A nation of darkness and light

A conversation with the author and activist Marianne Williamson

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BREAKING NEWS: No one knows anything. Just because you have a custom-made sideways iPad bigger than an SUV, doesn’t mean you know who won the election.

So we learn county names. We wait. And I make a small offering to you while you do.

I recently had an amazing conversation with Marianne Williamson, author, activist, and former presidential candidate. If I ever run for anything, which I probably won’t, I would want to run as Marianne did: not to escape from challenging and nuanced ideas, not to descend into spin and soundbite, but to think hard in, and with the, public.

This conversation was for Marianne’s new podcast, “A Land of Contradictions.” That’s the place to go check it out in full. But I decided to get some of the conversation transcribed for you all, to share here.

Whatever happens with the election in the end, we have seen, as clearly as ever, that we are a nation on the knife’s edge between darkness and light, oppression and freedom, inequity and justice, tyranny and democracy. And this was what Marianne and I talked about. The ways in which these are not just the warring tendencies of different political tribes, but also the warring tendencies found in each of our hearts.

A lightly edited text excerpt of our conversation is below. And the video of our full conversation is here:


“We've fallen out of basic knowledge of each other”: a conversation with Marianne Williamson

We talked about the darkness and the light in American society and American hearts:

ANAND: We are now called to find a way to both love our country and tell the truth about it at the same time. And this is particularly challenging when the truth is what it is in our case.

We are actually living through a very exciting level of truth-telling in which the James Baldwin view of America is not radical anymore. Maybe radical for Donald Trump, but it's not radical for an increasing number of people in the mainstream — for example, people who teach, who are responsible for our children's education. And as we sink deeper and deeper into the truth of this country, we learn that it didn't just do some bad things, didn't just have some blemishes, didn't just have some hypocrisies. The nation in many ways was conceived in blood. 

A nation with “blood at the root,” to quote Billie Holiday. A nation in which whatever was good in the founding is inseparable from what was awful in the genocide of Native Americans and Black people’s enslavement.

I think what a lot of people deep down fear is that if we were to tell these truths, even if they are acknowledged as truths, telling them would allow them to become the only story, because they're such an overwhelming story. 

We would become an irredeemable country. And I think what's interesting and exciting is: How do we have space for that story and still say, “I still love this country. I still find things to love in it. I still believe that the ideals contained in it are worth fighting for”? I think ideals can be separated from the flawed people who create them.

I will say one other thing that comes out of my family experience. My parents came to this country from India, had my sister and me here. And about ten years after they arrived in America, they got bored of the immigrant adrenaline rush. It had been very exciting. It had been scary. Then it settled into a house and two kids and two cars and American suburbia. And they said, "Let's do it again," and immigrated a second time, to France. 

From the first day we arrived in France, it was made clear to all of us that we would never become French. That this would never be ours. That we could stay as long as we wanted, we could enjoy their baguettes, we could listen to their mediocre music, but we would never be French. It was just very, very clear.

And so I hold alongside each other the notion that America was founded with blood at the root, has an extraordinarily troubled history that we're only now beginning to excavate and tell the truth about — yet that there is something special and noble in the idea that this is the “everyone country.” This is a country nominally, theoretically, and sometimes in practice committed to the notion that anybody, from anywhere in the world, can become an American.

I often feel that we are in such dire straits as a country because we're actually jumping a lot higher than other countries. We are trying something phenomenally hard that virtually no other country in the world is attempting. 

MARIANNE: I don't frame the story as all good or all bad. A nation is a group of people, and people have many different aspects inside of us, and the same principles that prevail within the journey of a person prevail within the journey of a nation.

If we're honest with ourselves, most of us know we've made some terrible mistakes. Certainly, we've made mistakes. We all have our shadows, and we have to look at them. But we've also, most of us, done some really good things, too, that we need to be proud of. And people who really love us remind us, “You didn't do everything right, and you have some character defects to look at, and you have some places where you need to change.”

But, also, when we're too down on ourselves, they remind us that we didn't do everything wrong. And I think America shouldn't have to choose between the two. Right now, too many people do choose between the two. Some people only want to talk about what we've done right, and have no listening for what we've done wrong; have no interest in excavating the shadows, the dark forces of slavery, of genocide, of institutional suppression of women, of segregation, of domestic violence against Blacks for three and a half centuries. They don't want to go there because, as you said, they're afraid if we go there, that story of all that we have done wrong will replace the story of what we've done right. But I equally disagree with what I think is an equally unbalanced picture of America, which is that all we've done is wrong and we've never done anything right.

The truth of it is that we have a tendency to self-correct. Forty-one signers of the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. But that means 15 weren't. Not all of the founders were slave owners. Some of them were very adamant against slavery, even then. So we had slavery, but then we also had abolition. We had institutionalized oppression of women, but then we also had the women's suffragette movement. We had segregation, but then we also had the civil rights movement. And I feel these days, and I say this as a leftist, that our temptation is to focus on the problems at the expense of identification with the problem-solvers. I think it's both. And when you keep saying we were founded in blood, that's not all, because we were founded on amazing principles.

You talk about your parents. All four of my grandparents were born in Russia, Poland. So many of us are the legacy of those who came here and found the promise of America. And I don't believe we're telling ourselves, much less our children, the true story unless we're telling both.

My father grew up in dire poverty. An immigrant story: his parents had just moved to the United States, they didn't speak English, so he had to drop out of high school in order to go to work, and had to go back to high school when he was 25. He was this poor Jewish kid, but the Catholics gave him an education, including law school. He has that immigrant story of someone who made it, and he served in World War II.

At the same time, he took us to Vietnam in 1965 to show us what war was and what the U.S. military industrial complex was doing to the Vietnamese. To me, I don't want to have to choose. And when I hear right-wingers who just act like we've never done anything wrong or anything we've done wrong, we fixed, I cringe. But I also cringe at a bunch of left-wingers who only want to talk about How fucked up it is, how capitalism has fucked up everything, we're all just a bunch of white supremacists. I think that's equally unbalanced and untrue. 

ANAND: I think we have to remember this is not a theoretical or aesthetic conversation about how to talk about the country. This is fundamentally a political conversation. Particularly in this moment, there is a battle for the median American. There is a dire necessity of crafting a narrative that can do the both-and work you just described — that can tell a true story about that blood at the root and tell a story about loving your country and the powerful ideals and, as you say, practices.

Later, we talked about one of the consequences of an age of polarization. Americans haven’t just fallen out of love with each other. We have fallen out of curiosity with each other. And this makes it harder to win elections and win people over more generally.

ANAND: In this age of division, I think we've fallen out of basic knowledge of each other. Falling out of love was step one in this tribalizing of American life. What I now perceive is something so much deeper than hating each other. It's something darker; it's a lack of curiosity about each other and knowledge about each other. I don't think the average person understands, at a human level, the basic intuitions and frameworks of someone on the other side, and vice versa.

Let me put it in a non-political way: I don't think the average person in this country — setting aside the matter of writing skills; if we gave people a lot of writing skills — I don't think the average person in this country would be able to write a fictional character of the other side compellingly. You should be able to do that, just as a matter of mental leap. We don't really understand what are the books the other side is reading, what are the moves they are making…

The need people have is often for recognition rather than agreement. To not feel discarded, or for their worldview not to be discarded. You don't have to mimic it, or match it, but they don't want you to live in a framework that discards their value system. I'm guilty of this; maybe you're guilty of this; I think we're all guilty of this. We don't live with knowledge anymore of the psychological experience of being other types of Americans. 

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Listen to the full episode of this podcast here.


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