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The Editor's Spin: History with Lightning
Posted Aug 12, 2003 Print Version     Page 1of 1

Many years before anyone began documenting book sales via modern bestseller lists, Thomas Dixon's The Clansman (1905) was one of the most popular books in America. Awash in the archaic sentimentality, formulaic predictability, and prosaic formality of early 19th-century romans à clef, The Clansman would hold little interest today but for two unique distinctions. First and foremost, it formed the basis of America's first epic film, The Birth of a Nation. Second, The Clansman, like the film it inspired, presented an impassioned and influential defense of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic defenders of America's most deeply held ideals, in a time when "radical" reconstructionists had allegedly cast them aside to exact revenge on the already-vanquished South.

You'd have to be mighty racist or criminally misinformed to regard the Klan's inaugural reign of terror (1866-1871) as anything less than unfathomable savagery today. What's more, neither The Clansman nor Birth of a Nation is likely to sway the modern reader or movie-goer from this view. But is that because we're too enlightened and well-informed to buy Dixon's version of a messy time in American history, or simply because the two presentations of his story are hopelessly out of date, stylistically speaking?

With Birth of a Nation, it's simply a matter of "what modern was" versus "what modern is." The film was earth-shattering in 1915, when few critics of the nascent art form believed you could sell a movie longer than 20 minutes, much less use it to present a sweeping historical romance. But today, Birth's mimed melodrama makes it more archaic than upsetting. Even though it dwarfed other films of its time in depth and artistry, and redefined what film as a medium could communicate (not to mention reinvigorating the Klan), Birth doesn't communicate as well today.

In most of the places it's now shown—college film and history classes, primarily—Birth of a Nation is easily dismissed as a period piece. The Clansman is tougher to write off (good thing nobody reads it anymore), if only because its archaism is less distracting. It's hard to imagine a novel that's ever worked so hard to misrepresent history; Dixon's use of actual speeches to suffuse the dialogue between real historical figures like Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and Andrew Johnson adds remarkable verisimilitude. Add to that the enthusiastic approval of his old grad school chum Woodrow Wilson—who called the film "history written with lightning…so terribly true," and ensured that Birth of a Nation played in theaters nationwide in spite of widespread protests from the NAACP—and you can see why it reached such a wide audience.

Like any well-wrought historical romance, The Clansman tugs on the heartstrings. It's clear where Dixon's sympathies lie. And when he's sucking you into the heroism of the story (and not writing vile things about black people), you have to keep reminding yourself that you're being drawn into a world where morality is turned upside down, and the most febrile arguments you're reading form the building blocks of an elaborate con.

Maybe that con went over so well when The Clansman became Birth of a Nation because no one had ever seen anything like it, such a potent vision delivered by a medium whose power had been thus far imagined by few and harnessed by none. We've all lived with DVD long enough by now to know that it's not the revolutionary medium that film was, either in its power to transform how we see the world or (more to the point here) how we can convince others to see it. But there are those among us who seem to believe, or would have others believe, that high-definition video, in whatever form or forms it's ultimately delivered (particularly the imminent DTV), will usher in the same sort of brave new world that film did. Naturally those who stand to benefit from that belief are working to take control of the imagined hi-def world before it really exists.

Consequently, the sort of elaborate confidence game that film enabled Birth of a Nation to play on its awestruck audience is already well underway, and for all practical purposes, the high-definition era isn't even here yet. Not that any of this really matters in the way that debunking Birth of a Nation really mattered—but let's proceed with our eyes open as extrapolations on the DMCA and appropriations of the Fair Use doctrine proliferate and red herrings like the Digital Choice and Freedom Act emerge ( Let's acknowledge that no legislator who comes out of the woodwork a month before an election and proposes a technology-related bill fraught with ambiguities and misunderstandings of said technology adds anything worthwhile to the debate, any more than the DMCA saves content creators from pirates or the RIAA saves musicians from their fans.

For all the new act's pretensions to upholding Fair Use of copyrighted digital material for "archival purposes"—with an eye, like the Hollings Bill, to setting parameters for HD delivery and recording devices that don't exist yet—it doesn't hold up technologically. Even as it purports to leave technology to the technology experts (and keep Congress out of the conflict), it assigns those experts an impossible task. How is a recording device to determine what the user will do with a copy once he or she has recorded it? It's a nice idea, to be sure. But anybody who's lived with this technology and the debate over its misuse on its non-linear path from VHS to CD-R to DVD-R knows perfectly well that a technology's copyright infringement culpability for those who arbitrate such issues has less to do with whether a technology can be used for piracy than how good it is at it, and how cost-efficiently it can be used for it. (Hence, the green light for the "substantially non-infringing" home VCR.)

This is not to say the act doesn't sound great on the surface, and I suppose if the Stanford Center for Internet and Society and other consumer advocacy groups are celebrating it, I should be too. And I will. Right after I watch the rest of President Wilson's recommended movie list.

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