Sunday, June 9, 2013


   "I have spent most of my life studying American history and
literature. I have studied other histories and literatures largely
to gain perspective on this civilization. The magnanimity of its
greatest laws and institutions as well as its finest poetry and
philosophy move me very deeply. I know that there are numberless
acts of generosity, moral as well as material, carried out
among its people every hour of the day. But the language of
public life has lost the character of generosity, and the largeness
of spirit that has created and supported the best of our
institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been
erased out of historical memory. On both sides the sole motive
force in our past is now said to have been capitalism. On both
sides capitalism is understood as grasping materialism that has
somehow or other yielded the comforts and liberties of modern
life. Capitalism thus understood is seen on one side as providential, 
so good in its effects that it reduces Scripture with its
do-unto-others to shibboleth. The other side sees it as more or
less corrupting and contemptible but beyond human powers to resist.

   And no one offers a definition of it. But in these days when
its imperium is granted by virtually anyone who attends to
such things, our great public education system is being starved
and abandoned, and our prisons have declined to levels that
disgrace us. The economics of the moment, and of the last several
decades, is a corrosive influence, undermining everything
it touches, from our industrial strength to our research capacity
to the well-being of our children. I am not the first to suggest
that it is undermining our politics as well.

   What if good institutions were in fact the products of good
intentions? What if the cynicism that is supposed to be the rigor
and the acquisitiveness that is supposed to be the realism are
making us forget the origins of the greatness we lay claim to—
power and wealth as secondary consequences of the progress
of freedom, or, as Whitman would prefer. Democracy? After all,
these things rose together. The air is thick now with "the
people," a phrase that is meant to give authority to the claims
and the grievances of those who use it. That it is often invoked
in good faith one may doubt, but the fact that resort is had to it
to feel that ultimately authority and reason do and should be
with the people. Then the old impulse that lay behind the dis-
semination of information and learning, the will to ensure
that the public will be competent to make the weightiest decisions
and to conform society to its best sense of the possible
should be as powerful as it ever has been, and more powerful
because of the fragility of the contemporary world. Instead we
have slack and underfinanced journalism and the ebbing away of
resources from our universities, libraries, and schools. The liber-
ation of the human individual as a social value required optimism,
which it also amply justified. This loyalty to democracy is the
American value I fear we are gravely in danger of losing."

 Marilynne Robinson
When I Was a Child I Read Books
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

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