« Shouts, fires, theatres | Main | Visiting positions at University of Nebraska College of Law »

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Compromise Culture

Successful newspapers and commentators, including academic commentators, have a knack for writing on-point, intelligent, even more or less important things about current events, provided always that they remain conventional and conform to the spirit of the times. In doing so, they have an equal and corresponding skill, one that is just as vital to their success and prestige, at leaving other large and potentially uncomfortable questions off the table. 

A case in point is the coverage--somewhat spotty depending on what you choose to read--of mainstream cultural institutions' sudden desire to cut ties with Russian artists (and, sometimes and wholly absurdly, Russian art). Most of these decisions, like many culture-war decisions at universities, can properly be read as business decisions, responding to fears about the reactions of paying customers; but where reason and calculation hold the reins, passion and sincerity come flying close behind, and no doubt sincerity has accordingly accompanied some of these decisions. A fine example is the recent actions of the Vancouver Recital Society. The artistic director of the Society told the press she has been trying to book Russian pianist Alexander Malofeev for six years. (Malofeev won major international awards in his early teens in 2014 and 2016.) The Society then announced that it was cancelling Malofeev's August performance, stating, "We at the VRS cannot in good conscience present a concert by any Russian artist at this moment in time unless they are prepared to speak out publicly against this war."

Which he then did. The Society naturally responded by confirming that the performance was canceled anyway. Inevitably, it described its reasons as "complex and nuanced." The new statement acknowledged the obvious: that it is hardly costless for a citizen of an authoritarian regime to make such statements. It then offered a suite of reasons to cancel the performance regardless of anything Malofeev might say about the invasion: 1) sympathy with a Ukrainian staff member with family still in the country; 2) "grappl[ing] with the notion that even one cent of the proceeds from a VRS concert would go back into the Russian economy"; 3) the worsening situation in the Ukraine, which seems like the kind of "the situation has [predictably, and thus mostly irrelevantly] changed" makeweight that people and organizations often offer; and 4) a fear of demonstration or heckling, which would cost money to fend off. (I am not in agreement with some of what Howard writes on these questions. But it is at least true that one of the most important distinctions between mere heckling and a heckler's veto is the resources--and, centrally, the will--of the institutions that manage the space involved. Most "heckler's veto" cases at law schools and universities are a joint enterprise between the protesters and the administrations of those schools.) 

I am unaware of any defenses of the VRS's actions. I am aware of some criticisms of it. To the extent that the VRS was not lying about community sentiment, presumably there are people eager to have Malofeev's performance canceled. Since I am not on Twitter, I don't know whether there are full or roundabout defenses of Malofeev's cancellation there, but I feel sure they can be found there. Just about any opinion can be found there. But of course the VRS's actions don't stand alone. Everyone's doing it. Predictably, the discussion around such events has taken place within the conventional contemporary framework of denunciations and defenses of "cancel culture." Defenses of cancel culture by people operating within common convention usually are not direct defenses, but debate-society approaches: minimization, differentiation, distinction, argument by definition, distraction, and so on. But they are defenses and they are out there. And this is the standard frame within which the contemporary commentator of due standing is expected to conduct the argument about Russian art and artists and Western arts institutions.

What is interesting to me is not the current debate or some of the current decisions. Many of them, like the VRS's choices, are simply transparently silly and thus hardly merit much discussion. What I find much more interesting is, to point back to the history above, the six years during which the VRS was seeking eagerly to schedule the same Russian artist--presumably because he's good, and famous, and the VRS knows it will be rewarded for the appearance of a good and famous artist. So far as I can tell, little or none of the "cancel culture"-framed discussion focuses on the six or sixteen years leading up to the current moment.

Those were the years of Vladimir Putin's second, third, and fourth presidential terms and second premiership. As a Citizen Kane-like newsreel narrator might solemnly intone, "Those were busy years for Vladimir Putin." They include, inter alia, the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and seizure of his holdings for distribution to the state and its cronies; the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya; the organization of paramilitary groups to support Putin; the passage of a law against "gay propaganda"; the annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol; attempts to intervene in the 2016 election in this country (which, in fairness, Putin announced may have been conducted "not even [by] Russians, but [by] Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews [ ] with Russian citizenship"); the poisoning of Sergei Skripal; and, one imagines, one or two other things. While these events occurred, efforts to secure a performance by Malofeev in Vancouver, and similar efforts by countless other Western arts institutions, proceeded apace. 

