Tom Rachman, author of The Imperfectionists and other novels, is the managing editor of Persuasion. He tweets, uneasily, at @TomRachman.
His glasses are crooked. So is his smile.
The intellectual has posed too long, looking into a camera lens when he’d rather look into a book. He seems familiar, this fellow in his thirties, perhaps from the glossy jacket of a dull volume. Or, if you attend such events, he’s glimpsed at a literary launch, distracted because his phone beeps – he must tweet something quickly, then is back, attention elsewhere, thinking of words.
But, no. The man in this photo is an intellectual of an earlier age, Leone Ginzburg, a literary luminary raised in Mussolini’s Italy.
By the age of 19, he had translated Anna Karenina, and would’ve enjoyed a professor’s career. But he refused to pledge allegiance to the Fascist Party, joining the resistance instead.
The authorities imprisoned him for two years, and exiled him to the mountains of Abruzzo during the Second World War. Fittingly, he spent his confinement working on a translation of War and Peace.
When Mussolini’s regime fell in 1943, Ginzburg hastened to Rome. So did Hitler’s troops. As they swarmed the city, he published a clandestine paper, L’Italia Libera. Men burst in the makeshift newsroom. Ginzburg, a Jew, found himself in the custody of Nazis. At a hulking prison on the Tiber, they brutalized him.
A fellow inmate long remembered Ginzburg’s warning after an interrogation. “Heaven help us if we’re unable to forget our suffering,” he said, still bleeding. “Heaven help us if we visit this same punishment on the German people.”
That is courage.
The unpleasant facts
Each generation is supplied with a similar proportion of bold outsiders and timid conformists. But circumstances change, thrusting certain personalities to prominence, assigning others to obscurity. Today, Ginzburg might have been lecturing in a college town, perhaps under COVID-19 lockdown at a modest apartment, seated before the silver MacBook, crooked glasses and crooked smile on a Zoom call.
Nowadays, the West is far from its 20th-century totalitarian nightmare. Yet these are testing times. The power of facing unpleasant facts, as George Orwell put it, remains critical to decency, to sanity, to our health. But where is intellectual courage in the age of Twitter?
Even avid Twitter users dub the platform a hellscape, with its dog-piles and dunks and moral grandstanding. In one respect, it’s hopeful that we fight over what amounts to good and evil online. Places where intellectual bravery is indisputable are places to avoid: All you’d need to test your courage in Pyongyang is one wrong sentence. Those endless disputes on Twitter are also the din of free speech.
And, like it or not, Twitter is where the intelligentsia gathers, where the cultural conversation resounds. Academics and journalists, artists and activists – they’re all tweeting. It’s the greatest intellectual forum in human history (provided that “greatest” is understood only as “largest”).
Would Orwell be on Twitter? The question saddens me. For he would.
Whenever I learn of a hot new app, I think, “Who would want that?” Typically, the answer is several billion of us. This is why I’m not a venture capitalist, or part of why.
The first tweet was sent by the company’s co-founder, Jack Dorsey, on March 21, 2006 – almost 15 years ago. When I first heard of the platform the following year, it sounded ludicrous: San Francisco bores chirping about what they’d grab for lunch. This app let you send text messages in public, but I’d never have made a phone call streamed online for all to hear. Why would I tweet?
So I snubbed Twitter, much as you spurn the popular kid who isn’t aware of your existence.
For years, I got away with it. I had quit a newspaper job at the end of 2008 to write fiction. Back then, publishers were delighted if an author arrived with legions of followers, but it wasn’t mandatory. They merely nudged me to tweet, and when I declined, they smiled: Ah, writers and their misanthropic ways!
Meantime, my former newsroom colleagues found themselves saddled with an extra part-time job, tweeting. Journalistic outfits that once expected reporters to guard scoops now wanted them blurted. Attracting Twitter followers was best achieved through edgy quips and extreme opinions – the precise formula, it turned out, for getting fired.
During the ensuing tumult, I retained the luxury of a delete key, compiling my thoughts in private, discarding most, publishing what remained in 350-page chunks, thrice a decade.
I avoided Twitter with scorn and with fear, if those aren’t the same thing. I had more dignified reasons, too. In loud rooms, my inclination is not to raise my voice, but to leave. Also, I cherish my privacy. So I shrank from a life moderated by the ghost-presence of an online audience. Otherwise, I feared, I would never quite be there at dinner, wondering how to phrase the zinger in my head for the scores who weren’t present, those whom I’d never dine with but whose numbers far outranked the few looking at me across the table.
