I Love New York, and the First Law of Journalism

 

What a great time I had in New York. I wish I didn’t have to leave so soon.

A few days ago, a member of Ricochet wondered whether I really loved America. Other members gallantly rose to my defense, which was touching but entirely unnecessary. I suspect we only become offended by criticism if at some level we fear there’s a grain of truth in it. The intimation that I don’t love America has all the emotional impact on me of the insinuation that I might be one of the Boys from Brazil.

America is like no other place on earth. For all the talk of pessimism, recession, decline and fall, this remains–so clearly!–a country of mad, nutty, innocence and optimism; it is a place where everything works; it is a place where every man feels in the depth of his soul that he is the equal of every other man, and it is a country so free, in so many ways, that I doubt I will ever be able to convince anyone who hasn’t seen it with his own eyes that this kind of freedom really exists.

It stares you in the face from the moment you deplane: If you’re smart and hard-working, somehow you’ll make it here. You’re allowed to say anything you want, to anyone you want, and no one will arrest you for it. These qualities have been compromised at the margins in recent years, but it’s all relative. I’ve lived in so many places where these qualities don’t exist, have never existed, and will never exist. The difference is night and day. 

In the big optimism-versus-pessimism debate, I’m on the positive side of the ledger. America has a gift for recognizing problems, changing what doesn’t work, and solving things. It’s so deep in the American DNA that I don’t think we’d be able to do it differently if we tried. Six years in Turkey hasn’t even touched my sense that when I see something that doesn’t work, I want to fix it; you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the American out of the girl, and it can’t be any easier to take the America out of America, either. It’s not easy to build democratic institutions and cultures, as we’ve learned to our pain overseas. But neither is it that easy to destroy them.

New York works. Immigrants arrive in droves from every corner or the world, and within minutes of exiting the immigration queue, they become New Yorkers. They work hard, they show up on time, and they figure out ways to sell you things you want, things that don’t break, at prices you want to pay. The room is too cold? Flip a switch, and seconds later, it’s warm. You go to the gym? Every machine works. Not a single one is broken, and God knows, not one is broken in such a way that it nearly electrocutes you, and if it were, it certainly wouldn’t still be broken three days later, having nearly electrocuted two dozen other people. Twenty minutes before air time and you realize you need a safety pin? No worries: twenty minutes is more than enough time to get anything in New York, and every single person you speak to understands that if you say, “I need a safety pin in the next ten minutes,” that means you need a safety pin in the next ten minutes. Obvious, you might think. Except that in much of the world, it isn’t. I just can’t get all that frantic about America being overtaken economically by any country that can’t pass the safety-pin-in-ten-minutes test. 

But the most astonishing thing about America is this. I know full well that I can go on television, with millions of people watching, and say anything I please about the American government–anything–and even if for some malignant reason I feel like saying something false, gratuitously insulting, bad for the stock market, ruinous to a politician’s happy marriage, or frankly seditious, I can just say it, and when I walk out of the studio, whatever I said will be between me and my conscience. It won’t even occur to me that I may have exposed myself to an unpleasant risk of a pre-dawn police raid and a show trial. Possibly I’ll get a few indignant e-mails. 

And this brings me to the First Law of Journalism. For some reason, American journalism’s just not working. I figure we’ll solve this problem; that’s what we do. But as of now, it’s broken. Exhibit A: Time Magazine’s US Story of the Year. The Occupy Wall Street Protests Spread. Well, here I am on Wall Street, or very close to it, anyway, and if this is someone’s idea of the top story–or even a major story–he’s crazy as an outhouse rat. The top story? In a year, say, in which the United States, for the first time in 62 years, has become a net energy exporter? 

So here’s my advice. You know what you hear in the news? If you haven’t seen it with your own eyes, don’t believe it. And don’t worry so much about America, it will probably be fine. 

Now get back to work.  

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Gretchen

    Thank you, Claire. While I don’t share your optimism, I appreciate your observation about how different it is here. It has been over twenty years since I have been out of the country and felt that exhilaration you feel on returning. You describe it so well and it is good to know it still happens.

    • #1
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    @Layla

    Reading this contribution was a wonderful way to start the day. Thank you, Claire! Interesting: I’m currently reading your Menace in Europe, so the difference between what you write here and what you wrote there is…striking.

    Now I’m off to tell my husband to stop reading whatever it is he’s currently reading and read this post. And *then* I’ll get to work. :)

    • #2
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    @TheKingPrawn

    In the second paragraph you wrote, “it is a place where every man feels in the depth of his soul that he is the equal of every other man,” and I think this is exactly why America is all the things you believe her to be. It is also the focal point of those who wish to destroy it. Those on the left, from the President down to the whiney person at the PTA meeting, are actively attacking the inherent understanding and deep belief in the individual equality we possess here. This is why Obama’s class warfare game is so dangerous. If enough people buy his line that each person in this nation is not created equal and endowed with inalienable rights then we will cease to be the remarkable aberration we’ve been in the history of mankind.

    • #3
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    @Charlotte

    Might your optimism level have been somewhat different had you just spent a week in Newark, Camden, Detroit, Flint, Oakland, Stockton, etc. (or even Washington, D.C.!) rather than in New York?

    • #4
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    @Claire
    Charlotte: Might your optimism level have been somewhat different had you just spent a week in Newark, Camden, Detroit, Flint, Oakland, Stockton, etc. (or even Washington, D.C.!) rather than in New York? · Dec 8 at 6:13am

    Entirely possible. But I didn’t. I really want to make a point of only reporting on what I have seen with my own eyes. I’m that cynical about it these days.

    I’d love it if Ricochet members in other parts of America reported more on what they see.

