• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Tom and Jerry racist? No, the real bigots are those who want to rewrite history

For more than 70 years, their cat-and-mouse capers have enthralled young people across the globe. Violent, hilarious and often somehow poignant, Tom and Jerry’s only crime has until now been to encourage children to watch television when they should have been doing their homework, tidying their bedrooms or performing some other worthwhile task.

This week, however, they fell foul of the censors at Amazon, which seems to have taken its lead from Cromwell’s Puritans. The company says Tom and Jerry cartoons must carry a warning that ‘they contain some ethnic and racial prejudices that were once commonplace in American society’.

The particular focus of Amazon’s reproach is the portrayal of the black maid in the cartoons, known as Mammy Two Shoes because only her lower half ever appears on the screen. Her character, apparently, is nothing more a crude racial stereotype. ‘Such depictions were wrong then and are wrong today,’ states Amazon.

There are those who have applauded the online retailer’s stance. Dr Birgitta Hosea, director of the animation master’s course at the University of the Arts in London, says: ‘Images like that are not OK. Children are at stake here. It is important that they get positive images of people and not just negative, “mammy” stereotypes of black women.’

Poor old Tom and Jerry. All they were trying to do was entertain us, but now the thought police have decided to impose their modern-day values on cartoons made decades ago.

On the surface, perhaps, this is a trivial affair. Why should Amazon not warn viewers that they may be offended by the depiction of Mammy Two Shoes? After all, she is the archetype of a black woman working for a white family from the southern U.S. in the mid-20th century, when such women did not have the vote.

Well, there are a number of reasons in my view.

To begin with, it is deeply patronising to suggest that modern-day families do not understand that they are watching historical cartoons, made when values were different. Are the censors really suggesting that, by watching Tom and Jerry, our children will turn out racist, believing that ‘Mammy Two Shoes’ is the norm?

More importantly, however, this is a worrying new example of the way history is being re-written by politically-correct know-alls who are so blinkered that they can only see things from their own perspective — which is, of course, a modern-day perspective. It is as if they are writing history back-to-front, imposing their own moral views on the past.

These people pose as the champions of children, arguing that by issuing their warnings of racism, they are offering them protection from encountering it. But it’s hard not to believe that their real motive is to parade their own piety.

What is worse, is that in order to do this they are airbrushing history, which sets a very dangerous precedent — for it is only by acknowledging the truth about the past that we can progress to a better future.

And yet the warnings on Tom and Jerry are far from the only example of this trend — the moralisers have indulged in an extraordinary range of denunciations in recent years.

Today, we laugh at tales about finger-wagging Victorian prigs who wanted to cover up piano legs for fear of inflaming erotic passions, but these modern dogmatists are just as bad.

It is not even the first time that Tom and Jerry have come under their gaze. In 2006, the children’s TV channel Boomerang edited some scenes from the cartoon which featured characters smoking.

Tintin cartoons by the Belgian artist Herge, about the adventures of the young reporter and his dog Snowy, have also been attacked for racial stereotyping.

One of the first books in the series, Tintin In The Congo, written in 1930, has been withdrawn from the children’s sections of many libraries and bookshops because of the way it depicts African natives as primitive and ignorant. In some cases, publishers have even wrapped the book in protective packaging similar to that used for top-shelf pornography.

Both Asterix the Gaul and Babar the Elephant have been condemned for denigrating Africans or promoting colonialism. One Babar book was even removed from shelves by library staff in East Sussex.

Offence can be found anywhere. One writer even complained about a character in the Phantom Menace, a film in the recent Star Wars series, whom he said was a ‘dark-skinned, hook-nosed greedy slave owner’ and therefore ‘an all-purpose anti-Semitic caricature’.

Nor are the Disney studios immune. In 1992, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee compelled the corporation to re-write the lyrics of the opening song in musical Aladdin, after complaining that it presented a cruel, negative image of the Middle East.

Those in the politically correct brigade are not interested in encouraging tolerance, as they pretend, or in promoting knowledge and open inquiry. Instead, like all hard-liners throughout history, they want to impose their own ideological values on impressionable minds.

To them, history is not merely a process of study to illuminate the past of mankind. It is also a tool of propaganda, an instrument with which to enforce correct thinking.

In this regard, the ideologues have a similar outlook to the party bosses in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, in which the Ministry of Truth constantly rewrites history in books and newspapers to ensure that the citizens of the socialist state have the right political outlook.

‘Who controls the past controls the future,’ is one of the party’s slogans. It has often been claimed that Orwell based the Ministry of Truth on the BBC where he once worked, and Orwellian thinking was certainly demonstrated in a shameful recent controversy at the Corporation.

This was when the popular children’s programme Horrible Histories portrayed pioneering Victorian nurse Florence Nightingale as an unashamed racist.

In a sketch for the show, Miss Nightingale — known as the Lady of the Lamp — was shown to reject four job applications from the Jamaican-born Mary Seacole to work in a hospital for wounded British soldiers during the Crimean War.

