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tv   Moyers Company  PBS  November 14, 2014 6:30pm-7:01pm PST

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this week on "moyers & company," the creator of "gilead," "home," and "lila" says democracy is still a work in progress. >> there's something very excessive about human begins. they are brilliant beyond any imaginable use, you know? and i mean, who knows, if we live another hundred years, what we will have done? if we just, you know, refrain from violence a little bit, it's amazing. >> announcer: funding is provided by -- anne gumowitz, encouraging the renewal of democracy. carnegie corporation of new york, supporting innovations in education, democratic engagement, and the advancement of international peace and security at the ford foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.
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the herb alpert foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society. the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information at park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the kohlberg foundation. barbara g. fleischman. and by our sole corporate sponsor, mutual of america, designing customized individual and group retirement products. that's why we're your retirement company. welcome. rarely has a novel been so universally acclaimed as marilynne robinson's "lila." "an unflinching book," says "the new yorker." "an exquisite novel of spiritual redemption and love," reports "the washington post." and that's just for starters in this latest of her books examining the lives of a minister, his wife, their son and neighbors in a fictional town in iowa.
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the first, "gilead," won marilynne robinson the pulitzer prize. "home" followed. and now "lila," nominated just this week for the national book award, filled, as one reviewer wrote, "with quiet epiphanies." exactly what we've come to expect from marilynne robinson. she has been described as a woman "who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs" with a mind that "skips the stones of a question across its ample surface." and of course that's how she writes, including her non-fiction work. in fact, it wasn't her gifts as a novelist that first caught my attention. it was her essays, in such collections as "the death of adam," "absence of mind" and "when i was a child i read books." those drew me to the way she writes and thinks, and to her strong belief in the power of grace and faith, and her devotion to democracy, which she fears "we are gravely in danger
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of losing." marilynne robinson, welcome. >> thank you. it's wonderful to be here. >> and congratulations for those reviews. >> well, thank you. >> i was particularly struck with one from "the new york times" praising you for frankness about a "truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment." and i wondered, why should anyone be shocked to discover today what can happen to a young girl like lila? >> i was also struck by that. it seems, you know, when you, you know, read dickens or something, i mean, the great subject really of the democratization of western culture has been the abuse and entrapment of people on the basis of economics or class or whatever, who are capable of wonderful things, you know, and the fact that they are mistreated ought not to be shocking. they're mistreated against the standard of what they're capable of and what they are.
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>> are we suffering some kind of loss of imagination that we cannot perceive the lived experience of other people? >> i think it is true. and i think that it's having effects all across the culture. education, for example, which has very subtly turned toward making a good working class, however well-paid, rather than humanizing people's experience, making them feel what it is to be a human being in the stream of history on this strange planet, you know? >> so what's happened to imagination? >> i think in a way, we've been talked out of it. but i think that there's kind of a influence of crude scientism that -- >> crude scientism? >> crude scientism that has no way of articulating the fact of mind, the fact of imagination, the complexity of consciousness. and what they can't articulate,
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they exclude as being not real, being illusory in some way. if you think that a human mind is a wonderful thing, there's an infinite interest in cultivating it. and if you think it's simply someone who works more expensively than a worker in the third world, you know, you have no interest in people except to make them, you know, a part of the utilitarian system that produces for the sake of producing. >> that would explain, i think, why you wrote that "the broadest possible exercise of imagination is the thing most conducive to human health, individual and global." >> yes. it's impossible to achieve things like justice if you don't have enough compassionate imagination for any other human being to understand that they deserve justice. that shorthand justice is not the thing at all. you know, what can i say, i mean, my deepest, i think, religious belief is that we are
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amongst souls and we have souls. >> we are among souls. >> and that it is a kind, it's a blasphemy. it's not simply an ordinary offense to insult or to deprive another human being. i think that at our best, that has been the assumption we've proceeded from. and at our worst, it's an assumption we don't want to be bothered by. >> you once said that at one time, we talked soul to soul. when was that? >> well, you know, history is a ragged beast. you know, but it seems to me that in the great american writers, whitman and emerson and so on, there's the assumption that something magnificent is going on, human consciousness. and the world in which human consciousness is set as the interpreter. this is as true as it ever was, you know? i mean, there's something miraculous about human beings.