More to the point, I never had anything to tweet. This mystified me. I am overstuffed with opinions, and I’d sought a career in writing. But to Twitter, I had nothing to declare. It felt immodest, like shouting my opinions on a bus. I had tweeter’s block.
Nor did front-line reports tempt me. On Twitter, they said, hecklers hold the stage and the earnest become self-righteous. I’d sit out this fad. Only, it didn’t pass. But the years did, and I watched the intellectual world drift away. Novels were dwindling in relevance – something I mourned, and still do. I grew anxious.
I started lurking on Twitter, dismayed both at politics on the right and culture on the left. My intellectual heroes had always spoken in public, no matter the bullies. But what should I declare? Then, a few days after Donald Trump’s loss, I tweeted for the first time, a sign of relief and optimism: “Cannot wait to read the inside story of Trump as he absorbed the news #USElection2020.″ I said nothing notable, just a throat-clearing before a crowd of none.
Or next to none. For someone noticed, a friend who immediately messaged me, “Prepare to have your life ruined.”
What is intellectual bravery?
The week of the 9/11 attacks, Susan Sontag wrote a reaction, describing courage as a morally neutral virtue. “Whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter,” she said, “they were not cowards.” This opinion – as the rubble still smoldered – was not greeted with cheers. Nobody understands “courageous” as a neutral virtue. It’s shorthand for “heroic.”
If intellectual courage were about challenging established views because you deem it just, and doing this irrespective of risk, we’d have to define as brave those who call COVID-19 a hoax. And Holocaust deniers, too – they voice unpopular opinions at a heavy social cost. On the other side, take Greta Thunberg. Right-wing commentators taunt her, but she is hardly challenging prevailing views. Nor is she punished for speaking. She is lavished with awards. But who – COVID-19 crackpot or Ms. Thunberg – would you rather call courageous?
Intellectual courage means offending mainstream opinion in a way that mainstream opinion will eventually endorse. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mary Wollstonecraft and Mahatma Gandhi – morally, they got there first. This points to a problem of intellectual courage in the age of Twitter: What is mainstream opinion? Is it what led to Mr. Trump and Boris Johnson? Or Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel? Is it mainstream opinion to support Black Lives Matter? Or to support Jordan Peterson?
The elusiveness of intellectual courage derives from this: “the culture” does not exist any more. It’s subcultures all the way down, most evidently on Twitter, each clan affirming its own rectitude – while hurling Molotov cocktails over the wall at its chosen sinners. Those wounded in such strikes may be shocked at the explosions. But a bomb attack is rarely about the victim; it’s a loyalty display.
By now, the traditional left/right divide is mainly tribal. A more intriguing split is between authoritarian and liberal. And the authoritarian constituency is closer in spirit than its members like to see, whether religious fundamentalists trying to silence comedians who offend, or woke activists using moral blackmail against those who question their worldview, or Republican congressmen conniving to expunge votes they don’t like. Each is a marriage of the power-craving opportunist and the genuinely scared.
Presumably, you could demonstrate intellectual courage by breaking with the orthodoxy of your subculture. But even this fails. Immediately, you’d be flung over the wall into the opposing tribe. That is why liberals have been paralyzed in recent years: troubled by the excesses of wokeness, but aghast at association with the opposite clan, where one’s welcome-hug might come from the likes of Donald Trump Jr.
Is courage even possible on Twitter?
Who hasn’t blared an opinion among acquaintances only to have someone introduce heaps of contrary evidence, debunking your assertion. Did you recant? The very confident will have, and the very insecure. But the mass of us – those who oscillate between egotism and self-doubt – may recall times when we insisted on a claim merely because it had barged through our lips. We left that party or that classroom, and in another setting, where nobody knew what we’d said, we asserted the opposite view.
But stupid opinions are indelible on Twitter. You may delete them, but this only draws attention to the blunder. To tweet is to cover yourself in tattoos. Your style may change, but you’re stuck with that butterfly on your lower back. Worse, you condemn yourself to repetition, forcing the future-you to keep defending a past-you. Self-expression becomes the enemy of wisdom.
