We in the Academy no longer require serious study of the humanities, much less of the arts, which reveals our outrage over President Trump’s proposal to eliminate their national endowments—not to mention our self-satisfied, self-righteous snickering a few months ago when Trump didn’t know Andrew Jackson was one of his forerunners before, and not during or after, the Civil War—to be ironic, hypocritical, and worse, perhaps even diabolic, as we have arranged the typical college curriculum in such a way that American history, much less American literature, or any other form of the humanities or the arts, is often no more than a one-course requirement. So while one man, albeit the President of the United States, may not know his history, we are the ones responsible for the fact that entire generations of Americans will not be exposed to a serious college-level study of the subject. While some humanists and artists may lose their funding—and losing $296 million would be tragic in each and every $500 or $1,500 increment—it is our colleges, and therefore our students, and not today’s grant applicants, who, at least for future generations, will define our culture and our sense of ourselves as a country. Our outrage, furthermore, over Delta Air Lines and Bank of America pulling their sponsorship of the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar in Central Park is similarly misplaced, as many of us made statements to the effect that the point of the play was “absolutely not” the protagonist’s red tie and blond mane but rather the opportunity to learn about democracy—specifically, the terrible price paid when trying to save it by undemocratic means when we, in fact, were the ones not only pulling Shakespeare away from millions of now and future students, and, therefore, as we so often could be heard saying to be the point of the play, undermining the very democracy we were purporting to save.
One of the great ironies of our democracy, our unique experiment, that is, in self-government, is that our commitment to it can unleash the very forces that can undermine (if not destroy) it. In downgrading the humanities to a mere field of interest, like hospitality management or, say, public relations, the Academy is complicit not only in its own marginalization, but also in the downgrading of the Republic in ways and to an extent that reducing funding to, or even eliminating, the National Endowment for the Humanities could never equal. If we are arguing that humanist scholars and artists need government patronage in the commercial marketplace, then surely our students, by analogy, also need our support and encouragement to understand the importance of what most of them don’t even know they are missing. Our experiment in self-government belongs, in the end, to the world of the human spirit, and because of this, it is our great humanists—because they offer specific and concrete attention to the questions of government and reveal the ways that the human spirit is not always infallible in matters of the polis and public life—who are also, by definition, our great pedagogues, and with their placement at the periphery of our attention, we have, as a country, no common points of reference—nothing, that is, like works of art and scholarship around which our students may organize their experience or that open a space for patterns and perceptions of reverence.
While the debunking of any central or shared concept that shapes our experience is perhaps the great result of postmodernism, the resulting void has led to an over-exaltation of the personal qualities of sexual and cultural identification, and it plays a part in reducing our culture to the partisan gerrymandering already characteristic of our electoral districts. In the best political and public relations tradition of speaking out of both sides of our mouths, we claim—for purposes of defending Shakespeare in the Park’s production of Julius Caesar, for example—that art is not political speech, while for purposes of pedagogy and theory, we say that it is. In any case, whether it is or not, whether we are right or wrong about this, it doesn’t therefore follow that our great insight also has to circumscribe our vision of the meaning of education as well. Our insight, after all, is nothing really new. As George Orwell wrote of patriotism and honor (and many other concepts of which a shared commitment was once assumed), “anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes.” But in our elevation of the isolated and atomistic, we have offered no common concept of the meaning of education outside of its part in helping our students gain employment (as we now endlessly market in radio and TV and internet ads), when in fact, by jettisoning the humanities, we have abandoned our only job and let in the very barbarism we make it our business to decry and that has now become the central experience of our age. That polarization has replaced consensus-seeking is not only evidence of our crime, but means, now more than ever, we need to correct it. Now more than ever our Republic’s frail ideals need the help of our great humanists. As Orwell said later in the same essay, “Inside the Whale,” “by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion . . . [y]ou have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in.” We have prepared the ground for a pact with something far worse than what we have now.
