In the brief national soul-searching that followed the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, many observers, including President Obama, reflected on the troubling excess of anger and moral indignation in our political discourse—the kind of indignation that turns opponents into enemies, and campaigns into crusades. Yet, even as responsible figures on the right and the left in America are urging their fellow-citizens (in Roger Ailes’s surprising words) to “tone it down,” the best-selling book in France is a pamphlet titled Indignez-vous!—roughly, Get Angry! This tract, about 15 pages long and priced at 3 euros, has sold close to one million copies since October.
The American press has not paid much attention to Indignez-vous!. But British newspapers have been fascinated by the human-interest elements of the book’s success. For one thing, the book’s 93-year-old author is a genuine hero. As a member of the French Resistance, Stephane Hessel parachuted into occupied France, was captured by the Nazis, and spent time in Buchenwald before escaping. After the war, he became a diplomat, serving on the commission that produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
His biography is central both to the success of Indignez-vous! and to what has so far received much less attention: its actual argument. The book is explicitly designed as the deathbed charge of a World War II hero to today’s youth, urging them to cast off their feckless indifference and reclaim the righteous indignation of the Resistance. “I want all of you, each one of you, to have your grounds for indignation,” Hessel writes. “It is precious. When you get outraged the way I was outraged by Nazism, you become militant, strong, and engaged.”
It might seem hard to object to Hessel’s message, which, on one level, is as platitudinous as a high-school graduation speech: care about the world you live in, fight injustice, cherish non-violence (“I am convinced that the future belongs to non-violence, to the reconciliation of different cultures”). Yet there is actually something quite troubling about the huge popularity of Indignez-vous! and about the political use it makes of the Resistance legacy. For what defined the years 1940 to1944 in France was, precisely, the absence of politics: a country under foreign occupation is deprived of the opportunity, and the responsibility, of self-government. This is a source of humiliation and suffering, but it can also, to those brave people who continue to engage in public life, be a source of exhilarating clarity. Especially when the occupier is as unmistakably evil as Nazi Germany, and especially when the resister is half-Jewish, like Hessel, the compromises and uncertainties of ordinary politics are abolished. “Resisting, for us, meant refusing to accept German occupation and defeat. It was relatively simple,” Hessel recalls.
And what could be more natural than wanting to carry this simplicity and urgency into the realm of ordinary politics, where everything is so maddeningly complicated and drawn-out? “We are determined to replace politics with morality,” Camus wrote in an editorial in Combat, the Resistance newspaper, on September 4, 1944. “That is what we call a revolution.” Yet, within days of the Liberation—as you can see dramatically in the remarkable volume Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947—the Resistance’s exemption from politics began to crumble, as the compromises involved in actual governing returned.
If it was impossible to replace politics with righteous anger in 1944, it is surely all the more impossible in 2011. In fact, when Hessel tries to make “get angry” into a political platform, the results range from incoherent to sinister. For the attractive thing about anger is also the dangerous thing about it: It turns consensus, the basis of democratic politics, into a vice. All of France’s problems today, Hessel explains, can be attributed to the rich: “the power of money … has never been so large, insolent, and egotistical, with its servants even in the highest spheres of the State.” These are the same kinds of malefactors, he says, who were responsible for the defeat of 1940 and the rise of Vichy: “When I try to understand the origins of fascism, why were invaded by it and by Vichy, I tell myself that the rich, with their egotism, were terribly afraid of the Bolshevik Revolution.”
It follows from this equation that any attempt to cut back the French welfare state, such as Nicholas Sarkozy has been making with limited success, is the moral equivalent of Vichy. One of Hessel’s examples of the virtuous indignation he is calling for is the French teachers’ strike in 2008: The teachers who rebelled against proposed budget cuts “decided that these reforms departed too far from the ideal of the republican school, were too much at the service of a society of money.” Yet Hessel does not say anything at all about the content of the reform, which was extremely moderate—to shed 8,000 teaching jobs through attrition, by not replacing 50 percent of retiring teachers. Nor does he say anything about the motivation for it—to balance the French budget in line with European Union requirements, and to respond to falling class sizes. In other words, Hessel’s indignation does not allow for consideration of the trade-offs involved in every ordinary political decision. This kind of thinking, which makes every reform a conspiracy and every strike a defense of the Republic, explains why—as the education minister complained at the time—there were 33 French education strikes between 2000 and 2008.
It comes as something of a surprise when Hessel turns from his denunciation of Sarkozy’s policies on education and immigration to announce that “today, my primary indignation concerns Palestine, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank.” But then, somehow, it is not a surprise at all. If indignation is a license for automatic, self-gratifying judgment, then the Israel-Palestine conflict is the European left’s favorite supplier of indignation. Hessel focuses on Israel’s incursion into Gaza in 2009, the so-called “Operation Cast Lead,” which was very bloody, and certainly deserves the intense scrutiny it has received. But to solve the insoluble conflict will require exactly that kind of mutual consideration, that balancing of the needs and fears of both sides, that Hessel’s indignation is designed to prevent.
In its place, he gives us a sentimental, and actually quite condescending, eulogy of the Palestinians of Gaza: “their patriotism, their love of the sea and the beaches, their constant preoccupation with the well-being of their countless, cheerful children.” (The very same words could be said of the Jews of Tel Aviv.) And, because indignation sees all the right on one side and all the wrong on the other, Hessel is totally unable to bring his professed non-violent principles to bear on Palestinian extremism and Palestinian terrorism: “Obviously, I think that terrorism is unacceptable, but…” “Does Hamas benefit from launching rockets on the town of Sderot? The answer is no. It does not serve their cause, but…” For the Israelis, of course, there is no extenuating “mais,” only the senseless insinuation of a reverse Holocaust: “For Jews to be able to perpetrate their own war crimes is unacceptable.”
Hessel concludes his pamphlet by calling the first decade of the twenty-first century “a period of retreat,” mainly because of George W. Bush. The mass murder of Americans on September 11 is mentioned as a cause of this American “retreat,” but it is clearly less worthy of indignation than Bush’s election and the invasion of Iraq. And not worthy of indignation at all, apparently, are Vladimir Putin’s strangulation of Russian democracy, or China’s continuing communist dictatorship, or genocide in Darfur, or endless wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo—all features of the last decade that might seem to deserve a share of Hessel’s censure. Indeed, one might even say that those tyrants and genocidaires are much more the inheritors of what Hessel calls “fascist barbarism” than the French Ministry of Education.
Hessel blames the paralysis of the Third Republic on the selfishness of the rich. But surely another important cause was the debasement of its political discourse, its rhetoric of treason and subversion—in short, its toxic level of indignation. “Get angry” is not a political motto. It is an anti-political motto. And it may be that it is this legacy, rather than the noble legacy of the Resistance, that Indignez-vous! is actually transmitting to its millions of frightened readers.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor for The New Republic.