To tell you the truth, I have no truck with these end-of-year human-folly lists and predictions of how bad it is going to be in the coming year and all the other forms of what we used to call fillers on the paper during the slow weeks, one of which invariably is the last one of the year when half the staff is drunk and the other half is hung over and most of our readers are only interested in reading the ads for retail deals after they exchange the presents they got from their loved ones.
At least this no-news news serves to remind us that when you get down to it, what is really a shame about the replacement of newsprint by digital is that you no longer can make at least some use of this mix of unverified hearsay and wild paranoia that we call news, this daily accumulation of myopic perspectives, misunderstandings of evidence, ignorance of history, geography, economics, and just about every other branch of human learning, as well as bad guesses, lousy judgments, and truly awful writing — you cannot, to repeat, make some use of it to wrap your fish.
But what really gets me about these lists is that invariably they are the products of envious no-brains. Some self-regarding zero with a typewriter or a computerized word-processor gets it into his head, since you cannot realistically call what he has between his ears a brain, that he can run down the list of, say, baseball fielding errors or, say, the foolishness or knavery of public figures or, say too, fashion horrors by the jet-set or whatever other can serve to make our zero feel like a high-value number.
I will tell you one interesting development in the clash of civilizations, however, that I did not spy on any of these half-assed lists. The French government has passed legislation regulating the wearing of face-covering outfits of the kind favored by train robbers in the wild West in the decades of the late 19th century. The custom was also adopted by urban gangsters in the 1920s and ’30s, though it tended to be disdained by such romantic sociopaths as Clyde Barrow and John Dillinger, who notwithstanding their mental and moral deficiencies placed themselves in a British highwayman tradition that had its own codes of honor, one of which being that you took responsibility for what you did and were not, therefore, ashamed to proclaim who you were.
However, this matter that the elected representatives of the French people took up is rather different, though it raises some of the same issues of public order, which is why they took it up. Certain sects of a religious movement whose membership has grown exponentially in France in recent years — and in other European nations as well, though it is not clear they can still be called nations — require of their women that they cover themselves from the crown of their heads to below their ankles in burlap bags, though I have found while inspecting these in the outdoor markets, called souks, that can be found in certain neighborhoods and suburbs of most French cities (also Belgium), they are often made of blended materials that are much lighter than they look, out of consideration, one merchant explained to me, for the frails who wear them. Wow, chivalry.
There are still some individuals in France who remember the events known as the Algerian war, when persons called terrorists carried infernal machines — bombs — under these outfits. Arrived undetected by security personnel at their chosen targets, which might be a day-care center or a public house, typically, they (who might be of either sex under the burlap) slyly placed the device under a table or some other location where it would not be noticed, and beat it. Soon after which, ba-boom. As I think Tony Soprano sometimes says, but you picture the results.
This could happen again, the French believe — or their elected representatives — and they are further justified in this belief inasmuch as their public thruways and transports (such as the subway system in Paris) were bombed from time to time even after the end of the clash of civilizations. They thought it was over. But it is not. It never is. And they are worried that they have forgot the stakes. If the French cannot remember the stakes, who in Europe can? They are internalizing instead of fighting. The catch word is diversity, and they are on the brink of making rules such as every party list in an election must have diversity. You can be sure that if they do that, it is the fastest way of marching straight into social disintegration and disharmony, when the citizen asks not, “What can I do for my country?” (or at least, “What can I do for myself?”) but, “Am I getting my fair share?”
Now consider the situation in men’s tennis. Or, if you do not want to consider the situation in men’s tennis, turn the page — or however it is done digitally, but you understand I am writing with a fountain pen on a page — and read about the Iowa Republican caucus nailbiter. I, personally, have some notions about the Iowa Republican caucuses, but Mr. Pleszczynski specified I could cover sports and the clash of civilizations today, two minor items, but that is what you get for years of loyalty to this magazine, and so I am not going to utter a word and you can ask my better half why I am heard going, “Go Mitt go” as I doze off with a copy of Samuel Huntington’s opus on my nose or, perchance, “Hit to his feet, Rog!” as I relive in my sleep one of the meets between the great Swiss and Serb champions.
Well, if you consider the situation in men’s tennis, it is arguably better than the situation in big league baseball. I know you should not compare tennis and baseball, but in tennis you do not bankrupt a team and the taxpayers who are paying for its new stadium by way of revenue-enhancers of dubious merit on the basis of what you are supposed to be worth. In tennis you earn only what you win. You win, you earn. In baseball you earn what a group of rich white guys think you are worth. Although some people are nostalgic for the days of yore (before free agency), you have to admit if you are going to be treated essentially the way these same guys treat pork bellies, at least let it be in a system where Scott Boras can make you very rich.
And where doctors in foreign countries can do weird things to sustain your physical powers beyond their natural and normal time span.
To stay on point, the situation is that the perennial great white hope of tennis, Andy Murray, is going to try to win the Australian Open in a few weeks. He has hired a coach, Mr. Ivan Lendl, formerly of Czechoslovakia and presently of somewhere near New York, who is one of the all-time great tennis champions. I just hope for Mr. Murray’s sake that Mr. Lendl did not grow up in a household that blamed “the British”, as opposed to a British politician and prime minister, for the Munich agreement. As to what will happen in Australia, Rod Laver, the greatest player of all time along with Pancho Gonzalez and Don Budge, and who happens to be Australian, considers Roger Federer the favorite, or at least a strong contender, to win this year’s first Grand Slam tournament at Melbourne.