That we have overthrown the humanities bears less on their intrinsic value than our capacity to receive and understand them. Moral philosophy? American history? No need. Plato? Kant? Frederick Douglass? Orwell? Who needs them? Civic engagement is the last thing we really care about. Reading and writing for us is just a way of getting our opinion across. Reading the great humanists would be, on the other hand, an act of communion and imagination and, therefore, as engines of empathy, by the standards of the Academy today, they would be of no “practical use,” because our “likes” and “dislikes” have moved from the sphere of our private lives, where they belong, to our academic, and therefore, public lives. Personal preference is not the shortcut to the development of public virtue, and its exaltation, while ostensibly intended to build tolerance, has achieved, in fact, its opposite. To dismiss the humanities —that is, to say that no work or author is sublime enough to transcend our own opinions—is to say that we have no place for humility or reverence and are as dismissive of them as the arid presidential alter ego mirror image we create in all our #NotMyPresident tweets, candlelight vigils, and anthologies of dissent, because just like him, we are interested less in caring about the country than arguing for our side.
Because we have rejected the humanities and, with them, their civic power—the infinite number of examples of people who have used (to take just one) their First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, and press to create new ways of seeing—no one outside our bubble cares anymore about our conferences, goes to our poetry readings, or reads our blogs. Now that the wolf has appeared, we are crying wolf and are being rewarded the way liars are rewarded: No one believes us. Humanists since Aristotle have explained the power of persuasive speech and its place at the center of civil affairs, but when we write and employ our syllabuses as tools for our favorite causes, not for the marketplace of ideas, we don’t examine the tools themselves and are doing nothing more than taking a side in an increasingly divided America. Humanities and arts requirements have been replaced with public speaking and communications requirements where, as Plato pointed out, the worst of us become expert at repeating PR (or in Plato’s age, rhetorician-tested) clichés. We have no credibility to argue to retain the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) or the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), because even on our own campuses we make no intrinsic argument for them—for example, one that might touch on how the experience of being pierced once by beauty, by an artist’s rendition of another’s life, creates the capacity in a young person to be pierced again, and that the ability to be pierced, learned, for example, in the sudden revelation of a world seen through another’s eyes in a short story by an O’Hara or Updike or Cheever or Chekhov, creates the capacity for empathy, the capacity, that is, to see others, at least from time to time, without a hidden agenda, without bargaining, the capacity to say something kind to a stranger and mean every word of it. The great humanists pierce, but they also demonstrate the capacity to be pierced. In this “connected” age, the only foreign country left is our own.
When a congressional candidate, and eventual winner, assaulted a reporter, and later, when a congressman was shot at a baseball practice, we were once again trotted out and interviewed by news programs in order to describe a country that no longer, writ large, understands American government, much less the role of the press and the responsibilities of citizenship. Having nixed their study in the one place we controlled, we guaranteed that no one could be around who could deliver the unlikely news that the country was not home when its home was raided, not home because we were the ones raiding it. We registered our generalized displeasure while completely missing that the stench we sensed from time to time, seemed to sniff at while speaking before the cameras, was our own Aeschylean furies coming from our own futures, emissaries of retaliation for our own rules and our own methods of articulating those rules. When we are always prejudging our interlocutors, we are, in a democracy, committing unpurgeable crimes, crimes that, only after our own demise, may also be transformed, like those furies, into the emissaries of our country’s moral restoration for the voice of conscience embedded in every one of our “sort of[s]” prefacing every one of our “make no mistake[s],” and “there is no doubt[s].”
Most of us now run the risk, when describing anything, least of all any and all matters of national import, of describing nothing but ourselves. The remnant, rump-humanities classes we do offer give the first-person version of the American experience while eschewing emphasis on the first-person plural—I, not We the people. What’s worse, while self-forgetting is the necessary first principle of a real education, we are offering our students nothing beyond learning to see themselves. That we now have to advertise for our humanities classes may stem less from the reasons we like to flatter ourselves with and more from the possibility our best students may have tried us and found us wanting. Perhaps one humanities class really is enough. When you’re only writing about your own feelings, the subject matter, much less the form for articulating those feelings, doesn’t really much matter. I wonder what our own work would look like if condensed into a tweet of 140 characters or less. The sonnet, after all, was 140 syllables, the form of its day. Shakespeare mastered it. As for mastery of the tweet, our age’s form, our President is way ahead of us.
