The Pro-EU Artistic Bubble Goes From Pitiful To Sinister

Act for Democracy - artists European Union bias propaganda

European artists prepare to “act for democracy” by deploying their talents to subvert democracy in the service of European political union

Having been spat out of the British educational system knowing virtually nothing of history, classical music came to serve as the primary window through which I discovered nearly everything I now know, love or am fascinated about culture, art and history.

For instance, after discovering the music of Dmitri Shostakovich and learning about the composer’s life working under threat from the Soviet state, I came to appreciate with horror the inevitable toll taken by authoritarian communist governments on the psyche and artistic output of composers striving (under orders) to produce works reflective of socialist realism. Indeed, knowing its history, who can listen to the opening Nocturne from Shostakovich’s first violin concerto and not feel a chill reflecting on the circumstances in which it was written, and then suppressed until the death of Joseph Stalin?

Perhaps naively, from then onward I always believed that a healthy artistic community was one which kept government firmly at arm’s length, which at its best sought to challenge prevailing dogmas and policies, or at the very least refrained from acting as a willing shill, promoting establishment doctrine. Though more democratic countries have also blurred the line between artistic expression and government policy – one might think of the Public Works of Art project during depression-era America – participation is typically voluntary and the messages generally far less scripted.

How wrong I was. It should be evident to anyone with a functioning neocortex that the contemporary artistic community in Britain in particular (and the West more generally) long ago gave up any desire to seek truth or offend establishment sensibilities, opting instead for fawning repetition of modern centrist orthodoxy and acts of ostentatious virtue-signalling intended to flaunt an artist’s holding of the “correct” views. Witness superstar Lorde’s oh-so right-on cancellation of her concerts in Israel and call for a cultural boycott (while happily continuing to perform in other countries such as Russia). Even so recently as the 1980s, major stars were willing to court controversy or take a stand against official policy – witness Paul Simon’s concerts in apartheid-era South Africa – but such independence of mind seems almost entirely absent from today’s artists.

Indeed, since country group The Dixie Chicks torpedoed their career by denouncing the Iraq War during a London concert, later issuing an humiliating apology under duress, few artists (popular or otherwise) have dared give voice to any heterodox opinion they may hold. When it comes to finding pop or rock stars willing to say kind things about Brexit, one has to turn to 1970s icons such as Morrissey or Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon – the younger generation of stars either subscribe to the holding-hands-beneath-a-rainbow view of enforced European political union or else maintain a fearful silence.

While the instinctive pro-EU bias within the arts world is well known, what still retains capacity to shock is the proactive willingness of some artists to proactively praise and promote the nascent European government. The European Union has form when it comes to holding competitions or doling out grants and awards contingent on the creation or performance of works of art flattering to its own self-image; that much is nothing new. However, we reach a new level of fawning servility when artists arrange the production of tributes to the EU of their own accord and with no direct financial inducement. Yet this is precisely what we are now witnessing:

An open call for ideas to re-brand the European Union has been issued by artist Wolfgang Tillmans and architect Rem Koolhaas. ‘The brief is to send us proposals for communicating the advantages of cooperation and friendship amongst people and nations,’ they write, adding: ‘We need messages, how the Union works and how life would be without it. And we need ideas how to challenge the organisation itself, how to make it better.’

Vocal pro-EU advocates Koolhaas and Tillmans are part of the group Eurolab which is participating in a four-day forum titled ‘Act for Democracy!’ taking place in Amsterdam from 31 May – 3 June: ‘Eurolab is a fact-finding mission of what went well and what went wrong in the last 25 years of communicating Europe’ their statement says.

‘Eurolab wants to collect ideas about how cooperation and solidarity can be spoken for in a fresh and compelling way to large audiences. How can the European Union be valued by its citizens and be recognized as a force for good, rather than as a faceless bureaucracy?’

If I were an artist, I would be ashamed to be associated with such tedious, worshipful bilge – not because it is supportive of the EU, but because the reasoning behind it is so dreadfully unoriginal and derived purely from well-worn establishment political talking points. Like the centrist politicians in Britain and the EU who were shocked by Brexit’s disruption of their normally-unchallenged worldview and smoothly planned-out pathway toward deeper political integration, so these artists think that the only problem with the European Union is a lack of effective branding.

They begin by regurgitating the asinine notion that opposition to the European Union inevitably means a rejection of the very idea of “cooperation and friendship amongst people”, which is as insulting as it is moronic. They go on to express a desire for more messaging about how the EU works, which is ironic since an understanding of the EU institutions and the history behind the push for ever-closer union is quite closely correlated with a healthy dislike of the entire project. Of course there is the obligatory throwaway line about challenging the EU to be better, but it is very clear from the project brief that its originators see public dissatisfaction with the EU as a function not of a flawed project or horrendously antidemocratic execution, but rather an ignorant, benighted population who lamentably fail to realise what a wonderful blessing the EU really is.

