Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Beyond Rashomon

One of my favorite movies is Akiro Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The film tells different versions of the same event, from the view of the different participants. These version differ a lot, but you can understand how each of the participants bends the truth to make himself look better. The movie is a great lesson on why we will never arrive at an agreement on some universal truth, and helps understand why the same event today can be covered by different media and commented very differently.

As European I follow American news like somebody would follow a horror comedy series. Many of the characters are totally over the top. In fact, people who made political satire series like Veep have given up, because some of the real world people in the news behave in ways beyond the imagination of scriptwriters. You can’t *invent* people that crazy. But in many cases it is still Rashomon: People agree on some basic facts, e.g. “women in the women’s section of a spa in L.A. were exposed to the sight of a penis”; the fight is then about the interpretation of these facts. Is a penis in a women’s spa okay if the owner “identifies as a woman”? Is it a case of transgender rights, or a case of indecent exposure? You don’t need to be a political extremist to understand how opinions on this might differ. Even if you gathered a group of completely apolitical people, they would probably disagree on a complicated issue like this.

But where it starts to really worry me is when there isn’t even the slightest agreement on the underlying event anymore. I have been reading about politicians who claim that on January 6 a group of tourists were invited by the Republican party to a peaceful guided tour of the capitol, somebody accidentally broke something there, and the Democratic deep state reacted by killing one of the tourists and locking others away as political prisoners. Obviously the abundant video evidence of the event doesn’t support this version at all, which is why all reporting on this version is done without video or photo evidence. I would understand if the Republicans claimed that it was a protest gone wrong, not an insurrection. But to claim that basically nothing at all happened, after everybody *watched* it happening on TV, is beyond Rashomon-like truth bending.

I also worry about the left changing history. As a hobby historian, I always thought that the best way to deal with uncomfortable truths of the past is the 2000-page annotated new version of Mein Kampf, with 3500 notes about why Hitler’s arguments were wrong. The worst way to deal with uncomfotable truths of the past is to deny that past happened, and reinvent an alternative version of it, which is more in line with modern social standards. Falsifying the past, even in an entertainment context, is counterproductive to enlightment. How do you explain the Windrush scandal to somebody who watched Bridgerton and now believes that the British ruling class was mixed race for centuries?

Civil society is based on a fundamental agreement to be able to disagree on the political interpretation of facts. Attempts to just change the facts are the stuff of Orwellian nightmares.

"You don’t need to be a political extremist to understand how opinions on this might differ." The problem is that a political extremist doesn't understand how opinions might differ. To the extremist, you either share their viewpoint or you are WRONG, and they have little interest in honestly debating the point. Your wrongness is an objective fact and wrong people are to be shouted down or suppressed.

I do believe the vast majority of people are not extremists. However, the extremists on both sides are the loudest, most engaged and get the most air time and column inches because they make for a 'better' (i.e. more entertaining) story than a bunch of moderates conceding that the other side might have a point.
Those sound like two different levels of worry. On one hand you have a group saying that events broadcasted on live tv and recorded for all time did not happen as plainly shown on camera and on the other hand you have stuff like the Tudors casting actors of different races for a dramatic television show loosely drawing from history but whose purpose is entertainment.

If anything the left has been calling for more accurate teachings/examination of history instead of the "Pilgrims and Indians shared Maeze and held Thanksgiving" version many Americans, like myself, grew up with.

But yes the media will gravitate to only showing the extremes because that is what brings them views. American news media's purpose hasn't been to inform for decades. They are entertainment companies. Their content is designed to target feelings, not facts because that's what they have determined their users want. They are exceptionally good at getting their targetted user groups to engage with their content. Watching one episode of Tucker Carlson is all you need to confirm this. This is the guy who successfully argued in court his show was not news but entertainment and "not 'stating actual facts' about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in 'exaggeration' and 'non-literal commentary.'" yet he has the most popular "news" broadcast in America.
This is the second or third time you've mentioned Bridgerton, a tv show that I have literally never seen or heard mentioned anywhere else, despite it apparently being "the most-watched series on Netflix" according to Wikipedia.

I was confused by your comments on it, assuming it to be a case of "colorblind casting" which you were for some reason choosing to take as literal. On reading the Wikipedia entry, however, I find it's quite specifically not that but something that makes your use of it as an example of wilful misrepresentation of historical fact even less appropriate. Again according to Wikipedia Bridgerton is "set in an alternate history with a racially integrated London... an alternative history in which Queen Charlotte's mixed race heritage was not only well-established but was transformative for Black people and other people of color in England."

Alternative history is a long established literary form. It's perverse to treat an openly-acknowledged alternate history as if it were in some way intended to represent conventionally-accepted history. I'm reading Naomi Novik's "Temeraire" at the moment, an alternative history set in the Napoleonic wars, where both sides employ dragons as air support. I haven't been fooled into thinking that's what actually happened just because I read it in a book!

