Illiberalism In The Art World, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Elizabeth Nolan Brown highlights a case of political correctness gone awry at the University of Iowa, where a sculpture of a Ku Klux Klansman was labeled “hate speech” and taken down because apparently the very shape of a racist symbol, even when used to make an anti-racist statement, is now deemed too offensive for college students to handle:

Created by Serhat Tanyolacar, a UI visiting professor and printmaking fellow, the klansman sculpture was decoupaged in newspaper coverage of racial tension and violence throughout the past 100 years. The piece was meant to highlight how America’s history of race-based violence isn’t really history and “facilitate a dialogue,” as Tanyolacar told university paper The Gazette. But no matter: After several hours, UI officials decided that the display was “deeply offensive” and needed to be removed. …

To me, this case provides a good reference point for why we shouldn’t curtail freedom of expression even when it comes from despicable groups like the Klu Klux Klan. When you start casting for exceptions to the First Amendment, you never know what kind of other speech—perhaps speech designed to address the very problems you’re fighting against—will get caught up in the net. Unfortunately, the kids and faculty at UI seem to have learned a different lesson: reacting to the statue as art or as a political statement was a reflection of cluelessness, insensitivity, and white privilege.

Tiffany Jenkins picks up on a similar trend of art censorship in Europe:

The travelling Exhibit B, by the white South African artist Brett Bailey, is a recreation of a human zoo from the 19th century that features 12-14 African performers from the host city and a choir of Namibian singers exhibited as artifacts. It’s meant to provoke a conversation about slavery, colonization, and present-day racism, but many protesters accuse it of being racist itself. In London in September, the Barbican pulled the entire run of Exhibit B after a petition calling on the arts center “not to display” the work achieved 22,988 signatories and criticized Exhibit B as “simply an exercise in white racial privilege.” …

Such debates aren’t new, of course, but there are important differences between the demands for censorship of the past and those of the present. Historically, those calling for censorship were often concerned that an artworkperhaps of a sexual naturewould have a coarsening effect and a negative moral impact. Today’s activists have a different rationale. They argue that they are the only ones who have the right to speak about the experience depictedand thus, have the right to silence those who have no comparable experience. So those protesting Exhibit B suggest they, as members of the black community, are the only ones who can create an artwork exploring slavery and colonization.

Previous examples of illiberalism in the art world here and here.

Getting Racists Fired, Ctd

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Sam Biddle updates us on the troubling tumblr:

The premise of [Racists Getting Fired] is simple, and a perfectly representative product of 2014 Internet: send screenshots of people saying racist shit on Facebook or Twitter to their employers, get them canned, and thus end American racism, or something. This is foolproof until someone uses the formula to frame someone who didn’t actually say anything racist. Take Brianna Rivera, who apparently said some terrible things on Facebook. But according to the operators of the RGF Tumblr, this turned out to in fact not be Brianna Rivera at all, but her ex-boyfriend, who changed his Facebook profile to resemble hers.

Freddie comments:

As with carceral feminism, this kind of thing seems to stem from the presumption that good outcomes flow naturally from good intentions, which just isn’t how the world works. Honestly, it reminds me of nothing more than the whole Lena Dunham “sexual abuse” fiasco.

It was mind-blowing to me to see someone like Kevin Williamson so easily able to whip up an old fashioned sex panic among leftists. But it’s an inevitable result of associating the work of progressive politics with having a hair trigger, with demonizing those who ask us to be careful and restrained, and of treating overwhelming digital character assassination as a useful political tool.

Beyond the obvious ugliness of situations like this, the problem with a site like Racists Getting Fired is that it reinforces the notion that fighting racism is easy and fun. Look, we’re fighting racism! All it takes is some screencaps and a Tumblr account!

Meanwhile, a reader calls me out:

Last week you said you “love this approach” when the vile comments of misogynists get forwarded to their moms, but if someone calls Obama a stupid nigger on Twitter and I pass it along to his coworkers, I’m part of the PC identity police.  Aren’t these the same thing?

