As a trained philosopher who also happens to love reading what used to be called “Great Books” — but which are lately dismissed by much of the academic community as the works of “Dead, White, European Males” — I would like to make the case for reading works of fiction written by exceptional writers, such as Barbara Kingsolver (who is not D.,E., or M.). I have mentioned her before because she has the ability to write fascinating stories that have deep and important messages beneath the surface. Thus, they are not just tales, they are also food for serious thought. I have mentioned her name before and dare say I will mention it again, but at this time I would like to focus attention on a brief exchange between the writer-hero of her brilliant novel The Lacuna and his lawyer as the F.B.I. hovers in the background ready to arrest the writer for subversion. The time period follows the second world war when Stalin went from being our ally to being Satan incarnate, the “Cold War,” the period of the so-called “House Un-American Committee.” The year is 1948 and our hero’s lawyer is speaking:
“What these men are doing could become permanent.”
“What do you mean?”
Suddenly he looked weary. “You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to menition it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified. . . . .”
“I’m an old man, I’ve seen a lot. But what these men are doing is putting poison on the grass. It kills the crabgrass all right, and then you have a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time. Maybe forever.”
Now, of course, the lawyer is speaking of folks like Martin Dies, J. Parnell Thomas, and later Joe McCarthy who many of us have forgotten or would like to have forgotten, men who assaulted Civil Rights and the First Amendment in the name of “Anti-Communism.” But events did evolve as the lawyer says, precisely, ” . . . . a lot of dead stuff out there for a very long time.” Countless decent men and women were brought to heel by frightened, small-minded, ambitious men in positions of power who were convinced that anyone who ever had shown any interest in, much less sympathy for, Communism or who spoke out for, say, Negro rights, or women’s rights, or may have read Karl Marx, were ipso facto Communists. And, despite the fact that no one really knew what Communism really was, thousands were scared silly — many of whom were literally destroyed by what was, in effect, a witch hunt.
Those days are over, one would think. But what about the other insidious elements in our culture that are designed to silence criticism and label the dissenter as an enemy, who fear words like “socialism” or “Muslim”? Those elements are more subtle in their tactics, but, at the risk of sounding somewhat paranoid, they are nearly as effective as the House Un-American Committee at silencing critics. In 1950 a writer dare not write anything favorable about Communism or the Soviet Union; today a writer dare not write anything that is not politically correct or pro-America. In either case, the written (and spoken) word is censored.
There seems to me to be a good deal of “poisoning of the grass” going on all around us. Does anyone seriously deny, for example, that the propaganda machine has gone into high gear as the DOD pays sports teams millions of our tax dollars to convince us that those among us wearing camouflage (and not at the moment hunting deer) are all, without exception, “heroes”? Does anyone in this culture today dare to suggest publicly that the wars these people are fighting are concocted by the government to protect monied interests? Does anyone dare to suggest the possibility that by invading Iraq for no good reason our nation gave powerful impetus to IS? Does anyone dare to suggest (other than on blogs that no one reads) that our democracy is “broken”and that the monied interests in this country will henceforth be calling all the shots? Recall the words of Voltaire: “To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” Are we not, slowly and quietly, being “forced to stop asking questions”?
Let’s hope I exaggerate. But let us never stop asking questions — or reading thought-provoking fiction that has at its center profound truth.