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cities from around the world tell the story

with thanks to the New York Times for their collection of photos….

GHANA-US-DEMOMEXICO-US-POLITICS-TRUMP-INAUGURATION-PROTESTWomen's March In Amsterdamantarctica.jpgTrump Womens MarchWomen's March in AthensTrump ProtestsWomen's March CoverageNew Zealanders Take Part In Women's March To Protest Trump InaugurationTrump Womens MarchWomen's solidarity march in Sydney, New South WalesWomen's solidarity march in Bangkok, ThailandWomen's March In BarcelonaWomen's March in BerlinWomen March in Colombia0121 wmarchTrump ProtestsWomen March in BrazilArgentina Trump Women's MarchTrump Womens MarchTrump Women's MarchTrump Women's MarchTrump Womens MarchWomen's March on ClevelandTrump Womens MarchMarch In Defense Of Women's Rights Held In Columbia, South CarolinaTrump Womens MarchTrump Womens MarchUS-POLITICS-INAUGURATION-TRUMP-PROTESTProtesters take part in the Women's March on DublinIraq Womens MarchTrump Womens MarchTrump Women's Marchflagstaff-1254Women's anti Trump march in FlorenceWomen's Anti Trump rally in Switzerlandguam-1254Trump Womens MarchTrump Womens MarchFINLAND-US-POLITICS-TRUMP-INAUGURATION-DEMOTrump Womens MarchAPTOPIX Trump ProtestsWomen's March JacksonvilleTrump Women's MarchTrump Womens MarchTrump Womens MarchTrump Womens MarchLas Cruces Womens MarchTrump ProtestsTrump Womens MarchPORTUGAL-US-WOMEN-RIGHTS-MARCHBritain Women's MarchTrump ProtestsWomen's MarchPeople hold signs to show solidarity with the Women's March in Washington and many other marches in several countries, in MadridFRANCE-US-POLITICS-INAUGURATION-PROTESTTrump Womens MarchTrump ProtestsMexico Trump InaugurationTrump Womens MarchTrump ProtestsWomens MarchDemonstrators protest against U.S. President Donald Trump during the Women's March inside Karura forest in Kenya's capital NairobiTrump Womens MarchTrump Women's MarchNew Yorkers' reactionWOMEN'S MARCH NYTMARCHTrump Womens MarchTrump ProtestsCentral Florida Women's Rally at Lake Eola ParkProtesters gather for the Women's March in OsloFRANCE-US-POLITICS-WOMEN-DEMOWomen's March On Main - Park City 2017Trump ProtestsWomen's March CoverageTrump Womens MarchWomen's March on Portlandportlandme-1254Sister rally to the Women's March in Washington in PragueTrump Inauguration ProtestsWomen's MarchWomen's March in RomeTrump Womens MarchWOMEN'S MARCH NYTMARCHCOSTA RICA-US-POLITICS-TRUMP-INAUGURATION-PROTESTTrump Womens MarchTrump Womens MarchTrump ProtestsUS-POLITICS-TRUMP-INAUGURATION-PROTESTDebbie HollisTrump Womens MarchTrump Women's MarchWomens rights and anti Trump marchTrump Womens MarchTrump Women's MarchTrump ProtestsTrump ProtestsSweden Women's MarchTrump Womens MarchGEORGIA-WOMEN-RIGHTS-MARCHPeople gather in front of the U.S. Embassy in solidarity with the Women's March in Washington and many other marches in several countries, in Tel AvivCanada Womens MarchTrump ProtestsPeopleLee,Chang W. - from camera serial numbermarching_protestersPat McMahonTrump Protestsdc-large-view-with-detailgettyimages-632342302-1280x720Women's March In ParisWomen's March On Main - Park City 2017albuquerqueWomen's March In Amsterdam

things fall apart

The Second Coming

BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

The Week Democracy Died

Dark days this summer showed how government by the people—beset by illiberal populists on one side and undemocratic elites on the other—is poised for extinction.

Animation by Slate. Photos by Getty Images, Reuters.

There are years, decades even, in which history slows to a crawl. Then there are weeks that are so eventful that they seem to mark the dissolution of a world order that had once seemed solid and to foretell the rise of one as yet unknowable.

The week of July 11, 2016, has every chance of being remembered as one of those rare flurries of jumbled, inchoate, concentrated significance. The centrifugal forces that are threatening to break political systems across the world may have started to register a decade ago; they may have picked up speed over the last 12 months; but never since the fall of the Berlin Wall have they wreaked havoc in so many places in so short a span of time—showcasing the failures of technocratic rule, the terrifying rise of populist strongmen, and the existential threat posed by Islamist terrorism, all in the span of seven short days.

At first glance, a political crisis in London; a terrorist attack in Nice, France; a failed putsch in Ankara, Turkey; and a bloviating orator on his way to becoming the Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States look like the dramatic apex of very different, barely connected screenplays. To my eye, they are garish panes of glass that add up to one unified, striking mosaic. Looked at from the right distance, they tell the story of a political system, liberal democracy, that has long dominated the world—and is now in the midst of an epic struggle for its own survival.

A Week Full of Omens

 

The week started with all eyes on the United Kingdom. Brits had recently voted to leave the European Union in a referendum whose unexpected results sent shock waves across the continent. But when David Cameron resigned as prime minister, when the promises of leading members of the “Leave” campaign went up in smoke, when the pound tanked and the first companies announced layoffs and many voters reportedly began to regret their choice, it seemed as though the country’s elites might engineer some subtle subterfuge. And the woman to engineer that subterfuge was Theresa May, a cautious supporter of the “Remain” campaign who had quickly emerged as one of two candidates to succeed Cameron as the country’s next prime minister.

Those hopes were dashed when May set out her political program in a hastily arranged campaign appearance in the city of Birmingham early on Monday morning. “Brexit,” she vowed in the most significant piece of political tautology of recent times, “means Brexit.” If May became prime minister, she would lead the country out of the EU—throwing the defining political project of Europe’s postwar era into an existential crisis.

 

thousandsmarchinbrexitprotest-2-3.jpg
Top: Theresa May on April 12. Bottom: A lone Brexit supporter during the protest against the referendum decision to leave the EU on July 2.

Stefan Wermuth/Reuters, Michael Tubi/Corbis via Getty Images

 

By the time Big Ben had struck noon, Andrea Leadsom, May’s last remaining rival for the leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party, and the country, had dropped out of the race. Within 48 hours, May kneeled before the Queen, and was named the second female Prime Minister in the country’s history. The cabinet picks she announced on Wednesday evening confirmed that she meant business. With Euroskeptics like Boris Johnson and David Davis in key positions, the last shreds of doubt about her commitment vanished. Britain will leave the European Union. Europe’s postwar order is one step closer to unraveling.

* * *

Thursday, July 14, was Bastille Day. After a brutal 18 months in which France was hit by two major terrorist attacks, the nation took the opportunity to reaffirm its commitment to liberty, equality, and fraternity. In his annual Bastille Day press conference at the Élysée Palace, President François Hollande announced that he would end the state of emergency that had held sway since the bloody attack on the Bataclan last November. On the beaches of Nice, just beyond the storied Promenade des Anglais, a second home to Europe’s rich and famous for the better part of two centuries, tens of thousands gathered to watch a fireworks display resplendent in red, white, and blue.

When the fireworks were over, when the city was teeming with humanity—young and old, rich and poor, French and foreign, Christian, Muslim, and Jew—a truck of death barreled down the Promenade, zigzagging, firing shots, killing indiscriminately, killing avariciously. By the time the truck had come to a standstill, 84 people were dead or dying.

Eighteen months earlier, when terrorists had stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo and gone on to kill shoppers at a kosher supermarket in the east of Paris, solidarity among the French political class had held for about a week. This time, the jockeying for position started almost immediately.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right populist National Front, mocked Hollande for his ill-timed revocation of the state of emergency and accused the government of total failure in its fight again Islamist terrorism. Her broadside resonated. Every attack pushes frightened citizens “a little closer to surrendering to the impulse to embrace an authoritarian response,” warned Art Goldhammer, one of the most astute American observers of France. While it had once seemed unimaginable that Le Pen might become president of France in elections next spring, “it is becoming thinkable” that it will be she who holds the traditional Bastille Day press conference from the Élysée Palace on July 14, 2017.

* * *

Just as tensions began to rise among the French political class, the first explosions pierced a quiet Friday night in sleepy Ankara. Yet another terrorist attack, the good people of Twitter quickly concluded. But what played out in front of the world’s eyes over the next hours was something else entirely: an old-fashioned coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, updated for the age of social media by his desperate FaceTime pleas for Turks to take to the street and come to his rescue.

Both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into dictatorship.

Plotters, even ones imminently doomed to be deemed incompetent by CNN’s self-proclaimed coup experts, tend to have the benefit of surprise on their side. In those first hours, tanks secured Atatürk Airport and the offices of the state broadcasting station. Erdogan, infamously vain, was reduced to addressing his nation through the speakers of a TV presenter’s iPhone; rumors already located him en route to political exile in Germany or perhaps the United Kingdom. The country’s secular elite, it seemed, had retained more of its power than observers had thought possible. With the might of the army’s F-16s on their side, they were mounting a last-ditch attempt to resist Erdogan’s creeping Islamicization of the country. The coup looked likely to succeed.

