Sufjan Stevens on Tonya Harding


Voegelin View has an interesting essay published today on Sufjan Stevens’ song “Tonya Harding.” Here’s a sample:

Stevens sees the proper recognition of and response to greatness as being essential to human beings living cohesively with each other. Honoring and defending the truly great individuals—who offend and uplift—allows for brilliant exploits that draw people together in a moment of wonder and appreciation (10-12). It also creates space for sympathy and mourning as the ‘star’ comes up against the burden of imperfection and risk of failure (cf. 39-40). Indeed, greatness isolates so as to reinforce the fundamental human need for community. To not acknowledge or to subvert greatness is to defer these communal encounters and give a society nothing meaningful to hold its members together by.

Finally (and perhaps most importantly), the emphasis on compassion also mitigates the effects of the Trump-like demagogue. As noted above, the latter shares in the quality of being extraordinary and thereby speaks to something profound and true about the human experience. But he is not great. Nonetheless, Stevens asks that he still be met with kindness. For the demagogue’s viciousness and cruelty, like Harding’s greatness, does not extend to his entire person. He too is complex and does not deserve to be hated or laughed at. One may speak out and fight against his malice, but one may not withhold the possibility of forgiveness and welcome. To refuse those is to play into his game of annihilation and leave behind the community one sought to protect.


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