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by Fareed Zakaria, CNN
 Published on Monday July 5, 2021 - 7:02 AM
 
State Of America: A Fareed Zakaria Special
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Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria, and this is a special edition. "State of America."

ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the show, a report card on America. As the country celebrates its 245th birthday, we take stock of how the nation is fairing. We'll start with the state of democracy. President Biden pledges to do big things.

JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a generational investment to modernize our infrastructure.

ZAKARIA: Congress remains deeply divided and states passed laws --

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Protect the vote.

ZAKARIA: -- to restrict voting. What does it all add up to?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HISTORIAN: A leader comes in and can mobilize the sentiment of the people, then change happens, and I still believe that we're at that moment now, but it's up to us to write the end of the story.

ZAKARIA: Then, race relations. Just 13 months after the killing of George Floyd. We've seen protests, but have we seen change?

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HISTORIAN: I think most African-Americans have had that hope that the country can be better.

ZAKARIA: Also the state of the economy. Stocks and housing and everything are up, up, up. But are we at peak America?

Finally, TikToks, podcasts, watching movie premieres from the comfort of your couch. We'll examine the state of American culture.

ZAKARIA: But first, here's my take. We've all read stories about how Americans don't care about history. A few years ago, a survey found that only one in three Americans could pass the citizenship test that is required of all immigrants seeking naturalization. But that tells us more about the decline of civics education than about what Americans value. In fact, this country has always passionately discussed and debated its past.

We are going through a particular bitter period of contestation now as some Americans argue for a deeper reckoning with our history and others decry what they see as efforts to denigrate the country.

Take the most recent controversy. Last week Gwen Berry finished third in a U.S. Olympic trials event and turned away in protest as the national anthem was played. In explaining her behavior, she said --

GWEN BERRY, OLYMPIC ATHLETE: If you know your history, you know the full song of the national anthem. The third paragraph speaks to slaves in America. Our blood being slang and pilchered all over the floor. It's disrespectful and it does not speak for black Americans.

ZAKARIA: Now wherever you come out on this issue, I will confess it forced me to learn more about the "Star-Spangled Banner," which was adopted as national anthem only in 1931. Its third verse does indeed make harsh references to slaves who dared to try to escape their captivity. And the person who wrote it, Francis Scott Key, was a nasty racist.

Americans care about history because the stakes are high. This is a country founded not on blood and soil nationalism but on ideas. That's why we have the concept of something being un-American that is contrary to these American ideals. It's rare to hear a position described as un-Italian or un-Russian. You can espouse any ideas and still be Russian because your nationalism is unrelated to ideology.

The United States, however, is a nation dedicated to a proposition, to use Abraham Lincoln's famous phrase. When we debate the past, we are debating the meaning of America. As the historian Henry Steele Commager once observed, even though European states often came into being more recently, Italy and Germany became nation states about a hundred years after America, those countries still had a millennia of prior history, tradition and myths behind them.

"Of them it can be said that the nation was a product of history," Commager wrote. But with the United States history was the creation of the nation. For Americans the country's history is not the accumulation of past events but rather the product of active choices that highlight the country's meaning and message.

[10:05:10]

There was no golden age when Americans lived in happy agreement. After all, the country began with deep discord. The Constitution itself was so bitterly opposed by powerful voices that it could only be adopted along with 10 amendments to the document. For almost two and a half centuries since then, Americans have debated fiercely over everything, from national expansion to economics to wars, to, above all, slavery.

Slavery and its consequences are the greatest disgrace in American history. So naturally this is the issue that produces the biggest and most wrenching debate. I've realized that people sometimes hear outlandish assertions or see symbolic protest that makes them wince, or feel that a point is being taken too far this time. But the airing of ideas, thoughts and passions is all part of life in a free society.

It is a much better indication of a country's vitality than some imposed heroic history that glosses over failures and mistakes and misdeeds. If that means we have to grapple with the reality that men like Thomas Jefferson or Woodrow Wilson were complicated characters with great achievements and great flaws, well, that happens to be the truth. We should have faith that in a free society we can honor men and women for what they did right and hold them to account for what they did wrong.

