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Politics vs. Aesthetics: Why Great Art Cannot Conform to Our Political Views

Percy Bysshe Shelley proclaimed poets “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Today, that distinction belongs to Twitter mobs. Dispensing mob justice in brief and brutal 280-character decrees, these sneering Solons of the digital age aim their outrage at the old order. Poets—and all manner of authors, artists and musicians—are now permitted to sound only certain notes, both in their art and in their personal lives.

In our scramble to grasp the rapidly proliferating rules of engagement, we sometimes lose sight of a critical fact: without a mechanism of enforcement, rules are mere words. It is industry—the entertainment, education, publishing and tech industries and the media—that has enabled progressive predilections to become mainstream. But—despite the temporary alliance woke progressive crusaders have forged with these big market players—their true interests diverge.

Shelley’s lofty statement of the poet’s role was a flag planted on a plot of land artists had only recently come to occupy: the integrity and autonomy of art and aesthetics as categories independent of social, political, religious, moral and practical concerns were concepts which originated in the eighteenth century—and these concepts are proving short-lived. The arts’ briefly unobstructed window on the world is closing once more—imperiling not only the arts themselves, but us all. The threat we—progressives and cultural conservatives alike—face from making art subservient to politics again is not just that shutters will be drawn on some pretty scenery but that an iron curtain will shut us out from an unimpeded view of the good, the great, the just and the free.

Honoré Daumier’s “A Literary Discussion on the Second Balcony” (1864)

The Poets Are Exiled Again

In French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (2008), François Cusset relates an anecdote that would be inconceivable today:

In 1949, a jury made up of T. S. Eliot and two well-known New Critics conferred the prestigious Bollingen Prize on the Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound, an author whose anti-Semitic and pro-Mussolini errors were by this time widely known. This provoked a furor among the entire intellectual Left, to whom the jurors retorted, by way of justification, that “consideration of anything other than the sheer quality of the poetic work” would be a serious threat “against civilized society.”

In our own age, in the unlikely event that such an episode were to occur, the jury would be immediately besieged by a Twitter mob, Pound would be unceremoniously stripped of his prize, and Eliot and the rest would be promptly drummed out of civilized society.

Nor need one be an actual fascist or fascist sympathizer to get such treatment. Witness the case of Morrissey, whose albums were banned from stores and panned by political hacks because of the musician’s anti-immigrant views; or the case of New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma, forced out of his job in 2018 after publishing an essay by a guy who had been first formally acquitted and then informally accused once more of sexual improprieties. Witness the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies, who banned Kate Smith’s rendition of “God Bless America,” because, back in 1931, she recorded a satirical song judged racist by today’s standards. Or witness author Natasha Tynes, whose book deal was rescinded by craven publisher California Coldblood after she tweeted a photo of a Washington, D.C. transit worker eating on the metro. The problem? The transit worker happened to be black, which, despite no other indications of racism, prompted this statement by the publisher: “We do not condone [Tynes’] actions and hope Natasha learns from this experience that Black women feel the effects of systematic racism the most and that we have to be allies, not oppressors.”

Artists are not merely being rejected for conduct we find unacceptable. Opinions of their work are also increasingly heavily informed by political considerations. Kirkusretraction of a book review and re-issue of a modified (more critical) version due to mob pressure on account of the book’s inadequate wokeness and their subsequent publication of explicitly politicized review guidelines is an especially egregious example. For every work of art overlooked, lambasted or downgraded in this fashion, there are also just as many, if not more, instances in which a work of art—the aesthetically simplistic and mediocre but politically right-on 2017 Academy Award winning film The Shape of Water comes most readily to mind—is elevated for doing a good job of mirroring the progressive political prejudices of the moment. 

The Not-So-Fine Arts

Some—like Bret Easton Ellis in his latest book, Andrew Doyle in a recent essay for Spiked and David Brooks in one of his recent columns—have commented on our growing inability to respect the autonomy of art and the aesthetic realm, making it subservient to timebound politicized moralizing. But their otherwise astute laments lack a sense of history. The aesthetic might seem such an intuitive category that the failure to understand and appreciate it in its own right appears like abject Philistinism. I have written elsewhere in this magazine on the manner in which myopic political ideologues have waged a campaign against undeniable aesthetic truths.

