Friday, May 18, 2012

American Active, or American Passive?

I may have made a mistake today: I checked out Marilynne Robinson's new book, When I Was a Child I Read Books (Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2012), from the library.  Another blogger almost read it, for much the same reason I checked it out: gender parity.  But I have other reasons: one is that, since I saw right away that it's a collection of meditations on the state of America today, I wanted to see what, if anything, Robinson will have to say about her man Barack, whom she supported passionately in 2008.

Reading the book's opening pages on the bus, I noticed right away that she was being careful not to name names.
We have the passive pious, who feel they have proved their moral refinement in declaring the whole enterprise bankrupt, and we have the active pious, who agree with them, with the difference in that they see some hope in a hastily arranged liquidation of cultural assets [2].
Excuse me?  I'm not sure who she means by "the passive pious"; the Christian Right, as Robinson must know, formerly rejected political involvement, but they were hardly "passive" even then: they put pressure on schools not to teach Darwin, they opposed school desegregation (were they in the mobs that harassed and threatened black kids attending "white" schools?), they built a network of segregated Christian schools to get around civil rights legislation.  Are nuns who work with the poor "active" or "passive"?
What if we have ceased to aspire to Democracy, or even democracy?  What if the words "Democracy" and "America" are severed, and no longer imply each other?  It is not unusual now to hear that we have lost our values, that we have lost our way.  In the desperation of the moment, justified or not, certain among us have turned on our heritage, the country that has emerged out of generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety; access to suffrage, equality under law.  It turns out, by their reckoning, that the country they call the greatest on earth has spent most of its history acting against its own (great) nature, and that the enhancements of life it has provided for the generality of its people, or to phrase it more democratically, that the people have provided for themselves, have made its citizens weak and dependent [2].
"Certain among us"?  If it weren't for the second half of the last sentence I quoted, I'd have thought that Robinson was talking about those of us who emerged out of generations of attention to public education to criticize our country and its government for its violence and oppression, not just at home but around the world.  But then she makes it more or less clear that she's talking about those "conservatives" who want to dismantle the social programs that have made better the lives of the mass of citizens.  A better-informed critic would point out that those "enhancements of life" were always controversial and bitterly opposed by powerful interests, often in the name of "Democracy" itself; it's the conflict itself that is our heritage.
Our national ancestors generally managed, by the standards then prevailing, to avoid encouraging the same [inter-religious] conflicts here.  Now it is seen as un-American in certain quarters to reject participation in the bitter excitements that can surround religious difference.  This is a critically important instance of self-declared patriots attacking the very substance of our heritage [3].
"In certain quarters."  This may have been written before the Roman Catholic hierarchy claimed that being required to supply health insurance to their employees was liberal persecution.  This was disingenuous at best, but it has to be disentangled by reason and evidence, not innuendoes.  But Robinson is disingenuous herself, for "our national ancestors" generally came to the New World, not for religious freedom, but for the freedom to persecute others.  As one of them put it, religious tolerance was "Satan's doctrine."  True, the religious wars that ravaged Europe didn't happen here, but that wasn't because of the colonists' enlightened views on difference.

Enough for now; that's just the preface.