We need to interrogate ourselves to see what role we played in creating an America whose enveloping moral climate and atmosphere—as fragile, by the way, as our physical climate and atmosphere, and with just as much power, if damaged, to ruin our lives and, worse, the lives of those coming after us —looks like, to borrow a word, if not the meaning of that word as used in the President’s inauguration address, the carnage of the country represented in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a grim continent divided, as if by ancient enmity, between red and blue kingdoms. What hand have we had in creating the conditions that have rendered national conversations impossible? In my little postage stamp of native soil (as Faulkner might have said), that is, in one of the grains in an infinite series of grains that make up our national conversation, I, too, contributed to the problem, decrying the gerrymandering of my state into reliable voting districts, while joining in, I realized, in something far worse, namely, the shutting down of the human spirit’s potential in every voter in those gerrymandered districts by assuming their demographic placement was their destiny. Worse, an English professor, I was shutting down the potential embedded in the first-person plural, limiting We the People to, at best, a grammatical construct, and at worst, a cynically drawn map. Many Trump voters, in the red island middle of our divided kingdom, would not articulate it this way, of course, but they feel it just the same. Faculty, to truly sabbatical abroad today, would have to enter the other half of their own ancient kingdom—the coasts to Cheyenne and Cedar Rapids and South Bend and Sioux City and Peoria and Pontiac.
The humanists said political questions are often of two types: 1) Who are we and where is our soul? and 2) How should we be led? Since the we that is the foundation of our Republic has disappeared—and like everything else we now do with language, is employed merely as a rhetorical construct, a PR device—and because the arts and the humanities, we are told, are incapable of correcting the horror of the inequity at the heart of the Founders’ vision, the fact that the country is permanently fractured is worn as a laurel. It is as if we are saying that when we try to think of a unified or singular American identity, we forfeit the chance to understand ourselves. With respect to our national identity, what about trying the opposite? “Failing to fetch me at first,” Whitman wrote, “keep encouraged, / Missing me one place search another, / I stop somewhere waiting for you.” Why is there so little interest in finding an artistic or intellectual commons as there is in our politics? Is it because we now, too, live in a Republic of PR, and not even John Locke, who, in his Second Treatise of Government, gave the intellectual vision of sovereignty to the people upon which our country is based, could reach us with his A Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, as our intoleration extends not just to religious matters, but to all social, political, and cultural matters as well, and, most tragically, to anyone who dares extend a hand? As an executive board member of the Democratic party said recently of an 83-year-old Democratic senator from California who committed the egregious sin of trying to give the benefit of the doubt to the other side, “We are not going to tolerate it anymore.”
Because Locke’s letter was written in Latin, perhaps we should turn to its first translator, William Popple, who wrote, as if addressing us in his preface, “The narrowness of spirit, on all sides, has undoubtedly been the occasion of our miseries and confusions. But whatever has been the occasion, it is now high time to seek for a thorough cure.” It was John Stuart Mill, another architect of our particular form of democracy, who pointed out that if we only understand our own side of an argument, it’s likely we don’t even understand that. Is it that we don’t care about the humanities because then we would have to care about civics, which would mean we would have to care about collaboration, and we don’t—not if it means understanding the points of view of those who disagree with us? The study of the humanities is the study of the creation of, and the participation in, civil society. Our campuses offer, instead of, and in lieu of humanistic debate, “no-platforming” for dissenting views.
