We had secretly resolved to know nothing of violence and unhappiness as elements of history because we were living in a country too happy and too weak to envisage them […] We knew that concentrations camps existed, that the Jews were being persecuted, but these certainties belonged to the world of thought. We were not as yet living face to face with cruelty and death: We had not as yet been given the choice of submitting to them or confronting them […] From our birth we had been used to handling freedom and to living an individual life. How then could we have known that these were hard to come by? How could we have learned to commit our freedom in order to preserve it? […] What makes our landscape of 1939 inconceivable to us today and puts it once and for all beyond our grasp is precisely the fact that we were not conscious of it as a landscape.
We find ourselves now at a similar juncture. The election of Donald Trump has jolted even the most stubborn pundit into the awareness that we live upon a landscape, one that can at any moment shift and crack and take every certain fact with it, down into the deep. Yet even awakened to this terrifying reality, the inert husk of the pundit class is paralyzed. It does not know what to do, it does not even know, precisely, what to make of what has happened. They have assimilated the election into their knowledge; they will assimilate, with due outrage, every atrocity that follows. But still fearful of imagination, still grasping for some means by which to jam the present into the framework upon which their careers depend, unable to articulate a strategy beyond a scheme to go back, to return to the old, preferable landscape.
Some pundits have suggested new tactical approaches — cooperation or intransigence, better branding of this kind or another — but each is only a method of returning, conceived of within a framework of civil society they still regard as immutable. Some even imagine that the return will come about without any special effort at all. “A shift of a little over 80,000 votes in three states would have elected Clinton President,” writes Ed Kilgore in New York Magazine,
Democrats also lost very close Senate races in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Wisconsin, and did gain two seats […] Thanks to our winner-take-all system […] these defeats were potentially cataclysmic in consequences. But burning down everything that got them relatively close to their own trifecta does not necessarily make sense.
Kilgore goes on to reprimand anyone suggesting a shift either to the left or the right, and perhaps he is correct: a minor statistical fluctuation could restore his party to power at any time. But this is only knowledge. Without imagination, it is hard to see the obvious: that even if we could return, relatively intact, history does not ever really end. Escape, true escape, from the threat of incipient American fascism requires the capacity to imagine a better world, as radically different from the old order as the nightmare we now must endure. Such a movement will not occur so long as the present pundits remain the gatekeepers of political possibility. It is not that they are wretched people; it is only that they cannot, by nature, lead us out of the world that their own confusion brought about. The curse of punditry is that it knows too much but imagines too little, like a man regarding his own death.
Terminal myopia is only difficult to see when you’ve got it; out here it is only difficult to be shocked. The symptoms were everywhere for years, screaming out of every empty paean to inviolable norms, churning beneath every insistence that Liberalism is Working, calling out in every dry assemblage of statistics declaring that Actually, The World is Better Than Ever. It was not that these pronouncements were wrong, precisely. But facts are only useful so long as they remain inert, so long as the reality that gives rise to those facts goes on forever, and it was this assumption, buried in each optimistic klaxon, that betrayed the limits of the liberal imagination. The future will be like the past, because in the past the future, now past, was like the past, now past-er. They were like madcap billiards players in a David Hume parable, certain of their next shot. It is not that they literally lacked an imaginative faculty — pundits love nothing more than policy proposals and projections — but imagination in a larger sense. Yes, the world could be tweaked, but its basic rhythms, the rational correspondence of methods to circumstance, were treated as a settled thing, while the real, historical possibilities for catastrophe or grace came to be regarded as a juvenile fantasy for the unserious. So strident was the faith that the basic instruments of civilization were already realized and immutable that when Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 declaration that history itself was dead on the doorstep of liberal technocracy came roaring back into the bibliographies of editorialists these past few years, the only caveat was whether or not a book was really necessary to argue the self-evident.
All of this was easy to get away with for a while and without too much embarrassment, because for a while the world itself was not too challenging. Perhaps for the casualties of globalization, or for the citizens of sovereign nations invaded by our military, or for the vast majority of working people in the United States, but in Washington, where the Clinton administration became the Bush administration became the Obama administration without too much disruption to the fundamental program of the state, a new off-the-record happy hour was only ever an Uber ride away. The White House Correspondents’ Dinner was right around the corner. The pundits were not ignorant of the world outside — they even talked about it — but like all facts central to someone else’s life, the depravity was incidental. The world really was getting better! They knew it. It was true. Surely the people in their wisdom would have patience. Surely they would never let it be another way, until they did.
