Let no one charge Leon Wieseltier with flinching from what needs to be done. Writing in Liberties, the quarterly that he recently founded and edits, the aging literary lion, his previously exalted reputation today somewhat tarnished, once more summons his countrymen to take up their assigned post. Summons does not do justice to the authority that his writing conveys. Wieseltier instructs, insists, demands, orders. Humankind needs saving. That’s America’s job and we have fallen down on it.
The second person plural is Wieseltier’s preferred mode of expression. From his perch atop Mount Olympus, he speaks to and on behalf of all Americans. Throughout his essay, the we’s accumulate like cicada carcasses. Over the past dozen years, he charges, “We have been living contentedly… in this springtime for Hitlers.” The U.S. failure to intervene in the Syrian civil war draws his particular ire: “We chose to stand idly by, feeling bad and watching it.” As a consequence, “we were disgusting.” American timidity infuriates him. “Right now,” he writes, “we are hardly in danger of doing too much. This has been a golden age of too little.” As a consequence, “we are miserable,” with action the only antidote to misery: “We can be big in the world by doing good in the world. Lacking bigness or goodness, we (and not only we) are doomed.” Nor is there any time to lose. “Soon, if we do not recover our sense of our historical role,” we will find ourselves taking a back seat to China.
The remedy is clear: “America in full, unafraid of history’s pace, unembarrassed by its enthusiasm for democracy and human rights, larger than its mistakes and its crimes, comfortable with the assertion of its power in its own defense and in the defense of others, inspired by the memory of its magnitude, repelled by the rumors of its decline” needs to get back to work tout suite. Cue the National Anthem.
Let me admit to my personal inability to discern “history’s pace.” As for deciphering the “memory” of America’s “magnitude,” I’ll leave that to journalistic hucksters like Henry Luce, who coined the pernicious phrase “American Century.” And when it comes to American decline, it’s not “rumors” that bother me but certain undeniable facts: gaping inequality, internal division, political dysfunction, institutional incompetence, fiscal disarray, and a sequence of grotesquely mismanaged wars.
Wieseltier has little time for facts, much preferring self-indulgent exhortation. His long essay contains not a single piece of data. The approach has its advantages, enabling him, for example, to offer glib judgments such as this one: “I have no doubt that the costs of American action in Iraq have been much less than the costs of American inaction in Syria”—an opinion proffered without either tallying up the Iraq War’s cumulative costs or considering who ended up footing the bill. Hint: it was not Wieseltier’s privileged cohort of the American “we.”
If the Iraq War gets short shrift, the even longer war in Afghanistan qualifies for only a single passing mention. Yet, surely these two protracted conflicts—Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom—deserve recognition as instances when “we” set out to do “good.” How to explain Wieseltier’s lack of interest in exploring why the outcomes achieved have been so disappointing?