There is a special place in Hell reserved for Phyllis Schlafly. It is by no means the hottest or most painful sectors reserved for the Hitlers or Pol Pots. But it is a dismal one.
It is likely a gray, colorless room with no doors or windows. Before her are three buttons that provide a break from the endless, blood-curdling screams piped in from outside. Each button will briefly play a short slice of soulless elevator music chosen by the Satan's hand-picked focus group.
This is the Hell reserved for the true blue culture warrior, for the person who spent their whole life attempting to transform “society” into a collection of atomized “individuals.” And Schlafly knew something every savvy culture warrior knew: that the perfectly pliant individual must have, counter-intuitively, any and all autonomy and expression stripped from them.
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There has been, and there will rightfully continue to be, much written about Phyllis Schlafly’s activism against equality for women, her queerphobia, her rise from the failures of the Long Sixties and becoming a pillar of “the new right.” Good. In investigating this new (now old) right we start to identify the touchstones of what now is weirdly referred to as “the alt-right.” The gay man who trots out to sneer at Islam and the queer left, the “strong woman” whose job it is to rail against feminism, the appeal not to any kind of logic but to “common sense” naivete that calls for a return to mythical tradition. Schlafly was an archetype for all of this. Or at least helped forge that archetype.
Fewer writers will be keen to illustrate the role Schlafly played in censorship of the arts. This is largely because, compared to here campaigns against the Equal Rights Amendment, her censorship advocacy was relatively low-key and behind the scenes. But her Eagle Forum organization also spoke against “obscene” art exhibitions like that of Robert Mapplethorpe and the Brooklyn Museum of Art’s Sensation in the 80’s and 90’s. Eagle Forum also provided resources for Tipper Gore’s Parental Music Resource Center, in particular its campaign to ban heavy metal shows in the state of Texas. Gore would always (and still does) deny that the PMRC ever had anything to do with the religious right, but anti-censorship advocates have always been quick to point that the proof is right there for anyone to see.
The Eagle Forum-PMRC connection is a telling one. It reveals how Schlafly’s role wasn’t simply to shift the Republican Party to the right. Yes, that was her primary function, but it was also part of a larger political shift in which both parties lurched rightward. What some would come to call a “Washington consensus” required an equilibrium between liberalism and conservatism that decisively handed initiative to the latter. Recovery from the economic crises of the 1970’s required a change in tactic, and the artistic side of “cultural politics” came to play a role in this.
Campaigns against sex education and birth control gained more traction holding hands with bipartisan wars against “permissiveness” in popular music. Calls to stop funding the “deviancy” of Mapplethorpe kept clear the path to ignore an AIDS epidemic that was wiping out a whole generation of queer people. Attempts to redefine what is and isn’t “art” always reflect a certain perspective on what people should and shouldn’t be allowed.
In this context, the Telecommunication Act of 1996 – which essentially handed TV and radio over to unregulated media companies and squelched a profoundly dynamic period in arts, music and popular culture – was just as much the outcome of right-wing culture crusades as it was the responsibility of a business-friendly Democratic Party. And even if attempts to gut the National Endowment for the Arts have failed, it remains an object of benign, convenient neglect. Democratic administrations let it wither until conservatives bring it back into the spotlight.
In other words, these attacks on the arts were, more fundamentally, part of the attacks on the social cohesion of working class people. Attacks on unions, abortion rights, welfare, affirmative action, gay rights – these were all tied together in the reactionary imagination. It’s this imagination that Schlafly helped propagate both publicly and behind the scenes. Reagan would give a name to this imaginary when he launched his “Morning in America” campaign ads in 1984, but the reality of this social vision has nothing to do with security or prosperity. A pure and distilled version of it would be one of extreme despair and estrangement.
Much like the Hell that awaits her. Or at least should await her. That Schlafly outlived Prince, even by a few months, should raise serious questions about the existence of a just and benevolent God.
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