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An Antidote to 21st Century “Book Burning”

We’ve forgotten about intent, and it’s leading us down a scary path.

There’s a great scene in the TV shows Scrubs where JD, the main character, has just moved out of his apartment with his best friend, an African-American man named Turk, and into an apartment with his ex-girlfriend, a blonde named Elliott.

Elliott does a bunch of stuff for JD and then comments on how she could possibly be a more perfect roommate.

JD then imagines that she’s a blend of herself and Turk.

It’s an entertaining visual: the actress Sarah Chalke still has the body of a beautiful woman, but she is now bald, black, and has a goatee just like Turk. They’re playing video games, and she calls him, “Dog”, while she offers to let him play with her “boobies”.

JD, calling her “Turkiot”, obliges.

You can see a screenshot of my Plex server’s copy of this episode, and the image screencap that populates the list is, ironically, this scene. Squint and you can see it.

It’s part of a really funny sequence where he then snaps into reality where he is unknowingly fondling his best friend’s chest while at the hospital where they work. My buddies and I have quoted it regularly (“Dude, what the hell are you doing?” “I miss having you as my roommate! I don’t know…”).

However, right now, Scrubs fans everywhere are going to struggle to actually see this funny scene because it, along with a few others, has been removed from streaming platforms due to the connotation associated with characters in “blackface”.

Now, I will briefly say the following things, which are all true and not mutually exclusive:

  1. Blackface was a form of makeup done in old minstrel shows to create caricatures of enslaved black people in order to mock them.
  2. Blackface was deliberately insulting to black people and should not be tolerated.
  3. Nobody is okay with blackface.
  4. A white person wearing makeup to look like a black person is, contrary to the current public opinion, not blackface if it is not intended to mock or be a caricature of the African American race.
  5. In this instance, the image of Elliott is not to make fun of Chris Turk for being black. But if you imagine a combination of the two characters being melded together, you would conceivably have a beautiful woman who is bald and black with a goatee.
  6. The image of Elliott as a black man was portrayed as a positive thing, not an insulting thing. The image was of a “more perfect roommate” in JD’s mind.
  7. We are dangerously getting into the habit of censoring things not because they are offensive – which in and of itself is a topic of sincere and deserved debate – but also censoring things that remind people of things that are offensive, which is not the same thing.

Now, because we’re running down this slippery slope, we have another problem here to discuss: do you own your media?

Censorship is going to continue.

This isn’t the first time something’s been removed for appearing to be offensive.

Many TV shows are on the chopping block right now for these sorts of things. It wasn’t that long ago that the suits behind The Simpsons decided to remove one of the most famous – and hilarious – classic episodes of the series simply because Michael Jackson was in it, and some people came forward a decade after Jackson’s death to accuse him of being a pedophile.

This will trickle down. Even if you agree with the decisions being made now, it’s going to be hard to stop. Once people can justify the removal of some media deemed “offensive”, they can justify doing it to any of it.

The movies and shows you love – not because you’re a monster of some kind, but because they are of great quality – are going to be targeted eventually.

Think it won’t happen? We’re not far from it. Two of the most popular shows on streaming channels right now are The Office and Friends. The former is loaded with the main character unknowingly making directly racist comments. The latter is overwhelmingly full of jokes that today’s viewer would describe as “gay panic”.

A show you love on Netflix might have episodes removed. That movie you stream all the time on Hulu could have major scenes wiped out. Music could be targeted next. They’re already discussing eliminating books.

And shoot, if they can cancel COPS and Live PD simply for the crime of showing law enforcement in a positive light, then could easily cancel my Hardwick books for doing the same thing eventually.

It’s like none of the decision makers ever stood in Bebelplatz in Berlin and looked down at the empty underground library memorializing the book burnings in Nazi Germany.

A picture of the memorial to the book burning in Bebelplatz when my wife and I visited Berlin in 2012.

What happens when you lose the joy of your favorite films and shows?

The antidote is simple: own your media.

Right now, you probably don’t own your media.

Your Netflix subscription, your Spotify membership, your Disney+ subscription… all of these give you the right to consume media that is owned and hosted elsewhere. They are free to remove access to that content at any time.

The only way to combat this risk is by owning your own copy of the media in question so that it cannot be removed.

How? There are a few ways:

  • Buy DVDs and Blu-Rays of your favorite shows and movies, so that you have a hard copy of them.
  • Buy MP3s of your favorite music and keep them safe on a hard drive.
  • Set up something like Plex so that you can stream your media anywhere.
  • Back up your media to hard drives (Note: there are some legalities regarding this. Brush up on your own laws before ripping your DVDs and Blu-Rays).
  • Use Plex DVR (or a similar service) to record shows off over-the-air TV and to a hard drive for safekeeping.

Yes, some of these are technical and you might not know how to do it. But it’s time to learn. And if you really can’t, start asking around to see if someone can for you.

I love the convenience and ease of streaming services. But I also know that I don’t own that media, and it can be taken away from me at any time.

The companies will cave – you don’t have to.

It’s so funny to me, because as a conservative-minded guy, I was told all throughout my years growing up that things that were offensive were not to be censored. Freedom of speech in America allowed people to say what they wanted, and you had to take the bad with the good.

The same circles today are now saying things that offend them must be removed, even though all the stuff that offended me growing up is fine.

Regardless of the politics behind it, cancel culture is going to continue.

For their own preservation and their crippling fear of bad press, companies will cave and remove scenes and shows that people on Twitter call “offensive”. That’s their prerogative.

And if that doesn’t bother you, cool. Go about your life and ignore this.

But if it does concern you, then I would start backing up your ownership of your favorite shows and movies.

Just in case.