Many are concerned that in this intellectual atmosphere of anything goes bad ideas, even dangerous ideas might be let loose. They might. So fight against them with your own better ideas. Cancel culture on the left is a worrying and profoundly illiberal trend.

But perhaps more worrying are the raft of laws being passed by Republican state legislatures that ban the teaching of certain ideas and theories. The rights' version of cancel culture is fast becoming legal censorship and state propaganda.

This week the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary. Amidst all the fanfare, there was no public discussion of the party's terrible failures, from the "Great Leap Forward" to the "Cultural Revolution." That is a sign of furor and fragility, not strength and confidence.

Go to CNN.com/fareed for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week, and let's get started.

So how will history view this moment in American political life? And how can the past help us understand what is happening today?

I am honored to have two Pulitzer Prize-winning historians with me today. Doris Kearns Goodwin won the award for her book about Franklin and Eleonor Roosevelt called "No Ordinary Time." Her most recent book, another terrific read, is "Leadership in Turbulent Times." And Jon Meacham, my old colleague from "Newsweek" was honored with the Pulitzer for his Andrew Jackson book "American Lion."

Jon's latest is titled "His Truth is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope." Meacham is an occasional adviser to President Biden.

So, Jon, step back. I know it's a difficult -- it's in some ways an unfair question but, how would you characterize this moment? We do seem divided. We -- you know, what's your best summary?

JON MEACHAM, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING HISTORIAN: Well, I hate to say it because of the way the decade turned out, but I think we're in the 1850s in America. I think you have a dedicated minority of the population. It was the successionist slaveholding interest in the 1850s, today it is this vast swath of people who have found a home in the Republican Party who are no longer part of a coherent and constructive and good intentioned conversation about the future of the country.

And when you turn politics functionally into religion -- and I believe that's what's happened -- is you have your own holy books, you have your own prophets, you have your own path to salvation, that is a terrible, terrible blow to free government because a democracy fundamentally depends on our capacity to see each other not as adversaries or heathen but as neighbors.

[10:10:04]

And so I really do believe that the divisions we're enduring now are a difference of kind and not degree of certainly those that have affected us since the 1930s.

ZAKARIA: And, Doris, when you look at a period where there is no question that we're deeply divided and you look at the 1850s, what gets the country out of it? What changes the phase? Does it take, I mean, a terrible conflagration like the civil war? Does it take great leadership, you know, that Lincoln displayed? What's your sense?

GOODWIN: I mean, I think what it takes, and I think this is the positive way to look at it, is a combination of the people from the outside pressuring in and the leadership that's there. You know, at the end of the civil war when Lincoln was called a liberator because of the emancipation proclamation, he said don't call me a liberator, it was the anti-slavery movement and the union soldiers that did it all.

So the positive thing that happened during those terrible 1850s, and Jon is so right, it's when the country was separating, Lincoln actually warned when the civil war started that the problem was that democracy itself would seem an absurdity if the people who lost an election, in that case the South, the Democrats lost the election, think they can just break up the union because they lost. And that's somewhere where we are today.

But on the other hand, that anti-slavery movement grew. The Republican Party was formed, and Lincoln became the president of the United States. The civil war was fought. Yes, so many thousands of people had to die, but in the end emancipation was secured and the union was restored. He was so worried if that union wasn't restored, as I said, the democracy itself would prove meaningless.

You do have a similar threat that Jon may have thought about, too, from Teddy Roosevelt who warned that democracy would be under threat, and I think in some ways there is an echo today if people in different sections and regions begin to think of each other as the other rather than as common American citizens. But the answer for that is what you were saying in your opening piece. It's civil education.

