In October 1939, C. S. Lewis delivered a sermon at Oxford’s University Church, later published under the title “Learning in War-Time.” World War II had been under way for just a few weeks, and most people in England were starting to recognize the unprecedented level of mobilization the war effort would require. Even before hostilities officially began, some of Lewis’s Oxford colleagues had wondered whether the university should be temporarily closed “in the event of an international emergency.” Could the work of Oxford and places like it—turning young men of fighting age into philosophers, scholars, and critics—be justified at such a moment? This is the question Lewis sought to address in his sermon.
The role of the modern corporate university in any war effort is fairly clear today, but at the time Oxford and its peers were still largely dedicated to the humanities. What Lewis was attempting to defend was not economically productive STEM research but the pursuit of learning with no obvious practical benefit, what we might romantically term “the life of the mind,” or, more bluntly, culture. (“Culture in War-Time” was the subtitle he initially gave the talk.) Lewis didn’t argue, as today’s humanists like to do, that this pursuit teaches “critical thinking” or some other skill necessary for the challenges of the moment. He merely noted that if there were no place for “intellectual and aesthetic activity” in wartime, there would be no place for it at any time, because, he said, war does not fundamentally change our situation—“it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it”:
Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. . . . If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
I’ve thought often of Lewis’s sermon since I read about it in Alan Jacobs’s excellent recent book, The Year of Our Lord 1943, which follows Lewis and a handful of other writers— W. H. Auden, T. S. Eliot, Simone Weil, and Jacques Maritain—through the war. Jacobs focuses on Christian thinkers, but, as he acknowledges—and as has been outlined in other recent books such as Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man—intellectuals of all stripes were concerned in these years with much the same problem. As the war went on, the total mobilization that had just begun when Lewis gave his sermon came to look in many eyes almost too successful; the industrial technocrats who’d been put in charge of society in the name of wartime efficiency were not likely to cede their control when the fighting was done. Among religious and secular humanists alike, there was a growing worry that, to use a phrase that Reinhold Niebuhr popularized, they might win the war but lose the peace.
Jacobs’s book is not one of those popular histories that try to prove their relevance by insistently analogizing to the present day, but it sharpened my thinking about our own moment. Ever since Donald Trump’s election, we have been living on the cultural equivalent of war footing. The roughly three fifths of Americans who disapprove of Trump have felt a persistent sense that all of our resources must be mobilized toward the goal of resistance. With the midterm election passed, an energized Democratic majority in the House eager to frustrate the president’s agenda, and dozens of would-be candidates stepping up to offer their vision of a post-Trump world, there are many hopeful signs that the tide has turned. Of course, the fight isn’t over, but it may not be too soon to concern ourselves with winning the peace.
When I try to envision a better future, I find myself hoping for a society in which we all spend a little less time thinking and talking about politics. I know I’m not alone in this hope. Never before has the political, in the narrowest, electoral sense of the word, so saturated every corner of our lives. On our way to work in the morning we catch up on the latest news from Washington, at our desks during the day we procrastinate by posting and tweeting about it, and at home each night we relax—if that’s the word—by watching Seth Meyers and Stephen Colbert make it into a joke. We have come to expect political gestures at sporting events, awards shows, and other places where they were once notably rare. We carefully parse the public and private behavior of actors, musicians, and tech developers for its political meaning, and we do our shopping and our cultural consumption with this knowledge close at hand. We are acutely aware of the political implications of every decision we make, and when we aren’t there is always someone waiting on social media to remind us of them.
No one I know is entirely happy with this state of affairs. At the same time, there is a widespread feeling that our current emergency simply requires heightened attention, however much we might regret the fact. The national mood on this matter was nicely summarized in a recent New York Times book review that mentioned one man’s effort to unplug completely from the churn of daily news:
His life seemed sad and lonely, not exhilarating. His decision to disengage was also, particularly now, the height of irresponsibility, an abdication of that most basic duty of citizenship: staying informed.
Granted that citizens have such a duty, it’s not clear to me how far it extends. Must we read all of our president’s tweets in real time? If not, must we read the newspaper summary of them each morning? How, exactly, would this inform us? What would we learn from such diligence that we don’t already know? In practice, it seems a great deal more than informed citizenship is being demanded. Witness David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, marking the first hundred days of the Trump presidency:
For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.
Here is the ethos of our time, perfectly encapsulated: it is not, in fact, enough to be an informed citizen. If you are not obsessed with Trump, or if your obsession is not enacted on a daily basis, this can only mean that you do not care about civil rights or justice or even basic standards of truth. Naturally, we are all a bit demoralized by our obsession—none of us would wish it this way—but what choice do we really have?