I think a simple recourse to an abusive boy’s mom is a sane, non-flaming way to get the abuse to stop. That’s all. Trying to get an adult fired is something much more serious.

The Left, The Campus, And The Death Of Humor, Ctd

A reader writes:

I am a comic who, until I got a TV writing job a year ago, made most of my income touring colleges. It’s not as black and white as Chris Rock’s interview suggests. Different types of schools have different crowds, just as clubs in every city differ. Engineering schools have better crowds than even the best clubs. They’re intelligent and earnest. Jesuit schools are great too. Major public universities are like club audiences, but younger. They’re a little bit of everything.

Then you have the worst two: liberal arts colleges and Christian schools. The two political extremes are the worst. But they’re horrible in different ways.

Liberal arts schools are exactly as Rock describes. Christian schools aren’t bothered by political correctness. They just want their comedy to be “nice.” They get uncomfortable when you’re dark. Who wants nice comedy?

My trick for these schools is a “fuck these people” approach. I just do everything I know they won’t like. When they get uncomfortable, I let them know that they’re wrong. At first, they don’t like that. Usually, after 2-3 times of calling them out for being awful, they loosen up, realize no one is getting hurt, and enjoy the rest of the show. The worst thing you can do is pander to them. You have to confront their uptightness. Usually they change. Sometimes the Christian schools never come around, but the liberal arts schools almost always do.

The bookers at these schools are the real problem, much more so than the general student body. Check out this email my comic friend just got from Swarthmore:

I thought I would be the first to take a crack at explaining uptight Swatties to you…

Something I like about Hari Kondabolu is he distinguishes between offensive and hurtful — so, jokes can be offensive or crude, without being hurtful. Things that are hurtful: rape, racism… We can talk about whether funny rape jokes are possible (personally, I think Louis CK pulls it off, because his jokes are about rape culture, instead of the “haha she was raped”). Jokes about race are funny, but I would recommend against relying on racial stereotypes, and I think Swatties would like it better if a racist was the butt of a joke instead of a victim of racism. I also would stay away from things like acting “retarded” or making fun of disabled people for being different. Sorry, I’m not trying to be the PC police here!!

Swatties would laugh if you made a joke about them being uptight/righteous/liberal/whatever, and they would laugh at jokes about how frequently we say “problematic” and “heteronormative”. Swatties are overly intellectual, geeky, and socially awkward. Although we do have significant number of student athletes, religious students, and sorority/fraternity members, they are made fun of more here than you might see elsewhere. We never get enough sleep, study too much, watch too much Netflix, and frequently complain about our dining hall… Typical college kid stuff.

Relevant to the night you are performing: we never have successful Friday night parties (because homework..?). I think a lot of people will come out to this, though, since we never have this kind of campus event, and non-party-Friday-night-things usually go well.

I want you to have the best show you can, so I am just sharing my thoughts on how to keep the crowd with you.

I told him to do whatever he would do if he didn’t get that email. If people don’t like him, fuck them. He did that and had a great set. Sometimes I think young people on the left only want to be uptight and sometimes forget and have fun for a few minutes.

Thanks for covering this subject.

Another continues to:

Regarding humor and political correctness, Paul Cantor, the University of Virginia Shakespeare scholar, wrote a wonderful essay titled, “Cartman Shrugged“, which explores the transgressive humor of South Park.  The genius of Parker and Stone is that they are left to defend freedom from the encroachments of both right and left. Both sides have their own versions of political correctness, or cant or pieties.  And both need to be skewered, relentlessly, to protect everyone else’s freedom:

This is where libertarianism enters the picture in South Park. The show criticizes political correctness in the name of freedom. That is why Parker and Stone can proclaim themselves equal opportunity satirists: they make fun of the old pieties as well as the new, ridiculing both the right and the left insofar as both seek to restrict freedom.

