Sunday, September 19, 2010

Time automatically updates. That's what makes it time.

Since earlier this year, I've been blogging about the September 18 primary election in Hawaii, where I live.  The candidate certain to win the Republican nomination for governor, I've written, was a fanatically reactionary Catholic whose anti-gay rhetoric has been strongly supported by the Catholic bishop of Honolulu. Of the two possible Democratic candidates, one was an old-fashioned secular liberal but the other was a fanatically reactionary Mormon whose anti-gay rhetoric has been strongly supported by Hawaii's influential Mormon leadership.

I blogged because (as a conservative might say) I felt my marriage coming under threat. My marriage is heterosexual but interracial, Hawaii is really the only state where interracial marriage is accepted as normal, and as waves of bigotry flooded Hawaii's green land this summer I found myself thinking back to my pre-Hawaii years in the midwest, where the standard witticism addressed to a man with an East Asian wife is, "Does it slant? Haw haw!" Struggling to keep my head above the flood of red-state language, I thought I could feel Hawaii's tolerance washing away beneath me. If my only choice in November is between a Republican bigot and a Democratic bigot, I thought, I might as well be back in Indiana.

But two cheerful things happened during the weekend of September 18-19. For one thing, the anti-gay bigot lost in the Democratic primary, and lost by a humiliatingly large margin.

And then I caught up with a distant past by watching, for the first time, a once notorious movie, Elia Kazan's Baby Doll.

Baby Doll's notoriety stemmed from its lurid advertising in the print media:
Click to enlarge.

In fact, however, the film was only an adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, which in turn was only an adaptation of Chaucer's Miller’s Tale: a comedy about an old man, his young wife, and a young wooer who sets right their violation of nature's simple law. The film itself is a lot closer to a G rating than Chaucer's original, if only because in 1956, when the film was made, Hollywood's production code forced Kazan and his screenwriters to be coy about how and by whom Baby Doll's virginity would eventually be terminated.

But this past weekend, Eisenhower-era repectability wasn't the only anachronism reaching up from the grave to grasp at the electronics of my home. Baby Doll takes place in rural Mississippi, Kazan shot it on location and used locals as extras, and in its time onscreen the word "nigger" fills the air of half a century ago as unremarkably as nitrogen. In a University of Hawaii classroom in 2010, a professor of film studies would have to explain to her class that no, that word doesn't make Baby Doll racist, or if it does it will have to make everything else in 1956 America appear racist in exactly the same way. As a social depiction, such a standardized image just won't be interesting. If the term "racist" is to communicate any distinctions, the professor could say, it will have to mean certain things but not others. Within the meanings of "racism," "nigger" will have to be read as a word whose own multiple meanings have changed in the last half-century.

And now, just outside the Hawaii classroom, a political campaign with a bigoted subtext has failed. Such campaigns have succeeded here in the past, but the new reading that was performed on September 18, 2010, shows us that our interpretations of political language can change. Of course there's no guarantee that the changes will be lasting, and of course, in the nature of change, they can't be permanent. Still: for now the change is on us, and our language is a little more interesting than it was yesterday.