160812_POL_June-11-Turkey
Top: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks on CNN Türk via FaceTime call in the early morning hours of July 16. Bottom: A wounded Turkish woman lies on the ground, July 16 in Ankara.

Burak Kara/Getty Images, Gokhan Sahin/Getty Images

 

Then the tide began to turn. When Erdogan next spoke to the nation, he stood in front of real cameras, looking more self-assured. At his behest, Turks came out in tens of thousands to defend democracy, or to pay allegiance to their tribune, or to claim the right to impose their religion on others, or perhaps all three at once. Most of the army fought the plotters, opposition parties condemned the coup, and—once they could be reasonably confident that Erdogan would stay in power—so did Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.

By daybreak, a military dictatorship had been averted. But liberal democracy seemed to be in no less trouble. Safely returned to Istanbul, Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God” and set about the task of purging the state of anybody whom he suspected of disloyalty. Among the scores of arrests he made, and the thousands of judges he fired, some might plausibly have had a hand in the plot; but for most, their crime was one of thought, not action. And so Turkey had witnessed two coups in 48 hours: first, the failed rebellion of factions of the military against Erdogan’s proto-authoritarian rule, and second, Erdogan’s successful purge of all who might one day challenge his position, whether through the barrel of a gun or the power of the ballot box.

* * *

Never one to allow harrowing events to upstage him or to let propriety stand in the way of his sales pitch, Donald J. Trump cheered every twist and turn in London, Nice, and Ankara from the sidelines. When Brits voted to Brexit, Trump congratulated them on taking “their country back,” promising “to do the exact same thing on Election Day 2016 here in the United States.” When he heard of the terror attack in Nice, he saw, first and foremost, an opportunity to drive home his opposition to Muslim immigration. “When will we learn?” he tweeted that Thursday night. “It’s only getting worse.” Even the coup in Turkey became “further demonstration of the failures of Obama-Clinton. You just have to look,” he said at a Saturday press conference announcing Mike Pence as his running mate, “every single thing they’ve touched has turned to horrible, horrible death-defying problems.”

Trump’s case is straightforward: The challenges facing America are momentous. But they were brought about by incompetence, corruption, or false loyalties. And so they can easily be solved once a strong, incorruptible, patriotic leader—a leader just like Trump—takes power. He, and only he, is the solution to the “death-defying problems” that shaped this terrible week.

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump introducing his newly selected vice presidential running mate Mike Pence during an event at the Hilton Midtown Hotel, July 16 in New York City.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

 

It is this providential fusion of the people and their leader—the belief that collective deliverance from a dark world can only come from a pure, unadulterated conduit for the people’s voice—that defines the core of his appeal. And it is his closely related inability to contemplate that he may at times be mistaken, or that there may be legitimate conflicts of interest in a democracy, or that the power of the presidency needs to be checked by other institutions, that makes him so dangerous.

Never has the egotism at the heart of his appeal been more apparent than during the media blitz to introduce his running mate. During the Saturday press conference at which they first appeared in public together, Trump was barely able to say a few consecutive sentences about Pence. Instead, he passionately spoke about his own views, interlaced with a few perfunctory talking points about his would-be vice president read from a conspicuous cue card.

Sunday brought yet another display of Trump’s egotism. When Pence was asked what kind of vice president he hoped to be during a joint interview on 60 Minutes, Trump answered the question for him. When Pence lauded Trump for speaking from his heart, Trump interrupted again: “Well, I speak from my heart and my brain. Just so we understand.” But the best line of the interview, and the most telling, came when the interviewer suggested that Trump is “not known to be a humble man.”

“I think I am actually a humble man,” Trump responded. “I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”

Liberal Democracy Under Attack

The truly scary thing about Donald Trump is not that he is unique. It is, rather, that he is far from exceptional. In a rich, raucous republic of 300 million, there will always be a glamorous bully with a taste for the gutter. What is new is not the existence of a populist willing to voice nasty sentiments; it’s that a lot of voters have become so disgusted by the political class, and so disillusioned with the current state of the country’s institutions, that they are willing to vote for someone quite so nasty.

In the long run, Trump’s particular views and quirks matter less than we would like to think. He is ultimately no more than an extra in an unfolding horror show—the most prominent beneficiary of an epochal shift whose roots predate Trump’s entry into politics and whose effects will continue to shape our societies long after he has retired to one of his many estates.

The political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands.

Across the affluent, established democracies of North America and Western Europe, the last years have witnessed a meteoric rise of figures who may not be quite so brash or garish as Trump and yet bear a striking resemblance to him: Marine Le Pen in France, Frauke Petry in Germany, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and many of the leading Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. They too harness a new level of anger that is quite unlike anything liberal democracies have witnessed in a half-century. They too promise to stand up for ordinary people, to do away with a corrupt political elite, and to put the ethnic and religious minorities who are now (supposedly) being favored in their rightful (subordinate) place. They, too, are willing to do away with liberal political institutions like an independent judiciary or a free, robust press so long as those stand in the way of the people’s will.  Together, they are building a new type of political regime that is slowly coming into its own: illiberal democracy.

Geert Wilders
Dutch far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders in Brussels in 2014.

Francois Lenoir/Reuters

 

Critics often attack Trump, Le Pen, and their cohort for being undemocratic. But that is to misunderstand both their priorities and the reasons for their appeal. For the most part, their belief in the will of the people is real. Their primary objection to the status quo is, quite simply, that institutional roadblocks like independent courts or norms like a “politically correct” concern for the rights of minorities stop the system from channeling the people’s righteous anger into public policy. What they promise, then, is not to move away from popular rule but rather to strip it of its artificial, liberal guise—all the while embodying the only true version of the people’s will.

Places like Hungary and Poland show what this might mean in practice. Once celebrated as examples of successful democratic transition, these countries are now at the forefront of the movement toward illiberal democracy. After Viktor Orbán took power in Budapest six years ago, his Fidesz party undermined the country’s constitutional court, stacked government institutions like the electoral commission with party loyalists, and turned the most important media outlets into uncritical propaganda machines. Over the course of the past year, Poland’s Law and Justiceparty has accomplished much the same feat in a fraction of the time. In both places, key liberal rights are honored more in the breach than the observance.

Political elites are understandably terrified by the speed with which illiberal democracy is coming into its own. But if the populists are pushing for a political system that does away with one half of liberal democracy, the truth is that a large number of establishment politicians are increasingly tempted to embrace a system that does away with the other half. Where Trump and Le Pen seek to establish an illiberal democracy, a lot of sensible centrists are quietly seeking their salvation in what I call “undemocratic liberalism.” If the people want to violate the rights of unloved minorities, setting up the prospect of democracy without rights, the political establishment is increasingly insulating itself from the people’s demands, opting for a form of rights without democracy.

To be sure, undemocratic liberalism usually retains a democratic sheen. The standard rigmarole of political life in a supposed democracy is jealously observed: There are regular elections and hard-fought campaigns, grand speeches and parliamentary votes. The institutional apparatus that supposedly serves to translate the will of the people into public policy remains in place. And yet, the actual purpose of these institutions—to let the people rule—is increasingly forgotten. To anyone who cares to take a skeptical look, it is obvious how ineffectual representative institutions have become at delivering on the noble task they supposedly serve.

Take the U.S. Congress. Legislators are supposed to represent the people, but the views of ordinary voters now have precious little influence on Capitol Hill. More wealthy, more white, and much more likely to have gone to elite schools than the average American, congressmen and senators don’t resemble the people they are supposed to represent. But the main problem is not who they are but rather what incentives the systems gives them. To get elected, politicians need to prevail in a primary system that emphasizes the voice of a small number of radical ideologues. To bankroll their campaigns, they need to raise contributions at a constant clip, making them dependent on the good will of major funders. And to enjoy a plush retirement, they need to cultivate the corporations and lobbyists that are likely to throw easy money their way once they leave office. Given those conditions, it is hardly surprising that political scientists who study to what degree legislation reflects the preferences of average voters have concluded that there is a deep democratic disconnect, in the United States and in many other supposed democracies across the West as well.

Legislation thus reflects the will of the people less and less. As important, many areas of public policy have been taken out of the legislative process altogether. Congress is not only constrained by traditional balances like the Supreme Court. Increasingly, it is also hamstrung by the expanding influence of experts, an increase in bureaucratic autonomy, and the rise of new international organizations. Economic policy is a case in point: Some of the most essential economic decisions are now made by independent bureaucratic agencies like the Federal Reserve or the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, set in stone by far-reaching trade agreements like NAFTA, or adjudicated by international institutions like the World Trade Organization.

Ordinary people are angry at the political system in part because they recognize to what extent they have been shut out of key decisions. But, by the same token, the process is becoming so unresponsive in part because the rise of illiberal populists has given the political establishment a good reason to insulate itself from the people’s anger. A pendulum is swinging from illiberal democracy to undemocratic liberalism, then back again. And its swings are getting wider and wider.