The position, their version had Nightingale saying, was ‘only for British girls’, her apparent discrimination causing fury to Seacole.

‘Four times me tried to join Old Lamp-Face’s nurses in the Crimean War, and four times she said no,’ said Seacole in the script.

But this was a complete travesty of the truth designed purely to fuel contempt for a revered Victorian figure and to suggest that the British Empire was institutionally racist. There is no record that Seacole was ever rejected for any position with Florence Nightingale. Nor was she, in fact, medically qualified for such a role.

Last week, the BBC Trust ruled that the depiction of Florence Nightingale was ‘materially inaccurate’ and that the producers had provided no compelling evidence for their charge of racism.

In a mealy-mouthed statement, a spokesman for BBC children’s television said that the aim had never been to ‘undermine the reputation’ of Florence Nightingale, but to ‘open up a discussion about some of the attitudes of the time’.

The distortion of history by these people is impossible to avoid. A London museum recently had a huge poster of Winston Churchill at its entrance from which his cigar, perhaps his most famous prop, had been airbrushed.

In 2006, Brunel University, named after the famous 19th century engineer, unveiled a statue of the great man based on the iconic photo of him standing in front of his steamship, the Great Eastern, but, as with Churchill, Brunel’s trademark cigar had been excised.

A similar trick was perpetrated when a school text book was published featuring a doctored image of Brunel, again reflecting the ridiculous belief that pupils are so vulnerable, so easily swayed, that a puffing Brunel might turn them all into chain-smokers.

The trend has predictably assumed grotesque proportions within the unaccountable institutions of the European Union. When plans for the construction of a Euro-Museum celebrating the EU’s ‘historical memory’ were drawn up, it was suggested that history began in 1946.

Why? Because for the EU political elite the history of the continent before 1945 is forbidden territory — it shows a Europe that was far from united.

But while European history certainly contains its share of depressing and horrific episodes, it is hardly something to be ashamed of.

Ancient Greece was responsible for acquainting humanity with philosophy and opening us to the promise of science. From Judaism and Christianity, Europe gained a series of moral principles that are upheld as ideals to this day. From the Romans we inherited an appreciation of the law and a legal system that provides security and order.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment in Europe drew on the experiences of ancients to call into question prevailing assumptions and prejudices.

It is no less likely that Europeans today will need to draw on their past to revitalise their society and develop the moral resources necessary to face the future.

That is why this doctrinaire censoring of the past is highly dangerous. It creates a climate of hysteria, where wild accusations of racism or bigotry are hurled about, and where rational debate becomes impossible.

That was clearly demonstrated in the explosive row over the ‘Human Zoo’ exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London. Conceived by the South African artist Brett Bailey, this show recreated the 19th-century phenomenon of ‘human zoos’, in which African tribespeople would be gazed at by European audiences.

The explicit aim of the show, which featured semi-naked actors standing on platforms while a Namibian choir sang lamentations in the background, was to highlight the cruelty of past colonial prejudice.

Bizarrely, however, this laudable goal was ignored by the censorship mob, who accused the artist, actors and the Barbican Centre of being ‘complicit in racism’.

So ferocious was the campaign against the show, which including loud protests and a petition with 15,000 signatures, that the Barbican felt compelled last month to close it down, despite the fact the performers issued a statement claiming that the exhibition was ‘a powerful tool in the fight against racism’.

Yet such words count for nothing. The sanctimonious censors might like to think that we live in more advanced times.

But their own intolerant, aggressive attitude is all too reminiscent of the witchfinders of the past, fixated with rooting out supposed evil, desperate to enforce their own creed, contemptuous of both the past and freedom.

In their crusade against bigotry, they are guilty of the most flagrant double standards, sometimes descending to exactly the same kind of racism that they so fiercely condemn in others.

For instance, the former BBC boss Greg Dyke notoriously accused the Corporation of being ‘hideously white’, a statement that was echoed last month by the popular author James Dawson, who said that there ‘are too many white faces in children’s books’.

And as history is recast, apologies and pardons are dished out as if our forebears were all common criminals. Tony Blair said sorry for the Irish potato famine, and Gordon Brown for the criminalisation of gay computing genius Alan Turing, who famously cracked the Enigma code during World War II.

But these apologies are not made with true humility — they are only really designed to paint the politicians in a beatific light compared to those they regard as the old reactionary monsters of the past.

This constant denigration of our history is profoundly destructive. The determination to bang on about the ‘bad, old days’ presents it as nothing more than a saga of embarrassment and shame, depriving children of any proper understanding of the past.

Of course there are bad moments in our history, times when we behaved in ways that appear shameful with the benefit of hindsight. And of course our generation, living in the 21st century, has every right to adopt different views from our forebears.

But we are in no position to try to undo their actions and decisions, or to pretend that events of the past never took place.

To do so is not to fight prejudice from the past, but to inflict real cultural damage with our own prejudices in the present.

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