The Morality Wars Revisited

The musician and producer Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) recently posted to her Instagram a snapshot of a book review by George Packer in The Atlantic which sparked a minor political scuffle among her followers. The review, ostensibly of Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, was framed as highlighting the novel’s enduring importance while also exhorting readers to remember that the Thought Police are coming for us from both sides of the aisle. It’s the kind of rote, moral didacticism you might expect from a writer like Packer, but the excerpt that Clark posted was focused specifically on the relationship between art and politics: “Many on the left now share an unacknowledged but common assumption that a good work of art is made of good politics and that good politics is a matter of identity. The progressive view of a book or play depends on its political stance, and its stance—even its subject matter—is scrutinized in light of the group affiliation of the artist: Personal identity plus political position equals aesthetic value.”

Some applauded the excerpt’s sentiment (“Queen of endorsing complexity and rejecting absolutism”) while others were clearly outraged by Clark’s post: “Lol at people congratulating you for sharing some libertarian koolaid bullshit. . . . It’s evident from you posting this crybaby thought police rant that you have very little idea how art and politics actually can intersect.” One commenter felt they might read the rest of the article on the condition that its “author existed under at least 1 axis of oppression (lmao he doesn’t).”

What’s strangest about Packer’s essay is its failure to acknowledge another recent debate that tackled the same issue—of whether or not personal identity plus political position equals aesthetic value—but more extensively and in better faith. Back in October of 2018, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Wesley Morris struck a cultural nerve with the publication of “The Morality Wars” in the New York Times Magazine. Morris focused on what he saw as a growing trend in pop-culture criticism that uses representation—of race, gender, sexuality, ability, etc.—as a kind of litmus test of moral and political progress. For many, he argued, this thinking has the ring of justice to it.

But Morris is far more ambivalent about the issue himself: “Everything means too much now. Everything. Our politics, obviously. But our genders, our food, our television. Our television.” He concludes by voicing his anxiety about “how blindingly monolithic the thinking around representation and diversity has become”: Now, “at awards shows, the nominated works have become referendums on the moral state of the business; their quality has become secondary.” The essay has been divisive; some critics hailed it as a brave and necessary intervention into a calcifying critical discourse, while others were startled by such a conservative take from a writer known for his own identity-centered criticism.

Given Packer’s lackluster engagement with what is a genuinely fascinating and contentious issue, it’s perhaps worth taking a moment to review a few of the better pieces that embody the core of this unfolding debate.

“The Morality Wars” by Wesley Morris

As far as moral panics about moral panics go, Wesley Morris’s is about as nuanced as they come. The essay’s opening anecdote, about a friend who harangues him for criticizing Issa Rae’s performance in Insecure, is framed as the end of civility—or at least of the civilized dinner party. But instead of immediately launching into yet another screed against the-kids-these-days, he takes a ponderous look at the State of the Discourse and draws some fascinating parallels between contemporary battles over morality and the Culture Wars of the ’80s and ’90s. Overall, Morris’s arguments skew conservative enough to raise a few eyebrows—a fact he’s well aware of. In a recent interview with the Longform Podcast, Morris said of his essay: “I got really scared . . . I was going to be [seen as] … the Herman Cain of culture criticism. . . . I was really afraid that it could be interpreted as giving license to one species of abhorrent person, but also casting me in a way that I don’t see myself.”

To be fair, Morris does question how this shift in critical priorities came to be in good faith and takes care to thoughtfully consider the historical conditions that have made this conversation so fraught. But the comparisons to the Culture Wars wear thin before being dropped entirely as he leaps between a clumsy, nebulous critique of cancel culture and the question of whether or not good art and good politics are mutually exclusive. By essay’s end he’s no longer talking about who’s allowed to criticize mediocre art that has good representational politics (e.g., Issa Rae), but about who’s allowed to criticize good art that has good politics but bad fans (Beyoncé and the Beyhive). To make matters even more confusing, Morris eschews a consideration of these different kinds of moral backlash in favor of a baffling apologia for The Cosby Show, ironically defending it on the very moral grounds he’s spent the rest of the essay pooh-poohing. Still, amid the din of Morris’s various anxieties, the question he started with seems to be the most pressing (and unresolved): Is the pressure to demonstrate good politics through representation hamstringing our artists and critics?