* * *

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a perfect illustration of the tension between illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism.

Even the most passionate defenders of the EU find it difficult to deny that it suffers from a serious democratic deficit. Most of the power in the institution rests with the European Commission, which is run by career bureaucrats, and the European Council, which represents the governments of member states. While the European Parliament is meant to provide a democratic counterweight to this elite-driven process, it is toothless in practice: elected with a tiny turnout by voters who barely register what it does day to day, the body has few formal powers. For all of its many achievements, the EU is a key exhibit for the existence of undemocratic liberalism.

Resistance to the European Union has long been especially strong among Brits, who have traditionally prided themselves in the unchecked sovereignty enjoyed by their parliament. Under increasing pressure from right-wingers in his own party, David Cameron thus agreed to a referendum on membership in the EU. Giving the people a one-time simulacrum of plebiscitary democracy, he hoped, would “lance the boil” of Euroskepticism once and for all.

Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

There was only one problem with this plan: When the British people were offered the little finger of plebiscitary democracy, they decided to grab hold of the whole hand. Expected to follow the lead of their betters, they took great pleasure in shocking them with their disobedience. And while there are some perfectly reasonable grounds on which to dislike the EU, opinion polls leave little doubt as to the real reasons why most Brits wound up favoring Brexit. While the hard-line Euroskeptics who forced the referendum may have been concerned with questions of sovereignty, most voters cherished an opportunity to express their illiberal resentments. For all intents and purposes, the referendum turned into a plebiscite against immigration.

In the manner of a parent who tells Little Timmy he can have anything he wants for dinner, then tries to back out of the deal when Little Timmy announces he would like a dozen grasshoppers with a side of vanilla ice cream, a lot of political leaders were tempted to backtrack on Brexit once the results were in. Couldn’t they negotiate a deal that would end formal membership in the European Union while keeping all the important things the way they are now? Or call a second referendum in the hope that it might produce a different result? Faced with a blatant expression of how illiberal the preferences of most people are, the temptation to subvert the democratic procedures that were meant to translate those views into actual public policy was—understandably—strong.

BRITAIN-EU/
A Brexit supporter outside Downing Street in London, June 24.

Neil Hall/Reuters

 

Theresa May ultimately quashed the hope that Brexit might mean something less than Brexit. The people had been allowed the rare luxury of speaking their mind, and she recognized it would have been too embarrassing to renege on so prominent a promise. If Little Timmy insisted, he would be allowed to eat grasshoppers with vanilla ice cream this one time. But just as any prudent parent would learn from the experience and grow much more wary of letting an unruly child make untutored decisions in the future, so too the political class has mostly interpreted Brexit as a warning about the irrationality of popular referenda. By and large, it will serve as a reminder of the importance of holding the illiberal preferences of the average voter at bay.

* * *

Liberal democracy is decomposing into its constitutive parts: Over the next decades, much of the world will face a tragic choice between illiberal democracy, or democracy without rights, and undemocratic liberalism, or rights without democracy.

But if that comes to pass, it is unlikely to be the end point. For when illiberal democrats fall out of favor, they tend not to give up power. What starts as a genuine attempt to channel the voice of the people all too often degenerates into a straightforward dictatorship. A strikingly similar development might well befall undemocratic liberalism: Forced to defend itself against an onslaught of illiberal populists, it may have to resort to increasingly illiberal means to subdue its opponents. In the long run, both illiberal democracy and undemocratic liberalism may thus be headed for a remarkably similar fate: a gradual descent into an unvarnished form of dictatorship.

There could hardly be a more striking illustration of this prediction than recent developments in Turkey. For decades, Turkey was a relatively clear-cut case of undemocratic liberalism: In a deeply religious country, a small, secular elite protected ethnic and religious minorities, resisting any attempt to pass laws inspired by Islam. Whenever a popularly elected government made small steps toward putting religion at the center of public life, the army was waiting in the wings to depose it. Then Erdogan managed to lead a seemingly moderate Islamic movement to political victory and to break the power of the secular elite. For some years, outside observers hoped that he would turn Turkey into a true democracy, allowing pious Muslims fuller participation in social and political life without violating the rights of secularists or religious minorities. But that hope gradually faded. Before long, Erdogan pushed illiberal legislation, from new restrictions on the sale of alcohol to increasingly extreme measures against critical journalists and academics.

The failed coup was no more than a final showdown between the two ugly sides of this coin. If the coup had succeeded, the victorious factions of the army would likely have reestablished some liberal freedoms, in part by reverting to a more secular vision of Turkey. At the same time, they would have done away with any pretense of democracy: The freedom to drink alcohol in the streets of Istanbul would have been purchased by an inability to speak one’s mind about the new military government.

91563718
A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Kizilay Square on July 18 in Ankara.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

 

When the coup failed, the outcome was not all that different. Long desperate to consolidate his rule, Erdogan seized the moment. In the first three days after the coup, he suspended close to 30,000 members of the civil service, revoked the licenses of 21,000 teachers, took over 6,000 soldiers into custody, and commanded all 1,577 deans of Turkish universities to submit their resignations. The purge is continuing apace: All in all, over 26,000 people have been arrested in the weeks since the coup. Elected as a people’s tribune, Erdogan has now amassed so much power that he can well afford to ignore the views of his electorate. The form of illiberal democracy he has instituted for the past decade has finally taken off its mask and revealed the ugly face of dictatorship.

The Roots of the Crisis

By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

That remarkable fact has made it easy to ascribe the stability of the West’s political institutions to its fundamental attributes: universal suffrage, rule of law, checks and balances, individual rights. Each country gives its own spin on the genealogy of its particular political settlement. Americans tend to thank the genius of their founders, the French the principled visionaries on the barricades, Brits the fortuitous rise of pluralistic institutions owed to the blood-soaked compromises struck between lord and liege. But for all of the specificities of national myth and memory, the triumphalist upshot is remarkably similar in every democratic country. The question of the best regime form, which had animated the writings of thinkers from Socrates to Rousseau, has supposedly been solved. The end of history has arrived.

This happy story overlooks a number of facts that have been so formative of our political world that it is easy to forget just how extraordinary they, too, are by historical standards. All through the history of democratic stability, the incomes of ordinary citizens grew rapidly. All through the history of democratic stability, a democracy has been the most powerful country in the world. And all through the history of democratic stability, democracies have been highly homogeneous.

Over the last decades, each of these factors stopped being the case. Living standards stagnated. The rise of China is threatening American hegemony. Democracies in North America and Western Europe are more diverse than they have ever been before.

History cannot tell us how liberal democracies perform under those circumstances, so we are only just starting to gather the first shreds of evidence for what the effects of those transformations might be. What little we know suggests that the answer is not going to be pretty.

 

* * *

Since the founding of the American republic, the median citizen in every generation could pride himself on being much wealthier than his parents and had strong reason to believe that his children would be even better off. Indeed, ever since the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, a clear majority of American citizens ended their lives with comforts they could barely have imagined when they were growing up. From 1935 to 1960, the standard of living of the median voter just about doubled. From 1960 to 1985, it just about doubled again. From 1985 to 2010, it flatlined.

Most Americans have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.

In the years since then, America’s gross domestic product, the Dow Jones, and the incomes of the rich have all recovered from the depths of the Great Recession. But the incomes of most Americans have barely improved. Most citizens have not experienced real economic gains since George H.W. Bush was elected.

If statistics lie, it’s often because averages hide. The stagnation of living standards conceals the phenomenal increase in income and wealth for the richest Americans. It also conceals the remarkable decline in income and wealth for the poorest Americans. That is true for many Latino and black Americans, who are more likely than other demographic groups to be doing the kinds of blue-collar jobs that have seen wages decrease in real terms. But it is felt especially keenly among white Americans with high expectations, limited qualifications, and declining hourly wages—that is to say, among some of Donald Trump’s most passionate supporters.

Trump Supporters
Supporters of Donald Trump at a campaign rally at Grant Park Event Center in Westfield, Indiana, July 12.

Tasos Katopodis/AFP/Getty Images

 

The appeal of illiberal democracy cannot be understood in abstraction from this economic story. The fortunes of the populists do not necessarily rise and fall in step with the business cycle or even the unemployment rate. Nor need it always be the very poorest, or those who stand to suffer the most immediate losses because of globalization, who flock toward them in the greatest numbers. The story that matters is broader than that: The basic deal offered by political elites since the inception of democracy was to provide ordinary people with large increases in their standard of living from one generation to the next. So long as that deal held, the people were willing to defer to the political class. Now that the deal has been broken—broken spectacularly—they no longer feel bound by their side of the bargain. And so many of them are willing to entertain the hope that the illiberal demagogues who are courting them so assiduously will serve them better than the unfaithful lot that is now in power.

