Nicki Minaj’s Grammy Awards performance — complete with a mock exorcism, a mock confession and dancing monks — caused its intended cultural buzz. Some believe it is a transparent publicity stunt. Others believe it is the sign of a collapsing civilization. We should stop all this bickering. There is no reason it can’t be both.
The principle at stake is simple. If art is capable of elevating human beings, it is also capable of degrading human beings. It can’t be important when it inspires and trivial when it corrupts. And Minaj is corrupt. She was dabbling in fashionable bigotry before a wide and impressionable audience.
G.K. Chesterton provided a good description of decadence. “There comes an hour in the afternoon,” he said, “when a child is tired of ‘pretending.’ It is then that he torments the cat.. . . Men seek stranger sins or more startling obscenities as stimulants to their jaded sense. They try to stab their nerves to life, if it were with the knives of the priests of Baal. They are walking in their sleep and try to wake themselves up with nightmares.”
The lack of outrage among the organizers of and participants in the Grammy Awards is revealing. When Minaj walked the red carpet accompanied by someone dressed as the pope, the television hosts commented on her . . . dress. Anti-Catholicism is one of the last acceptable prejudices. A music star mocking Muslims or Hindus would presumably get a different reception.
This is not only true in the entertainment world. During the recent controversy over the federal contraceptive mandate on Catholic institutions, it was impossible for some in the media to even see the problem. Since the majority uses contraceptives, why should anyone care what the male-dominated, celibate Catholic hierarchy thinks? To hell with moral theology or freedom of religion. The Catholic church, in this view, is backward, out-of-touch and in desperate need of progressive regulation.
How did anti-clericalism become permissible in polite liberal society? That is a large topic. But one reason is probably the cultural isolation of the knowledge class. A New York-based journalist may have little daily contact with people who are offended when Notre Dame is forced to pay for abortion-inducing drugs. An L.A.-based entertainer may never encounter anyone who is deeply disturbed by anti-Catholic stereotypes. These cultural figures inhabit Minaj land, where religion is repression, bishops are ludicrous and sacrilege is entertainment.
These views are not thoughtful or serious. But when it comes to bigotry, it is possible to be pathetic and dangerous at the same time. Nicki Minaj has demonstrated it.