Cultural Exile for the Duke

The outrage directed at John Wayne's non-P.C. comments about blacks and homosexuality is not genuine.  Like the late actor's profession, it's mostly performative.

Recently resurfaced remarks made by the man who shot Liberty Valance in a 1971 Playboy interview have gotten the usual consternated crew in yet another huff.  Wayne endorsed "white supremacy," said blacks weren't ready for self-government, and ridiculed the 1970 Best Picture Winner Midnight Cowboy as a story "about two fags."  He also compared his poor bowling skills to being "like the Special Olympics."  Oh, wait!

In all too predictable fashion, a vociferous sect of parlance puritans reminded us that Wayne's language was bigoted, backwards, and blasphemous to modern sensibilities.  The R-word — the dermis-linked pejorative that has lost its effect due to overuse — was lazily used as a descriptor.  The subsequent result has been a vocal contingent of the angered demanding the removal of Wayne's name from his namesake airport in Orange County, California.

For all the rhetoric from Enlightenment defenders, ours is not an age of tolerance and acceptance.  We live in the obverse: an age of unforgiveness.  Twitter mobs wait at the ready to shame offenders out of the public square; fans of young adult fiction initiate struggle sessions against racially insensitive authors; saucy sexual comments made years, even decades, ago cost offenders their jobs.

Good thing for Wayne, he's too dead and buried to care what liberals in 2019 are saying about him.  Instead, he's probably sharing a Camel and throaty guffaw about it all with Maureen O'Hara in Heaven.

Death excuses Wayne of enduring the chthonic misery of nonstop language-policing as we living do.  It's been excusing many once famous figures recently.  However, it hasn't abated the rise of what's become known as "cancel culture."

By now, you are well familiar with the three steps of cancel culture: a beloved figure is discovered to have had benighted views some time in the past, possibly even in his youth; a small but growing chorus of disapprobation swells; then the cut occurs, whether it's in the form of a monument crumbling or a movie canned.

Cancel culture isn't always wrong.  It isn't always right, either.  As with so many other cultural factors, it depends on time and circumstances.  Two examples of late come to mind.

The release of the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland erases all doubt about Michael Jackson's predilection for preteen boys.  A stomach-turning profile of two of Jackson's victims, the film goes into tragic detail about how the pop singer used his celebrity to delude parents in order to prey on young, star-struck striplings.  The abuse, which included oral sex and fake wedding ceremonies, haunts the victims to this day.  "Leaving Neverland is a harsh reminder that supposed role models who ought to be held to the highest of standards can use that notoriety as a way of blinding people to the obvious, odious truth," critic Kyle Smith observes.

Pedophilia is still blessedly viewed as abhorrent in American society.  There's a serious case to be made that Jackson's musical oeuvre should, perhaps, be removed from radio station playlists.  Jackson's crimes — yes, crimes, not pitiful indulgences caused by an unfortunate prurience — are worthy of ostracization, despite the pop brilliance of "Billie Jean."

On the other side of the cancel culture aisle is the case being made by photographer Nan Goldin, who is encouraging museums to divest themselves of donations made by the infamous Sackler family.  Mortimer and Raymond Sackler founded Purdue Pharma, producers of the painkiller OxyContin, which is largely blamed for fueling the opioid crisis.  Prior to producing and marketing the drug, the brothers made generous donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and many others.  Some of these sizeable donations didn't come from the notorious brothers, though; Arthur Sackler, older brother of Mortimer and Raymond, has given generously to both the Met and the Smithsonian Institution.  His endowments are also under fire despite having nothing to do with the much abused painkiller.

In targeting the Sackler pharmaceutical legacy, Goldin overshoots, hitting someone not responsible for the wrongdoing she's drawing attention to.  Perhaps museums should rethink accepting donations directly linked to OxyContin.  But, as Terry Teachout writes, "by additionally fomenting unjustified protest against the philanthropic activities of Arthur Sackler's branch of the family, Ms. Goldin has pulled the pin on a grenade of ill-focused rage that could end up doing far more damage than good."

The lesson here is that if cancel culture is going to be used as a force for good, it should be focused on specific wrongdoings, circumscribed to only those who commit heinous acts.  More importantly, it should be done with an empathetic view of the past.  As Adam Gopnik explained, "we need to be charitable about the moral failings of our ancestors — not as an act of charity to them but as an act of charity to ourselves.  Our own unconscious assumptions and cultural habits are doubtless just as impregnated with bias as theirs were."

John Wayne's comments about gays and minorities were mostly in tune with his time.  Holding them against him would be the same as holding geocentrism against Aristotle or slavery against Paul.  The offenses can be forgiven, if only because we recognize our own imperfect judgment.

Jackson, on the other hand, may not be as deserving of qualified understanding.  Pedophilia was and is inexcusable.  Even so, as the Sackler episode shows, the pas d'ennemi à gauche approach to cancel culture is often misguided, clouded by sanctimonious passion.

Cultural exile is a social practice that should be used sparingly.  History is long and full of mistakes.  In liberals' quest to perfect mankind, that insight is often overlooked.

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