Why Artists Must Be Our First Responders in Trump’s America
To speak publicly in the immediate aftermath of a shock is dicey. What seems clear today may prove otherwise next week. What’s certain, though, is that violence has been done to our country’s aspiration toward tolerance; to our tradition of disagreement grounded in fact; to our collective sense of safety, already far too fragile for too many. With immigrants minorities, and members of the LGBT community fearing more than ever for their safety, what’s next is anyone’s guess.
Growing up among Holocaust refugees, I was taught to keep an ear to the ground for anti-Semitism. It took me years to shed that mindset (rent, don’t buy; study a portable skill like medicine, not a language-bound one like writing) .
When the election results became clear, my first reaction was a visceral panic: Was this it? The turning point my grandfather tried to prepare us for?
It might well be. But I’m not going anywhere. I’m American by culture, loyalty, fundamental outlook. I take seriously the responsibility to stand up for what this country can be—and to stand up for those in this country who are most directly threatened by the results of the election.
The day after the election, a friend wrote on Facebook, “This is a moral 9/11.”
On 9/11, most of us felt powerless. If we weren’t firefighters or first responders, there was nothing to do but absorb the shock. But in a moral 9/11, a country’s cultural figures are first responders. With our central values under attack, we — writers, publishers, journalists, all who participate in public conversation — are on the front lines. So are parents, clergy, teachers —anyone whose voice has an audience.
This isn’t the moment for fiction writers to hide under our desks, though we might want to. When other forms of conversation fail, and the publicly touted “facts” no longer represent any recognizable truth, people turn to art for a voice, for sanity, and for a chance to regain a perspective on what human beings share.
Once, in my 20s, I told an acquaintance in Warsaw that I was a writer. He shot back: Why are you saying those words as if you’re apologizing? In my country, mothers hope their sons will grow up to be poets.”
American artists have long been fed the notion of our own irrelevance — so much so that it can feel arrogant to argue that our voices might actually matter. But it’s no accident that one of the first things a repressive government does is censor artists — and that under those governments, writers become a nation’s conscience.
That doesn’t mean we all need to abandon our romantic comedies or fabulist tales and drag our laptops to the political barricades. It does mean, though, that this would be the worst possible time to give in to the idea of irrelevance. We need to keep the faith and insist on telling the human truth. Consider how re-orienting it can be, after reading a Twitter feed full of invective, to immerse in the sentences of James Baldwin or Kate Simon, Italo Calvino or Joseph Heller, or Grace Paley or Alice Munro. Any true voice rights us when we’re reeling. Even a small personal story can be an act of courage.
And when we do speak politically, we need to strengthen our spines and each other’s. Now’s the moment to learn not to be frightened by the prospect of trolls. Now’s the moment to do what artists ought to do all the time anyway: write to our outermost zones of comfort and beyond. Figure out what formats best suit our individual voices, then sing our hearts out. And remember the basics: Don’t be petty in arguments, don’t be facile, don’t talk down to a real person or even a fictional character. Keep your voice honest, keep it clear. It’s your bell.
Leonard Bernstein said, in response to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, and more devotedly than ever before.”
Firefighters don’t run away from a fire — they do their job, no matter that their hearts are pounding.
Rachel Kadish’s novel new novel “The Weight of Ink” will be published in 2017.