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From “Sources of Life,” which was published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Point. Jackson’s essay “Prayer for a Just War” appeared in the June issue of Harper’s Magazine.

A false theory of culture is worse than a false theory of the heavens. The planets stick to their orbits no matter what we think, but culture becomes what we believe it to be. Conditioned by the prophets of data and nostalgia to imagine nothing that goes beyond the evidence of the past, we forget that people are self-aware and that their actions are shaped by a self-aware culture. Our explanations are not independent of our behavior but constitutive of it. Our cults of thinking become our culture.

Every conscious decision we make—even simply to pause or reflect, to question our emotional reflexes—corrects a culture bent on unleashing our most primitive and destructive energies. But it is extremely difficult to make conscious choices amid systems and technologies that tax our forbearance and reward our worst impulses. The machines we carry on our persons do everything to interrupt and foil us. In the limbic fog of our overstimulated brains, it can be hard to see that we are not, in fact, rats in a cage. We can fortify our spirits, touch base with our better angels, hold tight to our noblest principles—yet half an hour on Twitter or YouTube may still reduce us to an exposed nerve, pulsing with a rage born of fear, a sense of vagrant and ubiquitous threats.

A feedback cycle drifts into a doom loop. Day by day, we create a culture in line with what we have been told the culture is like.

The dominant characteristic of the culture that emerges from people taking the social temperature and tailoring their behavior accordingly is that it is relentlessly public. This has been the culture of the forced confession and the show trial, of witch-hunting and red-baiting. Today, media and social media organize our conformity. Calculated self-presentation dominates. Private truth, the truth of the complex and contradictory heart, has nowhere to surface, and this private sphere, which is home to originality, conscience, and self-understanding, begins to wither and die.

Great tracts of culture, notably the arts, arise to give sanctuary and form to private truth within a public context. They maintain a bridge between personal and social convictions—the solitary testimony of the soul and the necessary agreements of the group. This realm of culture helps a person feel less alone in their private experience, which is always partly at odds with, or unacknowledged by, the official story. By awakening people to the legitimacy of their feelings, art gives them confidence that their experience is not an anomalous, lonely event, but something others share in, and that it may be reasonable, therefore, to question the tyranny of public opinion.

Politics’ colonization of culture in contemporary America has greatly damaged this public lifeline to the private psyche. In a Cato Institute survey conducted last summer, 62 percent of Americans reported being afraid to air their views in public. The numbers were highest among conservatives, but a majority of liberals and moderates agreed with the premise as well. Only “strong liberals” still felt comfortable speaking up, although even they had become decidedly more apprehensive since 2017. The consistent surprise that as many people seem to like Donald Trump as actually do—his routine outperformance of polls and forecasts—is the sort of thing one might expect in an environment where people are hesitant to express themselves in public. But we may each measure for ourselves the toleration of our beliefs by judging how often we wonder in our hearts whether stating them in public is perilous. Where, when public opinion rules, does private truth find an outlet?

Michelle Goldberg reminded us late last year that in the first days after Trump’s election some believed that the new political atmosphere would energize the arts. She quotes the art critic Jerry Saltz, who wrote, “In times of artistic alienation, distress is often repaid to us in the form of great work, much of it galvanizing or clarifying or (believe it or not) empowering.” He predicted that the Trump era would “yield things not yet fathomed or decanted.” Instead, art from this period seemed almost directly decanted from the NPR station playing in the background. Fiction sales declined, Goldberg notes, and political books, many of them about Trump, dominated the bestseller lists. Even the era’s entertainment looked more like reactive political commentaries than original narratives that might take us somewhere new.

Defending art or culture for its own sake may seem trivial, even gratuitous, amid our present crises, but our crises have flowered in the soil of its trivialization. The vacant secular despair that sends us searching for a religious politics—that underwrites the allure of fascism, nationalism, conspiracy theories such as QAnon, and violent fraternal gangs; that makes us long for the escapism of entertainment, narcotics, video games, or for the endless, miserable stimulation of the internet and social media—is precisely what culture of this category is meant to address. There is an absence of meaning and purpose in our lives, and our emptiness is an emptiness that comes from continuing to consume something that resembles nourishment but consists of nothing but fast-burning calories. Serious culture, more than a spiritual balm in dark times or a companion through the grind of life, is a realm in which we learn to take seriously and respect ourselves. Just as important, it is the area in which we develop values, principles, and other metaphysical commitments, which we can then bring back into our personal relationships and professional ethics, into politics, business, science, and citizenship.

Unless we can claw back some sphere of cultural and civic activity from the totalizing force of religious politics, we are unlikely to find venues where we can get outside the rigid struggle of political combat to explore and expand who we are, what we want, and how we relate to one another. In medieval Europe, there was no such thing as nonreligious art or nonreligious politics. We are backsliding.

This has consequences. The most pressing crises of the moment—climate change and the coronavirus pandemic—are natural, not cultural, threats. Their destructive vectors are forces of nature that respond to how we behave but not to what we say. There are no symbolic victories where they are concerned, only practical victories and losses.

Can art help? What proof would we accept? We will never be able to measure the effect of nurturing deep, private capacities within ourselves, but it may be reasonable to wonder whether the cultivation of such capacities—like the substance, texture, and beauty of daily life—is not in fact the core input in evaluating political progress. How a society spends its resources teaches its people what it values. During the same era that Americans went to the moon, helped defeat Nazism, dismantled Jim Crow, and built the interstate highways, we also paid artists to expand the depth and beauty of our institutions and educated millions on the G.I. Bill. Marilynne Robinson describes the dwindling tradition that exposed our students to “high thought and great art, along with chemistry and engineering,” and she remarks, reflecting on the meaning of our public universities, that “all those arches and spires induce the belief in undergraduates that they have a dignified place in human history, something better than collaborating in the blind creep of a material culture that values only itself.”

Art, unlike religion, does not ask us to be better than we are, or more than we are; it asks instead only that we understand ourselves, and then, from the evidence of this understanding, it points us “toward sources of life,” as Saul Bellow writes.

For we need not argue with what effortlessly moves us, what plunges by the guidelights of the imagination to our psychic commons, wherein the falsity of public words—that tell us we cannot know each other, or be known—dissolves like dust in crystal streams. Art’s power rises from the vulnerability and risk not just of diving into such water but of returning to the surface with what one discovers. It is a braver act than we often acknowledge, but we are grateful for it in solitary moments. We rejoice to learn of a force that is opposed to slogans and chants, the simplifications of power and the obloquy of bullies. Despair unknots in this faint, warm current, this intimation that we can be unbound from within. We must be told, and told again, that the world reserves a place for our authentic private selves.

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