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Too Woke for Peanut Butter, and the Death of Art

April 25, 2019


Famished after a particularly strenuous session in physical therapy, I sought out the fastest high protein lunch I could put together — a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a glass of milk. As I smeared the peanut butter onto fresh bread, an old Raffi song popped into my head — a favorite of my kids, when they were young and addicted to the affable kiddie troubadour:

A peanut butter sandwich made with jam
One for me, and one for David Amram…
stick, stick, stick, stick, stick!

Suddenly, prompted by nothing conscious, I could imagine a voice objecting. “We shouldn’t sing that song! It’s not inclusive! It’s not sensitive to kids who are allergic to peanut butter and could die from it!”

Alright, how to shift that, I wondered…

An almond butter sandwich made with jam
One for me, and one for David Amram…

Again the voice appeared, this time it was nagging. “A lot of people are allergic to almonds and all tree nuts! My boyfriend almost died because I kissed him after eating a biscotti! How insensitive!”

And it seems there are some unfortunate people who are allergic to nuts of every kind. They are excluded from the land of PB&J happiness, entirely.

Well now, I frowned, deciding against the jelly because who needs the carbs, how do we sing this song?

“A non-specific sandwich made with jam…”

That doesn’t sound like a relaxed celebration of a sandwich, does it? There’s nothing casually joyful in that line, and nothing relate-able, either. Well, never mind, I said to myself, bopping into the second verse:

I can think of witches good and bad
But the best witch that I’ve ever had was
A peanut butter sandwich made with jam…

Again came the nagging voice, “Why are we always talking about ‘good’ witches and ‘bad’ witches? It’s just a belief system and this is perpetuating negative stereotyping of witches! Nobody talks about ‘good’ Christians and ‘bad’ ones…”

In fact, people do talk about good and bad Christians, only they usually make their distinctions couched in ideological frameworks and narratives that end up making sweeping generalizations that demonize or lionize huge swaths of people, whether fair or not, relevant or not.

“No peanut butter, no witches,” I mumbled to myself as I poured the milk, grateful that Raffi hadn’t mentioned dairy. An automatic “Raffi jukebox” began to stir in my brain, and another of my kid’s favorite songs clicked on:

Five little pumpkins sitting on a gate
The first one said “Oh, my! It’s getting late!”
The second one said, “There are witches in the air…”

One of my sons was so besotted with the song that we’d made a little poster board mock-up of it as a Halloween project and sang it over and over with no idea it might be “problematic.” Again, with the witches — “Monstrous stereotypes! There are no witches on brooms flying through the air. You could use some sensitivity training, you know,” sang the social voice. And what about the pumpkins rolling out of sight, I wondered. Is that somehow witch-phobic? Is the image too able-ist? What if one of the pumpkins couldn’t easily roll on his own steam?”

Another favorite track:

There was a man lived in the moon,
in the moon, in the moon…

“Why not a WOMAN,” screeched the voice, “A woman can be in the moon! She could play upon a ladle as well as any man!”

We’ve all heard about ‘Catholic guilt’ — that reliable punch line of lazy comedians these five decades or more — but if does exist (I have my doubts), it has nothing on the socialized ‘woke guilt’ that is killing artistic expression (and a fair measure of simple joy, which is closely connected to gratitude) by demanding that artists honor a cult of victimhood by obliterating any possibility of insult to anything or anyone at all times. And the movement is effective, as demonstrated by my inability to construct a simple sandwich without the cues of the caterwauling involuntarily intruding upon my lunch.

As with so many well-intentioned human ideas the demand for vigilant sensitivity, shuffled to its inevitable extremes, has become itself something hard and insensitive — and exclusionary, too, for if one tries to shrug off a complaint as silly, one is quickly labeled an “anti-this” or a “phobic-that”, insensitive and “unwoke”.

It’s a graceless thing, isn’t it? Most people are not consciously (or willfully) ‘anti’ very much; they’re not terribly ‘phobic’, either, but the labels are so suffocatingly sticky and damaging that they put one quickly on-guard, fast to apologize, and therefore ready to become ever-more beige in thought and speech — less ready to defend a preference, more fearful of a mob — until conversation becomes only murmured agreements and then, inevitably, silence. In such a repressive environment human creativity, as limitless as the Creator whose Divine spark comes standard issue with each shiny new soul, can only become stunted and then extinguished.

Perhaps that is the point. In a world hurling itself face-first toward some secularist utopia where, as a British government flunky said some years ago “We don’t do God…” why not diminish the creative instinct down to the point where there is no artistic dialogue — no Bellinian thrust ready to counter a Reformation parry — until the act of creation itself, that most intimate of intercourses between God and humanity whether between bedsheets or sheets of music, becomes sterile, unproductive because it is untouched by love, and therefore absent of its source and rather pointless?

Ah, well, there is always the classic and delightful “Bananafone” to fall back on. As long as no one is triggered by hearing a trivializing of the Tao and the assumption of a heteronormative family, or by singing “Operator get me Beijing, jing, jing, jing” and thereby devaluing the language a billion people.

Nevermind. It’s safer Down By the Bay, where the watermelons grow. Where no crazy mother — “why not a father?” — is asking disturbing questions about the possible sighting of a goose kissing a moose.

A world that will permit no nonsense on the grounds that everything in the world is much, much too serious to permit thoughtless, insensitive frivolity, is a world so full of insensitive, thoughtless and frivolous nonsense that there is no room for mindless joy, and the freedom necessary to sometimes make a mistake within the throes of it, in order to learn about things greater than ourselves — like mercy and second chances.