The phrase “culture wars” has been popcorning to the surface of the cultural landscape lately, the renewal of a trope from the late eighties and early nineties. Many people are perceiving a re-emergence of the eighties/nineties culture wars, in which art—especially art depicting homosexuality and/or religious images and artifacts—provides the setting for combat over freedom of expression. But I see it as a booster shot. First, what’s happening; then, what it seems to mean.
For starters, here’s a short piece on the subject by Raymond J. Learsy, a former commodities trader appointed to the National Council on the Arts by President Reagan—not exactly a flaming radical.
Learsy highlights two incidents that have lately captured attention, most notably the withdrawal from the National Portrait Gallery of a work on AIDS by David Wojnarowicz, following on protests by Bill Donohue, president of the U.S. Catholic League (heretofore notable for his role in the “War on Christmas” campaign, which I wrote about in 2005). For background (including the work itself, which is very hard to watch, and emphatically not for the faint-hearted), and contact information for the National Portrait Gallery Director who succumbed to pressure to withdraw the work, see this open letter from Jenn Sichel, who worked on the show in question, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” And here’s a joint statement of protest by the National Coalition Against Censorship and a dozen other organizations.
Signs of cultural combat are gathering. Recently, I was interviewed by a young filmmaker who is exploring exactly this topic—culture wars revisited—and every week brings a flurry of new entreaties to pay attention and to protest. But I’m not sure we’re in for a full-fledged engagement this time. I tend to think of the question in medical terms. You know how an inoculation works? In effect, it wards off an all-out disease attack by administering a pre-emptive dose, delivering a large impact with a small gesture.
When I look back at U.S. cultural history, I see a chain of inoculations against free expression. Start 60 years ago, with the McCarthy era, or wind the clock back 300 years to the Salem witch trials, but in whichever period you choose, you will see it. From time to time, censors sound an alarm, promising punishment to those whose expressions they find offensive. In Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, Hollywood was a main target, but many other artists, writers, and other intellectuals suffered the loss of livelihood or freedom, and some were forced into exile. In the eighties/nineties culture wars, Hollywood shared the limelight, but the starring roles went to a handful of advanced artists who’d received tiny NEA grants.
For inoculation purposes, the particular targets don’t much matter: whatever’s handy. Motives are always mixed. Such campaigns are driven as much by desire for economic or political power as by the wish to purify culture of elements that undermine established authority by questioning sexual, religious, or political orthodoxies. What matters is that a clear message go forth that it is dangerous to express certain ideas, that a fresh blast of fear of freedom is felt in the land.
Notice that each successive campaign has been smaller in scale and impact than the last: with a massive early inoculation, each booster-shot requires a smaller dose to remind people to watch their steps. The result? As I am fond of saying, censorship is the only element of U.S. public policy that has been successfully decentralized in this country. There is seldom need for the heavy hand of the censor to assert itself, when so many people—having contracted a case of fear of freedom and its consequences—will obligingly censor themselves.
Estimates of the 15th to 17th-century witchhunts in Europe and North America put the death toll at 60,000 (at a time when global population was estimated at 500 million; the equivalent today would be three-quarters of a million). In the McCarthy era, hundreds were imprisoned, and it is estimated that 10-12,000 lost jobs. In the eighties/nineties culture wars, the inoculation was accomplished with only a handful of scapegoats.
In 1989, the extreme right, led by The American Family Association (AFA), launched a direct-mail attack on the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for funding works they found blasphemous or obscene by Andres Serrano, Robert Mapplethorope, and Marlon Riggs. The following year, then-NEA Chair John Frohnmayer vetoed grants for four performance artists who had been similarly criticized; as “The NEA Four,” they later won a much-publicized court case restoring the funds.
This was all symbolic combat, of course: AFA founder Reverend Donald Wildmon gave Serrano’s, Mapplethorpe’s, and Riggs’ work far wider distribution at his own organization’s expense (and in aid of his own organization’s fundraising) than it ever would have received otherwise. Wildmon started the AFA in 1977 as the National Federation for Decency, focusing on Hollywood and asserting that objectionable films, recordings, and television were produced by Jews to undermine Christian values. It wasn’t until he jumped on the arts funding bandwagon—inflating a tiny amount of public funding for a few projects into a full-scale moral panic—that his enterprise took off. His genius was to recognize the fundraising value of a shocking image, and to take it all the way to the bank.
The extreme-right pundit Pat Buchanan’s address to the 1992 Republican National Convention is often dubbed his “culture wars” speech, even though it doesn’t employ that exact language, because Buchanan exhorted the assembled in explicitly cultural terms: “[W]e must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country,” asserting “the right of small towns and communities to control the raw sewage of pornography that pollutes our popular culture.” Buchanan spelled out the point of contention pretty clearly: to whom does this nation belong? To all its people, or only those who like Buchanan, emanate a sense of ownership that attaches to being white and Right? Whose ideas, expressions, identities are entitled to public space and equal dignity? All of us, or only those who conform to the values enshrined by the censors?
These questions aren’t going away. But I really dislike thinking about how minuscule the next dose of overt censorship has to be to accomplish its booster inoculation. I’d really like to see that trend reversed.
To make the censors’ job much harder, it’s important to protest when overt censorship vaults into view. But the most important thing, I think, is to refuse to accept the innoculation. What have you been reluctant to express for fear of disapproval? How often do you perform a mental calculation, ending with the bottom line that it’s not worth the risk to represent your own truths fully and forthrightly? Or not worth the hassle of defending others who do, even when opponents try to silence them? None of us is completely immune to self-censorship. But I think it can help strengthen our resistance to look at the remarkable extent to which a little bit of overt censorship can now go a very long way in suppressing freedom of expression. I think it can help to assert our refusal to go along, and to back it up with our own speech and deeds.
As you ponder that, listen to a great culture hero, Paul Robeson, a prodigious artist and humanitarian who was hounded nearly to death by the witch-hunters of the McCarthy era. He is singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a heartbreaking slavery-era ballad.