Heather MacDonald is right that identity politics—and particularly the race-, sex-, class-obsessions of postmodernism—fractured and in many places shattered the humanities. It did so not to usher in a new era of learning, but to erect boundaries within the discipline, creating a honeycomb with whole realms walled off from serious inquiry, and others that are empty, but which you’re required to pretend are full. The assault on the humanities grew from the accusation that the Western Canon was exclusionary, a white men-only club shot through with racism, sexism, classism, and so forth. This was, and remains, false. The humanities brought together great writers and thinkers precisely because they taught a universal humanity, and said things that were true of all people and at all times. Polytheistic Greeks, Christian monks, agnostic modernists; Polish ex-sailors, American slaves, Spanish satirists, Russian theocrats—the canon was extraordinarily diverse. It was more diverse than the curriculum ever assembled by any other culture.
Yet these writers were never celebrated on account of their nationalities. One read Dostoyevsky not because he somehow represented Russia in a parliament of rigidly defined ethnic groups, but because he spoke about universal human experiences and needs. One could hardly be more different from William Shakespeare than I am. He was a seventeenth-century Christian—probably a Catholic—and an English monarchist, who lived his life at the speed of the horse in a world lit only by fire (to borrow a phrase). Shakespeare had more in common with Caesar and Ovid whom he admired, and who lived a millennium and a half earlier, than he does with me, an atheist libertarian American, a scant four centuries later. He never sent a text message or drove a car or ate a hamburger. Yet I can read Hamlet or Merchant of Venice or Richard III and appreciate these, and see in them things that are as true now as they were when (or before) they were written. That’s what the humanities was about. That’s what Erasmus meant when he argued for the inclusion of Cato and Plato in Christian learning. “Saint Socrates, pray for us!” The edifice of the humanities was the great invention of people like Erasmus, who joined together thinkers that the church—on the grounds of identity politics—had set asunder. We have managed to reverse that trend.
But that’s on, so to speak, the demand side. What about the supply side? The humanities have lost their humanity there, as well. Steven Pinker eloquently argues in The Blank Slate that the modernist assumption that there is no such thing as a universal human nature led not only to cultural relativism, but to art that was offensive, abrasive, or uninteresting to the art-consuming public. Or, as the late Robert Hughes put it,
America is in the business of inventing identities, based on narrow conceptions of gender, race, and the rest. These have made for narrow, preachy, single-issue art, in which victim credentials count for more than aesthetic achievement. You get irritable agitprop, like this poster painting by Barbara Kruger, telling us that ‘It’s a small world, but not if you have to clean it’.... All true, no doubt. But the fact that an artwork is about injustice no more gives it aesthetic status than the fact that it's about mermaids.
The divvying up of the humanities has not stopped at subdividing what once was universal, but has led a generation or two of artists to produce work that is not only steeped in monotone preaching, but is often utterly incomprehensible to the public. And this disease has gone so far as to almost kill off entire realms of aesthetics.
Poetry, for example. Since the invention of their art, poets have aspired to speak to and for their fellow men and women. The great ambition of Homer, Milton, Shelley, and others, was to write things that would be memorable because they were understood, and because they were true. That was immortality for poets. And they succeeded. As Dana Gioia observes, it was not so long ago that poetry was as popular an art form as novels are today. From Longfellow to James Whitcomb Riley, American poets were published and read widely, and were celebrated by the average reader. Today, poetry is sneered at by the average reader—with the exception of rap and Cowboy Poetry, whose enduring popularity is ignored by the art’s elite. That elite goes about producing art that is to be read and appreciated only by other poets, in a sophisticated and unintelligible grammar that is rooted in postmodernist assumptions that reject the notion of universal humanity. Without a universal humanity, what can a poet seek to express? Only his or her gender, class, ethnicity—or him- or herself. The result is a poetry that makes no serious effort to express the universal—that is satisfied with personal narratives, dull pseudo-insights, safe, politically correct platitudes attacking the same old enemies on behalf of the same old causes, or drearily vulgar efforts at transgression in the Bukowski mode that are as hackneyed as Miley Cyrus shaking her unimpressive butt. Readers ignore poetry because poetry deserves to be ignored—or, to be more precise, because the leaders who represent the art to the public are of such low quality that they essentially ask the public to ignore them.
This is true in other arts, too. There’s good poetry, sculpture, painting, and music out there, but the artistic elite—indoctrinated in postmodernism and identity politics—largely ignore those who produce it, on the grounds that it appeals to the common man and is therefore “commercial” (i.e., capitalist; i.e., evil) or “irrelevant” because it does not express the identity-politics agenda that is acceptable within that elite. This might at first seem paradoxical, since the political roots of this movement are in Marxism, which claimed to reject class divisions and to create a universal-humanity state. But just as Marxist societies become rigidly hierarchical—with a privileged nomenklatura on top and the faceless mass of disposable proles below—so in the art world, there is an elite of aesthetic correctness…and the consumers and consumer-friendly artists who are ignored when they are not ridiculed. Marxism was and remains a disease of the elite. Based on contempt for bourgeois society and bourgeois virtues, it has never recognized that these virtues are actually the desires of all mankind. Beauty is the most fragile of bourgeois virtues. It is always thought the most disposable by leaders with more militant goals.
The humanities have lost their humanity on the supply side as well as on the demand side. They’ve lost their humanity because they’ve eschewed their humanity. They often do not attempt to speak to humanity or to understand humanity, and they are therefore rightly ignored by humanity.