By Bret Easton Ellis
Knopf, $25.95, 272 pages
If there is something to be said about reading books for cultural awareness, then perhaps there is something to be said about Bret Easton Ellis‘ first non-fiction work, “White.” Much like reading Tom Wolfe or Norman Mailer — fine writers each — one ought not turn to Mr. Ellis expecting anything terribly profound. One turns to Mr. Ellis, as one does at, say, the beach or a long flight, for a certain amount of titillation and moral disquietude about present-day America.
In this respect, the author of “The Rules of Attraction” and “American Psycho” may not fare well alongside your Tolstoy. But he just might, like many decent writers, serve the by-no-means-undistinguished role of useful time-period scribbler. And if all this seems a little backhanded, you’ve misunderstood me. Because I respect Mr. Ellis. Not his fiction, mind you, which simply is not to my taste, but his decision, taken not-too-long-ago, to explore — against an increasingly threatening backdrop of identity politics that “proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions” — what happens “to a culture when it no longer cares about art.”
The vehicle Mr. Ellis uses to dive into the current social mandate that “dictates how all of us should express ourselves and behave” are personal adventures in Los Angeles, the epicenter of the “reputation economy,” which, Mr. Ellis rightly contends ensures the blandishment of culture, provides the weaponry for the enforcement of groupthink and drives our “endless need to be liked, liked, liked.”
Mr. Ellis’ descriptions of losing friends, and even literary and social prestige, because he scoffed at the insistence, from some quarters, of trigger warnings for Shakespeare and Melville and, on other occasions, expressed the mildest bewilderment at the agonizing hysteria millionaire pals fell into when discussing Donald Trump over thousand-dollar dinners, are, in a certain respect, par for the current cultural course.
But what makes “White” interesting and worth one’s time, is that Mr. Ellis considers himself a “defender of free speech and a believer in people’s rights to express themselves however they choose to and in any way they wan[t].” He is, to put it another way, a good liberal. But now, “looking at a new kind of liberalism, one that willingly censor[s] people and punish[es] voices, obstruct[s] opinions and block[s] viewpoints,” Mr. Ellis finds himself at odds with the culture of which he was once a celebrated part. All this leaves him with one thought: “What an awful way to live.”
Of course, it is not simply an awful, exhausting way to live for oneself, worried, at every turn, one’s opinions will be adjudged guilty for falling out-of-step with the progressive zeitgeist, but it impacts the broader, intangible excellence of America, especially as regards arts and letters.
When — and excuse the term, for I can think of no better — America’s intellectuals grow fearful the simple act of artistic creation poses too great a risk of reputational harm, the wellspring of creativity responsible for much of the richness of our lives, will desiccate. Better to play it safe, the young artist will soon reflect, keep one’s head down, and take up one of the professions.
Most maddening for Mr. Ellis about the current state of affairs is that the persecution now comes from a flank — his flank — of the culture popularly understood to be the progenitor of artistic, if not radical daring: Liberals. Appropriately enough, “White” ends with Mr. Ellis recalling the paces progressive culture-guardians put Kanye West through for daring to espouse, among other things, an affection for Donald Trump.
Mr. West’s on-air quip that “George Bush does not care about black people,” one might recall, became a rallying-cry for the left in the wake of Katrina, while his more recent donning of the Make America Great Again cap on “Saturday Night Live” earned him such opprobrium that the suppositions of coastal tastemakers were that Kanye was undergoing an actual schizophrenic episode — and this among the kinder things said about the musician.
Mr. Ellis concludes “White,” a book not so much about identity politics as the monoculture of nothingness toward which America is fading, with a warning: ” When you’re roiling in childish rage, the first thing you lose is judgement, and then comes common sense. And finally you lose your mind and along with that, your freedom.”
Liberals and conservatives alike would do well to “stay woke” on this point.