Faith And Doubt At Christmastime

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A brief personal Christmas reflection on waxing and waning faith

At this time of year, back in England, I would often attend Christmas carol services where it was customary for an excerpt from John Betjeman’s poem “Christmas” to be read aloud from the pulpit. Chances are that if you grew up attending church in Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century, you know it too.

The well-known poem concludes:

And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?

And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

The poem is nice enough, and one can certainly understand why it is enthusiastically incorporated into Christmas services across denominational divides (I would often hear it at an Evangelical Congregational church the week before Christmas and again a week later at Midnight Mass).

But at present, my mind keeps returning to another Betjeman poem on the subject of faith, this one entitled “The conversion of St. Paul”. Betjeman was apparently spurred to write it as a response to the (shocking for the time) broadcast on the BBC of a humanist lecture attacking Christianity – given by the “Mrs. Knight” mentioned in Betjeman’s verse.

My personal faith has ebbed and flowed this year. Highlights certainly include attending the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and finding a very welcoming home at my new university’s Catholic Student Center. Meeting some good friends there, attending a Catholic Bible study (that rarest of things) and praying the increasingly rare yet beautiful form of Compline (my grandfather would have approved) have all been very happy and spiritually affirming memories.

On the other hand, my disillusionment with the Church hierarchy has grown deeper and deeper, to the point of physical disgust, and an involuntary repellence from the rituals and practices which are often necessary to maintain a healthy spiritual life.

Another explosion of child sexual abuse cases – this time implicating very senior officials across numerous diocese in the coverups after the Church in America supposedly cleaned house after the 2001 scandals – make it increasingly hard to believe that many of those in positions of leadership within the Church are doing anything more than securing power and status for themselves, while placing the stability of the institution over the flock it is supposed to serve. Only recently, the Cardinal Archbishop of my new home diocese, Washington, D.C., was finally forced to resign under a cloud of scandal and suspicion.

The author and blogger Rod Dreher has written frequently and movingly of his disillusionment and eventual detachment from the Roman Catholic Church over the same issues, though Rod as a journalist had far better knowledge of what was going on and the depth of depravity and corruption within the hierarchy. In one piece (I forget which – if I find it I will update this piece with the link) he talked about the way that skepticism about the human institution can easily bleed into skepticism about the doctrine and theology which its leaders proclaim, and so works as a kind of metastasizing cancer throughout the faith. I must confess that I have not found myself entirely immune from this syndrome.

I have not yet taken the plunge of leaving the Church as Rod Dreher did, and have no current plans to do so. But this has been a year of waxing and waning faith, even more than usual for me. And it is this experience which finds resonance in Betjeman’s other poem, which I have reproduced in full below.

The last two paragraphs in particular resonate with me at this time and in this unusual Christmas season, my first spent as an expat, immigrant and permanent resident of the United States. Much like Betjeman, “no blinding light, a fitful glow is all the light of faith I know”; yet even now, we “stumble on and blindly grope, upheld by intermittent hope”.

 

The Conversion of St. Paul

Now is the time when we recall
The sharp Conversion of St. Paul.
Converted! Turned the wrong way round –
A man who seemed till then quite sound,
Keen on religion – very keen –
No-one, it seems, had ever been
So keen on persecuting those
Who said that Christ was God and chose
To die for this absurd belief
As Christ had died beside the thief.
Then in a sudden blinding light
Paul knew that Christ was God all right –
And very promptly lost his sight.

Poor Paul! They led him by the hand
He who had been so high and grand
A helpless blunderer, fasting, waiting,
Three days inside himself debating
In physical blindness: ‘As it’s true
That Christ is God and died for you,
Remember all the things you did
To keep His gospel message hid.
Remember how you helped them even
To throw the stones that murdered Stephen.
And do you think that you are strong
Enough to own that you were wrong?’

