Thank You for Never Having Smoked

Cartoon editors are painstakingly working through more than 1,500 episodes of classic Tom and Jerry, Flintstones, and Scooby Doo cartoons to erase scenes of characters - gasp - smoking. Turner Broadcasting says it’s a voluntary decision, but the move comes after a report from Ofcom, which has regulatory authority over British broadcasters. So in this case “censorship” seems a reasonable term.

It’s not the first time. France’s national library airbrushed a cigarette out of a poster of Jean-Paul Sartre to avoid falling foul of an anti-tobacco law. The US postal service has removed the cigarettes from photographs on stamps featuring Jackson Pollock, Edward R. Murrow, and Robert Johnson. And in the 20th-anniversary rerelease of ET, Steven Spielberg replaced the policemen’s guns with walkie-talkies.

On one level, this is just a joke: they are redrawing cartoons to make them more kid-friendly. And just to make the rules completely PC, Turner is allowed to leave cigarettes in the hands of cartoon villains.

But there’s something deeper here: an attempt to sanitize history, to rewrite it the way we wish it had happened. Smoking is a part of reality, and especially a part of history. Just look at any old movie. Everyone smokes: doctors, pregnant women, lovers. Real people smoked, too - people like Murrow and Pollock and Sartre. And some of them died of lung and throat cancer, which parents and teachers can point out. It’s Orwellian to airbrush historical photos in order to remove evidence of that of which you disapprove.

Franklin D. Roosevelt spent decades trying to conceal the fact that he was confined to a wheelchair. Historians say that out of more than 10,000 photographs of FDR, only four show him using a wheelchair. Those are the ones that are now used in textbooks and at the FDR Memorial in Washington. One victory for historical accuracy. However, the FDR Memorial removed the ever-present cigarette from FDR’s hands. Orwell’s ministry of truth would be proud.

(Excerpted from Comment is free.)

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