1. Tempered not melted. The question is not whether America is in decline, but whether it is in decline at a more rapid pace than true of Europe, Russia, or Asia. And one bright spot in the otherwise dark economic news will be the resilience of the United States. Forget trillions of this, and billions of that, or our sinking GDP and GNP, or deflation and unemployment rates, or all the other data—at least for a moment. Instead consider the gargantuan mess that Europe is in with its even wilder real estate market, greater deficits, and far larger banking losses from bad loans abroad. Russia is a mess; with less than $50 a barrel oil, it will be worse than a mess. Export-driven China may have trillions of US dollars in reserves, but it has tens of trillions in infrastructure investments to make before it can match US roads, dams, and airports, much less approximate our standard of living. Americans are far more meritocratic than others, success far less predicated on birth, accent, parentage, or class. We are more optimistic, and do best when pressed (Consider a broke America in 1939, and a rich America in 1946 that defeated the Axis and sent billions to its allies in the UK and Russia.). Our demography is far more encouraging than Europe’s. We react to crises far more energetically; compare US troops in Afghanistan to their NATO counterparts; or ask who adapted more successfully in Iraq—the US Marines far from home, or Al Qaeda terrorists in their own backyard? Once the dust settles on this crisis, I wager the United States will be relatively stronger after than before the meltdown. One can do almost anything with a $13 trillion economy, a two-percent-plus growing population, and a stable political system; much harder with a shrinking work force that breaks apart along class lines and resentments. Even while pundits write weekly books about the ‘end’ of the United States, or at least ‘American decline,’ the United States will emerge relatively stronger for the ordeal.
2. Who’s illiberal? So far the likes of Hugo Chavez, al Qaeda’s Dr. Zawahiri, the mullahs in Iran, and Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have all in varying degrees commented, in racialist fashion, on the African ancestry of President-elect Obama. More of such insensitive slurs by foreigners about our President’s skin color, the legacy of slavery (as in “house slave”), etc. will follow. And Americans will take note of the vast divergence between an American electorate easily and without bias voting for an African-American as their Commander-in-Chief, and a supposedly multicultural world leadership abroad snickering about it. In the past Michelle Obama has called her country “mean” and until recently not worthy of her own pride. But now as we watch the reaction abroad to Obama the next four years (once the mass hysteria of crowds dies down), I think a number of those on the Left will confess that the “other”—whether in Europe, the Middle East, South America, or Asia—will prove a lot less liberal about our President than the much-caricatured American public. This will be a positive development and remind critics here at home just how different their country is from the alternative. It really is an exceptional place, and I doubt very seriously that China will soon have a German-Chinese Prime Minister, or Germany an African-German Chancellor, or Japan a Congolese-Japanese Prime Minister, and so on. The point is not, again, that mere racial diversity brings with it automatically wisdom, only that our critics abroad, who fault America’s often tense experiences with a vibrant multiracialism, are themselves decades behind the object of their vituperation.
3. Turning on a dime. There is such a thing as divine Nemesis, even though the god seems to sleep for long periods. The media violated all the classical cannons of fairness and objectivity in this presidential campaign. Now they are in a dilemma, since most of their long-voiced objections about Bush won’t be operative any more—on matters of taxes, Guantánamo, the bail-outs, FISA, the Patriot Act, Iraq, guns, abortion, capital punishment—inasmuch as Obama suddenly won’t be hoping and changing much of anything, but often leaving things on these issues as they are, while turning management over to the tentacles of the Clinton octopus. The media, in Animal Farm fashion, will have to do a ‘that was then, this is now’ turnabout, as they dream of reasons why Gitmo is not that bad, or why keeping the Bush tax cuts for a bit will stimulate the economy, or why wiretapping on suspected terrorists, on reflection, isn’t really that subversive. And as they reinvent the once evil administration policies, and the formerly Hillary hacks into inspired Obama ideas and experienced and professional Obama appointments, few will believe them. Done, over with—the media has lost credibility and will have to start over from square one. And all that was a much needed development. (PS—after the India nightmare, note the Obama reaction to dismantling the FISA accords, Patriot Act, Guantánamo, and withdrawing from Iraq, as the campaign rhetoric of Bush shredding the Constitution morphs into something like ‘the public will turn on a dime and blame us for criminal laxity if anything like 9/11 happens on our watch.’)