The world has never lacked for idiots engaged in hapless prophecy. If we had only a few pundits unable to envision a world beyond their own, I would call them human beings and be done. But when the whole class of strivers falls victim to the same stupidity, we are in need of a more general theory. I do not doubt that many of these pundits are intelligent people, engaged in what they believe to be useful work. Yet something has gone terribly wrong in their commitments. What has become of their political imaginations?
Adrienne Rich, the great radical poet, writes in her essay “Poetry and Commitment” that the role of poets in a world where they are not widely read nor, contrary to Shelley, the politically efficacious “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” is to exist as “news of an awareness, a resistance, that totalizing systems want to quell: art reaching into us for what’s still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.” That is, poetry and its attendant arts exist as a witness to those elements of human life contrary to the demands of power.
“I live, in poetry and daily experience, with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire,” Rich writes.
In my lifetime, I’ve seen the breakdown of rights and citizenship where ordinary “everybodies,” poets or not, have left politics to a political class bent on shoveling the elemental resources, the public commons of the entire world into private control. Where democracy has been left to the raiding of “acknowledged” legislators, the highest bidders. In short, to a criminal element.
Poetry, which she reminds us has often found more popularity in prisons than among the middle classes, exists to reveal “something I was forbidden to see,” to keep the faith of this hidden undercurrent alive until it may be overthrown. Milton Friedman, of all bastards, expressed something similar in 1982:
Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function [as writers]: to develop alternatives […] to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.
What did all of this political talk have to do with writing poems in the United States, Rich asked her audience. After all,
We often hear that […] the West doesn’t imprison dissident writers. But when a nation’s criminal justice system imprisons so many […] to be tortured in maximum security units or on death row, overwhelmingly because of color and class, it is in effect — and intention — silencing potential and actual writers, intellectuals, artists, journalists: a whole intelligentsia […] within every official, statistical, designated nation, there breathes another nation: of unappointed, unappeased, unacknowledged clusters of people.
This, she says, is poetry’s commitment. It is not merely an opportunity to “aestheticize,” “to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them […] as dramatic occasions for the artist” but rather a “committed attention” that regards those cruelties as “structures of power to revealed and dismantled.” I am talking to you about Rich in order to make what is perhaps an obvious suggestion: there are no two modes of writing more dissimilar than poetry and punditry, and the gulf between them is not confined to mere lyric sensibility. The take is the opposite of the poem. It is its inversion, in aesthetics and in purpose. When Rich speaks of brutality as a mere occasion for the writer, when she speaks of the “acknowledged legislators,” the official, statistical nation, of the passionless, intimidated and quenched who illuminate only what you are intended to see, she is giving us the outline of another manifesto, one called “Punditry and Commitment”; or, writing by way of a sledgehammer to the imagination.
If we step back from cynicism acquired over the course of years, it is curious that this should be the case. I do not believe, as many others on the left do, that pundits are an especially stupid or pernicious set by nature. Many can write a sentence; some have displayed a capacity for original thinking. I am not, anyway, much inclined to explaining whole cultural currents by way of individual personality failure. When the Washington Post sees gender role revolution in a genocidal war, or PBS insists that higher unemployment may actually be a good sign for the economy (if not the people in it), when Slate sees a Bangladeshi factory collapse and the first instinct (despite any later regret) is to treat it as an occasion to explain the tradeoffs and ultimate virtue of globalization, when outlet after outlet insists that Donald Trump cannot become president is not because any of these pundits are wretched people, or stupid ones. Rather, the commitments of punditry arise in much the same manner as the commitments of poetry: from the cages that hold its creators.
The cage of punditry is less visible than the cage of poetry, of course; it exists not in difference or grievance, or in literal bars, but in the mental confinement of the striver, in the prison of an industry that prizes above all else the notion that every member is in the know. When he won the Nobel Prize, Hemingway said that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life,” that “a true writer […] should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed.” But Hemingway was talking about novelists and poets. He was not talking pundits. The pundit’s career — even before social media stretched The Discourse from bleary-eyed first alarm to the free palm of every editorialist as he lays in his bed at night — lives, by necessity, on communion. They are expected at bottom to try for something that has been proven already, that reassurance the audience of its own biases in the manner best suited for converting clicks into ad revenue. A striving pundit comes to the gates of the content mine and learns first and foremost that career-greasing respectability comes from having the courage to basically agree with your peers, to flatter their savvy while they flatter yours. Now, as media jobs become even more scarce, and we find ourselves a recession away from the collapse of all but the few most solvent outlets, the pressure of institutional commitment is even stronger. Even the intelligent have a hard time resisting: they might be pilloried on one of those savage secret listhosts for real insiders, denied job opportunities before they even knew they had them. Or worse, they might get called wrong by their online peers and never be taken seriously again. In the pundit class, it is better to commit the same error as everybody else than to risk the possibility of an embarrassing divergence. If the striver knows what’s good for him — which is to say, that he aims to one day attain the access and influence that will make him a “thought leader” in his own right — he gets the picture soon enough. The origin of these perverse incentives can be explained in a few ways, ways that any structurally minded socialist or halfway decent observer of human emotional life can rattle off easily enough. It has something to do with power, something to do with the insulation of pricey geography, something to do with the safety of crowds, and with the congenital civility taught in the Ivy League institutions from which so many pundits emerge directly and without benefit of any real political experience, but in any case, it is now locked in and passed on by instruction. One scarcely needs to spend much time at all in New York or in Washington to observe this cycle; at any rate, it is perfectly obvious even from a distance.
