Friday, March 10, 2017

The Civil War and the civility wars

George Saunders is always worth listening to, and Anthony Domestico offers an interview with the author here, in which they talk about politics, discourse, and Saunders' latest novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, released in February.

I was struck by a quote from Saunders in the New Yorker that Domestico offers in the interview:
"I thank [Trump] for this: I've never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail. But I imagine it that way now." 

The fragility of the American Experiment seems to have been on Saunders' mind a lot as he wrote his novel. Toward the end of the book, the fragility of the union, the American experiment, haunts a grief-stricken Abraham Lincoln as he visits his son Willie's tomb:
Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched), and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, well it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself. 
Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.
He would lead the rabble in managing.
The thing would be won.
And, of course, we know the thing was won. Then. But Saunders, intentionally or not, forces the reader to wonder whether it was won for all time and whether the "rabble," which is all of us in our deeply flawed and imperfect state, can keep it won. And whether it's even worth keeping at all. 

Lincoln in the Bardo is a timely novel to ponder in this deeply divided time.
--Jean Hughes Raber


  1. I don't think we can ever assume that the thing is won for all time, there is the sin of presumption, to which we seem prone as a nation.

  2. I just received this book in the Powell's book club a couple of days ago. It came with a bonus 85 page illustrated fable "The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip"

    Trump's election makes me very aware that one shouldn't take our democracy for granted, but honestly, my reaction is the opposite of Saunders', I'm impressed by how robust our democratic processes and protections are.

    So, okay, the wrong guy won for the wrong reasons. BUT: despite the most vile campaign of my lifetime, where the WINNER is constantly trying to delegitimize the process, and where foreign powers intervened to further undermine that process; despite all of that,we nonetheless saw a peaceful transition of power.

    Said winner is then, right out of the box smacked down by the federal judiciary, when he engaged in over-reach with his Muslim ban.

    A lot of people who felt left behind made their voices heard and voted for change (that's where the wrong guy winning comes in).
    And a lot of other people, appalled by the hot mess in the White House, turned out in droves, millions of them, the day after the inauguration, to make their own voices heard.

    I'm not minimizing the harm Trump can do in his time in office, but I think our democracy will survive him and he might have even given it a shot in the arm.

  3. Time will tell whether we can survive Trumpism as a nation or not. Some captains of industry were on NPR yesterday taking about how liberal ideas of "diversity" were creating social strains and muddying our identity, particularly Muslims. Yes, there was a flurry of visible/audio opposition at first, but can it be sustained? Will it be allowed to be sustained?

    Irene, I hope you enjoy the book. I was dubious at first, but ended up really enjoying it. One of the things that becomes clear in Saunders' book is how unpopular the Civil War was in many quarters. One politician objected by saying that if his wife wanted to leave, it would be uncivilized to beat her until she returned. Extracts from letters written to Lincoln by angry parents who had lost sons in the war are devastating and raw.

  4. Trumplethinskin has just started to eviscerate the Federal judiciary this weekend and will soon have control of that branch of government as well. Be very afraid, friends: very, very afraid. Once the SCOTUS is tilted rightward it will be a long, long time of retrograde rulings from that formerly august body, as well.

  5. Google identifies my under my old nom de plume.

    Jim McCrea