Charles de Gaulle began his Memoires de Guerre with a typical flourish: Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France. He had une certaine idée of himself, as well: in his imagination, de Gaulle and France were one and the same. Both had a manifest destiny to be magnificent: Bref, à mon sens, la France ne peut être la France sans la grandeur.
I thought of his words as the Fourth of July approached. I’ve always had “a certain idea of America” myself; at one time, most of us did, and, for us older ones, it was a favorable idea. We took it for granted that America was the great democratic civilization—one that, with all its faults, was far more magnificent in its energies and possibilities than France, which was merely one of the tributary streams, at one time donating Lafayette to the cause and, a century later, the Statue of Liberty. Contemplating the United States of America in early summer of 2022, I’ve been trying to figure out what’s gone wrong.
What De Gaulle said about France applies here as well, I think: L’Amerique ne peut pas etre L’Amerique sans la grandeur. It’s a different style of grandeur from the Gaullist one, of course. What we all wonder in 2022 is how we arrived at the present squalor, and how we proceed from here.
My mind was inclined in a French direction, and now I thought of the story of Henry Luce (founder of the Time–Life magazine empire) when he visited his Paris bureau chief just after the war and asked him, “Are the French happy?” The bureau chief, Art White, laughed (because it was a typical Luce question, sweeping and sort of pompous) and answered, “Oh, for God’s sake, Harry, how can I answer that? There are millions of Frenchmen.” But it was, in fact, a brilliant question. The French army had quit in 1940 and France had been through four years of German occupation; many had resisted, but many had collaborated with the Nazis. After the war, the French were bitterly divided. There were shaved heads, trials, executions. So if they were relieved that the occupation was over, they were deeply unhappy with themselves. De Gaulle would attempt to reconcile French to one another—and lift them to a higher vision of themselves—in the transformative magic of his own grand self.
And what of Americans in 2022, at this weird moment in their history? I’d say they are pretty unhappy with themselves. They are worried, disgusted, disillusioned. By comparison, Jimmy Carter’s 1979 “malaise” speech might have been Zippity Doo-dah. If it is true that people get the culture and the leadership that they deserve, it’s no wonder that Americans are depressed on this Fourth of July.
I say that in a bipartisan spirit, acknowledging the outrageous failures on both sides. I think the root cause of the current American unhappiness has been the hyper-politicization of absolutely everything, especially of race and sex. Politics, like a fungus or a virus—an Ebola of stupidity—has spread anger and indignation and self-righteousness to every quarter of American life. Everything is infected: the art museums, the symphony orchestras, the universities, the foundations, the media, the school boards, the churches, medicine, law, the corporations, all government, the police departments. No absurdity is too preposterous to draw a crowd and get a hearing. Politics is essentially two-dimensional; Americans need to become a three-dimensional people again.
I’m fascinated by the politics of memory. There are many varieties of memory, and each comes with a certain political energy. In his first inaugural address, Lincoln appealed to what he called “the mystic chords of memory”—the American Shinto, the mystique of the Founding, the Constitution, the Old Glory—in an effort to bring Americans to their senses and head off the Civil War. That was memory as an optative, a shared myth. It didn’t work, of course.
Today, America is in the grip of the memory of grievance—about slavery, especially. Everywhere, statues have come down and the names of university lecture halls have been altered, in a ferocious metaphysics that feels like the long-range retaliations you read about in Herodotus, in which the great-great grandson of an almost-forgotten king will be struck down in a gaudy way because of something that his ancestor did. The arc of the universe bends toward vengeance. America, which has always prided itself on its eager attention to the future, has, for years now, been preoccupied with the sins of the past. The vividly evoked crimes of that past (the crimes of white people) have become the most lucrative resource of leaders in the business of race grievance. Since all white people are, by this definition, white supremacists, the resource is inexhaustible.
But the past may fatally corrupt and demoralize the future. That’s what’s happening now: so many bitter poisons, fecklessly or cynically agitated and reactivated, may come to ruin the future, to destroy hope, and, ultimately, so disrupt American society and its institutions as, paradoxically, to eliminate the possibility of achieving the stated goal—social justice.
The opposite of punitive memory (which speaks of “white supremacy”) is reverent memory (which, with Lincoln, evokes the “mystic chords”). Having endured for years now the melodramas of punitive memory, the country might grant itself a reprieve and reflect for a while on the virtue—the absolute need, in fact—of reverent memory. The Fourth of July is, or ought to be, a mild form of ancestor worship; or anyway, of ancestor appreciation and gratitude. They weren’t all slaveowners, you know. America has been a greater and better and more complicated project than the race prosecutors and the sea-green, incorruptible wokelings would have you think. These people have had their say. It’s time for them—and dead-enders on the extreme right—to return to private life.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images