I believe it's national service. You get people from the city to the country, country to the city, you begin to create a new generation that has shared values and you bring back an understanding of what was wrong about America and what was right about America. It's the activism of the citizens. We had more people voting than ever before. We've got to get people out to the polls. That's the key. ZAKARIA: Jon, how much of this is -- are we grappling with the fact

that Abraham Lincoln died and his vision for reconstruction was never really pursued, and reconstruction then failed, and you know, Jim Crow was reimposed? I mean, in a sense, does it all go back or a large part of it go back to that fact that while there was the emancipation proclamation, while there was the freeing of slaves in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments, it didn't mean a lot for hundreds of years afterwards?

MEACHAM: The civil war changed laws but it didn't change enough hearts. I don't think there's any doubt about that. It didn't change enough minds. One of the tragedies of American history, if not the central tragedy of American history, is that we are founded on an idea of equality, but we profess it far more often and with greater passion than we practice it.

The struggle for justice and equality and a history of which we can be proud is a daily one, I would argue, at the risk of self-parody, in everybody's soul. The soul of a person, I believe, is not all good or all bad but is an arena of contention in which our worst instincts do battle against our better angels. And I don't want to drag you two into this, but I know that my worst instincts win a hell of a lot more often than my better angels do.

And because democracy is the sum of its parts, and the parts are human, not clinical -- this is a country not founded on parchment, it's founded on people. And so if we can't, if we the people cannot realize that a sense of neighborliness and a sense of the pursuit of justice for all are not animating principles, then we fall into this Hobbesian world where it's the war of all against all.

And I fear, far more than I would have even a year ago, because of the aftermath of the election, because of January 6th, I fear for the first time in my adult life that we may be handing over democracy to our children that does not resemble the best parts of the democracy that shaped us.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, more of this conversation with Jon Meacham and Doris Kearns Goodwin.

ZAKARIA: And we are back with Doris Kearns Goodwin and Jon Meacham.

Doris, Jon was talking about how leaders can lead us, you know, toward the better angels of ourselves or our darker impulses. The question I have which is sort of relates to that, if leadership is so important, clearly Donald Trump is viewed by some very large part of the country as his leader. So much so that he dominates a party in a way that I can't recall any prior president in American history.

The one that I think of is Teddy Roosevelt who so dominated the Republican Party that he left it and tried to, in effect, create his own party, the Bull Moose Party. Are there any other perils? What does it mean when a leader gets so powerful that he is more powerful than the party itself?

GOODWIN: I think partly it has to do with the nature of the media today, right? I mean, you had -- one of the scary things about the 1850s is that you had a partisan media so that when Lincoln goes to a debate with Stephen Douglas, the Republican newspaper says, he did great, he was carried out on the arms and shoulders of his supporters. And when he is carried on and the Democratic newspaper will say he was so terrible, he fell on the floor that they had to drag him out.

That's what we have today. We have an echo chamber. We have that consideration of the other being given to us every day by people watching different cable networks, listening to different social media, and you've got President Trump, former President Trump that dominates one of that form of media. So it is a scary thing, but I think we have to remember, what are the mysteries of when citizens become active?

You've got the Civil Rights Movement that's there before Lyndon Johnson is able to get three great civil rights laws through. You've got the women's movement, the gay movement, the environmental movement right now, the climate change movement. We've got to depend that there are mysteries when the times demand it, those movements happen, and then you need a leader in there.

And if a leader comes in and can mobilize the sentiment of the people, then change happens. And I still believe that we're at that moment now. It's up to us to write the end of the story. We know how 1850s ended. We know it ended in a civil war. We are still writing now the chapter of where this is going to end. There is a chance for what Biden is going to try to do with infrastructure, with jobs, with climate change.

There's a chance for the midterm elections, the chance in 2024. There are leaders out there and there are activists out there, and we're just going to have to take hold of, as Jon said, the better angels of our nature, but it's happened before when we needed it to, and I think we've got to trust that we can make it. But it's up to us. We are the government. We are the collective entity right now.

ZAKARIA: Jon, when you think about what direction are we going, you know, left or right, you said something interesting in the break to me. You said, economically clearly we've moved left, but culturally we may be, you know, center right or right. I mean, how do you account for that puzzle?

