Editor’s note: The following is an edited version of a speech delivered at the 18th annual Bradley Prizes ceremony on May 17, 2022.
You’ve heard it said that anecdotes are not data. But so much the worse for data. Stories are what make the world go round. Stories are the means by which we orient ourselves to the world, and to one another. We are enveloped by stories—stories of which we are already a part, and that are a part of us, stories that have already formed the basis of our common life even before we lisp our first words. Stories drawn from the Bible, from nursery rhymes and children’s books, from great literature and classic movies, from biographies and historical accounts, or from humbler sources, such as the lore of families and the memories of old friends.
So here’s my humble little story for tonight.
A few years ago, I was fortunate enough to have dinner with a very wise friend, here in Washington, at his favorite seafood restaurant near Dupont Circle. I remarked that he seemed to be spending more and more of his time in a certain foreign country. He acknowledged the fact, paused for a moment, and then said: “I want to live in a serious country.” It may be relevant to point out that the foreign country in question is Israel, where seriousness is an existential requirement. But it is equally important to point out that the gentleman in question is an American patriot of the highest order, the author of distinguished books on the subject. For him to say such a thing was therefore, for me, a very serious matter.
And, as if that were not enough, on returning to Washington for tonight’s occasion, I discovered that the restaurant where we met has since closed its doors, a victim of the pandemic. The symbolism is hard to resist.
Have we become an unserious country? I respectfully dismissed the idea at the time. Millions of good, responsible, ordinary Americans still go about their business, raising their families, paying their bills, participating in the life of their communities, building their futures. They don’t have time for the insanities that are polarizing our culture.
But then I thought again and considered the evidence.
Would a serious country have run up a national debt of now almost $30.5 trillion during times of relative peace and prosperity?
Would a serious country have used that borrowed money to feather its nest with a profusion of cheap consumer goods and other markers of material prosperity, goods produced by a ruthless foreign power employing what amounts to slave labor?
Would a serious country have leaders so deeply preoccupied with domestic wrangling and partisan advantage that they fail to see that the rest of the world is watching and taking note, and that the hostile powers of the world are even now calculating the possibilities that such feckless leadership has opened up for them?
Would a serious country actively seek to demoralize its police forces and undermine the authority of parents? Would it promulgate arbitrary and contradictory policies regarding public health, causing angry divisions in the land and distrust of authority that will take years to heal—if it ever does?
Would a serious country allow a 20-year investment in Afghanistan to go up in smoke? Would it abandon the Afghans who had trusted in its protection, along with a major air base and $90 billion of weaponry—an amount larger than the annual military budget of all but two countries in the world?
Would a serious country allow the apparatus by which it elects its leaders to become so corrupted and to fall into such disrepair that its citizenry of both major parties no longer trust the outcomes of elections?
I could go on, alas. And you know that I could.
But here is the question that most concerns me. Would a serious country so completely lose perspective on its own past that it would entertain the idea that the nation was founded on slavery, rather than on the ideals that have made it a beacon to the rest of the world? And would a serious country think it appropriate to teach its children that the nation’s past is best understood as a parade of horrors, to which the most appropriate response is not pride but lacerating shame?
My book Land of Hope represented my small attempt to provide an adequate response to these questions about our past. In the three years since the book was published, I’ve learned how many of us have wanted and needed just such a book. Nobody wants or needs an account of the American past that is sanitized. We know about our faults, and most of us understand the importance of owning up to them. What we have wanted and needed, instead, is an account that places those faults in proper perspective—to understand them, in much the same way that we understand every flawed but fundamentally admirable person we have ever known and loved in our personal lives. There is no incompatibility between loving our country and acknowledging its faults. That is the nature of love, not to demand perfection, but to see imperfection in the light of something larger. And the withholding of love is the greatest unseriousness of all.
We need to become a serious country again. And to do that, we need to believe in ourselves again, believe in the reason we have been placed here, as a land of hope for a world that needs hope more than ever. We need to understand that a world without America will be immeasurably diminished, both in material and spiritual terms, and that we have no choice but to live up to the responsibilities that come with our many blessings. Our history can, I believe, be an enormous resource in that endeavor.
The work will not be easy. There is no guarantee of success. But it will be much harder to live with ourselves, and with the rebuke of the future, should we shrink from the challenge. And once we understand what is at stake, we may feel a certain exhilaration that comes of knowing what our circumstances and our character are demanding of us.
Let me close with a quotation, the same quotation with which I began Land of Hope. It is a reflection on the uses of the past by the novelist John Dos Passos, written in 1941:
In times of change and danger when there is a quicksand of fear under men’s reasoning, a sense of continuity with generations gone before can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present and get us past that idiot delusion of the exceptional Now that blocks good thinking.
Yes, we, too, live in a time of danger. But our dangers are not as grave. Consider this. When Dos Passos wrote these words in early 1941, Adolf Hitler’s formidable war machine controlled all of continental Europe, and only the British Isles held out—though who knew for how long? Dos Passos could have been forgiven for thinking that this terrifying moment, when it seemed possible that the light of liberty would be forever extinguished in the world, was without historical precedent. Instead, he invoked the past, and the idea of a historical consciousness that could “stretch like a lifeline across the scary present,” and help us to gain strength from the knowledge that we remain connected to those who came before us.
We need to do that, too. But to do it, we first have to learn, or relearn, the story that connects us with them, and once again make that story our own. As we do so, we will discover that we also are learning about ourselves, and about all the great things even ordinary people, people like you and me, can do, when they breathe the fresh air of freedom and hope. That is what America is all about. And we are not going to let that possibility die. Not without a fight.