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The Critic as Political Figure


I mentioned before NPR’s atrocious firing of Kim Kelly, their frequent contributor on heavy metal, for supporting anti-fascist work in her other writing, including online. Basically, she tweeted in support of the anarchist who ICE murdered in Portland a few weeks ago for trashing their cars in a parking lot. Tucker Carlson got hold of that, went on his usual white supremacist rant, and NPR caved because of course it did.

Kelly has a longer piece in the Columbia Journalism Review about the situation and what it means for art critics who also talk about politics:

Being an outspoken feminist who writes about heavy metal—typically a straight, cis male–dominated universe—has never been easy. Nor is being stridently anti-fascist when digging into subgenres like black metal, whose inherent nihilism and pagan leanings can provide cover for white-supremacist propaganda. All the while, I’ve engaged in activist organizing that has influenced how I choose which artists to cover and what labels to support. 

As a result, I’ve spent a decade and a half dodging the criticisms of “separate the art from the artist” types who would prefer to consume their heavy metal in a bubble, minus the inconvenience of having to consider how artists’ identity, background, and political views inform their art. For some, it’s more appealing to say, “Whatever, this song rules!” than to grapple with the fact that it was made by an abuser, or a racist, or a Nazi. 

I’m well aware that many news organizations—particularly those, like NPR, that are in part public- or government-funded—have strict rules about staffers and contributors airing political views on social media. After the call, I couldn’t find my original contract, now eight years old, to check and see which terms, exactly, I had violated. Later, I reached out to NPR’s media relations office, which provided the following statement: “NPR expects freelancers who contribute to NPR to uphold the same journalistic principles that guide the work of NPR’s own journalists. You can read more about the standards that apply to NPR journalism in our Ethics Handbook.” In one section, the handbook says to “refrain from advocating for political or other polarizing issues online.” It was obvious that the rules were interpreted subjectively and enforced selectively. 

Okay, fine; their loss. But what does this mean going forward—for NPR, for me, and for journalism more broadly? Can a critic be an activist?  Should one cancel out the other? If so, how will that affect the diversity of opinions represented and the quality of the criticism they publish? 

Arts criticism comes from the heart and the gut; cutting out the human parts—our opinions—leaves the whole thing bloodless. I could never separate the personal from the political, nor do I have the luxury of pretending I can. I might try to tone it down a little on Twitter (at least until the post-Tucker harassment tapers off), but I’m not going to allow myself to be bullied or intimidated into silence. This is not a time for civility, or decorum, or milquetoast liberal hand-wringing; the US is in the midst of a full-blown crisis, and we should not be quiet about it, even if that does spook a couple of editors along the way.

I hate the NPR like many of you have come to hate the New York Times.

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