Twenty years ago I posted an essay online talking about some of the changes that I saw taking place in the production of culture. One such change was the increasing disposability of art, which went along with something I found even more damaging: the loss of belief in any sort of cultural posterity. Here’s part of what I said:
I think the consciousness of disposability is something new. In my opinion it is the most profound change that has taken place in writing in the past century, and cannot be overestimated.
In Shakespeare’s day, even if you weren’t Shakespeare, you might still think that your sonnets would last forever. For Keats the desire to be counted “among the English poets” may have been a dreamy notion, but it was also a perfectly valid goal. It meant that you were intent upon entering a pantheon of immortals. And even in the first half of the twentieth century there was still a firm belief that art was, in some meaningful way, eternal. Ezra Pound could rail against what “the age demanded,” but only because he had confidence that his work would be among what remained. That was part of what being a classic meant.
That has all been lost. Put simply, and without any qualification, no author writing today has any belief that their work will survive. I’m not saying that no literary work will survive: that is a determination hinging on various factors outside of this survey. I don’t even know if the planet is going to survive. What I am saying is that no writer, however noble their intentions or committed their aims, has any belief that what they are creating is going to last.
That was a grim take, I’ll admit, but I was thinking about that essay again this week when I came across a story in the Huffington Post on Republican responses to how they think their defence of President Trump will be judged by history. The takeaway? They’re not concerned at all.
“I don’t care how I’m remembered,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) told HuffPost. “I care that the American people elected this guy president, he’s doing a great job, and [the Democrats] have zero facts on their side to remove this guy from office.”
And if you think Jordan insisting he doesn’t care is just some defense mechanism because he knows it will turn out badly, Jordan will tell you that actually, he hasn’t given any of that “a second’s thought.”
“The first time that even entered my mind was 20 seconds ago when you asked me,” he said.
Jordan’s colleagues expressed much the same indifference (or shamelessness), but at least one went even further:
One of the darkest answers came from Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), a former history teacher himself. Bishop said the idea that history would remember what Republicans do assumes “that we’re going to survive in this country long enough to have a history.”
So much for posterity in politics. It seems the idea of the future has been laid to rest. But Trump’s flunkies are only taking their lead from higher up the food chain. Here, for example, is his Attorney General and Enabler-in-Chief Bill Barr:
Asked by CBS News’ Jan Crawford about concerns over his reputation for defending the president amid ongoing probes into the administration’s alleged ties to the Russian government and claims that Mr. Trump obstructed justice, Barr appeared indifferent.
“I am at the end of my career,” Barr said. “Everyone dies and I am not, you know, I don’t believe in the Homeric idea that you know, immortality comes by, you know, having odes sung about you over the centuries, you know?”
“Everyone dies.” One picks up, again, the odour of a decadent narcissism. Barr isn’t worried about the future because, at the end of his career, he knows he doesn’t have much left. And when he’s dead, why should he care about the judgment of history? In fact, he makes it pretty clear that he doesn’t think there’s going to be any judgment of history. I suspect that, like Rob Bishop, he thinks the whole idea of the U. S. having a history yet to be written a bit of a stretch. And this skepticism goes all the way to the top:
Since the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s aides and advisers have tried to convince him of the importance of tackling the national debt.
Sources close to the president say he has repeatedly shrugged it off, implying that he doesn’t have to worry about the money owed to America’s creditors—currently about $21 trillion—because he won’t be around to shoulder the blame when it becomes even more untenable.
The friction came to a head in early 2017 when senior officials offered Trump charts and graphics laying out the numbers and showing a “hockey stick” spike in the national debt in the not-too-distant future. In response, Trump noted that the data suggested the debt would reach a critical mass only after his possible second term in office.
“Yeah, but I won’t be here,” the president bluntly said, according to a source who was in the room when Trump made this comment during discussions on the debt.
I won’t be here. Everyone dies. I really don’t care, do U?
We should all care. As posterity (the “Homeric idea”) is to culture so progress is to politics. Artists have to believe their work is going to have some kind of afterlife, otherwise they’re just making a cash grab. Politicians have to believe that they are trying to improve things, otherwise they become what Matt Taibbi calls (in reference to the Trump administration) a death cult.
I understand where all this is coming from. Humanity faces a lot of challenges that seem insurmountable. But to give up hope in the future is the short road to doom.
Update, May 9 2020:
When Barr’s Justice Department dropped charges in the case against Michael Flynn CBS News’ Cathrine Herridge engaged Barr as follows:
“When history looks back on this decision, how do you think it will be written?” Barr laughed: “Well, history’s written by the winners. So it largely depends on who’s writing the history.”
That laughter tells you a lot.