But people have not always privileged the aesthetic over the political in art. Plato wasn’t unique in his time for judging poetry not on its aesthetic merits but according to the moral and political danger he believed it posed to the welfare of the state. As Paul Oskar Kristeller notes in his 1951–2 article “The Modern System of the Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics” and Larry Shiner argues in his The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2001), the aesthetic as a category that unified and undergirded the fine arts did not exist until the eighteenth century.

The Greeks and Romans, both scholars explain, did not have a word matching our concept of the arts. The Greek techné and the Latin ars referred to everything that was the product of human skill or handiwork, as distinct from the works of nature. While they distinguished the free (liberal) arts from the vulgar arts produced by slaves or through physical toil, they did not draw a sharp distinction between arts and mere crafts. Composing tragedies and crafting shoes were thought of as the same kind of thing. Shiner explains: “As offensive as it may be to our post-romantic sensibilities, Aristotle believed that the artisan/artist takes a particular raw material (human character/leather) and uses a particular set of ideas (plot/shoe form) to produce a product (tragedy/shoes).”

Nor did the Greeks or Romans group poetry, drama, music, painting, sculpture and architecture together in one category. While music was seen as a fundamentally mathematical discipline, painting, epic and tragedy were grouped together as mimetic arts, i.e. arts that aspired to—and, in Plato’s view, failed at—the imitation of reality, which, for him, was sufficient reason to condemn them. The ancients also had no broad category of literature in the way we now think of it. The Latin litteratura referred to written learning in general rather than to a body of creative literary texts. While the idea of a canon of literary texts existed, works were accorded canonical status for their perceived excellence at teaching proper writing and style rather than their perceived excellence, period.

The notion of aesthetic excellence did not exist in anything like its current form. As Shiner explains, the classical world had no concept of beauty that even approximated our idea of aesthetic beauty:

The idea of beauty in the ancient world usually combined what our aesthetic theories have typically separated. The Greek “kalon” was a general term of commendation that applied to mind and character, customs and political systems, as much as to form and physical appearance. Both “kalon” and the Latin “pulchrum” were often used to mean “morally good.”

Consistent with this approach, the ancients did not conceive of the aesthetic qualities of works of art as independent of—much less preeminent over—their moral, religious, intellectual and other practical virtues. Indeed, Greek drama was generally encountered by citizens as part of religio-political festivals, while visual arts were not museum pieces, but integrated into functional or religious contexts, whether as friezes or building elements, pottery or other vessels. Music was likewise used to accompany religious ceremonies, drama, symposia, festivals and athletic or military activities.

What is important to understand is that this conception of the arts was the dominant one until the eighteenth century. Shiner reports that “lists of the arts from Augustine in the fifth century to Aquinas in the thirteenth mixed painting, sculpture, and architecture with cooking, navigation, horsemanship, shoemaking, and juggling.” Throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, artists worked at the behest of rich patrons. Even Leonardo da Vinci was often given contractual commissions to paint, by a certain date, so-and-so in such-and-such a place, with this or that in the background. Shakespeare was just the in-house writer for (and stakeholder in) a theater company—and theater itself was a low-status form of entertainment. The action on stage was accompanied and interrupted by drinking, dancing, music, brawls, acrobatics, hawking and sword fights. Shakespeare’s plays were published as afterthoughts as a way to make a little extra money from a successful show and were often transcribed by others (including as bootleg copies) from memory, with the star actors’ names rather than the writer’s appearing on the covers. Musicians were composer-performers, who wrote for particular occasions, and Bach, best known as a gifted organist and teacher in his own day, might have been surprised that we perform his one-off works, such as cantatas, at our weddings and funerals. While good art was generally thought to serve a moral or spiritual function, there was no practice of public art appreciation, and public museums, concerts and libraries did not exist in most of the nations of Europe until the mid-seventeenth to late eighteenth centuries. 

