When I was a teenager, I joined the political left because I understood it, in that era of the religious right’s now-almost-forgotten hegemony, to be the side that stood for freedom of thought and speech. I was warned by several older people that this was not the case, but with the certitude that can only come from youthful inexperience, I did not listen. 15 years ago, depressed and afraid, I wrote all day on Livejournal (remember that?) about how George W. Bush was going to put us in prison camps and had done 9/11 and would start a nuclear war, about how both climate change and peak oil (remember that?) would end the world within the decade, and about how only proletarian and Third-World revolution would save us.
It only took a year or two, and professional acquaintance with some fellow travelers of this creed, to show me how wrong I was about its reliability as a guide to both facts and ethics. Apocalypticism is always a racket; dystopia is an abuse of the speculative intellect, a genre fit for children, and perhaps not even for them. And if the world ends, you can’t do anything about it anyway. Chekhov said that artists should only participate in politics only enough to keep themselves safe from politics. We need to cultivate our gardens, after we secure our right to them in the first place. The autonomy of art is not incidental to secular freedom but its bedrock. It is logically, because politically, prior to almost every other right. The enslaved were not permitted to read; freedom of speech, thought, and art grounds and founds every other freedom.
…Anyone who speaks of morality while controlling or harming others does the devil’s work. It might even be true, sometimes I suspect it is, that anyone who speaks of morality ever, at all, instead of silently doing all the good that can be managed in this crooked world, is the devil’s assistant.
It was much easier to consider oneself a liberal in those days. As we entered adulthood, we were able to get away with defining ourselves negatively — against bigotry, against organized religion, against greed and war and pollution and other bad things. Against censorship too, of course. Religious conservatives were the self-righteous hypocrites who wanted to bowdlerize books and music and prevent the kids in Footloose from dancing; we were all about the liberation of individuals from intellectual and social restraints. Within a couple decades, though, in one of those twists of fate that make a mockery out of Whiggish notions of linear progression in history, everything went topsy-turvy. Racial segregation, political censorship of art and popular culture, and moral panics over sexuality came back into favor as cutting-edge progressive positions. A liberal Rip Van Winkle closed his eyes in 1995 and awakened in 2015 to find that he was now a conservative, if not a Nazi, which was basically the same thing. In a paradox of political physics, it turns out that you can traverse the spectrum from left to right by simply standing firm on certain principles.
Thomas Jefferson famously thought that the tree of liberty needed to be refreshed every twenty years or so with the blood of patriots and tyrants. Chekhov’s delicate balancing act isn’t quite as romantically stirring, but it’s more necessary. There may not be actual wars every generation, but the same stupid ideas and impulses will have to be repulsed again and again. Taoists warned us centuries ago that people who seek power ought not be trusted with it, but we’re still willing to envision career politicians as secular saviors. Scripture reminds us that true morality never seeks to call attention to itself, but our cultural discourse is dominated by transparent virtue-signaling. Out of ignorance, resentment, or simple boredom, people forget that a society in which politics has the power to tap you on the shoulder or knock on your door is not one any sane person should want to live in, and they redouble their efforts to fuse the personal with the political. The cosmetic details will keep cycling in and out of fashion, but the true resistance will always be waged by the devotees of art’s deeper truths against the political monomaniacs. To the extent that we must temporarily participate in politics for self-defense, we can only hope that the spirit of Cincinnatus watches over and protects us from the temptations and delusions of power.