It’s hard out there for a Washington Post book reviewer. Hey, you try balancing your exquisite wokeness (or the appearance thereof -- it strains credulity that anybody really believes all this bilge) with a supposed love of literature.
Toss in the misfortune of being a white guy, and Ron Charles has to do a serious balancing act. No wonder he's offering up Jane Austen as a sacrifice. In his July 3 article, he almost seems to be urging the mob to be a bit circumspect before it comes for his beloved books.
First though, Charles establishes his progressive bonafides. He applauds the statue assassination squads, pretending that only Confederate memorials are “finally” coming down. “Monuments celebrating racist traitors, which were erected to fabricate history and terrify black Americans, are not works of art that deserve our respect or preservation.” (The left seems to have work shopped the phrase “racist traitors.” Google it.)
He cheers on the purging of old TV show episodes for blackface scenes that nobody remembers, saying, “Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes.” (Really after celebrating the young Taliban’s efforts to create Year Zero, he talks of collective amnesia without irony.)
Then he relates a hair-raising scene from black author Zadie Smith’s latest novel:
In Smith’s prologue, a young woman googles a favorite scene from [the 1936 Fred Astaire film “Swing Time”] that shows Astaire performing a tribute called “Bojangles of Harlem.” With a shock, she sees what she had not noticed as a child: “I hardly understood what we were looking at,” she says. There’s Astaire dancing as magically as ever, but he’s in blackface with “the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin.” Her beloved scene suddenly feels ruined by racist exaggerations.
Perhaps it works in the context of the novel, but as a standalone anecdote, well, what did she expect to find in a 1936 number called “Bojangles of Harlem?” More interesting is how did Smith -- and Charles, for that matter -- react to the Democratic Governor of Virginia in black face in the 1980s?
Statues and musicals and “Modern-day white comedians reenacting minstrel-show caricatures are not ironical interrogations of racism that we have to stomach any longer,” the apparently long-suffering Charles proclaims.
But slow up when you get to literature, kids. “Complex works of literature are large, they contain multitudes,” Charles says. And he’s right, of course. Works like Othello and Huckleberry Finn and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are difficult. Each offers far more than our young narcissists can digest because they don’t necessarily flatter 21 Century righteousness.
People have written off Uncle Tom’s Cabin for many decades because of its “subservient racial stereotypes.” But Charles notes that “Frederick Douglass wrote that the novel’s ‘effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.’”
Here again, though, Charles trips over his own virtue. On July 5, rioters tore a statue of Fredrick Douglass from its base in a park in Rochester, NY.
Then he says (again without irony):
But if cancel culture has a weakness, it’s that it risks short-circuiting the process of critical engagement that leads to our enlightenment.
If it has a weakness? Cancel culture is weakness. It’s a reaction against the horror of learning bad stuff happens and others think differently from you. Ostriches look at today’s perpetually offended and say, “Deal with it, man.”
But, clawing momentarily toward self-awareness, Charles asks, “What’s more insidious is the self-satisfaction that comes from calibrating our Racism Detector to spot only a few obvious sins.” He proposes to go further, and tear down more things he doesn’t like:
Scanning videos for blackface or searching text files for the n-word is so much easier than contending with, say, the systemic tokenism of TV rom-coms or the unbearable whiteness of Jane Austen.
The rioters aren’t reading Charles (or much of anything really). But for we unfortunate few, this is the rhetorical equivalent of standing protectively in front of your favorite library shelves and telling the mob: “Books? Oh, no books here. But down the aisle on the right there are lots of novels by a 19th Century white lady who wrote only about white people. They’re dry. They should burn real good!”