Art Adds, Politics Subtracts
The weirdest part of hundreds of newspapers dropping the “Dilbert” comic strip is that it hadn’t already happened several years earlier, when its creator Scott Adams first started praising Donald Trump.
It took him complaining about race relations and putting some of the blame on blacks to get him sent into exile. Surely, even in his most inflammatory comments, though, unless we’re stubbornly tin-eared, we can hear the lament of a man who wants friendly coexistence between the races and just despairs of getting any cooperation on that project after an opinion survey suggesting only about half of blacks think it’s acceptable to be white.
Regardless of the merits of the Dilbert guy’s thoughts on politics or race, though, what’s almost taken for granted now is that the response must be reduced visibility for all his works, related to the topic of current controversy or not. Mainstream—meaning primarily liberal (in the broad sense)—politics now always defaults to silencing some voice, erasing some artwork, covering up some monument, firing some professor. The days of trying to “do the right thing” are ancient history, and the only impulse left now is to “silence the wrong thing.” This isn’t cultural richness but gradual death, nihilism rather than engagement, avoidance rather than robust conflict.
The works of the late Roald Dahl, who for good or ill owes most of his fame to amusing fantasies about torturing terrible children, will now be rewritten posthumously by his publisher so that children who were once “fat” are now merely large and so on, as if obesity were not a key plot point—and moral barometer—in a story called goddamnCharlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Two of Don Rosa’s extremely popular Scrooge McDuck comics stories are going to be left out of future reprints from Disney, though the fact that the arch-capitalist duck (and likely source of the ripped-off plot of Christopher Nolan’s Inception) has lasted this long without complete cancelation is something of a libertarian miracle.
There are hints of hope out there, such as Ben Stiller refusing to apologize for the race comedy material in (not so ancient) Tropic Thunder. More common though, are things like the emerging plans to rewrite parts of the James Bond novels. Where are Ian Fleming and Kingsley Amis when you truly need them? Those novels rest upon imperial—and pro-intelligence-sector—assumptions like few other works in history, but is there even a lesbian communist out there who’d derive any joy from seeing Bond do less arrogant globe-hopping, maybe erase the womanizing? Would it still be the same character?
Maybe while they’re at it they can edit the films to make the bad guys whiter, the way the Tom Clancy adaptation Sum of All Fears (immediately after 9/11) replaced Muslim terrorists with some bunch of German white supremacists. Dr. No needn’t be Japanese (wasn’t No Time to Die already some sort of half-assed revision along those lines?), and Jamaica could always be replaced by Leeds for the sake of diversity.
I say this without being blind to various genuinely ugly aspects to the Bond legacy (and to human history in general, which I don’t recommend we pretend to erase). Even before the character of Bond existed, back in December 1937, a man who’d go on to produce most of the Bond films, Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, along with his purportedly Mob-tied cousin, was part of a group that beat to death the manager of the Three Stooges, Ted Healy (perhaps a sign that that move where you block an attacker’s fingers with your hand so he can’t poke you in both eyes simultaneously is not much defense against exploding pens or a belt-buckle garrote).
Comedy is, or was, a brutal subculture (the book The Comedians recounts numerous unsettling incidents such as Frank Sinatra having people beaten for performing in the wrong musicians-and-comics club). I have no more illusions about that than I do about the history of the British Empire being pristine. But don’t add insult to injury by, well, subtracting all the clever insults that were created in the process. That’s the general public’s consolation prize in all this. Comedy shouldn’t be cowardice, whether cowardice means having to recycle all the safest old material or having to grovel before the woke.
There’s no reason to believe the people who are keen to censor these days even care about the art forms that fall prey to their wrath. It’s not as if they’re trying to improve the art forms, merely cull that which offends them in any medium, aesthetic consequences be damned.
At least we have thus far been looking at private censorship drives. Let government agencies start weighing in on these matters and instead of some centralized super-tasteful super-brain, you’re as liable to end up with something like the “sense of humor” of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which recently urged people to rat on their law-violating exes in honor of Valentine’s Day. Creepy. The ATF also polices bawdy beer label designs forinappropriate imagery. But they killed dozens of people, including children, in Texas back in 1993. That gives you some idea how the government prioritizes. They’re not going to bring nuance to the arts, and neither are most private-sector grievance committees.
And while many people likely read this column and think I’m being oversensitive or paranoid, back in Washington, DC, the State Department really accumulates a Disinfo Index that goes out to a vast list of potential advertisers, warning them away from associating with sites that might carry information hostile to the government, including not just some tiny set of terrorist hubs but, for example, the site of the libertarian magazine Reason. If there’s one most dangerous, most toxic, most violent, most offensive idea loose in our culture, I’d say it’s the impulse to censor.
—Todd Seavey is the author of Libertarianism for Beginners and is on Twitter at @ToddSeavey