Black Doll

Black Doll

"Disney removes racist dolls, racists angry" - that could be a summary of the latest storm in the Swedish teacup.

1. Background: Disney on Christmas Eve

Christmas traditions vary over the globe. One peculiar part of Swedish Christmas is that the whole family sits down around the TV and watches Donald Duck and other Disney cartoons. Going to church, eating ham and pickled herring, a Christmas tree, presents... and Donald Duck. The origin of this strange custom is in the 1970s. This was the time when the political left was at its zenith. Childrens' cartoons were limited to productions imported from the Communist Bloc, and their quality was... well, if they're not listed in the Black Book of Communism[a], they ought to. There were also other TV shows dedicated to infusing the proper values into the young.

Into this came Disney with a one-hour show consisting of some shorts and clips from a number of aminated feature films[b].

Much like people in the eastern bloc countries voted with their feet, people in Sweden voted with their eyeballs. There you have it: If you don't like Donald Duck on Christmas Eve, you hate freedom.

2. Background: The Dolls

One of the shorts being shown is Santa's Workshop[c] from 1933. Among the dolls manufactured in the workshop, we see a pickaninny[d], a jew and a girl that is instructed to say "mama". Disney executives of 2012 found these dolls racist, antisemitic and sexist, respectively, and cut those scenes.

The reaction was predictable: Political correctness has gone too far.

The Danish state television channel initially said they would appeal the decision, but then backpedaled. Probably because they realized there wasn't anybody to appeal to. Trenches were dug, Facebook groups were created, columns written - both for and against the cuts - and in the end we ended up with... nothing. A bit more bruises, perhaps, but the debate failed to reach any higher level.

3. My Point

The basic problem we face is how we deal with a past, and the cultural artifacts and traditions from that time, when we find that they don't measure up to the morals of today.

My point with this article is that we can't remove the bad old, we can only cover it in the good new.

With that, I mean that our principal approach to depictions of the moral shortcomings of old should not be to cut them out, but to produce more depictions with our current level of morality that will gradually replace them. As the saying goes, the cure for hate speech is good speech. In fifty years' time, what we produce today will no doubt seem rabidly racist, sexist and intolerant. Then it will be its time to be buried under the cultural works of the day.

Therefore, Disney's editing, while for a good cause, is both futile and robs us of a window into the bad old past from which we could learn. They should have removed the cartoon in its entirety and replaced it.

4. Extirpation as Strategy

Wouldn't it be great if we could just draw a rectangle around all the racist stuff in the world and press "delete", and it would be gone? Sure, but we can't. Understanding why requires us to understand our own history.

For most of human history, slavery, like genocide, has been an institution. While today anyone taking slaves would best be quiet about it, in the past it would be a cause of pride[1]. During the most known example, the Atlantic slave trade, people were enslaved in Africa and shipped to the New World between 1450 and 1807[e]. Then, it took another 150 years, including a civil war[f], before the Civil Rights act passed. No doubt, the world of the past required people from slave-owning and slave-trading societies to look upon blacks as not quite human[2]. What we need to understand is that we, as a culture, have been marinated in this for over half a millenium. It is only in the last few decades that we climbed out of the sauce and have tried to clean ourselves, but nobody should think that we haven't absorbed anything.

Every cultural artifact is a product of its times. Therefore, even if we remove the most overtly racist artifacts, we are left with books, songs and stories that while not blatantly racist, will still in some way reflect the racism of the society that produced them. For example, how many young adult novels from the first half of the 20th century feature black protagonists? It's not that blacks didn't exist back then - it's just that those writing books, those publishing books, and those buying and reading books, by and large didn't care. While such omissions would not be called outright racist, they certainly would not be called inclusive or representative of today's society.

As we move toward a less racist society, the mass of cultural artifacts that we have will, by necessity, on average lag behind us in morals. After all, if the past is more racist than the present, we would need books from the future to balance up the racism of the past in order for the average to end up where we are now.

A strategy based on extirpation, then, would trend toward a perpetual Year Zero. If our ethics improve, and we don't accept anything that is below our current level of ethics, then only the products of now can ever pass muster. I don't think even the most ardent anti-racist would be willing to bring our culture up to date if it meant leaving us with cultural memory loss coupled with an inability to form new memories.

5. Extirpation in Practice

In the previous section I argue that removing works won't remove racism. Here, I'll argue that even if we did push the cultural reset button, we'd still not get where we want.

Let's take a black person. They go to the library. All books are racist, so they can't find anything worth reading. Then we remove all books to get rid of racism. There's still nothing to read.

The fight against racism isn't, as some people like to think, a battle where we are supposed to destroy something or someone to win. It is about creating something new. This is why the current focus on the Sweden Democrats, our local Nazi-party[3], is ultimately wrong. Racism grows to fill the spaces we don't fill with tolerance.

6. The Only Way Out is Through

If we can't get rid of the past, the only option left is to move forward. We can't import culture from a more enlightened future, but we can shift the moral center of gravity of our culture more toward the present simply by producing more culture today. Producing good culture is always good, but I think this production strategy has five things going for it in particular:

  1. It is inclusive. If everyone creates what they percieve as good, then even if we disagree, we are left with a wider spectrum of thought. If we try to cut away what is bad, we get a narrower spectrum as we demand perfection.

  2. We focus on the future instead of trying to reshape the past to fit the present. Popular culture is not just entertainment, but also part of the historical record. By removing parts of the record that doesn't fit the present definition of "good", we try to make the past into something it wasn't. As I argue in the preceding section, we'll fail, too.

  3. It is politically palatable. Two of the big race-related uproars of 2012 have been linked to someone trying to remove racist works. If, instead, they had gone on a shopping spree to add, not remove, works, nobody would have cared.

  4. It is multicultural. Instead of the monoculture of the nationalists, or the "zero-culture" of those who worry that any cultural expression will lead to excluding people, this is multi-cultural. We let everyone be exposed to a smorgasbord of different cultures from which they can pick the best bits and make it part of own culture.

  5. It is democratic. Instead of worrying about which "certified good" template everyone should follow, we let everyone follow their own consciences.

Let me finish with three examples of how a creative approach differs from the current destructive one:

  1. I received an email wishing me "Merry holiday"[4]. I'm sure this was intended to be inclusive. It is, in a way - it includes everyone that celebrates a holiday that is near the end of December each year and that isn't New Year's; which leaves us with few choices. A better approach would be to leave it as "Merry Christmas", but also send out greetings for Eid al-Fitr, Newroz or any of the other holidays we de-facto have in Sweden. Personally, I'd love if someone wished me a Happy Newroz or Happy Eid. The Sweden Democrats, being what they are, will of course be angry[g], but who cares about them?

  2. Instead of worrying about schools taking their pupils to church around Christmas, start taking the pupils to the local mosque as well. Let's hear what Islam has to say about Christmas, Jesus and other things.

  3. Behrang Miri decided to remove Tintin comics from the library in Kulturhuset[h] because they were racist. The following furor netted him a number of death threats. If he instead had contacted the people at Africomics[i], he could have let the old Tintin books gather dust on the shelves in peace and widened the horizons of every visitor to the library.