I wrote this essay in October-November 2017, spurred by a nagging sense that something needed to be said about the pernicious effects of social media on the ability of human beings – especially Americans – to communicate meaningfully with each other.
This essay is about America and Americans, because I am American and I live in America. I claim full entitlement as an American, without hyphen or qualification, to say all the things that I say below. By the same token you’re fully entitled to say whatever you want to say in response, or to say nothing. Go ahead and point out my white hetero cisgender male privilege, if you wish. It’s a free country. I do hope, though, that what I’m really writing about, and what we might discuss with the mutual respect due each other as human beings, are things that are larger and more important than America.
What we call “America” is a cluster of abstractions, such as liberty and justice for all. If America is not those things, what is America? More pointedly, if America is not really those things, on what grounds should we pledge our allegiance to it? And the thing about abstractions is that they’re abstract. They don’t actually exist. And that’s a real problem for all of us in America now, because the abstractions we all habitually claim to believe in, as the basis of our country and of our belonging to it, are no longer common ground.
The task of a writer is to articulate an understanding of the human situation, and to seek meaning. That sounds both grandiose and extremely general, but it is the essence of the work of any writer. Needless to say such an enormous, complex, and subtle task can’t be accomplished all at once or by any one of us. Every writer adds whatever he or she can to our vast and various ongoing and collective story. And each of us is situated somewhere, in a country and a historical moment. A particular writer’s particular personal situation at once positively determines and limits what he or she is in a position to see, and to say, about the general human situation. So it is, and so be it.
A problem every American writer faces is what Vaclav Havel identified, in his great essay “The Power of the Powerless,” as “a superpower patriotism which traditionally places the interests of empire higher than the interests of humanity.” Havel was referring to Russians, with whom we Americans have more in common than we like to believe. Havel could see Russian imperial power clearly because, as a Czech, he lived on the receiving end of it. Americans of varying backgrounds have varying relations to American imperial power, but we all live and write from within it. Every American writer’s problem is the problem of audience, along with the closely related problem of framing: how to articulate an understanding of our situation, in this country and this moment, in a way that will be true, yet accessible to middling Americans. This is difficult, because American society has organized itself so as to circumscribe Americans’ access to truth. The preponderance of all that is written and published in America is parochially about America and being American, and it tends to accept certain premises. That was understandable, if never really justifiable, when the United States of America was a young country, feeling its oats and on the make. Now that it’s a decadent and rapidly collapsing empire, the urgent need of the historical moment is for writing that questions those premises.
What drives me as a writer and, even before that, as a reader is an inkling – a faith, if you will – that answers can be found, if we approach the mysteries of human experience with sufficient patience and humility. Ever since childhood I’ve nursed a quasi-mystical sense that written documents, especially books, are transmitters of clues as to what’s really going on around me: the world as a mystery to be puzzled over and figured out, a cosmic whodunit. So language, the original and fundamental technology of humanity, is my starting point. I grew up feeling that language is a sacred thing, to be used with utmost respect and discipline. This leaning surely has a lot to do with being an heir to the heavily text-based Judaic religions as well as a citizen of a country whose origin myth is bound up with particular written documents, in addition to having been subject to the guidance and example of parents who earnestly respected language, education, and history. Those influences are, broadly, where I’m coming from.
A subtle distinction that needs to be emphasized is between (what I see as) the legitimately sacred quality of language itself, and the secondhand sanctity of particular documents, such as the Bible and the United States Constitution. Nothing is true because the Bible tells me so. Something is either true or not, and if something in the Bible is true, it’s because whoever wrote that part of the Bible got that particular thing right, whether factually or morally. Similarly, if we Americans enjoy (say) freedom of speech or the right to bear arms, it’s not because the Bill of Rights grants us those rights, but because we’re free human beings in the first place. Whether we should speak or carry weapons without restriction or consequence is another question. Regardless, to point to a document promulgated 200 or 2,000 years ago to claim either a political or human right, or privileged access to truth, is to commit the morally puerile error of confusing the derivative and questionable credibility of a particular document with the real authority of language itself.