Wouldn’t you, if you thought you were right, want to engage with the other side? Humanists have said that, in this respect, a liberal is a conservative, a conservative a liberal; the very terms imply engagement with the other side. If we don’t, or worse, won’t engage with the other side, we are, like the executive board member, by definition, totalitarian. If, broadly speaking, for example, one side argues equality of opportunity, the other equality of outcomes, we should agree that the argument is about the same thing, i.e. equality. Just because there are many free speech scoundrels who seem to think they can justify their hate under the auspices of the First Amendment in order, perhaps, to take us back to a time before the valuable postmodern insights about the importance of cultural identity and the tragedies of cultural marginalization were incorporated into our discourse, does not sanction the trashing and undermining of the long and often tortuous artistic and intellectual incubations of the great artists and thinkers of our past. When we cast them aside, we cast ourselves as the swine before their pearls. Moreover, it is standing before those very pearls that helps students learn how to learn, which, by the way, is the only job we need concern ourselves with. In a self-governing democracy, we are responsible for creating free minds, minds, that is, not beholden, at a tender age, to political positions of any kind, minds open, free to develop, be creative, and therefore, adaptable with others.
STEM education is essential. Only 1½ percent of Americans have a STEM background beyond high school, but that doesn’t mean that we should jettison the humanities. Students in STEM fields have to know how our democracy works as well, and our excuse that Federal Student Aid is not offered unless the class in question is a requirement for that student’s major doesn’t give us a pass on our job of creating citizens in the classroom. We were the ones who consigned the humanities to the status of an elective, and worse, we were the ones who nixed the model of education for the sake of education itself, and with it, nixed any inclination our students might have for life-long learning, learning, that is, that fosters, in a civic sense, an inclination to listen to the other side. If you miss the first few minutes of a humanities class today, it is possible you won’t know whether the matter being discussed is a literary, cultural, or political matter because the call and response will often exclusively be about the perspective of whoever is speaking, whether professor, student, guest lecturer, or on-campus visitor, as the perspective of the speaker and the speaker alone is how cutting-edge humanism now defines itself. The subjects of philosophy, history, and literature have collapsed into each other, creating a consumerist model of the humanities, a drop-down menu of brand-name identities, the more prefixes the better, which valorizes our students’ tendency, now also encouraged by the 2.3” x 4.5” plantations to which they cede so much of their time and power, to see only what this or that particular brand name or flavor-of-the-moment interpretive principle encourages them to see, not staying long enough to realize, like the black mirror into which they spend so much time staring, it is merely a self-image, tragically reflecting, and in real life, repeating, not only the myth of Narcissus, but like our now dominant consumerist model of education, creating a mirage.
That these interpretive principles come down from the educational establishment means that, over time, these principles come, in turn, to govern the country. When education is thus mismanaged, seen as simply as a matter of, and for, its economic value, in a tragic reversal of its true purpose in a democracy, it is education that becomes the cause of the variety of disparate negative phenomena that our lack of insightful self-interrogation attributes to others. First-year students are powerless, even if they sense something is wrong, to come up with language to object. And since they buy into it (in more ways than one), their professors become merely service providers to them, rated on the internet like the local big-box store, so the students learn, over time, to stand, like their professors, for nothing but their resumes, that is, for nothing but themselves.
The “we” of the classroom, like the big-box store of the Republic it reflects, is now only of the demographic variety, and therefore the subject and study and property of marketers, even as the mistaken election predictions made clear, demography is not destiny. That this educational establishment, the one, moreover, we have created, where the humanities barely exist, and matter even less, steps in to decry cuts to the NEH and NEA, means we are only making a political point, and what’s worse, only for political gain, because, as the pundits and politicians say these days—“let me be clear”— we could care less about the praxis of the humanities and the arts. Whether or not there is a connection between this fact and the banking mess our best students created but did not pay for, having learned to love the country—presumably, in our classrooms—for its citizenship rent advantages and little else, treating our financial system like a globalized casino might not have seemed wrong. And whether or not there is a connection between this and making globalization and the exaltation of global markets the sanctioning body for our thinking about the humanities and, therefore, about America itself, or the sneering at American values implicit in taking American history and American civics off the list of required courses and confining them to a mere specialization, what we are really saying, whatever our reasons may be, is that the moral and intellectual responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy are mere specializations too, equal, in fact, to all other specialization, (and ones, moreover, “where you can’t make much money”), and thus, quite against our intentions (I presume), making us complicit in creating an America that could care less about itself. It can therefore come as no surprise that the public views us the way we view ourselves: If we view humanities as irrelevant, not a requirement, a remnant, a rump, why should they care about it? Fled is that music. The Nightingale’s song disappears easily. It is our very truth and our beauty which makes us vulnerable as a Republic. When it is ignored, those who make it their business exposing the chasm between the ideal and the actual in America have the fertile ground they were seeking all along to implement their “visions” of an education where the humanities need not apply.