* * *

In most parts of Europe, democracy took firm root only after the killings and expulsions of World War II turned countries that had once been home to a large number of minorities deeply homogeneous. Democracy in those places is a creation of the nation state, and for outsiders, membership in those nations has always remained difficult and incomplete. A German or an Italian or a Swede was thought to look a particular way and to descend from a particular ethnic stock. Though not every German is blond, and not every Italian has olive skin, it went without saying that somebody who is black or Asian or Middle Eastern could be neither German nor Italian.

The story was a little more complicated in the United States and in Canada, where membership in the nation had always been based on mutual aspirations for the future rather than descent from common ancestors. But even in the U.S., the lip service to diversity was secretly—and not so secretly—predicated on two important facts: The social and economic superiority of whites was not to be called into question. And particular ethnic or religious groups could not be associated with physical threats to the safety of American citizens. What happened in the brief intervals when these background conditions did not obtain speaks for itself. During World War I, some descendants of German immigrants were suspected of disloyalty; a flourishing German American associational life quickly disappeared. World War II was much worse: In the wake of Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans were classified as enemy aliens and promptly interned.

The brittle foundations of ethnic inclusion explain why tensions over immigration and racial identity have been running especially high over the last two decades. In Europe, places like Germany and Italy had to admit to themselves during that period that they were indeed “countries of immigration” and that they would not be able to go on forever denying immigrants of Turkish or Middle Eastern descent full membership in the nation. Meanwhile, in North America, many members of ethnic and religious minorities ascended to unprecedented positions of power and prestige, threateningthe majority’s comfortable assumption of perennial dominance.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these transformations—which are cultural as much as they are economic or political—made the ethnic majority deeply resentful. The fuse was now in place, and it was connected to a ton of TNT. The terrorists just had to light it.

This is the most important political effect of the series of spectacular Islamist terror attacks on liberal democracies in the West that began on 9/11 and has continued to wreak havoc since: The constant terror threat gradually transformed a division of “us” versus “them” that had once been one of many important facts of politics into the primary line of political division and mobilization.

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An anti-Muslim group in Austin, Texas, in 2015.

Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images

 

In every country and epoch, political life is defined by the key questions that determine which side you are on. In some countries these questions are socio-economic: Are you for the industrialists or the landowners, for the proletariat or the bourgeoisie? In other countries, the key questions are religious or ethnic: Are you for the Protestants or the Catholics, for the Luo or the Kikuyu?

These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.

 

These political “cleavages” can be a productive element of democratic life, a way of balancing the interests of different groups who mobilize to defend their own. But they always run the risk of turning so deep that people on both sides of the divide can no longer recognize each other as fellow citizens with legitimate interests. That is when victory at the polls starts to provide an excuse for subjugating a minority; when different groups might formally retain citizenship of the same country but the state becomes no more than a committee for advancing the interests of the ascendant faction. This is what the fallout from Islamist terrorism is now threatening to do across North America and Western Europe: A cleavage that was already fraught in most liberal democracies is becoming an instrument of tyranny.

Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis.

Despite their hatred for each other, the populists and the terrorists thus live in a strange kind of symbiosis. The more marginalized Muslims feel in Western societies, the easier ISIS finds it to recruit converts to its bloody cause. And the more homegrown terrorists kill innocents in the name of Islam, the easier it becomes for populists to incite voters against liberal democracy’s protections for ethnic and religious minorities. Seen in this light, the terror attack in Nice is yet another weapon in the armory that might allow Marine Le Pen to subvert liberté, egalité, and fraternité: It is yet another cause of fear in the population; yet another excuse to see politics from the vantage point of an ethnic in-group; and yet another example Le Pen can point to in claiming that Muslim immigrants simply do not fit into France.

The terrorists, the pious sentiment goes, will never have enough power to vanquish the principles of liberal democracy. That is true, so far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far. As the political fallout from the attack in Nice—and the attacks in Orlando and Brussels and Würzburg, Germany—demonstrate, it’s looking increasingly likely that we will let them win by doing their bidding for them.

The most pressing political question of our age is how we can stop that from happening. What reforms are needed to re-establish the social end economic foundations of liberal democracy? And how can we express liberal democratic values convincingly enough to win the battle of ideas against the likes of Donald Trump?

Regaining Our Conviction

Habituation breeds indifference. A turn of phrase that expressed a point with the help of a striking image no longer packs the same punch because we have grown inured to its literal meaning; linguists call this a dead metaphor. Driving to work in the sweet ride we bought a few months ago no longer gives us the same pleasure; economists call this hedonic adaptation. The person who once sent our heart racing enters the room and we barely notice it; grown-ups call this being married.

Something akin to this form of habituation has happened to our most fundamental political values. The ideals of liberal democracy are all around us. We know that the people are supposed to rule and that all citizens have a right to the same basic freedoms irrespective of their race, creed, or religion. But precisely because these ideas have surrounded us in a diffuse way for so long, we have begun to forget their meaning and their grandeur. “The fatal tendency of mankind to leave off thinking about a thing when it is no longer doubtful,” John Stuart Mill presciently warned inOn Liberty, “is the cause of half their errors.”

So, while civics teachers dutifully recite the ideals of the Founding Fathers and while the political instincts of mainstream publications from Time to the Huffington Post are in some vague sense “liberal,” the intellectual energy is now on the side of liberalism’s opponents.

A few decades ago, right-wing critics of liberal democracy were mostly confined to the oddballs and nostalgics who stubbornly harkened back to some imagined golden age, whether it be the era of fascism in Europe or the era of Jim Crow in the United States. Their ideas were terrifying and their influence, at times, real. And yet it was clear to all that they were ultimately defunct, bound to become more and more ridiculous with every passing year.

Since the turn of the millennium, this has changed fundamentally. The assumption that far-right alternatives to liberal democracy are invariably a remnant from the past is, itself, a relic of a bygone era. Illiberal democracy, the form of rule the far right now advocates in most places from the United States to the United Kingdom and from France to Turkey, is in many ways a new invention—and its ambition is nothing less than to claim the future for itself. Its broad appeal and rapid spread, encapsulated so painfully in the week of July 11, 2016, demonstrates that this aspiration is not to be dismissed lightly. To ensure that the future does not belong to illiberal democracy, its opponents will have to do the hard work of political resistance—and be willing to overcome their own deep divisions to cooperate against a common enemy.

As in the 1920s, when liberal democracy first came under deadly fire across the world, this willingness to work together in the face of a grave far-right threat is far from assured. Nobody should be more scared of the rise of illiberal populists than the left. And yet, in both Europe and North America, much of the left increasingly thinks of “liberal” as a term of abuse. Indeed, a growing share of left-wing activists has gone from understandable anger at the many shortcomings of the status quo to an outright rejection of the foundational political values of our age. Assuming that ideals that are flagrantly contradicted in practice can’t be worth very much in theory either, they too are giving up on the core tenets of liberal democracy.

If Donald Trump rails against Muslims in his speeches then, they believe, it is time to accept that freedom of speech is an outmoded concept. And if the police kill innocent black Americans then, they believe, the ideal of state neutrality between different ethnic groups is no more than a tool for white domination. The society they envisage is not one in which liberal democratic ideals are more perfectly realized than they are now—but rather one in which these ideals are sacrificed in the name of social justice.

The most foolhardy parts of the left even go so far as to see the rise of their enemies as a strategic opportunity. Believing that things will have to get worse before they can get better, their most urgent desire is to smash up the status quo. Unwilling to recognize any real difference between the policies favored by the likes of Trump and the policies favored by the likes of Clinton, they prefer the agent of chaos, however violent, to the defender of the current political order, however decent.

And so it is centrist politicians who have now become the last explicit defenders of liberalism. But, squeezed between a blatantly authoritarian right and an increasingly illiberal left, they have begun to seek refuge in new forms of technocratic rule. In the short run, the undemocratic bulwarks they are building against illiberal sentiments are protecting the rights of minorities. But their lack of urgency and the dearth of their vision mean that they do not even attempt to tackle the root causes of the populist rise, like the stagnation in living standards. In the long run, this is very dangerous: The exclusion of the people from the political process—especially when coupled with an unwillingness (or an inability) to pass real economic reform—will only serve to inflame illiberal passions, turning even more citizens against liberal democracy.

Among the many worrying signs of our time, perhaps the most concerning is that those who believe both in liberalism and in democracy, both in popular rule and in individual rights, have increasingly taken on a defensive crouch. They seek to rescue what they know to be valuable, and yet they have lost their ability to articulate what part of contemporary reality is worth fighting for and why. And so many of them wind up focusing their energies on shoring up the bad as well as the good parts of our crumbling political order: Rather than imagining what social and economic policies might help to diffuse popular anger and fulfill the promises of liberal democracy, they seek their salvation in immobility.

To fight the terrorists and the populists, to prevail both against the plotters of undemocratic coups and the illiberal tribunes propelled into office by the intense anger of a volatile age, will require liberal democrats to stand tall for their values—and to develop the radical imagination that is desperately needed if we are to recreate the conditions that once allowed for the system’s stability. New economic policies are needed to ensure that ordinary people capture much more of the world’s economic gains than they have in the past decades. Meanwhile, democratic institutions designed for the 18th century need to restore the promise of popular rule by incorporating the technologies of the 21st century.

