No Balm in Gilead

Image by Cedric Letsch.

Just finished, with my breakfast, reading the latest essay in the New York Review of Books by Marilyn Robinson who, I fear, is writing less and less clearly. She feels entangled in her own rhetoric, and I found myself terribly impatient with her convoluted and often disconnected reasoning.

I even went back to re-read the thing but couldn’t get through all of it yet again.

And her verbosity made me think about how I feel, these days, about such reaching toward “wisdom” on the part of ardent American citizens. And dare I say it, impatient with so many of these pundits and loyal historians, including with Heather Cox Richardson (I fear many of my friends and colleagues will not like hearing me say this, not at all), who still trust in the very institutions which are now failing us.

Marilyn Robinson in her essay tries and fails to talk clearly about socioeconomic divides in this country and the boiling-over angers such divisions have created generationally–particularly in the context of who is asked to fight and die in senseless global wars we engage in. Yes, this seems to be her topic. Yet, she never talks about those who have benefited mightily from war–what Eisenhower referred to as the much-touted “military-industrial complex.” That phrase of warning comes trippingly off the tongue but remains meaningless when, even though it’s been identified as the bane of our democracy, keeps right on burgeoning while enriching its owners and shareholders and shoring up the careers of the politicians they support.

All of the recent celebrations of the 80th anniversary of D-Day, following soon after the annual Memorial Day observance, just rang hollow for me in the context of our current support of what is termed the only “democracy” in the Middle East–Israel. I am sick to death of what is happening in their land-grabbing genocide. Sick of hearing how they are already planning to rebuild Gaza under Israel’s aegis. Not to mention the West Bank. It is another nakba, even more brutal than the last, and we watch it in real time. Chillingly, since the first nakba is just now becoming clear to us in retrospect. How have we lived with such ignorance, bedimmed by the myth of Israel we were raised on as the great good place of harbor, the desert oasis for the Jewish diaspora?

I keep thinking about that other great American essayist, Henry David Thoreau, who was jailed briefly (as privileged men are, i.e., briefly) for refusing to pay his poll taxes to support a war he objected to. I want to send all my tax money now not to our failed government but to MECA to help save some of the lives of innocent Gazan children. I am implicated, as we all are now, in their slaughter.

Would I dare going to jail for that? I would not, cowardly as I am, dutiful liberal as I guess I must be, for refusing an act of conscience that Thoreau so beautifully reasoned out in “Civil Disobedience.”

I have never liked Biden, hated him, in fact, during the Clarence Thomas hearings when he subverted the testimony of Anita Hill. Despised him for his unwavering support for the Iraq war. Was frustrated by my own mother’s canonization of him as the Irish Catholic “regular guy.” Yeah, he took the train every day, wept openly over the tragic deaths of family members. She fell for him, hard, as she often did for genial liberals. We were all raised as proud Democrats and as if the FDR legacy that lived so vividly in my immigrant great-grandmother’s consciousness was still alive and at work to ensure our health and freedoms. And to a degree in the 1950s when we were growing up, it was. Our generation was the first in our family to get college degrees, to join the “professional” class of lawyers, professors, and businesspeople who didn’t get their hands dirty or lopped off at work. But that has stopped abruptly with us, with our generation.

The kids are not all right.

The middle class is not an ever-expanding waistline; the wealthy know it must be kept lean and trimmed occasionally. One can never be too thin or too rich but that takes putting most of the others on a diet. And without another war to help thin out the ranks (and that’s not how war is going to be conducted from now on thanks to drones, to AI) the ranks do keep swelling, and, as Robinson admits, boiling over. What to do with them, other than to invite them to throw the whole damn mess into the garbage and start over because it’s been an “experiment,” this democracy, and as the great man warned, we haven’t been able to keep it because it was never meant to be kept this way. White land-owning men were to be in charge, and in fact, their simulacra still are – though “land” is being substituted for by pure capital; the financialization of our entire economy, including the public sphere, is just about complete.

Thus, when the little people hear from Biden about how “the economy” is doing well thanks to his administration’s policies they do not believe him. And why should they? Ninety percent don’t own stock in any corporate entity—whether directly or through the pensions they despise among us pensioners and 401K folks who did manage to hop aboard the last train out of the station. That some of us are women and people of color enrages many of them even more, especially when we argue that we still aren’t experiencing equity, even now. Equity? To them it is a meaningless shibboleth when they cannot imagine having “equity” in real monetary terms, when there’s no well-deserved retirement on the horizon even as they work two or three jobs and can’t find decent child care in order to hold onto those.

Who wants to listen any longer to the Christian platitudes of Marilyn Robinson? Her measured depiction of this moment in history? Her dignified sighing about what America has come to? She finally left Iowa at the end of her long tenure there for two homes—one in New York, one in California or so I’ve heard. Tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Some of us have lived in all three of those places, though never two of them at once as the upper-middle types can boast. Do her own novels about conflicted rural Christian preachers and their flock seem as quaint, as provincial to her now as they do to those of us who weren’t raised on Wonder bread and grape juice?

I grew up in one of the filthiest East Coast cities in the country and now live in the glorious Bay Area. And I cannot even say what that makes me—certainly not a working-class witness but at the same time not a faithful citizen though, as one of my friends and academic colleagues who grew up more middle-class remonstrated, look at what you’ve been able to attain! (Only in America?) Or, as another, even more privileged one, once castigated me: What is it with you and your “class THING.” Yes, both have been friends, and they do say such “classist” things with impunity, maybe vaguely reminiscent about the way we white folks demonstrate such colossal nerve, insensitivity, racism when “reminding” Black folks about how things have really improved for them. God, we should all shut up. Yet here I go: I do know this: that once I got up close to those with more money than either of those two “friends” I learned that my sainted mother was right about something: if you’re rich you’ve done something terribly wrong. She said it, even though she aspired to and admired money, craved it; she kept falling back on the doctrines of meekness and the sacredness of poverty that her church had urged upon her for decades. She was mightily conflicted and suffered for it.

What am I doing, then, this fine foggy morning reading the NYRB — as those in the know would refer to it? People in my old neighborhood, including Mom, would never have heard of it (though, truth be told, she did read, besides the Newark Star Ledger, The New Yorker, a subscription I kept up for her). And why am I letting Marilyn Robinson invade my peace? Truly, I have no peace; I am so bedeviled by my lack of loyalty to any world—the one I come from, the one I now belong to. I read also that the tech bros are going to bring SF back to its former glory. So as their forebears in the real estate game once created a nakba for the Black people whom they ran out of the Victorians in the Western Addition of this city, they will now shoo out all the unsightly homeless and make the city safer for bike lanes, electric and autonomous vehicles. (And those are card-carrying members of the Democratic Party.) I can’t wait.