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they are, they exist wildly in excess of any sort of survival model that could be posited for them. we're not even very good at that. you know, we're a great danger to ourselves all the time. but if you create a sort of model, which is probably wrong itself, about animal behavior, and take that as an authoritative basis for describing human behavior, then you've simply excluded everything that we call human. you know, you've excluded imagination and art and, you know, the things that we have defined ourselves with over thousands of years. >> so what are you saying when you write that the soul is "the masterpiece of creation?" >> well, it's, you know, i always tell my students this first off, i mean, but the human brain is the most complex object
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known to exist in the universe. this is, science says this, you know? but i think that if the most exquisite expression of cosmic reality is the human brain, the human mind, this is a thing to be acknowledged. this is a thing very much to be honored, to be felt as a privilege. you know, a universal privilege. what a sweet thing, you know? >> are you using the soul as a metaphor for consciousness or, what do you mean by it? >> well, you know, here i am, plunging straight into my personal theology, but i do think that people really are too splendid to be contained in 70 years of life if they are lucky, you know? i think that there's a sort of, you know, if there's an economy, in reality, it would be, it's an enormous extravagance that we
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are what we are. and that, there's something very excessive about human beings. they are brilliant beyond any imaginable use, you know? and, i mean, who knows if we live another hundred years what we will have done. if we just can, you know, refrain from violence a little bit. it's amazing. >> you have often told your students, i understand through the years, forget definition. forget assumptions. watch. watch what? >> well, you know, one of the problems that i come across with people's writing is that they think that they can enumerate what are basically biographical or class traits. and then they think that they have captured a person, that because x and y and z are true, they must behave in a certain
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way, and so on, you know? when, if you pay attention to people, you find out that they're continuously original. they're continuously generating, you know, a new possibility out of themselves. and i, you know, to the extent that they are permitted to, and to the extent that anyone is alert enough to realize this is happening. >> how do you explain the paradox not of wealth and poverty, but given what you think of human beings, our tolerance for it? >> i'm, well, you know, i think it, wealth has been known to corrupt for a very long time. and people's perspectives change as they move into spheres of relative advantage. and i think it's often not so much that they're indifferent to the poverty of other people,
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it's that they can actually can be for all purposes, unaware of it, even if they read about it in the newspaper, you know? i think it's i mean, that is the kind of classic model of human civilization, where you have a tiny little population of privileged people and wretchedness as far as the eye can see. democracy has been meant to remove the artificial constraints, poverty is the huge artificial constraint, on human thought and action and so on and our mutual perceptions. and, you know, in this country, in various ways and degrees, there have been attempts to moderate that entrapment if, you know? and we've abandoned that, i think. that, you know, a lot of people politically and economically are persuaded that there's some merit in this terrible division that's settling in. >> what do you hear in our public language today, in
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contrast to what you once called the language of the character of generosity, the largeness of spirit. what are you hearing in our public language today? >> well, one thing that really bothers me and really upsets me is that a complex problem cannot be acknowledged as a complex problem. you know, the president makes, you know, a proposal, or establishes a policy. nobody would say, well, this is good on one hand, but it's problem from another point of view. they attack it as being something, you know, something subversive or something, you know? and the public should hear policies talked over as if among adults, you know? it would have this good effect, it would have this negative effect, we have to choose, you know? that never happens, it seems to me. people find the most
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ridiculously minor, most opportunistic points of attack, and the attack is all that matters. it is disgraceful that we have to watch people over and again descend to the level of meanness, which we see so often. it seems sometimes as if political discourse is the cheapest intellectual environment that you can enter into. people have more dignity under most circumstances. they're not pandering to anybody. i think that pandering has seduced a lot of public behavior, made people operate at levels that they would not really consider worth of themselves. >> i remember you once ask, who among us wishes that our hymns, our sermons, were dumber?