A personal corollary to my belief in the sanctity of language is a stubborn insistence that the English language, the particular language I was born into in Dallas in 1965 and the one in which I am fully proficient, is my birthright as much as it is anyone else’s, dammit, thus nobody gets to tell me how to use it or not use it. And by nobody, I mean nobody. Not people from England (admittedly where the language started), nor Ivy League people, nor professors of literature or linguistics or “subaltern studies,” nor Republicans, nor Democrats, nor feminists, nor either white or black nationalists, nor Third World revolutionaries. And certainly not the East Coast literary agent who instructed me, back when I was young and dumb, to avoid the word “matronly” in reference to a woman who was matronly, or the animal-rights nag in Seattle who informed me that the expression “kill two birds with one stone” was no longer permissible and that I should use “free two birds with one latch” instead. If you tell me not to use certain words, my first impulse will always be to find a way to use exactly those words. If you sign me up for your revolution without asking me first, I’ll unsubscribe. I’m for truth and justice, to be sure, but I myself discover and define what I believe those abstract terms to mean. I claim that freedom because I’m willing to do that hard work, and such freedom is essential to any writer. My vocation depends on my freedom to use language as I see fit.
So language, the original and fundamental technology of humanity, belongs to all of us to use, but it’s at our peril that we use it less than well. I claim it as mine to use freely, and I do my best to shoulder the concomitant burden of using it honestly, incisively, and responsibly. The truth, meaning, and power in words belong not to the Apostle Paul or the Pope or the learned rabbis or imams or the justices of the Supreme Court, but to all and each of us. That’s a scary thought, I know, because – as Peter Parker learned – with great power comes great responsibility.
Which brings me to my critique of Twitter. Twitter is in some ways an impressively useful device, but it needs to be discussed because of the prominence it has acquired in what passes for our public discourse. And, as a communications medium – a vehicle for the transmission of language among human beings living ostensibly among each other in political society – it leaves a lot to be desired and is often actively damaging.
I tried to be a good sport about Twitter, but after a spate of run-ins with acquaintances, strangers, and especially someone who had been a friend, I decided to withdraw. If you “follow” judiciously, Twitter is useful for finding interesting and helpful articles on current events that you might otherwise have missed. But beyond that it’s an echo chamber, where the angry and the like-minded indulge in the most futile kind of merely expressive politics. The same friend who introduced me to the advertising industry term “virtue posturing” also inspired me to write this essay. In the October 2017 conversation that spurred me to scratch the itch I had been feeling about how social media damages intellectual integrity and coherence, my friend described Twitter and Facebook as “two sides squaring off for a bitter bloody duel” and added, darkly: “There will be no reconciliation.” If he’s right, then an important question looms: Can a society survive if it conducts its public life on such a platform? Marshall McLuhan, call your office.
My own distasteful Twitter encounters have been few and minor compared to the many Trumpian shitstorms we’ve all had the misfortune to become aware of, and I offer mine only because they’re mine. There was the blow-up with the prolific and gregarious Pakistani writer who tweeted preemptive disdain for anyone who might object to the newly former President Obama accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from Wall Street, her implication being (I guess) that Obama is black and liberal and “our guy,” so we all must stick up for him no matter what, for those reasons and because he’s not Trump. I queried her assumptions by return tweet and, well, it didn’t end well. My own feelings of betrayal and disgust toward Obama were raw at the time, and I expressed them intemperately and also said unkind things about another tweeter who turned out to be the writer’s cousin. All of which underscores the wrongness of Twitter as a medium for debate. Then there was the complete stranger who “blocked” me because, as she put it to another participant in our unedifying exchange of views on Hillary Clinton, she knew all about what “dudes like Ethan Casey” are like. In both cases, the person who had started the exchange in the first place felt entitled to end it unilaterally and peremptorily. As someone who crossed my screen with a comparison of controversies over suspended ESPN personality Jemele Hill and Pittsburgh TV anchor Wendy Bell (look up both names if you really care to) put it, “It’s not about free speech, it’s about choosing sides.”
