What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson review – Will the ‘real America’ please sit down
Robinson suggests that the dogmatists of neoliberal economics – with its overriding mission ‘to debase human life in order to produce more, faster’ – are the heirs to the eugenicists and behaviourists of yesteryear
The imperious tone and haughty scepticism are misplaced: it is indeed becoming of a liberal to condemn state-sponsored summary executions in foreign jurisdictions, and to criticise overweening snooping by the state
What Are We Doing Here? Essays
On both sides of the Atlantic, the humanities are under attack. In Britain and America alike, the policy of marginalising the liberal arts in higher education – through a combination of funding cuts and aggressive managerialism – is typically justified in utilitarian terms. In an age of heightened global competition, so the argument goes, the liberal arts are an indulgent luxury; if the West continues to funnel scarce resources into them, it may ultimately lose out to countries like China and India in the great struggle for economic supremacy. It is customary, when expounding this position, to disparage the “elitist” nature of liberal arts education, evoking the idea that decent ordinary folk are subsidising the unproductive frolics of an affluent minority. As the American novelist Marilynne Robinson rightly points out, this is a right-wing ruse: robbing future generations of the intellectual tools to make sense of the world is actually most congenial to the elite.
Written between 2015 and 2017, the essays and lectures gathered in What Are We Doing Here? comprise a spirited defence of American liberalism at a time when it finds itself singularly beleaguered. The antagonism between Trump supporters and their liberal opponents plays out as a rhetorical battle for the mantle of American patriotism: at one end, commentators like Robinson appeal to a national tradition of pluralism and dissent; at the other, Trumpism rallies around the imagined memory of an ethnically and culturally homogeneous United States. “This country,” Robinson observes, “is in a state of bewilderment that cries out for good history.” The idea of a monolithic “white” America does a disservice to the cultural and religious heterogeneity of that country’s Western European heritage, let alone its legions of migrants from Africa, Eastern Europe and the Far East. She notes the irony that many of those early waves of historic migrants had been fleeing conflicts and persecutions rooted in precisely the kind of sectarianism that Trump is promoting: “Those who invoke the idea of a ‘real America’ would like to import a problem history that has so far spared us.”
Theology features prominently in these pages. Robinson links the decline of religiosity with the amoralism of the free market ideology that has dominated American culture since the Reagan years. “In the infinitely smaller conceptual world allowed to human existence when metaphysics is disallowed,” she writes, “there is no language to describe human conduct in moral terms.” She pointedly reminds us that the Western universities started out as theological institutions, and it is “the ebbing away of theology that has made them seem to many to be anomalies, anachronisms, and burdens”. Robinson suggests that the dogmatists of neoliberal economics – with its overriding mission “to debase human life in order to produce more, faster” – are the heirs to the eugenicists and behaviourists of yesteryear, determined to reduce human beings to a narrowly defined notion of self-interest, stripped of all their wondrous complexity. In the United States, as in many other parts of the world where the political left is weak or non-existent, it falls to religion to articulate anti-capitalist dissent.
In a lecture given in February 2016, Robinson speaks of the need to refine our understanding of American Puritanism in order to appreciate its progressive essence. She recalls a dinner party conversation about affairs between students and teachers: when Robinson highlighted the power imbalances between superiors and subordinates, her British interlocutor found her stance quaint and prudish. When the #MeToo campaign hit the headlines in 2017, conservative opponents sought to undermine it by suggesting that it channelled an atavistic Puritanism; Robinson would presumably concur, while maintaining that is no bad thing. On this issue, this 74-year-old author is very much in step with the mood of contemporary North American campus activism. Ditto her lament that the exclusion of living writers from the literature curriculum is “a sign of lingering prejudice against the vernacular, against what people say and think now, in the always disparaged present”.
These persuasive essays engage with America’s political malaise with intelligence and much-needed historical insight. They are not without their shortcomings, however. There is a regrettable tendency among left-leaning American liberals to deny or underplay the extent to which their institutions are bound up in systems of power. Acolytes of Noam Chomsky, for example, fervently argue that journalism ought to speak truth to power, even as his work amply demonstrates that the newspaper business is often a mouthpiece for the moneyed interests that patronise it. Likewise the independence of the university system from the broader exigencies of state, nation and economy has always been always somewhat contingent and circumscribed. It is perfectly possible to refute far-right claptrap about “elitism” while conceding that liberal commentators do seem to hold a somewhat rose-tinted view of their place in the social order. A small dose of candid fatalism would add much-needed nuance to the picture.
In this regard it is pertinent to note that Robinson’s admiration for Barrack Obama, which she expounds upon at some length, extends to spikily belittling critics of the former president’s foreign policy: “certain of his friends . . . think it is becoming in them . . . to condemn drone warfare or the encroachments of national security”. The imperious tone and haughty scepticism are misplaced: it is indeed becoming of a liberal to condemn state-sponsored summary executions in foreign jurisdictions, and to criticise overweening snooping by the state. Normally so formidable and authoritative, here she comes across just little bit starstruck. In fairness, Robinson is by no means the only American liberal with a blind-spot in relation to Obama’s continuation of certain dubious practices initiated by the George W Bush administration; in US politics, personality cultism is by no means the exclusive preserve of the far-right. This myopic, polarising zeal, which reared its head again during Hillary Clinton’s disastrous presidential campaign, calls to mind Bush’s infamous dictum: you’re either with us or against us. It, too, is an American tradition.