Christmas, the day after, in 2004, following the presidential re-election of George W. Bush.
I am staring out of the window in an extremely dark mood, feeling helpless. Then a friend, a fellow artist, calls to wish me happy holidays. He asks, “How are you?” And instead of “Oh, fine—and you?”, I blurt out the truth: “Not well. Not only am I depressed, I can’t seem to work, to write; it’s as though I am paralyzed, unable to write anything more in the novel I’ve begun. I’ve never felt this way before, but the election….” I am about to explain with further detail when he interrupts, shouting: “No! No, no, no! This is precisely the time when artists go to work—not when everything is fine, but in times of dread. That’s our job!”
I felt foolish the rest of the morning, especially when I recalled the artists who had done their work in gulags, prison cells, hospital beds; who did their work while hounded, exiled, reviled, pilloried. And those who were executed.
The list—which covers centuries, not just the last one—is long. A short sample will include Paul Robeson, Primo Levi, Ai Weiwei, Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, Dashiell Hammett, Wole Soyinka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Lillian Hellman, Salman Rushdie, Herta Müller, Walter Benjamin. An exhaustive list would run into the hundreds.
Dictators and tyrants routinely begin their reigns and sustain their power with the deliberate and calculated destruction of art: the censorship and book-burning of unpoliced prose, the harassment and detention of painters, journalists, poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists. This is the first step of a despot whose instinctive acts of malevolence are not simply mindless or evil; they are also perceptive. Such despots know very well that their strategy of repression will allow the real tools of oppressive power to flourish. Their plan is simple:
1. Select a useful enemy—an “Other”—to convert rage into conflict, even war.
2. Limit or erase the imagination that art provides, as well as the critical thinking of scholars and journalists.
3. Distract with toys, dreams of loot, and themes of superior religion or defiant national pride that enshrine past hurts and humiliations.
The Nation could never have existed or flourished in 1940s Spain, or 2014 Syria, or apartheid South Africa, or 1930s Germany. And the reason is clear. It was born in the United States in 1865, the year of Lincoln’s assassination, when political division was stark and lethal—during, as my friend said, times of dread. But no prince or king or dictator could interfere successfully or forever in a country that seriously prized freedom of the press. This is not to say there weren’t elements that tried censure, but they could not, over the long haul, win. The Nation, with its history of disruptive, probing, intelligent essays sharing wide space equally with art criticism, reviews, poetry and drama, is as crucial now as it has been for 150 years.