Baby, There's a Chilling Effect Outside
My greatest hope for 2019 is cultural. It is that the left will rise and do what only it can do — strike a blow against political correctness in the arts and entertainment. All artists are meant to be free and daring. Their job, whether in drama, comedy or music, is to approach the truth — to apprehend it, get their hands on it and hold it up for a moment for everyone to see. That’s a big job, a great one, and you can do it only if you’re brave. Pope John Paul II, in his 1999 Letter to Artists, noted something I have witnessed: The artist faces a constant sense of defeat. You’re working, you’re trying, but it’s never as good as you wanted, as you dreamed. Even your most successful work only comes close. Artists are looking for “the hidden meaning of things.” Their “intuitions” spring from their souls. There is an “unbridgeable gap” between what they produce and “the dazzling perfection” of what they glimpsed in the creative moment. They forge on anyway.
From the divine to the slightly ridiculous, in one area, music:
At happy gatherings the past two weeks, talk turned to the controversy over Frank Loesser’s 1944 holiday classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” You know the argument. The song should be pulled from playlists and effectively banned because its lyrics, on close inspection, are somewhat rapey. It’s a song about sexual assault; there’s a clear power imbalance. This argument comes from young writers and activists of the #MeToo movement. Actually, the man in the song hopes to seduce, not rape; the song is flirty and humorous, a spoof of the endless drama between men and women.
From every conversation I witnessed liberal opinion is very much against banning the song, as is conservative opinion.
But companies hate controversy. Radio stations don’t want petitions at Christmastime, no one wants trouble. We’ll be hearing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” less as the years go by. It only takes a few highly focused idiots to kill a song.
But I want to mention a masterpiece, Randy Newman’s album “Good Old Boys,” released to critical acclaim in 1974. I listened to it over the holidays. There’s so much in it I love, such as “Marie,” one of the greatest love songs of the latter half of the 20th century. A working-class man who works in a factory comes home drunk and tries to tell his wife, in plain words, that he loves her. “You looked like a princess the night we met / With your hair piled up high / I will never forget.” He’s not eloquent or clever, but he reaches. “You’re the song / That the trees sing when the wind blows / You’re a flower, you’re a river, you’re a rainbow.” He tells her the simple truth: “Sometimes I’m crazy / But I guess you know / I’m weak and I’m lazy / And I’ve hurt you so / And I don’t listen to a word you say / When you’re in trouble I turn away / But I love you, I loved you, the first time I saw you / And I always will love you Marie.” The orchestration is rich and cinematic, and when you realize it’s a slow waltz, and imagine that, tears fill your eyes.
But it’s also a highly political album, and sharply pointed. It is an attempt to capture the cultural divide that existed even then in America — an album about the deplorables before the term was invented. In “Rednecks” the lyrics are rough. The factory worker had just watched Georgia’s segregationist governor being baited on a talk show. “Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show / With some smart-ass New York Jew / And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox / And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too / Well he may be a fool but he’s our fool / If they think they’re better than him they’re wrong.” The factory worker acknowledges every stereotype of white Southerners — people like him — while employing the ugliest racial epithet. He accuses the North of hypocrisy: It claims to be liberal but its special brand of real estate racism — putting black men “in a cage” — is worse.
It is rough art, it is bitter, it sees splits that are with us still.
And I realized as I listened: This album could never be made now. Mr. Newman would be attacked on social media, his label boycotted. He’d be accused of cultural appropriation, ethnic condescension, racial insensitivity. They would ban this.
And yet it is a masterpiece. And 45 years ago, in a less enlightened age, we could tolerate it, withstand it, even praise it.
What a loss if it didn’t exist.
Political correctness is the enemy of art. Self-censorship is a killer of art. Censorship applied from outside, through organized pressure, is an assassination of art.
We have seen the political correctness of the social-justice warriors sweep the universities, hounding out those who would speak from an incorrect perspective, decreeing new rules of language and living. They do not understand that when you tell people, especially Americans, what they can and cannot say, can and cannot think, they don’t stop saying and thinking. They go underground, sometimes to the depths. And it is dark down there.
Conservatives have long decried political correctness. The past 30 years they’ve provided the intellectual muscle against censorship.
But an end to political correctness in the arts and entertainment cannot come from the right. It can come only from the left. All the organs of entertainment and art in America, from Broadway to Hollywood, through Netflix, the museums and onward, are entities of the cultural left. They are run and populated by the cultural left.
They have the pertinent power. When conservatives write or speak against limits on free speech, what they say is heard by the left as mere reaction, a cover for intolerance, and so dismissed.
The left will listen only to entities of the left who say: Enough. Art needs air, and that air is freedom.
The turnaround might begin — just one idea — when some powerful cultural entity produces a documentary featuring great figures of entertainment and the arts saying how they feel about limits to artistic expression. What their personal experience with political correctness is, how it has limited what they do, what the implications are. It would require significant cultural figures who are not identified with the right to speak their peace.
And here is the great thing. Most of them do hate it. The producers and network chiefs, the comics, writers and directors — so many of them hate the air of inhibition under which they operate. They hate it with a lovely bitterness, and it is lovely because it is earned. They’ve all been stopped from at least one artistic act by the forces of censorship, in the same way that there is hardly an American the past quarter-century who hasn’t been shamed for saying, doing or thinking the wrong thing.
What I hope for this year is a break in the ice.
Artists of America, be brave. It is in your nature. Save our art and entertainment, past and present.
Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.