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On Indifference and Outrage

Those high-brow fellows over at Commentary magazine recently published a fine essay on the art world’s self-inflected irrelevance, and we recommend it to all our culture vulture readers who still take an interest in such things. We’ve already fulminated a few times on these pages about pretty much the same unhappy point, though, and what most struck us was an opening anecdote that nicely illustrates an even bigger problem with what people are now indifferent to and what still offends them.
The author, who seems such a reasonable thinker that we are pleasantly surprised to note he is somehow the Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art at Williams College, recalls showing one of his classes the grainy black-and-white film documentation of a 1971 performance art piece by the late Chris Burden, which involved having a friend shoot him in the arm with .22-calibre rifle at close range. We can still recall how the alleged artwork provoked a wide range of reactions even at such a late date in modernity as 1971, but the 21st Century students who watched were mostly interested in the legal ramifications and tried hard to it put into the context that savvy art students now understand their professors expect, but were otherwise indifferent. The professor seems somewhat surprised at such a dispassionate reaction to the spectacle of a man being shot in the arm at close range by .22-calibre rifle, but we are not. As the professor notes in the rest of his essay, even by the time Burns got around to it this sort of shock-the-squares stuff had already been going in the art world since approximately the end of World War I, and that Burns had to top it by having himself famously crucified atop a Volkswagen Beetle, and that subsequent attempts at giving offense have required ever more over-the-top outrages, so by now indifference to such efforts is both the sophisticated and sensible reaction.
What strikes us as odd, and went unmentioned by the professor, is that these same 21st Century students are the ones who require “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and protection from “micro-aggressions” and outright censorship of Ovid or Mark Twain or The Bible or that vaguely Republican commencement speaker or any other vestige of pre-World War I Western Civilization that might call into question the comforting consensus of academic opinion. Such strangely differing standards of what should be met with indifference and what should be met with offense are by no means confined to the academy, or to those corners of the world only culture vultures still take an interest in, but also define the broader public’s approach to politics.
Thus The New York Times is outraged by the four traffic tickets that Republican presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio has received over the past 20 years, but seemingly indifferent to the four brave Americans who were killed in an American consulate in Libya that failed to receive requested security from Democratic presidential contender and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following her ill-fated war against Libya. Thus the civil rights establishment is aroused to hash-tagging “black lives matter” and rioting in the streets when a black man is killed by police in even the most justifiable circumstances, yet indifferent to the vastly greater number of black men killed by other black men, and further indifferent when that horrible number inevitably increases after the hash-tagging and rioting inevitably hamper law enforcement efforts in poor black neighborhoods. Thus it is that polite opinion holds the insane profligacy of the Greek government is not only to be tolerated but forever to be subsidized, while a corporation that prefers not to pay its minimum wage employees any more than they produce is considered outrageously greedy. Thus it is that the mass executions of homosexuals in the Islamic world is met with sincere attempts to understand context and generally with indifference, while some Baptist confectioner’s reluctance to bake a gay wedding cake is met with widespread outrage.
A couple of years after Burden’s performance art piece provoked widespread outrage the public was so shocked by executive lawlessness that President Richard Nixon was forced to resign, with the second article of impeachment being that he had dared raise the possibility of using the Internal Revenue Service to harass his political opponents, but these days the president flouts immigration law with powers that even he had previously stated he does not constitutionally possess, and the stories about how the IRS actually did harass his political enemies and then engage in a Nixonian but up-to-date cover-up continue to trickle out, yet it is met with indifference. Perhaps it’s the same process of the public becoming inured to indifference by endless repetition, but that can’t explain why there’s still plenty of outrage left for far less inconsequential matters.
We continue to read about those high-brow culture vulture issues even in this age of art’s irrelevance, and to follow all those silly academic quarrels going on within the “safe spaces” from “micro-aggressions,” even as we recognize that by now they are of far less importance than the first four dead Americans from a failed foreign policy and the overlooked black lives that are taken while the police are under indictment and the eventual global consequences of the profligacy of the Greeks and just about everyone and the horrible fate of homosexuals in the Islamic world and the injustice being done to traditionalist confectioners in the name of homosexual rights, because we think they also matter. A society that can no longer recognize the difference between art and some nihilistic nutcase inviting a friend to shoot him in the arm, or prefers the comforting consensus of contemporary academic opinion to the challenging truths of of Ovid and Mark Twain and The Bible and that vaguely Republican commencement speaker or any of the rest of pre-World War I western civilization, is unlikely to choose wisely about what should be met with indifference and what should be met with outrage.