By the cruel standards of human history, the last few decades have been uncommonly serene. It is looking less and less likely that we will one day be able to say the same thing of the next few decades. Radical change seems to lurk just around the corner. The question is no longer whether we can preserve our political order in its current form. (We probably can’t.) It is what reforms are needed to ensure that the precious, fragile combination of liberalism and democracy does not entirely vanish from the face of the earth. If the center is to hold—if we are to rescue what is best about our imperfect political order—a lot will have to change.

 

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/05/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation/

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2015/11/19/president-obama-marilynne-robinson-conversation-2/

 

 

President Obama & Marilynne Robinson: A Conversation in Iowa

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of it can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. —The Editors

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Pete Souza/White House

President Obama and Marilynne Robinson at the Iowa State Library, Des Moines, September 2015

The President: Marilynne, it’s wonderful to see you. And as I said as we were driving over here, this is an experiment, because typically when I come to a place like Des Moines, I immediately am rushed over to some political event and I make a speech, or I have a town hall, or I go see some factory and have wonderful conversations with people. But it’s very planned out and scripted. And typically, we’re trying to drive a very particular message that day about education or about manufacturing.

But one of the things that I don’t get a chance to do as often as I’d like is just to have a conversation with somebody who I enjoy and I’m interested in; to hear from them and have a conversation with them about some of the broader cultural forces that shape our democracy and shape our ideas, and shape how we feel about citizenship and the direction that the country should be going in.

And so we had this idea that why don’t I just have a conversation with somebody I really like and see how it turns out. And you were first in the queue, because—

Marilynne Robinson: Thank you very much.

The President: Well, as you know—I’ve told you this—I love your books. Some listeners may not have read your work before, which is good, because hopefully they’ll go out and buy your books after this conversation.

I first picked up Gilead, one of your most wonderful books, here in Iowa. Because I was campaigning at the time, and there’s a lot of downtime when you’re driving between towns and when you get home late from campaigning. And you and I, therefore, have an Iowa connection, because Gilead is actually set here in Iowa.

 

And I’ve told you this—one of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family goes through. And I was just—I just fell in love with the character, fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when you got a fancy award at the White House. And then we had dinner and our conversations continued ever since.

So anyway, that’s enough context. You just have completed a series of essays that are not fiction, and I had a chance to read one of them about fear and the role that fear may be playing in our politics and our democracy and our culture.* And you looked at it through the prism of Christianity and sort of the Protestant traditions that helped shape us, so I thought maybe that would be a good place to start.

Why did you decide to write this book of essays? And why was fear an important topic, and how does it connect to some of the other work that you’ve been doing?

Robinson: Well, the essays are actually lectures. I give lectures at a fair rate, and then when I’ve given enough of them to make a book, I make a book.

The President: So you just kind of mash them all together?

Robinson: I do. That’s what I do. But it rationalizes my lecturing, too. But fear 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 President: Well, now there’s been that strain in our democracy and in American politics for a long time. And it pops up every so often. I think the argument right now would be that because people are feeling the stresses of globalization and rapid change, and we went through one of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, and the political system seems gridlocked, that people may be particularly receptive to that brand of politics.

Robinson: But having looked at one another with optimism and tried to facilitate education and all these other things—which we’ve done more than most countries have done, given all our faults—that’s what made it a viable democracy. And I think that we have created this incredibly inappropriate sort of in-group mentality when we really are from every end of the earth, just dealing with each other in good faith. And that’s just a terrible darkening of the national outlook, I think.

The President: We’ve talked about this, though. I’m always trying to push a little more optimism. Sometimes you get—I think you get discouraged by it, and I tell you, well, we go through these moments.

Robinson: But when you say that to me, I say to you, you’re a better person than I am.

The President: Well, but I want to pick up on the point you made about us coming from everywhere. You’re a novelist but you’re also—can I call you a theologian? Does that sound, like, too stuffy? You care a lot about Christian thought.

Robinson: I do, indeed.

The President: And that’s part of the foundation of your writings, fiction and nonfiction. And one of the points that you’ve made in one of your most recent essays is that there was a time in which at least reformed Christianity in Europe was very much “the other.” And part of our system of government was based on us rejecting an exclusive, inclusive—or an exclusive and tightly controlled sense of who is part of the community and who is not, in favor of a more expansive one.

Tell me a little bit about how your interest in Christianity converges with your concerns about democracy.

Robinson: Well, I believe that people are images of God. There’s no alternative that is theologically respectable to treating people in terms of that understanding. What can I say? It seems to me as if democracy is the logical, the inevitable consequence of this kind of religious humanism at its highest level. And it [applies] to everyone. It’s the human image. It’s not any loyalty or tradition or anything else; it’s being human that enlists the respect, the love of God being implied in it.

The President: But you’ve struggled with the fact that here in the United States, sometimes Christian interpretation seems to posit an “us versus them,” and those are sometimes the loudest voices. But sometimes I think you also get frustrated with kind of the wishy-washy, more liberal versions where anything goes.

Robinson: Yes.

The President: How do you reconcile the idea of faith being really important to you and you caring a lot about taking faith seriously with the fact that, at least in our democracy and our civic discourse, it seems as if folks who take religion the most seriously sometimes are also those who are suspicious of those not like them?

Robinson: Well, I don’t know how seriously they do take their Christianity, because if you take something seriously, you’re ready to encounter difficulty, run the risk, whatever. I mean, when people are turning in on themselves—and God knows, arming themselves and so on—against the imagined other, they’re not taking their Christianity seriously. I don’t know—I mean, this has happened over and over again in the history of Christianity, there’s no question about that, or other religions, as we know.

But Christianity is profoundly counterintuitive—“Love thy neighbor as thyself”—which I think properly understood means your neighbor is as worthy of love as you are, not that you’re actually going to be capable of this sort of superhuman feat. But you’re supposed to run against the grain. It’s supposed to be difficult. It’s supposed to be a challenge.

The President: Well, that’s one of the things I love about your characters in your novels, it’s not as if it’s easy for them to be good Christians, right?

Robinson: Right.

The President: It’s hard. And it’s supposed to be hard. Now, you grew up in Idaho, in a pretty—it wasn’t a big, cosmopolitan place.

Robinson: The word “cosmopolitan” was never applied.

The President: Which town in Idaho did you grow up in?

Robinson: [Coeur d’Alene] is where I really grew up.

The President: How big was the town when you were growing up?

Robinson: 13,500 people.

The President: All right. So that’s a town.

Robinson: Yes, the second-largest city in the state at the time.

The President: And how do you think you ended up thinking about democracy, writing, faith the way you do? How did that experience of growing up in a pretty small place in Idaho, which might have led you in an entirely different direction—how did you end up here, Marilynne? What happened? Was it libraries?

Robinson: It was libraries, it was—people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice, right?

The President: Right.

Robinson: I followed what was for me the path of least resistance, which meant reading a lot of books and writing, because it came naturally to me. My brother is excellent in many of these things, you know? And I think we reinforced each other, he and I, but it was perfectly accidental.

With all respect to that environment, many very smart people do not follow the path in life that people like my brother and I did. You learn from them even if you don’t learn from them in a formal sense. But I always knew what I wanted to do in a sense—I mean, not be, but do. I didn’t really have the concept of author until I was in high school. But I was writing.

The President: But you knew you wanted to read and write.

Robinson: Yes, that’s what I wanted to do.

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something—drawing or painting or whatever we were doing—then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.

The President: Well, you told me about a certain attitude that your parents had that was—there was a certain set of homespun values of hard work and honesty and humility. And that sounded really familiar to me when I think about my grandparents who grew up in Kansas.

And that’s part of what I see in your writing. And part of my connection to your books, I think, is an appreciation for—without romanticizing Middle America or small-town America—that sense of homespun virtues. And that comes out in your writing. And it sometimes seems really foreign to popular culture today, which is all about celebrity and being loud and bragging and—

Robinson: I mean, I really think that you have to go very far up in American culture to get beyond the point where people have good values. I mean, you really have that feeling sometimes that honesty is more intrinsic in some person that’s doing very low-level work than it is in perhaps somebody that’s trying to find his way into some sensation—

The President: These big systems where everything is all about flash. But that’s not how your parents saw the world, right? When you said that all they cared about was just you being honest and—

Robinson: Yes, exactly.

The President:—doing your best in some enterprise.

Robinson: In whatever. Exactly.

The President: It’s interesting, because we’re talking in Iowa; people always, I think, were surprised about me connecting with folks in small-town Iowa. And the reason I did was, first of all, I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary. At the time, I didn’t seem scary, other than just having a funny name. I seemed young. Sometimes I look at my pictures from then and I say, I can’t believe anybody voted for me because I look like I’m twenty-five.

But I’d go into these towns and everybody felt really familiar to me, because they reminded me of my grandparents and my mom and that attitude that you talk about. You saw all through the state—and I saw this when I was traveling through southern Illinois when I was first campaigning for the United States Senate—and I actually see it everywhere across the country.