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but there are a lot of people who do. >> well, as far as the sermons and so on, i think that people who feel that certain things are associated with an elite feel that they effectively exclude, that they give signals to other people that they're not welcome within the circle, or something like that, you know? which, when you consider that, you know, that william tyndale's bible was written for the illiterate, you know, i mean, and it is perhaps the masterpiece of the english language. or luther's bible, you know, i mean, he would apparently hang germans spoke german, being so latinate himself. but to hear the melodies and to hear the nuances and depths of ordinary speech has been the most fruitful thing that we have done in this civilization in the last 500 years. we, you know, to respect people,
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to be attentive to them in a way that makes it so that you actually are using these metrics of culture, to re-express it in art or politics or whatever, you know? that's what all the great people have done. >> you had this contradiction we were talking about earlier between the high sense of america that walt whitman articulated as something more than politics. it's poetry and it's prose and he captured that spirit of it. and then you see what we did to the indigenous, what we, the europeans did to the indigenous people, the slaves, the freed a slaves. i mean, when you and i were young, black men were still being lynched in this country. >> oh, i know. >> and children growing up in the gilded age, and even today, we have what you call, "a bracing and punitive severity toward the vulnerable among us." >> well, if you read european history or british history, hanging people for stealing
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rabbits, you know, this kind, i mean, the, or people falling into poverty and then they're put into these horrible workhouses where they basically starve to death. you know, if you really look at history, which we tend not to do, it is grotesque. and what you see in the best reformist impulses in america is a moving away from history that was profoundly entrenched in western civilization. and, you know, certainly we never broke free of it. and certainly when we're feeling atavistic, we relapse into what are these ancient models of cruelty and injustice. but what we do, i think, that is a mistake is we fail to value progressive change because it's never perfect. it's never absolute. we're dragging this onerous history behind us.
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ameliorative behavior is utterly to be valued. >> you've said in my favorite book that you've done, "when i was a child i read books," you wrote that, "the language of public life has lost the character of generosity," and that, "the largeness of spirit that has created and supported the best of our institutions and brought reform to the worst of them has been erased out of historical memory." >> that's something that just is amazing to me. one of the ways that i got started writing the kind of history that i do is that i was trying to think of a moment in which people understood their situation and reacted to it appropriately, effectively. and that led me to the abolitionists, you know? >> the abolitionists? >> yes, exactly. who were, you know, they were people that stepped out of privileged places in new england, lived on the open
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prairie in kansas or wherever, you know, set up colleges to teach greek to whoever might settle around them, you know, and so on. incredibly, wonderful people. i mean, beautiful writers, beautiful, you know, people that created these amazing little institutions like oberlin and grinnell and so on, that maintain the character somehow that was invested in them. you know, i mean, this sort of reverence for high learning and all, and i don't, they were very effective. they turned things around. people don't realize that slavery was as entrenched in western civilization as computers are now. you know? every once in a while they make this amazing discovery, you know? i mean, there's a book just out now about how mortgages were leveraged against slaves and so on. well, you know, harriet beecher stowe wrote about that, you
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know? that it was not a small thing that they accomplished. they overturned basically the economic order of contemporary america. and they are, abolitionist is treated as a bad word in many contexts, as if they were some, you know, you'd have to be some sort of frothing maniac to think that slavery should be abolished. >> and you make the case in, "when i was a child i read books," you make the case that after generations of attention to public education, public health, public safety, access to suffrage and equality under the law, those values are now under siege. >> they are. these voter identification things, you know, the whole public education, these attempts at reforming public education that seem to me to be designed to model people into a kind of productivity again, making them useful for other people's purposes rather than making their education an end in itself.
