What He Believed: Revisiting E.M. Forster’s Defense of Liberalism

By Rhian Sasseen

“I do not believe in Belief.” So goes the first sentence of E.M. Forster’s 1939 essay “What I Believe,” written against a backdrop of ever-increasing global fears. “I have, however, to live in an Age of Faith,” he later goes on to say, “the sort of epoch I used to hear praised when I was a boy. It is extremely unpleasant really. It is bloody in every sense of the word. And I have to keep my end up in it. Where do I start?”

Where to start, indeed. It has been 77 years since Forster published this exhortation and yet, in less than a century, we across the pond have veered rapidly into our own age of belief, our new and frightening age of faith. “Faith,” writes Forster in the same essay, “is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch,” and what else can explain this strange era of the post-fact, the fake news, the outright lie? “There’s no such thing unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” the conservative pundit and CNN commenter Scottie Nell Hughes argued on NPR in early December. “And so Mr. Trump’s tweets amongst a certain crowd, [to] a large population, are true.”

How frightening. Where to begin, then, for those of us who still think that a fact is still a fact, an article of so-called “fake news” is better branded as a piece of propaganda? Outlets like Breitbart, InfoWars, Russia Today, and other luridly-named websites peddle conspiracy theories and half-truths that in another era might be more easily fact checked; today, they pile up too quickly on the evanescence that is the internet, as overwhelming and as momentary as a cloud of smoke. In this particular age of belief, dependent as it is on the digital, it seems as appropriate a time as any to turn to an artist from an earlier age for guidance.

Forster is today best known as a novelist, and his novels — Howard’s End and A Passage to India chief amongst them — are best known as Merchant-Ivory films. But his political essays and anti-fascist BBC broadcasts from the late thirties and early forties, later bound up and released in a volume titled Two Cheers for Democracy, offer a defense of liberalism during a time of shifting extremes and ideologies that feels startlingly relevant to this 21st century American. I first encountered and misunderstood them as a haughty undergraduate, enamored with the occasional nihilism of post-structuralism and the failed revolutions of previous generations. Forster’s emphasis on tolerance, sensitivity, and the “comparatively solid” world of personal relationships seemed to me to lack the glamor of the more slippery world of pure theory; this was the era of Occupy, when to lose oneself in the directionless what if of a movement with no clear end goal seemed attractive, even necessary.

But to return to Forster in the years that have followed is to be reminded that politics is tied to the fate of people, not theories. That same equivocal “spirit which is half-afraid and half-thinking about something else” that he describes in another 1939 essay, “Post-Munich,” was the same spirit that flooded me in November’s post-election days. His reflections on the value of culture during times of violence lend a brief flicker of hope to anyone who believes in art for art’s sake. And in “What I Believe,” there’s a clear appreciation and love for humans, despite our foibles and inconsistencies, which rings true even in today’s smoke and mirrors world of online trolling. What I believe, I’ve come to realize, is what Forster believed: that “the people that I admire most are those who are sensitive and want to create or discover something, and do not see life in terms of power, and such people get more of a chance under a democracy than elsewhere.”

To anyone prone to hero worship, all this muck about aesthetics and friendship might sound positively naïve, even shortsighted. An acquaintance once sighed to me that Forster’s argument smacks of “neoliberalism” (ignoring, of course, Forster’s associations with John Maynard Keynes). On election night, I found myself transfixed by a college Trump supporter being interviewed at a Michigan watch party. She — a young white woman wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat atop the darkness of her hair — repeated over and over, to the confusion of the reporter, that Trump would “drain the swamp.” “But what specifically do you support?” the reporter begged.

“He’s going to drain the swamp.” Her voice held a barely-disguised glee, a conspiratorial wickedness, as though she knew this phrase was nonsense, knew that she was making fun of this reporter’s adherence to an older age of reason, knew that she was hiding a much older, unabashedly racist and misogynistic ugliness behind the absurdity of a catchphrase repeated ad nauseum, and didn’t care. In an age of faith, facts, policies, and plans no longer matter; emotion and exclusion do. The faithful among us are always looking for a great man to bow towards.

Like Forster, I am somewhat of a heathen. I, too, feel suspicious of blind belief, but know also that to fight requires a certain dispensation. But what do I believe in these days? Towards the end of “What I Believe,” Forster introduces a fascinating idea, that of an “aristocracy of the sensitive” composed not of a single country, class, nor creed, but rather, populated by those who “represent the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.” They create, they discover. They are “considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.” They listen. They organize. They resist.

In the months to come, those of us who flatter ourselves with our perceived sensitivities would do well to take Forster’s example to heart. Power, already, is shifting. We will have to find each other, those of us who believe in temperance, art, and justice; we will have to take pains to ensure that President-elect Trump’s administration does not succeed in grinding us down. Forster concludes with a manifesto of sorts: “Naked I came into this world, naked shall I go out of it! […] And a very good thing, too, for it reminds me that I am naked under its shirt, whatever its color.” Naked, too, without a hat, is the head beneath it.

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