Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Imagine All the People: Good Art is Bad Politics

(reflections on Stephen L. Carter's book THE VIOLENCE OF PEACE: AMERICA'S WARS IN THE AGE OF OBAMA excerpted in NEWSWEEK, Wendell Berry's fiction, and a review by James Seaton in THE WEEKLY STANDARD, Dec. 20, 2010, of THE SOUTHERN CRITICS: AN ANTHOLOGY edited by Glenn C. Arbery.)

Imagine, John Lennon sings, no possessions, all the people living as one, in peace.  Or, with the essayists of the 1930s known as the Southern Agrarians, imagine...
...such things as attachment to place from generation to generation, the traditions and communities that sprang up around such attachments, attunement to the rhythms of nature and its contingencies, strong bonds of kinship, a sense of the sacred, and indifference to an abstract idea of wealth understood in terms of monetary values (Seaton 33).
That entire list of themes is detectable in Wendell Berry's wonderful fictions. Even in a single episode of A PLACE ON EARTH, kinfolk come to help a young mother rebuild after a violent rush of flood water has swept her little daughter away and after the father, having failed to protect her, has left in shame.  The mother continues to care for the animals alone while a cousin repairs the flood damage, and the town's lawyer frees her from the clutches of an absentee landlord who cared more about money than about his land or the people on it.

But, realistic as a fiction writer's style may be, attentive to minute details, evoking the most appealing ideals, it's still not reality.  We artists are gods to our characters, and we set the parameters for the choices they can make.  Our own preferences will shape their worlds.

That's why artists -- including essayists and those performance artists that we call "commentators" -- would be scary in political office.  In a book explaining how little difference there is between Obama and Bush on war and security issues, Stephen Carter writes...
The need to pick from among several unappealing ways to defend the nation is what separates presidents from pundits.  I believe that much of the virulent hatred directed at president Obama's predecessor, and at Obama himself, arises from a rejection of this proposition.  To the hater, the world is simple, not complex.  The answers are obvious.  "If the president were only as clear-eyed and wise as I am," the protester thinks, "he would see the world as it truly is, and make better decisions." (Carter 35).
The same principle applies to such political questions of the proper balance between individual responsibility and communal responsibility.  It's utopian to "imagine no possessions" and sharing among us all; but it's equally utopian to imagine that everyone who works hard can get ahead, or that, by denying help we are somehow preserving American virtues of hard work. Remember how Theodore Roosevelt modified his doctrinaire belief in laissez-faire policies when Jacob Riis took him on a tour through the squalid homes of immigrant families, who labored as hard as anyone and who yet could not catch up, much less get ahead. 

Besides, someone else's virtue isn't our business.  See how ridiculous it was for the Southern Agrarian Andrew Lytle to exhort all Southerners to give up "motor-cars, picture shows, chain-store dresses... [and] Sears-Roebuck catalogues" (33).    A modern day progressive wrote a book asking in the title, What's wrong with Kansas?  The perception of such a condescending attitude in Mr. Obama and more in his supporters, more than any policy, is what rankles conservatives. 

Seaton, regarding the Southern Agrarians, concludes that
it would be a mistake to take the guidance of literary intellectuals urging either a leap into an (imagined) utopia of the future or a return to a (largely mythical) past.... [They] are often wise when they write about literature and about family and personal relationships, but not so wise when they address large political and social questions (33).
 Ironically, just four pages after those words in this conservative news magazine,  we find another reviewer, Nathan Harden, approving author Charles Hill's idea that "blindness to literary insight is the Achilles' heel of pure political science" (37).  I suppose any kind of blindness is bad in political discourse.  Let the political leaders read literature, including the Bible, but let's not take the writers and priests for political leaders.

1 comment:

practicingresurrection said...

This is an excellent post. I love the description of political commentators as "performance artists."