They must have been an awful time,
Those three long days repenting crime
Till Ananias came and Paul
Received his sight, and more than all
His former strength, and was baptized.
Saint Paul is often criticized
By modern people who’re annoyed
At his conversion, saying Freud
Explains it all. But they omit
The really vital point of it,
Which isn’t how it was achieved
But what it was that Paul believed.

He knew as certainly as we
Know you are you and I am me
That Christ was all He claimed to be.
What is conversion? Turning round
From chaos to a love profound.
And chaos too is an abyss
In which the only life is this.
Such a belief is quite all right
If you are sure like Mrs. Knight
And think morality will do
For all the ills we’re subject to.

But raise your eyes and see with Paul
An explanation of it all.
Injustice, cancer’s cruel pain,
All suffering that seems in vain,
The vastness of the universe,
Creatures like centipedes and worse –
All part of an enormous plan
Which mortal eyes can never scan
And out if it came God to man.
Jesus is God and came to show
The world we live in here below
Is just an antechamber where
We for His Father’s house prepare.

What is conversion? Not at all
For me the experience of St. Paul,
No blinding light, a fitful glow
Is all the light of faith I know
Which sometimes goes completely out
And leaves me plunging round in doubt
Until I will myself to go
And worship in God’s house below –
My parish Church – and even there
I find distractions everywhere.

What is Conversion? Turning round
To gaze upon a love profound.
For some of us see Jesus plain
And never once look back again,
And some of us have seen and known
And turned and gone away alone,
But most of us turn slow to see
The figure hanging on a tree
And stumble on and blindly grope
Upheld by intermittent hope.
God grant before we die we all
May see the light as did St. Paul.

– John Betjeman.

 

Additional: If you are a regular reader, derive value and enjoyment from my writing and have not yet contributed to my Christmas fundraising drive (particularly important now that I am an impoverished student once again!), please consider doing so here.

 

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Virginia Schools Butcher The English Literature Curriculum To Appease Social Justice Zealots

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Humanity’s intellectual and artistic horizons must not be limited by the delicate sensitivities of society’s most easily-offended members

It has happened again – another oversensitive, censorious American school district has suspended the works Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird from their high school curriculum pending a full review of the two novels’ artistic merit versus their supposed offensiveness. And this time, all because of one solitary parental complaint.

The Guardian reports:

To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been suspended from the curriculum in some Virginia schools, after a parent complained about the use of racial slurs.

Harper Lee and Mark Twain’s literary classics were removed from classrooms in Accomack County, in Virginia after a formal complaint was made by the mother of a biracial teenager. At the centre of the complaint was the use of the N-word, which appears frequently in both titles.

The woman who made the complaint said her son struggled to read the racist language, telling the Accomack County public schools board: “There’s so much racial slurs and defensive wording in there that you can’t get past that.” The challenge also appears to be motivated by the current political landscape in the US, as the mother told the board: “Right now, we are a nation divided as it is.”

What a pathetic person, and what terrible parenting. If her son “struggled to read the racist language”, it is only because he was deliberately made fragile. Made fragile by his own parent(s) and by the society in which he grew up, which constantly, wrongly taught him that sticks and stones may break his bones, but words can kill him stone dead.

The danger is that by bowing to these petty, whinnying requests for censorship, our overall society is dragged down to the level of the weakest and most intolerant members. Little Timmy can’t read this book without weeping and being triggered, so now nobody can read it.

Are we really to shuffle books in and out of the school syllabus according to how sensitive people feel following a presidential election? Is a book’s inherent worth subject to fluctuate according to the changing political fortunes of the Democratic and Republican Parties? This is ludicrous.

As this blog has argued numerous times, the “N-word” has no power to harm beyond that which we give it by pretending that there is no difference between using the word in anger and clinically discussing it in a classroom, court of law or television news broadcast.

