Identity Crisis

By Browning, Frank | Tikkun, September/October 1996 | Go to article overview

Identity Crisis


Browning, Frank, Tikkun


Identity Crisis

Frank Browning writes about contemporary cultural life in Brooklyn and grows apples in Kentucky. His latest book is A Queer Geography: Journeys Toward a Sexual Self.

Twilight of Common Dreams, by Todd Gitlin. Metropolitan/Holt, 1995. 249 pp. $25.00.

The Ethos of Pluralization, by William Connolly. University of Minnesota Press, 1995. 280 pp. $19.95.

The time was spring 1969, the place, Paris, a year after "the events of May" when student revolutionaries had seized the streets in renewed calls for liberty, equality, and fraternity. It was my first journey abroad and I was the guest of a generous revolutionnaire I'd met at an American conference the previous winter. Jean-Jacques was a ruddy, round-cheeked fellow, one of the most eager, gregarious fellows I'd ever met--and just married to a dark-eyed, moody art history graduate. Jean-Jacques came from new but big money, and he arranged for me to stay in his parents' posh (Belgian tapestries on the wall) apartment.

"Just tell her you are revolutionnaire and she will sleep with you," Jean-Jacques assured me the night before I set off for a quick wander to the South of France where he had a student friend. Dutifully/expectantly I took the piece of paper he'd written with his friend's name and number and shoved it in my pocket. I never called the girl, but I kept the crinkled slip of paper for a long time, for it seemed like an odd sort of Comintern card, a certification that I was not an American but a certified citizen of the international revolutionary movement.

In 1969, none of us middle-class kids in fancy universities wanted to embrace Americanism. To be an American was to be ashamed: of our lynching of Black people, of our slaughter of the Indians, of our napalming of Vietnamese children, of the alliance of racist Dixiecrats and Northern plutocrats who ran the government. The American Dream of manicured suburban lawns was a Teflon nightmare where Mom popped Valiums, Dad took long lunches to screw the boss's secretary, and Johnny and Susie were surviving it all only through a little help from their acid friends.

I was Swedish, or English, or Irish, or Dutch, or Canadian--a revolutionary who spoke bad college French but better English than the French did. Anyway, the French people I met, young or old, didn't have much interest in where I was from. They, as always, wanted to know what I thought of France.

We student brigadistas, most of us, fell in love with France for all the same romantic reasons people have fallen in love with France for centuries: food and style and breathlessly beautiful settings complemented by sophisticated cosmopolitan table talk that no one in Akron or St. Louis or even Ann Arbor could pull off.

But there was something else too: We were seduced by the notion of being a revolutionary and loving your country. Generation upon generation of French university students had been taught to embrace revolutionary ideas (though not to toss paving stones) before settling into positions of power and administration. That was (and is) part of the promise and the mystique of La France. Remake, renew, redream the nation, bien sur, but never forget what it means to be French.

Until Vietnam, Americans of the Left as much as the Right articulated a parallel national faith in the American idea. The Left distinguished itself as a movement of universalistic human ideals that were consonant, even reflective, of the broader American ideals: the freeing of all mankind under the guidance of the people's reason. Jefferson and Madison had written it into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Todd Gitlin's greatest contribution in The Twilight of Common Dreams is his history of what happened to the Left's faith in Americanism. Masterfully and elegantly, he traces that history, from its redemptive strains in Emerson--this "asylum of all nations ... will construct a new race, a new religion, a new state, a new literature"--to the Popular Front during the Great Depression. …

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