Which brings up l’affaire Lauren Duca. Duca is a young writer with a lot of attitude, a columnist for Teen Vogue magazine, apparently best known for a December 2016 piece headlined “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America” and for calling the partisan hack Tucker Carlson a “partisan hack” on national television. I learned those admirable things about Duca from reading her Wikipedia entry, but my first notice of her was only as someone whose “tweet” got “retweeted” by someone I “follow” on Twitter, and who was taking pride in the fact that she had goaded the erstwhile Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke into replying to one of her tweets. Lauren Duca holds all the correct opinions and makes sure you know that by tweeting them. She also swears a lot. What caught my attention was the following enlightening exchange of views on October 6, 2017:
Lauren Duca: Limiting options for both birth control and abortion turns women into slaves of reproduction. This is fucking war.
David Duke: Maybe you can control your behavior, start respecting yourself, get married and have some children. You’ll be happier. #Femininity
Lauren Duca: I still have a lot to learn, but if I might brag for a moment, I will say this: I’m making all the right fucking enemies
That has got to qualify as virtue posturing of a very cheap variety. I disagree with David Duke too. So what? That’s easy. It should go without saying that Lauren Duca’s sex life is none of David Duke’s business. It’s none of my business either, and I wish I didn’t feel compelled to discuss it at all, even in the abstract. But she brought it up, and somehow it showed up on my computer screen. But if this is in fact fucking war, then whose fucking side am I on? Because war forces us to choose sides. Or often, and just as damagingly, our side is chosen for us. Is it necessary to choose sides? Choosing sides is what we do in a pickup football game, or in a war. (Football is ubiquitous in American life, but it may not be the metaphor that our society needs now.) Perhaps, if we want to avoid war, we have to find a way to avoid choosing sides. But how to do that? I’m definitely not on David Duke’s side. But I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I’m not on Lauren Duca’s side either. She might say that I should be on her side, because her side is against David Duke’s side. But who is she to define the sides? And does she understand what it really means to declare war?
The final straw for me with Twitter was when it cost me a friendship. Not a close friend, but someone whose company I enjoyed and appreciated enough to make a point of making time for it when I could. When I lived in London he had been my house guest there, and I had taken him along with my stepson to the Wimbledon tennis tournament. More recently he had sought me out in Seattle and treated my wife and me to seats behind home plate at a Mariners game. On trips to Miami I had made a point of spending time with his mother and sister. So, not a truly intimate friend, but someone I had known for years and who had met my family and vice versa.
I spend a paragraph emphasizing the personal connection because it illustrates the cost of using language carelessly on social media. My friend was a very active tweeter, probably still is. Many tweeters specify (rather pompously) that “retweeting does not imply endorsement,” but it kind of does. My friend did a lot of retweeting as well as straight, pithy tweeting, so much of both every day that at times his tweets and retweets seemed to dominate my Twitter feed. And what he retweeted were mostly opinion articles from the liberal side of what we still quaintly call the mainstream media. Like Lauren Duca, he holds all the correct opinions and wants you to know it.
I wrote above that Twitter can be useful for finding good things to read, but the effect of too much tweeting and retweeting can be to leave us jaded: Yep, I agree with that. Yep, I agree with that too. You betcha, that latest outrage sure is outrageous; I’m gonna “like” what that person just pithily tweeted about it. Trump did and/or said – or, most likely, tweeted – yet another appalling thing today; how appalling! Referring to Trump here is directly on point, because we are all suffering the consequences of that particular idiot savant’s mastery of the Twitter medium. The problem, for American society, with Trump’s use of Twitter is not only Trump, but also Twitter. Thus, to use Twitter to express or signal one’s opposition to Trump is to play into his hands. Fighting fire with fire leads only to more fire. Trump and his ilk and minions want us to declare fucking war on them, as Lauren Duca did so stirringly yet ineffectually. The revolution will be tweeted, and so will the counterrevolution.
So what happened was that, amid all the hoo-ha of the daily maelstrom, my friend tweeted something that I couldn’t let pass. Part of what ensued is on me, because I happened to be on Twitter at the moment he tweeted that particular tweet. That’s the way things roll sometimes. What he tweeted, in reference to General David Petraeus being considered for a new government role despite his recent sex scandal, was:
White men always get second chances.