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you know, i went, i'm a proud product of public education until college. it was probably a very eccentric little establishment by most standards. but i was taught very optimistically in the sense that people always conveyed the idea that they were giving me something really of value, something that would make me richer no matter what i did, you know, in life. that, you know, giving me my mind, you know? and i think that this is a spectacularly efficient model of education. i think that these assumptions that, you know, making everybody teach to a test, and so on, is valuable in some way. we're just destroying what's the best impulse, the most successful impulse in our educational system. >> so what's happened to that old impulse you once described,
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that lay behind, and i'm quoting you, "the dissemination of information and learning, the will to ensure that the public will be competent to make the weightiest decisions and to conform society to its best sense of the possible." what's happened to that impulse? >> i don't know. i think that people, you know, it was, it's always been a human temptation. but it has been an ethics and an ideology among us lately to say all that matters is money, basically, you know? i don't think people believe that instinctively, or that they live their lives in those terms. but i think a lot of people who find their way into prominent places in the culture are happy to proceed on that assumption. i mean, if you have a cable program that scares every little old lady in america by the standard of public support,
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maybe, you know, you can say you've accomplished something. they send you their social security checks, you know? it's terrible to suggest that people proceed on such vulgar motives, but i frankly have to assume it's true. >> you write a lot about fear lately. >> yes. >> about not your fear, but fear abroad in the land. >> exactly. >> what's the source of it? >> i think that, i mean, it's exciting to people. >> fear? >> fear. yes. i mean, look at the ways in which fear manifests itself. you know, this sort of anti-immigration feelings, you know, that people with these crazy weapons, people, you know, buying apocalyptic money, or freeze-dried apocalypse dinners and things like that. you know, i think that it makes a little narrative that makes
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you the hero in an imagined drama. it makes anybody else a potential threat. it's like late-night tv or something, you know? and i think that it has been pushed on people, it's used as a stimulus to make people watch cable network "a" rather than "b" and so on. and it's become a kind of addiction, i think. there's been this amazing reversal that the nra is probably disproportionately responsible for. >> national rifle association? >> yes, exactly, that makes fear look like courage to so many people. you can't drive your car if you don't have a gun in the glove compartment? well, what nonsense is that? you know, it's not bold and brave to go around acting like you think everybody's going to be some kind of threat to you. it's psychotic really. >> what do you fear?
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>> what do i fear? i mean, i fear for, there are things that i, you know, obviously i fear for democracy, for example. i don't know. you know, the oddest thing happened. i became 70. and i realized that in order to be 70, you have to have had basically 69 years of really good fortune and that, you know, what i mean? i don't feel as though i can lose much. i don't think i can lose much at this point. i've had a good life and a long life by world standards, you know. and this neutralizes many kinds of anxiety for me. if i can fail now, it will be a minor, minor event because i have such a short time to experience the fact of failure. >> marilynne robinson, thank you very much for being with me. >> great pleasure.
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>> that's it for this week. i'm bill moyers. i'll see you here next time. don't wait a week to get more moyers. visit for exclusive blogs, essays, and visit for exclusive blogs, essays, and video features. -- captions by vitac -- funding a provided by -- ann gumowitz, carnegie corporation
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of new york. the ford foundation, work ing with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide. the herb alpert foundation, supporting organizations whose mission is to promote compassion and creativity in our society. the john d. and catherine t. macarthur foundation, committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. more information at park foundation, dedicated to heightening public awareness of critical issues. the kohlberg foundation. barbara g. fleischman. and by our sole corporate sponsor, mutual of america, designing customized individual and group retirement products. that's why we're your retirement company.
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>> garrison keillor: maxine kumin lives on a farm in new hampshire where she breeds arabian and quarter horses, writing poetry, four novels, more than 20 children's books. she says, "i don't want to write poems that aren't necessary. i want to write poems that matter." >> this is a little one called after love.
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afterward, the compromise. bodies resume their boundaries. these legs, for instance, mine. your arms take you back in. spoons of our fingers, lips admit their ownership. the bedding yawns, a door blows aimlessly ajar and overhead, a plane singsongs coming down. nothing is changed, except there was a moment when the wolf, the mongering wolf who stands outside the self lay lightly down, and slept. ( applause ) thank you.
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hello and welcome to nhk "newsline." i'm ross mihara in tokyo. leaders of industrialized and emerging economies are sharing views on the challenges they face at the g-20 summit. they're discussing economy growth despite uncertainty in the middle east. they will sit together this weekend. staff at the international monetary fund put together a report for them. the u.s. economic recovery and falling oil prices are positive. still, they're concerned about tensions


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