The issue to me, Marilynne, is not so much that those virtues that you prize and that you care about and that are vital to our democracy aren’t there. They are there in Little League games, and—

Robinson: Emergency rooms.

The President:—emergency rooms, and in school buildings. And people are treating each other the way you would want our democracy to cultivate. But there’s this huge gap between how folks go about their daily lives and how we talk about our common life and our political life. And people describe it as the distance between Washington and Main Street. But it’s not just Washington; it’s the way we talk about our politics, our foreign policy, our common endeavors. There’s this gap.

And the thing I’ve been struggling with throughout my political career is how do you close the gap. There’s all this goodness and decency and common sense on the ground, and somehow it gets translated into rigid, dogmatic, often mean-spirited politics. And some of it has to do with all the filters that stand between ordinary people who are busy and running around trying to look after their kids and do a good job and do all the things that maintain a community, so they don’t have the chance to follow the details of complicated policy debates.

They know they want to take care of somebody who’s sick, and they have a generous impulse. How that gets translated into the latest Medicare budgets [isn’t] always clear. They know they want us to use our power wisely in the world, and that violence often begets violence. But they also know the world is dangerous and it’s very hard to sort out, as you talk about in your essay, fear when violence must be met, and when there are other tools at our disposal to try to create a more peaceful world.

So that, I think, is the challenge. I’m very encouraged when I meet people in their environments. Somehow it gets distilled at the national political level in ways that aren’t always as encouraging.

Robinson: I think one of the things that is true is that many Americans on every side of every issue, they think that the worst thing they can say is the truest thing, you know?

The President: No. Tell me what you mean.

Robinson: Well, for example—I mean, I’m a great admirer of American education. And I’ve traveled—I mean, a lot of my essays, you know, are lectures given in educational settings—universities everywhere. And they’re very impressive. They are very much loved by people who identify with them. You meet faculty and they’re very excited about what they’re doing; students that are very excited, and so on.

And then you step away and you hear all this stuff about how the system is failing and we have to pull it limb from limb, and the rest of it. And you think, have you walked through the door? Have you listened to what people say? Have you taught in a foreign university?

We have a great educational system that is—it’s really a triumph of the civilization. I don’t think there’s anything comparable in history. And it has no defenders. Most of the things we do have no defenders because people tend to feel the worst thing you can say is the truest thing you can say.

The President: But that’s part of what makes America wonderful, is we always had this nagging dissatisfaction that spurs us on. That’s how we ended up going west, that’s how we—“I’m tired of all these people back east; if I go west, there’s going to be my own land and I’m not going to have to put up with this nonsense, and I’m going to start my own thing, and I’ve got my homestead.” …It is true, though, that that restlessness and that dissatisfaction which has helped us go to the moon and create the Internet and build the Transcontinental Railroad and build our land-grant colleges, that those things, born of dissatisfaction, we can very rapidly then take for granted and not tend to and not defend, and not understand how precious these things are.

And this is where conceptions of government can get us in trouble. Whenever I hear people saying that our problems would be solved without government, I always want to tell them you need to go to some other countries where there really is no government, where the roads are never repaired, where nobody has facilitated electricity going everywhere even where it’s not economical, where—

Robinson: The postal system.

The President:—the postal system doesn’t work, or kids don’t have access to basic primary education. That’s the logical conclusion if, in fact, you think that government is the enemy.

And that, too, is a running strain in our democracy. That’s sort of in our DNA. We’re suspicious of government as a tool of oppression. And that skepticism is healthy, but it can also be paralyzing when we’re trying to do big things together.

Robinson: And also, one of the things that doesn’t take into account is that local governments can be great systems of oppression. And it’s a wonderful thing to have a national government that can intervene in the name of national values.

The President: Well, that was the lesson of the entire movement to abolish slavery and the civil rights movement. And that’s one thing—I mean, I do think that one of the things we haven’t talked about that does become the fault line around which the “us” and “them” formula rears its head is the fault line of race. And even on something like schools that you just discussed, part of the challenge is that the school systems we have are wonderful, except for a handful of schools that are predominantly minority that are terrible.

Our systems for maintaining the peace and our criminal justice systems generally work, except for this huge swath of the population that is incarcerated at rates that are unprecedented in world history.

And when you are thinking about American democracy or, for that matter, Christianity in your writings, how much does that issue of “the other” come up and how do you think about that? I know at least in Gilead that factors into one major character, trying to figure out how he can love somebody in the Fifties that doesn’t look like him.

Robinson: Iowa never had laws against interracial marriage. Only Iowa and Maine never had [them]—

The President: Those were the only two.

Robinson: Yes. And [Ulysses S.] Grant really did call [Iowa] the shining star of radicalism, and so on. We never had segregated schools; they were illegal from before, while it was still a territory, and so on. And these laws never changed and they became the basis for the marriage equality ruling that the Supreme Court here [in Iowa] did.

So that whole stream of the culture never changed. And at the same time, the felt experience of the culture was not aligned with the liberal tradition [of the] culture. And so in that book, Jack has every right to think he can come to Iowa, and yet what he finds makes him frightened even to raise the question.

The President: I’m going to shift gears for a second. You told me that when you started writing it just kind of showed up in some ways. When you started writing your novels, that it was just forced upon you and that you didn’t map it out. Tell me about when you were writing Gilead and Home and some of my favorite books, how did you decide, I’m going to start writing about some old pastor in the middle of cornfields?

Because by that time you had gone to the East Coast, you had traveled in France.

Robinson: The Midwest was still a very new thing for me. I got a voice in my head. It was the funniest thing. I mean, [I’d] been reading history and theology and all these things for a long time. And then I was in Massachusetts, actually, just [waiting to spend] Christmas with my son[s]. They were late coming to wherever we were going to meet, and I was in this hotel with a pen and blank paper, and I started writing from this voice. The first sentence in that book is the first sentence that came to my mind. I have no idea how that happens. I was surprised that I was writing from a male point of view. But there he was.

The President: He just showed up.

Robinson: He just showed up. And the first things that I knew about him—that he was old, that he had a young son, and so on—they create the narrative.

—This is the first part of a two-part conversation. The second part will appear in the next issue.

The following conversation between President Obama and Marilynne Robinson was conducted in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 14. An audio recording of the conversation can be heard at itunes.com/nybooks. The first part appeared in the November 5 issue of The New York Review.
—The Editors

PART TWO

The President: Are you somebody who worries about people not reading novels anymore? And do you think that has an impact on the culture? When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, and the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I’ve learned I think I’ve learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there’s still truth there to be found, and that you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it’s possible to connect with some[one] else even though they’re very different from you.

And so I wonder when you’re sitting there writing longhand in some—your messy longhand somewhere—so I wonder whether you feel as if that same shared culture is as prevalent and as important in the lives of people as it was, say, when you were that little girl in Idaho, coming up, or whether you feel as if those voices have been overwhelmed by flashier ways to pass the time.

Marilynne Robinson: I’m not really the person—because I’m almost always talking with people who love books.

The President: Right. You sort of have a self-selecting crew.

Robinson: And also teaching writers—I’m quite aware of the publication of new writers. I think—I mean, the literature at present is full to bursting. No book can sell in that way that Gone with the Wind sold, or something like that. But the thing that’s wonderful about it is that there’s an incredible variety of voices in contemporary writing. You know people say, is there an American tradition surviving in literature, and yes, our tradition is the incredible variety of voices….

And [now] you don’t get the conversation that would support the literary life. I think that’s one of the things that has made book clubs so popular.

The President: That’s interesting. Part of the challenge is—and I see this in our politics—is a common conversation. It’s not so much, I think, that people don’t read at all; it’s that everybody is reading [in] their niche, and so often, at least in the media, they’re reading stuff that reinforces their existing point of view. And so you don’t have that phenomenon of here’s a set of great books that everybody is familiar with and everybody is talking about.

Sometimes you get some TV shows that fill that void, but increasingly now, that’s splintered, too, so other than the Super Bowl, we don’t have a lot of common reference points. And you can argue that that’s part of the reason why our politics has gotten so polarized, is that—when I was growing up, if the president spoke to the country, there were three stations and every city had its own newspaper and they were going to cover that story. And that would last for a couple of weeks, people talking about what the president had talked about.

Today, my poor press team, they’re tweeting every two minutes because some new thing has happened, which then puts a premium on the sensational and the most outrageous or a conflict as a way of getting attention and breaking through the noise—which then creates, I believe, a pessimism about the country because all those quiet, sturdy voices that we were talking about at the beginning, they’re not heard.

It’s not interesting to hear a story about some good people in some quiet place that did something sensible and figured out how to get along.

Robinson: I think that in our earlier history—the Gettysburg Address or something—there was the conscious sense that democracy was an achievement. It was not simply the most efficient modern system or something. It was something that people collectively made and they understood that they held it together by valuing it. I think that in earlier periods—which is not to say one we will never return to—the president himself was this sort of symbolic achievement of democracy. And there was the human respect that I was talking about before, [that] compounds itself in the respect for the personified achievement of a democratic culture. Which is a hard thing—not many people can pull that together, you know…. So I do think that one of the things that we have to realize and talk about is that we cannot take it for granted. It’s a made thing that we make continuously.

