In October 2019, the Swedish Academy announced that it was awarding a Nobel Prize in Literature to Austrian novelist and playwright Peter Handke, a controversial figure owing to his apparent sympathy, expressed more than a decade earlier, for the late Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. The response from right-thinking members of the literary establishment was immediate opprobrium. In a statement by its president, Jennifer Egan, PEN America declared that it was “dumbfounded” by the news and “deeply regret[ted]” the Nobel committee’s choice. “We reject the decision that a writer who has persistently called into question thoroughly documented war crimes deserves to be celebrated for his ‘linguistic ingenuity,’ ” Egan said. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this.”
The statement was noteworthy for its open disavowal of the primacy of art. The scare quotes around “linguistic ingenuity,” part of the Nobel citation for Handke, whom John Updike once called the finest writer in the German language, seem to cast doubt on the very concept, while the underlying presumption is that the artist’s moral turpitude necessarily inheres in his work. By celebrating Handke’s novels and plays, then, the Swedish Academy was giving succor to autocrats. Allied to this belief is Egan’s assertion that the literary world “deserves better”—meaning, one assumes, a Nobel laureate firmly planted on the right side of history. And if this overlooked paragon also possessed a fashionably marginal identity, so much the better. (Predictably, some critics complained that both the 2019 Nobel laureates in literature—the other being Poland’s Olga Tokarczuk—were white Europeans.)
Here we see the outlines of the new moralism that now obscures cultural creation in America, like a great Borgesian map settling oppressively over the territory it purports to describe. Its twin notions—that art and entertainment, as well as those who produce it, should be subject to ideological and behavioral purity tests; and that those cultural products and creators found wanting, deemed “problematic,” should be cast aside in favor of more edifying material—are in the ascendant, if not already dominant. The new illiberal moralism holds that preference should be given on class syllabuses, in review pages, and on short lists for major prizes to artists with whose politics the cultural arbiters agree and whose identities they can safely celebrate. The highest use of the arts, in this view, is to enshrine a vision of the world not as it is but as it should be, particularly in matters of racial and gender diversity and other cherished progressive causes. Books and films by problematic artists—and to be straight, white, and male is to be problematic thrice over—are at best unhelpful, at worst corrupting. As one writer told me, if you cut out the middle of Egan’s statement, it lays bare the problem with literature today: “We reject the decision that a writer . . . be celebrated for his linguistic ingenuity.”
How intensely censorious the new moralists are, how sure in their doctrine, and how far removed from an absolute belief in free expression and artistic license became clear last summer, in the days surrounding the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. So, too, did the limits of what their censure can yet accomplish. The New Yorker called the film—set in a 1960s West Coast fantasia shadowed by the brutal Manson killings—“obscenely regressive” and charged its director with having made “a ridiculously white movie, complete with a nasty dose of white resentment.” (The stars, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, are white; Pitt’s character is an unreconstructed male.) Meantime, Time was busy counting lines of dialogue in every Tarantino film to see how many were spoken by women, and the Guardian declared in July that it was “time to cancel” the director altogether, no matter how good his new movie might be. Just the opposite happened: Once Upon a Time enjoyed the biggest opening weekend of any of Tarantino’s nine films and has grossed, on a budget of $90 million, nearly $371 million at the global box office.
Like Handke, Tarantino is an established figure, practically too big to fail—but the new moralists are no respecters of persons. Anyone is fair game, and few writers or filmmakers can shrug off such attacks. In the hothouse world of young-adult fiction, influential authors and bloggers condemn as problematic—and do their best to sabotage—books that have yet to be published or even finished in manuscript, books that, in some cases, they haven’t even read. “Many members of YA Book Twitter have become culture cops, monitoring their peers across multiple platforms for violations,” YA author Kat Rosenfield wrote in 2017. “The result is a jumble of dogpiling and dragging, subtweeting and screenshotting, vote-brigading and flagging wars.”