“Cripple Fight” is an excellent example of the balance and evenhandedness of South Park… The episode deals in typical South Park fashion with a contemporary controversy, one that has even made it into the courts: whether homosexuals should be allowed to lead Boy Scout troops. The episode makes fun of the old-fashioned types in the town who insist on denying a troop leadership to Big Gay Al (a recurrent character whose name says it all). As it frequently does with the groups it satirizes, South Park, even as it stereotypes homosexuals, displays sympathy for them and their right to live their lives as they see fit.

But just as the episode seems to be simply taking the side of those who condemn the Boy Scouts for homophobia, it swerves in an unexpected direction. Standing up for the principle of freedom of association, Big Gay Al himself defends the right of the Boy Scouts to exclude homosexuals. An organization should be able to set up its own rules, and the law should not impose society’s notions of political correctness on a private group.

This episode represents South Park at its best—looking at a complicated issue from both sides and coming up with a judicious resolution of the issue. And the principle on which the issue is resolved is freedom. As the episode shows, Big Gay Al should be free to be homosexual, but the Boy Scouts should also be free as an organization to make their own rules and exclude him from a leadership post if they so desire.

This libertarianism makes South Park offensive to the politically correct, for, if applied consistently, it would dismantle the whole apparatus of speech control and thought manipulation that do-gooders have tried to construct to protect their favored minorities.

The Left, The Campus, And The Death Of Humor

So I’m not the only one who sees the super-uptight era of “privilege-checking” and “micro-aggressions” as inherently deadly to comedy and to democratic debate. Chris Rock notices exactly the same thing in a terrific interview with Frank Rich:

What do you make of the attempt to bar Bill Maher from speaking at Berkeley for his riff on Muslims?

Well, I love Bill, but I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative.

In their political views?

Not in their political views—not like they’re voting Republican—but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

When did you start to notice this?

About eight years ago. Probably a couple of tours ago. It was just like, This is not as much fun as it used to be. I remember talking to George Carlin before he died and him saying the exact same thing.

Meanwhile, a reader insists we provide more of a balanced perspective:

As you despair of PC on the left, you completely ignore the PC of the right and what, to their minds, cannot be criticized and is almost beyond discussion. An incomplete list: Reagan, any action taken by the police, the Iraq War, the War on Terror, any action taken in relation to 9-11, CEOs, business in general, torture by Americans, God, the Bible, Judeo-Christian religion, middle-American culture, the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, guns, getting tough on crime, Manifest Destiny, creationism and the denial of global warming or its man-made causes. If you’re going to call out what you call PC, please consider the identity politics of the right as well, with your normal even-handedness.

Happy to – and I do my bit to chip away at these rigid certitudes when I can. And humor is a great way to cut right through these things. What are the subjects right-wingers cannot take a joke about? Ditto the lefties. Get the answer to that right and you’ve figured out what’s really going on.

The Best Of The Dish This Weekend

You can’t beat Cleese and Maher on PC bullshit:

Money quote from Cleese:

Any kind of fundamentalism is terribly funny.

Of course it is. I particularly liked Cleese’s comment about the condescension involved in ruling certain groups as impermissible targets of humor. There’s this deeply patronizing idea that minorities are fragile, terribly vulnerable, unable to laugh at themselves, and incapable of the to-and-fro of democratic debate and conversation. One reason I find the latest upsurge in identity politics on the left so dispiriting (and boring) is the assumption that minorities of a few kinds are so vulnerable, so oppressed, so burdened by majoritarian prejudice that they have to go through life demanding safe zones from “micro-aggressions” and other terrible assaults on their delicate sensibilities. Members of a minority are reduced to quivering recipients of “hate”, rather than actual living, breathing, thinking people who can surely give as good as they get in public discourse. But it appears an entire generation has now been educated into this mindless, maudlin mush.

