Goodbye to the days of ambient cultural liberalism

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The ambient sound of most modern western art is liberalism. Or at least, liberalism after a fashion: while very few mass-market blockbusters that come out of America — whether in print, or on computer or television screens — have well-defined or coherent politics, they do tend to have a sort of background Muzak of liberal, democratic values.

Like the elevator music itself, Muzak-liberalism lacks much of the thought and depth of actual liberalism. It’s why Barbie’s fictional “Barbieland” includes a president and elections. What issues these contests settle is left to the imagination of viewers, but free and fair elections are automatically assumed to be superior to the alternative.

Muzak-liberalism also explains why many films, video games and TV episodes end with a scandal being broken in the press or presented to the mayor. Even in a time of self-doubt and pessimism in much of the western world, the pursuit of accountability via democratic institutions is seen as important.

This ambient liberal noise is why, regardless of whether China ever overtakes the US in economic heft, its emergence as both a market for and producer of new cultural output — including novels, television shows and games — will shape the rest of the world in unexpected ways. Indeed, it is already doing so.

It is this that explains why the map of the real world in the Barbie movie includes what looks an awful lot like the “nine-dash line”, which claims Chinese ownership of a contested stretch of the South China Sea. It’s why this year’s Hugos — the most prestigious literary award in speculative fiction — were held in Chengdu. And it’s also why most of the box office gross for Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan in 2020 was made in China.

China’s success exports something that is vastly different to Muzak-liberalism. Liu Yifei, the Chinese-American actor who played Mulan, supported the police’s repression of protests in Hong Kong. Chinese writer Liu Cixin’s marvellous work of science fiction, Three Body Problem, released in English almost a decade ago, is itself the winner of a Hugo Award but — from the struggle of the heroic Earth who seeks to overcome a technologically superior superpower, to the vacillations of the trilogy’s liberal characters — it is also steeped in Chinese Communist party beliefs and values.

This year’s Hugo Awards have been rocked by controversy, after several authors and entries were declared ineligible. One was an episode of the Netflix drama Sandman, a series whose comic book predecessors have previously been eligible, but whose creator, Neil Gaiman, has called for the release of jailed Chinese authors. Also declared ineligible were RF Kuang’s Babel, an account of an alternate version of the British empire powered by magic, and Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow, which reimagines the life of China’s only female emperor in a far future setting. Both writers are part of the Chinese diaspora.

Artists have complained that no rationale has been given for the decision. It’s unlikely that an order arrived from above, telling the organisers to pull these works — action taken to avoid censure is a much likelier explanation.

Does that matter? For good and for ill, the political assumptions that seep into mass-market art do shape attitudes. The impact of China’s cultural rise will alter the worldview of at least some readers and consumers who live in democracies.

Of course, every culture has things that one might not be legally prohibited from saying, but which are socially taboo. On the BBC, it is generally best to refrain from making jokes about the monarchy or the country’s love of dogs. On CNN or MSNBC, I know that I am speaking to an audience that is much more likely to be religious, and moderate my jokes accordingly.

The globalisation of economies has brought with it the globalisation of taboos. There is an ever-growing list of things that individuals and companies feel they cannot say in polite company, because “polite company” is now an international phenomenon, which includes the social mores of many countries.

The feeling that there are things it is better not to say is, of course, different to the certainty that there are things that will bring the heavy hand of the state down upon you. But part of being able to imagine alternatives in your own country is discovering them in another. A world in which every artist who dreams of mainstream success has to tilt towards not just cultural taboos but possible repression will be a colder one for free speech and liberal ideas more broadly. We should enjoy the era of Muzak-liberalism while it lasts.

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