I’ve just caught up with Marilynne Robinson on Radio 4, being interviewed by Robert McCrum. American authors in a R4 series are responding to Trump, inaugurated later this week. The original gold-plated inauguration.
Some forms of Buddhism equate nirvana with palatial splendour, as if it required the condition of princes to persuade people it was something worth aspiring to.
America – so strangely, hard-working America – last November also felt the need for bling.
Robinson is from a very different, almost backwoods, American tradition. The America, as she describes it, of possibilities. She highlighted, as authors to return to, four great 19th century figures, William James, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville… (Whitman was my companion when I greyhounded around America in 1971, and Thoreau has always inspired – so I’m with her all the way.) They were to her mind unique in world history in outlining the possibilities of what a society, American society, could achieve. There were many pessimists then of course, and there are now, but opportunity is still there.
An optimist? She hesitated when asked. The future is what we will make of it, and Americans engaging and re-engaging will make that future. And if, a year or two ago, political engagement for American writers and other like-minded souls would have seemed somehow unpalatable, now, as attitudes to foreigners, to the poor, to the environment, are threatened, she anticipates that will change.
Trump has brought out something deep in the American psyche, but the irony, as she sees it, is that social security and the Obamacare safety-net which benefit so many are precisely now what is under threat. She is also profoundly unhappy with the role of many Christian churches, who subsume their ethical responsibilities under a tribal, exclusive and excluding identity.
As for the UK – she wasn’t asked. But maybe the message isn’t so different – how could so many have invested power in people who have an agenda so different from theirs – so many who thought they were reclaiming sovereignty (Trump supporters likewise, but in protectionist terms, and protectionism is the last thing we need), but could have instead a radical economic agenda foisted on them by right-wingers who can’t believe they’ve struck so lucky. Right-wingers for whom social welfare has always been secondary – with their sense, given we’re all either strivers or shirkers, that we may not even need it.
Immigration. The enemy as Robinson sees it is fear, and that’s what’s been played in both countries. Muddled with identity.
Too many similarities. We, we Brits, have to engage. At a local level, yes – but at a national level as well. Even if we’ve normally left it to others. America and the UK desperately need new leaders on the centre and centre-left who can take up the challenge.
The LibDems are out there on their own.
We’ve Tristram Hunt, one of the good guys on the Labour side, abandoning one ship and heading off for another, one that rests permanently and very grandly in port along the Cromwell Road, the V&A… That is not good news. We need the likes of Tristram. But he has had to deal wth a bane that Americans are spared – all the stumbles and misdirections and fooleries of Corbynism.
We need a Marilynne Robinson or two over here. We need a voice, we need voices, of wisdom. Philosophers, historians, politicians, scientists, novelists – even theologians! – speaking out. Though, damn it, they could all be stigmatised as experts.
I note that it’s Michael Gove, he who scapegoated experts, that The Times sent over to the USA to interview Donald Trump a day or two ago. No surprise they were both smiling so broadly.