MEACHAM: Well, I have a theory about this, which is that one of the reasons for the Republican flight from reason is a fundamental and almost elemental sense that from Eisenhower until Trump, Republicans and conservatives supported presidents who, in the end, did not deliver for them.

And when you come to 2016 and you have this choice of former governors related to presidents and senators, and then you have this voice, the Trump voice, there were enough people who thought, you know what? We're like Lucy and the football, we're not going to fall for this again. And that's because -- as you and I have talked about this for years.

Eisenhower was not a radical right-wing Republican. He said if anyone were to attack Social Security, that would be political suicide. Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were centrists. Neither one could even conceivably be nominated today. George W. Bush would tell you that there is a line between TARP during the financial crisis and Trump.

And so I think that -- I believe Republicans at some level know that they basically lost the argument over the role of the state in the marketplace. Now, I know a lot of folks on the left think that's crazy, but from their point of view, government keeps getting bigger and that was a central claim. So, therefore, their anxiety, their political energy has to find a channel, and that channel has become cultural.

The Republican Party as currently constituted right now is far more about having power so that liberals can't have it than having power for a positive agenda.

ZAKARIA: It is what the historian Fritz Stern called, referring to Germany in the 1920s, "The Politics of Cultural Despair." Do you think -- I mean, Doris, you have a wonderful buoyant optimism about America. Do you worry that there is this -- you know, this very dark strain of people who feel their country is going away, that, you know, this is the last stand? There is a kind of, you know, dark millenarism to this idea that I agree with. If we don't stop this now, the country is going down to perdition.

GOODWIN: I do think it's a problem, and I have no question about everything that Jon has said. I guess what gives me that bland optimism that I'm just not willing to get rid of is the idea that democracy has been on trial before in this country several different times and we somehow came through with greater strength.

When FDR was about to assume office in 1933, it was said to him, you know, if your new deal works, you'll be the greatest president in history. If it fails you'll be the worst president in history. He said, no, I'll be the last president in history.

Democracy itself is on trial. It was on trial then, it was on trial during the civil war, it was on trial in the early days of World War II. I think we have to remember these tough times. We're in a really tough time and as I said before, voting is the key right now. The idea that people are trying to restrict the vote, the very thing on which a democracy depends, I mean, LBJ said, without voting, voting is the basic right of which all the rest are meaningless because it controls your destiny.

So I think the real fight for the Biden administration right now, the most important thing that's going to happen in Congress, are they going to be able to protect voting rights against these state attempts not only to take away the right for people to have access to votes, but to potentially deal with the counting of votes. I mean, our partisan involvement in that. This has to be fought, it has to be fought with every bone in every people's body.

It should be a bipartisan majority that cares about voting or democracy itself really is at risk, and I think that's the central point we're at right now.

ZAKARIA: What a fantastic conversation with the two of you. Thank you so much. It's an honor to have both of you on.

Next on GPS, we will tackle the state of race relations in America 13 months after George Floyd's murder. I'll be joined by another Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, Annette Gordon-Reed.

ZAKARIA: It's been just over a year since George Floyd was murdered at the hands of the Minneapolis police. And it's been just over a week since officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced for that murder.

In that span, the country has seen massive protests, the removal of many Confederate statues come down. States and municipalities have changed their laws; schools and companies changed their policies, all to be more equitable and to try to remove remnants of the country's racist past.

A president prone to racist dog-whistles was voted out of office. The new president signed a law-making Juneteenth a federal holiday. It would seem that the arc of history may be bending towards justice. Is it?

For the state of race in America, I wanted to talk to Annette Gordon- Reed. She is a professor at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Her new book is "On Juneteenth."

Annette Gordon-Reed, welcome to the show.

ANNETTE GORDON-REED, PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Glad to be here.

ZAKARIA: So I know this is an impossibly large question, but if somebody were to ask you, what is the state of American race relations today, how would you answer?