In January 2019, debut author Amélie Wen Zhao found herself the subject of such intense criticism—largely for making slavery a feature of her fictional world—that she pulled her YA fantasy novel, Blood Heir, the first volume of a planned trilogy for which she had received a high-six-figure publishing deal, before it hit the shelves. The following month, another YA author, Kosoko Jackson, likewise pulled his debut novel after a Twitter mob savaged it for featuring “privileged” protagonists and casting a Muslim character as a villain. Ironically, Jackson, who is black and gay, had worked as a “sensitivity reader” for publishing houses, screening manuscripts for just such politically incorrect content, and on Twitter, like Zhao, he had waged identitarian turf wars. “He was Robespierre,” as New York Times columnist Jennifer Senior put it, “with his own neck in the cradle of the guillotine.” The canceler had been canceled.
Where fault can’t be found in the art, it is found in the artist. From 2014 to 2017, poet Joseph Massey carried on a mutually codependent and, as he now admits, an unhealthy relationship with fellow poet Kate Colby, who was married. Eventually, he confessed the affair, apologized to Colby’s husband, and, in Massey’s telling, reconciled, or at least reached détente, with Colby herself. Until, that is, Wesleyan University Press, her “personal dream press,” which had twice rejected her work, accepted for publication Massey’s next collection of poems. She then cut off all contact, according to Massey, and set out to destroy him, poisoning the well with his friends, professional contacts, and anyone else who would listen. In January 2018, in a Facebook post, she called him a “serial abuser,” tagging publishers and the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, where Massey worked part-time. She also linked to a website on which an anonymous letter accused the poet, with a paucity of detail and evidence, of being a “predator,” “at high risk [of] bullying and abusing,” and asked Massey’s publishers and employer—to whom the letter had already been sent—to “end relations with him.”
As the Facebook post spread, other nebulous and often unverifiable claims against Massey—“At a poetry reading, he looked at me like I was a meal”; “He was creepy toward me on Instagram”—surfaced on social media. For this, the Kelly Writers House dropped him, his publishers removed all mention of his books from their websites, close friends cut ties, and the Academy of American Poets erased from its website all his archived work, his entire author profile, and an essay about Massey’s work by Pulitzer Prize winner Rae Armantrout. Massey was forced to withdraw his manuscript from Wesleyan University Press. He had been excommunicated.
In May 2019, he wrote “Poem Against Cancellation,” an appeal to the irreducible complexity of human lives and the hope of perceiving the “many worlds / within.” Though his latest book, A New Silence, written after a near-brush with suicide and a week in a psychiatric ward, is evidence, as he wrote in June 2019, “that my spirit was not extinguished,” two months later he launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for living expenses. “I hate doing this,” he wrote, “but I have no support. I have no safety net and I fear homelessness throughout the fall and winter.” As of late October, he had raised only about $4,600 toward his $6,000 goal.
As it played out in the public eye, Massey’s story, like others of the #MeToo era, took the form of a morality play in which there were ample parts both for the priestly elite and for the social-media laity—hence the broad appeal that has permitted the remorseless logic of such narratives to spread from mass entertainment to what remains of our high culture, from the world of superhero movies to that of Impressionist paintings, from young-adult literature to HBO dramas.
That the new moralism suddenly seems to be everywhere is no accident, for the economic incentives of digital media align with the ideological commitments of many of its practitioners. The Times published nearly 2,500 articles about Game of Thrones over the course of the show’s run, dissecting everything from racial issues to its treatment of female sexuality to the parallels between its power-mad female characters and the rise of women leaders around the globe. New York magazine’s Vulture published nearly 800 such articles, according to an analysis by James Yeh of The Outline. Just as Hollywood has shifted in recent years “from chasing viewers to pursuing fans,” as Kyle Paoletta wrote in an essay for The Baffler on the rise of “the fandom press,” media outlets have shown a great willingness to “provide around-the-clock content to fans of these franchises.”