Art Becomes Autonomous

Shiner describes multiple developments—most of which occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that eventually coalesced into our modern-day notions of art and aesthetics. The most important of these was the development of a public market for art, which came to replace the patronage system, completely transforming both what was expected of artists and their status in society. The emergence of such a market required, in turn, a middle class (which emerged with capitalism), and such phenomena as widespread literacy and cultivation of the unaccustomed habits of respectful and polite museum-going or seated, silent concert-listening. Other important milestones of which Shiner takes note include the following:

  • the passage of the first Copyright Act in 1709, which gave writers, rather than printers, the opportunity to profit from their works
  • the Industrial Revolution’s mechanization of work previously done by skilled craftsmen, which drove a wedge between the creative arts and “mere” crafts
  • the French Revolution’s expropriation of the art objects collected by the French monarchy and the decision to turn a wing of the Louvre Palace into a public exhibition space—which displaced the artworks from their original locations and contexts, turning them into pure objets d’art in what later became a national museum
  • the opening up of the formerly aristocratic coming-of-age experience known as the Grand Tour to a wider swathe of the bourgeois population, resulting in the need to set out an archetypal itinerary of key European masterpieces and cultural monuments—a functional artistic canon—that then became known to tourists and connoisseurs.

These economic and cultural changes led to or were accompanied by philosophical reconceptualizations of the role of art in society. The French philosopher Charles Batteux’s 1746 treatise, The Fine Arts Reduced to the Same Principle, is the first widely read book to group together what we now think of as the fine arts. The word aesthetic in its modern sense was introduced by the eighteenth-century German philosopher Alexander Baumgarten and then picked up by Immanuel Kant. Kant defined pure aesthetic pleasure as a kind of “disinterested contemplation,” disinterested in the sense that it was pleasure unchaperoned by desires or moral purposes, a notion that would have been foreign to thinkers of previous centuries. The concept of imagination, meanwhile, was turned from what had previously been understood, by philosophers like Edmund Burke, as a purely synthetic faculty, i.e. one that recombines and rearranges existing materials, into a creative faculty that could generate something wholly new. The artist’s act of imaginative creation was an analogue of divine creation itself, and this definitively separated artists from artisans, who merely applied skills and followed rules. The artist could now be thought of as a divinely inspired genius, a concept that reached its apogee in Friedrich Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), which describes great art and the artistic genius as the ultimate redemptive forces, capable of recreating the unity between thought and feeling lost to human civilization since the days of classical Greece.

Schiller’s true artist appeals to “the elect of a nation” against “its mass,” and the only criterion for the success of a work of art is its internal perfection. The pre-Romantic understanding of art’s mingled joys and moral functions is abandoned entirely in favor of the apotheosis of pure form. The artist, Schiller writes, must triumph over the limits “inherent in the particular subject of which he treats. In a really beautiful work of art, the substance ought to be inoperative, the form should do everything; for by the form, the whole man is acted on; the substance acts on nothing but isolated forces.”

The Aesthetic Achieves Lift-Off and Comes Back Down with a Thud

This exalted vision of the purity and autonomy of art, in which the artist is a creative visionary, a Promethean hero, gave rise to the Romantic sensibility of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and to much that followed. It informs Swinburne’s bold pronouncement, “Art for Art’s sake first of all, and afterwards the rest shall be added to her … but from the man who falls to artistic work with a moral purpose shall be taken away even that which he has”; the Russian formalists’ elevation of the self-referential patterns of aesthetic form as art’s singular guiding light; and even Carl Jung’s vision of the artist as the expression of the highest truths of our collective unconscious, “the unwitting mouthpiece of the psychic secrets of his time.”

This reverential tradition led to the canonization of aesthetic works as academic literature departments took shape in the late nineteenth century. These masterpieces, T. S. Eliot writes in his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” are monuments in an imaginary library and “form an ideal order among themselves.” By Eliot’s time, Shiner tells us, art and culture—and their accompanying norms of manners and refinement—had become a great dividing line, replacing an earlier divide between the large mass of common folk and a tiny hereditary aristocracy:

The emergence of new art institutions like art museums, literary reviews and secular concerts led to the use of cultural choices to mark social ascension, and a consequent withdrawal of art from lower-class culture, so that whereas in 1500, popular culture was everyone’s culture, by 1800, the clergy, nobility, merchants and professional men and their wives had abandoned popular culture to the lower classes …

By the late nineteenth century, the kind of multilevel culture with which we are now familiar began to emerge. One could identify a person’s social class in part by what papers or books they read, what music they listened to, what plays they saw, what sort of pictures they preferred.

