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Culture War Roundup for the week of February 20, 2023

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A recent piece by Rod Dreher is the latest example I’ve seen on the Dissident Right of references to “Theater-Kid-run America” and to the dangers of giving power to “Former Theater Kids” and, well, it’s got me feeling called-out in a very uncomfortable way. Certainly this far from the first time I’ve felt conspicuously out-of-place and unwelcome on the Right; my sparring with @HlynkaCG and @FCfromSSC in this space, and with a number of users when I was an active poster in /r/CultureWarRoundup, have reinforced my acute awareness of how my upbringing and personality profile make me somewhat of an uncomfortable fit in the right-wing ecosystem. But the “Theater Kids” discourse hits me particularly hard because it touches on something over which I’ve agonized for a long time.

The question of “why are artistically-inclined people nearly universally left-wing” has occupied my thoughts extensively ever since I began my journey to the Right. As I’ve mentioned here before - probably extremely ill-advisedly, from an OpSec perspective - I have a theatre arts degree and spent over a decade heavily involved in the local theatre scene (both musicals and “straight plays”) in my city. At one point I was incredibly enthusiastic about pursuing a professional career in that field, and made my participation in it a central part of my identity. My political conversion isn’t the only reason I’ve drifted away from theatre (even my use of the British spelling gives me away as a Theater Kid), but it was by far the biggest accelerant of that decision. Another reason, though, is that even aside from their politics, theatre people can be… difficult to be around in certain ways that made me stick out like a sore thumb sometimes even without politics entering the equation.

So, when I see right-wing commentators taking potshots at “Theater Kids”, part of me wants to not only applaud, but to amplify their criticism: “Oh, you don’t even know the half of it!” I’m far more intimately aware of the particular failure modes of artists, because I saw them up-close and personal for a huge part of my life, and can recognize some of those failure modes in myself. Another part of me, though, becomes very defensive and wants to leap to the defense of the creative class; not only because, despite my current politics and estrangement from that scene, I’m still one of those people at heart, but also because I think right-wing people tread on dangerous ground when they too-eagerly dismiss and alienate artistically-/creatively-oriented people.

It is undeniably true that people involved in the arts are overwhelmingly and ostentatiously left-wing. Look at surveys of political orientation among any even remotely creative-adjacent field and you will find support for progressive parties/ideas well above 80-90%. The question of why this is the case is complicated and fascinating. Has it always been that way? It is dangerous to apply modern political categories to pre-modern societies, but if the “theater kid” personality profile existed in ancient/classical societies, would it be possible to say that those types of people would have been more “proto-woke” than the average citizen?

Remember that the great literary classics of Ancient Greece - the Odyssey, the Iliad, the Theogony - were epic poems delivered orally and accompanied by music long before they were written down and codified in literary form. The bards who would have invented, transmitted and augmented these epic poems were real people with real personalities, and I think there’s a significant likelihood that they were not too different from the actors and rockstars of today. Besides implying a degree of narcissism and superciliousness that we associate with artsy people today, does it also suggest that they would have been the “shitlibs” of their day?

There’s an interesting discourse about how the character of Odysseus is a sort of prototype for the theater kid’s idea of a hero - the idealized self-image of an artist imagining how he would be as a hero. Odysseus is a trickster and fabulist; he achieves his heroic deeds largely through craftiness, subterfuge, deception, and pretending to be anybody other than who he actually is. He can conjure whole worlds and identities at a whim through the magic of wordplay and storytelling. He is labile and mercurial, indirect and full of what we might call chutzpah. He prefigures more modern examples of the “trickster/bullshitter with a heart of gold” archetype epitomized by musical theatre characters like Harold Hill in The Music Man, J. Pierrepont Finch in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, and the funhouse-mirror version of P.T. Barnum presented in the movie musical The Greatest Showman. The guys writing these musicals can’t imagine themselves as Herculean heroes of might and action, but they can imagine themselves saving the world by being so good at spinning a compelling story that they make it come true.

