Friday, May 7, 2010

Her Rigour Is Terrifying

One thing I wondered about but didn't try to fit into my earlier post was how Marilynne Robinson felt about Barack Obama. I suppose I could have predicted that she'd be a fan -- indeed, she's "passionate" about Obama, and donated $1000 to his election campaign.
When the conversation veers toward President Barack Obama, another Midwesterner recently relocated to the East coast, Robinson leans forward like a slightly giddy teenager. She praises the president for "riding a wave of interest in public speaking—the oldest tradition in American life." The admiration, it turns out, is mutual. "He has a Facebook thing," she says—quickly adding that it was her students who found the page online, not her. Sure enough, Obama's personal page on the social network lists Robinson's novel Gilead as one of his "Favorite Books," alongside the Bible and Lincoln's Collected Writings.
Ah, public speaking, the oldest tradition in American life, and just as prone to hucksterism as public writing. I did some searching but couldn't find anything more substantial than this remark, and this was the only comment I could find on President, rather than Candidate Obama; during the campaign she was mainly tooting Iowa's horn, for defying stereotypes about the Midwest and supporting a black candidate. Robinson's enthusiasm for Obama seems to be merely formal. But the trouble with George W. Bush was not that he was a poor public speaker, though it wouldn't surprise me if that was a major complaint of Robinson's. I can't speak about all her writing, but she seems to be more concerned about form than content.

Take this famous exchange.

I remember watching the Bentsen/Quayle debate at the time, and part of me loved Lloyd Bentsen -- or more precisely, I loved his performance. The benign grandfatherly manner. The way he actually seemed to be listening to Quayle's babbling, smiling ruefully, making notes to himself, and then making a quiet, devastating reply that answered what Quayle had been saying. That, it seems to me, is the way debate should be done, but it rarely seems to be done that way in the US. (Britain, famously, is different.)

I watched a couple of presidential debates after that, and found that they didn't equal the standard Bentsen had set. I recall a news pundit remarking on Bentsen's putdown of Quayle, saying that it had surely been prepared. Of course it was! The odd thing, given the heavy preparation for these little shows, is how unprepared the candidates generally seem. But that may be part of the intention, especially since the pundits declared Quayle the winner in his encounter with Bentsen, because he was so ineffective.

The corporate media don't like smart people, even minimally smart ones. In The Bush Dyslexicon Mark Crispin Miller discusses, and quotes at length (pp. 68-70), an ABC News bull session from October 22, 2000, in which Cokie Roberts and Sam Donaldson complained that talking about substance was too "cerebral," preferring to talk about image and likability. Which isn't that far from gushing because Barack Obama was "riding a wave of interest in public speaking." That's very nice, but what was he saying?

I don't think debate has ever been popular, in the US or elsewhere, because, as Lady Augusta Bracknell remarked, "I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing." Or, as many of my contemporaries remark, "debating on teh internet is like competing in the special olympics - even if u win, your still retarded lol lol lmao!"

Which reminds me of another bit that caught my attention in the Guardian article on Marilynne Robinson.
She has never had a live encounter with Dawkins. "I'm a little nervous about live encounters, because everything's a shouting match. I'm thinking of television of course [she doesn't own a television], but so much of it is who can bully, in effect. Not that I couldn't." She smiles dangerously.
Well, no, debate is not a shouting match, nor is it bullying. Many Americans may think it is, and American corporate news networks may like it that way, but the clip of Bentsen and Quayle shows that it shouldn't be. For that matter, you can find clips of debates at the Oxford Union online, such as this, or this. For someone who appeals to intellectual traditions, Robinson seems oddly ignorant of this one. Maybe someday I might aspire to a live debate -- though I prefer written ones -- with Marilynne Robinson (he smiled dangerously).