Commit yourself to around-the-clock content on every aspect of pop culture, and you will hit on the social-justice and moral-outrage angles eventually. Add to this a stable of writers trained to think in terms of power relations, racial oppression, and the victimhood hierarchy, and it becomes impossible not to weigh in, as the Times did in 2017, on, say, the “whitewashing debate” surrounding the casting of a white instead of an Asian actor to play the white Marvel superhero Iron Fist in Netflix’s eponymous series. The press, in other words, has an economic incentive to inform us of every cultural sin, and an audience exists that is eager to spread the word and shame the sinners.
Moral or ideological criteria for judging the virtues of works of art have been widely employed in the past, of course. Joseph Pulitzer instructed that the first fiction prize bearing his name should be awarded to “the American novel published during the year which shall best present the whole atmosphere of American life, and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University and thus overseer of the Pulitzer advisory board, to which the jury must submit its recommendation, changed “whole atmosphere” to “wholesome atmosphere”—an “insubstantial” emendation, in his telling, which helps explain why the all-but-forgotten Oliver La Farge’s Laughing Boy beat out works by Hemingway, Faulkner, and Wolfe in 1930, the year before “wholesome” was dropped for good. For decades afterward, some combination of lack of taste and moral condescension on the part of Pulitzer juries toward the reading public ensured that books such as Gone with the Wind, awarded the fiction prize in 1937, would win out over masterpieces such as Absalom, Absalom!, and that on the rare occasion a challenging book of the first rank was chosen by the judges, as Gravity’s Rainbow unanimously was in 1974, the advisory board would simply overrule them and award no prize at all.
Much of the foregoing comes from a scathing essay by the late novelist William H. Gass, himself no stranger to serving on award committees. Writing in 1985, early in the culture wars that made explicit the ideological commitments of so many artists, scholars, media commentators, and museum curators, Gass discerned the motive for doling out honors to second- and third-rate books. “It’s been clear from the first year that it has never been the judges who needed their consciousness raised, or their moral point of view improved, or their allegiance to American values strengthened, but the Many ‘out there’ who could use such elevation,” he wrote. “Hence an award-winning book did not necessarily have to represent the private tastes of the judges or the board; it represented, rather, their judgment that it would be good for those who read it.”
This sermonizing strain runs deep in American public life, and liberals and conservatives alike have indulged in it. In Donald Trump’s America, though, it is the Left that has adopted this language as its own. Like an army that, having taken the heights, promptly turns the retreating enemy’s own guns against him, modern progressives, once proudly nonjudgmental, aspiring to European insouciance, have discovered their own innate capacities for moral outrage, censure, and prohibition. Artistic expression—with all its beauty, complexity, ambiguity, and negative capability—pays the price.
In The Western Canon, another grenade lobbed in the late twentieth-century culture wars, Harold Bloom coined the term “School of Resentment” for those activists and critics with little feeling for art and literature who made considerations of race, class, and gender paramount in deciding which works to hallow and which to abhor. “To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all,” he wrote. His was the authentic voice of a literary critic who prized aesthetic value above all else, the voice of a Yiddish-speaking Jew from the Bronx who fell in love at age ten with the ecstatic poetry of Hart Crane and who, as a Yale professor, treated the encounter between reader and book as Plotinus treated the mystic’s pursuit of God: as a flight of the alone to the alone.
Bloom’s hope was that eventually the moralizing would subside—and, in some measure, it did, during the George W. Bush years, though in truth it only bided its time, gathering force, so that by October 14, 2019, when death silenced Bloom’s voice for good, his detractors in the media, perceiving him to have exerted a malign influence on the reading public, were ready to pounce. His New York Times obituary claimed that Bloom’s favored writers were uniformly “white and male,” ignoring the presence in his personal canon of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and others. The Economist sniffed that of the 26 writers Bloom discussed in depth in The Western Canon, only three were women—overlooking, in its apparent haste to find fault with his refusal to impose a gender quota on his reading of the classics, George Eliot, whom the magazine must have taken for a man. Even Bloom’s towering erudition had to be denied, since it had been politically unhelpful. On Twitter, novelist David Burr Gerard (whose feed includes such gems as “Contemporary capitalism is a terrorist ideology”) expressed doubt that one could “find a passage from Harold Bloom that demonstrates that he ever read a single book.” With the rise of social media and the mainstreaming of “woke” activism, membership in the School of Resentment has swelled immeasurably.
