Sarah Churchwell’s Diary: My sleepless nights watching CNN, why the arts matter and fighting for truth

Last week my brain spun itself flat, like a pizza, trying to process the US election results. Now it’s just bits of dough everywhere.

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Last week was a single, very long day. One of my jobs is trying to make sense of American culture, and you may have noticed that on Tuesday 3 November the US had an election; my brain has spun itself flat, like a pizza, trying to process everything. Now it’s just sticky bits of dough everywhere.

After three endless days and sleepless nights glued to CNN, I finally gave in on Friday night, joking at 1am on Twitter that I was going to bed, so everyone could thank me when the election was called at 1.05am. CNN’s Jim Acosta, one of the American reporters who has challenged Donald Trump most forcefully over the past four years, liked my tweet, which was easily the highlight of the week – that is, until Joe Biden and Kamala Harris officially won.

Saturday was my sister-in-law’s birthday; she’s British. We got on a call to wish her a happy birthday and talked about (what else?) the election. CNN announced Biden as the winner while we were speaking, which I think she said was the best birthday present ever, but I’m not sure because I was screaming. I stayed up all night to watch not only Biden, but also the first American woman, and the first woman of colour, accept the highest and second highest offices in the land.

A very prophetic festival

It will be a relief to think about other things for a while. Mostly this week I’ll be focusing on my other job, directing “Being Human”, the UK’s national festival of the humanities, which launched on 10 November. Our theme is “New Worlds”, chosen at the end of last year, so we feel quite prophetic. More than 250 free events will take place across the UK during the ten-day festival, with university researchers all over the country sharing ideas in creative and fun ways.

This year, obviously, nearly all of these events are online. But they are hosted from Aberdeen to Belfast, in Cardiff and Newcastle, and everywhere in between. We have events exploring Derby’s heritage as an industrial powerhouse, in Sheffield asking “what kind of world is possible?”, and in Swansea learning the history of pandemics (in Welsh). Yesterday David Olusoga opened the festival with a reflection on “new worlds” and legacies of empire, and tomorrow I will discuss the election (what else?) with fellow Chicagoan Bonnie Greer.

Celebrating the arts

The US election is a perfect illustration of why the humanities matter. Statistics were everywhere last week, but people were hooked on CNN because they required interpretation. The more chaotic the situation, the more we need deep context to interpret it for us – and the humanities are in the business of context.

That, in a nutshell, is the message of the Being Human festival. To make sense of the world requires many different domains of knowledge. But we are often told that science, medicine and engineering alone can get the job done. Imagine how (even more) insane the election would have been without political analysts or historians or constitutional law professors. During the election people the world over engaged profoundly with the humanities, but most did so unconsciously. And when Trump was defeated, they burst into the streets to dance, because we express joy through the arts.

There’s a reason why people were recently angered by a British government poster showing a ballet dancer with a future career “in cyber”. Its ignorance of engineering was as dismissive as its belittling of dancers’ skill and dedication. The idea that everyone would make a great engineer should insult engineers as much as it does dancers. Engineers have talents and skills they developed, just as dancers do. Both are necessary.

It has been said, I think rightly, that the humanities operate in the sphere of values: beauty, justice, emotion, truth and, yes, fact. As the humanities and the sciences are both committed to the domains of knowledge, we are by definition also committed to the pursuit of truth and the dismantling of untruth.

A referendum on reality

Which brings me back to the election. An American election should not have caused the entire world to lose its mind. We’ve had 58 so far. But this time one of the candidates was Donald Trump, and everyone who wasn’t steeped in denial knew the election was a referendum on American democracy. It was a referendum on science, but also on empiricism, justice, power and equality – and thus on the humanities too. It was a referendum on reality.

[see also: The return of American fascism]

We won the election, but those referenda remain in doubt. As I write, most of the Republican leadership continues to gaslight the electorate, pretending that the outcome is in doubt (it isn’t). They spent eight years delegitimising Barack Obama’s presidency, dismissed Hillary Clinton as “crooked” and now are working to invalidate Biden. Democracy depends upon the consent of the loser, and the Republicans have this week made explicit what has been implicit all along: in fact they’ve refused to concede to the Democrats for three decades. For a generation their leadership has denied the legitimacy of any party but their own. Republicans don’t really believe there was widespread electoral fraud, but they are burning the truth to cling on to power.

A world worth fighting for

That’s the fight, and it is a fight to the death. If you think I’m exaggerating, remember the 240,000 Americans Trump has heedlessly sacrificed to Covid-19 – having reportedly acknowledged its deadliness in February – in pursuit of electoral victory, with nary a word from Republican leaders. We need every weapon we have, every bit of truth and knowledge we can muster. And that is why I am celebrating the humanities for these ten days. Because we can’t win this fight without them, and a world without them isn’t much worth fighting for. 

Sarah Churchwell is director of the Being Human Festival at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, which runs from 12 to 22 November across the UK

Sarah Churchwell is chair of public understanding of the humanities at the University of London, and author of “Behold, America” (Bloomsbury)

This article appears in the 13 November 2020 issue of the New Statesman, America after Trump

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