If you were alive in 1989, then you remember the end of socialism. Millions of people decided that individual freedoms were more important than collective security and, defying humorless men with guns, brought down nearly every government in Eastern Europe.
One of the lasting images burned into the retinas of those of us glued to CNN was that of statues of socialist leaders being pulled down all across the region.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The destruction of a few statues was not enough to destroy the idea of socialism, and, twenty years later, the world is awash with left-leaning ideas that cover the spectrum from slight sacrifices in personal freedom in the name of more equality for vulnerable populations to full-blown communism. Socialism clearly isn’t dead.
Why? Well, because the statues weren’t socialism, and neither was the Berlin Wall. Socialism is a collection of ideas about how society should be structured in order to achieve a certain number of goals. These ideas range from making capitalism a little more “fair” to doing away with the capitalist system altogether.
And these ideas don’t live in statues. Statues are about power, but ideas live in books. That’s why socialism didn’t die when everyone thought it had: those books stayed on the shelves and eventually a new generation of activists and scholars rediscovered them.
The above seemed a timely reminiscence, as today’s review is about Gone with the Wind. The book, not the movie.
Why timely? Because, as I write, there has been a very recent series of high-profile removals of Confederate statues from public spaces in the US, mainly of General Lee. These removals took place in a highly polarized climate, but were undeniably driven by a large number of people (although they were probably also opposed by an equal number… as one can imagine, reliable numbers in today’s media climate are hard to come by). Protesters and counter-protesters clashed, with violent and even tragic results.
Perhaps the problem is that both sides seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1989. No one cared about the statues until they became front page news; they were just part of the urban landscape, and I’d have been willing to bet that most could not have told you who the guy on the horse was until everything hit the fan.
But the ideas? They exist. In the case of the Confederacy there is a structured case for why it existed: broadsides, pamphlets, letters and even the constitution are in university archives. But these documents are not the ones that keep the idea of the Old South alive for its proponents. Popular media does that job.
Perhaps the most virulent example of propaganda in that respect is a film: Birth of a Nation. It tells the story from the Southern side, and no matter where your sympathies lie, you end up feeling strongly for the characters. Yes, time has passed it by and the premise of the “Ride of the Klan” is cartoonish and grotesque, but the film is very well done all the same. In fact, it is considered one of the true greats of early film.
More subtle is Judge Priest, where folksy Will Rogers shows us how it’s done without beating anyone over the head with it.
There are countless other examples, mainly from the twenties and thirties when mass media was working up some serious steam, but the biggest seller of the idea of the Old South was clearly Gone with the Wind.
The film… was just a Hollywood blockbuster, and not really a propaganda piece (despite never questioning the nobility of the Confederate cause), but I’d argue that the book is the Old South’s Communist Manifesto. It’s impossible to read this brick and not feel truly moved by the plight of every single Southern character (except Scarlett–she’s unbearable), and feel a deep sense of loss for a way of life that ended in blood and fire.
I don’t read books with an eye to the politics, which meant that I approached this simply as a book (and a romance at that), which meant that, until I sat down to write this review, was only concerned with the story itself and the plight of the characters. The fact that it also contains a good blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the war made it doubly interesting for anyone who enjoys history (and if you’ve read our manifesto, you know we do).
By the end of the book, I felt truly sorry for what the characters had to live through… and also pined for the society that existed at the beginning of the book. Granted, it only takes a little bit of analysis to recall that the gentrified lifestyle existed on the back of a slave economy but I postulate that most casual readers will not do the exercise of analyzing this and will walk away with a deep sense of loss.
I’ll go one step further: I will categorically bet that no one who picks up this book purely for pleasure will do this analysis. The people who are sensitive to the issues it raises will either avoid it or read it for study purposes, not for fun.
So what to do with it? It’s still selling very well, so it’s not going to go out of print anytime soon (and the Kindle is bringing it to a completely new audience).
So, ban it? Burn it? Try to pressure the publisher into canceling the next huge print run?
Or perhaps just accept that ideas can’t–and shouldn’t–be killed?
Whatever happens, it should be an interesting battle to watch.