The President: A source of optimism—I took my girls to see Hamilton, this new musical on Broadway, which you should see. Because this wonderful young Latino playwright produced this play, musical, about Alexander Hamilton and the Founding Fathers. And it’s all in rap and hip-hop. And it’s all played by young African-American and Latino actors.

And it sounds initially like it would not work at all. And it is brilliant, and so much so that I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career—it speaks to this vibrancy of American democracy, but also the fact that it was made by these living, breathing, flawed individuals who were brilliant. We haven’t seen a collection of that much smarts and chutzpah and character in any other nation in history, I think.

But what’s most important about [Hamilton] and why I think it has received so many accolades is it makes it live. It doesn’t feel distant. And it doesn’t feel set apart from the arguments that we’re having today.

And Michelle and I, when we went to see it, the first thing we thought about was what could we do to encourage this kind of creativity in teaching history to our kids. Because, look, America is famously ahistorical. That’s one of our strengths—we forget things. You go to other countries, they’re still having arguments from four hundred years ago, and with serious consequences, right? They’re bloody arguments. In the Middle East right now, you’ve got arguments dating back to the seventh century that are live today. And we tend to forget that stuff. We don’t sometimes even remember what happened two weeks ago.

But this point you made about us caring enough about the blood, sweat, and tears involved in maintaining a democracy is vital and important. But it also is the reason why I think those who have much more of an “us” versus “them,” fearful, conspiratorial brand of politics can thrive sometimes is because they can ignore that history.

If, in fact, you don’t know much about the evolution of slavery and the civil rights movement and the Civil War and the postwar amendments, then the arguments that are being had now about how our criminal justice system interacts with African-Americans seem pretty foreign. It’s like, what are the issues here? If you’re not paying attention to how Jefferson and Madison and Franklin and others were thinking about the separation of church and state, then you’re not that worried about keeping those lines separate.

Robinson: Exactly. I believe very much in teaching history. I spend an enormous amount of time working with primary sources and various sources and so on. And I think that a lot of the history that is taught is a sort of shorthand that’s not representative of much of anything. I think that’s too bad.

The President: Do you pay a lot of attention to day-to-day politics these days?

Robinson: I do actually. I read the news for a couple of hours every morning.

The President: Right. And how do you think your writer’s sensibility changes how you think about it? Or are you just kind of in the mix like everybody else, and just, ah, that red team drives me nuts, and you’re cheering for the blue?

Robinson: Well, if I’m going to be honest, I think that there are some political candidacies that are much more humane in their implications and consequences than others. I mean, if suddenly poles were to be reversed and what I see as humanistic came up on the other side, there I’d be. I think in my essay on fear I was talking about the assumption of generosity in this culture, you know?* We have done some very magnanimous things in our history.

The President: Yes.

Robinson: Which seem in many ways unifying, defining. And then you see people running on what seem to be incredibly mean-spirited, tight-fisted assumptions, and you think, this is not us. This is not our way forward. Well, I’m getting all too political, but insulting people that you know will become citizens—however that’s managed—giving them this bitter memory to carry into their participation in the national life. Why do that?

The President: We’re going through a spasm of fear. And you’re seeing it elsewhere. This is not unique to the United States. You see the emergence of the far-right parties in Europe. I think that it’s a moment of great change, and the change happens fast. And there have been periods in our history where change happened fast like this, and people just are trying to find firm footing.

When you’re looking for firm footing, one of the easiest places to go is, somebody else is to blame. And the market system globally right now does create a situation where workers—ordinary people—have less control.

When you were growing up, when I was growing up, the majority of people had confidence that if they lost their job, it would be temporary, that they often would be with the same company for years, that there would be a pension in place, that they would be able to support a family, and that their kids would probably have a better life than they did. And people feel less confident about that because workers have less leverage, and capital is mobile and labor is not. And we haven’t adapted our systems to take into account how fast this is moving.

What’s frustrating to me is just that it wouldn’t take that much for us to make the system work for ordinary people again.

Robinson: If I could strike one word out of the American vocabulary, it would be “competition.” I think that that is the most bogus thing that has been entered into our [laughter]—

The President: Now, you’re talking to a guy who likes to play basketball and has been known to be a little competitive. But go ahead. [Laughter.]

Robinson: But what we’re really telling people is that if they do not acquire nameless skills of a technological character, they will not have employment. It will be shipped out of the country. So basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecific fear that makes people—it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground

The President: Right. Now, the argument would be, though, that that’s the reality that people are feeling because companies can go anywhere and—

Robinson: Exactly, but when I look at these other economies we’re supposed to be competing with, they’re fragile. They’re very fragile. And we’re seeing that now. So all the competition has meant, it seems, is that labor is cheap and environmental standards are low. Look at, frankly, China. China has a vile ecology around its industrial centers. It’s running out of appropriate cheap labor. And it’s going into crisis. And what does that mean? It means that all of that capital will bundle itself up and land in another place that’s relatively more advantageous. So what are we competing with? We run China into the ground, is that our great mission?

The President: Well, in fact, historically, the way we “competed” was we educated our kids better. We put more money into research. We believed in science and facts, as opposed to being driven by superstition. We welcomed talent from all around the world. We put in place a social safety net so people felt that they could take risks without—

Robinson: That’s crucial.

The President:—without being utterly destitute.

Robinson: And having good bankruptcy laws. We have very liberal bankruptcy laws. But you know, we generate fantastic ideas—ideas move as fast as capital does. We can have the most brilliant population in the world, and if the best ideas that we have are sent offshore, we’re still in the same position.

The President: Right. We made progress on all these fronts. Slowly but surely. Where I completely agree with you, Marilynne, is that we have everything we need to thrive. And it is interesting watching the current political season for me because I’m not on the ballot, so although obviously I still have a huge stake in the outcome as a citizen, in addition to soon being an ex-president—and there are times where I’m listening to folks make these wild claims about how terrible America is doing, and I want to just press the pause button here for a second and remind them that by almost every economic criterion we are hugely better off than we were just seven years ago; that we have done far better than almost every advanced country, and certainly every large advanced country on earth, in terms of growing the economy, driving down unemployment, managing our budgets.

And the only thing that right now is holding us back is Washington dysfunction. We could knock off another percentage point on the unemployment rate if we started rebuilding roads and bridges and airports. You travel—it’s embarrassing when you go to other airports in other countries. Ours used to be the nicest ones.

Robinson: They were nice first, and then all [laughter]—

The President: Yes. Now they’re a little worn down. We got to keep them up.

The same is true with our education system. It is outstanding, but we’ve got—everybody else is caught up. We got to step it up.

So one of the reasons I’m here in Iowa is to talk about two years of college education—or two years of community college education for everybody, as free as high school was before. Research—we have fallen behind in basic research that created all these amazing technological wonders upon which our economic engine ran.

And finally, making sure that people get paid enough money that they can support a family. Because all the evidence in history shows that when workers get paid a reasonable salary, then they spend it, businesses do better, the economy does better, and our political system does better. I mean, what is true is that when people feel pinched, then the generosity that you describe narrows to my immediate family, my immediate community, my immediate group.

Robinson: It’s amazing. You know, when I go to Europe or—England is usually where I go—they say, what are you complaining about? Everything is great. [Laughter.] I mean, really. Comparisons that they make are never at our disadvantage.

The President: No—but, as I said, we have a dissatisfaction gene that can be healthy if harnessed. If it tips into rage and paranoia, then it can be debilitating and just be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we end up blocking progress in serious ways.

Robinson: Restlessness of, like, why don’t we do something about this yellow fever? There’s generous restlessness.

The President: That’s a good restlessness.

Robinson: Yes, absolutely. And then there is a kind of acidic restlessness that—

The President: I want more stuff.

Robinson: I want more stuff, or other people are doing things that I’m justified in resenting. That sort of thing.

The President: Right.

Robinson: I was not competing with anyone else. Nobody knew what my project was. I didn’t know what it was. But what does freedom mean? I mean, really, the ideal of freedom if it doesn’t mean that we can find out what is in this completely unique being that each one of us is? And competition narrows that. It’s sort of like, you should not be studying this; you should be studying that, pouring your life down the siphon of economic utility.

The President: But doesn’t part of that depend on people having different definitions of success, and that we’ve narrowed what it means to be successful in a way that makes people very anxious? They don’t feel affirmed if they’re good at something that the society says isn’t that important or doesn’t reward.

Probably the best example for me is the teaching profession, where I can’t tell you how many kids I meet—and I used to meet them in law school when I was teaching there—who had taught for two, three, four years, they loved teaching, and they thought it was just the most important thing. And you could tell that this was their calling, and at a certain point they couldn’t afford to raise a family on it and they got discouraged, and—

Robinson: Somebody was looking over their shoulder.

