Thursday, December 15, 2016

Blogging on the edge of Ragnarok

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with "normal life". Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never come. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumable they have their reward. Men are different.They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, discuss, the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.

-C.S. Lewis, "Learning in Wartime"

Over a year ago, I wrote what I intended to be my final post. Since then, Cleveland won a major sports title, the Cubs won the World Series, and there was an election in November you've maybe heard about. All of these things make modernity's obsession with post-apocalyptic scenarios seem less like fantasies and more like documentaries. Or maybe reality shows, since that seems to be what we've come down to at this late hour of the world.

The late disturbance has confirmed what a friend of mine keeps insisting is the case: I can't stop writing. I can't stop writing stories, and I can't stop writing cultural critiques from the perspective of someone producing cultural artifacts that are largely unconsumed. So I might as well embrace it and put what I'm writing out here in public for the few who might read it to see.

So how bad is it?

This isn't a political blog. Most of what I know about American history revolves around the 20 years before and the ten years after the Civil War, so I don't have an especially informed perspective. This is a blog about culture. But this past election had a lot to do with culture. Social liberals--a group I very much include myself in, with a few qualifications--changed politics over several decades by changing the culture. This election could be viewed as an attempt to reverse the process and change the culture through politics. So what does the election tell me about the culture?

The bright side: Social liberals hate to confess this, but there were sicknesses in the culture that we helped create. And as much as this election was an extreme political solution, a nuclear bomb to kill those infected so the disease ceased to spread, those sicknesses did need to go. These include things like:

  • Liberals use a definition of racism that is different from the vernacular use. In common use, a racist is someone who believes people are inferior based on racial characteristics, knows he thinks this, and is fine with that. Liberals use a more academic definition, one that appeared in the movie Dear White People

That's all well and good. We need to define terms accurately. But liberals then often play a dirty little game where we accuse conservatives of being racist in contexts where it is natural to assume the more common definition applies. This is disingenuous, and it causes anger in people who truly believe--not altogether without evidence--that policies that have been intended to help the racially disadvantaged don't do what they are advertised to do. I disagree, ultimately, but it's not an obvious case. Reasonable people can disagree. So I'm hopeful that we liberals will now be more circumspect in our accusations.
  • Liberals, thinking we have already won the cultural war forever, aren't actually terribly good at the basic arguments for the society we want. It's similar to how many scientists aren't good at arguing for evolution. It's just a given. Nobody even learns how to argue for it anymore, because it's absurd to think you have to. But conservatives, meanwhile, have become very good at the basic arguments for the things they believe in. I hope we liberals will up our "evangelical" game.  
  • We ignore arguments that ought to have a vigorous answer. "Won't an influx of people who have different views about, say, the roles of women or the morality of homosexuality change the culture to where we no longer possess the very tolerance that allows us to take these people in?" is a tough question that we have not answered adequately. It's impolite for liberals to even discuss the question. This is an inheritance from the Romantics, the recent ancestors of liberals, where we were made to believe that people are basically good (according to our own definition of good), and that if you merely put them in the right social setting, they will act accordingly. But conservatives have always have a good point that people sure don't act good. In fact, liberals believe in strong government action precisely because people don't do the right thing often. Obviously, since I have volunteered working with refugee populations, including Muslims, I think taking in strangers is ultimately good. But how anyone could take it for granted, I don't know. It's undeniable that hyper heterogeneous America has social problems that hyper homogeneous South Korea does not have. So I'm glad we at least can have a debate now. 
The bad: As much as I've tried to convince myself and others to be positive, there's plenty of bad. Culturally, this election signifies two shifts to extremes I find depressing.
  1. First is the repudiation of expertise. The polls were all wrong, everyone said Trump would lose, and he won. So what do experts know? And Trump won doing everything everyone said he shouldn't do. So what do experts know? Carry this a little bit further: Who cares about what China experts say about Taiwan? What do experts know? Who cares what scientists say about climate change? What do experts know? Aeon Skoble argues in his chapter on Lisa Simpson from The Simpsons and Philosophy that America "has always had a love-hate relationship with the notion of the intellectual." Our basic democratic ideals make us skeptical of the proposition that one man's opinion might matter more than another, yet we still long to hear from experts. Skoble describes something that probably sounds familiar: "Populist commentators and politicians frequently exploit this resentment of expertise while relying on it as it suits them, for example when a candidate attacks his opponent for being an "Ivy League elitist" while in fact being a product of (or relying on advisers from) a similar educational background." But we are now seeing a President who seems to not need experts at all. He is consciously picking people to lead agencies who have disdain for them. The head of the Department of Energy may soon go from a Ph.D. from MIT to a man who once forgot the name of the department. He ignores his own intelligence community, questions whether they even know what they are talking about. So the pendulum seems to have swung pretty far. So to what end have people like me labored to improve our minds?
  2.  Secondly, and relatedly, is the notion that because nothing is free of bias, all things are equally biased. NPR is no better than One can't even begin to argue a position, because anything that contradicts what someone else believes is automatically just biased. This spills over into art. There is no standard of good and bad. Everything is relative. (For this, as well, we liberals shoulder a lot of blame, and are now, perhaps being hoisted on our own petard.) 
Why to keep writing...or keep doing anything, really

