In his piece at the New Yorker, Teju Cole laments that something terrible seems to have happened to President Obama, our country’s “reader-in-chief”:
The recently leaked Department of Justice white paper indicating guidelines for the President’s assassination of his fellow Americans has shone a spotlight on these “dirty wars” (as the journalist Jeremy Scahill rightly calls them in his documentary film and book of the same title). The plain fact is that our leaders have been killing at will.
How on earth did this happen to the reader in chief? What became of literature’s vaunted power to inspire empathy? Why was the candidate Obama, in word and in deed, so radically different from the President he became? In Andrei Tarkovsky’s eerie 1979 masterpiece, “Stalker,” the landscape called the Zona has the power to grant people’s deepest wishes, but it can also derange those who traverse it. I wonder if the Presidency is like that: a psychoactive landscape that can madden whomever walks into it, be he inarticulate and incurious, or literary and cosmopolitan.
The idea that the reading of literature is somehow intrinsically ennobling is something I have been fighting against for a long time, but people always find this strange, and invariably, when I have popped off on this subject, someone says “Well, why are you a literature professor, then?”
I could simply say that I find literature immensely interesting both because of its aesthetic qualities and because of the insights it yields into the cultures from which it arises. And that would be enough. But in fact I do believe that literature can have a significant role in a person’s moral and even spiritual development: it just is highly unlikely to have a leading role. It has an ancillary role in character formation: what readers can get from literature largely depends on other, more powerful forces.
For my own part, I find myself agreeing with Cole — and through him with some of the excellent authors he cites — about the transformative potential of literature. As someone who teaches human rights and great works of literature for a living, I have a vested interest in the argument; I very much want it to be the case that literature can be transformative for most of us … even if the upper eschelons of power somehow manage to undo much of the great work that reading can do.
Note, though, that I used the word “potential” in the above paragraph. It isn’t necessarily the case that reading great works of literature will expand one’s moral imagination or that, once expanded, one’s moral imagination will rule the day. In this sense, Jacobs has a point. One could read literature and be inspired to care about others … but only to a point.
This is where my reading of the philosopher Richard Rorty comes in. In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Rorty writes:
Fiction like that of Dickens, Olive Schreiner, or Richard Wright gives us the details about kinds of suffering being endured by people to whom we had previously not attended. Fiction like that of Choderlos de Laclos, Henry James, or Nabokov gives us the details about what sorts of cruelty we ourselves are capable of, and thereby lets us redescribe ourselves.
Rorty here is describing his ideal type, the liberal ironist, who benefits from reading great and challenging works of literature because it enables her to gather as much information as possible about the suffering of others and about the language in which they express their beliefs, fears, and highest hopes. The liberal ironist is an ideal because she not only “faces up to the contingency of … her own most central beliefs and desires [but also] include[s] among these ungroundable desires [her] own hope that suffering will be diminished, that the humiliation of human beings by other human beings may cease” (xv).
The trouble for President Obama, for Cole, and for me is that we are liberals, insofar as we care about minimizing the suffering of others, but we are not ironists, at least not publicly. Indeed, Rorty’s ideal of liberal irony is fundamentally a private one rather than a public one; he writes, “I cannot go on to claim that there could or ought to be a cuture whose public rhetoric is ironist. I cannot imagine a culture which socialized its youth in such a way as to make them continually dubious about their own process of socialization” (87).
As Cole notes, “Any President’s gravest responsibilities are defending the Constitution and keeping the country safe.” He goes on to ask, “What makes certain Somali, Pakistani, Yemeni, and American people of so little account that even after killing them, the United States disavows all knowledge of their deaths?” The answer, of course, is that these people are perceived as threats to American citizens and to the United States, as standing directly in the path of “keeping the country safe.” It’s the point at which our private ironism that allows us to see the problems with this way of thinking runs headlong into the necessity for us to be publicly unironic about things like security and thus to think of ourselves different from those who might harm us.
Of course, we don’t know whether or not President Obama is at war with himself about these drones strikes, but it’s certainly important for me to imagine that he is, that he is deeply disturbed by them or at the very least that he doesn’t undertake them lightly. This allows me to cling to the image of Obama as our deeply-conflicted reader-in-chief, someone who cares about the suffering of others because he has read “the sort of long, sad, sentimental story that begins, ‘Because this is what it is like to be in her situation – to be far from home, among strangers,’ or ‘Because she might become your daughter-in-law,’ or ‘Because her mother would grieve for her’” (185).
Whether or not Obama is conflicted, ultimately, doesn’t much matter for the people whose deaths he has ordered or for those who were merely nearby. But I think it does matter a great deal for us. This isn’t, after all, really a debate about the transformative potential of literature; it’s a debate about our public beliefs and opinions with regard to the suffering of those who are different from us and who might (but also might not) threaten us in some way. We must ask ourselves, how we will treat those people and how our thoughts on the matter reflect our understanding of ourselves as political liberals.