Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Baa baa <blank> sheep....

A while ago I caught a snippet of Sheila Liaugminas on The Right Questions (yeah, you can tell how long I've been sitting on this post, can't you?) on my way from church. She was talking about some person or group--I didn't catch the whole bit--who wants to change "baa baa black sheep" to "baa baa rainbow sheep," since apparently it offends and alienates little children, or at least young minorities.

I'd like to say I'm surprised. Actually, I am, but I'm shocked that I'm still surprised at this kind of thing.

From a full sixty seconds of research I just did, the lyric change appears to date from an English city council meeting proposal in 1999; the suggestion was dumped the next year after black parents reminded the council that the idea was ridiculous.

Of course it was--yet Concerned Citizens seem to be making such suggestions with increasing frequency, with as far as I can tell no sign of learning to develop a sense of perspective after being dismissed this way. Kids that young don't know enough to be offended by an innocuous nursery rhyme. They can be offended by truly offensive things, even by patronization, but what's wrong with this ditty?

Baa, baa, black sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full.

One for the master,
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane.

I guess the master is offensive because it suggests a condition of servitude, and the dame is offensive because in the original it stands for the Church or maybe because it's slightly outdated slang for "woman," and supporting the little boy is offensive because it gives caricatured capitalists something to complain about.

Black sheep, though? It's got nothing to do with race. The term "black sheep" as a euphemism for pariah comes from the fact that black sheep, incredibly, have black wool, which is understandably hard to dye, and so isn't worth as much as white wool. There's nothing more to it. I'm not sure the matter of less valuble wool is even germane to the nursery rhyme; it was probably just something alliterative. Unless some demographics are basing their whole identities on their hair color, there's not even room for reasonable concern here.

(Wait for it: topical lemma in 3...2...1...)

What does concern me, though, is this Orwellian push to make everyone forget everything that might be even misconstrued as bad. I see it on multiple levels, but I'll restrict myself in the interest of brevity, so please hold off on accusations of overgeneralizing. Sometimes it's a preemptive attempt to protect certain demographics from certain unpleasantries about the world, other times it's an overreaction to a nonissue, either by the would-be slighted parties or their "enlightened" self-appointed guardians. A plain example would be dismissing the opinions of pro-life men, because they're not women and can't relate and have no standing in the matter, as well as the opinions of pro-life women, because they obviously aren't clearheaded enough to be worth listening to. Ever notice that They rarely wish to protect young people from the dangers of sex, though? Only from its tangible consequences, which don't seem to include things like reduced sense of self-worth, distorted priorities about certain life issues, and a fatalistic attitude about all the concomitant prices and inconveniences that you only have to learn to tolerate when you take something special out of context in an attempt to maximize its specialness. Oh, and children--I guess they're a "risk" of sex between a man and a woman that are, um, best kept in a special context, such as the life of a well-off middle aged professional (or slightly younger and famous) single person no longer satisfied with keeping pets.

If you want to protect your children from the bad juju that's out there, I say more power to you; however, the kids eventually will need to be able to deal with nasty things, even things that aren't nasty at all but might just seem confusing, so simply keeping them in the dark isn't going to help. I'd be pleased if my kids could grow up and never have things like racism and violent crime even occur to them in thought or deed, but I know that the world's not that innocent so they will need some coaching in how life can be hard and unfair, or how certain words have different meanings that don't even relate to each other between contexts. I certainly wasn't traumatized because my parents never kept me out of church to make sure I never saw something as brutal as the corpus on a crucifix. Well, maybe my readers would disagree, but I assure you, any trauma is unrelated.

Pretending this stuff doesn't exist is not the solution. It just leaves people ignorant and vulnerable, and conditioned to look for frivolous violations of increasingly diaphonous "civil rights" instead. Remember the guy who got in trouble for saying "niggardly?" Granted, it's not the most common word, but I knew the proper definition of the word when I was a child; here, adults were getting upset because it merely sounded like a word that's actually bad, which is not a standard any other word I can think of is held to. If I'm white and run a labor-intensive business, should I also never employ a black man, in case someone suspects that I might be propagating a metaphorical stereotype that harkens back to early 19th century agricultural labor patterns, or in case someone thinks I've got a token minority on hand just to deflect criticism?

If this attitude continues, I doubt we'll stop anywhere short of flatly prohibiting speech about offensive topics, whatever "offensive" will mean by then. A couple years back I was having a discussion with a graduate of the University of Illinois, whose Chief Illiniwek was featured prominently on sports gear, and at sporting events, and so on, until just recently. Many people find the reduction of an entire native American tribe to a debatably traditional dance by an iconic tribal chief at athletic events to be in bad taste, and wish to retire the tradition of the dance and of all imagery featuring the Chief. Many other people believe it is a suitable tribute--since basically it's a festive dance at a festive event--to the cultural history of the Illinois region and an opportunity for raising awareness thereof, which is pretty much the attitudes of the Chippewa to Central Michigan University and the Seminole to Florida State University, to name two off the top of my head.

There's also relatively little support in the same circles for abolishing drink-until-you're-Irish "'unofficial' St. Patrick's Day." I guess integrity is only trumped by convenience.

I'm not an Illinois resident, so I was only dimly aware of these particular controversies before I met the alumnus, who is avowedly anti-Chief (or pro-retirement, but I'm getting ahead of myself). I ended up playing the Socratic to learn more about the situation, since this guy was pretty quick to spit out smooth-sounding catch phrases (I'm not being snide; he really sounded like a pile of secular progressive fortune cookies) about interesting things I was unfamiliar with.

I was on the fence--I like the idea of historical ties to modern society, but mere caricatures taken too seriously do tend to be degrading, yet from what I understand, the Chief's dance routine and regalia are authentic, if embellished--and the guy almost had me, until he said one thing. He summed up his entire position by confirming that the best way to honor the legacy of the Illinois Confederacy is to remove all contemporary manifestations and references to it: that it should be no more than a historical footnote in a reference book.

I am not exaggerating.

I hope you can see the problem I have with so extreme an idea. The mere display of cultural artifacts doesn't add up to being a bd thing. There are other, legitimate arguments, but they don't temper the suggestion that only the forgotten can rest in peace. We should honor the dead, yes, but we can't do so by removing the headstone.

Yeah, I know, kind of a roundabout way of getting to a point, but it was an interesting conversation I still sometimes think about.

It's attitudes like this guy's that make me wonder if this redacting of culture isn't on the up and up after all (aside from the fact that it's rather PC and I'm Catholic). I don't think the guy's really a latent racist--although some (mostly other white people) make the argument that the Chief should be "retired" because white students portray him, which is a suspicious kind of incongruity that doesn't get any other historical reenactors into trouble--just an iconoclast who happens to have found an agenda before he found a philosophy that could inform it for him.

What's next? Are white people who oppose all visual reminders of history going to tell people who like visual reminders that they're not a valid part of the debate because they're from the opposing side? What are they going to say to the Peoria Illiniwek (or the Seminole, or the Chippewa) who don't have a problem with Native American imagery? The opposition isn't unanimous. That their opinion counts less than the white man trying to protect them? That the Native Americans who do have a problem must be more enlightened? How enlightened do we have to be to make that judgment, to have a dissenting opinion? Aren't we using peculiar values of dead European men in juding the answers to these questions, anyway?

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