And there is a difference. Being called a nigger is not tremendously pleasant. As a mixed race young man (like the child whose insufferable parent demanded the ban), I have had occasional direct experience myself. But this is a world apart from reading or hearing the word in the context of studying a great work of literature. And people who are unable to make this distinction should not be allowed to hold the rest of society back by virtue of their self-inflicted fragility.

 

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Brexit Catastrophisation Watch, Part 3 – The Cultural Elite’s Ongoing Anti-Brexit Tantrum Is Pointless And Childish

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Hell hath no fury like a self-involved, virtue-signalling, pig ignorant artist forcibly separated from his beloved European identity

Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to be in close proximity to a young child having a screaming meltdown in a supermarket, church or (worst of all) on a long aeroplane journey will immediately recognise the tenor and tone of the Guardian’s latest offering in their ongoing “But The Evil Tor-ees Took My European Identity From Me” series.

And this week’s whinnying public tantrum comes courtesy of writer Tom McCarthy, who can’t wait to tell us how he spurned the opportunity to attend a festival of British arts because daring to celebrate British artistic creativity post-Brexit is clearly akin to having attended the Nuremberg Rallies in 1930s Germany.

McCarthy pompously declares:

In our society, the artist may have no executive power whatsoever, but their ace-card lies in the fact that they command a means – perhaps the primal one – of putting value in the world: a means of making meaning. They can use this status to subvert, or to shore up, power – sometimes both at the same time – and they can do this well, badly or indifferently; but one thing they can never do is be politically neutral.

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to a special reception to be held at the Royal Academy for “British artists” to celebrate “British creativity”. In normal times such a gesture might have seemed a little jingoistic, but essentially innocuous. But these are not normal times. Given the extraordinary far-right takeover the country seems to be undergoing, current talk of “British” X or Y or Z (“values” or “decency” or “culture”) usually marks one end of a chain, at the other end of which someone is being shunned in a playground, spat at in a supermarket, or worse. The invitation mentioned designers and businesses who “shape our culture”, and outlined the security procedures that would surround the event. It wasn’t hard to read between the lines: while Martin Roth at the V&A had made it clear his institution would have no truck with such nonsense, the RA was helping to assemble a roll-call of figures from the arts to pose arm-in-arm with ministers, royalty and innovators of the James Dyson variety, for a soft-power, post-Brexit rebrand of “British” culture.

How terribly brave of McCarthy to make such a principled stand, which will have cost him absolutely nothing and cemented his status as a hero among other pig-ignorant europhiles in the cultural scene. No, really. How terribly subversive, taking a public action which panders to the existing groupthink and prejudices of the political and cultural elite, nearly all of whom remain horrified by Brexit. The idea that Tom McCarthy is in any way being countercultural or subversive is as hilarious as it is pitiful.

McCarthy continues:

The fact is, I’m not an example of “British creativity”. Like all English-language writers, I’m thoroughly European. To read Shakespeare is to read a rich remix of Ovid, Petrarch and Lucretius; to read Joyce (a British passport-holder) is to read Mallarmé, Laforgue, Goethe. The wellspring of our shared archive is Greek – and since the Hellenic world was in fact spread all around the Mediterranean basin, this means that to be European is already to be African and Asian.

Millennia of trade and empire, of diaspora and endlessly crisscrossing migration, have produced a culture that is and always will be cross-pollinated. If London and other British cities have become cultural hubs, this is because they stand at intersections within larger, international flows and networks. To credit an intersection with creating (“innovating”) the currents from which it merely feeds, though, is like calling a lightbulb a generator.

The number of idiotic sentences about Brexit and democracy uttered by self-proclaimed artists probably now registers in the tens of millions, but still McCarthy’s claim that all English-speaking writers are “thoroughly European” is particularly fatuous.

If “all English-language writers” are European, why do we not hail F. Scott Fitzgerald as a great European author? And even if we did consider Fitzgerald to be European, using McCarthy’s tortured logic, isn’t this yet more damning evidence that one does not need to be part of a supranational political union to derive a sense of regional or continental identity? Fitzgerald’s European-ness is innate and inalienable, according to McCarthy, and utterly uncontingent on belonging to a power-hungry, relentlessly integrating Cold War-era club like the EU. So what exactly in the problem with Brexit?

