Everything I was taught was good as a child, or was just neutral, is now bad.
America is bad. The pilgrims are bad. The founding fathers are bad. Cowboys are bad. Christianity is bad. Christopher Columbus is bad. The police are bad. The free market is bad. White people are bad. Men are bad. The nuclear family is bad. Heterosexuality is bad. Individuality is bad. Independence is bad. Rational thought is bad.
In the art world, painting is bad. Originality is bad. The old masters are bad. Skill is bad. Beauty is bad.
The inversion of reality has gotten so ridiculous that whenever confronted with what you are obviously supposed to believe, you can safely assume the opposite is more likely true.
What were philosophers, artists, or political activists to do to make a name for themselves in the last half century if they believed that to be important they needed to be radical, revolutionary, and to fundamentally change the world? Historically speaking, things were comparatively good. But they weren’t perfect. Modernism wasn’t perfect. There was still an undercurrent of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Capitalism had allowed a tiny portion of the population to become so astronomically wealthy that while everyone could step onto the playing field, your chances of beating the super wealthy started with a point and a zero or two. There was perpetual war, corruption, excessive pollution, and religious and other intolerance. There was still work to be done.
There were exceptions to the rule of what was considered to be the truth, the good, or the real. To go with an analogy, if you say that all mammals give live birth, you’ve left out the platypus, which lays eggs. Your model is incomplete and needs to be amended in order to be more comprehensive. You can see the parallels with various minority perspectives being left out of, or underrepresented in popular media and curricula. This is why there were complaints about reading literature by “dead white males”, and a serious attempt to include women and non-white authors in the syllabus.
When I took a Contemporary Literature course over 30 years ago, we read Toni Morrison’s Sula. My sociology class focused on apartheid in South Africa. In my poetry class we read Adrienne Rich: a half-Jewish, lesbian writer. By the time I was 25 I’d read most of Morrison’s novels on my own, and works by other black authors including Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright. I happened to enjoy contemporary fiction by previously underrepresented groups, and actively sought it out. But expanding the curriculum to include these other voices was not enough to change the world.
Philosophers, artists, and activists couldn’t make a reputation for themselves as world changers if they just tweaked the system and fixed its potholes. They couldn’t just adjust history or subtly alter its course. They needed to upend it, yank it out from its roots, and start over with themselves in the limelight, leading the way in a bold, new direction. They took the exceptions to the rule to prove the rule not just incomplete, but absolutely wrong. Rather than make an amendment to modernism, for example, postmodernism sought to overthrow it entirely. Thus, instead of redefining mammal to include the egg-laying platypus — to go with our analogy — mammal would be redefined as primarily animals that lay eggs. The exception to the rule is now the rule. The oversights of the past, and its injustices, are used as a moral pretext to justify a radical, ideological rejection of western civilization and its values in their entirety. This is not because western civilization is bankrupt, but merely because of a psychological need to reject what IS, in favor of something radically different. The simplest concept of the radically different is whatever the polar opposite is.
This strikes me as not unlike the adolescent rebellion against parents, no matter who they are, or what they represent. Parents or adults aren’t cool, they don’t understand, and so on, until you are one yourself.
The outstanding problem with adopting a contrarian philosophy as absolute truth is that it necessarily includes hypocrisy and double-standards, both of which are by definition incompatible with justice. The middle ground and compromise are not sought, but instead the goal is a radical redefinition of society, and even vocabulary. Because this inversion of prior truth doesn’t countenance that the past could be right about anything, it locks itself into easy and frequently ridiculous answers to all questions. Completely one-sided, it always overstates its case.
There was an outstanding example of this in the art world recently. The curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Art was forced from his position on accusation of white supremacy. If you didn’t know better, you might assume that as curator he was deliberately overlooking purchasing works by non-whites. However, while he’d actively sought the works of POC, and sold a work by Mark Rothko to help buy them, the problem was that he called it “discrimination” to not completely eliminate purchases of white male art for the foreseeable future. Here, not absolutely discriminating against white men is interpreted as absolutely discriminating against people of color. It’s as bizarre an argument as to say you are guilty of murder if you don’t murder someone. It’s like saying it’s white supremacy to not pass a law that whites must sit in the back of the bus. Thus, the curator was guilty of institutional racism for not instituting racism in the institution.
Justice shouldn’t be complicated, and I don’t think it is. I had a strong sense of right and wrong when I was in elementary school. We couldn’t act in the world if we didn’t have some sort of moral compass. Justice should be fair to everyone, in which case the same agreed upon rules essentially apply. If there are different rules for different people, even opposite rules, than it’s a good sign it’s not in the name of justice. For example, one of the social platforms I subscribe to recently sent me its new terms of service, and in it I discovered that everyone is in a protected class, and you can’t say bad things to them or about them, excepting one group of people (in which I find myself). Everyone can attack me, and I’m not even allowed to defend myself, OR ELSE! The simple form of justice would be that everyone is a protected class, in which case everyone should be able to get on board with that. This more complicated variety includes an unprotected class, and we are to understand that the flagrant injustice is a corrective in the name of the greater good. It is instituting injustice, again, in the name of eradicating institutional injustice.
The art world has been far in the lead when it comes to this kind of thinking, possibly because of the false assumption that in order to be an important artist you need to be radical in relation to the past. This view comes from a superficial, Survey of Art 101 level of understanding art. This artist is important because of this or that innovation. Jackson Pollock was the first action painter, spilling paint on canvas on the floor… But anyone with a real appreciation of art, music, literature, or film, quickly gets past that. Is your favorite song the first to be this or that, or is that a relatively minor consideration? Some say that Iron Butterfly‘s, In a Gadda-da-Vida includes the first use of heavy metal guitar, but do metal heads like In a Gadda-da-Vida better than, say, War Pigs by Black Sabbath, which was not even on their own first album?
