The Age of Grievance

  • By Frank Bruni
  • Avid Reader Press
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Larry Matthews
  • June 11, 2024

Can’t we all just get along? (Spoiler alert: Nope.)

The Age of Grievance

Americans don’t agree on much anymore, but there’s one question people on both the right and left are asking themselves and anyone who will listen: What the hell is happening to this country? The answer, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, is found in Frank Bruni’s The Age of Grievance.

Early in the book, Bruni, a New York Times columnist and professor at Duke, writes, “The American soundtrack has become a cacophony of competing complaints.” In other words, we’re all victims. While he concedes that some people are, indeed, victims of racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination — and he does not discount these things — Bruni asserts that, as a nation, we’ve become a bunch of whiners who think whatever is missing from our lives is someone else’s fault.

Donald Trump is a prime example. Here’s a man of wealth and privilege who lives a life of mansions and private jets but whose public definition of himself is as a victim of “unfairness” and plots. Despite his riches, he solicits donations from people of low means to help with his legal bills, and his supporters promise “war” if he loses the next election. The GOP joins in and applauds his threats and lies.

But Bruni is not writing solely to criticize Trump and his MAGA acolytes. He doesn’t spare the Democrats his ire over their obsession with virtue-signaling and their never-ending search for victims (real or imagined) of persecution, especially on college campuses, where opinions must conform to the standards du jour of victimhood even in matters having nothing to do with universities themselves, be it trashing a bakery that offended someone or banning a speaker whose worldview is unfashionable.

“For too many Americans,” writes Bruni, “racism, reverse racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the rest of it are indeed the go-to explanations, the fail-safe calls.”

In this America, there is no room for compromise. Even talking to the opposing side is seen as selling out. We define others by their faults as we see them, even if we’re wrong. There’s a competition, Bruni asserts, between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, for what he calls the Grievance Bowl’s Lombardi Trophy. “Their senses of persecution overlap even as their realities diverge,” he writes.

But how did this happen? Bruni calls it a perfect storm:

“The ascendance of social media, the breakdown of traditional media, increased income inequality, the continued diversification of a country more heterogeneous than others, a manner of individualism often indistinguishable from narcissism: all are climate changers.”

The American Dream breeds expectations, and expectations create not just opportunity but also disappointment. Today, we turn those disappointments into accusations against those we claim are to blame for our unhappiness and lack of success. We used to tell ourselves to try harder, to work harder, to make our own luck. Now, we just get angry and point a finger.

Bruni takes us on a years-long journey from college campuses, where intolerance is the norm, to states and cities where personal slights are bred like puppies to be shown off and nurtured. Red or blue, the competition for the Grievance Bowl’s Lombardi Trophy goes on, often at absurd levels. At times while reading, I found myself humming the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” But we don’t do that anymore. We let nothing be.

Instead, we take to the streets. We throw things. We attack. I was reminded of comedian Bill Maher’s comment that we have become a nation of “no go” zones. No one would dare wear a MAGA hat on a New York subway or a Biden T-shirt at a NASCAR race, he said. Can we still say, “It’s a free country,” and mean it? Or would somebody take offense and force-feed us a tale of someone who is not free and, therefore, the very idea of freedom is wrong?

Congress gets special attention from Bruni. It’s ground zero of the grievance movement. Members of the House of Representatives routinely make claims that would be laughable in another era. Those who ran for their lives during the January 6th insurrection now call the rioters “patriots” who are being held as political prisoners. Lawmakers on the right and left regularly issue demands that make no sense but, for the moment anyway, fit the grievance of the day. Writes Bruni:

“Our insufficiently questioned, inadequately moderated grievances endanger us in ways less obvious and final than violence, and they impede and diminish us apart from turning our governments into instruments clumsier, more ineffectual, and less honestly representative than they could and should be. They affect how, every day, we interact or fail to interact with one another.”

Sadly, the presidential election this November is likely to prove Bruni correct. The Age of Grievance may not be a classic beach read, but it’s the right book for the season.

Larry Matthews is the author of Age in Good Time and other books.

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