Bret Easton Ellis’ ‘White’
Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, July 2, 2019
Bret Easton Ellis, White, Knopf: 2019, 272 pages, $15.57 Hardcover, $12.99 Kindle.
A satirist is a critic and provocateur, not an outcast. He relies on the culture he mocks. His targets have to read him, and he makes people think by using shock, humor, and exaggeration.
Reactionaries sometimes joke that modern America is beyond satire.
- “Math Is Racist: How Data Is Driving Inequality”
- “Student in Cowboy Outfit Causes Racial Angst at Wake Forest U.”
- “Racist Babies? Infants Prefer to Learn From Adults of Their Own Skin Color, Study Says.”
Yet the problem is not political correctness “gone mad.” It’s that culture is increasingly defined by “who, whom.” Music, movies, painting, and even video game criticism isn’t about content, but who and whom. Instead of creating, people compete for “victim” status. The result is not the end of “white male culture” but the end of culture. When everything must fit political orthodoxy or fill a quota, there’s no art.
Bret Easton Ellis understands this. Mr. Ellis, the homosexual author of several novels including Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, and (most infamously) American Psycho, has always offended conservatives and liberals. Yet his first nonfiction book, White, is a collection of eight essays that directly attack censorious, hysterical, “fascist,” and ultimately “illiberal” modern liberalism.
Mr. Ellis, an entertainment industry insider with liberal and conservative friends, operates within the liberal “bubble” but keeps it in perspective. His anecdotes confirm rightist caricatures about Hollywood liberals.
He saw privileged people mentally disintegrate because Donald Trump become president. Some (including his boyfriend) descended into near madness, obsessively reading Reddit threats, watching Rachel Maddow, and raving about the President’s imminent downfall. “There seemed to be no point in even addressing the pink pussy hats and women walking around dressed as giant vaginas in protest,” he writes, “or Ashley Judd performing some slam poetry about her menstrual cycle and Madonna announcing she wanted to blow up the White House.”
Liberals really do hate “hicks.” “Los Angeles and New York should determine who the f***ing president is,” declared one “proud coastal elite.” “My blood froze,” Mr. Ellis recalls. “Liberalism used to concern itself with freedoms I’d aligned myself with,” he writes, “but during the 2016 campaign, it finally hardened into a warped authoritarian moral superiority movement that I didn’t want to have anything to do with.”
Mr. Ellis has a principled objection. “As a writer,” he says, “I have to believe in free speech no matter what—that’s as simple and true as it gets.” He condemns liberalism’s turn to authoritarianism:
- “The high moral tone seized by social-justice warriors, and increasingly an unhinged Left, is always out of scale with whatever they’re actually indignant about, and I wasn’t surprised that this hideous and probably nerve-wracking tendency had begun to create an authoritarian language police.”
- “The fact that one can’t listen to a joke or view specific imagery . . . ergo nobody else should be able to hear it or view or tolerate it, either—is a new kind of mania, a psychosis that the culture has been coddling.”
- “The Left had become a rage machine, burning itself up: a melting blue bubble dissolving in on itself.”
When Mr. Ellis casually mentioned he’d been listening to country music, an acquaintance asked, “How can you like country music when they’re all against us—don’t you understand that?”
No artist can tolerate this confusion of art and politics, and White reflects Mr. Ellis’s preference for aesthetics over ideology. It’s a warning that politics is driving out art. He argues people should separate art from the artist.
Mr. Ellis reminds us that humans are complex. “An increasing problem in our society is people’s inability to bear two opposing thoughts in mind at the same time,” he writes, “so that any ‘criticism’ of someone’s work is routinely blamed as feelings of elitism, or feelings of jealousy or superiority.” Mr. Ellis is describing his views about the late novelist David Foster Wallace, but this is true of most things, including politics and race. One can be a race realist and by no means “hate” other groups.
True artistic criticism resists caricature, but the media increasingly insist on it. For example, Mr. Ellis argues that “the entertainment press lion[ized]” the film Moonlight “because it checked off every box in our current obsession with identity politics.” It featured a “gay, black, poor, bullied” victim. He suggests many of the film’s most stalwart champions never saw it.
Mr. Ellis defends the value of being offensive. “Exclusion and marginalization are often what makes a joke funny,” he writes. “Sometimes one’s identity is the punch line.” He also accuses leftists of acting like babies, mocking “Generation Wuss.” “The wide-spread epidemic of self-victimization—defining yourself in essence by way of a bad thing . . . is actually an illness,” he writes.
Mr. Ellis is especially critical of the “gay man as magical elf.” He “appears before us whenever he comes out as some kind of saintly, adorable ET, whose sole purpose is to remind us only about tolerance and our prejudices.” He mocks the media’s treatment of homosexual athlete Jason Collins like he was a “six-year-old boy.” I’d also mention the “numinous Negro,” the otherworldly black who guides helpless whites to enlightenment.
