Reading Great Books Can Help Stop Political Polarization

Michael Lucchese

Over the past few weeks, the American people reacted to news from Washington — from the firing of James Comey to the investigations into the Trump campaign’s alleged connections to Russia — in an utterly polarized way. Pundits on both the left and the right have spent ages hurling the worst insults and accusations at each other, and tensions in Washington are higher now than at any time since the Watergate scandal.

Meanwhile, many ordinary Americans across the country despair at the state of politics. The American people elected Donald Trump to “shake things up” in Washington, and all his administration has given them is constant scandal, controversy, and gaffes.

That’s not to say that Donald Trump is the root of Washington’s problems. Really, our country has become increasingly polarized since the end of the Cold War. In a 1985 speech, “The Courage to Affirm,” Russell Kirk, summarized the problem of polarization  by saying, “Those who immerse themselves in the mere process of [each] month’s events become the prisoners of time and circumstance.

Instead of looking to the ever-shifting currents of politicking in Washington, Americans should turn to the permanent, unchanging “self-evident truths” about human nature. These truths are best articulated in great novels, poems, and plays by authors through history, not in the nightly news or by bombastic radio hosts.

William Faulkner is perhaps one of America’s best contributions to the ranks of those great authors. When he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, Faulkner gave a speech about the role of literature in solving this crisis of “time and circumstance” Kirk described.

“[The great writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid,” Faulkner said, “and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed — love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

For Faulkner, writing and reading great literature is first and foremost an act of empathy. In what is perhaps his greatest novel, “The Sound and the Fury,” Faulkner narrates the story of the fractured Compson family through the thoughts of a mentally handicapped man, his suicidal brother, and an alcoholic embezzler. Though these narrators are often difficult to understand, even the attempt to read their streams-of-consciousness stretches the moral imagination — that uniquely human ability to view men as something more than a means to an end, to view men as beings with a transcendent spiritual nature.

Surely political opponents are not more difficult to understand than Faulkner’s characters. By applying the same kind of empathy reading literature inculcates, we can reclaim the sentiment that citizen is a kind of friendship and move past partisan squabbles.   

On top of that, Faulkner’s fiction — and other great books, from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to William Shakespeare’s plays — can help readers contemplate the fundamentally moral nature of human life.

We may despair at the pundits screaming disingenuous misconceptions and dishonest allegations at each other on cable news shows. But, when Americans realize that the true purpose of politics is the protection of that common humanity, they can coalesce around the common principles — the permanent things — that make this country great.

In his Nobel speech, Faulkner went on to say that “The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these [permanent] things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

Making America great again doesn’t start with slamming the opposition or snarky quips at the expense of the other side. It starts with humane discussion and calm deliberation. So, instead of spending hours scrolling through Twitter or passively sitting in front of those dueling talking heads on the television screen, pick up a novel or read a poem.

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