The decision that a country makes with respect to how it will educate its next generations – that is, how it will function internally, with respect to itself, its own existence—becomes, very quickly, the governing authority of that country. We cannot foresee the circumstances our next generations will encounter, but we can equip them with the tools with which they will encounter them. Choosing, therefore to throw out the humanities, when it was words and texts that built America—“All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper,’” cried Martin Luther King Jr.—exposes the hypocrisy with which so many of us took up the supposed sudden relevance of Orwell’s 1984 after the election, a hypocrisy that brought together, when nothing else could, STEM and rump-humanities faculty in discussion groups. But since 1984 is really about the way language controls thought, Orwell, if he is pointing the finger at anyone, is, rather than pointing his finger at Trump, pointing his finger at us. Our excuse, for example, for throwing over the humanities, namely, that federal financial aid only pays for courses required to complete a student’s declared program of study, when we were the ones who created the program pathways that declared humanities courses not among those requirements, is the very soul of Orwell’s doublespeak. For the problems of American culture come not from the avatars of the cultural crimes, but from the creators of the cultural climate in which they flourish, and thus when we now find ourselves clamoring for the very things we are in the business of rendering impossible, we are the Big Brothers of our time. That the fundamental point of a college education, as you hear on the countless TV and radio ads that tout a professor’s “real-world experience,” is now subject matter expertise, means we are offering an education not in how to change the world, but in the worldly thug’s hey, this is how we do things here. Is there a distinction to made, dear professor, between selling and selling out? Today faculty from Harvard to Berkeley are paid up to $400,000 by tech companies shopping working titles and paying travel expenses for meetings with lobbyists in Washington, D.C., to write “scholarship” that supports business practices that flout unfavorable regulatory restrictions.
For those of us who feel we have defended the humanities, fought for them with our very lives, and should not be identified as anti-humanists just because our institutions are, we should remember that the most important humanistic insight is the enshrinement not of self-certainty, but of self-doubt and self-criticism. We need, therefore, to interrogate ourselves. Socrates, after all, made a point of his ignorance, and surely each and every one of us can identify where and when we have not held ourselves to that standard, where we have been more interested, that is, in piercing than in being pierced, othering, than admitting the other to anything more than our rhetorical circle. If we don’t relentlessly question ourselves and our assumptions, then looking at our institution’s decisions, without this self-searching, is a form of spiritual and intellectual vacuousness. It was this very self-questioning, presumably, that led us to study other cultures, to compare literatures, and thus, if we are humanists, before questioning anyone else, we should know that the problems we detect in American education, however we may articulate them, are likely the secret burdens of our own spirits.
When we decry, for example, the President’s proposal to strike down the NEH and NEA, call him the “post-truth President,” and then smear his voters by saying that his election is a repudiation of the Academy itself, we identify ourselves with the politics we claim to despise. It is rich to talk about “truth” when the philosophers who have written about the nature of truth since the beginning of civilization have been shut down, not by the President, but by us. How can our students police the line between fact and fiction when we don’t even require them to learn the meaning of those terms? If we cared about philosophy – that is, took it seriously, learned the error of identifying our desires with our rights—we might have been steered clear of responsibility for our current Republic of Outrage. American freedoms involve liberty, not license; definitions of liberty, as offered in our founding documents, suggest that the foundation of those freedoms rests not in the fulfillment of merely subjective desires but rather in the Socratic, Lockean philosophic interrogation of those very subjective inclinations. The story of an education should not begin and end with whatever we happen to desire at the time of matriculation, but should be, at its base, the education of this desire.