I am at a disadvantage, of course, never having seen Bridgerton. Maybe it isn't made clear in the show that this is an alternate timeline or dimension. I would have thought, though, that as in the Amazon adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, in which the Axis powers won the Second World War, most viewers would be able to work that out for themselves.
I would be okay if it was actually labelled “alternative history”. But neither “Bridgerton” nor “Hollywood” are labeled as such on Netflix, only some third-party sites correctly call it that. As for the idea that “most viewers would be able to work that out for themselves”, we are talking about a country here where you can’t rely on viewers working out for themselves who won the last presidential election. What do they know about Britain during the Regency period? I bet most Americans don’t even know when the Regency period in Britain was, or why it was called that way.
P.S. If viewers can work out the truth for themselves, why do we need to ban right-wing alternative history like Gone With The Wind?
Where has Gone With The Wind been banned?

At least in the US a google search of Gone With The Wind leads to the first hit being a link to stream it on HBO Max.

HBO removed it, then put it back with a warning label. Some cinemas, which had been showing the film regularly, got protested until they removed it. As I said, a warning label on Bridgerton and Hollywood on Netflix as well would be an acceptable solution too.
On today's episode of "Both Sides!" we're talking about the moral equivalence of a 1939 film glorifying slavery and the Civil War getting a content warning, and a 2020 series featuring the exact opposite in an ahistorically diverse London. After the break, we'll further discuss whether we need GMO-esque labels on all pieces of entertainment lest they be confused for literal events, or if we can lean on peoples' ability to discern fantasy from reality, a skill children typically develop between 3-5 years old. Stay tuned!


But seriously, peak Orwell came in 2018 when Trump said "What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening." We're beyond Orwell. There are real life adults who drive 2-ton vehicles down the road every day and make decisions who come to town halls and suggest that vaccines have magnetized their blood. There was a licensed physician who testified in Ohio to that, in fact. But sure, let's worry about what people might think about 1800s England, as if anything will ever matter again should these batshit insane win (or overturn) another election.
Could you please point out to me where exactly I said that these things are moral equivalent? I can say that I worry both about climate change and whether it will rain later today, without these two things being morally or otherwise in any way equivalent. There is obviously more malvolence involved in lies that are designed to overturn an election than in lies that pretend that races living harmoneously with each other is historically normal. But it is *because* we want to solve the problem of racism today that unlabeled alternative history which pretends that there wasn’t any is damaging. Why would you be opposed to any historical film or series that deviates strongly from actual history carrying a label “alternative history” or notes explaining which parts of it aren’t real? And if you are against these labels, why should only content that doesn’t conform to your world view be required to carry them, and not the kind of fantasy you agree with?
> Falsifying the past, even in an entertainment context, is counterproductive to enlightment.

Well, in a general sense yes, but there are really very few examples of historical entertainment products which do paint a true picture of the past.

"Birth of a Nation" falsifies the past.
"Gone with the Wind" falsifies the past.
"Three musketeers" (either the original books, or any movie based on them) falsifies the past.
"300" blatantly falsifies the past - presenting the Persians as decadent Arab gays, and the Spartans as brave and straight defenders of Western-European values.

Why is "Bridgerton" such a big problem among all the others?

Bridgerton is not a bigger problem than those others. But some of you guys are completely blind on one eye, and if I asked you for examples, you’d only ever offer up right-wing fabrications. But because culturally the left is currently dominant, one has to be careful of their fabrications as well.

There is an absolute value to truth which is apolitical. You don’t get to the truth by “balancing” the lies of one side with the lies of the other. And there are degrees to these lies: Gone with the Wind is not the same as Birth of a Nation. If Gone with the Wind was *primarily* about race, it wouldn’t have a 97% Metacritic score. Why would a film which shows a lie about happy black slaves on a plantation be worse than a film which shows a lie about happy black dukes in English palaces? Why wouldn’t you want to treat both the same, with the same system of warning labels?
Yes, there are degrees - "Gone with the Wind" has been quite famous and influential.
As for "Bridgerton" - this is the first time I have heard of it, and among so many other streaming services and various series, I strongly doubt it will make an impression on many people.

I am willing to bet that in, say 10 years, still more people would have at least heard, if not read or watched "Gone with the Wind", that would have read or watched "Bridgerton"

But yeah, nothing wrong with putting a disclaimer in the movie that "it does not represent actual historical events or people". But calling it "left-wing propaganda" seems overblown to me.

I wouldn't worry so much about the Left until its the politicians making Bridgerton instead of Hollywood.

There is an absolute value to truth which is apolitical.

Sure there is, but in what context are you defining "truth"?

Do we accept these warning labels as a sign of the times, or do we recognize them for what they really are? It doesn't matter which side of the political spectrum one resides on, because when the warning labels are applied, some group has already given their stamp of approval for them to be applied, and in this current social battle that means the finger will be pointed at the liberals, or the conservatives - depending on the issue. So what we have is a full on "spectrum of truth" that could sit anywhere along political and ideological lines. Let's see how long it will be before someone successfully gets warning labels placed on bibles with the same warnings that one might see on a pack of cigarettes.
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