“Where have all the good writers gone?” It is a lament I have, often followed by “—and where are all the real journalists? Not professional ill-informed opinion holders but the great minds of old who still have that undying spark that lights the bonfire of knowledge. Curiosity.”
Good writing captures a moment in time, crystallizes or laminates it for the rest of us to manipulate without damaging the original as we handle it, turning it over and over as we examine the front and the back and upside down and from the top view. Good writing seizes upon our imaginations of what is going on and then takes us deep; allowing us to feel and then experience as we learn and find that one sacred fulcrum upon which our humanity pirouettes, empathy.
Who of us could really imagine the horror of Syria’s civil war if we have not read in 2012 Amal Hanano’s (pen name for Lina Sergie Attar) “The land of topless minarets and headless little girls”. During war, we learn to look at our cities in fragments, each scene uncovering a part of ourselves we did not know, or pretended not to know. Every day we are forced to confront the ugly parts of ourselves that we naively thought belonged only to other people. For only other people would kill each other; only other people would bomb buildings occupied by innocent families; only other people would loot and rape; and only other people would slaughter a child. Or how could we come to understand the election of Donald J. Trump without having in 2016 read “The Flight 93 Election” by Publius Decius Mus (pen name for Michael Anton). Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?
In 1994 Robert Kaplan told us about “The Coming Anarchy”, what lay just over the euphoria of victory if we refused to see and address the fissures in our new post-communist world of one superpower. In cities in six West African countries I saw similar young men everywhere—hordes of them. They were like loose molecules in a very unstable social fluid, a fluid that was clearly on the verge of igniting. And again, in 2018 in “The Return of Marco Polo’s World” he tells us of what awaits us, now that we have failed at the management of our world order. Europe, at least in the way that we have known it, has begun to vanish. And with it, the West itself – at least as a sharply defined geopolitical force – also loses substantial definition. A bard, a poet, a griot of West Africa recounting to us the story of the book-ends of the American order which we abandoned out of hubris and laziness and a final accumulation of post-structuralism and post-modernism and the oh-so-destructive war against the mind.
A war which Patrick Deneen told us we had lost, as we lost our common culture, My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.
And the suicide which that type of self-denial inspires, coming from my own 2016 viral article, “Suicide of Venezuela” which captures the poignancy of watching the remains of a country decay – an article which traveled the world to other failing nations, translated into a half dozen languages and became a rallying cry for places as far away as Greece and South Africa. No, national suicide is a much longer process – not product of any one moment. But instead one bad idea, upon another, upon another and another and another and another and the wheels that move the country began to grind slower and slower; rust covering their once shiny facades. Revolution – cold and angry. Hate, as a political strategy. Law, used to divide and conquer. Regulation used to punish. Elections used to cement dictatorship. Corruption bleeding out the lifeblood in drips, filling the buckets of a successive line of bureaucrats before they are destroyed, only to be replaced time and again.
There are of course many more that I could mention; and I certainly could go on. Peggy Noonan, who thoughtfully catalogs our changing world. The Seattle Stranger which captures hate in America and serves it back to us, for those who feed on it to grow and become stronger while those of us who don’t choke. Quillette which has become our “Intellectual Dark Web”, a job that entails holding up a full length mirror so that we see ourselves in all our full, horrible nakedness. All this is the goal of a good writer, yes even those who peddle hate – to be heard to show people a world they might not want to see and to make a difference. To have our voices heard above the cacophony of screaming and howling; to find a mind which our ideas can penetrate in a world which ever-more resembles a zombie apocalypse.
Looking back up at the top of this post, I guess I might have gotten my question wrong. I should have asked not “Where have all the good writers gone?” but, perhaps, “Where have all the good readers gone?” Because the ideas have not gone away, they are only bedraggled and atrophied for want of those who would care for them. So we keep writing and thinking and dreaming of a curious world – a world which probably never existed except in our utopianism – as we catalog our next arriving ordeal.