In her December 2017 New York Times op-ed, playwright Sarah Ruhl slammed President Trump for not attending Washington’s marquee arts awards gala, the Kennedy Center Honors. Trump, wrote Ruhl, lacked “the nerve, for a single night, to be in a room with artists who have criticized him.”
She blasted Trump, too, for his rebuke of the cast of Broadway’s “Hamilton,” after one of its members lectured Vice President Mike Pence from the stage. “Mr. Trump,” Ruhl fumed, “wanted the cast to apologize. Because, he tweeted, the theater must be a ‘safe and special place.’”
Against all of this, in Ruhl’s telling, stood the artistic paragon that is Barack Obama: “a poet-politician” who presided like Queen Elizabeth I over a “golden age of theater”; “a politician-writer . . . with enough humility and curiosity to interview” the novelist Marilynne Robinson for The New York Review of Books. Thinking of that, in particular, made Ruhl “want to weep.”
Ruhl intended to write an elegy for the so-called golden age of Obama. In fact, her piece inadvertently reveals the intellectual pretense of the Left and the Democratic Party.
Consider Ruhl’s rather astonishing opposition to a call for a safe space, one of the Left’s most cherished notions: “‘Safe and special?’ For whom? In an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ culture—when most artists have become a ‘them’ to the ruler, what hope is there for gentleness in civil discourse, a welcome difference of opinions, multiplicity, empathy and grace?”
Freedom of Speech, Watch What You Say
This is an excellent question for today’s Left. What hope is there for any of these virtues in the modern, “us-versus-them” cancel culture? For the proponents of woke doctrine, whatever that may be at a given moment, artistic and political culture alike must be made “safe” from any contrary opinion. Accusations of cultural appropriation are ruthlessly pursued. Dissenting voices are deplatformed. Nothing is immune from potential purge. Even “Hamilton”—which, as Ruhl tells us, was “exalted” by Obama—is today undergoing a frightful “reassessment” at Woke Headquarters.
Of course, there is now no “safer” space than the New York Times’ opinion page itself—a clinically maintained, utterly bowdlerized preserve of the Left establishment which recently lost whatever “nerve” it once had for anything like critical debate.
As former Times editor Bari Weiss noted in her parting missive to publisher A. G. Sulzberger, “intellectual curiosity—let alone risk-taking—is now a liability at the Times. . . . [S]tanding up for principle at the paper does not win plaudits. It puts a target on your back.” Weiss, “the subject of constant bullying by colleagues” given her “Wrongthink,” would know.
Or ask former opinion editor James Bennet, fired for publishing an op-ed by a sitting U.S. senator. Anyone looking to the Times for a “difference of opinions,” much less “empathy and grace,” had best look elsewhere or, for that matter, nowhere within the mainstream, “progressive” media.
This Ain’t Nuance
So, what happened? How could so many of those who venerated the supposedly nuanced, artistically minded intelligence of President Obama become so lacking in nuance, and artistically—not to mention intellectually—bankrupt? In reality, Obama’s “nuance” was always a convenient front for no-holds-barred, strong-arm politics.
When the Democrats took the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2008, including a filibuster-proof Senate majority, they were in no mood for humility, curiosity, or gentleness in civil discourse. Among other things, they remade the U.S. healthcare system, and thus a significant portion of the economy, on a party-line vote with essentially no congressional Republican input.
As Obama told Senator John McCain at a healthcare roundtable: “The election’s over.” Obama was right. The election was over and the Democrats won, and could govern without taking McCain’s concerns, or the concerns of any Republican, into account. Sophisticated, dialectical discourse was thus never the objective, only part of a strategy to render hyper-partisanship more palatable to America’s swing voters.
After the election of Donald Trump, the insatiable Left, its comfortable illusions of permanent power shattered, took off the gloves and “moved on” from its “poet-politician.” This was a point Obama himself missed, daring to suggest in 2019 that one “should get over . . . quickly” being “always politically woke and all that stuff.”
“The world,” Obama claimed, “is messy. There are ambiguities.” Au contraire, replied Millennial journalist Ernest Owens in—where else?—the New York Times. According to Owens, Obama’s words constituted “finger-wagging” from just another “powerful and privileged” man, someone of “the older camp” opposed to righteous “activism.”
From leading the American Elizabethan Restoration to the dustbin of history, almost overnight. That’s life in the woke lane for you.
No Safe Spaces
Whether by asking for a safe space at “Hamilton,” or by demanding real progress for America’s workers, Trump called the bluff of the post-liberal, post-worker, post-American Left. Now, as it sows chaos in America’s streets, or uses its power to compel intellectual conformity in every possible sphere, this movement is no longer bluffing. But it is trying to hide in plain sight. In Joe Biden, it has found, it thinks, the perfect, pliant candidate by which to smuggle in a truly extreme agenda—all the uncompromising politics of the Obama years, this time unhindered and unqualified by any “ambiguities.”
Today, the Democratic Party reads from a script without nuance. And rest assured: under its rule, those who defend the old virtues—artistic, patriotic, religious or otherwise—would soon find that there is, for them, absolutely no safe and special place.