On a blog called Another Old Movie Blog, this post called That Was Then; This is Now deals with the incongruities of our modern consciousness when brought to bear watching old movies.
''This blog devotes itself to examining old movies in the context of the times in which they were filmed. Easy enough to say, but not always easy to do.
We are rooted in our environment, our own time, no matter how imaginative we are or knowledgeable, or sensitive to the time machine we climb into when we watch an old film. Some stuff, oddly the more shocking stuff, like racism and sexism one is almost able to easier put aside with a “that was how it was then” attitude. The lesser important stuff seems to grab us by the ankles sometimes and won’t let us go.
I wrote on “Vertigo” (1958) last week. In that essay I did not mention that while watching the slow chase of James Stewart following Kim Novak in the winding drives around San Francisco, mesmerized by Bernard Herrmann’s penetrating music, my mind drifted away from the mystery plot and instead I was foolishly preoccupied with how much gasoline they were wasting. I stopped thinking about the characters and instead become rather tense over how much it would cost to fill up her enormous Rolls-Royce and his huge Plymouth, and over the carbon footprint they were leaving.
Me, I wouldn’t have tailed Madeleine around all day without combining other errands to make the trip more gas efficient. Say, pick up my dry cleaning on the way to the art museum, or drop off my library books and pick up some groceries on the way to the Golden Gate Bridge.''
First of all, I am sure the writer must be aware that in 1958, when Vertigo was released, the price of gas was 24 cents a gallon, on average.
We also were not very concerned with the possibility of running out of fossil fuels then, and nobody knew what a 'carbon footprint' was. Global warming was unheard of, and the country was hardly overcrowded, having a population of about 175 million, as compared to today's (official) 300 million.
However the comments which followed the blog entry brought the predictable laments about the 'racism and sexism' of the old movies. I've found that it's impossible to discuss even the innocent subject of classic movies without having racism and sexism brought up, and this discussion was no exception to the rule:
''After years of watching these things and immersing myself in prior decades I have pretty good suspension of disbelief. What usually brings me up short are the racial attitudes. For ex: I love His Girl Friday but no amount of allowing for the period can keep me from cringing at the word "pickaninny." It throws me right out of the movie for a minute or two.''
What accounts for this 'cringing' at a word, spoken by a fictional character in a movie from six or seven decades ago? I am old enough to remember the older folks' use of the word 'pickaninny', and it was not considered a disparaging word, necessarily, as our preachy modern dictionaries describe it. I remember the older people using the term in a rather benign way. According to my 1936 Webster's Dictionary, the word is derived from the Portuguese 'pequeno', which means 'little'. Apparently it is from a diminutive form: 'pequinino'. How is that disparaging or 'hateful', and why should it cause cringing?
When we find ourselves in a discussion like this, wherein someone brings up some 'shocking' racism or sexism from the past, how do we answer without provoking charges of 'mean-spiritedness' or bigotry? Can we defend the past and its peculiar ways without putting ourselves beyond the pale? This is not just an idle question. I've often found myself in situations, particularly with younger people, where a subject such as this comes up, and I think it should be an opportunity to open up discussion about our own generation's quirks and hangups. And it is crucial to begin to rehabilitate the past, to remove from it the taint of 'bigotry', 'racism', 'sexism' and all the rest of the 'isms.'
If we are not able to do that, to remove the 'cringe factor' from the honest culture of yesteryear, then we will never be able to remove ourselves from the morass of political correctness and its paralyzing effects on our survival instinct.
We live in such an indoctrinated age, and an age in which many people, especially the young who have been saturated with leftist propaganda, are horrified by the barbarity, as they perceive it, of the older generations. They deplore the past for being 'sexist and racist', for supposedly believing themselves superior based on gender or race, but the present generation sees itself as superior based on their ideology and their 'advanced' ideals. Am I the only one who sees this as highly ironic? They decry anything which smacks of a sense of superiority and yet the prevailing view today is that we are infinitely superior to the past generations, who were environmentally destructive, driving gas-guzzling, polluting cars, smoking and eating unhealthy foods, and worst of all, were racist and sexist. There is such an air of sanctimony when denouncing these sins of the fathers, and yet no one seems to acknowledge that they themselves are claiming superiority while decrying the past for supposedly doing that very thing on another basis.
