Greenfield: Wokes Can’t Beat the Culture They’re Destroying
The recent controversies over politically correct rewrites of James Bond novels and Roald Dahl’s children’s books highlights just how dependent a woke culture industry is on the works of dead white men, like Dahl, Fleming and Tolkien, who were anything but politically correct. Or even living, but currently politically incorrect white women, like J.K. Rowling.
Woke culture has filled every school with graphic sexual books like Beyond Magenta and Lawn Boy which describe 8 and 10-year-olds having sex, but can’t generate any of its own classics. That’s why Netflix bought the Roald Dahl Story Company for $686 million, Amazon paid $8.5 billion for MGM, whose crown jewel is James Bond, and has spent over $1 billion to make its own woke version of Tolkien’s mythos. (New woke Lord of the Ring movies are also coming.) Disney built an empire churning out woke versions of everything from Marvel comics to its own classic cartoons, including Peter Pan and Pinnochio, and other works by dead white men. The rest of the culture industry is frantically trying to conglomerate and amass enough intellectual property of its own to also cannibalize, denounce, bowdlerize and then cash in on every year. Woke culture is the parasitism of the creatively untalented and politically authoritarian. It runs on monopolies reprocessing the works of all the retroactively canceled talented artists and writers, blending the splendid feasts of the past into differently branded cans of woke cultural spam. The massive intellectual properties that serve as the profit engines for woke companies are the works of the unwoke. And the woke haven’t figured out how to replace them. Boycott efforts of Hogwarts Legacy, a new Harry Potter game, failed miserably with sales currently approaching $1 billion, despite a systemic campaign of intimidation and reviews condemning the author. What’s the woke counter to Harry Potter? Mr. Felker-Martin’s ‘Manhunt’: a transgender fantasy novel that kills off Rowling. All the men in ‘Manhunt’ turn into zombies, and the trannies hunt them down along with the feminist ‘TERFs’ who refuse to believe that they’re women. Despite heavy promotion by the media and its publisher, Tor, it currently ranks in 40,382th place. Woke culture industries are busy rewriting and censoring the works of Fleming, Dahl, Tolkien, and for that matter Dr. Seuss, who was a liberal stalwart of his day, because they can’t equal them or even come close to doing so. There’s even a “diverse” and “inclusive” rewrite of Shakespeare. Unable to create their own work, they’re reduced to censoring classics. Totalitarian leftist regimes have a history of this sort of thing. Both the Soviet Union and Communist China removed any mention of the bible from Robinson Crusoe. Still unsatisfied with the result, Soviet censors rewrote Crusoe more broadly to emphasize that individuals need to be part of a collective society. Woke rewrites are not a new idea and reflect the same issue. “Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime,” Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart had argued. Woke culture has no confidence. Like most censors, it is incapable of creating, only destroying because it is wholly political. It is no coincidence that the works it is obsessed with possessing and destroying are mostly imaginative creations, fantasies and escapist wish-fulfillment, that it both desires and hates. “I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories,” Tolkien wrote. “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?” Political censorship pursues and subverts escapism in particular because it offers a measure of freedom in a society whose culture controllers have turned it into one giant political prison. It’s no wonder that they are unable to duplicate the appeal of works that were genuinely subversive or escapist and otherwise free. Wokeness can appropriate free culture, but never duplicate it. The Left is subversive only when it comes to undermining existing power structures not under its control. In any area where it seizes power, it ceases to be subversive and becomes authoritarian because its subversiveness was never aimed at seeking freedom, only power. Once that power is achieved, subversive creativity becomes authoritarian censorship. When the Left’s grip on the culture became total, it ceased to produce, to publish or to even think subversively. Its idea of subversion, in fiction or in comedy, is, like ‘Manhunt’ or SNL, limited to the humiliation and destruction of enemies. And that’s no different than North Korean propaganda. That is why cultural wokeness produces nothing that lasts more than the moment. Rooted in the politics of the moment and the neurosis of the elites, overshadowed by fear and rewarding political commitment and artistic mediocrity, it serves only when nothing better exists. Unfortunately the remnants of a better culture are all around us. That’s why they have to be censored or banned as reminders of what we have lost and how worthless our pottage is. Wokeness, like most rigid ideologies, poisons creativity. A decade ago, the New York Times explored Chinese frustration over America’s ability to make movies they could not. “A movie like ‘Kung Fu Panda’ could have been produced only in an atmosphere of cultural and artistic freedom that China doesn’t enjoy,” the paper suggested. America has a whole lot less cultural and artistic freedom in 2023 than we did in 2008. And our cultural offerings, like China’s, now reek of formulaic propaganda made by third-rate mediocrities with the right political standing. Censors have the right politics, but no creativity. Their rewrites, remakes and reinventions are tiresome. This has been the apolitical criticism of woke reinventions like Paramount+’s Star Trek Discovery or Amazon’s Rings of Power. Invention requires vision, but the woke vision is directed at taking over. Once they’ve seized power, the vision ends and the tedious conformity begins. That’s why woke culture is politically regimented, yet creatively disordered. The censors are up to date on the number of minorities who have to be in every scene or chapter, but no notion of pacing or rhythm. Their creations have nowhere to go because they have already arrived. Utopians have no concept of the past or the future, only the crushing mandates of the present. History, to the woke censors, is a litany of the failures of the past while the future will be an even more glorious xerox of the present with no further dissent, opposition or even questions. And yet it is that very past that holds the treasures of imagination, art and ideas that they appropriate. The world as it was before their politics took hold and crushed the life out of it, leaving behind cultural deserts of black glass, still speaks with untold clarity, wonder and freedom. They try to leave it behind, to remake it in their own image and to denounce it, and yet it calls to them. Censors have no creativity and therefore no culture. Despite woke claims that they love diversity, what they actually want is sameness in thought, in speech and in all things. When they censor, they try to make works that were once very different feel the same. Stories that moved millions are reduced to intellectual property, to brands, styles and costumes, and then swapped interchangeably in the same handful of plots that can only ever add up to one thing. The story must be subversive of the enemies of the system while upholding the virtue of the system. The tastes and values of the elites must be flattered while those of the enemies must be exposed. Stories have been made out of such crude material since time immemorial, but works that have genuine subversive energy do different things. They break free of the political formulas and ridicule the censors. And that no authoritarian cultural oligarchy will allow. Our woke cultural industries, like those of Orwell’s 1984, are concerned with rendering any such dissent unpublishable or unfilmable, while rewriting the past to conform to the present. But this only draws people more strongly to the original creative works of the past. America is becoming Soviet Russia and Communist China. And just as Russians and Chinese were drawn to American movies because they tasted of freedom, so westerners are drawn to their own past. As America was to the citizens of Communist nations, the past has become to us, a land of wonders where great dreams were possible, that we may reach for, but never touch. The more Soviet citizens reached for America, the more the Communist leadership counteracted the appeal with stories of the horrors of capitalist life, racist lynchings, poverty and violence. Our own Communist leaders now tell us the same horror stories about the past. They fear the past. And they should.