The ideal that art should serve no higher purpose than its own existence has always been something of a utopian goal. Aspiring authoritarians have a nagging tendency to want to harness the power of artistic expression for their own peculiar aims. This is an anti-republican impulse the left once shunned, but it appears to be making a comeback.
The Soviets were famously censorious, but the Kremlin also used art and expression to advance its political objectives. But if the methods they applied were unique, the goals of Soviet bureaucrats were not.
“Soviet efforts to instill new cultural norms for everyday life were part of long-standing aspirations throughout Europe to solve social problems and reshape society,” wrote David Lloyd Hoffmann in Stalinist Values: The Cultural Norms of Soviet Modernity, 1917-1941. “Since the nineteenth century European political leaders, social reformers, and industrialists had sought to instill values of cleanliness, sobriety, and discipline in the working poor. Their efforts were motivated not only by instrumental hopes of molding a healthy and productive workforce but by aesthetic and altruistic ambitions to uplift the masses, to educate them, and to better their lives.”
Art, you see, is optimized when it is a vehicle for societal evolution. Those who would harness the power of expression for utilitarian ends do not perceive themselves autocrats but rather pragmatists. The starry-eyed creatives in their charge must be guided toward productive pursuits and the useful application of their talents. Of course, what begins as suggestion soon evolves into a directive. It is not long before the empowered well-meaning progressive compels society’s artist to use their gifts wisely or suffer the repercussions.
Those who were fortunate enough to outlive European communism recall that, of the many indignities they were forced to endure, forcible state-sponsored censorship was not nearly the most excruciating. It was the fact that this condition inevitably resulted in self-censorship that was the most painful consequence of authoritarianism. For fear of the Stasi’s ubiquitous eyes and ears, the average East German learned to not only cease expressing themselves in an uninhibited manner but to bury those thoughts that might cause them or their loved ones hardship. That is the most complete form of submission.
Stifling free expression for the good of the state is once more a Russian value. The imposition of laws designed to enforce selective codes of morality has again forced Russian artists to self-censor Or else. One particularly literary theater and film director recently described the condition of being forced to choose between self-censorship and running afoul of authorities as being trapped “between Scylla and Charybdis.”
This doesn’t happen overnight. The cultural degradation wrought by the best intentions of the reformers takes years to metastasize into censorship. The mechanisms through which the vulnerable are shielded from discomforting thought develop over the course of decades. The process often begins imperceptibly, but the trained eye can see it in its nascent stages. It is the application of that perspective that renders Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill’s ostensibly fatuous and self-serving condemnation of Game of Thrones so dangerous.
In service to the new demands associated with a culture of “social justice,” a concept distinct from objective justice, Missouri’s U.S. Senator castigated the HBO drama for daring to depict the unseemly aspects of life; namely, sexual assault. “Ok, I’m done Game of Thrones,” McCaskill wrote on her Twitter account. “[S]tupid. Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable.”
This casual admonition would be easily dismissed if running afoul of the ever-evolving concepts of social justice did not have dire career consequences for the accused. Livelihoods have been lost for offending the sensibilities of the left’s culture warriors, even years after the supposed offense has occurred. It is in this climate that the senator offered her opinion on the artistic virtue of the depiction of a brutal assault, a not atypical occurrence for this popular gritty drama on a premium cable network.
“We’re developing a culture of easy virtue,” National Review’s David French averred in 2013, “where concern for the poor can substitute for helping the poor, where the right words can cover the wrong actions, and where thumbing out 140 outraged characters constitutes ‘social action,’ so long as you choose the right target for your hate.”
Somewhere down the line, the retributive activists in our midst shifted tactics. Today, talk is cheap. Enforced conformity of thought and the criminalization of dangerous concepts is the new righteousness. For a modest fee, aspiring educators can today take a course on how to teach controversial subjects without being fired. It’s a worthwhile investment. To carelessly challenge assumptions today is to invite a backlash from the mollycoddled “safe space” advocates who wield unparalleled and wholly unwarranted deference from administrators. It seems those budding tyrants have an ally in the U.S. Senate.
The wall is marred with handwriting. The canaries are all dead. It’s impossible to ignore the ubiquitous signs indicating that another period in American life characterized by enforced censorship imposed by the well meaning is dawning.