There are a few problems with the notion that Trump is to blame for our collective political monomania. The most basic is that the pathology long predates Trump’s election. The problem may be worse than ever, but it has been trending in one direction for roughly a generation. Each of the past four presidential elections has been widely viewed as the most important ever. Our already interminable campaign seasons have gotten even longer, and they occupy far more of our attention while they are going on. Meanwhile the proliferation of polling aggregators and the rise of data-driven journalism mean that the horse race never really has to end. No matter how far we are from Election Day, there is always a new scrap of information to be assimilated into our long-term forecasts.
I was an assistant editor at this magazine during the 2008 campaign, when I witnessed a lot of wide-ranging conversations about the political future. The George W. Bush years had been kind to Harper’s, which was a vocal critic of regime change in the lead-up to the Iraq War, when many other publications (including Remnick’s New Yorker) were still in thrall to liberal interventionism. No one was entirely sure how to respond to the expected arrival of the Obama Administration. I remember one conversation in particular, in which a senior editor argued that with the departure of Bush from office we were entitled to a “peace dividend”—that is to say, we would all have a sudden surplus of attention that could be devoted to other matters. Already there was a strong sense of political fatigue. A few days after that conversation, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Great Recession began. Conversations around the office shifted to the political implications of the bailout, and what to make of candidate Obama’s support for it. I heard no more talk of a peace dividend.
This brings me to the second problem with blaming our dilemma on the current president. Even if Trump were the cause, his eventual departure from the stage would not automatically restore us to a proper balance, in which politics is just one of many subjects to which we give our sustained attention. This is one of the great lessons from Jacobs’s book: certain systems, once in place, tend to persist by a logic of their own. The thinkers he studies did lose the peace, in the end; the mobilization never stopped. Within fifteen years, even the former supreme commander of the Allied forces was warning against the military-industrial complex.
Whatever forces have built up politics as an ever-present collective obsession, whatever forces have taught us that quiet contemplation is not just useless but actually irresponsible, there are now too many people profiting from the idea for it to fade away in the natural course of things. The political-entertainment machine is never going to give us our lives back. It will never announce an end to hostilities, tell us it is safe to return to our homes. To quote Lewis: “Life has never been normal.” If we are going to restore the balance, we are going to have to do it during “war-time.” If the goal of turning some of our attention away from politics is worth working for on January 20, 2021, it is worth working for now.
To what do I propose we dedicate our attention instead? Well, all sorts of things, but above all what Lewis called “intellectual and aesthetic activity.” The critic Wesley Morris wrote a much-discussed New York Times Magazine essay published in October about art as “a battleground for social justice.” “Everything means too much now,” he contended. But my own feeling is the opposite—everything other than politics means too little.
These days we divide our cultural consumption into two categories. There is escapist entertainment, the value of which lies precisely in its ultimate insignificance, serving as a kind of release valve for the pressure of our day-to-day lives. Then there are cultural objects that matter because they advance a political argument. When people complain about the politicization of culture, what they mostly mean is that things that had once stood comfortably in category one—late-night TV, football, the Oscars—are increasingly migrating to category two. People seem to have entirely forgotten a third category: culture that matters for its own sake, culture that enacts “the search for knowledge and beauty.”
Knowledge and beauty; pleasure and delight; the contemplation of truth, irrespective of its instrumental uses; the intimate encounter with another human consciousness offered by the best works of art—these are among the things that make life worth living. If we set them aside until we have made it safely through our present emergency, we will never return to them, because our present emergency will never be through.
I’m a straight, white, American-born man—among the people least personally threatened by Trump’s agenda. For many readers, I know, any argument I make about stepping away from politics will feel callous, even irresponsible. So I want finally to make a political case for disengagement.
What political benefits has the age of hyper-attention actually brought us? It certainly has not improved our political culture, which is as unhealthy as it has been in living memory. Not only did it not prevent Trump’s election, it seems very much to have abetted it. Our demand for a new political story every day was precisely the condition that Trump so cannily exploited. Of course, Trump embodies any number of long-standing American pathologies—xenophobia, misogyny, entitlement, materialism, anti-intellectualism—but only in our climate of twenty-four-hour political engagement could these pathologies take the particular form of a ratings-obsessed reality star whose signature rhetorical gesture is the angry 3 am tweetstorm.
If you’re worried that the election of a populist demagogue with no apparent respect for democratic or constitutional norms has put the United States on the road to fascism, bear in mind the defining feature of totalitarian societies: they are places in which all modes of life are subsumed under the political, in which each citizen’s most important relationship must be his or her relationship to the state. This is why totalitarian governments reliably shut down or take over religious groups, trade unions, and other voluntary associations. The ultimate aim of scaling back our political attention is not apathy but the creation of autonomous space for social, spiritual, and aesthetic experiences. If creeping totalitarianism is your worry, such work is not a form of acquiescence but a form of resistance.