Marilynne Robinson on America’s Fear of a “Sinister Other”

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Marilynne Robinson and  Barack Obama at the Iowa State Library, Des Moines, September 2015. (Pete Souza/White House)

Marilynne Robinson and Barack Obama at the Iowa State Library, Des Moines, September 2015. (Pete Souza/White House)

When Barack Obama sits down for an interview, he’s usually the one answering the questions. But he’s had a hankering to turn the tables lately, and so, last month, the president spoke with his first interview subject: Marilynne Robinson, author of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and the 2014 National Book Award finalist Lila. At the start of the interview, which was published in print and as a podcast by the NY Review of Books, Obama tells Robinson that he chose her to talk with because he’s been a fan of her work since reading Gilead, a book set in Iowa, while campaigning in the state prior to the 2008 election. He first met Robinson when he presented her with the National Medal of the Humanities in 2012, and they have remained in touch ever since.

The interview unfolds more as a conversation than a strict Q&A, with one particularly interesting exchange coming right at the very beginning. Obama asks Robinson about an essay from a forthcoming book she just completed that examines the harmful role that fear plays in our democracy. Robinson tells Obama:

“Robinson: [F]ear was very much—is on my mind, because I think that the basis of democracy is the willingness to assume well about other people.

You have to assume that basically people want to do the right thing. I think that you can look around society and see that basically people do the right thing. But when people begin to make these conspiracy theories and so on, that make it seem as if what is apparently good is in fact sinister, they never accept the argument that is made for a position that they don’t agree with—you know?

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Because [of] the idea of the “sinister other.” And I mean, that’s bad under all circumstances. But when it’s brought home, when it becomes part of our own political conversation about ourselves, I think that that really is about as dangerous a development as there could be in terms of whether we continue to be a democracy.”

The interview circles back to how fear interacts with Christianity in America again and again, and an interesting dynamic unfolds between the president and the author, with Obama urging Robinson to be more optimistic about the country’s future even while admitting that he himself is often presented as the threat that gives rise to the fear Robinson describes, viewed by many Americans “through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary.”

“I’m always trying to push a little more optimism,” Obama tells Robinson early in the interview. “Sometimes you get — I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.”

“But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am,” the author replies.

You can read the full transcript at the NY Review of Books, or listen to the conversation using the player below.

And, when you’re done, maybe you’ll want to hear a bit more about Robinson’s most recent work of fiction, Lila, a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award. In an interview last October, Bill Moyers and Robinson discussed her fervent belief in the power of grace and faith and her devotion to democracy, as well as themes from Lila, a novel that deals with one story from America’s darker side. You can watch that interview here:

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