Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic recently took a poet to task because that poet had written to an advice columnist wondering whether he had any right to write. The anonymous supplicant was more conflicted than Hamlet, but less eloquent.
“I am a white, male poet,” he said, “a white, male poet who is aware of his privilege and sensitive to inequalities facing women, POC, and LGBTQ individuals.” Despite that familiarity with abbreviations for “people of color,” not to mention “lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer,” the poet felt he ought to apologize for making his own voice heard. “Awareness,” he had, and sensitivity, too, but neither of those attributes could hide his skin color or his gender. “I am still white and still male,” he lamented, albeit not as manfully as William Wallace, Clint Eastwood, or even Danny DeVito might have done. Given those handicaps, the latter-day Hamlet confessed, “Sometimes I feel like the time to write from my experience has passed,” because “the need for poems from a white, male perspective just isn’t there anymore.”
Unfortunately, the woman whom he asked for advice agreed with him. In a demented riff on the special forces motto, she decided to leave no man behind. Discipline yourself, she told the hapless poet. Write less, and submit less for publication. Atone for your sins by learning to “Read more books by women, POC, and LGBTQ writers.”
Not for nothing is the advice column where that answer was given called “Blunt Instrument.”
Twenty years ago, this duet between cat and mouse would have been dismissed as a parody. These days, it’s just another sign of how close progressive ideologues have come to pulling the plug on Western civilization.
To his credit, Mr. Friedersdorf noticed that exchange between the poet and the columnist, and realized that the poet needed advice on how to avoid getting mugged by more competent gang members. “I question the degree to which you elevate your race and gender as if they are the most salient features of your artistic identity,” he asked, knowing that as a writer for the Atlantic, any criticism he made would be regarded by other progressives as “friendly fire.” The “project of inclusion,” Friedersdorf added, “should not threaten white men,” because “it does not require their self-immolation.”
In other words, “Buck up, kid. If you’re a poet, get to versifying, and see if something you write inspires somebody who doesn’t look like you.”
Good as that advice is, it still falls short of the mark. Look again at the fear to which the anonymous poet confessed: He worried that the “need” for his perspective as a white male had left the building, and that worry was enough to make him want to check into the heartbreak hotel. Friedersdorf noticed the poet’s misguided tribalism, and explained why it’s stupid to think exclusively in racial, sexual, or collectivist terms.
Yet Friedersdorf said nothing about the other flawed premise in that letter, which is the anonymous poet’s idea that perspectives on the good, the true, and the beautiful always come with “sell by” dates. The conflicted poet is not alone in thinking that way: Northern Illinois University just published a press release from an associate professor concerned about lack of diversity in children’s books. But down that road lies a valley of hopelessness where artists intimidate rather than inspire each other. Art is supposed to work differently. Any great poem sits at the keyboard of human experience hoping to play a few notes from universal themes.
Nobody needed Walt Whitman to sound a barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world, for example, but Whitman didn’t ask. Pay too much attention to whether it’s “Game Over, man!” when anyone alien to your experience shows up, and you create the kind of story where risk and evil look the same: Beethoven goes deaf with nothing to show for it because Mozart beat him to the punch, or Bela Fleck never makes a banjo record because Earl Scruggs got there first.
In a world like that, loneliness hits epidemic levels, and “O Captain, my Captain!” comes with a trigger warning (“Readers are advised that this poem uses tropes commonly associated with patriarchal microaggression”). Virtuosos do not bother to befriend each other because there’s no point in learning from other masters when cultural fondness for the next big thing makes novelty more lucrative than skill. Stevie Ray Vaughan defers so much to Albert King that the rest of us never get to hear the two of them play blues guitar together.
What might have reassured the poet who wrote to the wrong place for advice is not just Mr. Friedersdorf’s “Step away from the mirror and look out the window, son,” but also a bedrock truth of conservatism: We are meant to use our talents, and meant to stand on the shoulders of our forebears, without obsessing over the color or gender of those shoulders. That you’re more likely to hear such advice in church than in a faculty lounge is also worth pondering. If you’ve got a light, then let it shine. Anything less betrays your best self.