My friend has a long Indian name, so he enjoys the advantages of not being a white man. He is, as we say, of color. But his mother is a white American, so in what sense is he really so very non-white, anyway? His non-whiteness is partly elective. He once explained to me that, growing up in a Rust Belt city, his embrace of football fandom and other aspects of American popular culture was driven by a felt urge to counter or supplement his unavoidable Indianness by being fully and enthusiastically American – to be, as he movingly put it, “both/and.” Fair enough – indeed wonderful. But there’s both/and, and then there’s having it both ways. He has a Ph.D., a salary, a tenured professorship at a major university, and access to the op-ed page of the New York Times, none of which I have. I’m happy enough not having those things, but in what meaningful sense can he be considered less privileged than I am? He must consider himself somehow underprivileged, or he would not be so quick to tweet such a blanket claim about the privilege of a category that excludes himself yet is broad enough to include both David Petraeus and me.
My friend is a professor of Media Studies, thus I considered, and still do, that he would have an added duty to be prepared to reflect on the ways that his own use of Twitter might illustrate the truth of McLuhan’s dictum that the medium is the message. I emailed him privately, politely waited a few weeks, then wrote to him again, expressing disappointment at not having heard back from him. This time he replied:
If I had the time to converse in depth with you about any of this, you can be sure that my core theme would be that I wish you would not take everything so personally. It’s not about you. And it’s definitely not about me and you.
I love you dearly. And I respect you greatly. You know that. … I am, however, monumentally busy. I hope to have time some day soon to catch up on our personal lives and discuss matters of the world deeply.
Let’s let slide the surely unintended insinuation that he was more “monumentally busy” than I was, even though I could tell, simply by “following” him, that one of the things he was monumentally busy doing was tweeting. He didn’t have time to “converse in depth” about “any of this,” but he had plenty of time to tweet. I agree that it’s not about me, per se. But when you tweet that “White men always get second chances,” you are in fact saying something about me, even if what you think you’re saying is something about David Petraeus. What I experience you doing is lumping me in, willy-nilly, with David Petraeus, without any regard for who I am beyond what I incidentally have in common with Petraeus, i.e. whiteness and maleness. It really isn’t about me, and yet such drive-by rhetoric actually makes my life – both my work life and my personal life – more difficult, at times quite a bit more. As a writer in a country where such rhetoric is pervasive, I can hardly write for an audience without first ritually apologizing for being a white man. (And now, post-Weinstein, I also have to address the newly widespread notion that not some men or many men, but all men, are inherently sexual predators, that a male libido is a bad thing per se.)
It isn’t about me, but it is about a fraught sociopolitical category that I can’t help belonging to. And it’s about Twitter. And it’s about you, if you allow yourself to use Twitter in such a way. Of course I would like to have my friend’s friendship back, but he’s too busy. Too busy not only to “converse in depth” or “discuss matters of the world deeply,” but actually too monumentally busy tweeting to acknowledge a friend’s privately expressed concern about the public impact of what he tweets and how. There are millions of white men in America who don’t deserve to be lumped in with the likes of David Petraeus. And so lumping them is playing with fire, because they – we – really don’t get the kinds of second chances that the David Petraeuses of the world tend to get. I am not David Petraeus. I earnestly wish that the dubious resentments of many (not all) white men had not played a significant role in the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. But I do viscerally understand the good, bad, and ugly of such men, because I am one of them. And beyond that, and even more importantly, if you really do want to “discuss matters of the world deeply,” then don’t tweet, because tweeting is inherently glib. Being glib now, in the real live irretrievable moment, puts the lie to your claim to want, “some day soon,” to pay proper attention and to choose your words carefully. And word choice and quality of attention go hand in hand; they’re actually the same thing.
