(Sohrab Ahmari is an editorial writer and Border Lands Columnist at the Wall Street Journal. His new book is The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts.)
Your new book, The New Philistines: How Identity Politics Disfigure the Arts, argues that contemporary art is obsessed with the politics of identity. It argues, ‘The quest for truth, freedom and the sacred has been thrust aside to make room for identity politics. Mystery, individuality and beauty are out; radical feminism, racial grievance and queer theory are in. The result is a drearily predictable culture and the narrowing of the space for creative self-expression and honest criticism.’ What promoted you to write it?
Sohrab Ahmari: The immediate impetus was a dreadful performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, the replica theatre built near the site of the Bard’s original Globe. I relished going to the Globe until Emma Rice took over as artistic director, and that Midsummer was her debut production: full of bad rewriting, desperate attempts at “relevance” (Shakespeare meets Beyonce) and hard-left identity politics. I felt like I’d lost an institution I’d loved, and then it dawned on me that the identity-politics hucksters are on the march and will continue to conquer beloved institutions unless people like me speak up and object.
Also, I’m an intellectual pugilist by nature — not always a good thing — and the hostile takeover of Western culture by identity politics brought out that side of me. So I wrote this book.
LP: In the book, you take aim at the ‘identitarians’ (a great term) who you accuse of ‘thinking they already have the answers: a set of all-purpose formulas about race, gender, class and sexuality on the one hand, and power and privilege, on the other?’ Just how dangerous are the identitarians to great art, in particular, and to the culture, in general?
SA: I should start by noting that I didn’t coin the term “identitarian”. It’s fairly common in leftish critical theory, i.e., the realm of the identitarians, though, of course, I use it pejoratively, whereas in postmodern academe it’s used approvingly.
That aside, the danger is enormous. Culture is the whole constellation of practices, norms and institutions that help people think through big questions — about truth, beauty and the good. Culture has been essential to my own attempts at living an examined life, and I dare say that’s the case with most people. The problem with identitarianism is that it treats all these things with contempt. More than that, it pushes them aside. It reduces all these mysteries — the things great art and culture have grappled with for millennia — into grievance and propaganda.
So again, to go back to Emma Rice: She conceived of the flower juice in Midsummer as a date-rape drug. She reduced the mystery of desire, which is at the heart of the play, to a feminist lesson. It’s all so dreary and small.
LP: Towards the end of the book, you say “If our politics seem to get more intolerant and illiberal by the day, if social alienation is on the rise, and if people are coarser to each other than ever before – these are all things that can be traced, at least in part, to the conquest of the arts by the Philistines.” This is a pretty bold claim, can you give me some examples?
SA: I can’t quantify this, of course. But the main piece of evidence I’d point to is this: Open up your social-media newsfeed, or go to nearly any cultural criticism website, and chances are you’ll spot the new philistinism right away: “Did you know that yoga is cultural appropriation!” “Your sushi restaurant is actually part of a structure of colonial oppression!” “Why the new Spiderman movie is terrible for trans people!” And on and on. For millions of people, all thinking about culture is summed in the question: Does this affirm the feelings of the “oppressed” or not? Nothing higher, nothing transcendent or universal.
LP: Finally, as we are close inauguration, what is your greatest hope for the Trump presidency?
SA: A conservative Supreme Court. The cultural Left has gone far too far in the U.S., and I’m genuinely worried about the future of religious liberty, among other constitutional principles. So the prospect of the president-elect restoring the court’s conservative majority gives me hope.
LP: And your greatest fear?
SA: I’m worried about Trump’s vulgar side, the way his wild, narcissistic tweets might dilute the prestige and democratic nobility of this great office. I’m also concerned about his attitudes toward Russia and authoritarian regimes generally. Does he think about the West, and liberal order, the way American presidents have for some seven decades since World War II?