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Friday, December 23, 2005
Elderly man river...
There's been quite a furor raised over what exactly the name of the decorated evergreen should be in relation to this time of the year. Should we call it a Christmas tree or a holiday tree? If we call it a Christmas tree, do we run the risk of offending those who aren't Christians and if we call it a holiday tree, do we run the risk of really ticking off the Christian crowd?

Seems to me that all this debate over what to call the decorated evergreen really goes back to the old question of political correctness.

Now, don't get me wrong here. I think that being sensitive to your fellow human being is a good thing and certainly there are some words in the lexicon that have conotations and meanings that it's best if they're left out of polite conversation from now until the end of time (I still get upset when I'm called a Trekkie becuase dammit, I'm a Trekker, thank you! Do NOT make me spend four posts explaining the differences). But there are times when it comes to political correctness that it borders on the absurd to me and seeming to miss the whole point of the thing to start with.

A few years ago, a lot of copies of the books Politically Correct Bedtime Stories and Politically Correct Holiday Stories were sold. I admit I read both and found them fairly amusing. They were both good satires of political correctness take to the extreme.

But, for me, the best satire of taking political correctness too far comes not from recent times, but actually from the old time radio days.

I love old radio shows--esp. old radio comedies. To listen to and hear the evolution of the situational comedy that we know and love today is fascinating to me and I admit I find the shows from yesteryear entertaining and timeless in a way that few sitcoms are today. It's also interesting to hear their version of re-runs. They didn't really repeat entire shows so much as they'd do routines over and over again, but in different shows. So, you can listen to Abbott and Costello and hear them include the famous Who's On First routine in the storyline about once a season or so. (It's easy to pick out..generally they start out with something related to baseball).

Because of the lack of repeats, per se, during hiatuses of shows (generally the summer time), they would bring in other performers to have a show in that time slot. In the summer of 1957, the popular Jack Benny program went off the air and in its place, comedian Stan Freberg was given a 13-week run. Now, many of you may not have heard of Stan Freberg per se...at least you may not recgonize his name. I was in the same boat a few years ago when I first heard his show, which was funny, witty and virtually timeless. Freberg was a satirist who produced a lot of records on the 50s and 60s that were skits. He did a couple of Dragnet parodies that were popular and he also was in Green Christmas, a skit that is included on some of the novelty Christmas CDs that float around out there.

Freberg's show featured himself and some big-name comedy talents such as Daws Bulter (Mr Howell from Gilligan's Island) and June Foray (the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel).

Freberg's show only ran one summer season, which is a shame really. It was great stuff and it holds up well.

But back to my point.

In the sixth episode, a censor from the citizen's radio board review has stopped by to OK all the material used on the program. The censor decides that he will sit back and use a buzzer whenever Freberg goes too far off track and might say something that could be taken as offensive. Stan reluctantly agrees and launches into his rendition of Old Man River "in honor of national Mississippi River Boat paddlewheel week."

Freberg barely makes it out the censor introducing himself before he's getting buzzed. The censor buzzes him for not saying thank you and being a good example to the children at home.
Sneedly (The Censor) : You forgot to say thank you, Mr. Freberg. Politeness is an essential in radio programming. Your program goes into the home..it must be a good influence on...children.
Freberg then luanches into the song, which he makes it about two words in and the buzzer sounds. The use of the word "old" has a "contation some of the more elderly people find distateful." Stan is asked to substitute the word elderly. He does and starts again...only to have every grammar mistake used by song buzzed and he can't say the word "sweat" either.

Finally, in frustration Stan gives up, saying Sneedly has won and stops trying to sing the song. (If you want to hear the whole skit, I dropped the show into my libsyn podcast feed...you can hear it here. And don't get worried about it...the copyright expired on the show years ago so I can distribute it this way and not get sued!)

It's an amusing skit, but it does, at least, to me point out the potential pitfalls of political correctedness gone wrong. It's one thing to remove words or images that could be offensive, but what I may not find offensive, you may find horribly offensive. Also, if you go in and correct everything, do you ruin some of the power of the original thing? For example, I know some schools that ban the reading of the American classic Huckleberry Finn because of certain words used in the novel. Now, I am not saying they should or should not be used, but what I do argue is that novel is a reflection of the time it was written and should be read that way.

Does this mean you should run about saying the word or quoting passages that use the particular word? No, not really. But I think that we should be allowed to read it and also made aware of the context of how and when the book was written. Because, let's face it, it's a great book and one that I think everyone should read at least once in his or her lifetime.

And again, I find myself thinking that political correctness can go too far--as we see in the Freberg sketch. We can't correct the past but we can work on the future. Indeed, I wonder if at times the argument over what is and is not acceptable speech sometimes does more to tear us apart than bring us together.

Sort of like this whole what do we call the decorated evergreen debate. I can see both sides of the argument, but it seems as instead of being a time of year when we celebrate peace on earth and goodwill toward all people, we're too busy lining up to debate about what to call the tree. In all this rhetoric, we're losing track of what this season is really all about...

And that's the biggest shame of all.

posted by Michael Hickerson at 12/23/2005 01:17:00 PM | |
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