— Bud Norman

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A Rainbow Jumper in Indiana Hoops

Our beloved Wichita State University Wheatshockers won’t be playing in the “Final Four” of the college basketball championship tournament this weekend, having lost to a tough Notre Dame squad in the “sweet sixteen,” but at least they won’t be accused of homophobia for playing in Indianapolis. The entire state of Indiana is being boycotted by the more fashionable sorts of people because of its recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics allege will unleash a torrent of anti-homosexual hatred in the Hoosier State, and a team that’s already so politically incorrect it plays its home games in Charles Koch Arena and has a fan base comprised largely of blue-collar types who make corporate jets and a mascot that’s hardly gluten-free doesn’t need that kind of trouble.
The impeccably up-to-date cities of Seattle and San Francisco have announced boycotts of Indiana, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy has signed an executive order barring state employees from visiting any state with a similar law, and a “hashtag” campaign is currently recruiting more boycotters. The chief executive officer of the Apple computer company has written an op-ed for the Washington Post denouncing Indiana, and of course all the celebrities are “tweeting” about it. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association that is hosting the tournament in Indianapolis has issued a statement affirming that it is “deeply committed to providing an inclusive environment for all our athletes” and “will work diligently to assure student-athletes competing in, and visitors attending, next week’s Final Four in Indianapolis are not impacted negatively by this bill.”
Our guess is that any homosexual hoops fans who are well-heeled and lucky enough to have scored “Final Four” tickets will find Indianapolis a most hospitable host, despite the recent restoration of religious freedom there, and that any homosexual “student-athlete” competing in the tournament should hire a good agent to look over all the book and movie deals that will surely be coming his way. The federal government has had a Religious Freedom Restoration Act since the Clinton days, 19 other states have followed suit, each have simply reaffirmed legal principles that have prevailed for decades, and until recently the idea wasn’t at all controversial, yet the social trend has been toward ever greater tolerance for homosexuality. The trend has proved so inexorable that by now the cultural left no longer demands mere tolerance but is intolerant of any dissent on questions of sexual morality and intends to impose its own views through force of law.
Restoring religious freedom was all well and good when it meant that Native Americans could use peyote or the Amish could ride buggies or Muslims could wear beards, or some similarly sympathetic group demanded some similarly unusual right, but the idea that a plain old Christian businessman might be able to decline baking cakes or creating floral arrangements for a same-sex wedding ceremony, as Indiana’s new law allows, is just too weird for fashionable opinion to put up with. Seattle and San Francisco might be among the most racially segregated and economically stratified cities in the country, but at least they’re willing to force a Baptist baker to violate his conscience. Connecticut has its own religious freedom laws, which makes its governor looks rather ridiculous, but at least the University of Connecticut’s defending national champions didn’t qualify for the NCAA’s tournament and he’s not forced to bar its  state-paid coach from going to to the “Final Four.” The Apple company’s corporate conscience might allow it it do business with Saudi Arabia, where homosexuals are routinely punished with lashes and execution, or China, where all manner of human rights violations occur, but at least it has bad things to say about Indiana. The cultural left will soon move on to another “hashtag” campaign urging closer ties to Cuba, where homosexuals are routinely harassed, and continue its apologetics for the brutally harsh treatment of homosexuals almost everywhere in the Muslim world, but it won’t put up with any white bread businessman’s qualms about same-sex marriage in Indiana.
Next season we expect the ‘Shockers will play their obligatory Missouri Valley Conference games in Evansville and Terre Haute, and we won’t be the least embarrassed to have them playing in the state that not only produced Cole Porter and Hoagy Carmichael but also Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird. We root for the ‘Shockers because they’re the plucky underdogs going up against the rich and powerful, and if there’s a baker or florist in Indiana that would rather not work on a same-sex marriage ceremony regardless of what the Apple corporation or those “tweeting” celebrities think we’ll be rooting for him for the same reason. The same-sex couple that wanted to buy a cake or some flowers used to be the plucky underdogs, but we seem to have moved beyond that.