This is why pro-EU forces have utterly failed to regain the initiative in Britain and elsewhere – they are so utterly divorced from the broad stream of EU-agnostic sentiment within their countries that they truly believe that those who dislike the institutions of Brussels also reject the human values of cooperation and solidarity. Worse, they are so politically tone-deaf that they admit this publicly, seemingly without any idea how insulting it is to Brexit supporters and other opponents of the EU (and deleterious to their own goal of winning over public support).

The project’s sponsors are involved in the risibly-titled project “Act for Democracy!“, part of the Forum on European Culture, which seeks less to celebrate the rich cultural heritage of the various countries of Europe than invent ever-more tortured ways of pressing art into the service of agitating for continental political union.

The event’s programme includes such gems as:

A 4-day Eurolab during which initiators Wolfgang TillmansRem Koolhaas and Stephan Petermann will make a start to rebrand Europe.

A unique Spoken Beat Concert with two artists from across the Channel: Madi Maxwell-Libby & Jacob Sam-La Rose.

Debate programmes in which we come to the core of populism across Europe. With among others Jan-Werner MüllerUlrike Guerot and Flavia Kleiner

The centrepiece of the whole event seems to be a symposium laughably called “An Independent Mind” in which exclusively pro-EU essays are discussed and celebrated ad nauseam.

A more saccharine, groupthink-infused circle-jerk you could not imagine. These creative types are gathering with pre-ordained conclusions in mind, based on the crudest and most insulting caricatures of their opponents, with the plan of using their diverse talents in service of a childishly naive conception of what the EU actually is and what it represents.

But all of that is fine compared to the fact that they are gathering under the banner of supporting democracy when in fact their entire movement is an upper middle-class, elitist howl of outrage at popular disillusionment with the European project. They are effectively adopting the classic Karl Rove-ian tactic – where George W. Bush’s hatchet man guided his candidate to success by successfully accusing W’s opponents of his own glaring weaknesses, these pro-EU artists do the inverse, claiming possession of the very virtue (support for democracy) which they are desperately seeking to corrupt.

Particularly disconcerting is the self-chastising tone of the project’s announcement, in which Tillmans and Koolhaas come close to outright suggesting that it is A) the job of artists to serve as organs of the state and that B) they failed in that duty by proselytising for European political union with insufficient vigor.

This resembles nothing so much as the fawning forced apology given by Shostakovich following the communist party’s denunciation of his opera “Lady Macbeth”, entitled “A Soviet Artist’s Response To Justified Criticism”, with one key exception – nobody is making these artists do anything. They choose to exalt the supranational European government they so adore of their own volition. How much more debased is this?

More fundamentally – do artists have a responsibility to speak truth to power as a cacophany of different voices questioning the existing orthodoxy, or to cheerlead for the status quo? Should they produce works of art or sleazy government commercials? Tillmans and Koolhaas make their position quite clear:

In workshops and interview sessions we aim to compile a comprehensive toolbox of arguments, strategies, and ideas that can be applied to campaigns across different demographics and used by different professional groups (e.g. ‘Teachers for Europe’ ‘Scientists for Europe’ ‘Farmers for Europe’).

This is literally a project to brainstorm and create propaganda. What self-respecting artist talks of their work process as one of creating “toolboxes” and “strategies” for the use of astroturf political campaign groups? None. This is the language of marketing professionals or management consultants, not aesthetes or artisans.

Yet while these die-hard activists may not yet represent the broader artistic community, with vanishingly few exceptions (see the heretical new group Artists for Brexit) they all share the same unthinking, instinctive pro-EU impulse. The difference between your average pro-EU orchestral conductor, pop singer or modern artist and the people who will shortly be assembling in Amsterdam to create pro-Brussels communications strategies is one of degree, not kind.

If European artists want to deploy their talents to promote supranational government then it is their prerogative. I may find it distasteful, but it is certainly well within their rights. What is upsetting is the lack of fresh, critical thinking they seem to bring to bear to the question of European political union, instead either parroting simplistic pro-EU political talking points or else challenging themselves to come up with their own propaganda pieces.

And I can’t help thinking that legions of brave artists whose works were suppressed and lives disrupted because of an unhealthily close relationship between arts and government throughout history are turning over in their graves at the willingness of their latter-day colleagues to do this work of glorification unbidden and uncoerced.

