The Birth of a Nation

Last month, Chapman University’s film school removed from the walls posters that students and many professors deemed offensive. They were original posters promoting Birth of a Nation, D. W. Griffith’s sweeping silent classic set during the Civil War and after. The film was fabulously successful in its day, and historians regard it as a breakthrough in cinematic technique and craft.

But the film is also a powerful specimen of early-20th-century white supremacist propaganda. Griffith based the story on Thomas Dixon’s popular Ku Klux Klan novels, which traded in notions of black ignorance and degeneracy as well as Yankee exploitation. In the story, the Klansmen are heroes, not villains. One couldn’t find a much better work of art or literature to inflame the 21st-century progressive temper than Griffith’s blockbuster. Even in its own day, it sparked protests from negro organizations and intellectuals (though President Woodrow Wilson, an old college chum from Johns Hopkins, loved it).

So, what to do about Birth of a Nation? The artistic genius of the filmmaking is incontrovertible, but the social message is abominable. How should scholars and teachers handle it?

Campus progressives have a quick and handy answer: they ignore it. Why, they ask, should they bother about human creations with racist content? They wish to teach the young to be upright, tolerant, and inclusive. Works of art and literature and philosophy from the past that instill anything else block the proper outcomes. They should be removed from the curriculum.

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That’s the bare and basic rationale, and it has a disarming simplicity, a linear logic. Conservatives may talk all they want about learning from the errors of the past, or merely the necessity of knowing the past, but progressives don’t believe they need any tutelage from previous generations. They’ve got their vision in place and can implement it all by themselves.

Conservatives may also warn of the dangers of “presentism”—the assumption that we 21st-century citizens understand things so much better than did our forebears—but progressives hold that assumption as an article of faith. That’s what makes them progressives; it gives them strength. A conservative caution on this matter strikes them as weak, ineffectual, reactionary.

Conservative warnings about the dangers of utopianism don’t faze them, either. The French Revolution became a bloodbath? That’s nothing to us. The Russian Revolution gave us Stalinism? That’s ancient history. Progressives have too much confidence in their goodness to believe that they might sink into savagery, much less end up eating their own.

And they have another advantage: they aren’t shy about attributing base motives to their real and imagined opponents. In the Chapman affair, protesting students composed a tweet with a photograph of themselves standing next to the posters in a hallway of the school. They included this text:

 Why does Dodge College, @THR’s 6th best US film school, still condone the celebration of white supremacy? (The Hollywood Reporter includes the tweet in the story linked to above. The Reporter ranks Dodge College, Chapman’s film school, among the best ones in the country.)

This kind of accusation in the mouths of young progressives is so customary that we have lost touch with its passive-aggressive manner. Does anybody really believe that professors and administrators at Chapman University “condone the celebration of white supremacy”? The charge is ridiculous.

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But, of course, it works. For a half-dozen students of color to level it is enough to make everyone afraid. Nobody wants to reply, “Gimme a break.” Offense is sufficient evidence of crime. These young warriors live in a habitat of sensitivity wherein the old academic ideals of disinterested study no longer hold. They have a different measure of value when it comes to the works on the syllabus. Their teachers once asked, “Is this work historically significant? Is it aesthetically brilliant? Is it morally and intellectually profound?” The social justice youths ask, instead, “Does this offend me? Does it misrepresent me? Does it do justice to my experience?”

Their leftist teachers agree, but not their liberal teachers. Liberalism in education calls individuals to uphold objectivity. It insists that they exert the labor of understanding before they issue a judgment. Liberalism prizes open-mindedness and deep knowledge, including knowledge of the abhorrent. It distinguishes, too, the aesthetic and historical value from moral and political value.

But from what I have seen, campus liberals can’t withstand the sensitivities and indignation of the campus leftists, though they outnumber them completely. What the left lacks in numbers, however, it makes up for with passion. And passion is conspicuously absent from the moderates in higher education. I expect the list of aesthetically great but morally defective artworks that fall into disuse will grow in the years ahead.

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

4 thoughts on “The Birth of a Nation

  1. There may not be many “classical liberals” left, but there are plenty of “liberals,” and I think this is what Mark Bauerlein means, in fact, it is what he said. I’m talking about the faculty. In my experience, the liberals (and the few conservatives) outnumber the “leftists,” but Bauerlein is also correct that the liberals have no fight, in contrast to the radicals. I don’t buy that the universities are either totally or irreversibly corrupt. It would just take the liberals standing up to the radicals for a while. But, as I say, they don’t have the fight in them. Now why that is makes an interesting question. I don’t pretend to have a complete answer. One thing undoubtedly is that people are afraid to stand up to minority group members who are or pretend to be offended.

  2. When I was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin – Madison in the early 1970s, there were already protests against a scheduled showing of “Birth of a Nation.” What didn’t exist at the time was the hysterical atmosphere of claiming wounded feelings. I wonder how many schools and courses have dared show the film since then.
    I agree with Salzman; the true liberals (with the sadly obsolete views Bauerlein delineates) have faded and may no longer exist in significant numbers. And I don’t for a moment believe it’s genuine sensitivity and indignation that motivate campus censors and their enablers: the censors are power-hungry and used to getting their way. Of course it’s fascinating to observe that claiming sensitivity and victim-status has turned into such an effective weapon, but no one should be fooled that these claims are anything other than a very successful current tactic for control of much of campus life. Universities are massively failing to educate students into what intellectual inquiry actually involves; few seem to even try these days, given their well-entrenched institutional biases. The “snowflakes” are really icebergs–proudly visible ones–and they’re capsizing many a school.

  3. There is another side of Birth of a Nation — the Army of Reconstruction had a lot of problems with alcohol & drugs — remember that Heroin & Cocaine could be freely purchased, this was 40 years before the Federal Narcotic Act. And the best troops (the most disciplined) were needed for the Indian Wars out West.

    It isn’t easy to be an army of occupation, but it’s ideally done with fresh troops whose buddies weren’t killed by the now-civilians whom you are now policing. And the US Army had absolutely no experience as an occupying force, the closest they had ever come was to serve as administrators in the Western frontier territories.

    So it was a perfect storm and while two wrongs do not make a right, there were real problems with Reconstruction. While the movie makes me cringe (a lot), portions of it serve as a valuable insight as to the mindset of the children (and grandchildren) of Reconstruction.

    History is messy, but sanitizing history is Orwellian….

  4. Bauerlein says, “But from what I have seen, campus liberals can’t withstand the sensitivities and indignation of the campus leftists, though they outnumber them completely.”
    I doubt that classical liberals outnumber progressives among professors. In fact, I doubt that there are many classical liberals at all left in the social sciences and humanities, which are now totally devoted to neo-marxist “social justice.” The same is true of university administrators, either radical social justice warriors, or cowardly, principle-less weasels who bow to every minority complaint and demand. Bauerlein gives the impression that universities would be fine, if it were not for a small number of radical students. The reality is quite different: our universities are totally and apparently irreversibly corrupt.

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