The Deeper Debate

Apr 8 2012 @ 10:33am

Benjamin Dueholm ponders Marilynne Robinson's new collection:

As a book about who we are and what we owe each other, When I Was a Child I Read Books is more urgently political than any treatise on the shape of entitlement programs or the proper government share of GDP. Caustic as our public debates may be, they mask a convergence on the bigger questions that animate those debates. What Robinson calls “our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed” can be found virtually anywhere on the American political spectrum today.

We are drawn to these self-effacing definitions—whether we get them from Darwinian biology, neoclassical economics, or postmodernity’s generalized suspicion—because they appear to be rational, scientific, or progressive. They liberate us from the oppressions and illusions we imagine constitute our collective past. 

But what if we succeed in convincing ourselves that they’re true? If what we experience in both our own consciousness and in the palpable but hidden reality of another’s is just an accident or an illusion, a thin crust floating atop the magma of evolutionary adaptations or historical resentments that constitute our truest selves, it’s hard to imagine a future for the American liberal democratic project.

People convinced of their own smallness will not know how to open their hands wide to each other.