The objective reality is that Mr. Federer remains after a decade of defining the men’s game the best all around tennis athlete on the professional tour. Unlike baseball, of course, tennis is not a game where you can win some, lose some, and end up ahead by a few points of your nearest competitor. Both are long-season sports, but in the one the stats accrue, in the other you win or you lose, no second acts, each event sui generis, notwithstanding the bragging rights of victory strings and total-single-year-slams and the ATP point spreads, the kinds of items enjoyed by year-end list-makers and valuable for big-bucks endorsements.
Assuming he stays cool during the early rounds at Melbourne, the indications from last year are that Mr. Federer has assimilated the lessons of Novak Djokovic’s terrific ascendancy and the question will be whether he has figured out what to do in order to counter the Serb’s extraordinary defense-offense game. Mr. Djokovic, to catch up with and beat his slightly older rivals of the last few years, the Swiss superman and the Majorcan machine Rafa Nadal, developed an attacking defense that, obviously, worked. He went on a 41-0 tear last year before getting stopped by Mr. Federer at Roland-Garros, site of the French Open.
Roger Federer dominated the Tour during the post-U.S. Open tournaments, the period known as the fall season, showing that he had managed his health better than Messrs. Djokovic and Nadal and Murray and several others who literally collapsed with injuries of varying seriousness. It seems likely that the judicious balance of brain, brawn, talent, and training that has characterized Mr. Federer’s approach to his job serve him — and the sport — better than the improvisations that others in the upper tiers of the game rely on.
Is the ban on the full cover dress worn by some Muslim women due to security concerns? The French politicians who advanced this legislation did not emphasize that, preferring to underscore laws on the books that prohibit dissimulative items of clothing in public places, as well as ostentatious religious symbols. Everyone must accept the laws of the Republic. This long-standing position contrasts with countries which have adopted multiculturalism and find themselves befuddled by the consequences. Britain and Germany contain large unassimilated populations. In England they are quite uninhibited in demonstrating their separateness and their contempt for the surrounding communities, which is always the problem with multiculturalism. There are radical groups in England calling for autonomous urban zones ruled by sharia. This is unthinkable until you think about it. The British have disarmed themselves to such a degree, militarily and culturally, that you have to wonder. To be sure, these radical groups are marginal. Is that reassuring?
To say the Europeans are facing an existential crisis is surely overdrawn. After all, they tried collective suicide twice in the past century, so exaggerated comparisons represent, frankly, either bad taste or poor judgment, or both. Wanting to avoid such death wishes in future, they created the Common Market, and it served its purpose of helping to show Germans and French that they shared a common destiny (staring at 60 Soviet division on the eastern side of the Oder also helped.) The renamed European Community made the supreme mistake, following Charles de Gaulle’s resignation and replacement by Georges Pompidou, of letting Great Britain, as it still was, in, opening the door to limitless enlargement and grandiose plans of “Union.”
Britain’s place was not in Europe, then. Maybe later, after the defeat of the totalitarian threat. But history works in odd ways, which is another way of saying men never know what they are doing in public affairs, and matters were out of control when the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own dreadful awfulness and the unshakeable faith of John Paul II. Matters were out of control because the Europeans did not understand the good fortune that had befallen them and they thought manna was for ever and without guilt or care for the morrow they indulged themselves in every conceivable way, of which paid vacations and free health care, no matter what certain budget hawks in the Republican Party say, was scarcely the most reckless.
No, the problem was they forgot their own history, their own cultures, finally their own identities. It is unfortunate one must sound like a crank but there are simple symptoms of a civilization’s deep illness and they have been around for ever. The difficulty now is that we no longer have thermometers to gauge when the critical point is reached. But you know you should be alarmed when law and order breaks down in the cities of England and the authorities, with rare exceptions, all but apologize to the rioters. There is something queer in the air when during a football match half the stadium boos when the Marseillaise is sung and all that ensues are a few thumb-sucking newspaper editorials.
There is no cause for the old told-you-so. We Americans botched the clash of civilizations too. Our strategy since the end of the battle for the end of history in Europe has been one long series of feckless, selfish, self-regarding, arrogant mistakes. To which I hasten to add, to paraphrase a great defender of our civilization, that if it has been appalling, it has been better than the alternatives.
It is always easy to go negative. It is a sin, like slipping into suicide mode. The truth is that the United States has strategic depth that the Europeans do not possess, and we are nowhere near being down the path to surrender, as some observers think the Europeans are. In my fighting moments, and this being the New Year, notwithstanding what I said about lists and all the look-back-to-look forward games we play around this time, I even think the threat to Europe is wildly exaggerated. The single currency has been misconceived and mismanaged from the beginning, but the principle is valid. If a properly reconstituted European Union can take the place of the mess they have now, with a fresh core built around the original Six and refusing the others back in until they are truly willing and ready, there is no economic or political reason, quite the contrary, not to have a common coin.
Let us not chortle. Consider what we have done to our manufacturing base. Consider our open borders. Consider our overextended ground forces and the telling question: Does the U.S. Navy inspire awe and respect and, if need be, fear, around the globe? So let us not chortle.
Let us, instead, walk boldly and confidently into the bright dawn of our blessed land and, since maybe Al Gore was a little bit right after all and it is 70 degrees out there, play a few hard sets of tennis and then get to work.