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Don’t Be Switzerland: The Case for a Politicized Creative Class

Would you write an ad campaign for Big Tobacco?

Would you edit feel-good copy for a corporation with a lamentable human rights record?

Would you shoot wildlife photos for an oil company dragging its heels on the clean-up of a major spill?

What if said potential client offered you a shitload of money? What if they seemed genuine about wanting to do good, be better? What if you could negotiate it so your name wasn’t attached to the finished product?

Would you say “Yes?”

Would you say “No?”

If a politically contentious issue blew up on Twitter, would you jump in the mix, knowing that your comments would be eternally attached to your name?

Would you write a blog post on your professional site sounding off on a piece of legislation that strikes you as wrong-headed and inhumane?

Questions like these are liable to make any creative professional squirm. I get that: you have a brand to build and protect. You also have values and limits and morals and beliefs. But you also need to, like, eat and keep current on the water bill, and deep pockets are, by definition, deep.

It’s unsettling to think about alienating segments of the market, either by refusing to work with them or merely by coming across as too angry or too emotional on social media or your blog.

Convey professionalism, goes the standard creative refrain. Keep the focus firmly on your product. Never discuss politics or religion in mixed company.

But here’s the truth: work is emotional stuff! It makes us laugh and cry and scream, it keeps us up late at night, it wakes us early five-plus mornings a week. Like it or not, what you do for income is a reflection of what you value. Politics, too, is emotional and personal and reflective, unless you aren’t paying any attention to any of it at all, which is lamentable for its own reasons.

St. Helens, black and white brick, dirty wall

Why, then, do we put such pressure on ourselves to fragment our identities? Why do we cultivate a Personal Self, mirrored by a bland, pleasantly neutral Professional Self? And why in the world do we avoid invoking the political in our work when politics has so much bearing on our ultimate success or failure?

Tax structures, health insurance and retirement options, rights and protections for independent contractors and freelancers, the funding or failure to fund creative powerhouses such as the National Endowment for the Arts and National Public Radio—our government’s treatment of these issues has immediate and far-reaching practical and financial consequences for the Creative Class.

And don’t get me started on the long, LONG interwoven history of politics and the arts and all the amazing social change that’s been pushed forward by artist-activists since the beginning of forever.

I’ll go first: I’m actively unsupportive of our country’s current administration because I believe it devalues human life, strategically foments class warfare, and, in classic trickle-down fashion, gives the best of everything to the folks at the top and leaves the rest of us to duke it out over the scraps that slip through the floorboards.

We all draw our own bright lines. Here’s mine: I am open to developing personal and professional relationships with conservative folks, because I see value in cross-cooperation and dialogue and common ground-ism, but my neutrality ends at the individual: I’ll never write or edit for a tobacco company or a far-right conservative news outlet or a conservative or religious organization. Period. And I’ll say what I please on social media and my blog, now and forever.

This is no era for neutrality; I’d rather lose a few holy dollars and risk being labeled angry or UnAmerican than stuff my beliefs into my back pockets and fashion myself into a human Switzerland. (No offense to the Swiss, and FWIW, they maintain a policy of “Armed Neutrality,” which is sort of an interesting philosophical exploration for another time.)

So what’s your bright line? Have you identified it? Have you owned it? And what’s the very worst that might happen if you did?

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