Week One into the Trump Presidency, and I think it’s safe to say it’s far worse than any of us could ever have anticipated. As chaos reigns and the glistening remains of American democracy are stomped on while the rest of the world watches (and pretends to be morally superior while refusing to call out the damage, as is the case on my side of the pond), protest has become a daily norm. The Women’s March vastly outnumbered the attendees of the previous day’s inauguration, a National Parks Twitter account has become an unlikely rebel, and more women than ever before are putting themselves forward as alternative candidates for future elections.
Moreover, the world of culture and the arts has come to the forefront as a means of dissent, both big and small. With the depressingly inevitable news of the government’s scrapping of the National Endowment of the Arts (something the GOP has been trying to do for close to thirty years), consumers are turning to the past for inspiration and a means to handle their current situations: George Orwell’s 1984 has seen a massive increase in sales on Amazon, along with other prescient titles, including Brave New World, It Can’t Happen Here and The Handmaid’s Tale; TCM aired the classic Elia Kazan drama A Face in the Crowd on inauguration day; musician Billy Bragg reworked the classic Bob Dylan song ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’ into an anti-Trump protest number. The warning signs of decades past remain potent symbols in an age that seems to have repeated its mistakes.
There are also more current forms of protest coming from the cultural world, particularly that of publishing. Author Roxane Gay recently announced that she had pulled her forthcoming book How To Be Heard from its publisher, Simon & Schuster, over their recent deal with professional bully and liar Milo Yiannopolous, a notorious bigot who received a 6 figure deal with S&S’s conservative imprint Threshold. Gay is keen to remind readers that she is in a position to make this move with her publisher where many other authors would not be so financially secure, and that she hoped the book would one day be published elsewhere.
This may seem like a tiny gesture to some, and I’ve seen (in my opinion unfair) accusations of navel gazing directed towards Gay for this act, but I think it’s important to acknowledge the ways in which dissent takes shape. Sometimes it is a grand act; other times it is smaller, more personal and more specific in its focus. Simon & Schuster want to make money, so they spot what they see as a big market and ignore the means of normalization their book deal exabercates by legitimizing the words and actions of bigots. They give a platform to hate speech while euphemizing it as “controversial”.
This is hardly shocking, given the willingness of publishing, and indeed the entire free market, to choose profits over morals. Rapists get Oscars; domestic abusers get Grammys; sexual harassing bigots get the Presidency. Meritocracy is not the name of the game, and I doubt it ever has been.
Talk of boycotts happens, as it did when Yiannopolous’s book deal was announced. The Chicago Review of Books announced it would boycott coverage of all Simon & Schuster titles for a year in response, which is a lot of books to shun given how 5 publishers make up 80% of the market share in American book sales. I have certainly begun to pay more attention to publishers on the spine when I browse the shelves. Boycotts have a long and very effective history in the protest movement, even as it’s wrongly attacked as a form of censorship. As noted by Mikki Kendall in her piece for Teen Vogue:
“Racists, misogynists, online trolls, and more have the right to say terrible things. However, they don’t have a right to an audience. Boycotts are the epitome of the free market in action. Opting to express your political beliefs with your wallet is a fundamental right covered by the First Amendment. While it guarantees that Congress won’t make any laws abridging freedom of religion, freedom of the press, or the right to peacefully assemble, it does not require you to give money to businesses owned by people with beliefs or practices you find offensive.”
However, as is the case with Simon & Schuster, a boycott may not be the most practical or effective manner to protest their profiting from hate. Imprints are common in publishers and cater to specific genres, ideas, authors or packaging. Simon & Schuster have Threshold for their right-wing commentator audience, but they also have North Star Way, which specialises in self-help and motivation; There’s Salaam Reads, dedicated to introducing readers to stories of Muslim children; Enliven’s mission statement is for works that “enhance our readers’ spiritual development, success, and wellness pursuits”; And Jeter Publishing is an imprint in collaboration with former baseball player Derek Jeter, with the expected focus on sports and his own work.
Keeping track of all these imprints, who owns which ones and who to boycott can be difficult for even the most seasoned reader, much less the average consumer. It’s also unclear, as noted by Vox, whether S&S would even get the message from this kind of action, particularly if it sees sales of more progressive titles sink as a result of such protest. The majority of authors aren’t getting 6 figure deals, nor are they swimming in cash, and many can’t afford to take action in the way Gay did (as she herself noted).
I support those who wish to boycott S&S in response to their tone-deaf acquisition, and I also support those who wish to take a more direct form, such as supporting those more progressive imprints like Salaam Reads. Gay’s own dissent rings loud in my ears alongside the loud opposition from writers, readers and editors calling for support to marginalized voices in publishing.
Roger Ebert talked of films being an “empathy machine”; a means to see the world through someone else’s eyes, which in turn would “enlarge us, they [films] civilize us, they make us more decent people.” In one of his final interviews before leaving office, President Obama talked passionately about his love of reading and its “ability to get in someone else’s shoes”, which he credits with helping him maintain his balance as a person and leader. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to read books or take any enjoyment from the act. He seems to find no pleasure or power in the arts beyond whining about those who protest him.
It can be hard to maintain the desire to create and consume art during these times. You feel guilty for wanting escapism, you question the necessity of it, and you chastise yourself for not doing something more important. Put down the book and protest; Stop reading silly romances; Why bother writing that story when everything’s going to shit? Art feels frivolous, powerless, pointless, and you let it slide away until you can’t get it back.
I wish I had answers to how to survive the next four years. As a Brit, I’m somewhat shielded from the damage an ocean away, but my country’s own problems require dissent too. It’s a patriotic act to dissent. I can’t promise art will fix everything because it obviously won’t, nor should art be prized about people, as is so often the case to justify the terrible things good artists do. But I can say that art provides empathy, it challenges and subverts, it pleases and angers, it fuels and it ignites. Use art to propel yourself forward. Kick and scratch and protest and petition and organize and make yourself utterly impossible to ignore. Take time out from it all with something that makes you happy when you need to, and don’t feel guilty for doing so. Read 1984, then look up some indie talents telling the stories nobody else is, and put your money down. Elevate the voices that need amplification the most as reactionary trolls bellow overhead. Seek out art that makes you look at the world differently, then make your own, and don’t feel as if it’s a vanity project because we’ll always need art. To steal a line from the late great Carrie Fisher, “Take your broken heart, make it into art.”