Sunday, April 30, 2023

Let's Go, Bunnies!

I've complained before about the quality of public discussion, and I'm going to try to go a little deeper this time.

The historian Seth Cotlar linked to this article about a 1959 controversy inspired by a children's book, The Rabbits' Wedding by Garth Williams. (The article is paywalled, but as a subscriber Cotlar could share it on Twitter.  If the link from here doesn't work, try clicking through to his tweet.)  Williams is most famous as the illustrator of E. B. White's Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, the Little House on the Prairie books and many others; but he also wrote the text for The Rabbits' Wedding. The book is out of print, shamefully enough, but maybe the article will spur enough interest for a reissue.

According to the article, The Rabbits' Wedding is about a black rabbit and a white rabbit who meet, fall in love, and marry.  Unsurprisingly, the White Citizens' Council organized a nationwide campaign against the book, trying to get it removed from libraries in Alabama, which (just as unsurprisingly) boosted its sales.  The author played coy:

Williams’s wide-eyed innocence mimicked that of his rabbit characters: “I was completely unaware that animals with white fur, such as white polar bears and white dogs and white rabbits, were considered blood relations of white human beings. I was only aware that a white horse next to a black horse looks very picturesque.” He averred that his motivations were innocuous, just craft and thrift: A black-and-white book, with occasional pops of yellow, would cut production costs.

His biographers told the Times

that the artist was gregarious, well connected and vaguely progressive, but no activist. “His first response to attacks on ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding’ is ‘I’m just an artist,’” James Wallace noted. He added that Williams also said he “hopes children enjoy the book and that the voices of hate will never overcome the kind of togetherness ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding’ represents.”

"No activist" and "vaguely progressive" is praising him with faint damns.  "Just an artist" reminds me of the Noble Engineer Robert Heinlein, who liked to claim that he was just an entertainer, a hard-working hack who wrote for money, and that art shouldn't contain a Message - when he wasn't feuding with his publisher to keep the militarist and rugged-individualist messages he'd put into his juvenile SF novels.  He had, he insisted, a right and a duty to educate the young. (He was also anti-racist in his way, so I imagine he would have sided with Williams if he heard about this controversy.)  As the SF writer and critic Joanna Russ wrote, "it seems absolutely impossible to write anything without immediately making all sorts of assumptions about what human nature is, what good and bad behavior consists of, what men ought to be, what women ought to be, which states of mind and character are valuable, which are the opposite, and so on."  Just about everybody who says art should be message-free soon shows that they don't mean it; their messages aren't really messages at all, just Common Sense.  And to be fair to Garth Williams, he initially reacted by "rage-writing a 30-page response to criticism of his picture book," before "settl[ing] on the high road in a statement" to the effect that we should all love each other.

In the climate of late 1950s America, taking the high road was probably a smart move.  Anyway, opinion pieces fought the battle for The Rabbits' Wedding openly and enthusiastically.  But that was then and this is now, and what unsettles me just a wee bit about the article and Cotlar's commentary is that it feels disingenuous.

One commenter on Cotlar's tweet said it out loud: "It was an innocent child's book. They saw what they wanted to see. The hatred that they harbored distorted everything. Unfortunately, that still hasn't changed." This is an example of doublethink that would qualify for the 1984 Hall of Fame. Of course the book was "innocent," whatever that much-abused word means. "(Decades later, Williams would dryly remark, 'I didn’t say that they went to bed together.')"  Children's publishers especially were always hypervigilant about the content of their products, so it's not plausible that they didn't know that they were publishing an allegory about "interracial" love and marriage. (That hypervigilance makes it all the more revealing about the kind of content that they allowed, such as the racism in some of Dr. Seuss's children's books.)  The racists who attacked the book didn't just imagine it: The Rabbits' Wedding was a slap at their beliefs and values, and that was a noble and proper gesture, then and now.  Why pretend otherwise, especially now?

"Innocent" in this context presumably means an absence of explicit sexual content. Think of the critic Joan Acocella, who wants more than anything else to believe that Willa Cather was "innocent," meaning that she died a virgin.  Or the online movie reviewer who wrote a few years ago about Disney's The Fox and the Hound 2 that

In these post-Brokeback Mountain days, it is hard to see Copper and Tod's friendship—their playful wrestling, their longing looks at one another, their efforts to create satisfying relationships with other characters to substitute for their inability to be together—in a completely innocent fashion. But that is neither here nor there.” Is it? Pinsky was saying that because of Ang Lee’s successful film, he could no longer see the frolicking of two talking animals in a children’s animated cartoon as “completely innocent.”

The racists who called The Rabbits' Wedding "salacious" weren't the only ones who saw what their personal obsessions drove them to see. Considering that some adults today are adamant that a marriage is "innocent" -- meaning no exchange of bodily fluids, even in theory -- sexuality clearly makes them uneasy.  I'm reminded of an exchange in the IU student newspaper a couple of decades ago: they published a letter from a bigot fulminating about sodomy, and then a reply from a young woman who cried, "My gay friends would never do something like that!" I've always wondered how she reacted when she learned that in fact they do. Attempts to stir up antigay revulsion by describing our disgusting sexual practices continued into this century, as did indignant denials that respectable Homo-Americans would do such things. And at least one compassionate Christian divine prefers the word "homosexual" to "gay" because the former word "has the advantage of speaking with sharp particularity to the actual issue at stake", probably meaning buttsex.

There's a lot less anxiety around "interracial" relationships than there was sixty years ago, but it hasn't died out altogether. I was surprised by how much it was in evidence in a famously liberal and diverse city like San Francisco. (Which is not to say that all San Franciscans are racist, only that I found more racism than I expected.)  People may talk blithely about color-blindness and not judging others by the color of their skin, but actual differences are another matter.  The same goes for straight liberals (usually male) who are fierce supporters of gay marriage but are pruriently horrified by sodomy.

This curious inability, in 2023, to face the brute reality of controversies found a recent echo when a high school in Howard City, Michigan required two students to remove sweatshirts bearing the motto "Let's Go, Brandon."  Their mother filed suit in support of their First Amendment rights.  For those lucky enough not to know, "Let's Go Brandon" become a "not-so-secret handshake" among MAGA Republicans after a reporter misheard NASCAR fans at Talladega chanting "Fuck Joe Biden."  As a secret, it's on a par with "420," but I suppose that's part of the appeal.  The ACLU and FIRE are on the kids' side, and rightly so.  I might say more about that in another post, but I mention in this one because this time the Right is taking the position of The Rabbits' Wedding's partisans - Hahaha, it's just an innocent allegory! -- and the liberals are fuming that though seemingly clean, the sweatshirts are "salacious"! Think of the innocent children being led astray, their minds polluted by filth! 

I think a better response to "Let's Go Brandon" is to congratulate the MAGA in question for supporting Chicago's new mayor-elect Brandon Johnson, a progressive black Democrat of the type that makes right-wingers foam at the mouth.  The real question ought to be how people in a free society should respond to deliberately provocative expressions, whether they be children's books or t-shirts, and I'll try to take that up soon.