The problem with so many of the statue-toppling/ renaming debacles at U.S. universities isn’t just that they are transparent grandstanding, virtue-signalling and pandering to power-seeking black activists. The more disturbing problem is the intellectual vacuousness and lack of critical thought that school administrators display in the process of their grovels. The recent action of Bowling Green State University in Ohio is a particularly noxious example.
[Correction notice: the post originally had the university in Virginia, perhaps because I was once pulled over for reckless driving in Bowling Green, Virginia. Anyway, that was wrong. My apologies.]
Lillian Gish ( 1893-1993) had an epic film career spanning 75 years, from 1912, in silent films, to 1987. She was frequently called the “First Lady of American Cinema,” and film historians credit her with introducing basic movie performing techniques to her craft. The PBS series, American Masters devoted an episode to Gish’s life and achievements; Turner Classics Movies observes,
Having pioneered screen acting from vaudeville entertainment into a form of artistic expression, actress Lillian Gish forged a new creative path at a time when more serious thespians regarded motion pictures as a rather base form of employment. Gish brought to her roles a sense of craft substantially different from that practiced by her theatrical colleagues. In time, her sensitive performances elevated not only her stature as an actress, but also the reputation of movies themselves.
She had 120 film and TV credits before she was done, including “Night of the Hunter,” an enduring classic. In short, she was important. She enhanced the culture and her industry, and she earned her honors. She should be remembered.
Bowling Green State University has honored Lillian Gish (and her less-celebrated acting sister Dorothy) for more than 40 years. But members of the college’s Black Student Union objected the theater’s name, on the grounds that in 1915, when she was 22 years old, she was one of the stars in D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” a seminal work in the U.S. film canon by one of its most talented and influential directors. The film, despite its artistic merits and importance to the development of the movies, is widely regarded as racist in content and purpose, celebrating as it does the rise of the Klu Klux Klan. The film is also blamed in part for the rise of Jim Crow in the South, also aided by President Woodrow Wilson’s open promotion of the movie as well as Griffith’s political views.
None of which has anything to do with Lillian Gish. Actors don’t write scripts or control a movie’s message, nor are they responsible for how audiences perceive a film beyond their own performances. D.W. Griffith was not only the early 20th Century’s equivalent of a Stanley Kubrick or Steven Spielberg, he was young Lillian’s patron and metor. She had literally no choice other than to accept his decision to cast her in his Reconstruction opus; to rebuff him would have risked ending her career. Nor was there any way, in 1915, for Gish to know what the impact of “Birth of a Nation” might be, or to know, while she was being filmed, what the director would do with the footage.
Gish was not responsible for the movie, and holding that she was is as ignorant and indefensible as it is unfair.
Never mind: because she was in the movie, black students said that they didn’t feel safe, that the Gish name contributed “to an intimidating, even hostile, educational environment.” Got that? The name of a theater that honored a film actress who has been dead for 26 years, and that the vast, vast majority of students could not identify on a bet, creates a “hostile educational environment” not because of anything she did or said, but because of her association with a single project out of 120 in her career, a project which has only relatively recently been adjudged by the “woke” as a cultural stain, despite being saluted for most of the 20th Century as great art, if not great politics.
If Bowling Green State’s leaders and administrators had a minimal level of ethical content to their character, they would have rejected the black students’ demands for what they were: a transparent exercise in campus muscle-flexing that had nothing to do with an actual grievance, an illogical and unjust exercise in guilt by association, and a cruel smear on the name and reputation of an important cultural figure who deserves respect, not insults.
But they don’t have such content to their character, so the trustees voted last week, unanimously, to remove Gish’s name from the theater. Making their craven and indefensible decision even worse, the school released some desperate rationalizations for the move, other than the real one, which is that it is easier to mistreat the memory of a long-dead actress who didn’t even attend the school than to stand up to campus bullies who would be sure to start chanting, “No justice, no peace!” at any second.
In the report of a special commission regarding the controversy—no, universities should not waste time and money on such butt-covering exercises—we are told that yes, it’s true, “Birth of a Nation” is a masterpiece, but a racist one. The theater, however, honored the Gish sisters, not the film, and not Griffith, so the point is moot.
We are told that despite her long career, Lillian Gish is defined in the public’s eye by this film alone. Sure, because so many current day Americans know their silent movies and their casts. Hell, I’m a movie buff, and I had forgotten that Gish was in “Birth of a Nation.”
“‘The Birth of a Nation’ showcases the very worst stereotypes of black people, and the central narrative focuses on the disruption of white society, playing on fears of racemixing and loss of power. Major “black” characters are portrayed by white actors in blackface as lazy, unintelligent, and predatory,” says the report. Yes, that was my impression when I last saw the film 40 years ago. The theater, however, was not named “The Birth Of A Nation Theater.”
I guess that’s why the report also says, “The artistry of both Gish sisters
throughout their careers is not lost on the Task Force, which recognizes that other
honors bestowed on Lillian Gish by BGSU, including an honorary degree, a scholarship in her name, and the archival collections, should remain unchanged.”
Translation: We recognize that there is no legitimate reason to remove any honors relating to the Gish sisters, but we’ll remove the most visible of them because we don’t have the guts to do otherwise.
Then the report says that while neither Lillian nor Dorothy ever said anything to suggest that they agreed with the racist views Griffith’s film advanced, they never explicitly condemned the film, either. Nor should they have. An artist who accepts money and career advancement from a movie engages in pure betrayal when he or she attempts to undermine the work after the fact. It harms not just the film but everyone who worked on it; it can harm the current owners of the film financially.
The worst, perhaps, is this section:
Lillian Gish spoke in interviews about actors being accountable for the roles they choose. This may speak to her recognition of the social impact of this film and her role in it. In a 1983 interview with a BGSU publication, Lillian Gish talked about actors being accountable for the roles they choose: “I feel strongly that actors and actresses today need to take responsibility for what they say and do in film, even if they are only acting. They don’t have to do the script. Look at the crime in our country. A little boy of nine holds up a bank. Where did he learn that? I’m not saying, but I have an idea . . . Film is the most powerful thing that has been invented in this century.”
In 1983, Lillian Gish was 90 years old! The fact that she could claim, as a retired actress whose career was already in the bank, that struggling actors “don’t have to do the script” can be attributed to convenient memory loss, or a change in philosophy sparked by smug complacency. If 22 year old Lillian had been told that by a 90 year old busy-body, what do you think her response would have been?
I read an interview once with singer Vic Damone, who was offered the role of Johnny Fontaine, the Frank Sinatra-inspired character in “The Godfather.” Damone said he turned down the part because he objected to the film glorifying violence (and horse heads in beds), and that it was pointless, stupid grandstanding on his part that he regretted the rest of his career.
I have written so many times about the honor-cancelling and the statue-toppling that the Left—and it is only the Left—has embraced on its relentless march toward thought control and culture smothering as a means of gaining power. I don’t want to write it all again, but I will write this again: they will not stop. Each justification for erasing a memorial, an honor, a place in history and a public memory will become more and more attenuated and logically indefensible, so the ultimate principle will be sufficiently general and broad to justify wiping out the nation’s memory and reverence toward the Founder, and with them, the principles they stood for.