So, what does this imply about the self-image of artists, and what can it teach us about the likely consequences of giving the reins of power (cultural, political, or otherwise) to people who come from this milieu and/or have this personality type? Many on the Right - I’m thinking especially of the blogger The Z-Man - have noted that modern American politics are dominated by a sort of Carny (meaning a carnival performer or huckster) type of personality. There’s a persuasive case to be made that democracy inherently rewards and gives power to that exact type of person. I think we can see all around us many of the failure modes of trusting these people with the governance of our country and the production of our cultural narratives. They are fundamentally unserious people, addicted to attention and applause, attracted to head-in-the-clouds utopian nonsense because they never fully grew out of a sort of perpetual narcissistic adolescence, convinced that the key to solving hard problems is just telling a really good lie and crafting a feel-good narrative so aesthetically-pleasing that it can’t help but manifest into reality. This is a spot-on description of the personalities of many of the theatre people I know, and I wouldn’t trust them to organize a bake sale, let alone run a country.

And yet. By telegraphing its open hostility to artists and creatives - by throwing up a big sign that says, “people with liberal arts degrees, go away!” - I believe that the Right severely cripples itself. Firstly, on a practical level, it deprives the Right of its ability to mobilize individuals who can craft aesthetically-compelling narratives that will inspire and convert normal people. Right now, the only interesting art that most people in first-world countries will ever be exposed to is made by leftists. We can talk about the reasons for this; certainly some of them are structural, and are downstream of the fact that Hollywood and creative industries more generally are dominated by powerful leftists who limit the ability of right-wing content creators to access the kind of resources and backing required to produce and distribute media. But even when right-wingers get a chance to make art, it… generally doesn’t measure up.

Why is that? Is part of the reason why right-wingers (myself included) are so interested in pre-modern art is that they can keep Retvrning to it and are relieved of the burden of having to create something new? Why is it that the only people who go to classical music concerts and operas are PMC shitlibs? If the Right achieves its glorious counter-revolution, will the end product look like the town from Footloose? Distrustful of art and self-expression for fear that it breeds degeneracy? Forever fighting a battle to suppress artsy types who will corrupt the youth and bring the poison of leftism back from the dead? Should creative types who are otherwise on board with the Rightist project be concerned that we are helping to build a future that will have no place for us?

Maybe the fact that I’m asking these questions is proof that Red Tribers are right to be suspicious of people like me. If a conservative and traditional life is ideal for the vast majority of people, who cares what a tiny minority of whiny self-obsessed “artists” want? Aren’t people like me the reason we got to this point in the first place? It’s a tough subject for me to think about. To what extent can I whole-heartedly commit to a political project that will marginalize the people most similar to myself, in order to secure the greater good for the great mass of other people on earth? Am I just overthinking this entirely and letting a flippant shitposty meme trigger me into neurotic despair?

Your post brings to mind a bit that occasionally comes up in rationalist spaces about "shape-rotators" vs "wordcels". I've mostly just rolled my eyes at it, but now I'm thinkin there might be actually something to it, but not in the way Vice and rationalists typically describe it. I think the better (more accurate) distinction is between "thing-manipulators" and "symbol-manipulators". To me it seems obvious that the creative/theater-kid archetype is very much a "symbol-manipulator". Their world revolves around manipulating, language, allegory, emotion, etc... Conversely a plumber or Electrician is very much a "thing-manipulator" their world revolves around analog processes with clear and immediately observable consequences. The Shit and/or Electrons either flow or they don't.

While I don't think it's accurate to say that all "symbol-in the manipulators are left wing" or that "all thing-manipulators right wing" I do think there are elements of both that actively select for the respective sides. I have a degree in mathematics, but coming into it as I did, IE later in life through the GI Bill after already having had a career in the military, I often found myself butting heads with my fellow math nerds over questions of "practicality". I was that guy who would ask the lecturer "ok that's really clever and all but what's the use case", which always seemed to rub certain sorts of "pure math" guy the wrong way. For those longer-standing users who where wondering on what occasion I had to to interact with Scott Aaronson professionally here is your answer.

In any case I feel like there is a clear tension in math circles between "Pure/Theoretical" Math and the "Applied". Similarly I feel like there is a tension between more symbolic fields of engineering like software and the more physical fields (civil, mechanical, electrical, etc...). And I feel like this tension maps pretty neatly to what both you and Dreher are talking about regarding "theater kids". Back when Scott was first formulating his thrive/survive theory I speculated that the reason that the "working class" seemed to skew right-wing/survive relative to the gentry was that they were generally less insulated from consequences than the gentry were and I feel like a similar line holds here.

Being a "theater-kid" in this context is something of a luxury. The sort of luxury enjoyed by someone who doesn't have to worry about base level analog bullshit.

You were around for the GI Bill? Much respect, sir.