4. What happened to Iraq? Lost? Quagmire? Out by March 2008 which was the promise Obama gave when he announced his run in February 2007? General Betray Us? Somehow between Gen. Petraeus’s 2007 congressional testimony (Cf. Hillary’s “suspension of disbelief” slur) and the present calm, the US military essentially won the war. All the front-page stories in our papers that Americans in Iraq were incompetent, barbaric, mercenary, and Hitlerian suddenly ceased, and in their absence there was—nothing? About five times as many Chicagoans died violently in October than did US soldiers in combat in Iraq. Just as the hysteria peaked as gas was supposedly fated to hit $5 a gallon, but silence followed when it descended below $2, and just as we were warned that spiraling home prices had ensured an entire new generation of Americans were shut out of the American dream, and then even greater furor followed when prices fell suddenly and Americans were robbed of their equity, so too with Iraq, which we were to assume, would always be lost, but apparently never won. Like it or not, Gen. Petraeus will compare favorably with generals like Sherman, LeMay, and Ridgway who likewise somehow found victory when failure seemed certain. For all the tragedy and mayhem, the thought that Saddam Hussein is gone and just five years later there is a stable and successful constitutional government in the heart of the ancient caliphate seems as surreal as it is encouraging.
5. A Few Good Pilots. For all our complaints over air travel—mostly irate passengers and uncaring airline management—we surely must have thousands of professional, competent pilots and crews. Each day thousands of flights take off from crowded airports (after obnoxious passengers keep trying to stuff two oversized carry-ons into the overhead compartments while talking on their cell phones and blocking the aisle, stealthily turning on their blackberries in the ascent and descent, and loudly complaining about something). Yet (knock on wood), our pilots continue to take off, fly, and land us in safety. In the last six months, I have taken off in fog, lightning, snow, ice, sleet and terrible rain storms, rose and descended without seeing the ground, and continue to be amazed how skilful pilots are and how accurate their instruments must be. It’s quite an amazing record, the safety of our passenger air industry the last three or four years. It is as if something as seemingly insane as blasting off in a jet of a 100 tons to soar to 30,000 feet is now analogous to hopping in the car for a freeway drive. While the airlines drop complimentary snacks, charge for bottled water, and serve no meals gratis ($7 a beer now), the pilots simply keep on flying safely and delivering snarling passengers all in one piece. (I suspect a lot of it has to do with the large percentage of pilots who have had some military training in their youth.) They are a rare breed.
6. Learning from Pain. The financial panic has at least reminded millions of Americans of some ancient wisdom. For a generation, we won’t trust glossy brochures that promise us 10% returns on “safe” retirement mutual funds, but sigh that 10% on anything is almost impossible (try paying 10% interest to run a business). We won’t believe that one just buys a no-down payment house, breathes air, and, presto, makes 30K a year in equity (try saving money for a down payment at 10K a year, and watch a house go out of reach as its price climbs 30K per year). And we won’t be impressed with faux-credentials. Barney Frank’s Harvard Law Degree means about as much as Richard Fuld’s Lehman Brothers’ CEO title. Who a man is, his word and bond, not what others proclaim him to be, is all that once mattered, and will matter again (or at least until the Stock Market gets over 10,000 again). It’s a new ballgame and all the pseudo-wisdom of the last 20 years is now, well, pseudo-wisdom; all the boring and trite aphorisms of the past are, once again, aphorisms for a reason.
7. Callous Health Care? For all the demagoguery, about the uninsured, I am not sure that such charges of callousness are altogether accurate. I just returned from visiting an ill relative at Fresno Community Hospital in downtown Fresno. The majority of visitors (about 75%) in the lobby tonight seemed to be speaking Spanish, or Hmong. I would wager that many did not have health plans in the sense of employer-provided HMOs. But someone was giving them health care, and sophisticated surgery as well.
