Canada’s China-like Cultural Revolution?

Published: Saturday, October 17, 2020, 9:02 pm |   Author: Rick McGinnis

While our collective anxiety was being ramped up amidst stories of plague and rioting, 2020 reached deep into its awful cornucopia this summer with a reprise of cancel culture. That apparently ceaseless turkey shoot, insuring that anyone employed in politics, the arts, academia, journalism and science – so far agriculture, fisheries and forestry seem immune, but the year isn’t over yet – should stay awake at night, worrying that a youthful tweet or a once-uncontroversial opinion might deprive them of friends, platform and livelihood.

It was during this resurgence of outrage that writer Hal Niedzviecki decided to speak up and tempt the guard tower spotlight to fall on him again. Niedzviecki had his moment of infamy three years ago, when an article he wrote in a small magazine published by the Writer’s Union of Canada saw him accused of belittling the then-critical concept of “cultural appropriation.” His remark, worrying that zealous attacks on writers and artists creatively straying from their identity lanes would ultimately “curtail debate and homogenize opinion,” led to a campaign that painted him as a racist.

What began online turned into stories in the arts section of major newspapers. The result was depressingly inevitable. “Suddenly I no longer received invitations to write articles, speak, teach or publish. I’d been cancelled, and barely anyone said a public word in my defence. My 25 years of work supporting independent voices in the arts was erased in an instance. So be it.”

In an article published in the online magazine Quillette in June, Niedzviecki returned from his creative Elba to note that his principal accuser had turned on one of her greatest allies in the social media campaigns against cultural transgressors like himself. What transpired was that this ally had apparently made up their aboriginal and Metis heritage – a key component of their status and authority in our cultural caste system. His accuser had written a long letter apologizing for her defense of her former friend, now less visibly a minority, and promptly kicked over the traces by deleting her Twitter account.

Niedzviecki could be excused for enjoying this small but sordid plot turn – and the existence of the first few paragraphs of the Quillette article could be uncharitably considered just that – but he goes on to insist that “I don’t wish my fate to be visited upon anyone, even this pair. Instead I’m angry and disgusted all over again. Whatever purge results from this latest outrage will only heighten the climate of fear and repression that artists already endure.”

“Instead of the creative, risk-taking cultural scene one would expect from a country with a generous network of support for the arts, not to mention a tradition of democracy and free expression, Canada is plagued by the opposite,” writes Niedzviecki.

“After I was cancelled, writers emailed me to tell me that they’d originally included indigenous and/or people of colour as characters in their novels, but had subsequently struck those characters out. They did not want to go through what happened to me (and others.) At one point, I even got an email through an anonymous server. The sender was someone who said they wanted me to know they were a person of colour who worked at a major news organization and they completely agreed with me. But they were too afraid to use their name or say where they worked.”

If I wanted to be cruel, I might suggest at this point that Canada’s “generous network of support for the arts,” being primarily a matter of government subsidy, was clearly never more than a top-down show of conditional largesse that never had much support from the bottom up. Even more cruelly, I’d wonder if Canada’s democracy was less a tradition than a habit, and if freedom of expression was ever really encouraged as much as it’s spoken about as the sort of thing we value – as long as it doesn’t cause too much trouble.

But what’s really interesting about the punishment meted out to Niedzviecki is how much it looks like a putsch or a show trial – the sort of thing that happens when status and favour are keys to success in a closed social or political organization, and eliminating competition is a key to climbing another rung on the ladder.

A career in the arts has never been easy. Starving in garrets and dying in obscurity are clichés of the bohemian life that came into being with Romanticism, and have survived through industrial and communications revolutions on into the digital age. Every aspiring actor, painter, writer and musician knows that the odds are stacked against them; riches and fame might be unreasonable goals, but surely the ability to pay the rent while seeking the next role, exhibition, gig, byline or book deal isn’t too much to ask?

Lately, however, it has been. In his 2015 book Culture Crash: Killing the Creative Class, Scott Timberg tries to break down how economic, social, cultural, and political trends, going back decades but increasing in pace since before the turn of the millennium, have conspired to create a perfect storm that’s made artistic livelihoods more precarious than ever.

