Underlying trends cloud the future of classical liberalism, even as it now has gained a redoubt in our judiciary and retained a perch in our politics.
The funniest man in Hollywood in 50 years has finally published his autobiography at 84. But Woody Allen’s Apropos of Nothing was almost stifled. It was scandalously pulped by Hachette before being picked up by the smaller Arcade Publishing. A publisher attempted to destroy a book just because hysterical wokies from Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow, on down wanted it destroyed. Moralism triumphed over decency and appreciation for comedy. Elite liberals overwhelmed one of their own out of cowardice and humorlessness.
Hopefully, conservatives will defend Woody Allen before he dies—both because it’s the noble thing to do, he should have the right to publish his story, and because comedy is in short supply. The account of his childhood is wonderful, better even than most of his movies. He lives up to his reputation as a humorist in that section, as well as with his reflection on how out of place comedy is in America. The deviant comic poet is a depressive in a nation of compulsive enthusiasts.
The Clown-Prince of Liberalism
Allen says he discovered mortality young, and the unintelligible inevitability of death ruined things for him. His family’s love and care couldn’t shake it, nor could his fantasies—listening to the radio all day, reading the comic books every kid was reading, and going to the movies as much as possible—nor could his all-American love of baseball. Nature couldn’t charm him away from its ruthlessness, except when he was chasing girls (very ineptly).
This disposition allows him to suspect that every dream is illusory. From thence comes his comedy. His description of growing up in Flatbush is accordingly intended to give Mark Twain a run for his money. Like Tom Sawyer, the young Allen learned that fantasy is important in America, and he found himself making more money out of it than his hardworking mother before even graduating high school.
He learned magic as a child, fell in love with jazz as a teenager, itself a form of magic or charming, but he ultimately discovered that he could truly wow a crowd through laughter. He started selling jokes, doing theater, and writing for TV. He worked in stand-up and became the wittiest liberal in America in the 60s. Clubs booked him, Johnny Carson invited him to guest host, he recorded albums—and yet the audience always avoided him: He says he played to progressively emptier clubs and nobody bought his albums however often they were reissued by new elites who were sure this time the liberal comic genius would connect with the great American audience. He was only popular with the prestigious.
He stresses his all-American childhood and his story of achieving the American dream. He rose from poverty to the elite class by offering the loveliest vision of American liberalism. He reproduced his childhood experience on screen: Fantasizing about glamorous Manhattan, where everything is beautiful, everyone sophisticated, and immortality, or at least happiness, is easily glimpsed. In that charmed circle, lovers’ illusions are funny, but harmless. He called it champagne comedy, and he wished to live it. Every night would be a party full of literary figures making literary references and every liberal cause celebre would get its due, everyone would indulge in psychoanalysis and no one would have prejudices like traditional morality.
Allen makes convincing efforts to prove he’s not an intellectual, but only looked like one. That is, he presents himself as bespectacled, shabby, and nervous—a man who only read important books to wow girls. If you reverse the means (learning) and end (girls), it still is true that eroticism and learning are connected, and joking as tantalizing as flirting. If you get the joke, you’re a natural winner, getting knowledge and pleasure both, as Aristotle says in the opening of the Metaphysics. Maybe being human is wonderful and wonder the beginning of philosophy.
We laugh at the follies of his characters—and these aren’t so much fictional creations, as he often played himself—because they reveal our naturally comic side. We are needy, especially for love, but we rarely succeed at it. We also lack self-knowledge and hope to discover it through the people we fall in love with and the beauty we see in them. He seems to say, love makes us shameless, daring, so we might as well learn what love is.
Hence his movies teach us about love. Manhattan and Stardust Memories; the somewhat less brilliant Annie Hall and The Purple Rose of Cairo; on the ugly, dramatic side, the remarkably insightful Crimes and Misdemeanors: Allen will be celebrated for these films for generations because they manage to beautify our lives without debasing us with flattery. Instead, they use our aspirations to educate us about ourselves until we willingly part with our illusions.
The Humiliation of a Liberal
To read his jokes, you’d never guess Allen is a conventional liberal. Yet he cannot express his own indignation when police fingerprint him—he instead pretends to imagine how much worse it would be for a black man. He reassures his audience he was a paid-up ACLU member at the time of the Voting Rights Act. He’s for affirmative action, he says, he just doesn’t hire black actors: they’re not right for his vision.
In 1992, his girlfriend Mia Farrow ruined his reputation and some of his life with child abuse accusations that were as thoroughly discredited as such accusations can be. Liberals didn’t help Allen. Now, they’re humiliating him again on death’s threshold, by trying to deny him the publication of his memoir, or at least bury it in silence. Actors won’t work with him or have denounced him after working with him, some donating their paychecks to “righteous” causes.
They may be cowards and opportunists, but they are also conventional liberals, just like Allen, eager to impose liberal moralism on others, but not subject themselves to it. What’s different between Allen and his persecutors? Only the times. The attitude liberals called revolutionary in 1965 is called racist today: yesterday’s brave Jewish liberal is today’s evil “white savior”, no longer a reformist, but part of the system of oppression, to be canceled in order to foster more diversity in Hollywood itself. You can’t blame a guy for outliving his times. They used to love him, showering him with dozens of Oscar nominations and four awards, but he hasn’t kept up with the changing mores enough to win their approval now.
Liberal piety requires sentimentality about victims and Allen is only too aware he’s lived one of those stories of miscarried justice that, as a liberal, he loves. He’s finally the victim-hero so central to liberal storytelling, but it turns out he’d much rather have avoided this story, as his fellow liberals all think he’s the villain. To him, it’s some kind of cosmic accident, or the revenge of love—had he not loved Farrow, he’d have seen what he calls the red warning flags miles away. But even in his memoir, he fails to contemplate how his liberalism made him arrogant and eventually the resentment and hatred he aroused caught up with him, however unjustly. To hear him tell it, although elite liberalism suddenly hates him very publicly, it all came as a surprise, he had no idea the knives would come out for him!
Nor should we blame him for his lack of self-reflection. Like a tyrant, liberalism elevated him to a position of American nobility, but then capriciously humiliated him. He’s upset that The New York Times calls him a monster, since he has always appreciated their rational journalism. Well, what can a lifelong believer in their polished mediocrity do? Were he to give up liberalism, he’d have nothing left. Despite his vaunted nihilism, he dare not face life without those delusions. This would seem ultimately to be the problem with the liberal as comic—he lacks prudence, both politically and artistically, being too sure of quick and easy victories, of Progress, of universal approval, or at least providential protection from malice and misfortune. And had they lacked prudence, Aristophanes in his day or Shakespeare in his would have been forgotten. We must look forward to some comic talent that can rise to comparable heights, but perhaps it will be useful to understand the hopes and disappointments of Allen’s mid-century liberalism before we make a new attempt.