Each appalling incident in American life supplants the last in such swift succession that it’s impossible even to remember them all. We will find patterns, meanings, and truths that we can use only if we cultivate in ourselves the patience and discipline to aggregate and arrange incidents and episodes into stories. “We are not helpless consumers of identity,” says John Higgs in Watling Street: Travels through Britain and Its Ever-Present Past. “We are not trapped by history. We can choose the stories we tell.” Another way to say this is that narrative and nuance are inherent to life in human society as our ancestors experienced it for thousands of years, but foreign to Twitter. In her fine essay “Preaching to the Choir,” published in the November 2017 issue of Harper’s magazine, Rebecca Solnit writes:
Though great political work and useful debate about ideas and ethics is happening over social media, much of the time we spend together (or in solitude) has been replaced by the time we spend online, in arenas not conducive to subtlety or complexity. We have shifted to short declarative statements, to thinking in headlines, binaries, catch-all categories, to viewing words as pieces in a game of checkers rather than, say, gestures in a ballet. If you’re confident that everything not black is white, discussions about shades and hues seem beside the point. This absolutism presumes that our only position on those with whom we don’t have complete agreement is complete disapproval, and also that agreement is simple, past which there is no nuance, strategy, possibility to explore.
It has always been important to read longer forms of writing, up to and including books, but it has never been more important than it is now. The customary and conventional categories of American public life no longer apply. Maybe the common ground that’s necessary to what we fondly call “a functioning democracy” was spurious all along, but at least most of us agreed to pretend that it existed. Now, with the gloves off and fucking war declared, Americans will either step back and take a longer and wider view of our situation, or we’ll soon discover that there’s no more conversation to be had.
It remains the case, as I write this in November 2017, that the overridingly urgent task at hand is to bring an end to the aggressively malignant rogue regime that, at every turn, shows itself to be anathema to everything that most of us consider important, valuable, and true. We need to combat it, or resist it – but how? One way to oppose such a regime is directly, but there are both obvious perils and unintended consequences in doing that. Likewise, tweeting one’s outrage may be fleetingly cathartic but amounts to little more than virtue posturing. Not even voting for the other party – another form of choosing sides – is more than a Band-Aid solution.
What we need is to relearn how to pay attention to our world, properly and in a sustained way. We need to retrain our attention spans. Kazuo Ishiguro, who writes novels and only novels, spoke to this when he told the BBC, just after he was awarded the Nobel Prize, that he hoped his work was “in some small way helpful” by addressing “the way countries and nations and communities … bury the uncomfortable memories from the past.” If we can’t pay attention collectively, then each of us must try to do it individually. Or not. If you’re not inclined or able to do it, I can’t make you (and wouldn’t, even if I could). And the risk to each of us of doing it in solitude is of isolation from other members of our society. But is not each of us isolated already, anyway, even as we so insistently continue shouting past each other? Paradoxically, solitude and isolation are not the same thing. In “Notes for a Philosophy of Solitude,” written between 1955 and 1960, Thomas Merton asserted:
The solitary is one who is aware of solitude in himself as a basic and inevitable human reality, not just as something which affects him as an isolated individual. Hence his solitude is the foundation of a deep, pure, and gentle sympathy with all other men, whether or not they are capable of realizing the tragedy of their plight.
What I think Merton is implying is that each human being does live in solitude but not in isolation, and that each of us is both free and responsible to do the work of understanding the world and our place in it, in solitude and prior to either speaking or acting, or for that matter tweeting. I would add that one of the most basic and, for good reason, traditional ways that we gain “a deep, pure, and gentle sympathy with all other men [and women]” is by reading. And to read, we need solitude. And it’s not possible to read and tweet at the same time.
Merton was a powerful exemplar of a now endangered species of literary creature known as the essayist, an inheritor and steward of a craft whose masters include British greats like Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, George Orwell (the Hazlitt of the twentieth century), and G.K. Chesterton, as well as Americans as disparate as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Hunter S. Thompson. It’s difficult to imagine any of the above resorting to Twitter, or even understanding what exactly Twitter is, much less why it should be resorted to.
It’s true that all of the above were white men, as were almost all of the luminaries included in A Treasury of the Essay, a handsome hardbound relic I nabbed a while back from a Little Free Library, published in 1955. Amid inarguably great names like Jonathan Swift, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Lamb, and Randolph Bourne, editor Homer C. Combs found room for exactly one woman: Virginia Woolf. But the same tradition now yields writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, who carries forward the important legacy of the great essayist James Baldwin; Rebecca Solnit, whose natural form is the essay (and who suggestively observes that an idea is to an essay what a character is to a short story); and Zadie Smith, known for her novels but at least as valuable to us for her deeply humane personal and literary essays.
