Social Justice Warriors are destroying our cultural life



In 1937 the Nazi Party organized an art exhibition in Munich that consisted of 650 works of “degenerate art”. That is, art that embodied such characteristics as “decadence”, “weakness of character”, “mental disease” and “racial impurity”. Most of the works were by German artists like George Grosz, Paul Klee and Otto Dix, but the curator, Adolf Ziegler, made an exception for foreign artists he particularly disapproved of, such as Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian and Marc Chagal. It was intended to remind the German people of just how perverted and unnatural the Weimar era was and it attracted over a million visitors in its first six weeks.

I’m always reminded of this Nazi exhibition whenever a Social Justice Warrior calls for a contemporary artist to be “cancelled”. Like the curator of this exhibition, they want to ban the work of particular artists because, in their view, they are ideologically impure. Whether a work in question is well-crafted, or technically accomplished, or original, or emotionally resonant, or simply beautiful, is irrelevant. What matters – the sole test of artistic merit – is whether it advances the political cause they have committed themselves to. If it obstructs it in some way, then it should be consigned to the scrap heap of “degenerate art”.

Scarcely a week passes without a mob of political activists demanding the cancellation of an artist or work of art they disapprove of. They may identify as “socialists” rather than “national socialists”, and they may have substituted terms like “problematic” and “not okay” for “decadent” and “racially impure”. But in their insistence that any aspect of culture that doesn’t promote their rigid ideology should be “verboten”, this army of finger-wagging zealots are indistinguishable from Nazis.

There are so many examples of this resurgence of artistic fascism that I’ve lost count. Last year, a group of 28 people in Folkstone objected to a charity screening of the film Zulu at the town’s Silver Screen Cinema on the grounds that it has “racist overtones”. Across the Atlantic, left-wing critics have turned their puritanical ire on Friends, the long-running 80s sitcom, because a running gag in the series is that one of the central characters used to be overweight. In the eyes of the these frowny-faced scolds, that constitutes “fat-shaming”. More recently, Ariane Grande has been accused of “cultural appropriation” because her song ‘Seven Rings’ contains elements of rap and R&B.

The latest target of the art police is the filmmaker Quentin Tarantino. A recent Guardian headline proclaimed: “End of the affair: Why it’s time to cancel Tarantino.” According to freelance journalist Roy Chacko – a budding Adolf Zeigler – Tarantino should be cast into the outer darkness because his films often include scenes in which violence is done to women. Overlooking the fact that they also depict violence against men, sometimes at the hands of women, Chacko portrays Tarantino as the last of the Male Chauvinist Pigs, pointing out that the only two female characters in Reservoir Dogs are “shot woman” and “shocked woman”. No doubt Chacko also thinks the Flemish master Rubens should be “cancelled” on the grounds that he painted The Rape of the Sabine Women.

Incredibly, it isn’t just the permanently outraged Guardian that wants to send Tarantino to the dog house. In a recent interview about his new movie, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, a New York Times reporter asked Tarantino why he’d given Margot Robbie so few lines. Was that a deliberate choice? “Well, I just reject your hypothesis,” snapped the filmmaker. Quite right, too. The artistic merit of Tarantino’s latest film may be debatable – I haven’t seen it, so I cannot comment – but the number of lines the female characters are given relative to the male characters has precisely zero relevance.

Notwithstanding this, Time magazine took it upon itself to carry out an audit of all Tarantino’s movies, counting the lines of dialogue spoken by the male and female characters. (I’m old enough to remember when Time used to be a flagship of American news reporting. Plus ca change.) Disappointingly for the Torquemadas of the Woke Inquisition, he didn’t fare too badly by this metric. In Jackie Brown, 30.1% of the lines are spoken by female characters, in Kill Bill Volume 1 56.8% and in Death Proof 79.7%.

Not that it matters, obviously. The mistake the Nazis made, and the mistake these neo-Fascists make, is in treating all art as propaganda, as if the sole criterion it should be judged by is how effectively it conveys a political message. In fact, they’ve got it backwards. Works of art that are designed to promote a particular ideology are nearly always terrible. This was nicely illustrated in Munich in 1937, when a companion exhibition was organized by Goebbels’s Reich Culture Chamber that showcased art approved by the Nazis. Needless to say, none of the hacks that received the official stamp of approval are remembered today.

There is one silver lining to this cloud, which is that the public doesn’t pay these culture cops much notice. On the contrary, there is some evidence that they treat the call to “cancel” something as a kitemark of quality. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood has already grossed over $100m, making it Tarantino’s most successful film since Pulp Fiction. But God help us if these philistines ever obtain any real political power.

Toby Young is a broadcaster, writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @toadmeister