— Bud Norman

Gay Rights and Other Rights in Kansas

Kansas is one of a few states considering a bill that would allow businesses to decline service to homosexuals, and all the bien pensant around here are in even higher than usual dudgeon about it. The local hipster weekly is calling the bill a step back into the dark ages and seems to expect the imminent return of burnings at the stake and papal pears, the more restrained corporate daily paper has run an editorial merely likening it to Jim Crow, and our Facebook page is filled with postings from vaguely familiar “friends” who are once again declaring their shame at living in the state.
At the risk of sounding even more than usual like provincial prairie bumpkins, we are not at all embarrassed to be in Kansas. We don’t believe the dire predictions that if the bill became law homosexuals would be unable to find a seat in a restaurant in Kansas, a possibility even more remote than encountering a heterosexual waiter at the better eateries in this or any other state, and in those extremely rare cases when it might apply we think it would do more good than harm. The bill was inspired by a couple of highly-publicized stories about a baker and a photographer who chose not to involve their businesses in a same-sex wedding ceremony, and we see no reason why Kansas’ bakers and photographers and other businesses with similar moral objections shouldn’t be free to do the same without fear of legal consequences. In the interests of tolerance and diversity, the two values the bien pensant most love to blather on about, diverse opinions regarding same-sex marriage must be tolerated.
Setting the controversy about the advisability of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages aside, there is a more consequential matter of allowing citizens to conduct their businesses according to the dictates of their own consciences. The estimable Kevin Williamson over at the venerable National Review proposed an intriguing thought experiment in which the notoriously homosexual-hating Fred Phelps and his cult at Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church insisted that a rainbow flag-flying member of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce rent out its party room for one of his frequent “God Hates Fags” rallies, and we don’t have to wonder if those criticizing the proposed bill would defend the business’ right to refuse. We’d certainly defend anyone’s right to not deal with Phelps, and we’ve had enough dealings with the man over the years that we’d be especially adamant about it, but we can’t endorse any law that would protect that right without denying it to those who still hold to the traditional idea of marriage.
An actual face-to-face friend whose opinions we take seriously argued over a recent beer that the law should be vigilant in protecting the rights of embattled minorities, a point well-taken, so we noted that these days it seems to be the fuddy-duddy photographers and bakers who are in need of protection from the rhetorical and legal lynch mobs. That traditional idea of marriage extended through the past several millennia, prevailed in every world civilization until quite recently, and was even endorsed by the oh-so-bien-pensant President of the United States until the polls allowed him to back out, but the current fashion for same-sex marriage seems to have overwhelmed such long-established civilizational inclinations. For some reason a similar bill in Arizona seems to be getting all the headlines, with such former bastions of traditionalism as the last Republican presidential candidate and the National Football League heaping on their condemnation, and the Attorney General of the United States is urging the attorneys general of the various united states to ignore their laws against same-sex marriage. Anyone willing to defy such official opprobrium is entitled to feel a wee bit embattled and minor.
Unfashionable as it may be, we’ll stick with freedom of association. It’s good for the baker or photographer who doesn’t want to be involved in a same-sex marriage, won’t prevent a same-sex couple from finding another baker or photographer, and if the fashions change as they are wont to do it will be good for that rainbow flag-flying Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce member who doesn’t want to work for Fred Phelps.

— Bud Norman