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February 2019 Issue [Easy Chair]

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

I have a new fear. And this one’s a doozy.

I write a fortnightly column for the British barely right-­of-­center magazine (that’s left-­of-­center, in the United States) The Spectator. Having weathered more than one social-­media shit storm, I’m one column away from the round of mob opprobrium that sinks my career for good. As Roseanne Barr and Megyn Kelly can testify, it doesn’t take a thousand words, either. A single unacceptable sentiment, a word usage misconstrued, a sentence taken out of context suffices these days to implode a reputation decades in the making and to trigger ­McCarthyite blacklisting. When I’ve floated this anxiety past the odd friend and colleague, their universal response has been a sorrowful shake of the head. Repeatedly I hear, “You’re exactly the sort of person this happens to.”

But that isn’t the fear in its entirety. Suppose a perceived violation of progressive orthodoxy translates into the kind of institutional cowardice on display in the forced resignation of Ian Buruma from The New York Review of Books. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Waterstones in the United Kingdom, my literary agent, my publishers in translation, and ­HarperCollins worldwide would decide they could no longer afford association with a pariah. My current manuscript wouldn’t see print, nor would any future projects I’m foolish enough to bother to bash out. Journalistic opportunities would dry up. Yet what I most dread about this bleak scenario is my thirteen published titles suddenly becoming unavailable—both online (gosh, would piracy sites be morally fastidious, too?) and in shops.

Because that’s the direction we’re traveling in. For reasons that escape me, artists’ misbehavior now contaminates the fruits of their labors, like the sins of the father being visited upon the sons. So it’s not enough to punish transgressors merely by cutting off the source of their livelihoods, turning them into social outcasts, and truncating their professional futures. You have to destroy their pasts. Having discovered the worst about your fallen idols, you’re duty-­bound to demolish the best about them as well.

After Roseanne Barr’s notorious tweet last May slagging off former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett in racial terms (Barr claims, charmingly, that she “thought the bitch was white”), ABC canceled her new revival sitcom, Roseanne. Viacom pulled reruns of the revival across all its channels, as well as reruns of her original series. Roseanne the person may continue to mouth off, but, however iconic, Roseanne the series has been disappeared from television listings (though it is still available online). Last fall’s eleven-­episode spin-­off, The Conners, used the same cast minus a certain someone, burying the character six feet under with an opioid overdose. Now that’s what I call overkill.

After being exposed, if you will, for masturbating before multiple underwhelmed women, the comedian Louis C.K. had his film I Love You, Daddy withdrawn a week before its American wide release and subsequently shelved. HBO dropped his series Lucky Louie and several stand-­up specials from its on-­demand platform. Once Bill Cosby was convicted of sexual assault, he was sentenced not only to three to ten years but to cultural near-­oblivion. Amazon has held out, and DVDs are kicking around stores, but otherwise no trace remains of The Cosby Show on any other channel or platform. Although Garrison Keillor initially claimed that he merely touched a woman’s bare back to console her, and later confessed to a “mutual email flirtation with a freelance writer,” Minnesota Public Radio booted its elderly stalwart out the door, ended distribution and broadcasts of The Writer’s Almanac and rebroadcasts of The Best of A Prairie Home Companion, and blocked public access to Keillor’s radio archive. When the author Junot Díaz was accused of sexual impropriety last spring—of which investigations by MIT and the Pulitzer Prize board have since exonerated him—bookstores began removing his books from their shelves. Indicted by multiple women for salacious behavior in his studio, the photo ­realist painter Chuck Close had a major solo retrospective “indefinitely postponed”—a synonym for “canceled”—at the National Gallery in D.C., which also “postponed” a Thomas Roma photography show after similar accusations were made against him. It’s this bad: in last summer’s New York Times article “Food Writing in the #MeToo Era,” Kim Severson asked, with no apparent drollery, “Should home cooks throw out the cookbooks from chefs exposed for regularly grabbing and propositioning women?”

Back in the day when your mother spotting your name in the newspaper was mortifying, sheer social embarrassment was punishment enough. But in the rush to judgment of the modern shaming mill, disgrace is no longer sufficient. In numerous instances during the #MeToo scandals, accusation has stood in for due process, and criminal offenses like rape (Cosby and Weinstein) and unwelcome advances (Keillor) have been thrown indiscriminately into the same basket. Thus the career consequences of violating the law and violating subjective norms of “appropriateness” have too often been identical. Culprits are sentenced to cultural erasure.