I had a fantastically lazy long weekend, napping with the pups, watching movies, and playing Angry Birds. I did manage to finish Paul Gottfried’s book on Leo Strauss and American conservatism, and recommend it. I’ve always wanted to read a critique of Strauss – and more particularly, of Straussianism – which didn’t devolve into leftist hyperbole or paranoia. This is the first I’ve read. Gottfried’s critique is really from the right – against Strauss’s postmodern reading of texts (presented as the very opposite), against the abolition of history as well as historicism, against the reclusiveness and defensiveness of the Straussian enclave, and against their fixation with Western weakness in which the world is forever 1938. He persuaded me that the core of Straussianism is political, not philosophical – and a true competitor to what I would call conservatism, properly understood.  None of this takes away from the truly remarkable scholarship that Strauss and Straussians have given us, or their useful antidote to the idea that all our core debates about the world have been resolved. But it helps reveal the deeply un-conservative and profoundly radical nature of neoconservatism, and its mania for imperialism and Israel.

Some posts worth revisiting from the weekend: how marijuana can help end addiction; the first film of a Black Seadevil from the deep; a devastating poem about love and kids by Jane Kenyon; how brands become cults; some thoughts of mine on affirmative action; André Dubus on the Eucharist; and a must-read Sharon Olds poem on welcoming a daughter on Thanksgiving.

Many of our recent posts were updated with your emails – read them all here.  You can always leave your unfiltered comments at our Facebook page and @sullydish. 16 more readers became subscribers this weekend. You can join them here – and get access to all the readons and Deep Dish – for a little as $1.99 month. Holiday shopping is kicking into full gear, so Dish gift subscriptions could be a great fit for a friend or family member. Dish t-shirts are available here and our new coffee mugs here. A reader writes:

This is a thank you letter.  Thank you, or whoever on the Dish staff selects short stories, for running Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing,” which lead to “Tell Me A Riddle,” which lead to the other stories in that collection, which will lead to much more reading as the winter goes on. These stories are precise and inexorable and a little jagged-edged, and you deeply and quickly care about the people in them.  So thank you, again, for introducing me to them.

Thanks goes to Matt Sitman, the Dish’s literary editor, who selects all of our weekly short stories.

See you in the morning.

The Offense Industry On The Offense

In a really terrific post during my vacation, Freddie DeBoer nailed something to the cross:

It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing. I now mostly associate that public face with danger, with an endless list of things that you can’t do or say or think, and with the constant threat of being called an existentially bad person if you say the wrong thing, or if someone decides to misrepresent what you said as saying the wrong thing. There are so many ways to step on a landmine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them.

Freddie’s concern was with online hazing of the politically incorrect. Writers are not just condemned any more for being wrong or dumb or rigid. They are condemned as sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, blah blah blah – almost as a reflex in trying to discredit their work. That’s particularly true when it comes to fascinating issues like race or gender or sexual orientation, where liberalism today seems to insist that there are absolutely no aggregate differences between genders, races, ethnicities, or sexual orientations, except those created by oppression and discrimination and bigotry. Anyone even daring to bring up these topics is subjected to intense pressure, profound disapproval and ostracism. This illiberal liberalism is not new, of course. But it’s still depressingly common.

Sam Harris is one of its latest victims. There sure is plenty to disagree with Sam about – and we have had several such arguments and debates. But the idea that he is a sexist – and now forced to defend himself at length from the charge after a book-signing discussion – is really pathetic. His account of the episode is well worth-reading for the insight it gives into the Puritanical wing of the left. Michelle Boornstein decided to play the sexist card after a contentious interview, and then tweet it out thus:

Here’s what she was referring to (in her words):

I also asked Harris at the event why the vast majority of atheists—and many of those who buy his books—are male, a topic which has prompted some to raise questions of sexism in the atheist community. Harris’ answer was both silly and then provocative. It can only be attributed to my “overwhelming lack of sex appeal,” he said to huge laughter.

“I think it may have to do with my person[al] slant as an author, being very critical of bad ideas. This can sound very angry to people… People just don’t like to have their ideas criticized. There’s something about that critical posture that is to some degree intrinsically male and more attractive to guys than to women,” he said. “The atheist variable just has this—it doesn’t obviously have this nurturing, coherence-building extra estrogen vibe that you would want by default if you wanted to attract as many women as men.”

