Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists

Based on the evidence we have (the scriptures), it seems to me that it takes extraordinary social, political and economic conditions for a community of believers to form a Zion state. The city of Enoch required a separate city-state protected by a prophet who could work miracles to keep enemies at bay. The no-ites found in Fourth Nephi required a series of natural catastrophes which caused the deaths of thousands (and thus a major reduction of the population) and (presumably) disrupted existing economic and political structures, followed by a personal visit from the resurrected Christ, and the personal calling of Twelve Apostles in front of hundreds, perhaps, thousands of witnesses and all that even managed only two generations worth of Zion. The post-Millennium situation requires Jesus Christ himself to vanquish evil and rule personally (not to mention a fairly dramatic restructuring of the physical elements of the planet itself). Even the not fully successful attempts at establishing Zion, such as certain periods among the Nephites and/or Lamanites, the people of Israel, and the early Mormons required a fairly homogenous population forged out of much tribulation (and, generally, a prophet who was also the main political leader).  And all of those periods were difficult, fragile, and short-lived.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about neo-liberalism and the way in which it erodes families, communities and individuals in the service of technocratic utopian visions, which while may be sincere and well-meaning on the part of some are undergirded by the demands of capital. I am by nature and experience a political pragmatist and radical centrist. Which means I find value in libertarian and Marxist and democratic socialist and crunchy conservative critiques of neo-liberalism (and of each other). But I also find myself frustrated by and/or deeply skeptical of the solutions proposed by each of those political philosophies.

So I think what I’ve arrived at is that all utopias–all ideal states that are not Zion–are flawed and something to be fought against. All political philosophies tend to have elements of them that are totalizing. That are willing to sacrifice humanity and human agency on the altar of the political philosophy.

Satan’s plan is not socialism. It’s not neo-liberalism. It’s not Marxism or libertarianism or anarchism. It’s any world view that attempts to totalize, that degrades, that dehumanizes–that can swerve into fascism on the way to utopia. Anything that loses patience with human agency and sacrifices human compassion on the altar of expediency and tries to smooth out the messiness of this physical existence through force or coercion or seduction.

While engagement in the democratic process is necessary, important and can lead to much good in the world. While engagement in the economic and cultural marketplace is necessary, important and can even lead to much good in the world. While we as Latter-day Saints are not called to the monastery, the compound, the commune, the enclave, I worry that we are too often too much in the world.

I think this is especially dangerous for artists. I’m not calling for solely apolotical art or artists to not engage in politics. Artists shouldn’t be willfully blind to the realities of the modern world. In fact, I think artists should be in dialogue with current political and socio-economic thought and action. I think artists should be angry, concerned, hopeful, curious, engaged and informed about the world. I don’t believe that art for art’s sake is actually possible or desirable.

But I also think that artists, and especially Mormon artists, should have at their core a deep skepticism of utopian solutions and an ultimately agnostic stance towards politics that prods them to interrogate the reifying language of politicians and technocrats even when (especially when!) they happen to lean towards a particular party platform and/or candidate. We should want to make the world a better place within the current social, economic and political constraints. In order to do so, we have to work with the ideas and people of our time. It’s just that Zion should be this pulsating hope inside us that repels other ideologies from burrowing all the way through to our inner core worldview and artistic themes and concerns.

Am I wrong about this?

Note: comments are welcome — this is not, however, an invitation to talk about politics in general or any one politician or party, and rather about artists positioning in relation to the discourse of politics.

One thought on “Zion, Utopias and being politically agnostic artists”

  1. There are, I think, at least three good reasons why authors should be skeptical about any kind of utopian vision:
    – All utopias, as you point out above, are flawed.
    – While it is hardly an immutable law, experience tends to show that most writers become less good as writers when stories are made to serve ideological ends.
    – Utopias are all about abstractions and ideals, which is not narrative’s area of strength. Instead, narrative excels at depicting the individual. (I’m reminded of the advice to writers that if you want to make a point, then you should write an essay, not a story.)

    Surely Mormon fiction is (or at least can be) about creating Zion. Maybe non-narrative forms such as (most) poetry are suited to doing that on the level of abstractions. But it seems to me that the role fiction is best suited to play is by helping us gain understanding and compassion toward others in their unique, infinitely variable circumstances.

    “We teach the rule, not the exception,” Elder Packer famously taught. Fiction, it seems to me, is all about the exception — about each one of us as exceptional, in fact.

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