“The atmosphere of totalitarianism is deadly to any kind of prose writer, though a poet… might possibly find it breathable.”- George Orwell, The Prevention of Literature
When George Orwell published “The Prevention of Literature” in 1946, he did so in the face of British liberal academics and writers who had grown a deep affinity for the freshly emboldened USSR following the aftermath of the Second World War.
This deeply troubling ideological shift, in Orwell’s view, represented a new political climate in which those who were once on the front lines in the battle for liberal values such as freedom of speech and the press were now becoming increasingly hesitant to defend these previously cherished ideals.
“Any writer or journalist who wants to retain his integrity finds himself thwarted by a general drift of society,” the author lamented.
To Michael Lista, Orwell’s words are as relevant now as they were then.
A Toronto-based journalist and poet, as well as a regular contributor to The National Post and poetry editor for The Walrus, Lista has been named Trent University’s most recent Writer-in-Residence, a fellowship established in 1988 as a tribute and in memory of Canadian novelist Margret Laurence, who also served as the university’s fourth chancellor.
He visited Trent earlier this month to meet with students and to deliver a lecture entitled “Outside the Whale: Literature and the Left in the Age of Trump”.
Drawing parallels between the rise of illiberal sentiments among Britain’s left-leaning intelligentsia during the post-war period of the 1940s and Trumpism,
Lista’s lecture focused primarily on the role the literary left have to play in a new political climate of right-winged demagoguery and nationalism.
“American authoritarianism seemed impossible until the moment it was inevitable.” He asserted to the room of aspiring writers and faculty members in Traill College’s Bagnani Hall.
Like many within Canada and the United States, in the weeks leading up to November’s election, Lista perceived it as impossible for Trump to take the presidency.
Media gatekeepers such as The New York Times and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight projected Hillary had a 90% chance of winning, and those within his mostly-progressive circle of friends and acquaintances had accepted that the election would be handed to what many perceived to be the neoliberal, establishment candidate and lesser of two evils.
Much to Lista’s dismay, this was not the case.
Lista saw the election of Trump as a point in which advocates of the left have had to—and must—facilitate a fundamental shifting of their political priorities.
“The left has sort of taken for granted the fact that all of our battles are within [and no longer for] Liberal democracy. I think what the rise of Trump proves is that the fight for liberal democracy is not quite over,” he told Arthur.
“The fears of a new form of liberal internationalism seem almost quaint in the face of Trump’s isolationist, economic nationalism.”
From Lista’s perspective, this isn’t to say that criticisms of neoliberal globalism aren’t still valid, just that they bear far more relevance in “the alternate universe in which Hilary Clinton actually won.”
He believes that now more than ever, in a political climate where the Trump administration’s Chief Strategist Steve Bannon believes “The media should keep its mouth shut” and “alternative facts” have become synonymous with blatant lies, it is the responsibility of prominent leftist figures to be willing to stand up and speak out against political injustices, even if in doing so, they are acting against their own self interests.
Lista’s faith in his peers to take on this challenge was met with discontent in the aftermath of his publication of an investigative piece entitled “The Shock Absorber” for the independent news website CANADALAND.
The feature brought to light a connection between Scott Griffin, the founder of the highly coveted Griffin Poetry Prize and the Harper government’s $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.
Lista was shocked at the lengths in which those within Canada’s literary circles would go to defend the businessman’s ties to this highly oppressive, autocratic regime, which has been known to persecute free thinkers and journalists daring to question the status quo.
Even after Griffin decided to step down from the Board of Directors of the corporation linked to the deal, presumably in light of the revelations made by Lista’s article, those within the whole of Canada’s literati were still hesitant to, as scholar Clint Burnham put it, “bite the hand that feeds them”.
Though disheartened by reactions from his literary peers, Lista still remains optimistic in the role journalists and other writers have to play in a world that he hopes will continue progressing in a “more leftward direction”.
In spite of this hope, Lista’s work with the field of journalism has introduced him to a wide range of folks who do not only not share his vision of a new tomorrow, but who are also working just as hard against these principles as he is struggling to uphold them.
He cites literary gadflies such as Renate Adler, Christopher Hitchens, Sylvia Plath, and of course, George Orwell as some of his most important influences.
Along with his work at The National Post and The Walrus, Lista’s writing has also been featured in Slate and The Atlantic. He is also the author of the poetry books Bloom and The Scarborough, as well as Strike Anywhere: Essays, Reviews & Other Arsons, in which a more detailed account of the “Shock Absorber” affair can be found.
Despite Lista’s long list of achievements, the author and poet remains strikingly humble, describing his latest title of Trent’s writer-in-residence as “an absolutely undeserved honor”.
While the author may be quick to underplay his accomplishments, it is hard to imagine Mr. Lista’s story not serving as an inspiration to young writers hoping to break through in the world of Canadian journalism and literature, while remaining steadfast in their commitments to the ideals of social justice and a quest for the truth.