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Can we become a serious country again?

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.

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