The New Yorker rather outdid itself in the “PC Assaults on Civilization” Sweepstakes this week with Peter Schjedahl‘s smackdown of Renoir.
Targeting Renoir as problematic, sexist, and prurient seems not only Philistine, Puritanical, and just plain unkind, it seems to constitute a downright fascistic rejection of la douceur de vivre.
Roger Kimball identifies precisely what is so fundamentally wrong here in the Spectator.
Schjeldahlâ€™s judgments about Renoir are a fastidiously composed congeries of up-to-the-minute elite opinion. There at The New Yorker, everyone will agree with Schjeldahl about Renoir or â€” the more important point â€” about subjugating him to the strictures prevalent among the beautiful people circa 2019. What made Schjeldahlâ€™s essay notorious were not his particular judgments about Renoirâ€™s art or character but rather his imperative anachronism. â€˜An argument is often made that we shouldnâ€™t judge the past by the values of the present,â€™ Schjeldahl writes, â€˜but thatâ€™s a hard sell in a case as primordial as Renoirâ€™s.â€™
Is it? As Ed Driscoll pointed out at Instapundit, Schjeldahlâ€™s essay is sterling example of what C.S. Lewis described as â€˜chronological snobbery,â€™ the belief that â€˜the thinking, art, or science of an earlier time is inherently inferior to that of the present, simply by virtue of its temporal priority or the belief that since civilization has advanced in certain areas, people of earlier time periods were less intelligent.â€™ If, Driscoll observes, we add the toxic codicil that those previous times were â€˜therefore wrong and also racistâ€™ we would have â€˜a perfect definition of todayâ€™s SJWs.â€™
Exactly. Driscoll goes on to quote Jon Gabriel, who has anatomized this process under the rubric of â€˜cancel culture,â€™ a culture of willful and barbaric diminishment.
â€˜Cancel culture,â€™ Gabriel notes, â€˜is spreading for one simple reason: it works. Instead of debating ideas or competing for entertainment dollars, you can just demand anyone who annoys you to be cast out of polite society.â€™ Itâ€™s already come to a college campus near you, and is epidemic on social and other sorts of media. not to mention through the so-called â€˜Human Resourcesâ€™ departments of many companies. Wander ever so slightly outside the herd of independent minds and, bang, itâ€™s ostracism or worse.
There are many ironies attendant on the spread of â€˜cancel culture.â€™ One irony is that, despite its origins in the effete eyries of elite culture, the new ethic of conformity exhibits an extraordinary and intolerant provincialism. The British man of letters David Cecil got to the nub of this irony when, in his book Library Looking-Glass, he noted that â€˜there is a provinciality in time as well as in space.â€™
â€˜To feel ill-at-ease and out of place except in oneâ€™s own period is to be a provincial in time. But he who has learned to look at life through the eyes of Chaucer, of Donne, of Pope and of Thomas Hardy is freed from this limitation. He has become a cosmopolitan of the ages, and can regard his own period with the detachment which is a necessary foundation of wisdom.â€™
It has become increasingly clear as the imperatives of political correctness make ever greater inroads against free speech and the perquisites of dispassionate inquiry that the battle against this provinciality of time is one of the central cultural tasks of our age. It is a battle from which the traditional trustees of civilization â€” schools and colleges, museums, many churches â€” have fled. Increasingly, the responsibility for defending the intellectual and spiritual foundations of Western civilization has fallen to individuals and institutions that are largely distant from, when they are not indeed explicitly disenfranchised from, the dominant cultural establishment.
Leading universities today command tax-exempt endowments in the tens of billions of dollars. Leading cultural organs like The New Yorker and The New York Times parrot the ethos of the academy and exert a virtual monopoly on elite opinion.
But it is by no means clear, notwithstanding their prestige and influence, whether they do anything to challenge the temporal provinciality of their clients. No, let me amend that: it is blindingly clear that they do everything in their considerable power to reinforce that provinciality, not least by their slavish capitulation to the dictates of the enslaving presentism of political correctness.