“I don’t think the problem with the internet is that we now live in bubbles,” the French-Moroccan journalist Marie Le Conte wrote (on Twitter). “I think the problem with the internet is that we’re all together, all the time, and that’s not something humans are built for. We’re not made to be constant; people will always change what they say, and how they say it, depending on who they’re talking to, not because they’re two-faced but because we’re inherently social and that means adapting ourselves to who’s in front of us.”
We’re skittish little creatures, evolved over millennia, thrown online without the wherewithal to cope. Tech algorithms burrow into our limbic systems, feeding off primitive arousal. People may have wisdom to impart; people don’t have equal nervous systems. And I still don’t know what to tweet.
Is Twitter a mass-delusion?
Four of every five people questioned in a U.S. study said they didn’t even use Twitter. Among those who did, the users obsessing about politics were a bubble within a bubble: You’d approach 49 Americans who weren’t tweeting feverishly about this stuff to find the one who was.
I’ve certainly met important figures who didn’t bother with Twitter. And I know other people – including many of the most courageous – who would never tweet.
Yet it does matter, this addictive, distressing influence machine. Even if the prudent stay clear, this is where the intelligentsia pushes and pulls at ideas, the brilliant ones amid the preposterous. Never is it certain which will take over the world.
What’s sure is this: That which changes society was once just a notion in a lonely mind, uttered passionately to a few who first frowned – then stopped frowning. Wishing away the ills of the internet is fruitless. This is what our generation has.
Only, I don’t know who’s in control of it all. When Twitter banned Mr. Trump this month, the company exhibited all the courage of a wealthy gent who – after watching revolutionaries hang the tyrant – rushes forth to fire bullets into the corpse, all while proclaiming himself on the right side of history.
The silence of Mr. Trump has been a blessed relief. But debate grows louder over whether private companies should control public speech. I wonder, though, how much they really control any more. A half-billion tweets come out daily. It’s folly to imagine moderators sifting through those, evaluating which are hate speech, which are sarcasm. Supposedly, the answer is to use artificial intelligence. But this would mean training machines on the principles of verbal harm, balance and wit. Humans have yet to agree on any of those.
To tweet? Or not to tweet?
Among my personal worries about joining Twitter was that its tentacles would intrude into my offline existence. But “offline” hardly exists today. For many of us, experience comes first via the internet (work, socializing, entertainment, humour, politics). We undertake digital-detox regimens and special vacations to visit the old world, the unconnected one. Even then, the prospect of a few days offline, let alone a week, is attended with awe, even alarm.
And I still can’t bring myself to tweet. Perhaps it’s my upbringing. Perhaps it’s cowardice. Yet cowardice is not anyone’s permanent condition. Bravery can be a single act; you might wait a lifetime to meet the opportunity. Equally, bravery may be private, an act that doesn’t merit retweeting: for example, summoning courage enough to find humanity in those who wound you.
Returning to that prison cell, Leone Ginzburg said: “Heaven help us if we’re unable to forget our suffering. Heaven help us if we visit this same punishment on the German people.”
We are not tortured by Nazis today, even if the overblown rhetoric on Twitter might make it seem so. Our courage is of a far, far lower order than that of Ginzburg, or of those in torture cells right now as you read this. We are overloaded with places to speak. That does not mean we must shout. Nor, when hearing others’ din, should we retreat.
A measured thought, uttered with honesty, even if heard only by a few, asserts a dignity that the intelligentsia can embody again, must embody again.
‘Freed from fear’
Ginzburg never read another book after the age of 34. He wrote no great work, never became a grand figure of politics. But we remember the courageous for a reason. Courage is infectious, just as cowardice has been in recent years.
Ginzburg lay in the prison infirmary on Feb. 4, 1944, trying not to dwell on his three young children – the separation was excruciating. But thoughts of his wife, Natalia, emboldened him. The lightbulb above his bed was too far away and too dim, so he wrote blind, unable to see these words:
“In recent times I have been thinking about our life together. Our only enemy (I concluded) was my fear. The times that I, for some reason, was assailed by fear, I concentrated all my faculties so much to overcome it and not fail in my duty, that I had no force left. Isn’t that so? If and when we meet again, I will be freed from fear, and even these dark areas will no longer exist in our life together. … Kiss the children. I bless all four of you, and thank you for being in the world.”
He died a few hours later, never knowing that his wife, Natalia Ginzburg, was to become one of the great Italian novelists, nor witnessing the victories of his three children. Before writing his name in the darkness, he signed off this way:
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