Needing to see itself as perpetually revolutionary, the art world embraced the most radical politics and philosophy in past decades. A quarter century ago we were reading Bell Hooks in my graduate art classes. You know that “Unpacking White Privilege” essay, by Peggy McIntosh that is endlessly circulating? it was written in 1988. When people start spouting these “theories” today, and say they are “woke”, I have to wonder if they’ve been in a coma for over 25 years. People seem blissfully unaware of this, but the belief system that’s gaining so much traction in the media in 2020 is identical to the radical academic “theories” that were being taught in universities before many of them were born. For me — given my education — nothing could be more stale, predictable, or behind the times than the resurgence of the radical theories I was force-fed in my upper education decades ago.
I’ve learned a lot in the last quarter century, including from my 15 years living as an expat in China, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam [where, incidentally, the belief system that is dominating American media doesn’t make any sense.] I know that a person is primarily and more importantly a shapeless and colorless mind than a physical body. I know that the real enemy is selfishness, greed, and other vices that plague every consciousness. So when people go around insisting you are defined by your flesh, that strikes me as anything but awakened.
Postmodernism, feminism, anti-racism, and all the other movements that comprise the radical left are based on real injustices or sins of omission that it was and is essential to fix. All the criticisms of America, the pilgrims, cowboys, the police, masculinity, and son on, are based on truth. The problem arises when those shortcomings are turned into complete aberrations that must be obliterated. Instead of fixing a cavity, we’re going to remove the whole tooth, and the ones next to it. You might have heard in recent times, for example, that “whiteness must be ended by any and all means necessary”. We’ve gone from there being problems with ostensible white culture that need to be fixed to needing to annihilate it with force (while simultaneously maintaining that all other cultures should be preserved and celebrated].
For another example, in reaction to the tragic death of George Floyd at the
hands knee of Derek Chauvin, people are not only demanding more reform to counter excessive use of force by police, but demanding the abolishment of the police altogether. While more people in America in 2019 died of lightning strikes than unarmed black men were killed by police (20 versus 19) there is the perception that the greatest threat to the lives of black men is racist, white, police officers. [Note that recent body-cam footage reveals that Floyd did, in fact, resist arrest continuously; was clearly out of control; and the officers performed their job professionally until the final portion when Chauvin refused to take his knee off of Floyd’s neck. Officers never have the right to execute people, but it is also true that if Floyd had simply remained in the police car, once finally getting in it, his grim fate of that day would have been averted.]
A real tragedy, and a real problem, are exaggerated to reflect not only all police, but all white people, in which case statues of Columbus need to come down, and Shaun King advocates for destroying all sculptures and stained glass images of a Caucasian Jesus. How did we get from seeking justice for the actions of one group of officers to destroying all images of white Jesus? That’s the result of the radical, revolutionary perspective that finds a moral excuse to use as justification for a full-scale, ideological war on the current society. [We might also recognize that Floyd’s death was mourned by the country more than the deaths of over 100,000 people who lost their lives to COVID-19, in which case one may wonder if such cases as his are routinely given insufficient coverage by the media, or if each instance is national headline news.]
Something that is 10% true needs to be taken into consideration in order to arrive at the bigger picture. Our concept of mammal needs to include the egg-laying platypus. But to insist that what is true 10% of the time represents reality 100% of the time is to be wrong 90% of the time. And we can see a lot of that today. Something is based in truth, but exaggerated to something else that is way off the mark.
To the degree this is an issue of liberals versus conservatives, both are essential in a healthy society, providing checks and balances against each other. It’s the extremes we need to watch out for, especially when they try to take power and eliminate the perceived other end of the spectrum. When I was younger it was inconceivable to me that you could err on the side of the left, or that revolution could be a bad thing. That’s because I was fully on that side of the fence and didn’t countenance that the other side could be right about anything. That changed when my own side crept further and further into radicalism, and they maintained that I was the innate enemy and pariah.
Now I see that balance is the goal. And while both sides will accuse the other of being intolerant and trying to take over, to know which side has gone ballistic at any point, we just need look for who takes no prisoners; who is supporting censorship; who is scapegoating people; who uses rhetoric about destroying the other; who seeks to punish innocent people on the slightest pretext; who seeks to prevent people from making a living or getting recognition; who insists that everyone in a group is guilty for something they didn’t do…? When I was growing up I thought that was the religious right, but nowadays it looks like it’s become the radical left. Is America more intolerant of the recent protests and upheaval, or are the protests and upheaval more intolerant of America? When the country makes allowances for protests during a pandemic, and the biggest corporations publicly state their support of the cause, it becomes difficult to say that the movement is being silenced.
It is not true that everything I learned as a child is absolutely wrong. In reality it was mostly fairly true [and contrary to popular belief, at least in California, public school taught us liberal values from the get-go], and still is. In the art world — which is my focus — painting, beauty, skill, and originality are important, whether the conceptual, political activist artists agree or not. Everything may seem backwards because on an ideological level it is, and intended to be. We are taking the devil’s advocate at face value, and accepting legitimate criticisms as full-on repudiations. The sane solution is to scale back the contrarian rhetoric and its application to appropriate levels — while still addressing sound criticisms — so that actual justice for everyone is served, there is tolerance of a wide range of views, and society can prosper.
[On a personal, individual level, those who find themselves the target of disapprobation from the current paradigm being promulgated by the radical left would do well to take it with an enormously generous helping of salt. You only have one life, and if someone says that in your lifespan you need to be sacrificed for the greater good, you can safely reject that proposition outright as heinous, especially if it’s for their explicit benefit. The sanctity of the individual is the greater good — because everyone is an individual — and the underlying problem with any sort of bias is the likelihood of persecution of the innocent individual.]