GORDON-REED: Well, I think it's like a river. There's a surface and a deep part of it that could be going -- with cross-currents. I think we're, sort of, at an interesting time because we see the growth in white nationalism. We see a growth in efforts to suppress the vote, which, in many instances, means suppressing the black vote.

But on the other hand, you know, we go through our daily lives. We seem to get along. There's not a race war going on. But there seem to be people who wish to foment one.

ZAKARIA: Let me tell you how I look at it, and tell me if I'm wrong.

I do think there's been an enormous amount of progress made. You know, Blacks are more integrated into every echelon of American society, whether college, grad school, professional life. You look at the protests with what happened with George Floyd, and it seemed to me that, for the first time, they were truly multicultural and lots of white people involved. You have Juneteenth becoming a holiday.

So there is real progress. It's not just that we're getting on day to day, wouldn't you say?

GORDON-REED: Oh, I would, but you -- surely, I'm thinking of the starting point. Yes, we've had -- made an enormous amount of progress. But at the same time, I don't think we can ignore the fact, the sort of warning signs of dissent from this idea that we should get along. And we have to be concerned about that.

ZAKARIA: Do you think that the kind of things you're worried about are a backlash to the things I was talking about?

GORDON-REED: Oh, absolutely. Yes. I think we're still in something of a backlash from having had a black president. We do know that, throughout history, any time there has been a sort of visible advance of African-American people, there's a backlash. And then things settle down, and there's progress, and then there's another backlash.

And, you know, we have this cycle going on, and I think we're in the midst of that right now. It is a backlash, but not -- it hasn't -- we haven't gone back, obviously, to -- to the bad old days. But we have to be vigilant about this.

And I guess what I'm saying is I don't -- I don't want people to be complacent about the idea that progress is inevitable. There is no -- I mean, history has no end. It has no "side." And we just have to keep at it. And the only way to do that, I think, is not to become complacent about our situation, even though -- you're right -- we should mark progress when it has happened.

ZAKARIA: And what do you make of these efforts to -- to look back, to, kind of, have a reckoning with -- with American history, things like the 1619 Project?

You know, there's one side that says, "Look, it's very important to look plainly and frankly at America's history, which has a great deal of racism."

And there are others who worry it's going so far that we will not honor the country's founders like Jefferson and Washington anymore.

Where -- where do you come on?

GORDON-REED: Well, I don't think that there's -- it makes sense to assume that, just because people talk about 1619 or people raise the issue of slavery, that that means that people don't love the country.

African-American people have been among the most patriotic people in this country from the very, very beginning. African-American men and now women have fought in every war that the country has ever had. They've tried to uphold the values of this country.

We've been the people who have been pointing to the Declaration as America's creed and as something that's an important part of what it means to be an American. And yet we have a critique of the country as well.

I mean, I -- you know, I have said, you know, loving something doesn't mean that you take an uncritical stance towards it. If you really want a person or things to be better, you have to deal realistically with them, and you have to have, you know, a hope -- and I think most African-Americans have had that hope -- that the country can be better.

James Baldwin says he criticized the country because he loved it. And that's -- I mean, that's my stance on it.

ZAKARIA: There's a line in your book where you -- you quote W. E. B. Du Bois, who says "There is a fundamental tension between Americanness and blackness."

Explain that, and do you think it's getting resolved?

GORDON-REED: Well, I think what he was referring to is the fact that American -- Black Americans have existed in the country as second- class citizens. And we've lived in a place that we've loved and known our families in, had great experiences in, had hopes for. And many in the country don't -- have not accepted us fully as American citizens.

And so that creates a tension that African-Americans have had to resolve over the years. People ask you, "How can you love a country that treats you this way, where you're treated in this fashion?"

And so that creates the dilemma that Du Bois was talking about.

ZAKARIA: On that note, Annette Gordon-Reed, such a pleasure to have you on.

GORDON-REED: Glad to be here. Thank you so much.

ZAKARIA: Next up, the state of America's economy. It looks like it's booming, but is it really? And if it is, will the boom last? That story, when we come back.

