All posts filed under: Culture Wars

Then They Came for Beethoven

This week, Vox published an article titled “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music.” “Since its 1808 premiere, audiences have interpreted [its opening progression] as a metaphor for Beethoven’s personal resilience in the face of his oncoming deafness,” write Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding. But “for some in other groups—women, LGBTQ+ people, people of color—Beethoven’s symphony may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” In the article, and an accompanying podcast, the two men ask “how Beethoven’s symphony was transformed from a symbol of triumph and freedom into a symbol of exclusion, elitism, and gatekeeping.” The article has been widely mocked on social media—in part because the authors (both white men, from what I can tell) offer no real evidence for their claim. That’s odd given that they are purporting to redefine the cultural meaning of what is arguably the most well-known, widely performed, and beloved composition known to humankind. Hundreds of millions of people have fallen in love with this symphony over the past two centuries—many …

International Scholars Must Resist the American Campaign to Inject Racial Tribalism Into Science

“Schœlcher n’est pas notre sauveur,” declared protestors who toppled statues on the French territory of Martinique earlier this year—“Schœlcher is not our savior.” The reference is to Victor Schœlcher, the 19th-century politician who’s long been lauded for his role in abolishing slavery in France and its colonial holdings. French President Emmanuel Macron rightly condemned the act, as did cabinet minister Annick Giradin, who denounced the destruction of monuments that embody the nation’s “collective memory.” And the mayor of Martinique’s capital warned against la tentation de réécrire l’histoire—the temptation to rewrite history. Hier, alors que nous célébrions la date d’anniversaire de la célébration du 172e anniversaire de l’abolition de l’esclavage en Martinique, deux statues de Victor Schœlcher ont été détruites à Fort de France et à Schoelcher, en Martinique. — Annick Girardin (@AnnickGirardin) May 23, 2020 Unfortunately, the force of that temptation has been growing stronger recently, and not just within the progressive subcultures of English-speaking countries. On June 22nd, Parisian vandals threw red paint on a statue of no less a French intellectual icon than …

Flannery O’Connor and the Ideological War on Literature

On June 15th, Paul Elie—a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs and a frequent contributor to upscale magazines—published a 3,800-word essay in the New Yorker bluntly accusing the acclaimed Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925–1964) of racism. The essay, which has since gone viral, is ostensibly a review of Radical Ambivalence: Race in Flannery O’Connor, a new book by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell, an O’Connor scholar at Fordham University. O’Donnell surveys O’Connor’s two novels, numerous short stories and essays, and voluminous correspondence (most of which was published following her untimely death aged 39 of complications from lupus) and concludes that O’Connor was “a walking contradiction when it came to matters of race.” O’Connor’s dark and mordantly humorous fiction was written as the civil rights movement tore through the South dismantling Jim Crow during the 1950s and 1960s, and it frequently mocks Southern whites for their condescension and rudeness toward blacks. However, O’Donnell also argues that “racism” is the correct description of O’Connor’s privately expressed views about black people in …

At the NHS and BBC, Important Steps Toward Restoring Balance in the Gender Debate

In recent months, a sense has emerged that the tide might finally be starting to turn in the gender debate: Things that most everyone believes to be true, but that no one has been allowed to say, are now increasingly being said by writers, lawmakers, and litigants. Certainly, the battle is still far from over. CNN is referring to women as “individuals with a cervix.” Last month, J.K. Rowling was trolled yet again for stating ordinary views about men and women (though thankfully, the media is no longer getting away with defaming her). And best-selling children’s author Gillian Phillip has been sacked by her publisher, Working Partners, because she added the hashtag #IStandWithJKRowling to her Twitter bio. But at least now, in mid-2020, these acts attract growing criticism. We are no longer in 2018, when the most militant gender activists could still pretend that they spoke for the entire LGBT community, with the “debate,” such as it then was, consisting mostly of endless mobbing campaigns against so-called “TERFs.” One reason it has taken time to …

The Woke Left v. the Alt-Right: A New Study Shows They’re More Alike Than Either Side Realizes

A common criticism of the ultra-progressive Left is that its culture warriors now resemble the right-wing ideological enforcers of yore, excommunicating those deemed to have sinned or performed heresies. Indeed, anyone older than 30 or so should have at least a dim memory of the social conservatives who wanted every aspect of American society—from universities, to the media, right down to the content of children’s television shows—hewing to the same family-values prayer book, and who led campaigns to censor violent video games, rap music, and edgy Hollywood entertainment. In 1996, Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole called out Time Warner for publishing hip hop music whose lyrics glamorized violence against police officers. (“I would like to ask the executives of Time Warner a question: Is this what you intended to accomplish with your careers? You have sold your souls, but must you debase our nation and threaten our children as well?”) A quarter-century later, it’s progressives demanding the cancelation of movies and TV shows that present the police in any kind of positive light (and numerous …

