“Yet now the Enlightenment too, like ancient thought before, finds its enduring legacy threatened by a fundamentalist competitor.”
hen a totalizing ideology begins to emerge in a broken culture—a kind of mid-decline Explainer of Everything, if you will—it cannot become dominant until it disparages and renders untouchable other ideologies that were present before it. It is not content to be one idea among many. It is The Way. Old narratives, stories, and histories, if they cannot be erased or forgotten, must be revised and co-opted to lend credibility.
When Christianity won its first emperor in 313 A.D., and from there, gradually asserted itself as The One Truth destined to defeat competing theisms, the Christians used their newfound influence to shape Roman and post-Roman Europe by aggressively attacking, distorting, and erasing pagan myth, architecture, and practice. In the late 4th century, for instance, the archbishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom led a mob to loot and destroy the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Toward the end of his life—as paganism was outlawed throughout the Byzantine Empire—this same John Chrysostom, in a celebratory tone, would repeatedly shout to his subordinate monks, “Where now is Plato? Nowhere! Where now is Paul? In the mouths of all!” Greco Roman gods and goddesses were recast as “long-forgotten saints” (with Mars becoming St. Martin, Venus becoming St. Venera, Demeter becoming St. Demetrios, etc.), and the statues of these dethroned deities were smashed with hammers and rocks. Later, Dante would appropriate Virgil for his purposes, and Aquinas would appropriate Aristotle for his. In the 14th century, Chaucer would even have “visions” of beloved pagan heroes in various states of duress admitting fealty to the one true God, who was punishing them for eternity.
For 1,700 years after the near-disappearance of paganism, Christianity—in its Catholic and Protestant forms—would dominate intellectual and artistic expression from Russia to the United Kingdom (and sporadically in Turkey and in Spain), until challenged by the Enlightenment, a movement which championed rationality over revelation and representative government over arbitrary hierarchies. The arrival of the Enlightenment in the 18th century—and the industrialization that resulted two centuries after—brought revolutions in technology, architecture, medicine, transportation, agriculture, and communication, albeit not without severe side effects. On the back of such progress came two world wars, the invention of the atom bomb, climate change, and globalization as a cultural and economic disruptor. But there is no contesting that even with these concerning events, the philosophers, inventors, and freethinkers of Europe and the American colonies ushered in vast improvements on what human life was like before them.
Yet now the Enlightenment too, like ancient thought before, finds its enduring legacy threatened by a fundamentalist competitor. At the expense of tenets ranging from individual liberty to free speech to objectivity of knowledge, popular culture has chosen to opt for a “moral clarity politics” (MCP) guided by an incoherent identitarian mish-mash of postmodernism, gender abolitionism, radical feminism, and Critical Race Theory. It is a kind of secular puritanism that sees privilege as Original Sin, diversity of opinion as heresy, microaggressions as the new profane, and, therefore, is attempting to discredit and replace all other perspectives that have come before it. For the past decade, a certain subset of radicalized students and young professionals advocating “social justice” have been attacking the history of our flawed democracies—with the same religious vigor as Chrysostom attacking the Temple of Artemis—because a new totalizing ideology is seeking to become the dominating ethical template in Western nations.
But removal and revision does not just go for history that predates MCP. The same happens also to art.
When we consider classic literature, for instance—a vast canon of novels that articulate, through fiction, the great struggles and triumphs of Western civilization and the people who have lived within, and which, in the act of reading, constitutes a kind of celebration of Western civilization—an activist for MCP could hardly find a target more ripe for subversion. New Dantes have gotten hold of new Virgils, resulting in an entire genre of what I call “counter-lit”: fictions published as an effort to “undo” the classics while reassuring and reinforcing modern sensibilities and fashionable causes.
