Stop Censoring the Duke Boys

Cars! Girls! Symbols of centuries old oppression!
Cars! Girls! Symbols of centuries-old oppression!

TV Land has just announced it is pulling old-timey, car-jumpy, Confederate-lovey Dukes of Hazzard from its schedule. This comes on the heels of Walmart and other retailers pulling all images of the Stars and Bars from their shelves and further on the heels of many southern states mulling taking the flag down, just about 150 years late.

On the face of it, TV Land’s decision is almost reasonable. The Confederate flag is seeing its lowest poll-numbers as a symbol of government since it was, well, the actual Confederacy, and no major company wants to be caught promoting such a divisive symbol.

The country seems pretty resolved on removing the flag in any official capacity. Amazingly, after decades as a third-rail issue, every side of the political spectrum seems to be in agreement the flag is at very least in bad taste, and that it has no place flying over a statehouse.

And no one seems that torn up about Walmart and its compatriots removing the symbol from their wares (although decorating ISIS cakes on the other hand…).

But Dukes of Hazzard is a different story. That has sparked more than a little indignation. And for good reason. This isn’t a fight over flags or racism. It’s a fight over American culture.

I’ve never had any particular interest in the Duke boys or their hijinks associated with the General Lee, and I doubt many people bother to regularly show up for reruns of a program that’s been off the air for thirty years, but it is in its own small, humble way, a part of American cultural history.

Not only did it inspire a mass of pop-culture jokes and references (as well as a moderately successful movie), it also represents its time, a period of American television that was particularly guilty of white-washing and idealizing various corners of the culture. Is Dukes that different from Leave It to Beaver with its feel-good, no-issues, happy-ending weekly viewing? The actor who played Cooter on Dukes has come out and said there was no racism in Hazzard county. Undeniably true, of course, because there was no reality there either.

Compare that to the modern popular comedies like Big Bang Theory and How I Met Your Mother, where the complicated background of the culture is regularly on display. Yes, the shows are almost as white-washed, but religious fundamentalism, women’s role in the workplace, the housing crisis, environmentalism, and other issues still make it into the sunny, spotless American scripts regularly.

That just shows where we are as a culture, and where we were. Nowadays, you can’t have even the stupidest show without a little of the changing American landscape leaking in. Back then — ten years after the end of the turbulent ‘60s, on the doorstep of the Reagan revolution — a group of white men could ride around the South with the Dixie flag on a car named after Robert E. Lee and try to embarrass Jefferson Davis Hogg every week without a thought about what all that meant.

That may seem outrageous, but that was the time. What we lose when we shut up our past is the context for our change: a view of our growth and mistakes, our malign and benign choices.

Hollywood has been tinkering with these alterations for decades now. Try to find a Speedy Gonzales cartoon on TV or DVD. Even rarer are the WB cartoons from the WW2-era called the Censored Eleven that sketched out racist depictions of African Americans.

The editors of our cultural history don’t have to look for the particularly egregious mistakes to go to work. Look for a cigarette or an alcoholic drink in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Or a gun in a recent edition of E.T. Those are walkie-talkies now. Why are the kids scared of walkie-talkies?

In an episode of Jon Lovitz’s old show, The Critic, titular critic Jay Sherman’s boss (coincidentally named Duke) creates a machine that lets him edit all the classic Hollywood tragedies into happy endings.

Casablanca, Spartacus, Citizen Kane: all end with smiling faces and a satisfying, ridiculous conclusion (Spartacus hops off on his crucifix, resulting in a loopy Smoky and the Bandit chase).

Satisfying though they may be, the new endings don’t really offer much. Jay Sherman runs on stage to take Duke’s remote away, telling him “you simply can’t do this.”

Taking Dukes of Hazzard off television is nowhere near the slight of changing Citizen Kane, but the point is the same. You can’t change art (of any quality) just to make it less upsetting, and hiding something away doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Taking the flag down from the South Carolina statehouse is a good thing, but no one should be under the impression that hiding the flag from sight makes the problem go away.

The Dukes of Hazzard is a document of a certain time. Looking at it through modern eyes, the flag is inappropriate. But we shouldn’t as a culture destroy or ignore it for that reason.

Removing the past doesn’t cease to make it relevant, it ceases to let us learn from it.

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