America’s Most Important Moral Voice
I’m sure that many readers of this blog read the New York Times already. But I don’t want a single one of us, or — really — a single American to not hear the words of the person who I regard as our most powerful and compelling moral voice, Marilynne Robinson.
She is, in many ways, an unlikely figure for this calling. She is a novelist and not a politician or a political figure of any sort. She is an elderly woman, in her late 70’s, who makes no attempt to hide her age nor apologize for it. She is brilliant, and while she does not parade her brilliance, she doesn’t attempt to hide it either, whether by pseudo-folksiness, or by kow-towing to political correctness. She loves her country, and asks that we do too.
Today’s Times leads it editorial page columns with her powerful essay, “Don’t Give Up on America,” Noting that America is often described as “an idea,” she doesn’t disagree, but adds, we are a family, if a pretty dysfunctional one at the moment. Here’s Robinson:
“It is often said that America is an idea, stated definitively in early documents left to us by a coterie of men seemingly too compromised to have come up with such glorious language — as we would be, too, if we should happen to achieve anything comparable. Human beings are sacred, therefore equal. We are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it. (italics added)
“The ethic in these words should be the standard by which we judge ourselves, our social arrangements, our dealings with the vast family of humankind. It will always find us wanting. The idea is a progressive force, constantly and necessarily exposing our failures and showing us new paths forward.”
She goes on to speak of the way the upcoming election has been jeopardized by the constant and false imputation of fraud by the President.
“Less than a month before the election, we have come to a place where every aspect of our electoral process is in doubt and at risk, threatened by suspicion and resentment now loose among our people to our great mutual harm. If the one civic exercise that gives legitimacy to our government defaults, we will, if we are honest, have to find a word other than “democracy” to describe whatever we will have become.
“Resentment displaces hope and purpose the way carbon monoxide displaces air. This fact has been reflected in the policies of any number of tyrants and demagogues. Resentment is insatiable. It thrives on deprivation, sustaining itself by magnifying grievances it will, by its nature, never resolve.”
She is certainly right about the malignant spread of resentment, an insatiable corrosive force whether in our personal lives or in a society. As people in AA like to say, “Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.”
She returns to a theme that recurs in her recent essays. We have been sold a bill of goods under the label of “fiscal austerity.” This has led to a fearful sense of scarcity in a wealthy nation, and to chronic underfunding of our nation’s physical and cultural infrastructure. Such erosion of our public resources then allows the disaffected to claim government is useless and only private solutions are legitimate.
‘The failures of infrastructure can dim the spirits of people who deal with shabby schools or faulty bridges or who live downstream from a failing dam. Problems like these could be solved if there were the political will to solve them. It would feel good to see the old competence brought to bear again. Of course this would require investments of public money and the use of public money for the benefit of the public.
“This is anathema to legislators who actually persuade their constituents that austerity, indiscriminate parsimony, is the highest good, whatever the consequences for public health or economic development. The cost of outright failure, in any specific instance or progressively and cumulatively, seems never to be factored in.”
She concludes by sounding a note that has been seldom heard in a cynical time: duty. We have a duty, an obligation to our country. “Democracy is the great instrument of human advancement. We have no right to fail it.”
In a week when Trump has essentially blamed those who have died from COVID for their deaths, when a grandfatherly figure, Mike Pence, has given a Christian cover to immorality and cruelty, and where armed-to-the-teeth private, and illegal, militias have plotted to kidnap a Governor and seize a state capitol, Marilynne Robinson has called us to sanity and, most importantly, to hope.