On sitting out the new culture wars
Not every outrage is worthy of our participation
The other day I had what Sam Leith has referred to in a slightly different context as "one of those hall-of-mirrors moments."
There I was, reading up on what a journalist unjustly pushed out of his left-wing muckracking gig (one with whom I disagree about nearly everything) had to say about the forced resignation of a reporter from a newspaper I no longer read over the meta-ethics of using a racial slur in a non-derogatory context during a field trip for rich kids to South America that probably cost more than six months of my mortgage. Then I checked my social media "feed" — an appealingly porcine image, I now realize — to discover that my attention was needed elsewhere. An actress who rose to prominence in a sport I loathe had been fired from a television program I have no plans of ever watching on an online streaming platform that I would never subscribe to for employing a tired but once-popular Holocaust-derived analogy in an argument about — well, I really don't know, but I was supposed to be thrilled that she is now engaged in an unnamed new film venture with another journalist whose work I despise. Sandwiched between these two incidents was at least one other pseudo-controversy involving the inconsistent application of privacy rules at the aforementioned paper. It led to a once-pseudonymous blogger, who was supposed to be the subject of an abandoned profile, outing himself and then being written about in a somewhat nastier manner by the same publication. This in turn gave rise to dozens of impassioned defenses of the unlucky scribe by countless other 40-something male bloggers, including one prominent defender of polygamy.
"What the hell am I doing with my life?" I thought. In all of these and goodness knows how many other cases — or whatever the word is supposed to be for these extended online roleplaying sessions, what was being elicited was an intense fury that, upon a moment's reflection, I realized I did not actually feel. This is not because I do not care about truth or justice or any of the rather grand-sounding words trotted out by online philosophes whenever we do these things, but because even when I squint and see how they enter at least proximately into the incident, it is not clear to me what my being outraged would accomplish. If anything, one suspects that by expressing my own anger, I would be giving tacit assent to the modish outrage that seems to be the only means by which we have public conversations in this country.
There are practical considerations here as well. One is simply a matter of what might be referred to as "coalition building." I am a social conservative with certain clearly defined and indeed rigidly held views about issues that are more serious than any of these epiphenomenal personnel disputes by several orders of magnitude. I do not wish to cheapen, for example, my opposition to abortion by making it synonymous with the hypothetical rights of gamers to enjoy unproblematized (as their opponents might put it) depictions of violence against women on their XBoxes. Yet this is precisely what seems to be happening. On current trends it seems likely that in five years most right-of-center public discourse in this country will take the form of blog posts full of sentiments like "This two-spirit furry blogger might want to legalize bestiality, but at least he has the courage to admit that the sky is blue." The fact that, in a contest whose basic premise I reject, one side might be slightly guiltier than the other of various procedural offenses does not require me to enter referee mode and declare one the winner by T.K.O.
I understand that professing my indifference to so-called "cancel culture" — to utter at last the dreaded phrase — is likely to be met with accusations ranging from seemingly righteous anger (how dare you be indifferent to truth?) to the somewhat more reasonable one of hypocrisy. It is certainly true that if I totally refused to engage with these questions I would not be able to write for this website. But I do this only under duress, and with a conscious resolution not to engage when there is no clear issue of justice involved. (This is why I have no trouble defending the high-school student slandered in early 2019 by CNN and The Washington Post, who was rightly awarded damages in the seven-figure range). I have failed in this as in so many other resolutions more times than I could count. But the objective, a studied disinterestedness that allows me to stand neither above nor below but simply very far away from these tawdry spectacles, still seems to me worthwhile.
Here I think the best way of illustrating my point is to mention yet another recent example of the tendency I am simultaneously decrying and refusing to engage with: the increasingly commonplace and utterly ludicrous contention that Western art music is the product of some kind of white supremacist conspiracy that is perpetuated every time someone praises or even listens to a work such as Fidelio. Attempting to rebut a person who says that Beethoven was merely an "above-average" composer and that the centrality of tone in 19th-century music is a racist plot is a mug's game. One's intended interlocutors are simply not arguing in good faith.
There are only three conceivable responses to such idiotic assertions. The first, that of the indefatigable John McWhorter, is to attempt meaningful adult conversation, which is a bit like trying to convince someone making fart noises that your preferred translation of an 11th-century Japanese court romance is worth reading. The second is performative indignation. This often feels good and occasionally allows us to enjoy feelings of camaraderie. But among other things I worry that when something becomes a wedge issue in these culture-war arguments, sooner or later the actual object — in this case the music of Beethoven — recedes into the horizon, merely instrumental if not irrelevant. (This is a familiar pattern in the so-called "canon wars" of the last few decades: The entire modern history of the conservative movement might as well be the story of otherwise intelligent 20-somethings devoting their lives to defending "the products of Western civilization" without betraying even the slightest familiarity, much less sincere interest, in this vaguely defined corpus.)
The third possible response is the one that seems to me the most reasonable. It is silence. Never mind the other considerations. The truth is that I cannot change the fact that all of America's institutions — political, economic, cultural — are controlled by mendacious philistines. But I can ignore these people, robbing them of the only thing that really matters to them: their ability to impose their will upon me and millions of others who belong to an implied audience they do not deserve and which, absent our unforced participation, would not enjoy. Truth and beauty exist in a realm beyond the Twitter troughs of half-literate journalists.