Politically Correct

GARRY WILLS

November 08, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago. -- Most of the time, being ''politically correct'' is just a matter of being polite. People's sensitivities should be deferred to.

They should, for instance, be called what they want to be called. When a newspaper refers to the pope, it calls him Pope John Paul II, not ''the so-called pope.'' This does not mean that the paper has succumbed to papistry. It simply uses the title of preference for a religious figure.

Yet some papers wrote, for a while, the ''so-called Muhammad Ali,'' as if he had no right to choose his own name. Similar fusses were made over calling Negroes ''black,'' or ''African American.'' HTC It took the New York Times years to discover that it could write ''Ms.'' without gritting its teeth.

But a polite regard for others' feelings can, like all good things, be pushed too far. Sometimes, this results in ludicrous periphrasis, as in calling African spears ''cultural weapons.'' But trying to censor past works of art, to make them conform to current standards, amounts to an Orwellian rewriting of history.

In Toronto, at this moment, a revival of Jerome Kern's musical ''Showboat'' is getting very good reviews, but not from the pickets. People are trying to shut down that show because its representation of black life is not realistic enough by modern standards.

Actually, the blacks are sympathetically portrayed, but in outworn conventions that some find condescending. That is a rational position, and it can be stated without denying others the right to perform or to see what is a historically important artifact, a milestone event in American culture.

And at this moment in Washington, the Library of Congress is putting on an exhibit of 54 important early motion pictures -- and leaving out one of the most important of them all, D.W. Griffith's 1915 film, ''The Birth of a Nation.'' This is not just a question of sympathetic treatment not fully up-to-date. The film is vicious in its treatment of blacks.

But showing the movie is not endorsing the viciousness. For one thing, it is important to keep alive the knowledge that the mainstream culture was so racist early in this century. For another, the movie is even more important to the growth of the film industry than was ''Showboat'' to the development of musicals.

The movie can be criticized, and should be, and has been, and will be, for all its faults. But to blank out part of the past is not to erase it from the record. It is simply to shut our own eyes to the complexity of our cultural heritage.

What will be next? The Declaration of Independence contains a clause that Catholics could take offense at.

When Jefferson attacked the king ''for abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province,'' he was referring to the Quebec Act, which allowed French Catholics to keep their religion rather than accept the Church of England. This was a grievance the Puritans to the north felt more than Jefferson did, but he accommodated their feelings by including it.

Should we accommodate the feelings of Roman Catholics now, by refusing to print or read that clause, or by excising the Declaration itself from our history?

This absurd act would be the same in principle as, though different in scale from, the censoring of ''Showboat'' or ''Birth of a Nation.'' Given enough silliness, we could end up with nothing to read or look at out of our past.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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