Twenty years ago I saw the seeds of this phenomenon when, upon acceptance to a well-known Ivy League graduate school of journalism, I found myself going back and forth from my home of Washington, D.C., to New York, on the Amtrak train, while the rhythm of the rails, on the way back, brought back, in harrowing echoes, reverberations of the paeans from counselor and faculty alike to the connections I would be making—harrowing, because they were unbidden and unasked for, and, moreover, horrifying, because they were delivered as if they were homilies, as if there was an assumption that with my degree I was buying something that, like a stock before it goes public would, now that I had shares, maximize my shareholder value with a future that had already been bought and paid for. All I had to do was get on board with a “vision” of the news (and, more broadly, media and culture) that partook of the generalized and therefore monetizeable leveling that rendered everything pointless that was not profitable. This “education” was not an education at all. It was not about self-forgetting, but its opposite, self-branding. I could not make that journey.
Self-forgetting is a foreign concept in today’s news business. Journalists can’t talk or write about a federal judge, for example, without the story being predetermined by who appointed him or her, as if the notion that anyone is capable of transcending politics, even a federal judge, is not allowed past the discriminating eyes of the editors and producers. And since politics and journalism are downstream of culture, the only place to assign blame is on the culture-makers themselves, in the Academy and everywhere else – the very people arguing on behalf of the NEH and NEA. Twenty years ago, I was hearing the beginnings of this now-predominate ethos, most recently and best articulated by the head of a major TV network when he said of Trump’s audience-grabbing bid for the presidency: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
The humanities, in false competition with STEM, have been reduced (and like Rilke’s panther in its cage, pacing in cramped circles), tragically, into a classroom matter of downloading, instead of equations, opinions, into our students’ brains. It is no wonder that some of the best students, therefore, have little interest in our classes, and worse, that we have been reduced to having to advertise for these classes. And when we advertise, we compound the problem by insisting that our classes will help students land a job, when we really should be saying that the humanities are not primarily about landing, keeping, or losing a job. Instead we sign off on a vision of culture, because it is all about personal preference, where it makes no practical difference whether we are discussing a Raphael or a reality show, and so will always be powerless against the money-making “vision” of the Cineplex. Mass audiences and mass consumption demand generalized seduction, so if your major, dear student, grants you only one humanities class, be mindful of what the educational elites have not offered you: You will have little chance to be startled to find, for example, that the very realities your professors tell you restrict your freedoms may, in some cases, actually enhance them, and you will not hear, young artist, that being talented and intelligent is never enough, that real art does not, and cannot, occur without restriction, and that there is a price, sometimes terrible, that intelligence must pay for lucidity.
When everything on campus is about the exaltation of this or that opinion, and therefore conversations become exercises in public relations, not joy, professors are blacklisted for their opinions, guest speakers are blacklisted for their opinions, family members are blacklisted from Thanksgiving dinner, professors boycott, students boycott. What we speak of as openness is instead a closing. Without a notion of a common good, there is no commons, and students, sadly, never learn that acceptance of the notion of a common good is the ultimate humanizing experience, and that accepting each other not as holders of the same opinions about America, but as fellow freeholders of opinions, is also liberating. Our exceptionalism comes down to, more than anything, a habit of mind, because We the People assumes a mutual commitment. Our emphasis on diversity is laudable, but if it does not presuppose a whole, extols diversity in and for itself, then, whether racial, religious, or political, it becomes a matter of sequestration, not integration, post-patriotic, and continues the very segregation it denounces and condemns when the idea that people of opposing opinions cannot also be good people is verboten. The idea that we question ourselves, most especially our own opinions, is, of course, the very purpose of the humanities, and to accomplish this we must engage in enough self–forgetting that when we return to ourselves, we may change and grow. This is impossible when we see art and scholarship through the lens of political activism, because literature does not conform to what we already think about ourselves, and a book must be, as Kafka said, the axe for the frozen sea inside of us, its power built out of more than ethnic, racial, and sexual identification. To teach that it is only about these things is merely to peddle a bill of goods we are selling in lieu of humanities.