This is impermissibly sexist because it assumes that there are some essential biological and psychological differences between men and women, and for a certain kind of leftist, this is an intolerable heresy. If that truth cannot be suppressed or rebutted in a free society, its adherents must be stigmatized as bigots. It’s a lazy form of non-argument – and may have been payback from Boorstein after Harris and she differed quite strongly on the power of fundamentalism in American culture.

But Boorstein’s premise – that because many more men than women seem to buy and read his books, there must be some sexism at work – is preposterous.

Anyone can buy a book on Amazon. There are no gender barriers whatever. The free flow of ideas will often lead to different audiences for different authors. That some books by white Americans are read disproportionately by whites doesn’t mean they’re racist. And, yes, style of writing – especially the combative, testosteroned debates that occur online or typify the slash-and-burn atheist conversation – can lead to a disproportionately male-skewed audience for that kind of thing. But all that is a function of free choice in a free market of ideas – not some kind of institutional sexism – let alone personal sexism. Why we cannot revel in these differences and embrace them as part of what makes being human so fascinating and variable is beyond me. But clearly it threatens people. Reality can.

Then Sam was subjected to a public dressing down by a person in the book-signing line:

She: What you said about women in the atheist community was totally denigrating to women and irresponsible. Women can think just as critically as men. And men can be just as nurturing as women.

Me: Of course they can! But if you think there are no differences, in the aggregate, between people who have Y chromosomes and people who don’t; if you think testosterone has no psychological effects on human minds in general; if you think we can’t say anything about the differences between two bell curves that describe whole populations of men and women, whether these differences come from biology or from culture, we’re not going to get very far in this conversation.

But the conversation is not the point. Even an individual writer’s personality and style is not the point. The point is the enforcement of an ideology by the weapon of stigma and social ostracism. Some favorite lines from the p.c. war:

You should just know that what you said was incredibly sexist and very damaging, and you should apologize … You’re just totally unaware of how sexist you are.

It’s that last line that really gives the game away. It means essentially that a writer cannot win. Or rather: that a writer somehow has to represent all of humanity or risk being regarded and demonized as hostile to whole sections of it. This should be called out for what it is: a full-scale assault on the integrity and freedom of writers in the name of social liberalism. Writers need to stand up to this cant – and not capitulate to it.

For more on the subject of women and atheism, check out the Dish discussion thread, “Where Are All The Female Atheists?” One of those readers brought to our attention the work of the brilliant female atheist Jennifer Michael Hecht, whom we subsequently invited to join our Ask Anything feature to discuss the subject of suicide, explored in her book Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.

The Rebirth Of Political Correctness, Ctd

Nick Gillespie reacts to some freedom-of-speech controversies on campus:

A student publication at the university [of Western Ontario], The Gazette, published an irreverent special issue for incoming freshmen. Among the articles was a clearly satirical piece titled, “So you want to date a teaching assistant?” It included such tips as, “Do your research. Facebook stalk and get to know your TA. Drop in on his or her tutorials, and if you’re not in that class — make it happen…. Ask your own smart questions, answer others’ dumb questions, and make yourself known in the class. Better yet, stand out as a pupil of interest.” …

The piece immediately set off “a furor,” with the union representing T.A.s calling for the piece to be taken down for promoting sexual harassment and the university provost publicly castigating the paper for being “disrespectful.” The offending material was quickly pulled off from the paper’s website and the editors wrote a groveling, ritualistic apology, promising to report “on these issues in a more serious manner in the future.”

Gillespie fears the educational implications of such incidents:

We’re told that college is an absolute necessity in today’s advanced society. Higher education alone can cultivate the critical thinking skills and independence of thought that drives not just economic innovation but social progress too. Yet over the past 30 or so years, college has become an irony-free zone, one in which every utterance is subjected to withering cross-examinations for any possibility of offense across a multitude of race, class, gender and other dimensions.

Previous Dish on the subject here.