The trouble with all of this is not just that it leads to frequent lapses in good taste or moral sensibility. It is that this apparatus, this set of mutually protective commitments, requires that any insight or even special ambition be subordinated to survival. Punditry is committed to the already-known not because it aspires to credibility with the general public (this is long gone, and the punditry’s response has been disdain for that public), but because it aspires to credibility with itself and so must avoid anything which might upset an order that looks pretty good from a comfortable perch. A simpler way to say this is that the take, by nature, is reactionary. Reaction is not the defense, after all, of an unmoving set of political principles. It is the defense of whatever the presently advantageous principles happen to be. It is a commitment to a set of mutually agreed upon realities, supported by dedicated statistics, and its function is to measure any suggestion of alternative possibility against this rubric and rise up to bury it under a mountain of common sense. Pundits do not describe the world; they respond only to any serious effort to change it. No wonder that many among its notionally liberal ranks are surprised to discover under questioning, that they are conservatives by instinct. They weren’t, last time they checked, before they were whittled into shape by their vocation.
What is known, in statistics, in facts, in the mutually reinforcing puffery of pundits outsourcing their arguments by links to one another’s pieces is a slow and sure safety. What might be imagined, a world radically worse or radically better than our own, is dangerous. It dies not by will or malice, but by attrition, by the fear of change that is the essence of the reactionary mind. It’s all one terrible feedback loop, every day drawing the circle of knowledge a little darker, and a little tighter around the mind. One day, I suppose, we will have nothing at all but Fact Checks, explained.
The theoretical virtue of punditry’s commitment is that before we can go imagining another world, we must establish a baseline of reality. The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. Even in Marx, the whole equation hangs on “only.” It is not enough to describe the world, but surely it is a necessary step. We cannot all be poets.
But it should be clear by now that what the pundit defends is not in any commonly understood sense “reality,” but a very particularly interpreted subsection of it. The disappeared in prison are part of reality, after all. The charred bodies beneath predator drones, the hungry and sick and desperate. I have written before about knowing, a quality of the liberal pundit similar to but distinct from actually countenancing the full set of facts about the world. At the time, it was taken to differ by possessing an obnoxious, condescending quality (“smugness,” I suppose), but the difference was more profound: the knowing only know what it is good or of service to know. The particulars change with the political currents, but the result is always the maintenance of the world as it is. Other inconvenient facts may be countenanced — pundits do literally know about them, of course — but only as incidental acknowledgments, to be nodded at before circling back around to conventional wisdom, brutalities and cruelties to be glided across as dramatic occasions for the pundit’s riff, rather than structures of power to be revealed and dismantled. Mere possibilities, they can be dismissed without ceremony.
The trouble is that history happens anyway. The ground is always less secure than you believe. Spend enough time behaving as if the possibilities of human civilization have been exhausted, and you will find that you believe them.
“I’d like to suggest this,” Rich says near the end of her essay,
If there’s a line to be drawn, it’s not so much between secularism and belief as between those for whom language has a metaphoric density and those for whom it is merely formulaic — to be used for repression, manipulation, empty certitudes to ensure obedience. And such a line can also be drawn between ideologically obedient hack verse and an engaged poetics that endures the weight of the unknown, the untracked, the unrealized, along with its urgencies for and against.
On one side of this line, “[t]he imagination’s roads open before us” as a challenge to “that brute dictum ‘There is no alternative.’” On the other side are the pundits, and the whole apparatus of power they uphold, the failures of imagination that built the fences, literal and otherwise.
Poetry is the last form that would expect to be taken literally. I am not demanding the verse to redeem the world, but what we require now, as we always have, is a vision that endures that weight of the unknown, untracked, and unrealized. That is where the potential for a real universal dignity is hidden. Who will imagine what it looks like? What real plan will get us there? The acknowledged legislators of our mental lives cannot provide. They are committed by the very nature of their craft against us.
Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere.