Transcript: George Packer
My interview with the acclaimed author and journalist
In times of crisis, artists often feel the need to take a stand, to engage in activism. But my guest on this week’s program says we should recognize that art and politics have very different agendas. “These are different realms,” he writes, “and the values of one can be inhospitable — even deadly — to the values of the other.”
George Packer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, and the author of ten books. His latest essay is “Why Activism Leads To So Much Bad Writing.”
This is an edited transcript for paid subscribers. You can listen to the interview for free here.
TH: George, welcome to Lean Out.
GP: It's good to be here. Thanks for having me, Tara.
TH: Very nice to have you on. I'm really looking forward to discussing your recent Atlantic piece, which helped me think through some issues in our culture that have puzzled me for some time. But before we get to that, George, I want to thank you. This is not the first time that your work has helped me. You were one of the authors of the Harper's letter, a statement on open debate signed by prominent writers. When it came out, the big criticism was that this was cultural elites defending their own dominance. I have to say: It did not feel like that to me, as a rank-and-file journalist in a large media organization. It felt to me like you were doing for us what we couldn't do for ourselves at that time. So, thank you for that.
GP: That's how we saw it too. We weren't aware of ourselves as being elites of any kind. We were just a group of people who were worried about the direction the culture was going in, especially in the summer of 2020. A kind of witch-hunt fever had taken over some of our cultural institutions. I think you're right, we did it for everyone who felt threatened by a climate of intolerance and hostility to speech. And we heard from people afterward who didn't feel they could speak up, or use their names, but who wanted us to know that we had helped them and they appreciated it.
TH: The response to the letter was intense. What did you learn from the response?
GP: I learned that we had no idea how bad it had gotten until the letter came out. That letter, Tara — your listeners can go back and look at it. It'll take them a minute to read. It was almost anodyne. It was so mild in its defense of what we all thought were basic principles of a liberal society. That you have to be able to listen to people you don't agree with. That you have to be able to answer them and get into a discussion and an argument with them, in which you genuinely talk to each other and don't try to shut it down. You have to have an atmosphere in which people can take risks and can say things that might be unpopular without fear of the end of their career. There were positive responses. But the main response was negative. In some cases, hostile. To the point that we became the ‘notorious Harper's letter’ and the ‘infamous Harper's letter.’
There are people who still refer to it that way — as if it had become instantly a pariah letter. As if we had taken aim at justice and equality and virtue, and all the things that right-minded people want. When, in fact, we were saying you can't defend those things without an atmosphere of open debate. It was a shock to me how hostile the response was in some quarters. The degree of rage and contempt was off the charts. It told me that we, in this mild attempt to speak up for liberal values, had really hit a nerve. We found out just how unpopular liberal values had become in some quarters.
TH: I want to move on, now, to talking about how this all applies to your latest piece in The Atlantic, “Why Activism Leads To So Much Bad Writing.” This is something that I've been thinking about a lot, watching Canadian literature become very dull and dogmatic in recent years. I've really struggled to understand how this happened. So, you raised several pressing issues in this essay. The first of which, as you put it, is that “You can't claim to support freedom of expression if you won't extend it to speech you detest.” There have been charges of hypocrisy from the free speech, anti-cancellation crowd in recent weeks, with the clamp down on pro-Palestinian speech. This is something you address in this essay. Are these charges fair?
GP: I think probably for some individuals, they are fair. There are people who probably don't mind seeing student groups banned and speakers disinvited because they are taking a strongly pro-Palestinian line. But I would answer that, first of all, quite a few signers of the Harper's letter very quickly defended the right of, for example, a Palestinian writer to receive a prize that had already been awarded to her in Germany. Or, of a Vietnamese American writer to be allowed to speak at a Jewish cultural institution in New York where he'd been invited. You can't have it both ways. As that writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and others want to have it both ways. They were hostile to the Harper's letter and now they're hostile to the atmosphere of suppression that has come about because of the Hamas attack in Israel. So, your commitment to these values is really only tested when something you truly dislike is at stake.
That's when you have to say, “I really don't want to hear it, but I know that I have to hear it. And then I'll answer it.” So, hypocrisy is on all sides of this issue. As I said in the essay, it's partly due to the fact that everyone feels they have to say something all the time about every issue. Because everyone now has a microphone.
But having to say something means there will be times when you don't say something, or you don't want to say something. Then you'll be accused of not caring if Afghan refugees are forced back from Pakistan into Afghanistan. Or not caring about massacres in Darfur. Because you didn't say anything about them. To me, the answer is probably just not to say something all the time. Not to think that you're a local government, or a public relations firm, that has to keep issuing statements. Once you do start, then you kind of have to care about the whole world. And we're not cut out that way. So, we're sort of all hypocrites when it comes to other people's tragedies.
TH: You argue in the essay that writers and artists may be the last people to turn to for wisdom in a crisis. And that artistic and political values are not the same — in some ways, they're opposed, and mixing them can corrupt both. Walk me through your thinking on that point.
GP: I don't mean that art and politics have nothing, and should have nothing, to do with each other. That would be a nihilistic position, or a weird art for art's sake purism, which I don't hold for a second. My favorite literature is the literature of politics. It's Dostoevsky, it's Conrad, it's Doris Lessing, it's V. S. Naipaul. What I'm saying is that if you think that your political values are going to lead you to good art because they are the right values, or if you think that your artistic ability is going to lead you to the right politics because you care and have talent in creative work — that's a mistake. Because they actually pull in other directions. In opposite directions, in some ways. Art requires you to be relentlessly honest about yourself, to see everything about yourself and others that is important and needs representation. And that might take you far away from the political values that you hold dear. Because the world is messy, complicated, in some ways perverse and tragic.
At the same time, politics requires you to join with others who may be pulling you in directions that you don't completely agree with. It requires you to make compromises. It requires you, in some ways, to be dishonest. Because if you tell the truth entirely about everything, you are going to alienate people and sabotage your own cause. Politics is basically a dirty business. I mean, look at the way in which Israel and Hamas are being defended on both sides of that war. It's almost impossible, it seems, for their defenders to tell the truth, the whole truth, about that war. Because to do so is to subvert your own cause. That is fatal for an artist. Because once an artist starts to lie to him or herself, as well as to others, the art itself becomes corrupted. And eventually, I think even the creative impulse dies.
So, they're not the same. That is not to say that politics has no place in art. Because art is about human life and politics is a huge part of human life. Some of the great works of art are political. But they are not a party line. They are not a defence — simple and pure — of a cause.
Once political ideas enter the lives of your characters as a creative writer, they take on a life of their own. They are transformed by that contact with life into something that is higher and deeper than sheer politics. And it might even be, in the end, opposed to the line that you wanted to put forward. If you're being honest, it might take you in a direction that goes against your own political values. It sounds perverse, but I think that a real artist knows that that kind of commitment to truth is not necessarily going to be compatible with a commitment to political righteousness.
TH: It's interesting. Looking at the pushback to the piece online, it struck me that there was somewhat of a generational divide there. The next generation — younger than us — feels more invested in this idea of art's purpose being to bring about greater good. I wonder, do you think that characterization is fair? Do you think this is partly generational?