The rally call went up in the first months of 2016.
Writers of all ranks came together and decided that they must work harder than ever to ridicule, satirize and attack the new political world. They had not voted for things like Brexit and Trump, and these ideas were not only the annoying chirps of uninformed, they were the enemy of liberal, innovative art.
The call has been renewed with strength as rumors and reports about the Trump administration’s cuts to domestic cultural programs have caused worry for a number of arts funding organizations. Arts civilize the nation and The arts helps us see our faults and understand people who aren’t us, are just two of the comments I found on news stories about these cuts.
Both are true enough. Yet both seem irrelevant too. To the questions, Will we lose art? Will these ideals die? Does Trump even care? the answers, of course, must be no. Trump cannot kill art with cuts, and probably has no inclination to. Anyone who cries out in lamentation at the civility we might lose as a result is as delusional as he is.
Money has been lost, not art. That’s what happens when you elect a president who doesn’t read. Even Bush paints, for goodness’ sake.
So let’s not get hysterical. Is it as bad as we are making out? Perhaps yes, for small city arts projects and those that require funding to study their craft. But they will not be beaten, I’m sure.
The larger problem is when, in a state of delirium and fear, the art world claims that the most powerful weapon against an unstable government is a creative one. This suggests that journalism has run its course and is not relevant in the fight for truth. It’s part of a reactionary impulse to declare a new renaissance, in which art alone has the moral power to gas the cockroaches and reveal the president’s irrational actions. It is not necessarily a helpful impulse.
This is desperate thinking and assumes too much on the power of fiction writing.
I’m not suggesting that fiction writers should turn the other cheek to a regime that looks to harm them. I’m not denying that the cuts are ignorant or that fiction is a brutally powerful thing. I am suggesting that we need to know when to bow down to more effective powers.
Let me concede to a better spokesman for a moment: Ian McEwan puts it much better than I could.
I went to a reading of his only days after the election, expecting it to be a Trump-free zone. Any hope of that was dashed when a questioner asked McEwan what the literary world was supposed to do to counteract such indifference to the truth.
“There’s nothing we can do,” he said. “Fiction takes time, to read and to write. What we need now is journalism. Good, well-researched journalism is the only thing that will work.”
It’s difficult to argue with this. Where fiction writing is driven by the general desire for innate truth, journalism has a desire to reveal the pressing, contemporary truth. This is the truth that can bring down dictators.
It may feel like effective nonfictional truth-telling is a dying art nowadays, or an art that is being murderously strangled. (See: Trump being impervious to any sickening revelations that come to light) Still, good journalism is the only thing that will work.
Even with Trump’s belief that he can make things true just by saying them, even with trust in the media fluctuating like a faulty heart monitor, even though the glee that comes with writing a dystopia in a first-person Trump voice is addictive and thrilling, we must remind ourselves that good journalism is the only thing that will work if we want political lies to be challenged.
Fiction, with all of its strength, will never be anything more than a supplement in the fight against a political machine built on lies, because it can always be accused of being inherently one-sided. It is, ultimately, the opinions of one person, no matter how well it is presented.
Good journalism, however, is not so easy to dismiss. It takes an effort on the part of these liars to do so, and it will tire them. There is a limit to how much the denial of facts can empower a leader, because facts will continue to be, whether denied or not, and empirical research and well-evidenced investigations are what set that limit.
There are problems, of course, and they are largely the same problems that come with politically engaged fiction. If someone is not inclined to believe what an article says to begin with, then they are unlikely to believe even the coldest statistics that a long form news piece is filled with. This is exactly what we have seen happening over the past year.
But there is a positive side to this. This biased mindset filters out those few who will never change their minds. I believe that over time, their indifference to genuine intellectual investigation will become less and less acceptable as the truth becomes more obvious. Eventually, with enough persistence, this rinse and repeat tactic will bring the trust in real journalism back and those with no interest in the truth will disappear altogether.
So now is not the time for art to be revered and journalists to be booed and hissed. It is time for those with the inclination to write the truth to do it, and those who want to write fiction to support, fund and fight for the empowerment of objective and rational journalism. The only thing that will work.