Reflections on the high promise and assorted problems of American nationhood have always been a regular feature of COMMENTARY. Since the magazine’s inception in 1945, we have published many of the country’s leading thinkers on the great questions of American purpose and practice, whether in our own culture and politics or in our relations with the rest of the world. This weekend we offer a few prime selections.
America the Beautiful
Mary McCarthy – September 1947
The Continuing American Ideal
Robert Gorham Davis – May 1958
A Fever of Ethnicity
Robert Alter – June 1972
The United States in Opposition
Daniel Patrick Moynihan – March 1975
American Values & American Foreign Policy
Nathan Glazer – July 1976
American Politics, Then & Now
James Q. Wilson – February 1979
Two Nations or Two Cultures?
Gertrude Himmelfarb – January 2001
Our Creed and Our Culture
Terry Teachout – July/August 2007
Dominique de Villepin, the former French prime minister, had some unusual visitors this week. Judges and police searched his Parisian apartment as part of their investigation into what is proving to be the biggest of the many political scandals of the Chirac era: the Clearstream affair.
According to Charles Bremner, writing today in the London Times, the investigating magistrates are close to bringing criminal charges against de Villepin. He is accused of conspiring with former President Jacques Chirac to smear Nicolas Sarkozy (then minister of the interior), thereby dashing the latter’s presidential hopes and clearing the way for de Villepin to succeed his patron, Jacques Chirac. Evidence has come to light of forged bank records purporting to prove that Sarkozy had accepted bribes in order to facilitate the sale of warships to Taiwan.
Yesterday, Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s most widely read daily, reported that Kim Jong Il was not looking well. The sixty-six year-old North Korean leader, who was photographed on Tuesday shaking hands with China’s foreign minister, appeared thinner in his dark tunic. He had apparently suffered significant hair loss in the last two months, and, in what can only be good news to Western cosmetics companies, his skin appeared dry. Kim also looked haggard when he was not smiling. (The video of this event was the first taken of the reclusive autocrat since last April.)
Kim’s deteriorating appearance has given credence to reports that a team of German doctors performed heart bypass surgery on him in May. His diabetes is also getting worse, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. He is believed to have taken steps to improve his health in recent years, although he still suffers from a lifetime of hard partying.
For some years now, the U.S. has been attempting to establish a democracy in Iraq. Obviously, the effort is going very badly and public support for the war is evanescing before our eyes. Yesterday, another Republican Senator, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, joined Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, in calling for a radical change of course, i.e., a draw-down of American forces followed by withdrawal.
At this point, even many supporters of the democratization effort might be satisfied by the emergence of any sort of government that could impose a semblance of order and keep the forces of Islamism at bay. We may not even get that. An abrupt U.S. pull-out might prompt a horrifically bloody war of all against all. It is difficult to see a silver lining in any of this. But as we stare into the abyss, we should also remember that history can be full of unexpected twists and turns.
In the early 1980’s, the USSR and the countries it dominated—all of them brutal, Communist police states—were trapped in what seemed like an immutable stasis. Two decades later, most of the countries of Eastern Europe are burgeoning democracies, and Russia itself, whatever backsliding is taking place under Vladimir Putin, is not the soul-numbing totalitarian edifice it once was.
What exactly is a memorial? If you are someone who thrives on the sneers of the cognoscenti, try saying that it is the physical manifestation of an abstract idea (such as grief, triumph, or resolution), presented in symbolic terms. You will be told in no uncertain terms that a memorial is not an object but “a process,” an open-ended and indeterminate series of negotiations that can never be brought to resolution. So I learned last year when participating in a panel discussion hosted by WNYC-FM on monuments and memorials in the wake of 9/11 (which you can hear here).
The champion of the “process” concept of memorial was James Young, whose views enjoy great prestige in academic circles. (He was a juror on the panels that chose the designs for both the World Trade Center Memorial and Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial.) His views might be paraphrased thus: In our postmodern age, we no longer possess the collective certainty to make bombastic civic monuments like the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials; we should recognize that there are multiple constituencies and multiple claims on the truth, and that each of these should be given voice in a memorial. The notion that a memorial can effectively symbolize a single abstract concept is the discredited vestige of a simplistic age.