I had wondered, throughout the 2016 campaign, of what a Donald Trump presidency might mean for writers and artists. Would funding be cut? Would laws be passed to suppress opinion? Would certain works be censored or banned?
This is not to say that a Trump presidency guarantees reduced support of the arts, or that intellectual freedom will be curtailed—although with names like Giuliani, Christie, Gingrich, and Palin bandied about for cabinet positions it’s hard to imagine otherwise. I am (very) cautiously hopeful that the office will make the man, and not the other way around, but I won’t be surprised if it doesn’t happen.
I tend to look at such issues historically. It seems there are two kinds of governments that tend to try to silence their critics: dictatorships (no surprise there), but also populist movements. Both exhibit a strong anti-intellectual fervor, a purist approach to doctrine that has no room for differing opinion, which in fact labels that differing opinion the “elite” and blames it for the ills affecting the population. They demand more restrictive laws, ostracism, punishment.
Can’t happen here? That’s what they said when thousands of writers, artists, and others were imprisoned and/or stripped of their livelihoods during the McCarthyism of the 1950s. That’s what they said when James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in the U.S. and Great Britain. That’s what they said in Berlin once upon a time. The great swings between freedom and oppression are too often obscured by political platitudes and ignorance of history, such as we saw during the 2016 campaign.
When I think of such possible restrictions, what comes to mind first are the efforts of writers like North Korean short story writer Bandi and Iranian novelist Amir Hassan Cheheltan, writers who live under the constant threat of censorship and incarceration. They write largely in secret and must smuggle their works out of their homelands in order to be read. Despite the dangers, they continue to declare their truths against authoritarian regimes. I think also of eastern European writers of the late twentieth century, like Václav Havel and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and so many others, who endured decades of censorship and detainment, but whose efforts held accountable the enemies of free speech.
In her brilliant new book, Becoming Wise, Krista Tippett notes that “…change has always happened in the margins, across human history, and it’s happening there now.” Writers often create their most profound and truthful works when operating outside mainstream culture. Perhaps an extended period of oppression might amplify this phenomenon. We might better understand the efforts—both unending and unyielding—necessary to achieve lasting change.
Even in an oppressive state writers have always found a way to be heard, whatever the forces aligned against them. Writing truth in the face of such tyranny is, to me, a courageous and even an exciting concept. As Roberto Bolaño once said, “What, then, is writing of quality? Well, what it has always been: knowing to stick one’s head into the dark, knowing to jump into the void, knowing that literature is basically a dangerous occupation. To run along the edge of the precipice: on one side the bottomless abyss and on the other the faces one loves, the smiling faces one loves, and books, and friends, and food.”
In my most hopeful moments I can’t help thinking these next few years will force writers to consider more seriously just what it is they are writing about, and what message they wish to impart to readers. Some people only see misery around the corner. But we must also see opportunity. Art and literature are mirrors of our collective psyche. Even ideologically repressed artists can still infuse their sense of freedom and justice into their work. If we produce great art and writing that speaks to these values, can we influence our society for the better? I believe we can, and we must.