Christopher Beha wrote a commendable essay for the May issue of Harper’s Magazine, observing that politics has so profoundly saturated our lives that our obsession with it is unlikely to recede even with a change to a new administration. We thus need to learn how to retreat from the latest news, controversies, and hostile political debates regardless of what our present and future circumstances bring.
Whatever forces have built up politics as an ever-present collective obsession, whatever forces have taught us that quiet contemplation is not just useless but actually irresponsible, there are now too many people profiting from the idea for it to fade away in the natural course of things. The political-entertainment machine is never going to give us our lives back. It will never announce an end to hostilities, tell us it is safe to return to our homes. To quote [C.S.] Lewis: “Life has never been normal.” If we are going to restore the balance, we are going to have to do it during “war-time.” If the goal of turning some of our attention away from politics is worth working for on January 20, 2021, it is worth working for now.
If we do decide on a partial retreat, however (which the cynic in me does not see happening anytime soon, but hey, I can dream), then the question is, where do we turn our attention? That is where art, truth, and beauty come in, says Beha:
Knowledge and beauty; pleasure and delight; the contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses; the intimate encounter with another human consciousness offered by the best works of art—these are among the things that make life worth living. If we set them aside until we have made it safely through our present emergency, we will never return to them, because our present emergency will never be through.
“Contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses.” Truth for its own sake. Beauty as an end in itself, not the servant of a political or economic agenda. Sign me up.
But Beha imagines someone objecting, “You, a privileged white male, may have the luxury of paying less attention to politics; I, a not-so-privileged minority, do not.” In response to this, Beha explains why his proposal does not amount to apathy, but is in fact an important political act in itself.
If you’re worried that the election of a populist demagogue with no apparent respect for democratic or constitutional norms has put the United States on the road to fascism, bear in mind the defining feature of totalitarian societies: they are places in which all modes of life are subsumed under the political, in which each citizen’s most important relationship must be his or her relationship to the state. This is why totalitarian governments reliably shut down or take over religious groups, trade unions, and other voluntary associations. The ultimate aim of scaling back our political attention is not apathy but the creation of autonomous space for social, spiritual, and aesthetic experiences. If creeping totalitarianism is your worry, such work is not a form of acquiescence but a form of resistance.
These points resonate with me for a number of reasons, two of which I’ll mention now.
The first is because of a few books I just finished: The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis by Alan Jacobs (which Beha quotes extensively in his essay), and Keep Going: 10 Ways to Stay Creative in Good Times and Bad by Austin Kleon. The former is an erudite analysis of how certain Christian thinkers anticipated, and attempted to resist, the all-consuming military-industrial ethos which grew out of WWII; the latter is a layman’s guide to unplugging and focusing one’s mind on creative endeavors. They are very different books, but one key idea runs through them: the technocratic spirit of our time demands that we find efficiency and expediency in all that we do, and aesthetic pursuits are a vital corrective to this impulse.
(Aside: I had the pleasure of seeing Kleon speak last week at an indie bookstore in DC. His presentation was basically a miniature version of his latest book, but it was so refreshing because of how personal it was. I suspect we all know of ways to bring more art and beauty in our lives, but when you see and hear and feel the energy of other people who know it too, that motivates you in a way that mere knowing does not.)
The second reason is that as I work on essays and fiction in my spare time, I am constantly tempted by the pull of business, politics, social media, and metrics. If you want to write stories for a living, you have to sell stories for a living, which means you need a business, you need followers, you need a platform. Yes, yes, but there is a point when those things dominate your concerns far more than they should. When you write primarily to snag more followers, when you get discouraged when your metrics are bad, when you feel you must be always connected to the buzz of the web and express an opinion on everything, then the artistic process becomes sapped of its joy because your self-worth is tethered to the fickle tides of fortune and public perception. What the proper balance is between art, business, and political engagement I can’t say for sure; I suspect I shall always be trying to figure that out. But I know that it means not letting business and politics control every part of your work. I know that it means fighting for the centrality and autonomy of aesthetic, humanistic activities.
Or, to steal a phrase from Austin Kleon, it means making airplane mode a way of life.