Alternative prospects are foreclosed when what the student is offered is managed, not inspired –familiar, not strange, prose. Managed prose is merely the language of consumerism, and equipped with it alone, in service of no matter what opinion or political party, students will never frighten the status quo. Our college “bookstores,” however, offer a proliferation of brands, not books, and offer, furthermore, the very totalitarian security we profess to decry, with titles asserting individuality and success, but offering a beheading. A real bookstore would offer a commons of thinkers who cared about the country, great books not because they were “right,” but because they wrestled with the great questions, books where the search for knowledge was not exclusively equivalent to the search for political gain, books by the great humanists that engaged in the very extra-political questions that the increasingly partisan educational establishment finds repugnant today because these books almost always point to a wider community. We would rather settle for a reduced language, a pidgin language of a commons that is used only to communicate its own side of the issue, not the language of humanities, which is always about leaving those sides behind, shedding their skins.
Public education, its original purpose, at least for the Founders, was so that citizens could “vote accordingly.” Last November, the country made its choice. Perhaps there is no systematic form of American education that would allow us to “vote accordingly,” but the least we could do as educators would be to teach how other people in history have tried to make spiritual, moral, intellectual, and political sense of the world, which would necessarily be to convey the miracle, as well as the responsibilities, of giving sovereignty to the people. It would also be to convey how such a transformation requires an informed citizenry to prevent the kind of current-day disintegration of civil norms we are experiencing. It would be to convey, furthermore, that the commons is a sacred place, the only sanctioned sacred space in America, not because of anything decreed, gainsaid, or displayed there, but because in it each of us wears the face of his interlocutor. The rictus of superficial outrage we wear today has become our style, and we look for and deserve leaders who fit our infatuation with it, so we offer adulation for our partisans, cults of authority and personality for our leaders, leaders who are perfect representations of the pathologies of their followers.
On the Executive Branch level, successive administrations offer executive orders that affect large swaths of people, but only as long as those presidencies last. On the legislative level, the “nuclear option” is administered by Harry Reid for his side when he has the majority, Mitch McConnell when he has his, because neither side prizes consensus. Why? Because each side knows they are right. And like all such truths, they expire at the borderlines of their lifespans. Now one side wants to get rid of the NEH and the NEA. How can we be surprised that even this is seen as a merely partisan question? We set it up that way.
Once the transition of power in this country was seen as a miracle, a revolution, as de Tocqueville said, caused by law. At the National Archives, where the exhibit, “Amending America,” an installation of the over 11,000 attempts to amend the Constitution, which drapes its Rotunda like Christo gates running overhead the originals of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights, is destined, like the proposed amendments themselves, to disappear on September 4, a point is made. Only 27 of the amendments made it into law, but to see all the attempts is engrossing, because today we make no efforts at the kind of consensus described and implied by the amendment process explained in the Constitution’s Article Five. Amendments are still proposed, of course, but any serious attempt to unite disparate groups is gone. Even artistic productions are venues for our particular form of partisan self-righteousness. When the incoming Vice President and his family attended a production of Hamilton after the election, the cast stepped out afterwards and said, “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values.” What did the half of the country that voted for the Vice President see in such an act by the creators of the most popular play on Broadway?
The arts and the humanities more often partake of the sublimity of intolerable truths than the truths we might prefer. Our interest in the humanities, what’s left of them, has devolved into arguments for the earnings potential in them, as if its legitimacy rested on whether it could put students in gated communities. It’s as if we are saying, don’t you worry, there’s lucre in it, and as for the arts, they can help your politics, because we now teach the Soviet Stalinist line that art is simply a matter of being for or against our side. Don’t worry, we no longer see ourselves as a single people with pride of national purpose and common ideals, that’s too hard; we see enemies within.
It is the hamartia of our time, the Aristotelian error – every one of us doing everything we possibly can to assert ourselves and avoid that economically worthless experience: listening, paying attention. We are great only in what we ignore, while measuring ourselves by how frequently we are ignored, how many times our ox is gored, how many times a friend’s inattention has us floored, everyone complaining about the same thing while sharing the same disorder, the same disease.