In some instances, that erasure has been unnervingly literal. Having learned that Steven Wilder Striegel is a sex offender, Twentieth Century Fox completely eliminated a scene from The Predator in which the actor appeared. Since “the predator” might justly be his handle, Kevin Spacey was removed from Ridley Scott’s completed All the Money in the World, at considerable expense. Disney deleted Louis C.K.’s voice from the animated TV show Gravity Falls and redubbed the part. In late 2017, when the actor Ed Westwick was accused—but not convicted—of sexual assault, the BBC took out all the scenes in which he’d performed in an Agatha Christie adaptation (titled, ironically, Ordeal by Innocence) and reshot them with a replacement actor—a great show of purism on the public’s dime, in the service of a dreary miniseries I couldn’t bring myself to finish watching.

Most judicial systems distinguish between high crimes and misdemeanors. Trials in the court of public opinion appear to do no such thing. It’s not fashionable to defend Roseanne Barr, but I’ve studied that tweet of hers, which was clumsy, insensitive, and self-­destructively idiotic (at this point, who doesn’t realize that putting the word “ape” anywhere near an African-­American is social suicide?). Still, I can’t help but wonder if the price Barr paid for that careless one-­liner (supposedly a joke, but not a funny one, and it’s the unfunny jokes that will do you in) wasn’t a bit high. She lost her show, relinquished her rights to the franchise, and is now, as far as I can tell, roundly unemployable. On top of all that, ABC and Viacom have attempted to quarantine the better part of her life’s work—­as if the purported racism of its leading actor were radioactive.

What artists of every stripe care about most is what they have made. The contemporary impulse to rebuke disgraced creators by vanishing their work from the cultural marketplace exhibits a mean-­spiritedness, a vengefulness even, as well as an illogic. Why, if you catch someone doing something bad, would you necessarily rub out what they’ve done that’s good? If you’re convicted of breaking and entering, the judge won’t send bailiffs around to tear down the tree house you built for your daughter and to pour bleach on your homemade pie.

For artists, the erasure of their work may be a harsher penalty than incarceration or fines. Eliminating whole series from streaming platforms, withdrawing novels from bookstores, and canceling major gallery retrospectives constitute, for those in the creative professions, cruel and unusual punishment.

Though I’ve never been especially interested in making connections between the biographical details of artists’ lives and what they make, I accept that art and artist are not unrelated. But with Roseanne Barr having been officially christened a racist, it seems to me that to pull her original series you would still have to separately prove that Roseanne the program was racist. To remove any of Louis C.K.’s series from streaming platforms, you should have to demonstrate that Louie the program is abusive of women. Instead, the content of these banished products is clearly immaterial. The films, series, books, and paintings are tainted by association.

This erasure impulse hails primarily from terror: that the roving black cloud of calumny will move on to any individual or institution complicit in distributing a vilified artist’s work. If you join in denouncing whoever’s got it in the neck this week, presumably they won’t come for you. Severing ties even to an artist’s output also provides cultural middlemen a precious opportunity for public moral posturing, to the benefit of the brand. Erasure is also a form of rewriting history—a popular impulse of late. In this touched-­up version of events, we were never taken in by these disgusting specimens. In the historical rewrite, there was always something fishy about Bill Cosby; he was never America’s dad.

Only a restricted range of misbehaviors qualifies one for being disappeared: any perceived intolerance of minorities, and any delinquency to do with sex. Other misdeeds are less likely to be career ending: fraud, tax evasion, or drug possession, say. Winona Ryder recovered from being caught shoplifting. Domestic violence will get you into trouble, but other outbursts of violence are survivable. Yet there’s no sensible reason that only bigotry and sexual misconduct should doom artists to cultural purdah. The question is whether we condition our consumption of what artists produce on their moral purity.

Do we really require the people who make our movies, fiction, and artworks to be above reproach in their personal lives? If so, how are they to understand their own material—in the main, the lewd, scheming, cheating, thieving, covetous, malign, murderous, hateful, and rapacious human race? I worry that requiring artists to be perfect means either no art or bad art.

We seem to have established a protocol of imposing total social and professional exile for having said something deemed distasteful, or for small lapses of judgment wildly shy of illegality. Even during the post-­trial communal shunning of O. J. Simpson—when what was at issue was double murder—there was no campaign to take reruns of Roots, The Naked Gun, and The Towering Inferno off the airways. Nowadays, those who violate progressive pieties risk ejection from the tribe and the wholesale effacement of their handiwork. Mirroring the Scientology custom whereby anyone who bad-­­mouths the church is ostracized as a nonperson, the practice smacks of a cult.

And is one’s exile for life? It’s still up for grabs which targets of juggernauts like #MeToo will ever be considered to have paid their dues and be allowed to rejoin the faithful. Last September’s ouster of Ian Buruma suggests not. Weak-but-still-interesting essays by perpetrators of sexual misconduct in The New York Review of Books and this magazine triggered social-­media outrage. The ­NYRB publisher capitulated by sacking his editor.

