March 27, 2023
In January of this year, Peter Thiel gave an Oxford Union address in which he advocated a return to classical liberal education. During the Q&A, an audience member asked: “Why isn’t the right producing more great art?” The relation to education was not immediately clear, but it was a good question nonetheless. After all, many on the right think of politics as being downstream from culture, and an impressive thinker like Thiel who has been deeply involved in right-wing politics for many years was likely to have an interesting insight or two. But Thiel appeared blindsided, admitting that he didn’t have much idea.
It should not be surprising that screenplays and other literature, like most creative endeavors, are dominated by liberals and their values. In our age, artistic themes often suggest change, and change, especially social change, falls within the province of progressives. This phenomenon derives in part from an artistic ideological divergence that had become evident in the decade leading up to World War II. In 1941, George Orwell, in his essay “The Frontiers of Art and Propaganda,” wrote:
The writers who have come up since 1930 have been living in a world in which not only one’s life but one’s whole scheme of values is constantly menaced…. In a world in which Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another, any thinking person had to take sides…
After Fascism disgraced itself and Communism did not receive the equivalent scorn it deserved, the lopsided influence of the far left began to be felt in universities. In 1951, William F. Buckley urged reforms to the irreligious and collectivist values of academia in God and Man at Yale. A generation later, classics professor Allan Bloom wrote of problems with cultural value relativism in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind. Today some on the right still advocate using reasoned argument to reform academia. This may have a strong intuitive appeal, but such past attempts have failed because illiberal leftist ideology, in accordance with its own teachings, does not respect reasoned argument. The many past attempts to engage it have only resulted in greater problems for subsequent generations.
Perhaps the most pernicious result of the left’s growing generational dominance of the university system has been postmodernism, an anti-Enlightenment philosophy applied across academic disciplines that produces new graduates with new grievances every year. Postmodernism rejects innate human nature, objective truth, knowledge, reason, and the individual, replacing them with socially constructed identity groups, cultural and value relativism, ideologies, and indistinct categories. In doing so it has extended itself into unworkable nonsense. Wokeness is the application of this nonsense in real-world contexts, like publishing.
In a January 2023 article, Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, lamented the canceling in January 2020 of white author Jeanine Cummins’ book tour to promote her widely praised novel American Dirt, about Mexicans immigrating illegally to the U.S., marking this as the point where a far-left-wing woke orthodoxy had decisively established its dominance over publishing and cowed nearly all its critics. One of wokeness’ main goals is to dismantle oppressive “whiteness” by, in this instance, objecting to a white author developing characters of color because she lacked their “lived experience.” An interesting juxtaposition to this is a white male writer who confided to me that he started submitting work written from the perspectives of minority female characters, under a minority female name, and received glowing praise. (Note: White men discovered employing this literary device generally receive something other than glowing praise.)
My own experience as an online submissions editor, and as a satirist, is that of the hundreds of submissions I have read, only one satire openly mocked woke pieties, and perhaps one essay thematically contravened woke values. I had expected to see more anti-woke satire, but I suspect that the humorless atmosphere on college campuses, which many comedians have complained of for years, might explain why I have not. Woke campuses could easily be intimidating fledgling conservative writers into disarming themselves of their best weapon. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Stephen Pinker explains the power of satire:
Humor with a political or moral agenda can stealthily challenge a relational model that is second nature to an audience by forcing them to see that it leads to consequences that the rest of their minds recognize as absurd…. [T]he butts of a joke may be all too aware of the subversive power of humor. They may react with a rage that is stoked by the intentional insult to a sacred value, the deflation of their dignity, and a realization that laughter indicates common knowledge of both.
There is little reason to think that the radical leftward drift of art and the academy will abate much unless a great deal of coordinated effort is exerted to reverse it. A combined top-down and bottom-up approach is needed. In concert with legal strategies such as those ongoing in Florida—passing laws to roll back ideological capture of academia, regulating teacher certification, and withholding public funds from woke universities—government oversight bodies should be established to which students and professors can directly appeal if they are prevented from pursuing ideas in their studies, teaching or research, for which there is empirical support. I also suggest inverting woke values by brazenly building a grassroots artistic culture. Online journals that are willing to publish literature with anti-woke themes and perspectives should prominently announce this willingness on their websites’ landing pages. A central online listing of such magazines would help writers find them. These journals can establish their own presses, using online independent publishing platforms to make profits as they meet market demand. At the same time, they can convert any woke campaigns directed against them into self-promotional material—proof that they are fulfilling their artistic mission. Meanwhile conservative and classical liberal writers must generate new creative energies that draw upon the comical slumbering value-confusion that is woke morality. Perhaps they can publish as minority females and share the results…