“In Defense of the New Moralizers” by Inkoo Kang

On that particular question, Slate’s Inkoo Kang is relatively quiet. Instead, she spends her rebuttal to Morris’s essay thoughtfully picking apart the strawman argument Morris has set up: “Most of [‘The Morality Wars’] lays the blame on a vague ‘we,’ a nebulous ‘they,’ ‘some readers,’ and ‘certain corners of twitter.’ . . . Whoever they are . . . I don’t recognize the collapse of nuanced debate that Morris presents.” Indeed, even if it has ring of truth to it, the attempted synecdoche of Morris’s dinner-party anecdote to the culture at large is dubious at best (Morris has been called out on his habit of overgeneralization since). But Kang doubles down, arguing that emphasis on representation has enriched—not harmed—our critical discourse. Kang cites countless examples of nuanced representation-first criticism (a clever coinage that skirts the condescending connotations of “moralizing”), including some of Morris’s own writing for the New York Times.

Kang delivers a rigorous critique of Morris’s generational divide, but it’s in her concessions to his argument that she offers the most insight. Even as she demonstrates that complex conversations about morality and pop culture are in fact still happening, she also admits that “Morris is correct that the current hierarchies of celebrity depend somewhat on moral valuations, elevating certain figures, such as Beyoncé, beyond criticism,” and that “there’s no doubt that the internet has in many respects coarsened conversations about movies and TV.” On these points, where both Kang and Morris seem to be in agreement, the question still remains: What are we to do about the effects of prioritizing “good” representations that are not so uncomplicatedly salutary?

“What Do We Want from Critics in the Morality Wars?” by K. Austin Collins

Vanity Fair film critic K. Austin Collins tackles this issue by coming at it sideways; instead of talking about work from marginalized artists, he looks at Dan Fogelman, exemplar of the Cishet White Guy Film Director, and his TV show This Is Us. The movie itself is largely unremarkable, just your typical maudlin tragedy masquerading as inspiration, and was roundly panned by critics. But Fogelman’s response to the dismissal of his film was to invoke a particular strain of identitarian rhetoric, claiming that the reason no one liked his movie about attractive women who suffer and die was because “white male critics . . . don’t like anything that has any emotion.”

Collins is of course wise to the irony of someone like Fogelman protecting his work from criticism under the aegis of social justice, thus “paying lip service to diversity among the critical ranks to his own possible commercial benefit . . . even though a white guy directed the damn thing.” Collins widens the scope of the conversation. He goes beyond asking merely whether it’s minority artists asking for a pass or minority critics feeling they have to grant one, all for the sake of representational justice—and reminds us that those in positions of privilege are doing this exact thing all the time, and to more cynical ends. If anything should concern us about this particular aesthetic and political conundrum, it should be the ever-widening loophole seen here. What’s most refreshing is Collins’s incisiveness: “Deciding whether a movie is any good doesn’t mean having one’s head in the sand about the real world. It means the opposite: keeping all that social and political context in mind—and holding the work of art accountable to whether it actually does anything with any of it.” There’s an all-too-easy slippage in this debate between our anxieties about the quality of art and our anxieties about how we talk about that art. In a sense, no art can really exist outside the various discourses it’s embedded in, but it also seems important to remember that fretting over the quality of art and fretting over the quality of all the chatter about that art are still discrete anxieties—if only because we can then recognize that our solution to one need not come at the expense of the other. As Collins writes, “Identity isn’t taste. And the history of exclusion isn’t taste, either,” something as true for artists as it is for critics. The concern over occupying a conservative position simply because one doesn’t appreciate being backed into a moral corner is certainly justified, but perhaps Wesley Morris’s fear of being branded “the Herman Cain of cultural criticism” might be assuaged by Collins elegant, final exhortation to critics plagued by these fears: “Be honest. And be smart.”

Joshua Palmer is a critic and poet based in Pittsburgh whose work has appeared in Burning House Press, Muse/A Journal, and Popula.