Reviews > Culture

Censuring 'censorship'

Culture | PBS series at least recognizes that liberals want discretion exercised, too

Issue: "Roe vs. Wade 2000," Jan. 22, 2000

The series sounds decidedly unpromising-beginning Jan. 26, PBS airs four programs, called collectively Culture Shock, about censorship and the arts. Surprisingly, though, the series manages to avoid being a publicly funded commercial for more public funding of bad art. Produced by WGBH, the flagship Public Broadcasting station that pretty much botched last fall's Frontline biography of Pope John Paul II, Culture Shock is relatively light on rhetoric. That's not to say the programs aren't problematic, with plenty of Christian bashing and secular sermonizing, but there's some good history here, and some useful perspective on surprisingly current debates. The best of the bunch airs the first night: "Born to Trouble: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." It couldn't be more timely; the Pennsylvania NAACP announced in November that its branches were all instructed to file grievances with the state's Human Right Commission, demanding that Mark Twain's classic be removed from the reading lists in public high schools. "Tax dollars should not be used to perpetuate a stereotype that has psychologically damaging effects on the self-esteem of African-American children," the organization said. And in December, the Enid, Okla., school district did remove Huckleberry Finn from the required reading lists after a group of black ministers began a campaign against the book. Their evidence was a single letter, written by a girl who had graduated, that said she was hurt by the book. The issue, of course, is the word nigger-it appears more than 200 times in the book. It does cause discomfort-not only to blacks, but also to conservatives, who really don't want in on this fight. After all, we do know the sting of being ridiculed for objecting to certain public-school reading lists. And PBS does exactly the right thing here-it goes to some thoughtful black defenders of Twain, such as author David Bradley (The Chaneysville Incident), and Harvard's Jocelyn Chadwick-Joshua. Mr. Bradley explains that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains one of the strongest anti-racist books ever written because it causes readers to see Jim as a man, not a caricature. "At the beginning, you're seeing Jim as Huck sees him," Mr. Bradley says. "But throughout the book, he's peeling away the minstrel mask, and we move toward a very complex portrayal." And PBS does address the troubling contradiction of popular black comedians and rappers filling their own material with the n-word.When confronted with this, the anti-Twain forces merely grumble that it's not the same thing. The remaining programs are a disappointment after the fine work on Huck Finn. The second episode, "The Shock of the Nude: Manet's Olympia," fails to rise above the predictable rhetoric. And as if to make a point, PBS plans to air not only Manet's famous nude, but live nude models participating in a photographic reproduction of the painting. And though it does a great job of rendering Paris during the Second Empire period (that's when Manet and others were shaking up the art world), it draws the wrong conclusions. It all but pats us Moderns on the back for being too sophisticated to be scandalized by nudity. We're not-we're too jaded. And for the record, it was never the nudity that critics objected to in Manet's work--there were naked Venuses and Dianas and Didos lying around everywhere back then. No, it was the glorification of the sickly, syphilitic "courtesan" (prostitute) that the public rejected.The Victorians were more sophisticated than we are in being able to make these kinds of distinctions. The episode on movie ratings, "Hollywood Censors: Movies, Morality and the Production Code," engages in some first-rate Christian bashing, by blaming the terrors of the Production Code Administration (a completely voluntary policing effort, instigated by the studios themselves) on "strict Catholic moralist" Joe Breen. But it never really says what those terrors were. Less sexual innuendo? More family-friendly films? "It's the difference between Mae West and Shirley Temple," says film historian Thomas Doherty. And that's a bad thing? The most salient point the program makes-and makes offhandedly, almost regretfully-is that when Hollywood was policing itself, Hollywood was successful, prosperous, uplifting, and artistically creative. "Hollywood was the greatest it's ever been," PBS admits. The final episode, "The Devil's Music: 1920s Jazz," is a little better, but again it puts prominent cultural conservatives-in this case Bill Bennett-against the supposed voices of freedom and liberty. The series Culture Shock is scheduled to air from Jan. 26 through Feb. 2, but check local listings. PBS affiliate stations have lots of leeway about when and if to air programming, a discretion that when practiced by parents and school boards is often mistaken for censorship.

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