Early on in his book, Timberg states that the erosion of the middle class and of middlebrow culture – both huge factors in the creation of bohemia and the careers of its denizens, however much they might make a show of holding that bourgeoisie in contempt – has been disastrous for artists and the arts. The online world and a concentration of wealth at the top of both the creative class and society as a whole has doomed the network of bookshops and record stores, small magazines, newspaper and advertising industry gigs, art galleries, clubs, cafes and restaurants to near-extinction, and with it the support network for struggling creatives, almost inevitably in the cities, striving to create work and reputation.

It’s unlikely that artists, individually or as a class, could have resisted powerful economic and technological trends that have also decimated manufacturing. But in a chapter titled “Self-Inflicted Wounds,” Timberg says that the modernist revolution of the postwar years, which became structuralist, post-structuralist and then post-modern in succession with each decade, was embraced by artists, often during impressionable years of youth and school, to their ultimate detriment.

Powerful work was produced in painting, film, music and architecture, but “the net effect of this revolution was to destroy the middlebrow consensus ,” Timberg writes, “the sense that there was a shared body of artistic and intellectual touchstones that educated middle-class people should know about, that ‘serious’ fare was somehow good for you, and that these works were to be passed down through education, journalistic coverage, and family rituals.”

And so who creates the art and how they identify (whether or not they’re telling the truth) is as important, if not more so, than the work they create and the labour necessary for creation. With old standards of beauty and skill discredited, standards of relevance and “authenticity” have become crucial, and with it the ability to promote or demolish careers based on identity (authentic or assumed) and opinions (current or past.)

Which is a great way of distributing weapons to the inmates of industries shrinking in size and opportunity annually.

Feuding and denunciations aren’t traits new to the tiresome but abiding stereotype of the temperamental artist. So when a game of musical chairs is being played for careers in the arts, it’s inevitable that shanks will get pulled and ambushes will happen in the showers. This is one of the worst things about a career in the arts: The certainty that your work and reputation will be at the mercy of people you do not respect, like or know.

While nowhere near as vicious or catastrophic – but once again, the year’s not over yet – this moment has a more than faint echo of China’s Cultural Revolution, where the frustrated energy of a vast youthful demographic was unleashed on an older generation by cynical politicians eager to obscure their failures.

In an essay titled The Structure of Cultural Revolutions, published in July in the online Areo Magazine, Quebec law clerk Clovis Roussy states that “a cultural revolution does not occur spontaneously. It starts when part of the population – usually young intellectuals – develops an abstract understanding of some systemic threat.”

Belief in the urgent need to defeat that threat becomes paramount, and needs to be pursued at any cost. Accusations become imperative to the ideological battle, and no protestation of innocence can be allowed to stand at face value.

“The game is endless,” Roussy writes. “Whatever the topic, there’s always something to be said about how ideas have been tainted by injustice and exclusion. They will keep retreating to meta-discussions, without ever getting to grips with the object of the discussion itself, or trying to harmonize their objections with substantive views about the topic at hand. Pretense to objectivity and truth can be taken as a sinister strategy intended to ensure the domination of one identity group over another, by imbuing its ideas with an air of authority.”  Roussy concludes:  “It is a dark, scary and depressing vision of the world: a world where knowledge is not possible.”

It’s not surprising that the lockdown, which sped up the decimation of the network of gigs and venues Scott Timberg eulogized in Culture Crash, would also turn up the intensity of cancel culture in the arts. Even with so little to fight for, the stakes have become higher than ever. Nothing Timberg wrote about in his book has gotten better in the last five years;  I wanted to see if he had written anything as a follow-up, or had insights about what lockdown would mean for that creative class.

A quick Google search informed me that Timberg had killed himself five days before Christmas last year, leaving behind a wife and child. Ultimately, it seemed, he had seen despair, discovered that there were reasons for it, and had been unable to escape its horrible insinuation. Striving to find a satisfactory conclusion in the epilogue to the paperback edition of his book, Timberg hoped that things might improve with “nerve and follow-through and some luck.” It didn’t read like a robustly optimistic ending to his story, and I’m afraid I don’t have anything more to add.

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