The drama of public life in America falls into a long summer doze. The machers of the news business and the stock and bond markets tool off to the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard, and, outside the occasional celebrity or society murder, don’t do much of anything. Trees do not fall in the lazy summer forest, or, if they do, no one hears them; certainly, no one amplifies their sound. Only the diehards of tennis pay attention to the first week of the U.S. Open. By the second week, the pace of life quickens and New York City itself begins to wake to its pulsing autumn. The rest of America soon catches up. Here we go again.
We will be at war soon, and everyone knows it. Indeed, the serious know we have been at war since this time last year. (There are no illusions around Fayetteville, North Carolina, or Ft. Sill, Oklahoma, or Hampton Roads, Virginia.) More than one commentator has compared America now to Europe slumbering its way through the Phony War of 1939-40. Our esteemed editor, bathing in what he calls “the boiling ocean” off the Carolina coast, wonders if we shouldn’t interrupt our vacations and get back to our desks and fret. Myself, pacing off my insomnia on the more bracing beaches of Maine, I think not. It is time instead to take a deep breath and appreciate who we are.
We are nice people. I can knock on a stranger’s mini-van door and ask in all confidence, “Do you have any wipes?” and be given a whole package of Wet Ones to clean up my ice cream-besmeared two-year-old. The tourists in York, Maine, let their children run free on the beaches after sunset, unsupervised. I spot a paraplegic hitchhiker one Sunday morning, and later see him in church. I introduce myself after the service and offer him a ride, which he declines. He’d rather hitch. A day later, a policeman on a bicycle stops to ask me if I’ve seen a hitchhiker on crutches. “Patrick, you mean?” I ask. “Yeah,” says the cop. The York Beach police keep an eye on the unfortunate and mildly disturbed man, making sure he’s safe.
In a summer resort town where I am a stranger, where I have, for two weeks, no fixed address (we are between houses, jobs, and regions), a pharmacist goes out of his way to help me with life-saving prescription drugs, and to see that they are covered by my insurance plan. The drugstore where he works carries everything to sustain life and leisure, including very good-looking Wilson tennis racquets for a mere thirty dollars.
Why do so many people misunderstand us so? Or why does it seem that the misunderstanders get so much attention? McDonald’s is not a part of our foreign policy. McDonald’s does what McDonald’s does. Britney Spears is not a government initiative. If she takes off her clothes on television to the outrage of Muslims abroad, this is not our public business. No law governs her. Indeed, our current President probably has little idea who Ms. Spears is. Many of our own citizens, famous ones, draw attention to themselves with public pronouncements as stupid as any ever uttered by a French intellectual. These are not policy statements; they say them; they fall silent; we forget about them again.
Cultural imperialism? What’s that? We are nice people in a nice country, the nicest ever. Our country was founded on what governments could not do, not on what it could, on rights that “shall not be infringed,” on a Congress that “shall make no law.” Millions of people abroad understand this very well, pack up, and come here, because they want to live the way we do.
Occasionally, we get aroused. Just before the Gulf War started, I watched a pro football game, broadcast from Florida. Knowing what was to come, the crowd stood and sang the national anthem with a stunning fervor, and followed the last phrase with a full-throated roar that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. “Oh, man,” I thought, “Saddam has no idea what he’s getting into.”
Yet even in the ferocity of that battle, we acted like nice people. A Roman emperor would have plowed Baghdad under and sowed the ground with salt. Do you know what “decimate” means? The Romans invented that tactic. It means to select at random every tenth inhabitant of an enemy city for slaughter. We don’t do that. We don’t do anything remotely like that.
It’s strictly a hunch, but I believe we will attack Iraq long before most people figure, just the way we attacked Afghanistan’s Taliban by surprise. The summer is over. The movers and shakers of the financial markets and the media are back at their desks, ready to trade, ready to cover something real. We are a nice people in a nice country, and we want to get this over with. We have not cut short our vacations, but we are back now, and we are ready.