We could begin with Albert Camus’ The Stranger, the most famous fiction of the existentialists, about a young man named Meursault living in French Algeria who—after losing his mother, and through a series of random events and quasi-sociopathic acts—winds up with his mistress at a beach getaway, where he murders an unnamed Arab man and thereafter is sentenced to death. Because authors of stories about murder typically do not write in moralizing tones, Camus’ choice to describe the Arab’s murder with ambivalence seems to be what has attracted backlash to The Stranger. Ryu Spaeth writing for The New Republic denounces Camus as “at best a compromised genius; at worst, an oppressor whose lionization has extended the colonial perspective well into the twenty-first century.” Well now. For those like Spaeth appalled at Camus’ “callous colonialism,” their anger perhaps was momentarily satiated by Kamel Daoud’s 2015 novel The Meursault Investigation: an inverted revisitation of Meursault’s crime from the point of view of the Arab man’s brother, Harun, who—in condemning Meursault’s deed—indicts the entirety of French colonialism. “An inspired twist, entirely obvious in hindsight, but also revelatory in its way. Daoud is saying that Camus’ entire posture grows out of privilege,” a Los Angeles Times reviewer beams.
Moving on to Homer’s Odyssey—an epic detailing the warrior-king Odysseus’ ten-year journey back to his wife and son in Ithaca—modern critics complain the ancient account is degrading in its portrayal of women—particularly Circe and Calypso as infatuated island nymphs, Athena as an errand girl, Antiope as the mere object of a god’s affection, and Penelope as a prize horse. But not to worry! At last comes a response to Homer’s sexism! And 3,000 years later no less! Enter Madeline Miller’s 2018 novel Circe, a new version of a small portion of the Odyssey that centers the divine mistress of Odysseus rather than Odysseus himself. In this “revisitation” (as the author calls it), Odysseus is portrayed as an arrogant charlatan who first woos Circe, and then victimizes her by leaving her island when the fling has run its course (“Humbling women seems to be the chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep,” our heroine notes in a Chapter 16 feminist diatribe that rivals any thread on Twitter). In interviews, Miller is unabashed in her belief that “male-centric” mythology is an unacceptable relic post-#MeToo and that not only can canon works considered foundational to our civilization be “challenged” but also that people living today have a moral responsibility to challenge them. She is by no means alone. “Miller’s lush, gold-lit novel told from the perspective of the witch…paints another picture of Homer’s Odyssey: of a fierce goddess who, yes, turns men into pigs, but only because they deserve it,” writes Annalisa Quinn for NPR. In a review headline reminiscent of Soviet phraseology, Public Books magazine calls Circe a “literary corrective.”
On top of this revisionist trend that, if not alarming, is at the very least annoying, large portions of the Western canon are being banned in schools and libraries by legislators and boards at the same time their “sequels” are shelved in their place. In recent years, both The Odyssey and The Stranger have been identified as prime volumes for removal, along with —of course—Huckleberry Finn due to Mark Twain’s use of racial slurs and stereotypes (while Huckleberry Finn’s MCP counterpart, Norman Lock’s The Boy In His Winter, is celebrated as “a treatise on memory and time and the nature of storytelling and our collective national conscience”). Other classics that have been banned within the last year include To Kill A Mockingbird (over racism concerns), The Great Gatsby (it centers “the white male gaze”), and Of Mice and Men (racism and offensive language). Look for their “retellings” to grace bookstore shelves within the year. But perhaps the most egregious occurrence has been the decision made by Princeton University last month to remove the classics as a departmental track, along with its Greek and Latin requirements, due to protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd last summer. What, exactly, the poetry of Horace or the speeches of Cicero have to do with a Minnesota police officer kneeling on a man’s neck I suppose better minds than mine have discerned.
It should come as no surprise that activists for MCP, with their Internet-slogany commitments to “clap back” and “do better,” have attempted to expunge classical demons not only in writing but also in film.