Is Switzerland, outside the European Union, not “European”? Is Norway somehow severed from the continent, its artists unable to “cross-pollinate” ideas with their French or Spanish peers? And if the likes of John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald are great European writers despite both of whom having perished before the sainted European Union came into being, isn’t this proof that sharing an undemocratic set of supranational institutions is entirely unnecessary in forging a common heritage and identity?

Weepy British artists still in floods of tears at the thought of Britain leaving the EU should in fact take heart from Tom McCarthy’s rant. Since “all English-language writers” are “thoroughly European”, even those who lived their entire lives on a different continent decades before the institutions of the European Union even came into existence, why get so upset simply because Britain will shortly cease to send MEPs to Brussels and Strasbourg?

The culmination of McCarthy’s virtue-signalling extravaganza:

About the same time, I received another invitation, this time to read from my work at an anti-Brexit art festival in Hackney’s gallery-filled Vyner Street. Beneath bunting designed by Fiona Banner, Bob and Roberta Smith and Jessica Voorsanger played a gig, Katrin Plavcak and Ulrika Segerberg did an electronic sewing machine-enhanced performance, Lucy Reynolds conducted a “choir” who chanted in 20 languages at once, and a large crowd who could trace their heritage to every corner of the Earth ate, drank and generally had fun celebrating internationalism and renouncing tribalist bigotry, while children darted round their legs.

It’s quite possible that several of the Vyner Street participants, being high-profile culture-shaping innovators, were invited to the RA too. I doubt they’ll go, though, any more than I will.

And there it is. That’s what this is really all about. Tom McCarthy hasn’t had his European identity ripped away from him, as by his own admission his sense of European-ness transcends any one political institution and seemingly includes African and Asian culture, too (perhaps someone needs to have a quiet word with him about his imperialist, oppressive cultural appropriation).

No, this is members of the British artistic and cultural scene, left-wing almost to the last man, doing what they do best: spurning patriotism at every turn (embracing “all centuries but this and every country but their own”, as W.S. Gilbert might have put it), revealing their exquisite discomfort with anything British and promoting a rootless form of virtue-signalling internationalism instead. It is self-evident that Tom McCarthy would have no qualms about attending a celebration of French or Italian culture, were he invited to one. No, it is only his own culture which he detests and sees fit to associate with the “far right”.

“Look at me, look at me! I’m a citizen of the world! I’m not beholden to your base, quasi-fascistic preoccupations with national identity and community”, screams Tom McCarthy’s insufferable hissy fit in the Guardian. Well, good for him. Thankfully, a majority of Britons (even those cowed by Project Fear into voting Remain) disagree with this toxic notion.

Castigating the inventor James Dyson for having “[thrown] his lot in with Nigel Farage” in supporting Brexit, McCarthy declares “I don’t even dry my hands in public toilets” any more following the EU referendum, a riveting declaration that this brave, Super Virtuous Man will have absolutely nothing to do with those who dared to defy the pro-EU orthodoxy.

If Tom McCarthy chooses to forego washing his hands after using the lavatory as part of some pinch-faced middle class anti-Brexit rebellion, that is his own business. This blog would be quite content if he simply took pity on the rest of us and ceased to sculpt prissy, virtue-signalling little articles in the Guardian out of his own faeces.

 

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Latest Front In The Social Justice War: Censoring Beloved Children’s Books

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We must resist the insidious rewriting of beloved classics to make them retroactively conform to today’s social attitudes and dogmas

This blog has been (justifiably) quite hard on Ariane Sherine, the Spectator’s latest affirmative action hire, expressing exasperation with her wide-eyed surprise that Ukippers and pro-Brexit folks don’t immediately lynch every single Asian person they come across and suggesting (ahem) that she represents everything that is wrong with the closed shop of Westminster political journalism.

