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A PBS documentary series examines the evolution of cultural controversies.

Culture Shock

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My, my, we do get exercised over most anything new, don't we?

Rap music teaches kids to disrespect authority and disparage women.

Movies and television lead to sex and violence.

Contemporary art is degenerate.

And nobody writes anything but trashy novels any more.

So how on earth did any of us who are adults now ever make it through all those cultural obstacles that littered our path toward maturity?

Just lucky, I guess.

And somehow the planet spins, and the world goes round and round.

Perhaps PBS-TV's excellent new four-and-a-half hour documentary series "Culture Shock" will put it all in perspective and let us relax just a bit.

"There ain't nothing more to write about, and I'm rotten glad of it, because if I'd a knowed what a trouble it was to make a book I wouldn't a tackled it, and ain't a-going to no more." So opined Huck Finn in Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." And the heated debate hasn't let up since 1885 when one of America's most enduring classics was published and attacked immediately for its "low morals."

Twain's book and the controversy it still engenders is the subject of the first of the series' four parts. The 90-minute segment pits some vocal parents — and some students who can't get past Twain's use of the word "n---er" to see what the book is really about — against school authorities in Tempe, Ariz., in a struggle over whether the book should be required reading.

Against that background, however, the segment introduces historians and educators who have something important to tell us about the book and about misperceptions. Even a cursory reading of Twain's book, they tell us, reveals that it is a satirical attack on slavery and hypocrisy written by a Southerner just 20 years after the end of the Civil War. Superficially, it may seem, as the Tempe parents fear, that Huck Finn reflects a white world of prejudice and racism. But Twain's message was really one of redemption: As the story progresses, Huck's views change, and his moral awakening to injustice is one of the most powerful statements against racism in American literature. Even a century later, however, it's every bit as much a hard, shocking story as it was in 1885.

That's not so much the case with the other three segments of "Culture Shock." Part two examines the outrage that accompanied Edouard Manet's "Olympia," an 1865 painting of a nude that is today regarded as a masterpiece. Part three looks at early motion pictures produced before the Hollywood Production Code was introduced in 1934, banning graphic portrayals of sex and violence on the screen for 20-some years. And the final installment of "Culture Shock" examines 1920s jazz, then considered a dangerous influence and now considered art.

The new is almost always frightening, and one art form or another usually leads the way. "Culture Shock" just goes to show that Picasso was right when he said "art gives form to our terrors as well as our desires." And that's as it should

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