Should Gone with the Wind Be Banned?

Tragic events provide platforms for political opportunists—remember we can’t let a good crisis go to waste—and the mass shooting of African Americans by a white racist at a Charleston, S.C., church has created a plethora of opportunities. The one on my radar screen today is New York film critic Lou Lumenick’s argument for banning the Academy Awardwinning film Gone with the Wind. It’s a great reminder of why we don’t want film critics in charge of social policy.

Lumenick notes, accurately, that the film, based “on a best seller by die-hard Southerner Margaret Mitchell, ‘Gone with the Wind’ buys heavily into the idea that the Civil War was a noble lost cause and casts Yankees and Yankee sympathizers as the villains, both during the war and during Reconstruction.” Lumenick also says that the movie, and the Confederate flag, represents slavery and a defense of slavery.

Leaving aside the question of whether an artistic endeavor should be judged on its factual content and accuracy rather than artistic contribution, Lumenick is showing a pretty profound ignorance of history. True enough, Margaret Mitchell was an apologist for the South, and Gone with the Wind is presenting a distinctly Southern view of the Civil War and slavery. It never pretended to be anything else.

But Lumenick is assuming that movie viewers are both ignorant of the Civil War and unable to critically evaluate the content of the movie. The idea that Gone with the Wind should be considered or valued not for its artistic merit but only on whether it fits with the sensibilities of an elite (in this case a New York film critic)–and should be banned–is disturbingly Orwellian.

I remember seeing Gone With the Wind when I was about 12 years old in a movie theater. It remains the only time I have seen the entire movie in one sitting. My biggest recollections as a pre-teen?

  1. The intermission was weird, and I didn’t like it;
  2. A lot of people died, and lot of suffering happened during the Civil War;
  3. Southerners romanticized the war and secession with the result being complete social and personal devastation;
  4. Scarlett O’Hara was a self-centered brat, and I couldn’t see why Rhett Butler would have anything to do with her.

Apparently, according to Lumerick, it’s not enough for a movie to show the devastation of war. It also has to place his politically correct narrative at the center.

Beyond this, was the Civil War only about slavery? No, and this is why Lumerick borders on an Orwellian approach to speech, expression, history, and art. He (and others) are spinning the public narrative to fit a profoundly selective view of history and politics.

Slavery was indeed the proximate cause of the Civil War—sorry Southern apologists, you have to own this. Without pressure by Northern states to limit the expansion of slavery and the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, the war probably wouldn’t have happened.

But concerns over states rights were very real, even if controversial. Lincoln’s election and the growing abolitionist movement precipitated a constitutional crisis. Southern states believed—with good reason—that it was just a matter of time before enough free states would be admitted to garner the three-fourths majority they needed to amend the Constitution and prohibit slavery within their borders, violating (they believed) the self-determination implied in the Constitution. Many southerners were fighting for sovereignty, not necessarily to preserve slavery. (And even this interpretation is simplified as this essay by Robert Higgs of the book Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men, by Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, eloquently points out.)

Robert E. Lee, perhaps one of the nation’s most effective generals, was one of many Southerners offered a commission in the U.S. Army on the eve of the Civil War but turned it down because his loyalty was first to his native state of Virginia. (More than 300 regular U.S. Army officers resigned their commissions to fight for their home states in the South.) Moreover, Lee freed his family’s slaves in 1862, well before the war turned against the South, and proclaimed in private letters the slavery was an evil institution.

None of this justifies slavery, constitutes a defense of the South, or, for that matter, justifies using the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of independence. Rather, my intention is to point out the folly of Lumenick’s argument—that complex social issues and historical events can be whittled down into one narrative, and that narrative should then be used to condemn or laud art. It may work in art, but it doesn’t work in reality. We don’t have to celebrate Gone with the Wind as an example of objective documentary filmmaking before we can recognize its cultural contribution as art or, in this case, a representation of a point of view that is different from our own.

In his column, Lumenick writes: “But what does it say about us as a nation if we continue to embrace a movie that, in the final analysis, stands for many of the same things as the Confederate flag that flutters so dramatically over the dead and wounded soldiers at the Atlanta train station just before the ‘GWTW’ intermission?”

The answer to this Yankee is simple: It recognizes the objective value of individual freedom of expression and a commitment to meaningful public discourse.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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