But credit where credit is due – her latest piece in The Spectator identifies a real and insidious issue, and Sherine even manages to come down on the right side of it.

That issue: the censorship and rewriting of beloved children’s literature to make the texts conform to with the current dogma that young people must not be exposed to old-fashioned turns of phrase, ideas or even names which jar with today’s coddling, infantilising and achingly PC culture.

Sherine writes:

Six years ago, the publishers Hachette took the well-meaning yet preposterous step of making ‘sensitive text revisions’ to Enid Blyton’s classic Famous Five books. So ‘tinker’ was changed to ‘traveller’, ‘mother and father’ to ‘mum and dad’ and ‘awful swotter’ to ‘bookworm’. The suggestion that tomboy George needed ‘a good spanking’ became ‘a good talking to’, while girly Anne’s assertion, ‘You see, I do like pretty frocks — and I love my dolls — and you can’t do that if you’re a boy’ had its final clause removed, rendering the sentence throwaway rather than poignant. Unsurprisingly, given that all the charm had been stripped out of them, the revised editions flopped, and last weekend it was reported that Hachette were reverting to the originals. The publishers conceded that the updates had proved ‘very unpopular’.

But Hachette isn’t the only culprit. Earli­­­er this year, I bought my five-year-old daughter one of the Blyton titles I had enjoyed most as a child, The Magic Faraway Tree. I read it aloud to her, expecting to feel warmly nostalgic, but I merely felt baffled and irritated to discover that the publishers, Egmont, had also made several unnecessary changes. The names Fanny and Dick had been changed to Frannie and Rick. At first, I thought this was a misguided effort to avoid schoolchildren giggling at unintentional innuendo, but then I found that the names Jo and Bessie had also been pointlessly updated to Joe and Beth.

Joe and Beth? It wasn’t enough for Hachette to butcher beloved Enid Blyton characters, they really had to turn them into preening, insufferable hipsters too? No, this is too much.

Sherine continues:

Decisions to amend old, politically incorrect texts are based on a myth: that children are malleable, delicate creatures. Let’s eradicate anything remotely contentious! But anyone with a child over five knows that to edit the past is to insult both their intelligence and their resilience. My little girl is astute, tough and robust, and gleefully recounts gruesome fairy tales she has heard from friends. A colleague’s young sons delight in reading Old Testament stories of massacres and murders in their 1960s version of the Bible. These parables won’t turn our children into serial killers, and nor will Blyton’s unreconstructed slant on the world adversely influence their characters. I spent ages five to 12 engrossed in Blyton’s novels, and am yet to be branded sexist, racist or classist.

She’s lucky; I myself have been accused of the holy trifecta (sexism, racism and classism) despite being a mixed race person from pretty humble socio-economic background, primarily because I fail to spout the “correct” progressive left wing opinions on social justice, affirmative action and redistribution – but I don’t hold my avid readership of The Five Find-Outers to blame.

But Sherine is absolutely right, children are resilient creatures. In fact, children are the the epitome of anti-fragility – that precious quality of actually becoming stronger and more durable the more they are challenged and stretched in their thinking. And yet we seem determined to beat this precious quality out of our young people today, and we do so with such zeal that by the time they leave school for university many young adults are quivering wrecks, convinced that any exposure to conflicting ideas or any feedback less than warmly affirming will somehow gravely injure them and even “invalidate” their carefully-constructed “identities”.

More:

In fact, older books’ anachronisms can prompt useful conversations about changing attitudes towards race, sex, sexuality and class. The comedy writer Nathaniel Tapley recently encouraged his young son Thomas to read the 1967 children’s book Lion Adventure by Willard Price, remembering the boys’ adventure series as being rip-roaring fun. When his son asked: ‘Daddy, what does, “This is black man’s country’ mean?”’ they went on to discuss how differently people think about race these days, and whether or not people should live together.

