Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Culture As Narcotic?

The founder of an arts journal thinks it might be, at least in America today:

By the time you read this, assuming Congress has approved the proposed Bush military budget, the U.S. will be spending more money on its military than all of the other countries in the world combined. Let that sink in for a moment. Think about all of the guns and bombs and jet fighters and missiles and satellite-mounted lasers we are creating to be used in some near-future theater of horror. The only good news is that the Pentagon is prey to graft and fraud on an incomprehensible scale—$2.3 trillion missing in the year 1999 alone, according to a recent CBS news story. The thievery doesn’t obscure the fact that our society has become a terrifying war machine. For more than a decade, I have been an editor of this literary magazine. Right now, I think we are in a situation where culture—at least the essentially apolitical culture we have promoted and practiced in the last few decades—has simply ceased to matter. Have we reached a point where novels, poems, films, and art works have become pointless decorations as we skate toward the edge of the abyss? By pretending that our culture still matters when the world’s fate is at stake, are we lying to ourselves? Are we simply narcotizing ourselves with narrative, avoiding the need for committed action in the world? Should we recognize that Arundhati Roy—the Indian novelist recently imprisoned by the Indian Supreme Court for speaking out against her government—was not only speaking about India but also about America today when she wrote: "After all, we don’t want to be like good middle-class Germans in the 1930s, who drove their children to piano classes and never noticed the concentration camps springing up around them—or do we?" I know this sounds like an extremist position—and a rather ironic one for the founder of an art and literary journal—but personally I think it is the case. (In writing this, I do not speak for the other editors of Open City, only for myself.) From my own perspective, until our society has reckoned with the destructive forces we are unleashing around the world, as well as the forces of internal repression that threaten to disable the possibility of dissent itself, our "culture" has no validity, no meaning, no substance. If anything, it has become an inoculation against conscience. By indulging in it, we are wasting what little time we may have left. A mass subversion of our government and our most vital rights has taken place before our eyes. Those of us who belong to the intelligentsia and contribute to the mainstream media have, for the most part, been eerily silent and unquestioning before this onslaught. In the wake of the September 11 attack, we have allowed a thick atmosphere of anxiety, a dreamlike torpor, to settle over us and obscure the extremely dangerous realities of our present situation. It is time to wake up from the dream.
Culture doesn't have to be a narcotic. In the 1960s, it was a call to action. But that's not what gets the grants from the trust funds.

So philanthropic rich people don't want the system to change. Color me shocked.
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