Sunday, September 29, 2019

Karl du Fresne: Peak craziness reconsidered

I wrote a column a few weeks ago suggesting we had reached peak craziness. Alas, I was wrong.

Exhibit A: One morning last week I heard the actress Robyn Malcolm assert on Morning Report that the role of Gandalf in the proposed Amazon TV production of The Lord of the Rings should be played by a woman. And not just any type of woman, but specifically by a kuia (or as she put it tautologically, “an old Maori kuia”).

Ian McKellen did a great job playing Gandalf in the movie adaptations, Malcolm conceded, “but we don’t need another old guy with a long white beard”.

Was it a joke? You’d like to think so, but I fear not.

Assuming, then, that Malcolm was serious, we can anticipate a few obvious problems with her idea. First, J R R Tolkien very specifically envisaged an old guy with a long white beard when he created the character of Gandalf. And while the author may be long dead, he’s entitled to respect for the integrity of his story and characters. He certainly deserves better than to have them hijacked to satisfy a passing ideological fashion.

You’d think that of all people, someone like Malcolm – who, after all, depends for her livelihood on the ability of writers to create compelling characters for actors to play – would grasp that. Evidently not.

There’s also the tricky matter of explaining how an old Maori woman would come to be living in Middle Earth – a fantasy realm, admittedly, but one very clearly rooted in European lore and culture.

That leads us to the most obvious difficulty of all – namely, that no company is going to spend hundreds of millions employing Malcolm’s acting mates on a TV series that no one will want to watch, which would surely be the fate of a Lord of the Rings that lacked one of its defining characters.

If someone wants to create a TV series with a kuia as its central figure, well and good. But fans of Lord of the Rings (I’m not one, incidentally, but that’s neither here nor there) love it as it is, not as some virtue-signalling thespian imagines it should be.

In any case, why stop at Gandalf? Literature is riddled with figures who perpetuate repressive patriarchal models. Why not cast a black woman – better still, a lesbian refugee from somewhere like Sudan – in the role of Sherlock Holmes? And given that Daniel Craig has apparently tired of the role, what’s to stop the producers of the next James Bond movie from casting a trans woman – perhaps in a wheelchair, just to reinforce the sense of inclusiveness – as agent 007?

Once you adopt the idea that the purpose of films and other forms of entertainment is to advance an ideological agenda, the possibilities are limitless. But we know from history what happens when literature and the arts are co-opted to enforce someone’s idea of correct thinking. I mean, how many great works came out of Stalin’s Soviet Union? I remember a Peter Sellers skit that made a joke about a mythical Soviet film called The Seven Brave Tractor Drivers, which more or less sums up what happens when art becomes a vehicle for ideological propaganda.

I now turn to Exhibit B in Peak Craziness Reconsidered. For this we need look no further than Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, who has fallen victim to the pernicious concept of presentism – the insistence that past actions and statements be interpreted and judged according to contemporary values.

In 2001, Trudeau – then aged 29, and employed as a schoolteacher – attended an Arabian Nights-themed fancy dress party. He wore robes and a turban and had his face, neck and hands darkened. Someone mischievously (or more likely maliciously) supplied Time magazine with a photo showing Trudeau with other attendees, thereby triggering an explosion of moral outrage which almost matches the one that erupted when Austrian president Kurt Waldheim was exposed as a former intelligence officer in the German army during the Second World War.

The comparison with Waldheim is not inappropriate. Amid the vindictive fervour generated by neo-Marxist witch-hunters, wearing brownface – a term most of us had never heard until the Trudeau affair, but which is presumably only a degree less offensive than blackface – is on a par with war crimes. And no one is safe, not even a politician who has gone to great lengths to demonstrate his sympathy for fashionable causes.

It’s impossible to ignore the irony that the very people Trudeau has tried to ingratiate himself with are the ones who have turned on him. So it’s true: the revolution really does devour its own children. The furore should serve as a lesson that even the most impeccably woke politicians aren’t immune from malevolent trolls.

Obviously wanting to get in ahead of any other career-destroying disclosures about his reprehensible past, Trudeau then confessed that while at high school, he had worn blackface while singing the Jamaican folk song Day-O. A closet racist, then, beyond all doubt; just one step removed from the Ku Klux Klan. And to think this was the prime minister who had pretended to welcome Syrian refugees. Gasp! Was there any limit to his deceit and hypocrisy?

Trudeau completed his own humiliation with an apology that took grovelling to a new level. But in the feverish orgy of judgmentalism that followed Time’s story, a few important points have been overlooked.

The first is that people’s actions should surely be judged by their intent and their consequences – and I mean real consequences, not the ones that exist only in febrile, highly politicised minds. Did Trudeau intend to hurt, mock, exploit or demean dark-skinned people? It was a fancy-dress party, for heaven’s sake. Was any harm done by colouring his face and wearing Arab robes? Only to the overheated sensibilities of those who go through life looking for opportunities to take offence. Dressing as Aladdin hardly ranks as a crime against humanity.

Second, who in their past life hasn’t done something they now wish they hadn’t? Who wants to be held accountable for things they did decades ago, before their judgment had fully matured? I certainly wouldn’t. But Trudeau's self-righteous tormentors make no allowance for human frailties.

Moral perspectives change. Demanding that people’s past behaviour conform to contemporary codes laid down by a shrill, Pharisaical minority of activists raises the bar impossibly high. I doubt that many public figures could pass that test, and I imagine many lie awake at night fretting that their past will catch up with them.

Who knows? That Christmas pageant in your first year at school, when you were assigned to play Balthazar – you know, the one of the Three Wise Men who was traditionally depicted as black; somewhere there might still be an incriminating photo. Better track it down fast and put it through the shredder.

Finally, what is it about wearing blackface that makes it so offensive that anyone guilty of it in their past is condemned as a white supremacist? It’s only four decades since New Zealanders without a racist fibre in their bodies sat down in front of the television on Sunday nights to enjoy The Black and White Minstrel Show.

Sure, it wouldn't happen now. But did it occur to anyone then that it was racist? Was the show intended to be degrading or insulting to people of colour? That should be the yardstick by which we now judge it. Again, intent is crucial.

Granted, in hindsight the use of blackface resulted in a grotesque caricature of black people that is now seen as offensive. Woolly wigs were worn and mouths and eyes were exaggeratedly big and white. It also evoked memories of the Jim Crow era, a time when black Americans suffered appalling institutionalised discrimination.

For those reasons it not surprisingly fell out of favour in the latter part of the 20th century. But somewhere along the line, it seems to have been forgotten that performing in blackface was often an acknowledgment that its white exponents owed a debt to genuine African-American minstrels of an earlier time. It was one manifestation of the racial and cultural cross-fertilisation – whites borrowing from blacks and vice-versa – that left a permanent imprint on American music.

The fact that blackface, however innocently used, has since come to be regarded as a vile assertion of white supremacy and a potential destroyer of political careers, even for someone with Trudeau’s liberal credentials, shows how devastatingly effective the march of identity politics has been – and how brittle the political fabric of western democracy has become.

Exhibit C: Greta Thunberg and the attendant media circus.

Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of The Dominion newspaper. He blogs at

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