[..] Children should not be patronised or mollycoddled — they should be free to read all about the amusingly quaint ideas, thoughts, words and names from the olden days, however sexist, unpalatable or wrong these may be considered now. They can learn from the past — but only if it remains uncensored.

This is a really important point. I was born in 1982, and some of the things I read in Enid Blyton books seemed strange or jarring to modern sensibilities even then. Did this in any way detract from my enjoyment of the books? No. Did it cause me to absorb the 1940s attitudes toward race and gender contained within? No. Did it prompt a conversation or two with my mother about why things were different, or why characters talked a certain way? Probably, yes. And from those discussions I learned and grew, as will young children today if they are given the chance to read the unadulterated, uncensored Enid Blyton.

This doesn’t just apply to children’s literature, of course. In 2011, a pinch-faced, hectoring Social Justice edition of Huckleberry Finn was released, in which the racist term “nigger” was replaced with the more emollient “slave”. This in turn was in response to numerous schools dropping the American classic from their curriculum because the PC zealots in charge preferred to pander to the imagined fragility of their students rather than read and teach through the awkwardness to understand the time and context in which the book was written.

But whether it is adult literature or beloved children’s classics, publishers have no business vandalising and defacing important artefacts from human civilisation just because they fail to live up to the tremulous, wobbly-lipped standards of the Permanently Offended.

Ariane Sherine is right to be outraged at the censorship of Enid Blyton. We should all be outraged. Because as with everything else connected with social justice, the progressive censors are not really signalling their low approval of these long-dead authors. No, what they are actually doing is signalling their disapproval of us. They are saying that we either are too pathetic and delicate to understand these social and literary anachronisms, or that we simply cannot be trusted to hear racist, sexist or homophobic dialogue in the context of great or beloved works of literature, lest the lumpen masses seek to recreate the 1950s (or the 1850s) in today’s world.

In other words, the progressive censors believe that you are either a perpetual victim or a would-be future racist, sexist or thought criminal. And if there is any ugly sentiment which should be purged from the world, the progressive metro-left’s sneering contempt for ordinary people would rank very high indeed on the list.

 

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Top Image: “The Magic Faraway Tree” by Kerry Darlington

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Lionel Shriver Makes A Bold Defence of Cultural Appropriation

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The purpose of literature and fiction writing is not to serve the grand design of the social justice and identity politics movement – and Lionel Shriver should be commended for standing up for artistic freedom against the new age censors

At a recent speech given at the Brisbane Writers Festival, the author Lionel Shriver makes a passionate and compelling defence of the concept of “cultural appropriation”, standing up to the rabid social justice warriors who would seek to impose a new cultural apartheid and the return of “separate but equal” division between races, cultures, genders and social groups.

From Shriver’s speech, which begins by making reference to college campus scandals over the supposed “cultural appropriation” and “harm” caused by non-Mexican students wearing sombrero hats at tequila parties or Mexican-themed restaurants:

But what does this have to do with writing fiction? The moral of the sombrero scandals is clear: you’re not supposed to try on other people’s hats. Yet that’s what we’re paid to do, isn’t it? Step into other people’s shoes, and try on their hats.

In the latest ethos, which has spun well beyond college campuses in short order, any tradition, any experience, any costume, any way of doing and saying things, that is associated with a minority or disadvantaged group is ring-fenced: look-but-don’t-touch. Those who embrace a vast range of “identities” – ethnicities, nationalities, races, sexual and gender categories, classes of economic under-privilege and disability – are now encouraged to be possessive of their experience and to regard other peoples’ attempts to participate in their lives and traditions, either actively or imaginatively, as a form of theft.

Shriver’s barnstorming speech goes on to list many great works of literature which would be greatly diminished or simply not exist at all were their authors (like many writers today) bullied and pressured to avoid writing about cultural experiences and customs other than their own.

