Let us honor if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.
W. H. Auden, Epigraph for Poems, 1930
"Censorship represents society's lack of confidence in itself. It is a hallmark of an authoritarian regime." --Justice Potter Stewart, Ginzberg v U.S., March 21, 1966
I HAD LUNCH on June 2 with my old master, Marion Syrek. He taught me printing in the early 1960s. He's the last real Trotskyist or close to it. More Catholic than the Pope, he splinters off and splinters off always convinced that he's righter than right. He never finds any true comrades. Somebody always lets him down. He has the true faith, the genuine shining article, but can't get enough people to listen and all he can do is stand on the sidelines knowing like Cassandra how it's all going to come out, but helpless because nobody will listen to him. He doesn't even have the consolation that my exactly similar Fundamentalist Christian mother has that at least if you keep the Faith and profess Christ and lead a Godly life even if nobody at all or only a few see the truth, the one true Path of Righteousness, at least you will spend eternity in the Bosom of Christ. I actually think our lunch together was an attempt to recruit me into one of those dreary, pointless, wrangling splinter groups.
Probably there are the same number of people now involved in heavy-duty left-wing political organizations as there were in the 1950s and 1960s, and in some cases they're the same people. There's only one way to hang onto your faith, and that's not to let it be questioned. You huddle together for warmth and protection and exchange truisms with one another and keep a sharp ear out for the unorthodox, because faith is a soap-bubble and cannot tolerate even a pin-prick. Disagreement is diminishment. So the unorthodox is expelled, or as is the case with powerfully egocentric people like my mother or Marion, the unorthodox does the expelling.
The strongest system is the one which can tolerate the most criticism and non-conformity. The weakest is the one which tolerates nothing. Totalitarian systems are necessarily weak to the degree that they are totalitarian. To keep a belief system or political entity healthy and strong, a constant, bitter background noise of vicious criticism and outright revolt is absolutely necessary. If it can't take it, it isn't any good to begin with.
This nation was founded in dissent by Protestants, whose very name contains the idea of dissent. This is basically still a Protestant nation, and though everyone agrees that he's right and you're wrong, everyone also basically agrees to disagree, splintering off eternally.
The real job of the artist or philosopher is to challenge belief systems. This makes them unpopular. Among the charges which brought Socrates his sentence of death was that he corrupted the youth of Athens by impiety, and by making the weaker argument appear the stronger. The artist's lack of belief is a real danger to any system of belief. Most people are not like my Mom who draws strength whilst within the midst of her adversaries. Daniel in the lion's den, the three men in the fiery furnace, they had it easy. It's not hard standing up for your principles to unbelievers and scoffers, even if they threaten you with disgrace, torture and death. What's hard is to listen to a Doubting Thomas, who is within the fold and yet questions the dogma. He doesn't reject it, he just questions it. "I'll believe that Christ is alive when I can touch him with my own hands, and not until then." "Maybe if the masses aren't flocking to our cause, we should examine our party line and see if there might be something that could use some improvement."
"And I suppose that you're the one to do it, huh Mister Smarty Pants?"
Political organizations are at their least effective when they are inflexibly orthodox. Orthodoxy is weakness, and the most orthodox is the least likely to make converts or survive. For one thing, it's easy once you've set down the path of righteousness to get more and more and more righteous until you're all alone: "All men are sinners except me and thee, and sometimes I am in doubt about thee." Should anyone be in any doubt about this point, I suggest that they consult the origins and consequences of the Cultural Revolution in China.
Marion and my mother share one thing in common: their belief system is their life. Without it, there is nothing, and in consequence they defend it to an irrational degree. My mother is an intelligent, well-educated woman who can entertain mutually contradictory ideas with no trouble at all. Her extreme Protestantism makes sense only to her, since nobody else can follow the train of logic that led her to it. A lot of it is fixating on trivial issues and making them into a big deal. Whether you should serve Communion with wine or grape juice, whether people should be baptized as infants or as comprehending adults, whether you should "mar the corners of your beard," or eat milk and meat at the same time. All are important if you just do that sleight-of-hand thing of fixating on the trivial; forgetting that there is a difference between ends and means; and that there just might be more than one way of skinning a cat. But, when your differences define you, the investment is just too large. I don't know if they understand their isolation, or if they understand that it is more important to them to keep their faith system intact rather than be content, healthy or even have any friends. I even think that the more the true believer suffers for his faith the happier he is.
When you go to a movie that you like, you feel an urge to tell other people, "You've got to see this movie. It's good." You want them to reinforce your opinion, and to validate your belief that the movie is good by going to see it too, and then agreeing that it was good. It makes you feel personally rejected when somebody says, "That movie? It's garbage!" because what they're really saying is, "You like garbage, and I reject your opinions and you, too."
Belief systems are robust as they are accepted, and weak as they are rejected. But, to reject a belief system is to reject the believer.
Challenging belief systems is what artists actually do. They therefore become society's immediate enemies and future saviors.
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