In his latest G-File, Jonah Goldberg writes, “back in the ’80s and ’90s, the whole point of subsidizing art was to pay for stuff that offended, shocked, and stretched the boundaries (and, occasionally, sphincters) of society:”
As is almost always the case, what this actually meant was that it must shock the right kinds of people: bourgeois fuddy-duddies and fusspots, squares, and scriveners, men in gray flannel suits and bible-thumpers of all sorts.
Many on the left still like doing that, of course. But there’s a problem. It turns out that there are lots of people who are even more shockable than white, Christian men and the women who love them. After so many years of the Left focusing on making Uptighty-Whitey blush, social conservatives have grown a pretty thick skin about such mockery. Meanwhile the same feminists who clapped with glee as Karen Finley rubbed chocolate-qua-feces over her body to symbolize the way women are treated — and rushed to her defense when she sued the federal government to pay her to do it — don’t much like it when anybody else says things they don’t like. And unlike conservatives, mainstream liberals have rice-paper thin skin about such things, which is why some think Joss Whedon fled Twitter this week.
(When Finley and the “NEA Four” lost their lawsuit at the Supreme Court, Justice Scalia wrote: “Avant-garde artistes such as respondents remain entirely free to épater les bourgeois; they are merely deprived of the additional satisfaction of having the bourgeoisie taxed to pay for it.” This proved yet again that Scalia is a hoss.)
The notion that certain anointed people have a right not to be offended has spread with the ineluctable logic of a cancer cell. One need only look at the reception Christina Hoff Sommers gets on college campuses to appreciate how times have changed. She gets bodyguards to protect her from physical attacks while the delicate little flowers get “safe spaces” where they are protected from words — facts, actually — they do not like.
This is all of a piece with the canard that liberals are in any meaningful sense libertarian. They are for freedoms that align with their preferred cultural and social norms — and fads — and they are for coercion or scorn for everything else. Right-wing means non-compliance and non-compliance is “hate,” and no one has the right to hate. Épater la bourgeoisie is so great it must be funded. But épater les féministes or épater les grifters raciales or — heaven forbid — épater les musulmans radicaux not only must not be funded, it must be banned outright. It’s free speech for me and “shut up, racist” for thee.
As Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller once wrote, “Back in 1999 — on the cusp of George W. Bush’s presidency, and as Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress — conservative leader Paul Weyrich issued a controversial open letter declaring that conservatives ‘probably have lost the culture war.'”
And in many ways Weyrich, who passed away in late 2008, was right — the left did win the culture war; so much now is merely a mop-up action after the big battles have been fought. But that’s the problem with winning: the ideological group that held themselves out as radicals and avant-garde (and they were — a century ago) are now the garde, and as such, bourgeois themselves. (Or bourgeois-bohemians, if you prefer David Brooks’ analogy. But the modern left are far more bourgeois* than they want to admit.)
Which is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned at the start of the year, the Left is slowly devouring itself. The simultaneous drive to épater les bourgeois and dive for the fainting couch after every minor offense and burn all the heretics cannot hold forever.
* And far less intellectual, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.