“In a speech celebrating Trump’s election victory and a new dawn for right-wing nationalism, selections from ‘The Fountainhead’ or ‘Mein Kampf’ would not have been out of place,” ventured Nicole M. Wright in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “but a shout-out to a powerful female author hailed by some as a ‘feminist icon’? Perhaps [Milo] Yiannopoulos had glanced at the title of Austen’s most famous novel and assumed that ‘Pride and Prejudice’ was a justification of white pride and prejudice against ethnic minorities.”
Wright’s essay may have been laden down with lame zingers like that, but it was, at the least, an effort to grapple with the way in which the works were being discussed and the appeal they might hold for the disaffected pseudointellectuals flocking to Donald Trump’s banner. Other Austen fans were far more perturbed — muttering and sputtering about their beloved lady of letters being tarred by such a brush.
“Many Janeites responded to the notion of an alt-right Austen as if they had been personally trolled,” the New York Times’ Jennifer Schuessler reported. ” ‘No one who reads Jane Austen’s words with any attention and reflection can possibly be alt-right,’ Elaine Bander, a retired professor and a former officer of the Jane Austen Society of North America, said in an email.”
Bander’s quote betrays a shockingly totalitarian view of the arts driven by the assumption that one can only read a work certain ways, radiating an angst the intensity of which is amplified by visceral distaste for the readers in question.
You see something similar at work in this little bit of silliness from io9, in which the author suggests “Ted Cruz Has Forever Tainted ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.’ ” Cruz’s desecration of this sacred text? Asking Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch the meaning of life, the universe and everything — the correct answer, of course, being 42. Cruz’s nominal crime, according to Katharine Trendacosta, was not taking the dog-and-pony show of a SCOTUS nomination hearing with the seriousness it is due. His real offense? Ruining a piece of culture for everyone who doesn’t like Cruz: “You will never be able to enjoy the fun—and easy—question ‘What’s the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?’ again.”
When someone says “you will never be able to enjoy” a piece of art because another person with different politics also enjoys that piece of art, I’m overwhelmed with feelings of pity: How strange, how sad that one could stop liking, even a little bit, a renowned work because a person with politics different from your own also likes it. I feel pity, but little in the way of surprise. After all, there’s nothing the partisan apparatchik who has chosen to politicize everything hates more than being reminded that his or her opponents are, well, human.
This is why some on the left lost their minds when New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi unveiled a long profile of Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway. Complaints started rolling in almost immediately: How dare this journalist unpack a complicated public figure with empathy and skill? Doesn’t Nuzzi understand how wicked and evil and doubleplusungood Conway is?
“My favorite criticism I get for profiles is that I’ve ‘humanized’ someone you don’t like,” Nuzzi tweeted in response to this silly vein of criticism. “Guess what? People are complicated!”
“Civilization is defined by law and art,” Camille Paglia wrote in the introduction to “Glittering Images,” her 2012 survey of art from ancient Egypt to George Lucas. “Laws govern our external behavior, while art expresses our soul.” No one likes to be reminded that our enemies — those ghoulish fiends we routinely slag on social media, those monsters we slay on a daily basis for faves and retweets and lulz — have souls, that what sings to their spirit might also resonate with ours.
It would be a shame — indeed, it would be a repudiation of the civilizing aspects of art upon which our shared society rests — if our response to such resonances were to simply double down on our hatred and jettison the joy such works bring into our lives.