Monday 6 October 2014


I serve as a humble foot soldier in the Politically-correct Brigade (and Daily Mail readers may be surprised to learn that we really are a Brigade, a disciplined and well-organised outfit, run on paramilitary lines, dedicated to the overthrow of common sense and the banning of Easter in our schools. We are few, perhaps, but we are organised, and coming for you, Little England.). When I read the following yesterday, however I was, as we say now, conflicted:

The National Jukebox is a project of the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation. The goal of the Jukebox is to present to the widest audience possible early commercial sound recordings, offering a broad range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to education and lifelong learning.

These selections are presented as part of the record of the past. They are historical documents which reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these recordings, which may contain content offensive to users.

This sort of thing is drearily commonplace. I came across it when looking for a recording of an old Thomas Moore song (My Heart and My Lute), on which Lewis Carroll based Haddock's Eyes. It's a generic disclaimer applied willy-nilly to all historic recordings on The National Jukebox archive.

How could historical documents do other than 'reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times'? What form would documents not reflecting the attitudes, perspectives and beliefs of the past take? That such attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs differ from ours is what gives them value to historians, and a purchase on the imagination. They are markers against which social and cultural progress may be judged.

That past attitudes are unpalatable to modern tastes is hardly worth mentioning. It's an example of (to borrow E. P. Thompson's resonant phrase) 'the enormous condescension of posterity'. That the Library of Congress feels it necessary to issue such a disclaimer suggests a low estimate of its users' intelligence, who presumably won't take the archive contents as a policy statement, won't assume that the fact they have a copy of Mein Kampf means that the Library of Congress endorses Hitlerian bollocks. 

Presumably such disclaimers are issued to pre-empt litigious maniacs who, keen to find offence, will find it  a-plenty in archives. But it's the difference that makes the past of interest - it's how things were. I suspect the nervousness is largely related to delicate issues of race and gender and sexuality, those regions in which modern tolerances are most scrupulously monitored and legislated (and rightly, one should add) although there are doubtless users out there who will be offended by Groucho Marx performing Lydia the Tattoo'd Lady as it lacks respect for the tattooed circus performer community.  Here is is.

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