The Current

How Fox News stood between novelist Marilynne Robinson and her mother

American writer Marilynne Robinson's latest collection of essays, called 'What are We Doing Here?, takes on a country divided inspired, in part, by her mother's recent conversion to Fox News.
Author Marilynne Robinson says the right and left have to see the good in people. (Submitted by Marilynne Robinson)

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Marilynne Robinson had a complicated relationship with her mother, but as adults they had become friends.

That changed when her mother started watching Fox News in her later years.

Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist, and thinker on themes of Christian faith and politics in America, calls herself a liberal. And her mother began to see her daughter as part of the forces she saw as threatening the country she loved.

"It made it quite difficult because many of the things that she had learned to be upset by were things that she did identify with me," Robinson tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

Robinson's mother died at age 92 without the two having resolved this issue in their relationship — a fact Robinson regrets.
Marilynne Robinson's latest collection of essays explores the political divisions she fears are hurting Americans.

"She and I had worlds of experience in common," says Robinson. "But suddenly you get this weird shift to talk about Christmas and birth certificates and, you know, Sharia law, for heaven's sake — you know, things that in the first place are quite extraneous from our normal conversation."

"And in the second place things about which neither she nor I had significant information, except what she heard on the news."

For Robinson, media of this kind show the power of words and stories to create fears — and change the political climate.

"They make a kind of narrative of threat, a narrative of betrayal, the idea that an essential American civilization is compromised or lost," says Robinson.

"I think one of the most effective things that journalism of that kind has done — if journalism is the right word — is they have made people feel that if they read another point of view, they would be instantly duped."

But Robinson believes the political left has also been caught up in a flawed way of thinking — that overlaps with the worldview of the right — a loss of the belief that people often do good, for the right reasons.

Civilizations are noble products of massive goodwill, and that should never be forgotten.- Marilynne Robinson

Robinson points to certain areas of psychology that talk about the "selfish gene," as an example. She describes it as the idea that, at the most basic level, human beings are self-interested and act in the way that is best for themselves.

She sees this as a "primitive" view of what humans really are.

Looking at the evidence around us in society, she says, we can get a very different picture of the nature of humanity.

"There's a fact that we all live on the conscientiousness, the goodwill, of most people," says Robinson.

"People need to be reminded of it, because by the millions, they go out into the morning, you know, and do some necessary thing that cumulatively is the sort of wealth, and pleasure of, and safety of our experience."

"Civilizations are noble products of massive goodwill, and that should never be forgotten."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this page, where you can also share this article across email, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.


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