Most people are horrified by the idea of 'supremacism' based on ethnicity, race, or sex, but they actually hold generationally supremacist views: we are the ultimate in human enlightenment in our day. We are the epitome of 'evolved' attitudes; we don't discriminate because of race, color, religion, or sexual predilections. We tolerate everything except traditional attitudes and ways, because the past is bad, and our ancestors were ignorant and guilty of every imaginable heresy and crime.
This attitude is incredibly hubristic and arrogant; it will be our downfall if not checked.
Sometimes it works to point out the incongruity of decrying 'judgmentalism' while being judgmental and moralistic about the past. Sometimes it is possible to get the occasional honest liberal (granted, they are few and far between) to recognize, however reluctantly, that they are being 'supremacists' in claiming superior virtue and knowledge over their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.
The liberal always preaches that we mustn't apply the standards of Western culture to non-Western peoples; we must not judge some of the barbaric customs of Islam or the Third World generally because there is no single standard; we can't apply our Western prejudices to the other cultures. Yet there seems to be a contradictory belief that we can, no, must apply our post-1960s politically correct doctrines to the generations who preceded us, and condemn those who lived in the past because they don't measure up to our demanding and unforgiving PC standards.
Surely we are the most rootless generation that has ever lived, since we seem ready to disown our forebears as being unworthy of their superior offspring (us). This is not honoring our fathers and mothers. For a Christian, honoring father and mother is a commandment, and in fact it's a fairly universal moral standard in most cultures, but we as a generation have trampled on that commandment.
I believe it was Roger Scruton who first used the term oikophobia in talking about the present-day tendency to side with the other over one's own:
No adequate word exists for this attitude, though its symptoms are instantly recognized: namely, the disposition, in any conflict, to side with ‘them’ against ‘us’, and the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’. I call the attitude oikophobia – the aversion to home – by way of emphasizing its deep relation to xenophobia, of which it is the mirror image. Oikophobia is a stage through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested.''
I think this 'cringe' syndrome in connection with the perceived 'bigotry' of our parents and grandparents is simply part of this oikophobia, being ashamed of our own. Scruton mentions how as adolescents many people are embarrassed by their elders, fearing that the old folks will humiliate us in front of others. Many of us probably felt our parents did not measure up to the standards to which we aspired; they were old-fashioned in their clothes and hairstyles and speech; they didn't know the 'right' things to say and do. We thought all our friends' parents and families were so much more sophisticated and with-it than our own fuddy-duddy parents, so we cringed when our parents said something particularly old-fogeyish in the presence of our peers.
Liberals are typically very adolescent in their reactions and thought processes; they are still stuck in that phase of life where we are comparing ourselves to everybody else and wanting to be acceptable by their standards.
Of course most of us grew out of that phase; we grew up to respect our parents and to appreciate their wisdom and experience, and the sacrifices they made for us. If we are still 'cringing' at our parents' behavior when we are 25 or 30 or older, chances are, the problem is with us, not with the old folks.
'The past is another country; they do things differently there'. I quote that phrase occasionally because it is worth remembering. But maybe the fact that the past is 'another country' to us is a symptom of an unhealthy loss of continuity between our past and our present. The past is another country only because we've allowed ourselves to be estranged and distanced from our forebears and all they stood for and held dear. We've allowed ourselves to be shamed into thinking that our antecedents were ignorant or morally stunted, while we are enlightened and morally 'evolved'. We are viewing the past and our own ancestors from a high moral perch, and judging them wrongly. And when we're positioning ourselves on that high perch, we are courting a fall.