears of fury, you’re seeing people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days.”

But she is equally determined not to be silenced. Nor, crucially, is she interested in silencing others. To her a sense of humour is “that talent for seeing the gap between what things are supposed to be and what they are and for seeing beyond the limits of (our) own position”.

So how should we respond? Out of respect for free expression, with tolerance for the intolerant and sympathy for the racist? After all, there’s much to be said for the emasculating power of ‘meh’.

But I think that if we are going to hear the case for leaving out-of-date racist and sexist references unedited, we will want to have the reasons for our discomfort heard too. It’s not censorship to say we dislike something. Especially if we explain why. And while talking about the courage and casual racism of wing commanders, why not consider a sergeant’s feelings as well?

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Sergeant Lincoln Orville Lynch DFM, a West Indian air gunner serving with No. 102 Squadron at RAF Pocklington, February 1944. Courtesy Imperial War Museum
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