 

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What European Identity? Part 2 – Classical Music Edition

European Union Youth Orchestra

How can we possibly continue to enjoy Beethoven or watch touring European orchestras perform in evil, isolationist Brexit Britain?

Today’s Peak Guardian article is an account of an interview recently given by the legendary pianist/conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy to the Observer newspaper, in which Ashkenazy urges classical musicians to “keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit”.

A distilled summary of the Guardian’s breathless spin: Brexit gravely threatens Britain’s continued participation in the international arts and culture scene, but if enough brave musicians come together in a spirit of cooperation then it may be possible to ride out the gravest threat to Europe since World War 2 and the Cold War.

From the piece:

Vladimir Ashkenazy, one of the most revered figures in classical music, has called on musicians to strive to keep up British links with Europe in the face of Brexit. The great Russian conductor and pianist, who made his name as a soloist in the 1960s and 70s, spoke passionately to the Observer about his continued faith in European culture.

“Music will win in the end,” he said, speaking publicly on the subject for the first time. “After all, music is not just an exercise in making sounds. It is a reflection of our joint spiritual endeavours.”

Comparing Britain’s impending split with Europe to other political schisms of the 20th century, such as the rise of fascism and the cold war, Ashkenazy, 79, said he was optimistic that those who love making music together will find a way to keep connections going across the Channel. “I am sorry about it, and I know it will be difficult to get used to a totally different situation, but for musicians many things will remain the same, simply because we will work to find a way to make agreements for the sake of music,” he said.

Many British classical musicians expect Brexit to set up new travel barriers and present fresh difficulties for orchestras receiving EU funding. The potential threat to free travel for working musicians has already prompted the European Union Baroque Orchestra to announce a move to Belgium this summer. It has been based in Oxfordshire since 1985. Meanwhile, the well-regarded European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is considering a move to the continent after 40 years in Britain.

Of course, this feeds nicely into the Guardian’s (and the entire British metro-Left’s) little conceit that by extricating ourselves from a dysfunctional and failing supranational political union we are also somehow hacking away at the cultural and historical ties which bind us to the continent, and so naturally they seize on the Ashkenazy interview as a perfect example of how enlightened artists can help to save Britain from the brutish and self-destructive decision made by the Evil 52%.

Now, Vladimir Ashkenazy is not particularly to blame for any of this. If you want somebody to play a Rachmaninov prelude in such a dazzling way that it makes your hair stand on end and brings a lump to your throat then Ashkenazy is your very man. If, however, you want somebody to give you a good overview of geopolitics and assess the relative failings and merits of the European Union, then you are probably better off turning to someone else. So the point is not that Ashkenazy is wrong (and even he is generous enough to admit that Brexit is slightly less evil than Soviet communism, which is very kind) – that much is entirely forgivable, given that he is operating far from his natural competencies.

No, the problem is the entirely predictable way that the Guardian picks up this narrative and unquestioningly burnishes and amplifies it without stopping even for a moment to consider the validity of the point being made. Where they could take a step back and actually seek to educate their readers about a whole bunch of issues touching on this story, instead they strut and pose and play to the gallery, feeding them the self-affirming story that they expect rather than the hard dose of reality that they might actually benefit from hearing.

The Guardian could have dwelled for a moment on exactly why cross-border co-operation in classical music is supposedly imperilled by Brexit (giving more concrete examples than the unspoken and unprovable suggestion that Britain would deliberately make it harder for talented musicians to tour or work here). But instead, they uncritically write about how musicians will bravely “find a way to keep connections going across the Channel” without stopping for a moment to consider the fact that British orchestras and ensembles tour numerous non-EU countries in the world without the protective shelter of political union, while many non-European ensembles somehow make it to the BBC Proms and give numerous other performances in Britain despite their musicians lacking EU passports.

But the ulterior motive soon becomes clear when the article bemoans the relocation of the European Union Baroque Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra, two EU propaganda outlets funded by taxpayers to instil in us a sense of European identity which still stubbornly fails to materialise. In London, with so many preeminent ensembles already located here, did we ever really need these two explicitly political additions to our cultural scene? No, of course not – and the Guardian’s duplicitous attempts to upgrade these obscure ensembles to “major orchestra” status is straining the boundary of journalistic integrity. Their sole purpose was to indoctrinate the young and cause us to associate the European Union with benevolent funding of the arts rather than their tawdry, relentless attacks the nation state.

(The EU Baroque Orchestra has a slightly more successful legacy of seeding other baroque ensembles with past alumni, work which can continue in their new Belgian home.)