Most who denigrate American medicine know nothing of the alternative. I have had the dubious distinction of having become ill in a lot of awful places during the last 35 years. I once spent 30 days in Greek hospitals first with E. coli food poisoning, and then with kidney problems that led to a partially-severed ureter and an impacted stone (that finally required 11th hour emergency surgery back in the US). The treatment in Athens was barbaric to say the least. One bought everything with cash, from toothpaste to food. The carelessness was astounding (from missing medications to unattended IVs to almost deliberate lack of simple antiseptic procedures.) Care was predicated entirely on money; suites on top, the inferno on the bottom—under a utopian socialist system. I once got what I was told by a local Egyptian doctor was merely a “light case” of malaria in southern Egypt while visiting the Valley of the Kings in 1974, and spent 7 days with a high fever in a dismal infirmary in Luxor. One was on their own there—not figuratively, but factually. I found hygiene nonexistant (cf. the old reusable steel needles). No need to go on about an emergency operation two years ago for a perforated appendix and peritonitis in Gaddafi’s utopian socialist and oil-rich Tripolis (mandatory AIDs test for all who enter the clinic; those with positive results are denied surgery and supposedly headed for quarantine—and so also apparently Paradise).
Our health care is flawed, but each day, by hook or crook, even if it be by emergency room, we try to treat the uninsured. (I confirm that by breaking an arm a few years ago, and spending a morning in the Selma emergency room, the only English speaker during some three hours among dozens of other patients, and the only one with private health insurance and the last to see a (skilled and compassionate) doctor; all there received humane, free care, interpreters, and left satisfied, and aware that there was nothing comparable in Oaxaca).
True, it is dangerous and scary to get sick in America—but far scarier and more dangerous to get sick in any other similarly-sized country. We should remember that in our hysterical demand for utopian perfection, and cheap slurs that we are an uncaring people with millions denied simple health care. For the most part our doctors, like our pilots, are better than those abroad, and, especially in the case of general practitioners and emergency room physicians, should be paid far more than they receive. One good abdominal surgeon or oncologist is worth ten investment managers at Bear-Stearns.
Mail. I was a little surprised at the volume of postings to the last blog on ten random politically-incorrect thoughts. Some seemed confused beyond measure. I hardly said Latin was the only education, only that as a core it was vastly superior to the present politically-correct therapeutic curriculum (see the last posting on classes at CSU Monterey Bay). Nasal and feminized accents were not slurs against homosexuals; my point was that it seemed fashionable among heterosexual young men to sound feminized and in gender terms ambivalent, and I wondered whether this epidemic came from urbanism, fashion, or some sort of belief that it exuded authority. No need for lectures about false romanticism of the past; Horace’s take on the laudator temporis acti and the castagator censorque minorum was gospel to me as a student. I offer no apologies either for thinking our education, entertainment, public morality and manners, as well as popular ethics, have all devolved since the 1960s. In the present arrogance of this age, we seem to think that everyone of the past, before being enlightened by the 1960s therapeutic generation, was either a bigot or sexist.
A final unscientific anecdote: I remember my grandfather (died on our present farm in 1976 where he was born in 1890), as he walked through Selma, paying his bills in person (and usually in cash), with “Yes, sir” to those who had far less money than he, or spoke only poor English. He endlessly worried about the occasional deleterious effects on us of watching an “adult” and sometimes “violent” show like Gunsmoke with him on Saturday nights, and as a treat offering us (my two brothers and me) one Frosty 7 oz. Rootbeer per week from his private stash, and apparent only obvious sinful splurge. In such a supposedly biased and Neanderthal age, he mortgaged his 120 acre farm in 1939 to stay alive, and, strange to say in such rough times, to ensure that his two daughters could go to Stanford University, a third, crippled with polio, he sent to San Jose State where he arranged for a helper to watch over her. He paid off those debts promptly by the 1950s, as contracted. I think he was more the norm (readers will immediately cite similar even more unusual examples of their own kin) than the caricatures of illiberal Americans in the age before the CSU Monterey Bay curriculum saved us all.
Once again, I note from mail and the postings that critics on the hard Left continue to lack humor; when they should be ecstatic with the triumph of Obama and the new majority in the Congress, they seem instead curiously consumed by their petty anger and bitterness. And now even the ritual totem George Bush is gone at which to chant and revile. No matter; this is a wonderful country and we are so lucky to be alive in the here and now in the United States. So Lighten up this Thanksgiving–Carpe diem!