Friday, May 30, 2014

On Rehabilitation

What is the extent to which words, customs, practices and music with unsavory pasts are permitted to overcome those unsavory pasts and be rehabilitated?

There's a beautiful piece of music by Haydn.  Christians who attend churches that still sing traditional hymns would recognize it as the tune for "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and Christians have been singing it to those words for 200 years.  When Hitler came to power, that tune became the tune of the Nazi national anthem.  Today, the Nazi national anthem has been grandly forgotten -- I'd be surprised if one German in a thousand could recite the words to it -- and Christians continue to sing Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.  Some would say that the tune's use by the Nazis precludes it from being used in polite society.  Others would say that the world does not deserve to be robbed of a  beautiful piece of music just because it was appropriated by the Nazis.  If you want to hear what it sounds like, you can listen to it here:

What about Halloween?  Today, it is a silly children's holiday.  Once upon a time, it was a fairly bloody pagan religious ritual.  Its celebration was forbidden in the deeply religious home in which I was raised, in part for that reason.  Why should we celebrate an event that at one time caused much suffering?  On the other hand, there is no one alive who remembers that past, so should we deprive ourselves of what is today a bit of harmless fun for children?  The candy industry certainly hopes not.

Remember Yosemite Sam from the Buggs Bunny/Road Runner Hour?  Sam loved to cuss, and one of his favorite expressions was "cotton picking."  As in "ya cottin pickin varmint."  That term is of racist origin; it disparages the Black slaves who picked cotton in the South.  Probably none of the children watching Saturday morning cartoons in the 1960s and 70s made the connection.  A few of their parents might have made the connection.  But for most, it was simply a silly cartoon character saying silly things.

Reasonable minds may differ on the question, and it probably needs to be considered case by case.  But I'm of the mind that the better plan is to take power over words and music by not allowing their past to dictate our present.  Just because Hitler enjoyed Haydn's music doesn't mean I can't.  Just because slaves were disparaged doesn't mean I can't take some pleasure by watching a Yosemite Sam rerun on You Tube.

By doing so, we tell yesterday's bigots that we are stronger than they are; that while they are dust and ashes, we will transform their malevolence into joy.

There was once a restaurant that, in the 1950s, had a sign that said "No faggots allowed."  Time passed, and eventually the restaurant was sold to a gay man, who decided not to take down the sign.  He transformed it into a restaurant with a mostly gay clientele, and he still didn't take the sign down.  He left it up because every day the business opened with a gay owner and a mostly gay staff and a mostly gay clientele, was a day that he and his staff and his clientele were giving the finger to the sign and its previous homophobic owner.  Kind of like a dog taking a leak on a sign that says "No dogs."

The sign isn't there any more; a bunch of humorless bureaucrats from the local human rights commission didn't see it that way and made him remove it.  Pity.  I liked his message so much better.

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