ZAKARIA: The post-pandemic reopening has brought a new sense of giddiness and optimism about the American economy. Stocks are up. Unemployment is down. Housing is booming. Commerce is bustling.

Is this renaissance here to stay? What will the new normal look like?

Joining me now is Ruchir Sharma. He is the chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and the author of "The 10 Rules of Successful Nations." So, Ruchir, let me start by asking you, is it fair for people to look at the -- the American economy, post-pandemic, and say, you know, it is now booming, or the boom that -- that existed pre-pandemic, you know, we're back to that -- to that? Is that really what's going on, in long historical context?

RUCHIR SHARMA, CHIEF GLOBAL STRATEGIST, MORGAN STANLEY INVESTMENT MANAGEMENT: Yeah, hi, Fareed. I think so. Because we went through the last decade, for the first time in American history, without a recession in the U.S. We had the pandemic-induced recession, which was, in many ways, artificial, and now we are back to where we were, where we left off, the only difference being that we have spent a lot of bullets in fighting this pandemic, from an economic standpoint, in terms of the deficits we are running and the debt we have been forced to tack on to (inaudible) with this pandemic.

But the main point here is this, that America has been the comeback nation of the last decade. I think this is still not fully appreciated and understood by many people, the fact that America's share in the global economy, contrary to all the pessimism that existed exactly a decade ago, has ended up going significantly higher over the last decade.

ZAKARIA: So when you think about, you know, sort of, the -- this decade, what you're saying is that, after the global financial crisis, America, sort of, got its act together, or whatever, and has basically been on a kind of long boom that has really -- you know, it's striking. Most people thought we would decline as a percentage of GDP. We've actually increased over the last 10 years.

SHARMA: Exactly. And I think that there is a further point here, that, as an economic power, America's share in the global economy has now been roughly similar for the last three to four decades. But as a financial superpower, America has never been this powerful as it is now. That is the big distinction. As a financial superpower, America's power today is unrivaled and unparalleled.

The problem with this -- and I think that this is what I'm coming to now -- that this may be as good as it gets, that a lot of people are getting very excited and optimistic about America now, but that -- the time to have been really optimistic and really excited was when everybody was pessimistic a decade ago, or much -- through that period.

But now, amidst this giddiness, I would just point to the fact that American assets today, if you look at the stock market, you look at the bond market, you look at American housing, you put it all together, America has never looked this expansive compared to the rest of the world. And -- when it's come to looking this expansive over the last 100 years, generally it has done more poorly compared to the rest of the world.

ZAKARIA: What about the debt?

You hear a lot about the fact, particularly after the pandemic, but a lot of people now say, "Look, we were wrong about debt. You know, 10 years ago we worried too much; we should have borrowed more and gotten the U.S. out of -- out of the recession then faster."

What do you think about the pandemic-related debt?

SHARMA: Well, I think that we still don't know what the consequences of that are.

All because something has not happened in the past doesn't mean it will happen in the future.

But here's what really concerns me, which is that the amount that America owes the rest of the world today is about 67 percent of its economy.

That number is staggeringly high, and historically, whenever a country has been that indebted to the rest of the world, it has led to its decline, led to a decline in its currency in particular. And that has been one of America's competitive advantages, that it has the world's dominant currency; it is able to borrow and spend freely because of that. But now it may have taken it to another extreme and may be at the edge here.

And the coming decade, things may not end up being as good for America compared to the rest of the world.

ZAKARIA: Ruchir Sharma, sobering insight. Thank you very much.

SHARMA: Thanks, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: As we look at the state of America today, let's not neglect a crucial aspect of any country's health, its culture. What can we say about American culture today? How does it compare with the past?

I'll talk to one of the great scholars on the subject, when we come back.

ZAKARIA: Louis Menand is perhaps the foremost historian of America's cultural and intellectual landscape. His last book, "The Metaphysical Club," won the Pulitzer Prize. His new one, "The Free World," has received even more rave reviews.

He teaches at Harvard University and writes for The New Yorker.

Welcome, Professor Menand.

