Friday, October 16, 2015

The President and the Novelist

Last month President Obama went to Des Moines, Iowa to interview Christian novelist Marilynne Robinson. An excerpt:
Robinson: But fear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.

The President: Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

Robinson: But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

The President: We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Robinson: But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.
From there the conversation moves to to religion, and I have to say I was surprised to learn that Robinson's Gilead -- really more of a meditation on grace and faith than a novel -- is one of Obama's favorite books. I recommend the whole thing. One more good line from Robinson:
Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.


David said...

The "no defenders" line from Robinson is pretty, but it strikes me as another bit of self-regarding paranoia like Nancy Fraser's. Robinson is a much-awarded novelist who's been praised by the Archbishop of Canterbury, received lectureships at Yale (let's hear it for Wikipedia; instant knowledge on my part!) and gets to hold public conversations with the President. And, is the education system really without defenders?

John said...

So I see you take Obama's side in these arguments?

David said...

To answer that question yay or nay, I'd have to read the whole conversation, wouldn't I? Damn. :)