None of this is to deny the value of youth orchestras – I was a member of one myself for several years, and greatly enjoyed the opportunities for performance and collaboration that it afforded me – but the EU’s propaganda outlets are neither central to the British classical music scene nor an essential bridge to Europe. Take them away and nothing really changes.

Compare the EU’s musical propaganda outlets with a far more worthy exercise in cross-cultural bridge-building, Daniel Barenboim’s West–Eastern Divan Orchestra, and I know which I would rather preserve – the one which seeks to promote peace and cross-cultural understanding in the turbulent Middle East, not the one which uses European taxpayer funds to shore up a creaking, failing 1950s regional super-bloc.

The United States, by contrast, does not need to keep itself together by funnelling federal money into youth orchestras in a desperate attempt to inculcate a sense of American-ness. And while many pertinent criticisms can be made about funding of the arts in America, it must also be acknowledged that many of the finest ensembles and artistic companies in the world – the Metropolitan Opera, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics, the New York City Ballet, as well as the feeder schools, companies and institutions which mould the next generation of artists – are based in the United States and do not have to suckle at the teat of taxpayer funding in order to survive.

When government does not try to do everything, private initiative and private philanthropy are often able to step in to do the job far more successfully and lavishly. They need only be given the space to do so – but the EU has no interest in getting out of the way and allowing the arts to flourish on their own, because then the results would not bear the imprimatur of Brussels and thus would have zero propaganda value.

Is the threat posed by Brexit to the European Union Youth Orchestra a good reason to scrap the whole endeavour and remain part of the EU? Of course not.

Has the European Union Youth Orchestra done anything to meaningfully shift the sense of European identity among those who are not directly involved, or the misty-eyed eurocrats who profaned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by co-opting the final movement as their anthem? No.

Does Britain’s departure from an explicitly political union necessarily or inevitably mean that artistic links between the United Kingdom and the continent must be weakened? No – or at least, the Guardian have given us no good cause to believe that there is a danger.

(Incidentally, Vladimir Ashkenazy himself lives in Switzerland, which is also famously not a member of the European Union, and yet seems to be able to maintain a fruitful international career including many concerts and residencies in Britain).

The whole Guardian article hangs together only if one is content to take the most superficial view of Brexit, skating around on the thin ice of metro-left shibboleths about how international cooperation and peace only exist thanks to the benevolent hand of Brussels. To take the threats spun from the Ashkenazy interview seriously, one must actually drink the Remainer Kool-Aid and believe that Brexit means isolationism, and in all its forms – economic, social, cultural. To be that cretinous, one must be an unapologetic bubble dweller, proud and stubborn in one’s ignorance of the opposing side.

But then that’s the Guardian for you: a newspaper tailor-made for poseurs who believe (or at least want to signal to their friends) that they already know and understand the nuances of every issue, and that the One True Way just conveniently happens to lean in the same stridently left-wing, pro-EU direction as their pre-existing beliefs.

Among Guardian journalists and readers alike there is zero intellectual appetite to actually get under the hood of any issue and talk about the meaning of democracy and self-determination, whether state funding or private philanthropy does a better job of funding the arts or any other substantial question that is ripe for debate. They just want to take a glib headline and serve it up as red meat to their metro-left, superficially culturally literate peer group (see last year’s uncritical, months-long homage to the NHS).

And so what could have been a useful jumping-off point for a real discussion about the future of the fine arts, the best way to foster cross-border co-operation and whether existing mechanisms of funding are a) effective, and b) a good use of taxpayer funds instead becomes just another wobbly-lipped ode to the Brave Artists Resisting Evil Brexit.

The only result of this “journalism” is that everyone is left slightly more attached to their pre-existing bias, while the opportunity to enrich the public discourse is squandered in favour of yet more left-wing, pro-EU virtue-signalling and alarmist Brexit catastrophisation.

Mission accomplished once again, Guardian. Great job.

 

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Quote For The Day

From Conor Friedersdorf’s excellent interview of writer and professor David Hillel Gelernter:

Everyone knows that we live in politically superheated times; partisanship feels more bitter and more personal than it ever has in my lifetime.

There are many reasons, but here is one: we all know that faith in the Judeo-Christian religions is dramatically weaker than it used to be. But human beings are religious animals, and most will find an alternative if the conventional choices are gone.

The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology. But a citizen with faith in a political position, instead of rational belief, is a potential disaster for democracy. A religious believer can rarely be argued out of his faith in any ordinary conversational give-and-take. His personality is more likely to be wrapped up with his religion than with any mere political program. When a person’s religion is attacked, he’s more likely to take it personally and dislike (or even hate) the attacker than he is in the case of mere political attacks or arguments. Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way.

Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art.

Think of the extraordinary blaze-up of art in America in the postwar years, especially the 1950s and first half of the ‘60s: painting above all; choreography in New York (Balanchine, Robbins, the American Ballet Theater, the Joffrey and other regional companies); serious music, led by Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts broadcast  nationwide by CBS; intense interest in new American novelists; Frost; the Americanized Auden, Eliot and Delmore Schwartz; the great quartet of European masters as seen from the US: Picasso and Matisse, Giacometti and Chagall; the European film as an art form (Swedish, Italian and French––Hitchcock’s Birds, for that matter, opened in the early ‘60s at MOMA); in the architecture of the Americans Wright and Kahn and Eero Saarinen, and the Europeans Mies and Corbu and Gropius; in the design of the Eames studio, in the museum show as an event, in drama and the Actor’s Studio; art-books, magazines, posters, high-fidelity audio, Lincoln Center, the Dick van Dyke show; a situation comedy with frequent episodes about the theater, galleries, art films–and on and on.

An astonishing era.

Among much else, it helped politics go down easier. (Only a little easier; but every bit helped.)  Other things did too, of course; and art, as always, was its own reward. But we miss something if we don’t see how the religion of art took pressure off politics.

Nowadays it’s mostly gone. But it doesn’t have to be. Art itself is the reason to bring art back to center stage. But some of the merely incidental benefits might be enormous.

My emphasis in bold.

There is a bucketload of truth in this statement. As anyone who has tried to engage your average pro or anti-Trump or Brexit activist in conversation or debate about politics will attest, reasoned discussion is hard to come by, precisely because faith is now vested in political tribes rather than God. In fact, the politically neutral (or those who refuse to see Donald Trump as either Saint Ronald Reagan 2.0 or Hitler Reborn, Brexit as an unadulterated good or an unprecedented disaster) tend to have the hardest time of all – the new atheists and agnostics.

Partisans on either side are increasingly being defriended, blocked or ignored in the real world by those incapable of making the leap of empathy required to understand or forgive a vote for the opposing side. But agnostics and those in the middle face the ire of both sides, incredulous that they can neither see the self-evident worth of the “right” side or the existential danger of the “wrong” side.

It is worse now than it was a decade ago under the George W. Bush administration, and by all accounts it was worse then than it was before under Clinton, Bush senior or Reagan.

Most analysis of this phenomenon of polarisation and mutual incomprehension had focused on the impact that the internet and social media have had on our political discourse, and many of these discussions are valid. But Gelernter takes a different approach and reveals another, more sociological explanation for the current toxic atmosphere – one made all the more profound because of what it says about humanity rather than the technology we now use.

And who can deny Gelernter’s point? As religion and faith have receded, something has indeed taken its place. But it is no longer art, or that wonderful flourishing of high culture that the West saw in the 1950s and 60s. Now it is often decidedly low culture and politics which we elevate above all else – and particularly, for many people, the divisive and grievance-laden politics of identity and victimhood.

But I would add that science also helped to cushion what Gelernter calls the “collapse of religion”. Humanity was inspired by the space race and the Apollo Program – “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard” – and great shared human endeavours such as these. But humanity has not lifted its gaze above low earth orbit since 1972, and while other technological breakthroughs such as the mobile computing and the internet have revolutionised our lives, they have on balance tended to fuel the individualist and consumerist aspects of our society rather than the collective and the communal, let alone the spiritual.*

What is becoming manifestly clear is that we need something – be it a new flourishing of art (as Gelernter desires) or a great scientific or technological challenge – to help us once again lift our eyes above our own selves, circumstances and identity groups. More than a few political activists together in a room tend to quickly become insufferable. A whole society comprised entirely of such activists would be so much worse, as we are now starting to discover.

We need a common challenge or faith – whether it is a rekindling of the gentle patriotism spoken of by Andrew Sullivan or a tangible project of some kind – to remind us that we are more than the sum of our political opinions. And this means we need political leaders who dare to demand something of us rather than flatter us and promise us bountiful riches for no effort.

And so this blog asks again: set us a challenge.

 

*In Britain, mindless worship of the National Health Service – as exhibited today by more than 200,000 people who marched through central London in support of the NHS, demanding that more taxpayer money be shovelled into a healthcare system they venerate and claim to be the “envy of the world” despite the awkward fact that no other country has tried to replicate the NHS and many succeed in delivering better healthcare outcomes – has become the closest we have to a national religion. And while this might certainly count as blind faith or religious fervour, it does nothing meaningful to bring us together as a society.

 

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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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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

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