Foreign Policy Blogs

Indignation Without Action

The current best-selling book in France is called “Indignez-vous!” It is said to capture France’s prevailing attitude about the moribund state of the world better than any other publication since the global recession began. Its author, Stéphane Hessel, is 93 years old, a veteran of the Resistance and a drafter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would seem to give him a degree of authority that most of us lack.

However, Hessel offers little in the way of vision for how to channel this indignation. He identifies what many are feeling, which seems to have accounted for much of his success, but he does not suggest how to reify this feeling.

In a critique of the book on his books blog for LeMonde, Pierre Assouline (who I highly recommend for his fiction critiques as well) highlights a response published by a French psychiatrist in a recent feature by his paper asking prominent intellectuals what made them indignant:

“I have a lot of sympathy and admiration for Stéphane Hessel and share many points of view, but I am indignant that we are supposed to become indignant because indignation is a sign of blind action. We should be calling on each other to reason, not to become indignant.”

What may really lie behind Hessel’s failure to suggest action or policy is an inconsistent analogy. At one point he explains one origin of the title: “When something outrages you as much as I was by Nazism, you become militant, strong and engaged.” The global recession has wreaked havoc on the lives of millions. But it has not reached the level of an existential threat that would prompt mass mobilization. Thus, he does not offer any course of action because he cannot — the crises are simply not comparable in gravity or severity.

There’s a lot for French and Europeans to be upset about, and much in their society and economy that needs reform. But as bad as it’s gotten, they are not facing catastrophe.