Joaquin Phoenix attends the premiere of Joker in Los Angeles, Calif., September 28, 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)The moralistic busybodies were wrong in the Eighties. They’re wrong today.
When it comes to bad ideas, there’s always room at the bottom.
Conservatives used to exasperatedly observe of gun-grabbing Democrats, “Imagine how they’d complain if someone tried to treat the First Amendment the way they treat the Second Amendment!”
Hold my cappuccino, says Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker. Writing in the New York Times under the headline “Free Speech Is Killing Us” — and Marantz argues that is literally true — he argues that the gun-control program should be taken as a template for a speech-control program. He has come to this conclusion, he writes, after “having spent the past few years embedding as a reporter with the trolls and bigots and propagandists.” Some reporters are embedded in Afghanistan, and some are “embedded” on Twitter, which is a great place to be embedded in that you can do it while you are literally embedded, at home, in bed. The thing to understand, I suppose, is that this is a war story.
Marantz’s argument is drearily predictable. He writes that he does not want to repeal the First Amendment and then makes a case for gutting it, mired in vagueness (foreswearing the position of the “free-speech absolutist” but offering no controlling principle) with a great deal of not obviously plausible dot-connecting, and then moves on to what this is really about: an enemies list, in this case beginning with Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, a couple of attention-hungry entrepreneurial charlatans who always have been and always will be found at the margins of public life. He offers many infinitely plastic pretexts under which speech to which he objects might be suppressed, among them “equality, safety, and robust democratic participation.” He also proposes government subsidies for the kind of speech of which he approves, having discovered that “the Constitution prevents the government from using sticks, but it says nothing about carrots,” which surely would be news to the nation’s religiously affiliated schools, among others.
Marantz is the author of a book about “online extremists,” because the guy who proposes gutting the Bill of Rights is worried about extremism.
The “x might plausibly encourage y” argument against free speech has been with us for a very long time. It was the basis for the persecution of heretics in the Christian world, the censorship that John Milton criticized in the 17th century, the suppression of war protesters in the United States (the legal justification of which is the origin of the ubiquitous “fire in a crowded theater” trope), and the effort to censor and marginalize rap music in the 1980s, a project that brought to public prominence a woman called Tipper Gore, at the time Mrs. Al. Mrs. Gore’s name became, for a generation, the national shorthand for prudish blue-rinsed tight-assery allied to scheming political opportunism. She was a figure of fun, loathed by all right-thinking people.
But Tipper Gore–ism, like the poor, syphilis, and usury, we shall always have with us.
Director Todd Phillips has made a kind of superhero movie, Joker, which forgoes the usual tights-and-tights comic-book formula to tell a different kind of story, a psychologically realistic account of the interaction of loneliness, despair, poverty, and cruelty. Surprisingly for what is, at after, a species of Batman film, it was awarded the Leone d’Oro for best film at the Venice Film Festival,and Joaquin Phoenix’s nomination for an Academy Award for his performance already is generally assumed.
But we live in philistine times, and the mob demands that art serve them. For that reason, film, television, literature, music, and much else is subjected to a standard of social utilitarianism, meaning that they are not judged on aesthetic criteria but for their value as propaganda, moral instruction, or therapy. Therapeutic notions are at the moment especially prevalent; that is why press criticism of Game of Thrones, to take one example, dealt with questions of demographic “representation” to the exclusion of almost everything else.
And so Joker is challenged on its “fitness for the present political moment,” as Sam Adams puts it in Slate. “Is this really the time for a story about a frustrated, alienated white man who turns to violence?” he asks. Of course it is, which is why there are at least five productions of Coriolanus under way, and the bestsellers lists are full of worked about frustrated, alienated white men who turn to violence — strangely, no one criticizes Margaret Atwood on those grounds. (What, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments aren’t about frustrated, violent white guys?) Joker is in fact now criticized on the grounds of empathy, or at least suspicion of empathy. “Because our point of empathy in the film is Phoenix’s troubled Arthur, Joker basically dodges the question of whether we’re supposed to read his acts of violence as redemptive or abhorrent,” three (!) authors write in the Hollywood Reporter. The filmmakers, in this view, “leave themselves open to such charges of irresponsibility.” The New York Times complains:
Joker is also causing deep unease. Some people, including a few rank-and-file employees on the Warner Bros. lot, worry that the violent, hyper-realistic movie is potentially dangerous — that rather than critiquing the societal failings that have given rise to America’s mass-shooter crisis, the film legitimizes such atrocities and could provoke more of them.
In much the same way that the left-wing cultural vanguard that once presented itself as the check on and alternative to corporate power immediately embraced corporate power upon getting its first real taste of it (the Left now is quite satisfied to deputize the HR departments of the Fortune 500 as guardians of political discipline), its members have grown friendlier to suppression of many kinds — and more hostile to heterodoxy — as their power has grown. Conservative critics of the National Endowment for the Arts once were treated to smug little homilies about how art is supposed to be transgressive, to challenge us, to make us uncomfortable, etc., and now we are treated to smug little sermonettes about the “dangerous” creation of films that cause “deep unease” among certain people who work at Warner Bros. or write for Slate or teach at Oberlin. (Aren’t those exactly the powerful people we’re supposed to want our art to make uncomfortable?) Reagan-era progressives scoffed when Tipper Gore and her allied church ladies panicked that the rise of rap music would turn America’s streets into a blood-drenched warzone (hip-hop culture’s eventual triumphant occupation of the commanding heights of pop in fact coincided with a dramatic decline in violent crime in the United States) or that Ozzy Osbourne songs were turning sweet towheaded kids in the suburbs into dope fiends and satanic little cannibals, or that violent video games were going to leave the real world looking like Grand Theft Auto. (It was enjoyable to remember the video-game panic when watching Ralph Breaks the Internet, in which the GTA ethos is revealed as being so neutered and rehabilitated that it is embodied by Gal Gadot, whose lines might well have been cribbed from self-help manuals.) Power changes everything.
The moralistic busybodies were wrong in the Eighties. They’re wrong today. They deserved the contempt they received then. They deserve it now. The difference is that free speech and heterodoxy used to have allies in such venues as The New Yorker and the New York Times, where both political and artistic freedom now have so many enemies. But I understand that retro-Eighties nostalgia is hot right now. If we’re going to bring back big hair and shoulder pads, we may as well resuscitate the public career of Tipper Gore, last seen skulking around Democratic fundraising circles at the junior-varsity level. Perhaps we could bring back Johnny Carson and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation while we’re at it.
And maybe we can find someone to speak for the cause of art that declines to be subordinated to anybody’s political agenda, current social-improvement projects, the tender sensibilities of critics at the New York Times, or the increasingly baroque rules of etiquette that organizes the lives of New Yorker readers as they sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn.
Nuclear annihilation remains the safer bet, but one may still dream.