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John Mark Reynolds- Contributor

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University.

Race, Rush, and Uncle Remus
Opinions and paternalism...
[John Mark Reynolds] 10/6/03

Rush was wrong -- or more properly, he was insensitive. Speaking about Eagle’s quarterback Donovan McNabb, he said, “"I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”

I am a long time listener to Rush Limbaugh and he is no racist. Liberals are piling on Rush with delight that is unseemly. If the worth of a man is measured only by the character of his enemies, Limbaugh is approaching sainthood. Some of Limbaugh’s critics worry about racial insensitivity so often conservatives are apt to mock the whole idea.

Fortunately, most conservatives know the best way to deal with overly sensitive people is not by becoming rude. It is not hard know the difference between dripping hyper-sensitivity and bad taste. Only a few ill mannered louts found it funny when some liberals made fun of President Reagan when he announced he had Alzheimer’s. That was insensitive. The German government recognizes a special duty to avoid even the appearance of anti-Semitism. That is properly sensitive. In our rude culture, where everything is fair game and manners are mocked, it may sound old fashioned -- but it is possible to go too far. Rush Limbaugh’s statements were very insensitive.

In recent history, African-Americans have been discouraged from playing quarterback. There are suspiciously few black coaches in most professional sports. Conservatives do not deny that this is the case, though they do disagree with liberals about the proper remedy. Liberals should not accuse conservatives of being racist or insensitive for this disagreement. Conservatives must be careful not to sound as if their opposition to certain remedies to racism is based on the idea that racism is a thing of the past or is an unimportant problem. Being sensitive to real pain is not a sign of weakness, it's a dose of George Bush’s compassionate conservatism.

Strong claims demand strong evidence. Limbaugh claimed that McNabb gets a break from the media because of his race. Rush had better have some strong evidence to back up that claim or he should retract it. Real people suffer every day because they are black in America. Common humanity demands reasonable sensitivity to that pain. Race should be discussed with care by anyone.

It is not good enough for Limbaugh to merely defend his right to express his point of view. He is entitled to his opinions, but an opinion without evidence in important matters is an irresponsible opinion. Strong opinions about trivial matters, like who will win the Super Bowl, require no evidence at all. I still think the Packers would have beaten those cursed Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII if they had just run the ball more often. Asking me to prove it with some logical syllogism would take all the fun out of opining about sports. However, if I choose to introduce race, religion, abortion, or any of a host of other meaningful issues into the discussion, then I better be ready for serious discourse. Rush brought race into the happy evidence-free world of sport’s opinion making. He owes his listeners an argument or an apology.

Rush denies that he is a racist. No sensible person who knows his work would come to the conclusion that Limbaugh is a racist. In denying the extreme charge of racism, Limbaugh misses the point. One can be a boor without being a cad. Rush has been unnecessarily insensitive, unless he has evidence to support his claim about Donovan McNabb. For once this misused word, “insensitive” fits the facts.

Many people who care for him will point this out to Limbaugh. Fewer will point out the mistakes of a more odious-- because less recognized -- type of racist. These are liberals inflicted with “white guilt.” This overly sensitive type rationalizes even wickedness if done by a “minority.” This is racism by condescension. When I was in elementary school, I had a teacher who would praise even bad work done by our lone African-American student. That unlucky young man was still being judged by the color of his skin and not on the content of his character or the quality of his work.

The overly sensitive racist talks frequently, too frequently, about his “black friend.” He is willing to distort history to cover up unpleasant truths. He tries to relate to what he imagines African-American culture to be and agonizes over whether his friend is “black” or an “African-American.” He often becomes the nanny protecting his “black friends” from all manner of unpleasantness. He is always thinking in terms of race. He keeps his “friend” from being exposed to potentially bad words, ideas, or images.

This paternalism is rarely condemned and is often praised. Companies that adopt this posture will even pass up profit to avoid even the charge of insensitivity. One of the best examples is the suppression of an American film classic out of fear of being labeled insensitive. The Disney company continues to keep the classic film "Song of the South" out of American stores.

"Song of the South" was one of the first of Walt Disney’s experiments mixing rich animation with live actors. Disney would go on to perfect the genre in "Mary Poppins." "Song of the South" is a weaker film, but full of wonderful moments and music. The classic "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" is so good that it lives on outside of the film.

Ironically, Disney’s paternalism is keeping the acting of James Baskett (Uncle Remus) and Hattie McDaniel (Tempy) out of public view. By far the strongest actors in the movie, they form the emotional center of the film.
Though sometimes limited by their roles, neither acts in a demeaning or undignified manner. Baskett portrays Remus as the sort of sage that everyone wishes they had for a surrogate father.

The gentle and profound stories of Uncle Remus are now recognized as invaluable, if imperfect, echoes of a rich African-American culture. Slaves created stories that fused bits of African, Christian, and traditional American ideas into a new culture. These stories will long outlast attempts to ban them. They will be read by children, and scholars, when more sanitized stuff is gratefully forgotten.

As to stereotyped images of race, they certainly exist in "Song of the South." They are a sad reminder of the way things were in a certain era of Hollywood. However, I suspect that a DVD release of "Song of the South" will do little damage now. The stereotypes are so dated as to be merely sad and not so harmful. Disney retains potentially offensive material in other movies, such as the black birds who sing in "Dumbo." The "Song of the South" is what it is and no one is served by hiding movie history from viewers.

Where would Disney stop if they applied this policy consistently? Stereotyped views of women appear in many films. If Disney can release "Summer Magic," where girls are advised to “walk feminine, talk feminine” if they wish to catch a beau, then they can risk "Song of the South." Old movies are what they are, for good and bad, and the American people can be trusted with them.

Disney has a right to do what it wants with its property, but it is being paternalistic and overly sensitive with this movie. Disney should release it and face up to what it was and is. Rush Limbaugh was not careful enough with his chatter on a sport’s show. He should own up to it and move on with his fine career. These troubles with race relations are so hard, that it is tempting to ignore them or pretend they do not exist. Here Uncle Remus’ wisdom can help, “You can’t run away from trouble. There aint no place that far.” Both Rush and Disney should heed that advice.

copyright 2003 John Mark Reynolds



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