Smith fetchingly notes, in the foreword to her collection Changing My Mind, that “This book was written without my knowledge. That is, I didn’t realize I’d written it until someone pointed it out to me. … I replied to the requests that came in now and then. … A hundred thousand words piled up that way.” She rightly calls her pieces “‘occasional essays’ in that they were written for particular occasions, particular editors.” To many the term suggests – wrongly, I think – that these are lesser things written during the interstices of a novelist’s time spent on his or her real work. But I’ve always thought of occasional writing as a fully dignified flip side of a writer’s fiction. The unguardedness of an occasional essay can be an illuminating corrective to the guises and gambits of the same writer’s fiction. In any case all writing, even great and timeless novels like, say, War and Peace, is occasional. That novel is still worth reading here and now precisely because it was written in a particular time and country remote from us, by a writer who paid sustained attention to human doings and had something to tell us about them. And some writers – Hazlitt, Thompson, and Solnit, for example, and me – don’t write fiction at all, and that’s okay too.
So I ask myself: In a time when the most widespread uses to which the English language is put are mere politics or, in lieu of even that debased purpose, recrimination and posturing, what are my responsibilities toward my vocation and my audience? One thing I know is that the work of writers is, right now, more than ever, urgently important. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work,” wrote Toni Morrison at a previous moment of crisis, in 2004. I read her not as stating the commonplace that art is unavoidably political, but as suggesting that art is profoundly political, at such a deep frequency that its politics might well be inaudible to many. Such deep politics is the real purpose and importance of art.
Art is the paying of real human attention to the world. And for me journalism, which is what I call the particular way of paying attention that I practice, is a personal discipline. It’s said by religious people that prayer is attention. If that’s true, then journalism is a form of prayer. As I write this, we should be praying for – paying attention to – the people of Puerto Rico. In the underreported aftermath of Hurricane Maria, I find myself wishing that I could be in Puerto Rico and that I spoke Spanish. But that I can’t and don’t does not excuse me from paying attention or from doing whatever I can. What I can do is as much reporting and writing as I’m in a position to do and feel is useful, on subjects that I know something about, and not more. The world today doesn’t need more writing; it needs better writing. And it needs more attentive reading. So when not writing, which is most of the time, I revert to my habit of reading literature like tea leaves, searching for clues. Here’s one, from J.G. Ballard’s introduction to the 1994 reprint edition of his novel Hello America:
Whenever I visit the United States I often feel that the real “America” lies not in the streets of Manhattan and Chicago, or the farm towns of the mid-west, but in the imaginary America created by Hollywood and the media landscape. Far from being real, the sidewalks and filling stations and office blocks seem to imitate the images of themselves in countless movies and TV commercials. Even the American people one meets in hotel lobbies and department stores seem like actors in a huge televised sit-com. “U.S.A.” might well be the title of a 24 hours a day virtual reality channel, broadcast into the streets and shopping malls and, perhaps, the White House itself. …
A curious feature of the United States is that this nation with the most advanced science and technology the world has ever seen, which has landed men on the moon and created the super-computers that may one day replace us, amuses itself with a comic-book culture aimed for the most part at bored and violent teenagers. In Hello America I suggest that the hidden logic of the American dream might one day lead to a President Manson playing nuclear roulette in Las Vegas, a less far-fetched notion than it seems.
I’m currently reading Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World by Suzy Hansen, because I think she’s onto something. Hansen observes that “The 1960s ushered in a golden era of global intellectual engagement – Robert Stone, Gore Vidal, Paul Theroux, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, among others – but even that would paradoxically fade in the age of globalization.” Those very writers and others, notably including non-Americans such as Graham Greene and V.S. Naipaul, transmitted their global engagement to me at a formative time in my early adulthood in the 1980s and ’90s. Theroux in particular was hugely influential on me, because he modeled the kind of writer I wanted to become. While living in Thailand and then in England from 1993 to 2006, I eventually read all Theroux’s travel books, several of his novels, his brilliant memoir Sir Vidia’s Shadow, and his two essay collections, Sunrise with Seamonsters and Fresh Air Fiend. He was and remains a role model to me, above all for demonstrating that a writer can be at once thoroughly cosmopolitan and unapologetically American.