A considerable amount of what passes for cultural criticism today relies for its authority on an understanding, ostensibly shared between the critic and his audience, of the new moral atmosphere in which books, music, movies, and television shows are to be judged, or what the Guardian, in an article handicapping the 2019 Booker Prize nominees last fall, called “the political backdrop and its necessary impact on the judges’ decision.” So Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy special should be avoided because “he chooses to blatantly ignore . . . loud-and-clear criticism from the trans community” (Vice). Renoir should be canceled because, as the paradigmatic “sexist male artist,” he plainly took “presumptuous, slavering joy in looking at naked women—who in his paintings were always creamy or biscuit white, often with strawberry accents, and ideally blond” (The New Yorker). The late David Foster Wallace should be dropped from the syllabus of a class at Yale covering “The History of the American Novel Since 1945” because he allegedly mistreated an old girlfriend, the writer Mary Karr, and be replaced with lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, who gave her name to a now widely used metric for evaluating movies based on the sort of women’s dialogue they contain.
If, like a street drug, the ideology in these critiques is not 100 percent pure but contains trace amounts of genuine aesthetic judgement, the trend is nevertheless toward the removal of such superfluous additives so as to deliver the strongest possible high. Like opioids, ideology in sufficient doses obliterates not only the desire but also the capacity for thought. Where once there was a diversity of opinion, there is now an enforced uniformity; the memo goes out, and a narrative takes shape among the opinion makers and quickly calcifies.
One hardly needed to read the short-listed books last year to know that the Booker Prize would be given either to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale that depicts women living in a totalitarian theocracy that critics persist in pretending lies just around the corner from contemporary America, or to Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, which tells the interwoven stories of 12 black British women, with the expected doses of race consciousness, gender confusion, and anticolonialism. In a surprise twist, the prize was given, in violation of the Booker’s rules, to both. Having passed through Romantic rebellion, “art for art’s sake” aestheticism, and the excesses of an oppositional avant-garde (remember Piss Christ?), cultural elites—and, with them, a not-inconsiderable portion of hoi polloi—are again treating art as a tool of moral formation, a kind of social-justice catechism; only now, in place of classical virtues and Christian ethics, there is the inverted pyramid of the victim hierarchy; in place of real piety, the empty piousness of virtue signaling; in place of free expression, the policing of grammar. Revolutions tend to seek equal-and-opposite substitutes for the institutions and idols they overthrow; so it is with the revaluation of values in this progressive nouvelle vague.
And vague it is. “Believe in something,” Nike ads starring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick read, “even if it means sacrificing everything”—to which, after seeing how Nike has kowtowed to Beijing, we may now silently append “so long as it’s not money.” Coercive self-righteousness is the dominant mode. “Being woke is a parody of being Born Again,” P. J. O’Rourke wrote in Spectator USA last fall: “instead of your accepting Jesus, people like Jesus (‘privileged,’ famously well-connected fathers) have to accept you.”
Even where nothing overtly objectionable can be found in an artist’s life or work, his race or sex alone can be disqualifying. Lucy Ellmann was another woman short-listed for the Booker in 2019; when asked at a panel to address criticism of the length of her novel Ducks, Newburyport, a 1,020-page female monologue—the moderator helpfully opined that “people don’t tend to make that complaint when it’s a book about a man’s thoughts,” as if thousand-page novels by men in the year of our Lord 2019 were flying off the shelves—she replied, “Essentially, I think it’s time for men to shut up completely.” The audience laughed and clapped. If it has occurred to the proponents and beneficiaries of this new zeitgeist the damage that might be done to the social fabric by slotting everyone, as George Packer put it in The Atlantic, into “a new moral caste system that ranks people by the oppression of their group identity,” they give no sign of showing it.