LOUIS MENAND, PROFESSOR, HARVARD UNIVERSITY: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you, when you look at American culture today, what does it look like, you know, compared to the period you've just written so much about? MENAND: Well, the period I wrote about is the period right after the

Second World War, from about 1945 to 1965, the early Cold War years. So, comparing that period to today, I think we would say that today cultured America is doing extremely well.

I mean, we have to bracket the pandemic period, when cultural industry struggled a bit, but on the whole there's just an enormous amount of product out there. People are creating it. People are consuming it. People go to museums. They buy books. They download music. They stream everything.

And all those things are infinitely more accessible than they were 50 years ago. And I think they're more central to people's lives -- plus the bar to entry for creators of culture and consumers of culture is just very low. Anybody, pretty much, can record a song and post it on Spotify or YouTube, and almost anybody can listen to it there.

And, remember, video games are culture. TikTok is culture. Music videos are culture. And all these products now circulate worldwide.

I would even say that criticism is in great shape because the Web is filled with criticism. A lot of it's very learned and sophisticated, and it's all very easily accessible. So I would say, by that measure, I would say culture today is very strong.

ZAKARIA: What about -- the big difference that strikes me is -- between culture today and the period you were writing about in this book, which is -- and you alluded to it at the start -- which is it's totally decentralized now. There are no gatekeepers. You don't need to go through a certain set of established avenues or things like that, whereas culture in the 1950s, '60s was still very hierarchical.

Is that a good thing, that it's become so completely democratized, or does it mean, sort of, anything goes and standards have gone down?

MENAND: How could it not be a good thing?

You know, when I started out writing for magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, it was all print, and there were relatively few publications where, you wrote a review or wrote an essay, people would pay attention to it. So the gate was very narrow to become part of the critical conversation in a public way. Just very few people could get into those -- those journals and those venues.

Today is completely different. Anybody can write a review on Amazon. Believe me, they do.

(LAUGHTER)

And that -- you know, we have to sort through, you know, the stuff that we find online. It's like when you're buying a product. You read all the customer reviews. Some of them give one star; some give five stars. You've got to, kind of, sort it out.

There's -- as you say, there's no gatekeepers and no vetting, but it allows all kinds of opinions to get out into the public realm. I think that's a great thing.

I think it's also a great thing that people can write a book and sell it digitally on Amazon, that people can, as I said, make a music video and get it on Spotify, that there's all this incredible access.

Does it mean the standards are different? Yeah, I think it does. Because there is no system that creates a kind of hierarchy of cultural goods. And so people have to make a lot of choices for ourselves.

But we like that. That's what consumerism is all about. We like to make choices for ourselves. So I think this is all pretty much a good thing.

What's missing, I think, is what you're trying to get at, Fareed, which I agree with, is the sense that it all really matters, that it's something more than just a cultural product that gives us pleasure or gives us satisfaction, that it -- it has some real-world significance that we need to think about and talk about.

I don't think we really talk about culture in that way, except in certain political senses that people are sensitive to. But, generally, in terms of, like, "Is that a real movie," we don't ask that question anymore.

ZAKARIA: Well, we're living in a more material time and a less ideological time, wouldn't you say?

MENAND: About culture?

Yeah, I think that's right. It's certainly not...

MENAND: It's very ideological politically.

ZAKARIA: What dazzles us today is, you know, that a painter can get $100 million for a painting, more than, you know, probably it did in 1949 or '51 or something?

MENAND: We do care about that. We care about sales. You know, we care about how much money movie stars make. We're much more aware of that than we were back -- I -- people probably assumed movie stars were well paid, but now we know, you know, how much they get, and like sports stars and so on.

So, yeah, I think we're more material in that way. That becomes a measure of success for -- for a lot of people.

ZAKARIA: Louis Menand, pleasure to have you on.

MENAND: Nice to talk to you, Fareed. Thank you.

ZAKARIA: And thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. Happy Fourth of July to all of those who are celebrating, and to everyone, see you next week.