The detective dreamt by Arthur Conan Doyle gets a shakeup in 2020’s Enola Holmes, which opens with the lines, I kid you not, “The first thing you need to know is that my mother named me ‘Enola.’ In fact, she insisted on it. And ‘Enola’ spelled backwards is ‘Alone.’ She would continually tell me ‘You’ll do very well on your own, Enola.’ My father died when I was young. I don’t really remember him. And both my brothers left home soon after. I barely remember them either. So then it was just me and mom, and it was wonderful!” No men. Alone good. Got it. “She was no ordinary mother,” Ordinary mother? “She didn’t teach me to string seashells or practice my embroidery. We did different things. Reading, science, sports, all sorts of exercise.” Laying aside the broader division Enola Holmes makes between “ordinary moms” and “empowering girlboss moms,” the film’s insulting historical perspective appears to be that 19th century motherhood meant wanting nothing more for your daughter than to learn how to “string seashells and practice embroidery.” Imagine—just imagine— traveling back in time to 1880 to ask a woman condescending questions about her parenting: “cAn YoUr DaUgHtEr ReAd? dOeS sHe ExErCiSe?”
The makers of Enola were perhaps encouraged in their attempt by a much bolder revision that took place in the previous year, 2018’s Mary Magdalene—a twist to the gospel account where walking on water and feeding the 5,000 fade to the background, while “toxic masculinity” and misogyny take center stage. “She is one of the most transformative yet misunderstood women in history, alternately vilified as a sinner and canonized as a saint,” the AppleTV description tells us, “In the first century A.D., the free-spirited Mary flees the marriage her family has arranged for her, finding refuge and a sense of purpose in a radical new movement led by the charismatic rabble-rousing preacher Jesus. The sole woman among his band of disciples, Mary defies the prejudices of a patriarchal society as she undergoes a profound spiritual awakening.” This culminates in a scene when—soon after Jesus’ death—as Peter tells the ten it is now their responsibility to spread their master’s message, Mary replies “Not his message. Yours.” Bam! Viewers are amazed to find that the sharp feminist rejoinder was going strong even in first century Judea. But that is just it. The movie is Mary Magdalene, with Jesus as a supporting character and the apostles as her mansplaining foils. Even a tale of God becoming human and defeating death must come second to the more powerful story of a woman becoming fiercely independent against the will of patriarchy. It is all just empty pink palette ra-ra ideological bean-flicking in front of a mirror.
Of course, awkward insertion of MCP into old stories is not limited to modern feminism. Racial justice grabs the spotlight in Channel 5’s Anne Boleyn, whom producers announced last October would be portrayed by Jodie Turner-Smith, a black British actress. “Predictably, racists are losing their heads over it,” writes The Guardian’s Arwa Mahdawi (in what I imagine to be the tone of a bratty teenager). Truth be told, I could care less about who plays Anne Boleyn. Really. A wholly unremarkable noblewoman plucked from obscurity by a bloated horny tyrant, it is a wonder she gets played much at all. But when asked about why a black actress was chosen for a queen who historically was whiter than Ivory soap, the response inevitably will be that it was done to improve “equity and diversity” in casting, and that is double standard horses—. None of us are holding our breath for Gerard Butler as Nelson Mandela or Woody Harrelson as Martin Luther King Jr. (“Yawl I got a dream”), and, in fact, a host of examples abound where light-skinned celebrities have forfeited “darker” roles due to pressure from the very same activists who applaud the casting for Boleyn while wielding the charge of “whitewashing” like a heading ax.
To be clear, my main issue is not that these new books and movies are propaganda. On the contrary, one can appreciate agenda-driven art if it is not so hamfisted. Clever propaganda is still clever. Propaganda that has the capacity to be universally emotionally moving can still be applauded. Well-constructed propaganda that attempts to care about the story just a tad more than the underlying message can still be admired for the complexity of its scheme. 1943’s Casablanca is propaganda. Lana Del Rey’s “Chemtrails Over The Country Club” is propaganda. Children’s entertainment from Superman and Captain America to VeggieTales is propaganda. To recall my mention of Chaucer’s “visions” in the beginning, what I neglected to say was that they are enchanting, creative, beautifully written. Chaucer’s propaganda is a pleasure to read.
But hamfisted propaganda is discarded as quickly as it deserves to be.