Strive and Succeed was the title that Gass thought appropriate for most Pulitzer winners of yore, “since that is what they preached.” If one were to name the gospel animating many of the most highly praised books today, it might be: Blessed Are the Victims.
What are we to make of such censorious critics? Of the advocates for such ideologically captured art? They are the New Puritans, standard-bearers of a society that can do without religion but apparently not without scolds. Their febrile crusades, hysterical overreactions, and eagerness to anathematize arise, at least in part, from an apparent fear of moral contagion.
This fear has long been understood in the context of the original Puritans. For the early colonists of Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut—an 1891 article in Political Science Quarterly informs us—“the interests of the state were believed to be imperiled by the presence of Anabaptists, Quakers, Socinians, and other sectaries,” despite the fact that their development, like that of their persecutors, “had proceeded from an assertion of the right of private [religious] judgement.” Just as the Puritans condemned other believers who cherished the very freedoms on which they had themselves relied, the New Puritans, having triumphed over the cultural conservatives who once sought to shut down the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe, feel comfortable abandoning the principles of free speech and freedom of expression they once championed. Art and artists must serve the cause, they have decreed—must help to smash the patriarchy or topple white supremacy or decolonize the academy—or they are the enemy of the people.
For anyone who won’t nibble the carrot, there is the stick. “Those who held doctrines or adopted forms of worship for which authority could not be found in the Word of God as interpreted by Calvin and his disciples,” the article goes on, “it was considered to be the imperative duty of the state to remove, as sources of moral contagion infinitely more dangerous than physical disease.” It is not impossible to imagine a future U.S. Department of Education instructing universities, after the fashion of the Obama administration’s infamous “Dear Colleague” letter, to purge from their curricula all problematic material or lose federal funding.
Even without such prompting, public schools in coastal cities are radicalizing. The Seattle school district, according to Education Week, is proposing to infuse ethnic studies into every academic subject, beginning in kindergarten. That includes a plan to “rehumanize” math, which, in practice, if approved, would mean focusing on issues of race and oppression and asking questions such as “Who gets to say if an answer is right?”
In New York, as Packer details through the lens of his own efforts to secure a good education for his son and daughter, an initiative by Mayor Bill de Blasio to reengineer the racial makeup of competitive public schools by dropping meritocratic barriers to entry has opened the door to a revisionist curriculum steeped in victim ideology. “Instead of teaching civics that faced the complex truths of American democracy, ‘the curriculum will highlight the vast historical contributions of non-white groups & seek to dispel the many non-truths/lies related to American & World History,’ ” Packer discovers. “Its entire focus was on achieving diversity.”
Insofar as modern progressivism elevates the act of driving one’s plow over the bones of the dead to the level of a political mandate, efforts to defame once-celebrated artists and rewrite history for schoolchildren are of a piece with the removal—in the name of social justice—of the portraits of William James and other thinkers from Harvard’s psychology department and those of 31 eminent scientists and physicians, too many of them white, from the lecture hall of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. In a society where art and entertainment become propaganda, education becomes brainwashing and indoctrination. Renoir isn’t canceled in a vacuum.
The New Puritans show no sign of tempering their fanaticism or of submitting to reasoned argument the arcane dogmas and flagellatory demands of social justice. Packer is a committed liberal who “regretted [pulling my daughter out of] the public-school system,” whose family is obsessed with Hamilton—so much so that his daughter was “shocked and a little disappointed” to discover that the actual Founding Fathers were white—and whose children “sobbed inconsolably” when Trump was elected. Nonetheless, Packer admits to being confounded by the pseudo-religion of the authoritarian Left, a religion that skips over salvation and goes straight to inquisition. “At times the new progressivism, for all its up-to-the-minuteness, carries a whiff of the seventeenth century,” he writes, “with heresy hunts and denunciations of sin and displays of self-mortification. The atmosphere of mental constriction in progressive milieus, the self-censorship and fear of public shaming, the intolerance of dissent—these are qualities of an illiberal politics.”
How quickly a whiff becomes a stench.
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