The President: Somebody was looking—or they’d get some comment from a classmate who had gone on to become an investment banker, they just eventually got discouraged and you didn’t have a society that supported what they were doing, despite the fact that—talk about a complicated, magnificent art. Teaching. Being able to transmit ideas to young minds.

And so I like your definition of what America and freedom should be. But it does require all of us to have different definitions. And you have systems—or it requires a broader set of definitions than we have right now. And that’s true for businesspeople, as well. I can’t tell you how many businesspeople I meet [for whom] their joy is in organizing things to create products and services, and to help people be useful in various ways. And because they’ve got quarterly reports to shareholders and if they’ve made a long-term investment that may pay off way down the line, or if they’re paying their employees more now because they think it’s going to help them retain high-quality employees, a lot of times they feel like they’re going to get punished in the stock market. And so they don’t do it, because the definition of being a successful business is narrowed to what your quarterly earnings reports are….

So my last question to Marilynne is, when you think about your books and you think about your faith and you think about your citizenship as an American, when do you feel most optimistic? What makes you think, you know what, this experiment is going to keep going, I feel encouraged?

Robinson: Well, you know, I mean, when I do book signings, for example, and people come up one by one and talk to me about their lives, if there’s time [to] do that, how earnest they are, how deeply committed they are to sustaining people they feel close to or responsible for and so on—there they are, the people that you think of as the sustainers of a good society.

And it’s only—really, if we could all just turn off media for a week, I think we would come out the other side of it with a different anthropology in effect. I wish we could have a normal politics where I disagree with people, they present their case, we take a vote, and if I lose I say, yes, that’s democracy, I’m on the losing side of a meaningful vote.

The President: And I’ll try to make a better argument the next time.

Robinson: Exactly.

The President: I’ll try to persuade more people the next time.

Robinson: And I think in little groups, like my department at the university or something—people get together, talk something over, take a vote, and that’s it. And it’s a little microcosm of democracy. That’s what it’s supposed to be.

The President: Yes, but that does require a presumption of goodness in other people.

Robinson: Absolutely.

The President: And that’s not just what our democracy depends on, but I think that’s what a good life depends on. Occasionally, you’ll be disappointed, but more often than not, your faith will be confirmed.

Robinson: I believe that.

—This is the second part of a two-part conversation.

rasool

Here is the full text of Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool’s address at the Washington National Cathedral memorial service celebrating the life on Nelson Mandela on December 11. A video version is is available on the cathedral’s website.

He thanks those present.

(Summary) Thank you very much for taking time to honor this African son.  Thank you very much for loving Nelson Mandela as we did in South Africa.  My fellow South Africans we have come here to gather our senses and to recover from the shock and to seek comfort from this cathedral.  Thank you all very much for what you mean for us here in the United States of America.

The text:

It was on June 26, 1990, a few months after Nelson Mandela was freed from prison that he addressed the session of the Joint Houses of Congress in this very city of Washington DC. He had just been released after 27 years in prison, but was keenly aware of his own mortality. On that day he said:

“It is a fact of the human condition that each shall, like a meteor, a mere brief passing moment in time and space, flit across the human stage and pass out of existence.”  That’s what Nelson Mandela said on that day to Congress.

Nelson Mandela was right about his mortality, for today he is no longer with us.  But Nelson Mandela was wrong about his impact and significance in this world.

Yesterday in Soweto, South Africa, 95,000 people braved the rain, millions across the world ignored time zones and jet lag to share in his memorial, and over 90 world leaders deemed Nelson Mandela more important than the urgent business that confront them on a daily basis. Through their presence and tributes they refused to let Nelson Mandela pass out of existence.

In this country, this United States of America, along with the South African flag, the Star Spangled Banner flies at half-mast signifying that in Nelson Mandela, Americans found both a part of their history and a part of their future. Here too Americans gather to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela and celebrate his life.  Here too in America they will not let Nelson Mandela pass out of existence.

In the last few days and over the next few years every speech and every prayer; every song and every poem about Madiba, will reconstruct his life, scrutinise his character, interpret his words, and exhort emulation of his actions as the world acknowledges that Nelson Mandela’s values are eternal in time, universal in space and enduring in every circumstance.

Nelson Mandela is not a flitting meteor but a fixed star:  a star that guides our vision, anchors our belief, directs our efforts, defines who we are, and keeps us hopeful in uncertain and confusing times. The world is troubled and its people yearn for something better. We are searching for a lost humanity and are yearning for an elusive solidarity.

We will indeed miss his leadership.

In commemorating his death and celebrating his life, we lament the abundance of eloquence and the paucity of integrity; the presence of words and the absence of communication; the exercise of judgement and the denial of justice. Nelson Mandela understood these subtle distinctions because he first wrestled with them every day of his life.

This ability to know himself as the precondition for knowing his people imbued him with deep faith in his own cause but enough doubt to see truth in others; sufficient confidence in what he stood for but enough empathy to grasp the fear of the other; and while blessed with a wonderful self- esteem he always understood that progress comes only from working together.

He therefore belonged to a golden generation of ANC leaders who were militant but not violent; who were radical but not fundamentalist; and who were revolutionary but not extreme.

The evil of apartheid required militant action, radical change and a revolutionary movement. Nelson Mandela’s ability to navigate such nuanced distinctions salvaged our very humanity in South Africa and created the foundations not only of a nonracial, nonsexist and democratic society, but also one that must be caring, that must be gentle, in which we are each other’s keepers.

Such leadership can only be built on courage. It is this leadership that the world desires, a world exhausted by conflict, bankrupted by war, and shamed by intolerance. It looks to Nelson Mandela to show again the virtue of engagement, dialogue and negotiation over militarism, morality over legality and the middle ground over extremes.

The courage that Nelson Mandela exuded was the perfect middle between cowardice and recklessness: he had the courage to avoid the easy passivity of the coward, as well as to shun the boastful bravado of the reckless.

Such insights come to those who see adversity as the opportunity not to nurse your injuries, but harness them into a mighty surge for justice; not to accumulate your grievances, but to transform them into an enduring commitment to human dignity; not to be cowed by the omnipotence of your opponent, but to fortify your belief in the inevitable victory of righteous purpose; and not to despair for the disparate and desperate and fearful mass of victims of poverty, hunger, injustice, inequality and oppression, but to galvanise them into a movement of inspired human agents engaged in disciplined action for a common goal.

Madiba cannot be a flitting meteor. He cannot pass out of existence because he has unfinished business. He is not here to do it himself, and so those who see in his legacy a worthy cause and those who see in his values a guiding light, we are called to rise to the occasion.

The advanced world is seeing the limitations of growth at the altar of never-ending consumption, and the environment is groaning under the burden. Our country, South Africa, with so many other countries of the South, especially on the continent of Africa, are on the verge of prosperity but carry still the burden of poverty, disease and poor education. The women of the world, despite advances in education, health and living standards, may be forgiven for thinking that with every advance is the proportionate deepening of patriarchy.

We are the inheritors of those struggles. But our enemies will no longer present themselves as they presented themselves to Dr. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

We must no longer fear so much the Casspirs of Soweto and the dogs of Alabama, but we must fear the fading memory, we must fear forgetting where we come from, who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.

We must not fear the lynchings of the South or bullets of Sharpeville so much but we must fear the disconnectedness and insularity, the individualism and the selfishness that tells us that poverty is because of laziness, disease because of immorality and violence is in our genes.

We must not fear so much the whips in Mitchell’s Plane or the batons of Selma, but we must fear the complacency that will tell us that our struggle is over because of a “post racial” dawn that has arrived when Nelson Mandela went into the Union Buildings and Barack Obama into the White House. It is not over until God says it is over.

The long walk to freedom is not over. More hills are waiting to be climbed. Madiba is not here to light the path with his courage and his sacrifice.

Each one of us who has been touched by him, inspired by him, and moved by him must continue the long walk. We must confront every psychological, institutional and physical hill until we have won a world that is more equal, where women are respected, where the stranger is not otherised, and where our youth and children can dream again.

Our country South Africa and our people are deeply honoured that you have come here today to commemorate the death and celebrate the life of our greatest son, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

http://www.saembassy.org/we-must-continue-the-long-walk/

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Joan of Arc

I know this now. Every man gives his life for what he believes. Every woman gives her life for what she believes. Sometimes people believe in little or nothing yet they give their lives to that little or nothing. One life is all we have and we live it as we believe in living it. And then it is gone. But to sacrifice what you are and live without belief, that's more terrible than dying.--

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Beannacht

On the day when
the weight deadens
on your shoulders
and you stumble,
may the clay dance
to balance you.

And when your eyes
freeze behind
the grey window
and the ghost of loss
gets in to you,
may a flock of colours,
indigo, red, green,
and azure blue
come to awaken in you
a meadow of delight.

When the canvas frays
in the currach of thought
and a stain of ocean
blackens beneath you,
may there come across the waters
a path of yellow moonlight
to bring you safely home.

May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
may the clarity of light be yours,
may the fluency of the ocean be yours,
may the protection of the ancestors be yours.
And so may a slow
wind work these words
of love around you,
an invisible cloak
to mind your life.

John O'Donohue, Echoes of Memory