Modern-Colored Glasses

Last time, in “The Business Part“, I footnoted that my second problem with Ken Burns’s documentary Jazz was how it handled racism, but didn’t say what my problem was.

It’s not just racism, really. The over-culture has a remarkable failure of imagination in general: the inability to see the past in any context except for our contemporary one. I’m not sure I can even sketch out what I mean in a single post, but I’ll try. At the very least, I can indicate what I mean where race is concerned.

(Again, to be clear: I’m criticizing Burns’s entire series based upon one part of nine. This is possibly unfair of me, but based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think I can watch the series straight through. So, take the following for what it might be worth.)

The racial history of the United States is complicated, more complicated than you were taught in school. It is not a story of “first everybody was evil, then good triumphed, the end.” And any time some present-day individual presents the past for the rest of us to consider, it seems their first order of business is to assure all and sundry that nobody thinks this way anymore, and anyone from now who went back to then would obviously not take part in All That Evil, rather than simply trying to understand the way things were. They put their moral purity front and center and as loudly as they think they can without becoming tiresome, and presenting facts is subordinate to this. (Presenting the context of the time for anything other than righteous condemnation is forbidden.)

Burns’s documentary doesn’t just acknowledge racism, it harps and carps on it, endlessly. Benny Goodman was “the king of swing”, but that was only because he was white, and Duke Ellington never complained about this. (It’s Very Important to mention something Duke Ellington never said, so that Burns can put the idea into the viewer’s head that Duke must have thought it, without explicitly saying so.) Black bands played venues where they wouldn’t be allowed as patrons. (This is portrayed as harsh and negative rather than a very positive step toward understanding and integration.) In every instance, racism and segregation and racial injustice are presented solely in the light of how far they are from today, and never, never as a measure of how far they were from slavery and the mass lynchings of the 1870s.

One problem I have with this is that it assumes that modern liberal morality is self-evident, rather than the result of cultural (and philosophical) evolution, and it by necessity condemns a vast number of people as evil who were simply of their times and their culture.

Another problem is that it grossly distorts the people who are ostensibly being profiled. To hear Burns tell it, life for black Americans in the 1920s and ’30s was unremitting hell, with no cause for joy, only grim reminders of how far way from perfect equality they still were. In that context, it strikes the less thoughtful viewer as downright bizarre that any black musician could ever be as happy and joyful as Louis Armstrong.[1. This makes it very easy to imply that Armstrong was naive (stupid) and a race traitor — a “house n***er”, to use the left’s own terminology. They never say it straight out, I am sure, but there is bound to be some hand-wringing “more in sadness than in anger” lefty professor type who laments that Armstrong “could have done so much more”.]

And it makes jazz music itself strange. How could a culture with so much grievance, and so little reason for joy, produce such ecstatic, celebratory music?

Of course, it couldn’t. If all anyone saw were the negatives, and there were no positives at all to celebrate, nobody would celebrate. But since that doesn’t fit the modern leftist narrative, it can only be hinted at in passing, without showing the true picture of how these people viewed themselves and their world.

It’s very easy to view the past through the lens of today’s context. Apparently, it’s even easier when you’ve got the kind of education that lets you spout sophistries and rationalizations, and doesn’t encourage you to understand historical context.