When friends say they are having a hard time getting motivated to do anything because there doesn't seem to be a point, I try to encourage them, sometimes quoting the C.S. Lewis passage in the epigraph. And as bad as this is, it isn't start-of-World-War-II-in-England bad. But in all honesty, I wonder what the point is of many things I once took for granted.

Since this whole blog is frequently a meditation on the question of "what's the point of writing when I don't know if I'll ever even be read?" I can't deny that I always faced this question long before a Falangist takeover of the White House.  But a crisis, or at least what I feel is likely to push us very close to crisis, adds to this the question, "What's the point of writing literary stories and writing about literature when the world is hanging in the balance?"

I've had a somewhat encouraging 2016 as a writer. Two stories were published, one winning "story of the month." I won honorable mention in a contest. But I'm still probably never going to have any kind of major cultural impact as a writer. I have to know this with every word I write.

But this isn't any different than the human condition is for almost everyone. All our best efforts, sooner or later, mostly lead to nothing. In the end, humanity will probably ruin itself with its own greed and stupidity. But we keep fighting the good fight until the end, because humanity is roughly equal parts noble and beautiful to his greedy and stupid parts. I was going to lead into a meditation on Norse stoicism in the face of certain doom, but I remembered that Tolkein often corrected the notion of Germanic fatalism as simply "we are all going to die, but we must die on the side of good, anyway." His version was richer. It wasn't faith, the sure belief that things will turn out alright in the end. It was more a grim hope. Things will probably end badly, but you never know until the end, so you might as well keep trying to make it turn out alright until there really is no hope.

Right now, that hope seems like a fool's hope. Writing stories seems like a waste of time. But if we've learned anything from recent history, it's that culture and politics move together. Writers write. We concern ourselves with truth. Politics work themselves out as a necessary corollary.

That doesn't mean we avoid the political. Anis Shivani has written that "a consistent characteristic of contemporary American poetry is the flattening of history in the individual's private agony." I left graduate school because I saw no essential evangelical message in the profession of literature, nothing it had to say to those who were not professional literature theorists. Just as the pendulum has swung in American politics, it now needs to swing in literature. Our characters, our poetic narrators, need to come out of themselves. They need to end the tyranny of pulling the world into their own narrow interior and private lives, to open their own private lives to the public space. This isn't political didacticism. It's just realizing that there is a world outside of art that art must speak to. If we fail to make that appeal, art suffers, just as a political ideology that failed to appeal to the world outside itself just suffered.

Artists aren't that different from the disappointed liberals I spoke of above who've lost the ability to argue their basic tenets because they didn't think they had to. Writers have forgotten to write stories that readers outside the academy love, because they forgot they had to. It was a given that literature had value. Well, it's not a given anymore. Writers have lost the ability to evangelize, a word I've now used three times in this post. It just means "to tell good news." The news doesn't even really have to be all that good. You can say the world is falling apart as long as someone else can hear thoughts they haven' t been able to express and feel less alone in knowing it's falling apart. But to bring others into your imaginative world, you first have to recognize that they even exist.

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