But this is becoming less and less true today; art and culture have ceased to serve as the dividing line between the elites and the unschooled, unwashed masses. Art lost that status when, as I argue here, the vaguely literate but entirely uncultivated post-war techno-financial elite replaced the old literary intelligentsia, whereupon literature and other hallmarks of high culture began to undergo a first gradual and then more rapid rot on the vine. Marxist and Marx-inspired class prejudice, together with Dadaism and postmodernism, leveled the distinctions between high and low, avant-garde and kitsch, originality and banality and ultimately between art and everything else, resulting in profound and sweeping biases against perceived elites and difficult elite culture. Ultimately, conventional aesthetic merit ceased to matter.

But banal or low art differs fundamentally from high art: it lacks the visionary gleam; it can only reflect society back to itself. Such art could no longer be credibly thought to fulfill anything like the transformative, redemptive function attributed to art by Schiller and his followers. The special status of the great artist, the creative genius, the echo of divinity, quickly fell away, to be replaced by market values, which equate genius with worldly success and relegate the true geniuses toiling in obscurity to the realm of oddball quackery, making them figures of ridicule. And woe be to those effete intellectuals and elitist critics that still dare abide by the traditional distinction between high and low and speak ill of comics, comic book films, sitcoms, reality TV, pop music, hip hop and so on. 

Progressive Puppets, Corporate Puppet Masters

Given this blurring of aesthetic distinctions and the hollowing out of the category of aesthetic merit—and since the admission that market value is now the true marker of merit is too bitter a pill for most of the self-styled anti-elitists to swallow—it is not surprising that a different dividing line has been erected to keep the refuse out of the inner sanctum. Holding the right set of woke political prejudices now serves as that dividing line because it is a direct reflection of the biases held by the same anti-elitist forces that devalued high art and aesthetic merit in the first place.

Despite their adherents’ vaguely Marxist or progressive pretensions, these forces remain closely wedded to the market, the ultimate enemy of all would-be elites except those who rise to the top in accordance with brute capitalist imperatives. The market for high culture is inherently narrow. High culture is cumulative. Over time, it encompasses ever more artworks, and so only a smaller and smaller elite is sufficiently steeped in the canon to appreciate great modern and contemporary art. In addition, most of the leading lights of the western canon are not subject to copyright protection. Their works are consequently of limited use to an industry that needs copyright protection to create exploitable proprietary rights, especially now that consumers can access uncopyrighted content without having to go out and pay for a published book. Quality is difficult and takes time, whereas opening up the canon to a rapid influx of new and accessible voices is profitable. Thus, just as Fortune 500 companies will make a show of their charitable contributions to enhance their images and pad their bottom lines, corporations—despite occasional missteps, such as Pepsi’s ad that attempted to profit from protests—happily make a show of their wokeness in order to coopt influential progressive mandarins in media, academia and the entertainment industry. These influencers return the favor by attacking high culture and helping corporate conglomerates peddle the culture industry’s synthetic schlock to consumers—who are receptive to the message because those interested in culture and art naturally tend to skew left. Woke messaging, which attacks both the political right and high culture, is, therefore, a risk worth taking for companies.

But, as Shiner explains, the emergence of a public market for art was the main factor in the crystallization of the fine arts and the creation and elevation of the aesthetic as a category in the first place. Why, then, has the market today turned against aesthetics and begun, whether intentionally or otherwise, to knock high art off its pedestal? My simple account of the change is that until midway through the twentieth century, literacy was limited, and the market for high art was still comparatively small and elite. Today, the market for art consists of anyone with a TV, an internet connection or a smartphone. But, as I have already explained, high culture necessarily excludes much of that large mass of consumers. Corporations continuing to aim high would be missing a big opportunity. Thus, though the assault on aesthetic merit and dead white males may have started out in the most radical corners of academia, it picked up as much steam as it did because wealth-maximizing capitalists hopped onto the bandwagon, and adopted the message in order to make potential customers feel good about indulging in what might previously have been viewed as a guilty pleasure: art targeted at the lowest common denominator, art which has a reach far wider than that of the dead white male greats like James Joyce and Arnold Schoenberg.