Nobody listens to the old radio recordings of Tokyo Rose. Nobody reads the pamphlets penned by the prohibitionists. Nobody today is watching God’s Not Dead, or Nancy Reagan’s anti-drug commercials, or pre-Iraq War episodes of JAG.
One might still ask: “But how do you know you are not just being reactionary and sentimental? Why isn’t the art produced by ‘moral clarity politics’ just an organic outpouring of marginalized perspectives that before were suppressed by white male supremacy?”
Well, first off, because the narrative of a publishing, film, and sports industry hellbent on suppressing female and minority talent all the way up until the mid-2010s is outright nonsense. From the 1960s to the 2000s, there has been an abundance of art produced by, about, and for women and people of color, from the poetry of Langston Hughes and novels of Toni Morrison, to the athletic stardom of Wilma Rudolph and Serena Williams, to the diverse lifestyles and ethnicities of Disney princesses like Mulan and Pocahontas presented to children all over the world. The most-watched American television shows of the 1970s and 80s were all female-led, including Golden Girls, Designing Women, Charlie’s Angels, The Facts Of Life, Mary Tyler Moore, Roseanne, and Maude. Some of the bestselling fiction books of the 1990s were also written by women, including Bridget Jones Diary, The Secret History, We Were The Mulvaneys, Girl With A Pearl Earring, and The Deep End Of The Ocean. The same goes for music in the 2000s. Of the many artists and bands ranked in the top ten of the Billboard 200 (meaning most sold albums of the decade), all were either women, minorities, or both with the exception of Nickelback and Eminem. Suppression? Really? “Marginalized”? Second, and more to the point, organic cultural and artistic uprisings are far more subtle and unfold over longer periods of time, generally only becoming recognizable a decade or two after the fact. On the other hand, orchestrated or semi-orchestrated “uprisings” are rolled out very quickly and are felt by many as being what they are…forced. Agenda-driven messaging “being nowhere yesterday and everywhere all at once today” feels anything but organic.
Third and finally, to believe that women and minorities—up until this point—have been suppressed by a white male supremacist culture depends upon a willful forgetting of the past for those who lived it. And not only a willful forgetting but, rather, a willingness to misrepresent deliberately what the last few decades were like to those not born yet or those too young to remember. The image of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a sort of black nihilist prophet revealing white America’s ugly truths depends upon the forgetting of James Baldwin. The accusation that white America is unwilling to confront racism depends upon our forgetting that memorable films which center around the subject have been made every decade: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner in the 1960s, Roots in the 1970s, Mississippi Burning in the 1980s, American History X in the 1990s, and Remember The Titans in the 2000s (all of which—every single one—were blockbusters at the time of their release).
The newly-minted myth of widespread anti-Asian bigotry depends upon us forgetting the fact that Asians are at the top of the United States’ income and education statistics. The widely-disseminated tale that it is difficult for women to make it in the entertainment industry depends upon our forgetting iconic female actors and comedians like Carol Burnett, Audrey Hepburn, Gilda Radner, and Julie Andrews, along with writers like Harper Lee, Zora Neale Hurston, and Joan Didion. The whole premise of women and minorities only just now claiming their place in an America (and Europe) that until recently has been dominated by boorish Caucasian men is so absurd—and requires such a high level of denial about just how much moral progress we have made over the last half century—that one truly has to be younger than 25 to buy it. Everyone else is pressured to go along and pretend. But why? To what end?
Perhaps a better question to ask is whether we will even be talking about any of these books and films sympathetic to “wokeness” in 20 years’ time. I suppose this depends upon the success of the ideology entrenching itself in institutions long-term, as well as how influential the culture of the empire in which it has taken root will be long after that empire has fallen. We are, after all, still discussing the writings of Dante, arguably more than the writings of Virgil on their own, centuries after the collapse of both Florence and Rome. We are still talking about Aristotle’s concept of motion on Aquinas’ terms. But the optimist in me has its doubts about Circe outlasting the Odyssey, and Daoud is no Camus.
Race Hochdorf is a Jewish-American writer. He can be found on Instagram at writer_racehochdorf, and his personal website is www.racehochdorf.com.