How Americans look to themselves and to others, in three takes:
1) Some weeks ago, I was on the air with a radio talk show host in Texas, discussing the Confederate battle flag flying over the state capitol in South Carolina. The radio man was affable, polite, so I said affably, politely that I thought it was discourteous to fly a flag that offended so many of South Carolina's citizens. It caused them pain. Remove it. Besides, polls say the majority of South Carolinians, white and black, want it to come down.
But, said the man, for many the flag has nothing to do with race; it is a matter of southern heritage.
Not so politely, I replied: "The swastika does not fly over the Reichstag now. The Nazis, after all, lost the war."
I felt the flare of rage through the phone line, a palpable heat:
"DO YOU MEAN TO COMPARE...???!!!!!"
To compare what went on in Nazi Germany to what went on in the American South was, in the man's mind, an obscenity, an outrage.
2) On the other hand, if you were to visit the New-York Historical Society's current exhibition (running until July 9), entitled "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America," you might find yourself staring into something like the same moral abyss that presents itself if you visit Auschwitz. Before the question "How could this be?" the mind goes into a state of moral shock.
Elie Wiesel, my teacher in these matters, warns: "Don't compare." But evil has its universality, and in the lynching photographs a ghastly race-based "American Death Trip" of snapshots assembled mostly from the first several decades of the 20th century we are in the presence of unmistakable evil, unmistakably American.
This is not the "banality of evil," as Hannah Arendt described Eichmann's bureaucratic Final Solution. The photographs present, rather, a sort of festivity of evil. Well dressed white people the men in jaunty straw boaters, the women in pretty Sunday dresses, the children (children!) neat as a pin are posed as they inspect mutilated and naked black corpses. People have brought picnic baskets. The pictures were sent as postcards through the mail.
America idealizes itself, and indeed has achieved much of its stunning success in the world, by believing the best of itself (against sometimes powerful evidence to the contrary), by hewing to its most optimistic myth (consider Ronald Reagan) and holding itself almost metaphysically blameless among the nations. This is American exceptionalism.
Is it not provocative and unproductive and maybe even a little voyeuristic to conjure up such old evils as the "lynching bees"? I have talked to Israelis who do not want to hear another word about the Holocaust. Some American blacks are, in the same way, impatient with those who dwell on the past. They understand that tragic memory, while sometimes instructive, can also be destructive and transfixing. Surely Americans a lucky and headlong and creatively forgetful people in many ways live in a happier village than do, for example, memory-obsessed Bosnians, Serbs, Croats and Kosovars.
3) Whether or not Americans are oblivious about the past, it's troubling that they seem relatively heedless about the way that others may see them in the present. The New York Times has done an interesting roundup piece about "a growing backlash of anti-Americanism in Europe, especially in France, where a member of parliament named Noël Mamère has written a book called "No Thanks, Uncle Sam," a catalogue of American gaucheries and moral derelictions ranging from too much crime and too many guns to capital punishment to inadequate health care for the poor. For all of my life, Europeans have been intermittently anti-American in one way or another, especially the French, who have a genius for ingratitude and superciliousness.
What's most troubling in all this, though, is not the French mindset, but the American the insularity of Americans in their role as the smug, sole superpower, and even worse (because it is potentially dangerous), their apparent lack of curiosity about what goes on in the rest of the world. The stupid side of the American exceptionalism has always been the American narcissism. It's a paradox that globalization seems to make the narcissism worse.