Yet were their authors honouring the new rules against helping yourself to what doesn’t belong to you, we would not have Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. We wouldn’t have most of Graham Greene’s novels, many of which are set in what for the author were foreign countries, and which therefore have Real Foreigners in them, who speak and act like foreigners, too.

In his masterwork English Passengers, Matthew Kneale would have restrained himself from including chapters written in an Aboriginal’s voice – though these are some of the richest, most compelling passages in that novel. If Dalton Trumbo had been scared off of describing being trapped in a body with no arms, legs, or face because he was not personally disabled – because he had not been through a World War I maiming himself and therefore had no right to “appropriate” the isolation of a paraplegic – we wouldn’t have the haunting 1938 classic, Johnny Got His Gun.

We wouldn’t have Maria McCann’s erotic masterpiece, As Meat Loves Salt – in which a straight woman writes about gay men in the English Civil War. Though the book is nonfiction, it’s worth noting that we also wouldn’t have 1961’s Black Like Me, for which John Howard Griffin committed the now unpardonable sin of “blackface.” Having his skin darkened – Michael Jackson in reverse – Griffin found out what it was like to live as a black man in the segregated American South. He’d be excoriated today, yet that book made a powerful social impact at the time.

(Shriver’s speech was too much for one delicate snowflake. Australian activist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, whose sheltered mind was unable to tolerate hearing of a worldview which didn’t put her own identity on a pedestal, decided to walk out during the speech and then pen a tear-stained, self-involved piece about her feewings for the Guardian, aggrandising her supposed victimhood).

But what exactly is Lionel Shriver’s beef with the modern idea that cultural appropriation is heresy? It seems that what angers her – quite rightly – is the idea that any group, marginalised or not, can be the sole custodians of their traditions, granting or withholding license to “borrow” from their culture like a movie studio scouring YouTube for pirated videos.

According to Shriver, nobody, least of all an artist, should have to approach anyone for “permission” to write from a certain perspective, include a certain character or touch on any cultural tradition:

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

What strikes me about that definition is that “without permission” bit. However are we fiction writers to seek “permission” to use a character from another race or culture, or to employ the vernacular of a group to which we don’t belong? Do we set up a stand on the corner and approach passers-by with a clipboard, getting signatures that grant limited rights to employ an Indonesian character in Chapter Twelve, the way political volunteers get a candidate on the ballot?

While Shriver justifiably bristles at the consequences of weaponised identity politics, she does not use her speech to dwell on the reasons for the rise of this hyper self-conscious, self-censoring phenomenon. Fellow author Ian McEwan, on the other hand, is more than happy to point out the root causes of the identity politics resurgence, recently commenting in an interview:

“These children have grown up in an era of peace and plenty, and nothing much to worry about, so into that space comes this sort of resurgence that the campus politics is all about you, not about income inequality, nuclear weapons, climate change, all the other things you think students might address, the fate of your fellow humans, migrants drowning at sea. All of those things that might concern the young are lost to a wish for authority to bless them [..] rather than to challenge authority.”

To which this blog responded:

Doesn’t that just perfectly sum up the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics? A generation of students raised at a time of great material abundance, peace and prosperity arrive at university to find most of the great injustices of the past already slain by previous generations of campaigners. Bereft of purpose but still feeling the strong student urge to embrace a cause, they crank up their sensitivity settings to perceive any slight or inequity, however small or unintentional, to be evidence of the systematic oppression of one or more classes of prescribed victim groups.

McEwan’s last sentence is particularly profound – the idea that today’s young people no longer rail against authority in the way that student activists of old did, but rather make tear-stained appeals to authority figures to intercede on their behalf. This is the victimhood culture, clearly distinct from an honour culture (which would encourage the individual to stand up to minor sleights or “microaggressions” and confront the issue themselves) or a dignity culture (which would only sanction involving authorities in case of grave injury).