If one had to choose, I would say that the current moment is relatively boring compared to the myriad choices made by Western institutions--artistic, academic, financial, financial-artistic (Hollywood is keen on foreign markets and, as with China, has made many deals with Russian distributors and filmed many movies there), cultural, political, and so on--over the past 20 or so years. I am not criticizing those choices as such. But they were hardly made behind a veil of ignorance. To the extent we think of any of these institutions and individuals as making and being capable of making moral choices--and they certainly wish to be understood in this way--what they did was what most of us, in smaller ways, do every day: they made compromises and lived compromised personal and institutional lives. In some cases they justified these choices and believed in those justifications (and not without reason). In some cases they sternly maintained a distinction, in a way that many of the same institutions currently are not, between the state and the individual, although they must have been aware that they could hardly tell, in an authoritarian and oligarchic state, in what way the artists or companies or other interests they were chasing after were or weren't complicit in or supported by or enjoying wealth and prestige within that regime. In some cases they chose other things to be concerned about when making choices: say, government policy in Texas rather than in Russia, or rejecting tobacco company sponsorship while taking money from companies using mistreated foreign laborers. In still other cases, they no doubt followed Billy Madison's sage advice: "Don't think about it." In short--and, again, like most of us, short of saints and recluses--they weighed and balanced, including weighing and balancing their financial interests and public standing, and made compromises, moral and otherwise, including the compromise of economizing on one's time in deciding which morally freighted issues to learn about and thus to care about.

These questions are, I think, more interesting and more difficult than questions about what to do today or tomorrow in response to immediate events. Or perhaps they should be thought of as continuous with those decisions and as casting light on them, and on whatever decisions we will argue about passionately one or eleven years from now. More generally, discussions of "cancel culture" (a phrase I don't much care for, despite my concerns about it, because reducing anything to a bumper sticker dulls the brain) would be more interesting if they were understood not as discrete and distinct moments or events, but as taking place within a much larger and much less unremarked-upon--partly because they are much vaster, and partly because to do so is much less comfortable to the ostensibly righteous participant in those debates--compromise culture. The facts of life of compromise culture are, I should think, no less important from a moral and institutional perspective than our responses to "cancel culture." And because they are less talked about but more universal, enveloping all of our choices, they may be much more revealing of our actual moral status and moral decision-making process. Indeed, as I think I've suggested, the fact of our not talking about them (in the same way, to pick a pet issue, that legal academics love to talk about "political economy" and "economic inequality" and other forms of inequality but are virtually mute about social class) is itself interesting and revealing. Again, commentators operating within convention say a good many interesting and valuable things. But often the really interesting questions lie in the aporias--in what falls outside the conventions.

I dare say one could make the same observation about recent law student efforts--the latest in a long line, albeit similar efforts have been more frequent and visible in the past few years--to pressure elite law firms to cut ties with Russia, which presumably will culminate in efforts to have law schools bar non-compliant firms from participating in on-campus employment efforts. I have nothing against such efforts as such, and absolutely nothing against law students who do not wish to work for particular firms for moral reasons of one sort or another. And I acknowledge the short life, so to speak, of the law student qua law student; today's objector was not around for a similar effort on a different issue ten years ago. But, as with previous efforts, what is interesting is not the resolute stand against one client or type of work, but the very long list of clients and activities that, by implication, students engaged in such movements are comfortable with, or at least comfortable not thinking and talking about much or calling attention to. In such movements, what I find interesting is not the push against a particular line of work--say, for tobacco companies--or the consequent debates over whether such movements are more harmful than beneficial. What's interesting is the vast set of compromises, whole- or half-hearted, involved in every other client these individuals are willing to work for, and every other employer the law schools are very glad to welcome on campus. There, I venture to say, in all the apparently unobjectionable clients and ventures and activities, is where the real moral action can be found. And it is no less personally defining for the participant than the official objectionable activity or client. 

Nor, I should perhaps not have to say, is compromise culture avoided by avoiding the big law firm (or, I guess, the concert recital hall) altogether. For, it should be clear, "compromise culture" is a redundant phrase. One might as well just say "culture" and have done with it. Every choice will involve moral weighing and balancing and concomitant compromises. One will represent the accused criminal but not the wrong accused criminal, one side of the criminal justice system (thus keeping the system going generally) but not the wrong side, clerk for the good prestigious federal judge but not the bad one (but not, God forbid, avoid a judicial system, or a system of prestige within it, that one might otherwise choose to question more categorically). One may campaign for the righteous candidate floated by dark money, or work for the righteous nonprofit supported by equally shadowy or questionable wealth or whose mission is shaped by the preferences of the donor market. Some lucky few may hope to avoid various taints, or put up with them just long enough, and end up in the academy. The dictionary definition of "research university" is "a large institution into which vast millions of dollars, foreign and domestic, public and private, flow, one is not entirely sure from whom, whence they came, or where they go, but do try not to worry about it." Next to the modern university, the Vancouver Recital Society is a piker.

That's just life. I do think the mainstream press should cover the current choices that are being made more, and more critically and prominently. But some of that coverage will happen. It falls well within convention, after all. It would be much more interesting if we broke from that frame and paid more attention, and gave more coverage, to the choices made over the past two decades.       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on March 19, 2022 at 01:28 PM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


The comments to this entry are closed.