Thus, corporations in the culture industry promote, for example, art with conspicuous pro-LGBT messaging, while condemning its right-of-center equivalents, not because such corporations are deeply committed to pro-LBGT values, but for the same reason retail stores and corporate websites sport rainbow flags during Pride month: while exclusive messages shrink the market, inclusive messages mean more customers. They alienate only the commercially undesirable contingent of poor white trash at the far-right margins. Art that proclaims this is elite high culture appeals to a smaller market. The choice for rational capitalists is clear.

But the choice for the rest of us is far less clear. Relying on big business to get the good word out is dangerous. Progressives may think they can avail themselves of market forces for their purposes, but the market will wind up using progressives for its own purposes: garbling their message and chewing them up and spitting them out along the way. As the far-left-of-center Frankfurt School theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer argue in their 1944 essay, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” the culture industry discourages truly liberating ideas and replaces art with amusement, which is a mere distraction from labor, and hence, a continuation of labor by other means. The market will ultimately follow the money: when America has had enough and revolts against the excesses and overreach of progressive wokeness, the corporate overlords will go with the (cash) flow. 

The Artist as Liberator

Though ancient Greece and Rome and medieval and renaissance Christian Europe may have produced great and timeless works of art—despite the fact that the arts then were a mishmash of secondary disciplines, subordinate to religion, politics and other social norms—these civilizations did so within a centripetal system of higher meanings no longer available to us in our pluralistic and secular times. Much as some conservatives may lament the fact, God no longer occupies our public square. For us, therefore, art cannot remain a dispensable luxury. It is our principal remaining public gateway out of the daily grind and into the spiritual realm. As the great twentieth-century critic Owen Barfield writes, we are “a civilization which must look more and more to art—to the individualized poetic—as the very source and fountain-head of all meaning.” Or, to quote Nietzsche, in our world, a world increasingly without God, it is “art and nothing but art” that is “the great means of making life possible.”

To allow art to be subject to our political and moral whims is not only to impoverish it but—by making art this-worldly and mundane—to impoverish our own souls. Indeed, it is to impoverish our politics as well. Schiller understood this: “to arrive at a solution even in the political problem, the road of aesthetics must be pursued, because it is through beauty that we arrive at freedom.” “Art,” he writes, “is emancipated from all that is positive [i.e. real], and all that is humanly conventional.” In ages of depravity, whether our own or those of the more monstrous Roman emperors, when “humanity has lost its dignity … art has saved it, and preserves it in marbles full of meaning.” He exhorts the artist and the believer in beauty to inundate us with “the symbols of perfection, till appearance triumphs over reality, and art over nature.” Inverting Plato’s hierarchy of reality over appearance, he comments, “In the midst of the formidable realm of forces, and of the sacred empire of laws, the aesthetic impulse of form creates by degrees a third and a joyous realm, that of play and of the appearance, where she emancipates man from fetters, in all his relations, and from all that is named constraint, whether physical or moral.” “It is beauty only,” he concludes, “that can give [the individual] a social character; taste alone brings harmony into society, because it creates harmony in the individual.”

Adorno and Horkheimer agree that art allows us “to transcend reality,” but, unlike Schiller, they do not believe it does so by elevating us through images of perfection that liberate us from reality’s fetters. Instead, they argue that—by contrast with the culture industry’s distorted simulacra—art is like a complex symphony in which our many failures and imperfections are fully aired, and any reconciliation at the end must be earned. Great art, they argue, refuses to deliver easy and simplistic harmonizations of that which should not be rendered harmonic. It refuses to offer up the kind of spirit-deadening false harmonies offered by Hollywood’s exercises in escapism, exemplified by accomplished schlockmeister Steven Spielberg’s repetitive dramas of world-shattering disasters inevitably resolved through banal familial reconciliations. Rather, the liberation and transcendence offered by art “is to be found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity.”

