Sunday, November 13, 2016

On Horned Beasts, and Dilemmas

Teju Cole:
Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it. It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else. This is not a process that began a week or month or year ago. It did not begin with drone assassinations, or with the war on Iraq. Evil has always been here. But now it has taken on a totalitarian tone.
"A Time for Refusal," The New York Times, November 11, 2016


Teju Cole's essay on the recent election, Eugène Ionesco's Rhinoceros, and the dangers of accommodating oneself to evil seems to me both brilliantly framed and right on the money, but if the new president-elect has even heard of the late Romanian-born French playwright he certainly doesn't care about him (or about Teju Cole), and the same is undoubtedly true of the bulk of his supporters. So in a sense this will no doubt be viewed as just one more laughable example of the cluelessness of the intellectual elite, who amuse themselves with literary allusions while middle-class Americans seek to lift the stone off their backs (or at least, shift it to the other side).

It raises, though, the more general question of what the response of artists and intellectuals should be to these events, and how we need to "frame our discourse" (to fall once more into the alienating jargon) to reach beyond our own rarefied sphere. What is our responsibility in the face of a state of emergency? Do we politicize art and inquiry, perhaps channel it into digestible mass-propaganda, or do we insist on the inviolability of our domains, on the pursuit of art for art's sake? (And let's not forget that those who are likely to be seizing the reins in Washington have little use for art or education at all, except of the most banal kind.)

It seems inescapable to me that we are going to have to live with the tension between the two impulses. We cannot blind ourselves to what is happening and to our responsibilities, but neither can we debase our work. We shouldn't be arrogant about what we've studied or created, but we also shouldn't be apologetic for it. (Nor should we make the all-too-frequent mistake of assuming that blue-collar Americans, or people who don't have college diplomas, are necessarily unsophisticated or incapable of originality and insight.) We will need new energies and new ideas; we can't afford to be complacent.


Attempting to maintain that this past election wasn't in part about race and other cultural issues strikes me as inadequate as attempting to maintain that it was only about those factors. History doesn't come packaged in neat little narratives to suit our need for self-justification. Political scientists will and should, of course, sift through the results to try to determine what really happened and why, but public life isn't a controlled experiment, nor is there any way to easily disentangle the complex influences of the past on our present ideologies and behavior. It seems to me, nevertheless, entirely defensible to reserve some of the focus for what might be called either the moral or the individual level, that is, to examine the ways in which individuals both prominent and ordinary have spoken and acted in bad faith (not just in one party or faction, to be sure). Given that the president-elect largely owes his entry into politics to a lie — the suggestion, eagerly embraced by those who view America as a country fundamentally for and of white people, that Barack Obama wasn't eligible to serve as president at all — there seems to be much to consider in this light. Since I'm neither an organizer nor a street-fighter it's an avenue of particular interest to me.


Also from the Times this week is an article by Kirk Semple, entitled "Fleeing Gangs, Central American Families Surge Toward U.S.," about the reasons that have led not just individuals but entire families to leave their native countries and head north. One wonders if those — and they are many — who will show little sympathy for the plight of these refugees would have been equally indifferent to those who fled for their lives from Russian pogroms or famine in Ireland in the past. But no, one doesn't wonder; of course they would have.

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