On the other hand, after six months of punitive unavailability, Minnesota Public Radio restored access to the archives of Keillor’s shows. Performing at multiple comedy clubs less than a year after his #MeToo downfall, Louis C.K. has tested the waters on how long one of these exclusion orders may last. Though he has sometimes received standing ovations at these appearances, a few patrons have walked out, and the gall of resuming stand-­up so soon kicked off a range of huffy op-­eds. Nevertheless, his audiences’ broad openness to a comeback suggests that, at least for the more beguiling artists, the careers of the fallen aren’t necessarily scotched forever. But I’m even more concerned about the blacklisted work: Is the unavailability permanent? Or, having sat mutely on its metaphorical dunce chair at the back of the class, can The Cosby Show ever be rerun on network television once its serial-­rapist star has also served his time?

If the price exacted for short-­­of-­criminal offenses has sometimes seemed disproportionate (Garrison Keillor’s sacking was dubious; Al Franken should never have had to resign his Senate seat), most art involves multiple creators, many of whom may be blameless. Even books require a host of ancillary staff to publish. Shelving TV shows and films penalizes all the other actors, the director, writers, crew, and cameramen. Their work is also erased. Remedying this injustice (and capitalizing on a successful series), Amazon is going ahead with a fifth season of Transparent absent the wandering hands of Jeffrey Tambor. Good luck with that. Tambor played the only faintly bearable character in the drama, and without him the show abandons its premise.

Which brings us to the party that really pays for the new puritanism: the arts consumer.

Assume you actually buy into Dylan Farrow’s dodgy recollections of having been sexually assaulted by her father at seven, despite those allegations’ having been exhaustively investigated. Assume as well that you endorse the notion that exposure to the work of the less than pure of heart gives you cooties. Then you’re well within your rights to refuse to watch Woody Allen movies. You may withhold your tiny financial contribution to the director’s livelihood, just as we’re all free to decide not to buy Israeli goods to protest settlements in the West Bank (just see how much difference it makes). Product boycotts for political, social, or environmental reasons have a long history.

But in the instances we’re examining here, the distributor makes that decision for us. As if we need to be protected. (Or the distributor needs to protect itself—from association with sin. Clearly the real motivation here is to appear immaculate.) In truth, we’re being punished too, along with the alleged perpetrators. We’ve been robbed of a halfway watchable season of Transparent that includes Jeffrey Tambor. I wanted to see the new Louis C.K. movie. But presumptuously, patronizingly, I’m not allowed. Who’s really deprived when we can’t access The Best of A Prairie Home Companion? What does that accomplish? In ditching the revival of Roseanne, we’ve lost the one program that exhibited the kind of diversity of which this country is starved: it sponsored a real live Trump supporter. After much soul searching, I can’t see who benefits if I throw away Mario Batali’s recipe for lemon tart.

I’m faintly open to the idea that Kevin Spacey may present a workplace safety issue, but he’s still not been convicted of sexual assault. Please, couldn’t he have been allowed on set under guard? Because the party that’s really been roundly punished for his purported transgressions is the audience for House of Cards. I had the disagreeable experience of watching the first few episodes of Season 6 on a long flight recently. Since Spacey’s character of Frank Underwood has been erased, the show is even more dreadful than I feared. Now, I’ve long been of the view that the American version lost its mojo as soon as Frank-­cum-­Iago stopped scheming behind the scenes and actually became president. Yet thereafter Spacey could still carry the show with his over-­the-­top camp. Whether from weak acting, the gaping hole in the cast, or her constrictingly icy character—whose further development comes down to watching her go for another bleeding run—Robin Wright can’t carry it. I want my protagonist back. I feel personally penalized for Kevin Spacey’s peripatetic prick.

I’m one of those throwbacks perfectly content to watch Rosemary’s Baby for a fourth time, even if Roman Polanski was convicted of statutory rape. It’s a good film. That’s what I care about. I’m a cultural materialist. I want the stuff, and in truth I wouldn’t be all that bothered if the director were an axe murderer. I can see differing with me on this point, but I want us all to be able to act according to our own rubrics.

More broadly, I can’t be the only one to find this contemporary convention of levying total banishment for often relatively small, noncriminal offenses against progressive mores a little creepy. I wish I would read a little more often about some actor vilified for making an unwelcome pass on set, and the agent, for example, says, “Know what? I’m sticking by my client. We’ll weather the storm.” Instead, I read repeatedly that “all ties have been severed,” all doors slammed in the scoundrel’s face. Herd behavior is by nature mindless. Parties to modern excommunication never seem to make considered decisions on the merits for themselves and in consideration of the depth of the relationship, but race blindly to join the stampede. Ian Buruma and NYRB publisher Rea Hederman had been friends for thirty years. That didn’t count for beans.

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