It’s been a bad week.
As I sit down to write this post, “tax reform” is on the verge of becoming the law of the land in the U.S., giving to the rich, taking from the poor, disfavoring those who work to live (including some of the relatively wealthier among us). And as Jeremy Safran underscored here, the “reform” will have particularly pernicious consequences for higher education, especially for graduate students. To my dismay, it will hit our graduate students at The New School especially hard.
The larger picture: it’s called tax reform, but it is proving to be a broad systematic attack on political and cultural progress.
To make matters worse, Trump’s pathologies were especially evident in the past few days. He now questions the “Access Hollywood” video. “We don’t think that was my voice” boasting about grabbing women by the pussy, he is reported to have told a United States Senator who is remaining anonymous. I wonder: how is it possible for a patriot to not reveal and condemn such delusion on the part of the commander in chief?
Further, the President of the global superpower, armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, now is again asserting that his predecessor was not born in the United States: that this reveals Trump’s racism is re-confirmed by his latest tweeting outrage, sharing anti-Muslim videos from the ultranationalist fringe group, British First. Even Great Britain, with its severely polarized politics and despite its commitment to the special relationship to the U.S., is united, apart from extremists, in its condemnation of the President of the United States. The pernicious madness continues.
I purposively work against despair, and thankfully and of course, I am not alone. We set up a new series of posts responding to the question: “What have you done in the last year to respond to the upheavals in American politics?” The first two responses included writing as a defensive front. Maureen Jones, the Executive Director of Amherst Writers and Artists, maintains: “Creative writing is a direct attack on political strife,” and she reports how she organizes writing groups to provide solidarity in these particularly difficult times (such as last week I suppose) and the means to seek refuge from and fight against madness.
Dorothy Potter Snyder called out to neighbors to just show up to discuss their concerns and plans, leading to very fruitful sharing of experiences and publicly developing individual plans. They formed regular Friday morning meetings, and she concludes that “just showing up” was the primary end in itself, reminding me of what I understand as the power of “the politics of small things.” This empowered her to write about the things that matters in her judgment.
On the other hand, there is more direct political engagement: Victoria Saker Woeste became a political candidate one year too early, as she puts it, losing in her campaign for state representative in 2016 in the shadows of the Comey and Clinton scandal. She reports that immediately after the election, she withdrew to knitting. Later she lifted herself again after the Trump inauguration by “showing up” and organizing the women’s march in Lafayette, Indiana, and in more engagement in collective action. Tellingly, she reports, her knitting also made it to Indianapolis, where “one of my knitted shawls earned a blue ribbon at the Indiana State Fair.”
Culture, both knitting and writing, and politics go hand in hand, though they should be distinct. Sarah V. Schweig sharply explores this in her intervention in the latest poetry controversy, revolving around a review by William Logan of Jill Bialosky’s latest book, Poetry Will Save Your Life. She draws upon Czeslaw Milosz’s wise appreciation of the internal dilemmas built into poetry (and art more generally) as it aspires to serve practical purposes, including political and personal purposes. I learned from students of Milosz and from Milosz himself that art succeeds practically when it is created and appreciated as an end in itself: a great strength of the traditions of poetry and theater in Poland. Schweig echoes this tradition as she joins the controversy about the viciousness of the critique and the documentation of plagiarism. The integrity of poetry as an art form, as it responds to the human condition, is Schweig’s concern.
Her concern is mine: defending the art and craft of truth seeking in the age of Trumpism is a pressing project.
Thus, as I see it, even though the interview with Val Vinokur about his poetry-translation projects and the excerpt from his translations of Isaac Babel’s “Guy de Maupassant” are not about Trump, they clearly provide an answer to Trump as they present the value of art against the attack on knowledge that Trumpism presents, an attack Craig Calhoun has recently demonstrated.
I sometimes explain that there is a common thread in just about all my research, writing, teaching and publishing: an exploration of the conditions and consequences of free speech, broadly and sociologically understood. I am re-opening this issue here and will follow with more next week.
I have become convinced that the individual’s right to speak and be heard is not the only issue, that there is a crucial sociological dimension to the problem of free speech that is of equal and perhaps even greater importance – whether cultural forms and traditions survive and flourish, or die. For cultural forms do die, or at least critically weaken, and they do so both because of the diminishment of cultural capacity and the strength of cultural repression. My book On Cultural Freedom was about this. It was inspired by an irony that needs sober and not romantic explanation.
Culture in repressive contexts sometimes flourishes despite repression, but it is also often the case that repression can be effective. In considering the history of theater in Poland, the United States and the Soviet Union, these alternative fates of an art form were clear to me. Despite repression, theater in the 1970s in Poland had extraordinary cultural and political power. Without repression, in the United States, theater was no more significant, perhaps less. But in the Soviet Union, the great artistic and political achievements of theater of the early Soviet period had been extinguished. There were critical cabarets, but they could hardly say more than “Big Brother is un-good.”
I am thinking about this as “tax reform” is about to pass, including important provisions that weaken American universities. These provisions immediately put those who depend on tuition wavers into financial jeopardy. They weaken the financial support of some well endowed and very important centers of academic excellence, which will likely to diminish their openness to less privileged students. I’ll add I once was one of these. But crucially, taken together with public disinvestment in higher education of the past decades and the subsequent rise in student debt, and the student debt crisis, the continuation and development of critical achievements and promise of American universities now are very much at issue.
Thus, as I see it, resistance today should be directly political, and there have been positive signs that it can be effective in the long run. That is the message of my “Good News” post. But cultural freedom in general, as the struggle of knowledge against ignorance, is also of great importance. Universities are on the forefront of the defense against the ignorance and anti-intellectualism that is becoming an acute American pathology.
Jeffrey Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.