As Steve Sailer notes, it’s not “cultural appropriation” if the “good” people are doing it. Take Normal Rockwell paintings, turn them into posed photographs, remove all the white people. Presto, you got some “culturally relevant” art.
I’m not as upset by this as Steve is. In a way, this project promotes cultural literacy, which is sorely lacking in America. Some percentage of the people who look at these photographs will no doubt be inspired to seek out Rockwell’s originals, the same way that Steve Harris launched thousands of stoners in the direction of Coleridge and Wordsworth with Iron Maiden’s take on ancient mariners. Furthermore, the freedom to make reference to existing art and/or to re-imagine it is the very foundation of culture as a whole. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about John Milton “remixing” the Bible to create Paradise Lost or The Notorious B.I.G. sampling Herb Alpert’s “Rise”. The notion that art can exist outside of context has been rightly torpedoed in even the most moronic of universities. Even your humble author stands on the shoulders of giants when he writes, often relying on phrases from Updike, Bellow, Roth, and others to get the point across.
All that aside, I have a particular gripe with the new take on Rockwell’s “Freedom Of Speech” painting. Allow me to explain.
The original Rockwell image depicts a town meeting of the type common in America before our employers all gave us ninety days to abandon your family and move to your choice of the country’s eight most expensive real estate markets. The man standing has rough clothes and rough hands — the social signals are easy for today’s young people to miss, but there was a time when only the working poor dressed like this. He could be a machinist, or a mechanic, or a plumber. He is speaking his mind to his fellow citizens, and whatever he’s saying is raising a few eyebrows, literally. But he has the right to say it.
It is a quintessentially American image, because prior to our grand experiment this ability to backtalk the local government simply didn’t exist. You could lose your land, your family, or your head for presuming to correct your betters. Yet here we are, in a country where this sort of behavior is taken for granted.
“Wait just a minute, Hitler,” I can hear you saying, “that ability existed only for white men. People of color, womyn, and yellow-winged dragonkin couldn’t do it.” To which I reply: no, that freedom was not universal, but it existed nonetheless, and in greater quantity than our modern racism-obsessed society likes to admit. Women and minorities had active voices in public discourse well before the Twentieth Century, and certainly when this portrait was painted. It could just as easily have been a black man or a white woman, but Rockwell painted the most common example of the time.
Alright, let’s shift to the new version. The everyman is gone, replaced by actress Rosario Dawson, net worth $16 million. The working-class clothes and the dirt have been replaced by a smart silk-ish top and a kicky print skirt. The defiance and bravery in the original man’s posture have yielded to Ms. Dawson’s arrogant self-assurance; she is lecturing, not speaking, and she hasn’t the slightest bit of self-doubt on the topic. The frankly surprised or doubting looks on the surrounding faces have been replaced by submissive adoration. This isn’t a machinist complaining that the township shouldn’t be going into debt on a new water-treatment facility; this is a Woman Of Color(tm) letting some racist Hitlers know exactly how racist and Hitler-esque they are.
The choice of Ms. Dawson is fairly appropriate here; when a longtime Latina labor activist dared to disagree with Bernie Sanders, Dawson dressed her down for doing so. Why did Dawson feel entitled to issue this correction? Apparently, it was because she portrayed that woman in a biopic and was therefore perfectly qualified to tell her how to behave.
If Nicholas Cage tries that shit with me after he gets hired to play Forty-Something Jack in my biopic, there will be hell to pay, I’m warning you.
As for the “Freedom Of Speech” caption? It’s gone, and rightly so. Neither Ms. Dawson nor the artists who created these Diversity-Improved Rockwells believe in free speech the way that the man in the original painting did. They see it as a privilege that goes hand in hand with certain racial, sexual, and political identities. They make jokes about “freeze peach” and while they won’t come right out and say that people with the wrong opinions should be hanged or shot they’ll certainly clap hands in approbation while those would-be free-speakers lose their jobs, their homes, and the ability to feed their children.
If today’s social-justice junta had been running things when Norman Rockwell did his painting, that working man would have never stood up in the town meeting. Because standing up would have cost him his livelihood. He would have been “no-platformed” in the most extreme manner possible, denied access to food, raw materials, or the tools of his trade. Then the “freeze peach” crowd would have patiently explained to him that well, you have the right to say what you want, but the power company is a private company and if they want to turn off your welders they have the right to do it, and the grocer is a private company and if he won’t sell your children food that’s his right, you know! Hope you starve, racist Hitler!
When I look at the two pictures next to each other, I want to ask myself how we got from the first to the second. But I know how we got there. The society depicted in the first painting truly believed in the American experiment. Those people really felt that you should be free to express unpopular or controversial opinion. Most critically, they upheld the idea of an American civic identity that was stronger than party affiliation, tribal identity, or racial politics. Their stubborn adherence to that idea, an adherence you can see even today in the public utterances of people like Jeb Bush or Ben Shapiro, is what allowed today’s social-justice commissars to march through the institutions and take control of the American conversation. Those commissars didn’t see American civic identity as principled. They saw it as weakness, and they saw it as opportunity, and they saw it as a mistake made by the people who held the upper hand at the time.
It’s not a mistake they’ll be making. You still have freedom of speech in this country. At work, among friends, in public. You are absolutely free to repeat whatever was said last night by John Oliver, or Stephen Colbert, or Rachel Maddow. If you think you’re free to say something else… well, this ain’t Norman Rockwell’s America any more, my friend.