This question comes from a reader responding to something I wrote in an essay, Find the Bigotry, published in Re-Imagining late last year. That essay offers my take on “woke” culture. The reader is responding to my claim that books surviving over the centuries commonly critique the powerful in their own time periods.
Before I get into a detailed answer, I need to stress that all writing resists something, if even a reader’s basic unawareness. However, that doesn’t make it good or bad. Manuals for things like leaf blowers resist those who don’t know how leaf blowers work.
These days, we think of resistance as a political and sociological force standing in opposition to disinformation, the harvesting of fear and bigotry for political and economic gain, and the dismantling of civility and culture. I feel, as I tried to communicate in Find the Bigotry, that we should work to oppose all propaganda, and all efforts to destabilize communication. Fascist propaganda is not the only type of discourse guilty of destabilization, though it’s particularly dangerous. As I argue in Relief by Execution, my memoir, the most dangerous kind of disinformation denies atrocity or responsibility.
Obviously, in order to have propaganda or disinformation, you need writers (or “content providers”) to compose it. If our definition of good writing is writing that seduces the audience to belief or action, then propaganda is good writing. It’s certainly more effective, and more seductive, judging by its appeal, than is writing that provokes introspection.
Frankly, I’ve lost interest in whether or not writing is good. I’m interested in whether or not the writing is trying to aid our survival. I don’t think writing does this by pointing fingers at “the bad people” as it tries to elevate itself somehow. We are destroying ourselves by shopping and sitting in traffic.
Most important: artists aren’t noble by default. Take the photos of musicians I’m including below. I know plenty of people who’d elevate classical music over American folk, though in this case I’ll take Woody Guthrie over the Vienna Philharmonic.
Of course, Guthrie’s machine did not kill fascists. In his hands, it offered a counter-narrative. In someone else’s, it could incite loathing. In order for it to do one thing or another, it requires a listener to draw conclusions or take actions.
As far as writing goes, if there’s good resistance, it rests with the reader. Without a reader, writing doesn’t exist.