Chances are, when cameras were rolling on the set of the 1980s stoner comedy “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” the filmmakers didn’t realize they were making a trenchant allegory about life in 2018.
Near the denouement of this cinematic masterpiece, area slackers Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) bring historical figures like Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid, and Genghis Khan back from the past, only to drop them off at the local mall. Confused by local youth and their customs, each historical legend manages to get arrested (including, for some reason, Joan of Arc, who merely steps in to lead an aerobics class.)
This premise was likely cooked up in a smoke filled van — that can be the only explanation for scenes in which Napoleon pushes his way to the front of the slides at “Waterloo” waterpark. But for a dumb comedy, it has an insightful lesson.
In 2018, it has become “de rigueur” to pull historical figures out of their context and retroactively prosecute them for not fully understanding modern times.
In late June, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) dropped the name of “Little House on the Prairie” author Laura Ingalls Wilder from the name of its award for children’s writers and illustrators. The ALSC cited “expressions of stereotypical attitudes” inconsistent with the group’s “core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness” in Wilder’s writing.
Wilder was born in tiny Pepin, Wisconsin in 1867, unaware that a century and a half later, her work would be judged unsuitable by the prevailing sensitivities of woke librarians. She has now been convicted of being a 19th century writer who failed to adhere to 21st century standards.
Of course, the ALSC is a division of the larger American Library Association (ALA), which proudly boasts of its involvement in “Banned Books Week.” By protesting censorship of books from libraries, the ALA promotes the “freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
Evidently, that high-minded anti-censorship enthusiasm applies primarily to books targeted by parents with religious objections. Of the top ten challenged or banned books of 2017, most drew objections because they either included discussions of sex or characters with questions about their sexual or gender identity.
Yet if an author born in the 1860s expresses an idea that doesn’t conform to the 2018 zeitgeist, the ALA evidently thinks it is fine to strike her name from an award.
It should go without saying that simply dropping historical figures into the modern framework of cultural mores would yield some uncomfortable results. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, had a far more complicated relationship with the issue of race than the broad stroke of history remembers. Winston Churchill famously opposed women’s suffrage. Some of Benjamin Franklin’s takes on women (“She that paints her Face, thinks of her Tail”) would cause colonial Twitter to combust in a mushroom cloud.
That’s not to suggest that any action taken by a beloved figure of the past is worthy of chalking up to “old times.” The Beatles, for instance, couldn’t exist in 2018 given John Lennon’s propensity to lay his hands on women.
But every few years there’s another ridiculous attempt to rinse the historical record of the presence of great people who merely acted as others did at the time. It is important to recognize why we now see their past mindset as wrong, but it is equally as important to provide understanding and context as to their actions. Simply throwing them down the memory hole is the easy thing to do; praising their excellence despite their flaws is more difficult, but far more honorable.
As in the case of Laura Ingalls Wilder, retroactive censorship will only serve to eliminate many of the greatest historical works of art from the public consciousness. That includes a timeless movie from 1989 in which two male friends, surprised at one point to find themselves locked in an embrace, separate and refer to each other with an anti-gay slur in common use thirty years ago.
I am once again referring, of course, the cinematic tour de force “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a movie about time travel whose era may just now have come.
Christian Schneider is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Schneider_CM