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Editorial: Before Dr. Seuss, there was Va. retiring its state song

Editorial: Before Dr. Seuss, there was Va. retiring its state song

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The estate of the late Dr. Seuss has announced it will no longer publish six of his books.

Warner Brothers will not use the amorous cartoon skunk Pepe Le Pew in its upcoming “Space Jam” movie or any other projects.

Disney has now added a content warning to streaming versions of “The Muppets,” “Peter Pan” and certain other old movies it owns.

What is happening here?

Perhaps not what you think. All these companies are — whether they realize it or not — simply following the lead that Virginia set more than two decades ago when it “retired” the official state song.

We didn’t call it the “cancel culture” then. We called it trying to reconcile a state symbol that contained racist imagery with our modern-day sensibilities.

And, yes, that was controversial then, too, although it all seems rather obvious now.

“Carry Me Back To Old Virginny” was quite popular back in the day — that day being a time when white people, and white people only, made the rules. The congressman from Roanoke in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s — Democrat Clifton Woodrum — wouldn’t allow Congress to adjourn until he had belted out the song in his rich baritone.

Then in 1970 the state Senate had its first Black member since the 19th century — you may have heard of Douglas Wilder. He attended a reception where legislators lustily sang the song, including the lyrics “There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go / there’s where I labored so hard for old Massa.” The song, you see, had been written by a Black minstrel in the 1800s and was told from the point of view of a freed slave longing for his master — although writer James Bland was born free in New York. Wilder walked out of the reception and, a few days later, rose in the state Senate to denounce such antiquated lyrics. Wilder didn’t succeed in getting the song repealed but he liked to point out that he succeeded in something else — it rarely got played after that.

For nearly three decades, Virginia had a state song that no one heard in polite company. From time to time there were attempts to repeal the song. Those didn’t work, either, at least not then. Some defended the song on the basis of tradition. “At the time the song was originally written, the lyrics were not racially charged,” then-House Republican Leader Joe Benedetti said in 1994. “Have we become so narrowly focused that we can no longer accept a song of antiquity?” The other side insisted that however popular the song might have been in the past, the state should not be endorsing such lyrics today.

In 1994, then-state Sen. Madison Marye, D-Montgomery, proposed simply to rewrite the song — change “darkey” to “dreamer” and “old massa” to “my loved ones” and so forth. “It’s about time we had a state song that all the children could sing without offending anyone,” Marye said. That attempt failed. Some thought the song was just fine the way it was; others thought the melody was so connected to the lyrics that even if the words were changed, just hearing the tune would still conjure up unpleasant historical memories.

Finally, in 1997, came the grand compromise engineered by the political odd couple of state Sens. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, and Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth: The General Assembly voted to “retire” the song and declare it “the state song emeritus.” The vote in the state Senate was 24-15 — with some of those 15 voting no believing that the “emeritus” status was too much, that the song should be repealed altogether. “Of course, I didn’t like the fact that they kept it emeritus,” Lucas told the Virginia Mercury two years ago. “It was the only compromise that we had at the time.” Curiously, for all the changes that the new Democratic majority in the General Assembly has wrought over the past two years, displacing that “emeritus” status hasn’t been one of them.

In many ways, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Warner Brothers and Disney are simply doing that Virginia did — recognizing that times have changed and that some imagery that was commonplace in years past isn’t appropriate today. Do we really want children’s books that depict half-naked Africans in grass skirts? Do we really want cartoon characters that depict a male character forcing himself on an unconsenting female character? Do we really want a state song — even an emeritus one — that uses the word “darkey” and paints a rosy picture of slavery?

The question Benedetti asked in 1994 is a good one — “can we no longer accept a song of antiquity?” Or a movie or a book or anything else? Of course, that’s also the context Disney is putting on some of its older content, effectively saying, these are historical artifacts but we wouldn’t do this today. It’s equivalent to a movie rating. Think of Rated O — for Out of Date.

Lots of things get outdated by time and, presumably the wisdom that is said to come with it. Hairstyles. Fashions. Fads of all kind. Why should these symbols be any different? If you think the Seuss estate is wrong to retire some of its books (all low-selling ones anyway), then you need to be prepared to defend the racist images in them. If you think Warner Brothers is wrong not to give screen time to Pepe LePew, then you need to be prepared to say it’s OK to make fun of unwanted sexual advances. You can’t really be pro-Pepe LePew and anti-Andrew Cuomo at the same time.

There is one big difference between what Virginia did in 1997 and what these companies are doing now. Virginia’s was an action of government; these are the actions of private companies. What Virginia did really was part of a “cancel culture” — only the state can say that the official state song is, so “Carry Me Back” really is canceled. Companies, though, are free to decide what products they will sell — or not. What Dr. Seuss Enterprises and Warner Brothers and Disney have done, then, is inherently a conservative move — they have exercised their private property rights. To that extent, what has come to be called “cancel culture” is really a conservative movement, not a liberal one — it’s an exercise of everyone’s free market rights to spend their money as they wish. Liberals don’t like Chick-fil-A? Fine, buy somebody else’s chicken sandwich. The governor who signed the retirement of “Carry Me Back” into law? He was George Allen, a Republican — who famously wouldn’t go to McDonald’s because Joan Kroc, widow of the chain’s CEO, donated to many liberal causes. Nobody called that cancellation; they called it a consumer choice, or, if you prefer a shorter word, freedom.

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