Mr. Ellis’s analysis of the reaction to his criticism of the film Fruitvale Station—about white police violence against blacks—is the most important part of the book:
These social media critics wanted to imply that my whiteness was an ideological error, that my comfortable unawareness was an indisputable problem, yet I’d argue that living without a direct experience of poverty or state-sponsored violence, growing up without ever being presumed a guaranteed threat in public places and never facing an existence where protection is hard to come by don’t equate to a lack of empathy, judgment, or understanding on my part and don’t rightly and automatically demand my silence. But this is an age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening groupthink of ‘progressive ideology,’ which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow f***ed. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or a misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.
Obviously, Mr. Ellis’s comments about blacks “being presumed a guaranteed threat in public places” show he’s no race realist. Yet he makes a larger point—if whites can’t criticize or even comment on certain things, culture breaks down.
What immediately came to my mind was the media’s fury against anyone who didn’t like Black Panther. (One newspaper called Mr. Ellis’s criticism of it a “racist rant.”) The movie-ratings website Rotten Tomatoes recently censored users to prevent “trolls” from criticizing Captain Marvel.
Elsewhere in the book, Mr. Ellis remembers when you could have a different opinion “without being considered a troll and a hater who should get banned from the ‘civilized’ world.” Social media, he suggests, links economic well-being to having a “safe” image. Thus, it drives conformity and cowardice rather than creativity.
Mr. Ellis has heard all about “white privilege” but resents being defined by whiteness. “I didn’t consider whiteness or maleness defining aspects of my identity—or at least hadn’t been overly conscious of this (a fact, by the way, I can’t do anything about),” he writes.
Still, Mr. Ellis certainly doesn’t want whites to mobilize: “[A]long with millions of other white men, I was increasingly reminded by a certain faction that we should be defining ourselves by our white identity because that was itself a real problem.” He adds: “Actually this faction demanded it, without bothering to recognize that identity politics of any kind might be the worst idea in our culture right now, and certainly one that encourages the spread of separatist alt-right and all-white organizations.”
This isn’t totally true. Some Germans have a purely negative identity: the “anti-German movement.” Likewise, many “woke” whites are vividly conscious of being white, but in a strictly negative way. They want to atone for it.
Some whites rebel against racial shaming, but they are a minority. The main resistance to political correctness comes from white conservatives who claim race is unimportant. Mr. Ellis has more in common with Sean Hannity than with Jared Taylor or Robin DiAngelo.
However, Mr. Ellis’s concept of “Empire” is a useful way to analyze racial consciousness. Though he never precisely defines it, Mr. Ellis suggests “Empire” was “about the heroic American figure” that was “solid, rooted in tradition, tactile and analog.” He identifies its reign from the 1950s through September 11, 2001.
“Post-Empire” is about “people who were understood to be ephemeral right away”—disposable digital phenomena. “Reagan, The Godfather, and Robert Redford” were “Empire.” The “Tea Party, The Human Centipede, and Shia LaBeouf” were “post-Empire.” I might add Reagan’s California was Empire; today’s Third World California is post-Empire.
Things are “Empire” if they derive from old American institutions and “post-Empire” if they flow from their decline. In “post-Empire,” there is no center, yet there is still a corporate culture.
Mr. Ellis is a novelist, not a sociologist, and it’s sometimes hard to pin him down. His ideas can be complex but useful. There is no media “center”—no Walter Cronkite—but the media have terrible power over individuals. There’s no political center, but the state intrudes into everyday life more than ever. It’s never been easier to find controversial knowledge, but political correctness is much stronger than when C-SPAN broadcast American Renaissance conferences.
What Mr. Ellis is describing is cultural anarcho-tyranny. The center collapsed because the racial center collapsed. There is no shared community, so art, criticism, and satire rarely make sense outside a subculture. Mr. Ellis doesn’t value white identity. Yet his artistic relevance depends on it.
In Shots Fired, the late Sam Francis bemoaned the loss of the “real popular culture.” Once, Americans “played musical instruments they were raised to play” and “wrote poetry for themselves instead of puzzling over thin volumes of crippled and bitter verse cranked out by whatever lesbian poetess-in-residence New York publishing houses have decided to make a celebrity for a week.”
Today, culture is top down. Thus, limits on artistic and political expression mean that censors have the power to shape myths, values and identity. “[O]nce you start choosing how people can and cannot express themselves then this opens the door to a very dark room in the corporation from which there’s really no escape,” Mr. Ellis writes. “Can’t they in return police your thoughts, and then your feelings and then your impulses? And, finally, can they police, ultimately, your dreams?”
Mr. Ellis realizes he’s part of white America, whether he likes it or not. I enjoy Mr. Ellis’s work, even if many may not. Yet White isn’t just some controversial novelist griping. It’s a warning. If intersectionality controls culture, no books are worth reading, no movies worth seeing, and no games worth playing.
The way to overcome this is not just “free speech.” It’s having something to say. It’s having a positive identity. That destroys the entire framework justifying censorship in the name of social justice. With white identity, we can’t prop up a dead Empire—but we can build a new one.