JFK said, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses,” and he said it right to me.
He’d come to my college to break ground for the Robert Frost Library, and spoke to a small crowd (because ours was a small college) of us students and faculty. To honor Frost, who’d graced his inauguration with a poem, President Kennedy traveled to western Massachusetts, and it was one of his last public appearances.
It wasn’t televised or publicized beyond our campus. As a college sophomore, I felt proud that America had elected such a man, a deep thinker, a moving speaker; an advocate for the higher achievements of humanity, who spoke to us as his intellectual equals, in post-graduate-level words. Three weeks later, when the news came from Dallas, I was horrified.
The fuller context of Kennedy’s statement was, “When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the area of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
William Carlos Williams, poet and physician (!) wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”
What a profound idea, prescient and relevant to these times. Men die for lack of truths that can be found in poetry. The same can be said of great fiction, art and cinema. A society that stops valuing — or worse, suppresses — words of truth, words that challenge or defy or change perspective, is in danger of losing its history and its soul. It becomes the depleted soil in which despotism takes root.
This is not to say that the arts are the foremost bulwark against the sort of authoritarianism we see emerging from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. That would be a free and adversarial press, and education. But writers and artists have, in times ancient and modern, had the effect of prying minds and hearts open. In America, Sandburg, Whitman, Frost, Lowell, Dickenson, Eliot, cautioning us to remember what America is, what humanity is. Whether from poets or press, we need to hear those words.
To understand this is to understand why Donald Trump and his fellow autocrats intend to defund the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Representing 0.02 percent of the federal budget, it’s not about saving money. As it is with his attacks on the press, efforts to make Fox “news” the only accepted broadcast source (Fox “news” was the “intelligence” source for his insane accusation of crime by President Obama), his labeling unpleasant facts “fake,” and his hiring of an enemy of public education to dismantle public education, it’s about a deliberate effort to discredit the means to recognize, understand and challenge his subversions of American values.
If his planned extermination of government sources succeeds, poets, writers and artists might become the only remaining begetters of truth. And they’re being stopped at our borders. Even Americans are questioned about why they’d been invited to exhibits out of country.
Were Donald Trump less immature and less unstable, he might already have pulled off his coup against the Constitution. Happily, he trips nearly every step of the way, and Congressional Republicans are discovering legislating is harder than blocking. But they’ll keep trying. “Lack of truths found in poetry” could be the motto of this administration.
As a language student I toured the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Ugly, propagandistic “Soviet Realism” was the only artwork allowed. As I watched, an abstract artist I met in Leningrad got hauled off by the police; I’m no longer certain it can’t happen here, as Trump’s supporters excuse his attacks, or look the other way.
There’s worse happening than defunding the arts, but they’re a disproportionately important part of the institutional memory and protections being systematically destroyed.
Bannon/Trump aren’t stopping with the small stuff. To pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and for even more defense spending, their budget includes massive shrinking of the Environmental Protection Agency and State Department, science research, even legal services for the poor, effectively ending America’s moral primacy in the world.
We’re on our way to becoming an intellectual, cultural and literal wasteland.
Email Sid Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org.