William A. Henry III:

The emphasis on tribalism, tokenism, and toeing the political line is, if anything, more painful in the realm of culture, which traditionally represents the highest aspirations of the individual, than it is in other realms of the life of the mind.

This book was published in 1994. Like a few others I’ve recently discovered, it examines the last wave of political correctness from the perspective of a self-proclaimed liberal. And like those other books, the examples of language-policing, feminist excess and general lunacy it offers could have been plucked from online media within the last week. It just goes to show what a sad holding pattern progressive politics have been stuck in for the last few generations. Fighting the same old symbolitical battles over and over again. Culture war re-enactors make a killing nowadays, me, oh, my.

The problem is, as progressives find themselves repeatedly running up against a solid wall in the political realm, their frustration inevitably leads them to turn their attention to other areas where they can assert some measure of control. Art and pop culture prove to be especially irresistible targets for neophyte commissars.

My political hopes are quite modest. I assume things will always be some degree of fucked-up, and no one will ever be happy with things as they are at any given time. I’m in favor of the least worst version of fucking things up, whatever that may be. But there’s still a glimmer of idealism in me nonetheless. I believe in the enduring power of art, even popular art, even escapist novels and rock music, to change the lives of its audience in subtle ways that cannot be reduced to, or predicted by, the gender/race/ideology of the artist. Policies and politicians will come and go, and I couldn’t give two shits or a half-fuck about them, but as long as people indulge the urge to express themselves artistically, I still hold faith in the trickster-like nature of reality to defy our attempts to get everyone marching in one direction in unison. Strange, unpredictable things happen when people share artistic visions. Allowing your imagination to be carried away by enchanting prose or a sweet melody can subtly alter your thinking no less than your mood. And thus, I agree with Henry: philistines are the worst of the worst, and currently, most of our philistines are of the leftist variety.

These philistines want to annex the territory of criticism and turn it into a political resource to be allocated on an intersectional basis. Critical judgment and taste, after all, are particular. They’re not fair or unbiased. A reviewer may tend to prefer certain styles and authors over others. Equality of outcome is never a likely result when people are allowed to make honest choices and distinctions. Still, the point is not to “transcend” all biases and particular perspectives, as if that were even desirable or possible, but to encompass and understand them. But being that we’ve long since lost the ability to talk about values without shrieking about oppression, we try to default to the “objective”, utilitarian standard of quantification. “Quality”, as Robert Pirsig could tell you, is devilishly difficult to define, so we might as well just focus on the things we can measure, like racial and gender disparities among published authors.

Here you see a typical example: critics who profess to be concerned with “quality” and “editorial judgment” above identity politics are covering up their “failings” with “grand claims”. The implicit understanding, familiar to anyone conversant with Foucault and his disciples, is that “grand claims” about culture are merely cynical attempts to mask the power structure, which in turn justify even more cynical attempts to seize power for one’s own identity group. The important thing about criticism is to see it as a pie chart to be divided in service to social justice goals. Books and music need to be requisitioned and used as materiel for the war effort on behalf of racial and gender equality! Well, I suppose I’m prepared to be shot as a hoarder, then.