Dear SMPA Students,
The generation to which I belong was born into a world devoid of certainty for anyone possessed of both an intellect and a heart. The destructive work of previous generations meant that the world into which we were born had no security to offer us as regards to religion, no anchor as regards to morality, no stability as regards to politics.
Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 1917
A couple of weeks ago, I read Joan Didion’s collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and I’m most of the way through her novel A Book of Common Prayer. Didion is the latest in a growing list of authors I wish I’d read sooner. Her writing is concise, clear, and merciless. As one reviewer of her 2002 collection of essays Political Fictions wrote, “Didion puts the prose of her novels through the Hemingway juicer and then meticulously arranges the dry pulp.”
Didion opens Slouching Towards Bethlemen writing:
It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the year 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high, and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose, and it might have been a year of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.
A short step to the winter of 2023.
This year hasn’t been easy, and next year is probably going to be harder. Social trust is under attack. The leading Republican candidate for president (who also leads in many general election polls) tried to overthrow the US government, recently said he would be a dictator “on day one” and that undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.” One of his leading supporters in the US House said space lasers funded by the Rothschilds started wildfires in California. Congress left town with no clear path to funding the US government. The conflict in Gaza is escalating, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues. 2023 will likely be the warmest year on record. Things seem pretty dire, mostly because they are.
You are here in the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University because you think you can make things better. For whatever it’s worth, I agree with you.
Which is why I encourage you to spend some time reading things that probably aren’t on an SMPA syllabus.
Like a lot of you, I start my day reading the New York Times morning email, listening to NPR and checking out Punchbowl News. The information is useful, the insights often interesting, and many of the journalists and sources are your former colleagues and current professors. You will then (hopefully) turn to class readings - ideas with which your professors want you to wrestle, information we want you to consume, shared foundations for class discussions we want you to have.
This winter break, and as time allows during the semester, I encourage you to do something else. Go beyond the syllabus to read well written things, ideally about troubling times and tragedy. By “good” I don’t mean “competently written, reasonably argued and adequately sourced.” I mean writing that is surprising, that helps you see old ideas in new ways or new ideas in old ways, writing that tilts the mirror a little bit so you see the same, differently. Read what Richard Rorty called “strong poets” (an idea to which I will return to in a moment).
Good writing helps you see the world differently and can put the world in a broader context. It helps you better understand where you are, and where it is possible to go. Good writing helps you feel as well as learn. Reading good writing also makes you a better writer.
My bookshelves are full of such writing, mostly by authors I should have read sooner. I expect to have to buy more bookshelves for all of the other authors who should also be on that list. Untouched and dusty on my bedside table is an acclaimed biography of William Randolph Hearst. I should probably read that, too. But I probably won’t. Instead I will read more Didion.
In a few weeks, Didion will sit next to John Dos Passos on my bookshelf, another author I’m angry no one made me read earlier (I’m not sure at whom I’m angry, but someone should have flagged this guy for me sooner). Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy may be among the best ways to see 2023, and it is certainly among the best written. At the height of the COVID lockdown, Jennifer Schaffer called the trilogy “...a clattering 1,184-page portrait of a nation in perpetual crisis, reckoning with war, precarity, economic upheaval, cavernous political divisions, capitalism’s parasitic expansion, and the thwarted rise of American social democracy.” The books in the trilogy were published in 1930, 1932, and 1936.
If you don’t want to tackle Dos Passos’ 1,184 pages, sit with Clint Smith’s new poetry collection, Above Ground. Start with Your National Anthem and The Gun. Smith’s poems talk about the promise and peril of life in 2023 for a parent, for a Black man raising a Black son, and for all of us sharing our moment. Smith’s simple juxtaposition in The Gun makes that which has become obscenely ordinary, jarring.
Then sit with Langston Hughes’ Let America Be America Again, a poem that Senator Cory Booker recited off the top of his head during his conversation with Frank Sesno earlier this fall. Hughes expresses the base unfairness and cruelty that has prevented America from fulfilling its promise, and then holds up that promise as worth pursuing in ways that make me feel differently than news reports or narrative history ever could.
As some of you know, I’m a big fan of the American pragmatic philosopher Richard Rorty. In Contingency of Community, Rorty writes, “the heroes of liberal society are the strong poet and the utopian revolutionary.” They are people who help us see differently, they mirror to a slightly different angle. Strong poets don’t help us see transcendent truth - Rorty wasn’t a fan of that pursuit, writing “the universe isn’t trying to tell us anything” - but rather they help us see our lives and possibilities in new ways. It is worth noting that Rorty ended his career not in a philosophy department, but in the comparative literature department at Stanford.
Rorty draws heavily from Walt Whitman in his 1999 political warning Achieving Our Country. The Poetry Foundation called Whitman “America’s world poet – a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare.” For Rorty, Whitmans was a “prophet” of civil religion. Whitman’s poetry told a story about America, to America. It wasn’t didactic, had no footnotes, and there were no data. There were only views into an idea and an ideal that was a poetic telling of itself. Whitman was a political philosopher, who wrote poetry.
The above accounting is partial, and my list is wildly incomplete. And your list need not be my list. I would prefer it if it weren't. I would love your ideas about what I should add to my pile (thank you to those of you who have already made recommendations - Read Dangerously: The subversive power of literature in troubled times and Pablo Naruda on the Spanish Civil War are joining my pile).
America will not be “America again…the dream it used to be…” (Hughes) solely on the back of SMPA Terker Fellow Jonathan Karl’s new book or the dead-tree doom scrolling that is The Alantic. It will take strong poets and utopian revolutionaries. It will take you.
So for a couple days, ignore The Hill and Politico, ignore the talking heads and pundits (apologies to all of the SMPA alumni who are talking heads, journalists and pundits - it’s only for a few days), and pick up beautiful writing about terrible times.
Have a restful break.
Director, School of Media and Public Affairs