The endpoint of Schiller’s, Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s approaches is one and the same: whether through its own display of the perfection we lack or through its expression of our imperfection, great art towers over all that which is presented to us as or held by us to be truth in our social or political moment. Great art may not make us good, but it undeceives us, broadens our minds, draws us away from black-and-white thinking by making us comfortable with ambiguity and shades of gray, enhances our powers of empathy and sharpens and widens our conceptions of evil and good. As Matthew Arnold puts it in Culture and Anarchy (1869): “Everything in our political life tends to hide from us that there is anything wiser than our ordinary selves,” whereas “culture” is “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

To understand this much is to understand what we are sacrificing in reverting to the old hierarchy of politics over aesthetics and giving away the hard-won and fragile victory achieved in the relatively recent revolution in which art and aesthetics finally broke free of their long subservience to other considerations. In an age when art had not yet emerged as a distinct realm of activity separate from its religio-political or practical contexts, Plato may have wanted to expel the poets for failing to express philosophical truths, but, in our own age of totalitarian states and media propagandists, we have upped the ante, expecting, in the finest tradition of Soviet culture commissars, that our poets will pipe merry tunes in praise of our favorite political doctrines. True artists, however, do not and cannot pipe along to propaganda. Put to the choice, most will opt for the lesser of two evils: forced exile, whether of the body or of the soul. They will go underground, choose obscurity and communicate in secret or in code. But, in our superficial and troubled times, we cannot afford to let their messages fall on deaf ears and let the public square be occupied by overwrought street poets, yokels and hacks. It is, therefore, not the poets but the petty politicos and loudmouth moralizers we must exile, not only from the realm of aesthetics but even from the political and moral realms. Our modern-day moralists, whether on the right or the left, have gotten it exactly backwards: we cannot sit in judgment over art; we must, instead, allow great art to sit in judgment over us.

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6 comments

  1. Through most of history, art (painting & sculpture) was paid for mostly by the Church in Europe and then by nobility. Both had clear requirements of the artist and often led to cliche art (and some great art). Only when academic posts and mass markets arose could artists be free. Art as propaganda in communist Russia was awful and corny. We are heading back toward art as propaganda –of the Left only.

  2. Wow, they’ve even turned against Morrissey now?! Did they not notice that he’s always been misanthropic?

    I can’t help but quote the man himself:

    “It’s so easy to laugh, it’s so easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind”

  3. I thought I left this comment earlier, but see it has not registered: T.S. Eliot was the outstanding exception, and not necessarily representative during his time, in which many were calling for the lynching of Pound for treason after the war. But Eliot’s position resonated then, in a way that would be drowned out in the contemporary situation. Eliot published a great African novel Palm-wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola, disregarding its syntactical and spelling issues. The problem today is the absence of exceptions and exceptional risk-taking publishers. Independent presses regularly withdraw works, and the established ”vanguard” poets will only defend their own academic job-security and the work of enrolled MFA students who paid a 17.000 dollar tuition fee to the school, the employer of the ”vanguard” poet.

  4. Fascinating stuff. I always like when I finish an article and feel like I actually learned something. Thanks, Areo.

  5. Loved the way this article draws on critiques from the left itself to make a powerful, coherent point against the clueless modern left. Well-written and well-argued.

  6. the seeds of this mobs eventual are in their own infrastructure. as comedy is increasingly constrained, and woke comedy becomes more about getting applause than getting laughs, audiences will turn away from it. as the current generation of film, music, TV, art and literature critics continue grading content on how it stacks up politically, their services will lose more and more utility, and people will stop relying on them to help them pick their entertainment. as more and more sinners, blasphemers and heretics are cast out, what is left will be increasingly dreary, predictable and preachy, and the public will demand their return.

    this empire of prudes and moral strictures cannot sustain itself without force, which it does not have. the only reason previous moral enforcement efforts throughout history worked as well as they did for as long as they did was because they did have force. fall in line or die. the woke media does not have this, and so it is finished once the public grows tired of the products they produce.

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