Fresh Air Fiend includes a short essay titled “Travel Writing: The Point of It,” spurred by understandable pique at his prescient travel book on China, Riding the Iron Rooster, being misunderstood and misconstrued by many reviewers. In that piece, Theroux advocates writing that’s “prescient without making predictions” and argues: “I have always felt that the truth is prophetic, and that if you describe what you see and give it life with your imagination, then what you write ought to have lasting value, no matter what the mood of your prose.” Ever since first reading that passage, I’ve cherished it as a kind of mission statement. Theroux also has modeled for me how travel and reading go hand in hand, how clues well studied direct us to further clues. In his recent travel book Deep South, for example, he writes: “The memory of my visit to [William Faulkner’s home] Rowan Oak stayed with me, and in the time I spent preparing for my next drive to the Deep South, I reread Faulkner.”
So Suzy Hansen returns me to Theroux, and Theroux, in Deep South, in turn reminds me of the great value of what Bill Steigerwald accomplished in his first-rate and fearless book of travel and literary detective work, Dogging Steinbeck. Steigerwald, writes Theroux, proved that John Steinbeck “did not actually travel to half the places he described, that much of the time he was swanking with his wife in excellent hotels, and that a great deal of what he wrote [in his 1962 bestseller Travels with Charley: In Search of America] was flapdoodle, fudged and fictionalized.” That reminder in turn spurs me to read Steigerwald’s next book, 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South, about the conservative white Pittsburgh newspaperman Ray Sprigle’s trailblazing 1948 trip in the company of civil rights pioneer John Wesley Dobbs. Theroux and Steigerwald both remind us by example that honesty is more important than ideology – that, if a writer is going to claim to be going “in search of America,” the least he should do is to pay honest attention to America as he finds it, as Steinbeck did not.
The purpose of literature, of the kinds of deep attention that find expression in novels, essays, and proper journalism, is to counteract the pervasive vulgarity of quotidian civic discourse. The nadir of that is found now on Twitter, but vulgarity can be more high-toned and thus more insidious. In Watling Street, John Higgs observes that “Established history is like our memories: imperfect but incredibly convincing. … Logically we know that some of our myths and legends will have their origins in fact, and a certain percentage of our history must be untruth credibly told.” In her essay “What Are We Doing Here?” the novelist Marilynne Robinson, whom I appreciate more as an essayist, writes:
In the realm of contemporary politics, someone who has a certain awareness of history, the president, for example, is expected to speak as if he did not. He is expected to have mastery of an artificial language, a language made up arbitrarily of the terms and references of a nonexistent world that is conjured out of prejudice and nostalgia and mis- and disinformation, as well as of fashion and slovenliness among the opinion makers. Any dialect becomes second nature to those who live among its speakers, and this one is pervasive in ordinary educated life. Anyone who has wandered now and then into the vast arcana of what we have been and done is prone to violating the dialect’s strict and narrow usage, and will be corrected.
I am not speaking here of the usual and obvious malefactors, the blowhards on the radio and on cable television. I am speaking of the mainstream media, therefore of the institutions that educate most people of influence in America, including journalists.
We can no longer afford fashion and slovenliness in language. The times are such that we have both strong compulsions and fresh opportunities to redeploy the original and fundamental technology of our species with true effectuality, to wander into the vast arcana of what we have been and done, to speak and write outside the polite bounds that enforced the erstwhile American status quo, to move ourselves and each other above and beyond that to somewhere better, at least in the sense of being more tenable. Yeah, I’m an American writer, and I can’t avoid writing from within and in response to what we have known as America. But fundamentally, I couldn’t care less about being American. What I want to be is human. It’s worth the effort.
November 7, 2017