Later in her speech, Shriver hits out at the fad of shoehorning various “oppressed group” minorities into television shows in the name of making up some social justice quota, and the growing demand by some critics for the same affirmative action to take place in literature:

My most recent novel The Mandibles was taken to task by one reviewer for addressing an America that is “straight and white”. It happens that this is a multigenerational family saga – about a white family. I wasn’t instinctively inclined to insert a transvestite or bisexual, with issues that might distract from my central subject matter of apocalyptic economics. Yet the implication of this criticism is that we novelists need to plug in representatives of a variety of groups in our cast of characters, as if filling out the entering class of freshmen at a university with strict diversity requirements.

You do indeed see just this brand of tokenism in television. There was a point in the latter 1990s at which suddenly every sitcom and drama in sight had to have a gay or lesbian character or couple. That was good news as a voucher of the success of the gay rights movement, but it still grew a bit tiresome: look at us, our show is so hip, one of the characters is homosexual!

We’re now going through the same fashionable exercise in relation to the transgender characters in series like Transparent and Orange is the New Black.

Fine. But I still would like to reserve the right as a novelist to use only the characters that pertain to my story.

Besides: which is it to be? We have to tend our own gardens, and only write about ourselves or people just like us because we mustn’t pilfer others’ experience, or we have to people our cast like an I’d like to teach the world to sing Coca-Cola advert?

That last question is a good one – how on earth is a fiction author or television screenplay writer possibly to satisfy the competing demands to include more characters from diverse backgrounds yet avoid the unpardonable sin of presuming to write from their vantage point?

No doubt the social justice warriors would decree that fiction writing, so long a solitary pursuit, must now always be a collaborative effort, with a team of character writers standing by to offer their perspectives on a character’s true “voice” and authenticity. Or perhaps the process could be accomplished at the end of writing, by submitting draft novels to an Office of Social Justice Censorship where beady-eyed zealots who claim to speak on behalf of their entire social group go through the manuscript with a red pen, changing the author’s words and ideas to conform to some standard set in secret, behind closed doors.

You can see where the inexorable logic of these shrill demands ultimately leads: nowhere good. We either end up in a world where brilliant authors are too terrified of potential repercussions to ever pick up a pen in the first place, or one ends up with Soviet-style official “approved” art and literature, written to precise specifications in order to best glorify the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics.

As Shriver puts it:

Thus in the world of identity politics, fiction writers better be careful. If we do choose to import representatives of protected groups, special rules apply. If a character happens to be black, they have to be treated with kid gloves, and never be placed in scenes that, taken out of context, might seem disrespectful. But that’s no way to write. The burden is too great, the self-examination paralysing. The natural result of that kind of criticism in the Post is that next time I don’t use any black characters, lest they do or say anything that is short of perfectly admirable and lovely.

[..] Especially for writers from traditionally privileged demographics, the message seems to be that it’s a whole lot safer just to make all your characters from that same demographic, so you can be as hard on them as you care to be, and do with them what you like. Availing yourself of a diverse cast, you are not free; you have inadvertently invited a host of regulations upon your head, as if just having joined the EU. Use different races, ethnicities, and minority gender identities, and you are being watched.

Extra marks for the snide attack on the European Union – brilliant stuff.

As this blog has explained time and again, above all else social justice is not about fairness and equality but rather about power – specifically, the acquisition of power by the beady-eyed authoritarians who wield their weaponised victimhood and competitive tolerance as cudgels, granting them the power to determine what the rest of us can and cannot do or say. Television has already on the verge of falling to this long-running cultural siege, and the clear message coming from “progressive” reviewers in the literary community is that fiction is next.

Lionel Shriver has issued a timely warning to her fellow authors – let us hope that there is sufficient time and willpower to resist the final assault when it comes.

 

Lionel Shriver: how not to read - Do Something magazine

Safe Space Notice - 2

Top Image: Guardian, Daniel Seed

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