Following the harrowing recent documentary Leaving Neverland, which detailed sexual abuse allegations against Michael Jackson, executive producers of The Simpsons, James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, and Al Jean, have decided to remove an episode from the canon in which Jackson’s voice makes an appearance. It is not the content of the episode, “Stark Raving Dad,” which aired in 1991, that is now in question, but Jackson’s very participation in the episode.
It is absurd that creators who have themselves been accused of causing offense are now excising content from season 2 of their seminal 30 season series of animated Americana. But the real affront is to fans and consumers, who will no longer have access to this content, and need to decide whether they want to be protected from material that was previously available across all platforms.
Back when The Simpsons premiered, first on The Tracy Ullman Show, and then as a standalone half hour on Fox in 1989, it was one of more offensive things on television, and on the most offensive network, Fox. Homer Simpson was a beer swilling, toxically masculine lout, a neglectful father, and sorry excuse for a husband. Bart was a loudmouth, back-talking troublemaker. Lisa and Marge Simpson kept the family together. Overall, the show provided an antidote to the happy, pretty, functional families that routinely graced America’s primetime slots.
The creators and producers of The Simpsons, a show derided as much as it was praised, may have withdrawn the episode in a misplaced but good faith act of conscience. But, in our increasingly censorious times, it looks a lot like a surrender offered before it has even been demanded—a preemptive defensive manoeuvre the late Christopher Hitchens used to call “crying before you’ve been hurt.”
In 1990, the New York Times spoke to Groening about his show and the strong reactions it elicited. “We get lots of mail from people of all ages.” Groening replied. “My favorite letter was from a kid who said his father wouldn’t let him watch because there’s so much bad language and everybody hurts each other’s feelings.” Groening certainly took some satisfaction in that; and his irreverent show was a hit even so.
The Simpsons has featured many celebrity guest voices over the years, so it’s hard not to wonder if Jackson’s episode will be the only one disappeared. What about Larry King’s episode? And what was the justification for having convicted felon and R&B legend James Brown on the show? Or Mel Gibson, who pled guilty in 2011 to beating his former girlfriend? How many episodes need to be wiped if the show is to be made sufficiently wholesome for future viewers?
In addition to The Simpsons deleting content from its own back catalogue, in 2011, it was reported that new editions of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn would have the racial slurs excised. If content is no longer something that you physically hold in your hands, but rather something in constant flux, then we risk losing the past, and derailing the story of who we are and how we came to be. If we don’t hang on to our books and print media and switch entirely to shared digital libraries instead, the history of thought, events, and literature becomes subject to revision.
This fascination with revising history is not new. The emergence of critical race and gender theory in the twentieth century encouraged new ways of understanding past events. This development challenged the notion that history must always written by the victors, and allowed us to view events from the perspective of the defeated, oppressed, and downtrodden as well. This offered a new and interesting way to consider the past and present, and the individuals involved. It provided nuance, perspective, and opened the door to a more complex understanding of history.
However, this initially valuable fresh perspective has long since ossified into grievance-mongering, and it is now as well-entrenched as a means of understanding and constructing historical narratives as the previous victor model. The correct critical lens, however, is one that values honesty and accuracy over protecting us from—or chastizing us for—the misdeeds of our collective past. If those who hold the rights to content are not willing to be the keepers of truth and accuracy, consumers must do it themselves. And the only way to do that is to maintain an ownership model, and to resist the seductive convenience of a subscription model which offers to make an entire library, art museum, or music collection available at all times and in all places.
In E.M. Forster’s speculative 1909 novella The Machine Stops, everyone lives in subterranean apartments designed for maximum convenience and efficiency, in which all an occupant’s needs are met by the machine. Food is ordered, friendships are maintained, lectures are given, music is streamed, and so on, all from one centralized machine, accessible to all residents of Earth. Sound familiar? But then the protagonist, a woman called Vashti, pulls up a symphony only to find that it has a glitch. She complains to the authorities, but nothing is ever done to fix the glitch. Eventually, Forster writes, “time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been remedied, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine. The sigh at the crises of the Brisbane symphony no longer irritated Vashti; she accepted it as part of the melody.”
Is that what we will do? As our content, our history, and our memories are revised in deference to ever more exacting standards of purity? Will we simply resign ourselves to revisionism and accept the defects as part of the whole?
Michael Jackson is not the only cultural icon to have been accused of molesting children. Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin when she was 13, Alan Ginsburg notoriously brought underage boys into his bed, Gary Glitter was convicted of child molestation, and the sordid R. Kelly story continues to unfold before an appalled nation. Should all of these individuals and their work be erased? And what does it mean to erase individuals, documents, and artworks that have had a noticeable and permanent impact on both culture and our understanding of who we are and were we came from?
Leaving gaps of understanding will not help future generations understand our time, and it will not assist students of history in getting a clean grasp of what happened or why. Divergent lenses of perception are only useful if we are aware that they are lenses. Looking through rose colored glasses at our past without being aware that we are wearing glasses at all only disfigures our understanding of our own cultural past. This is a sacrifice we cannot afford.
In the future, perhaps there will be experts, like Forster’s Vashti, who will remember the symphony as it was, and who can call it up from memory. Or maybe that original source material will remain accessible to those experts hardy enough to delve into it without being traumatized. But perhaps not. It is more likely that what we erase from digital records will be gone for good. It is hardly paranoid to worry about content retrospectively forced to comply with woke purity standards, because this is already happening.
For obvious reasons, rewriting history is expedient to totalitarians—the Taliban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s giant Buddhas, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s pitiless purges of intellectuals, the excision of the pharaoh Hatshepsut from Egyptian infrastructure. But now this sinister trend is appearing in free societies as content creators hurry to protect the reputations of their brands by pretending to protect the public from the legacy of damaged artists and their work. But what we are seeing is the destruction of history, irrespective of the nobility of the motive, and this should be resisted for its own sake.
In 2012, the Malian capital of Timbuktu was overtaken by Tuareg separatist rebels, who implemented violent sharia law. As they occupied the community and tormented its population, librarian Abdel Kader Haïdara knew what was coming: the destruction of the storied, historic, irreplaceable library, dating back to the sixteenth century. He did what he could to save the knowledge of human history, of Mali and its inhabitants. He saved as many of the books as he could, some 95 percent of the library’s contents. Those that were left behind were burned.
As cowed artists start to police themselves in anticipation of the mob’s demands, we too need to rescue our cultural heritage lest it be swept down the memory hole. No matter what Marie Kondo says, keep your books and media.
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