Remembering Cancel Culture’s 40-Year-Old Stepfather

The worst-case scenario for a film that falls afoul of the morality police is that its release is scrapped after reviewers react negatively. In other cases, movies have been banned on a country-by-country basis. Then there are film projects that fall apart even before would-be censors have had a chance to see the final product: The very idea of the movie is simply too shocking to tolerate. That’s what happened to Rub and Tug, which was shelved in 2018 following outrage over Scarlett Johansson playing the transgender lead. (“While I would have loved the opportunity to bring [American trans gangster Dante “Tex” Gill’s] story and transition to life, I understand why many feel he should be portrayed by a transgender person, and I am thankful that this casting debate, albeit controversial, has sparked a larger conversation about diversity and representation in film,” Johansson told the media.) Then there’s The Hunt, which saw its release scrapped—and then unscrapped—earlier this year, after Donald Trump fanned anger over a plotline that has wealthy elites hunting down poor people …

Of Heroic Deeds and Hysterical Masses

Perpetual progress is no more possible than perpetual motion, an axiom unwittingly vindicated by the benighted throngs that currently run amok across America, menacing the living and long dead wherever they rage. Whereas in the final decade of the 19th century, “enlightenment had progressed to the point where the Salem trials were simply an embarrassing blot on the history of New England… [and] a reminder of how far the human race had come in two centuries,” in the second decade of the 21st, enlightenment’s decline has unleashed a new inquisitorial spirit, no less spurious than that of old. One only can hope that someday, the witch trials of our time will constitute an embarrassing blot on our history and that two centuries will not be needed for that day to arrive. But at present, that is but a hope and in view of the unmitigated madness with which the present teems, a feeble one at that. What renders the hope all the more dim is that so much of the madness emanates from what ought …

Denunciation Staged as ‘Dialogue’: A Review of Claudia Rankine’s ‘Help’

On March 10th, just days before the lockdown would shut down the theater business in New York City (and most other places), I had the opportunity to see the premier of Claudia Rankine’s new play, Help. Based in part on the acclaimed poet’s 2019 New York Times magazine article, I Wanted to Know What White Men Thought About Their Privilege. So I Asked, the play was presented as an “investigation into whiteness.” Given the events that have unfolded since the death of George Floyd, it’s obviously a timely subject. And it’s unfortunate for Rankine and her venue, The Shed in Hudson Yards, that COVID-19 shut down her production until further notice. I know of no other artistic production that better captures the theoretical underpinnings of progressives’ well-intentioned but flawed approach to tearing down “whiteness.” “Help is a play in which the Narrator inhabits the category of the Black woman in order to be in dialogue with the category of the white man,” Rankine explained in a writer’s note. She is careful to say “category” because …

As Statues Fall, What’s the Best Way to Evaluate History’s Heroes?

The United States is in the midst of an orgy of literal iconoclasm, with activists and local officials toppling the statues of not only Confederate generals, but even Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant. And Princeton University has scrubbed Woodrow Wilson’s name from its School of Public and International Affairs. Are these long-overdue corrections in the name of social justice, or simply ideologically driven acts of anti-historical vandalism? The answer depends on how we judge the moral actions of figures from the past, a question that in turn requires us to consider the nature of morality itself. One possibility is that morality is dependent on local circumstances and facts about social order and organization. Ethical codes and rules of accepted behavior are the organic outcomes of cultural terroir, and wither when transplanted into unsuitable societies. The laid-back free love mores of the Trobriand Islanders were never going to be suitable for the warriors of Sparta. There is no one absolutely true morality any more than there is one absolutely proper style of painting—photorealism …

The Hagia Sophia Should Remain a Beacon to All

On July 10th, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan undid the symbolic roots of his republic by declaring that the Hagia Sophia, a sixth-century Byzantine structure, would be converted from a museum to a mosque. The first Islamic service in the building is scheduled for July 24th. The international response was a mix of shock, resignation, and near universal condemnation. Most official government statements were somewhere between the United States (“disappointed”) and Greece (an “open provocation to the civilized world”). If the furor over a single museum strikes you as mystifying, consider the central role the Hagia Sophia has played for the last 1,500 years. Even from the beginning, it was far more than just a pile of brick and marble. It was a statement. A vision, both sacred and secular, for several different empires. The Hagia Sophia was the brainchild of a unique figure in history. At birth, Justinian was a nobody among nobodies in a grindingly poor part of what is today North Macedonia. By his mid-40s, he was a Byzantine emperor. His appetites were …