I think Megan McArdle has some interesting arguments in this post arguing that we should keep our politics and our art separate, but I think, taken cumulatively, it’s the equivalent of not just throwing the baby out with the bathwater but defenestrating it. I want to focus on a central section of Megan’s essay, because I’m less concerned with whether we should keep enjoying art by people once we learn dreadful things about either their personal lives or their political views (I think we should) than the role art plays in shaping our morality and politics. Megan writes:
Art isn’t very good stand-in for Sunday School teachers, for all that we repeatedly imbue it with the job of shaping morality–”poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”, said Shelley, and it’s a damn good thing he was wrong. Having a keen eye for detail, a a morose grasp of the tragedy of the human condition, and hypertrophied verbal mental muscles does not make you a good policy analyst. George Orwell, who was more of a gimlet-eyed realist than most ideological writers, nonetheless believed a fair amount of ludicrous nonsense, such as his assertions that collectivism was necessary because a capitalist society could never produce enough to win World War II…But when art-as-politics airbrushes out the dead people at the steel works, it can be very convincing, which is why advocates like it; Uncle Tom’s Cabin did more for the Abolitionist cause than a hundred thousand lectures. The problem is, it can convince of the bad as easily as the good–Gone With the Wind reached many more people than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in part because–despite its ugly racial politics–it’s a much better book with richer characters and more believable action…Authors aren’t good policy architects. They’re also not good moral philosophers–they’re good at dramatizing moral conundrums, which is not the same thing as resolving them…I am not arguing that artists are generally bad people, but merely that we have no evidence that they’re better than us–all of them are at least as flawed as we are. And we’re pretty flawed.
But focusing on fiction as policy proscription is an awfully limited way to look at the political work fiction does, and what readers and watchers are supposed to take away from that art. To my mind, there are three broad categories of that work: to help us approach and understand our history and the conditions of our present; to frame positions in the debates of the day; and to provide space to play with policy and political ideas, an underlooked element in a rigidified political process that is deeply suspicious of error and evolution.
The Holocaust, for example, is an event of such terrible enormity that we cannot assimilate it in a single go, or through a single medium. I know I’ve needed The Diary of Anne Frank, and Victor Klemperer’s accounts of the rise of Nazi bureaucracy, Hannah Arendt’s clear-eyed reporting on Adolf Eichmann’s trial, Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust. But I’ve also approached the systematic extermination of Jews, of gays, of the disabled, and of many other categories of people through Art Spiegelman’s Maus (also recommended: In The Shadow of No Towers, not least for its riffs on Little Nemo In Slumberland), through Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, through Isaac Bachevis Singer’s Hanukkah stories set in the Warsaw Ghetto and under tsarist rule in Russia, through the repeated image of young Magneto tearing at the gates of a concentration camp, through Cryptonomicon, through The Debt, due out in August. Sometimes, our reconciliation with the truth of our politics and history comes both in stark confrontation with the facts. And sometimes we need to sidle up to those facts before we can face them, to circle back through multiple perspectives, to reach for scriptural language whether in testimony or in fiction, to help us grapple with the enormity of our glory and catastrophe. “Milton does more than drunk God can,” Ray Bradbury wrote, “To justify Man’s way toward Man.”
On the question of illuminating positions, I think Megan’s wrong that fiction needs to resolve our moral conundrums rather than simply outline them, or to argue for a correct position, to be useful. Is there any question that 24 did artistic work to justify torture? That a casual attitude towards abuse of prisoners in our most popular crime shows is corrosive to justice? That Michael Bay’s movies white-wash the military? But would it be better for us to have a world without those works if it means foregoing the condemnations of torture and meditations on the laws of war of Battlestar Galactica? The critique of traditional police work that is The Wire? The Hurt Locker‘s quiet tragedy? Art takes us to the places we can’t go. Sometimes it lies about what we’d find there, sometimes it misunderstands what it’s trying to see through the wavery glass of prison doors and tank windows. This is why it’s bad to read just one book, to read Gone With the Wind or Atlas Shrugged, or watch Birth of a Nation or Battleship Potemkin and nothing else. But it’s useful to read Gone With the Wind next to Uncle Tom’s Cabin: knowing that Confederate nostalgia is wrong, and racist, doesn’t obliterate the need to understand that people feel it, and are strongly influenced by those feelings. Resolving the moral conundrum is ultimately our work, not any one author of any one work’s, and it doesn’t make sense to fault fiction for that.
And finally, of course Megan’s right that “the people in stories never lived; they only struggled with the limited problems that the author gave them, and they only overcame them with the author’s help.” And of course it’s true that artists can use the powers of narrative and character to obscure what actual policy outcomes would result if we lived in a world with collectivized agriculture, or everyone was infertile, or people were economically privileged based on their genetics. But when the problems facing us are so significant that, in some cases, we can’t really grapple with their magnitude head-on, speculative fiction can help us play with what we’d do if we were starting human society over millions of years in the past or in the future on Mars; to wonder how we might triage care in a world where everyone had access to health care but a plague struck; to imagine what it might be like if gender roles were radically reversed or if reproduction happened outside the womb. At a moment policy orthodoxy leads parties to march cheerfully on cliffs and dissension gets lawmakers labeled kooks or traitors, I think we need more spaces where we play with ideas about policy and values, where we can experiment with the truly ridiculous and walk away with a mote of a useable idea, not fewer.
And even if creators aren’t intentionally working in one of these categories, their work is political whether they will it to or no. An assumption that a police investigation will treat victims and the accused fairly is a political assumption. An alien invasion movie in which the United States marshals the world unity necessary to repel an attack has a definite if unsubtle point of view about American hard and soft power. And romances may, as Megan suggests, rot the brain, but that doesn’t mean the way they assign values to things like marriage and careers are apolitical. The presence of veiled politics, especially veiled bad politics, in art isn’t a reason not to produce political art at all. Rather, it’s a case for engaged reading.
And really, even more than the idea that there’s just one way art can do political work, I’m befuddled by the idea of the passive reader that seems to pervade Megan’s piece. It’s not as if we amble into Fahrenheit 451 and emerge with a comprehensive plan to save literature and improve the education system through a strong program of rote memorization, or walk out of Avatar and pass legislation banning mining on inhabited planets. Art is playground, context, fodder—not marching papers, and not a straightforward recruiting tool.
To paraphrase Ta-Nehisi—if you need the warning, which I think is most unnecessary if you read this blog—don’t read Kim Stanley Robinson, or George Orwell, or Salman Rushdie, or Jane Austen because you need someone to tell you what to think about the prospect of engineering the climate, or running a colonial government, or running a post-colonial government, or how to adjust property inheritance laws to help liberate women. Read them, watch Kings, listen to Pete Seeger, because it’s part of figuring out what kind of world we should live in. And care deeply about what you consume because we are what we love, the sublime and the rotten both. To quote Bradbury again, “We have our arts so we won’t die of truth”—and so we can midwife new ones into being.