    • #5
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    @Heshmon
    Charlotte: Might your optimism level have been somewhat different had you just spent a week in Newark, Camden, Detroit, Flint, Oakland, Stockton, etc. (or even Washington, D.C.!) rather than in New York? · Dec 8 at 6:13am

    I really enjoyed reading this post, and soaking in the exhilaration. That said, I must admit that I had the same question in mind that Charlotte asks.

    • #6
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    @RobertDammers

    Indeed, energy is the great story of the moment. Recent developments have made all those Malthusian worries about “peak oil” clear as the nonsense they always were. If we stop putting food in fuel tanks, we won’t have a global food crisis, either. Getting rid of all the policy-driven fuel price hikes will go a great way towards providing relief, if not outright stimulus, to the world economy (providing a rising tide that lifts all boats).

    But hey, the ignorant unwashed are much more interesting. Even if they were outnumbered by the Tea Party.

    And finally Claire, how could anyone think that just because you are an expatriate you had become an ex-patriot?

    • #7
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    @PaulARahe

    Claire, your piece reminded me of what Time Magazine once was and of what it has become. The degree to which elite institutions have come to be dominated by a small segment of the population made up of people who live in a bubble and talk only to one another is amazing.

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    @MothershipGreg
    Paul A. Rahe: Claire, your piece reminded me of what Time Magazine once was and of what it has become. The degree to which elite institutions have come to be dominated by a small segment of the population made up of people who live in a bubble and talk only to one another is amazing. · Dec 8 at 6:21am

    I wonder what Whittaker Chambers would make of the Time Magazine of 2011.

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    @Publius
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    I’d love it if Ricochet members in other parts of America reported more on what they see.

    I think one of the reasons why I enjoy reading your work on Ricochet so much Claire is that you have a unique perspective on the wonder that is America because of your experiences living in Turkey. Your description of your expatriate experiences and what makes America so unique remind me why I love this country. I think that was one of the primary reasons why I, and others, rose to your defense (no matter how unnecessarily) at the suggestion that you do not.

    I count myself as a Steynian pessimist, but I desperately hope that I am wrong. When I read the optimism that people like you and Dr. Rahe project, I have my doubts about my own pessimism and that gives me hope.

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    @MelFoil

    CB, I’ve always considered you more of an American missionary. Lady Liberty welcomes the poor huddled (afraid to speak) masses to America from New York Harbor, but she doesn’t get around like you do.

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    @KellyB

    And if they hadn’t been able to find a safety pin in 10 minutes, they’d have offered up a stapler or some tape – or something that would have done the job.

    Thanks for the reminder of the great gift we Americans have been given, Claire. Badly needed, and very much appreciated.

    • #12
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    @LeslieWatkins

    America has a gift for recognizing problems, changing what doesn’t work, and solving things. It’s so deep in the American DNA that I don’t think we’d be able to do it differently if we tried.

    Back during one of our “gas crisis” periods I told a frantic friend: “Americans probably won’t ever conserve resources to your satisfaction. What they’ll do is find a solution to the problem.” I’m guessing you might agree with that.

    Wonderful post. Have a safe trip—home?

    • #13
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    @LadyBertrum

    I love the optimism and to a certain degree share it. But, what increasingly bothers me about America today is the bizarre contradictions and Dickensian realities of modern life.

    1. The most perilous health concern for those living in poverty is obesity.

    2. 26% of American women take an anti-depressant.

    3. The children of the affluent are less likely to be vaccinated than the children of 3 generations ago.

    4. We spend more per pupil on k-12 education than any other advanced nation but have some of the lowest test scores.

    I could create an endless list if I touched on the nature of the bank and auto industry bail-outs, college loan stupidity, or the real estate situation.

    If we could dig up and re-animate Dickens, he’d make a fortune – he’d also be writing for HBO, but that is another issue altogether. I realize people have always been stupid, but we’re reaching some kind of new level of absurdity, and I increasing get the feeling, much like Kay Corleone, that this must all end.

    I await the Zombie Apocalypse.

    • #14
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    @DavidFoster

    I believe it was George Marshall who advised young Army officers to “always remember, when considering your problems, that the ENEMY also has problems of his own of which you are unaware.”

    Our trading partners / economic rivals are certainly not enemies, but when people like Tom Friedman are ranting about the wonderfulness and unstoppableness of (for example) China, it is wise to remember that other societies & economies also have difficulties that the outsider is unlikely to clearly see.

    • #15
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    @CrowsNest

    Claire–I whole-heartedly agree with this paragraph that you wrote in the main post: “Six years in Turkey hasn’t even touched my sense that when I see something that doesn’t work, I want to fix it; you can take the girl out of America, but you can’t take the American out of the girl, and it can’t be any easier to take the America out of America, either.”

    In my current post, I work with military officers from across NATO. They have remarked more than once that they find it astonishing how openly critical Americans are at our debriefs, and how quickly we identify a problem and demand that it get solved [and this is gov’t work!].

    More than one of my foreign colleagues has confessed to me that in their own home nations problem-solving at this pace and with this frankness simply doesn’t happen. Sometimes that’s the result of office politics, sometimes lack of work ethic, sometimes fear, sometimes apathy, occasionally corruption–but most often it is the enervating fatalist attitude that “it can’t be changed no matter of what I do”.

    Americans? We don’t tolerate sucking.

    • #16
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    @Publius
    Crow’s Nest:

    Americans? We don’t tolerate sucking.

    That reminds me of the George C. Scott as Patton saying:

    “Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war… because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”

    • #17
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    @Douglas

    “America is like no other place on earth. For all the talk of pessimism, recession, decline and fall, this remains–so clearly!–a country of mad, nutty, innocence and optimism; it is a place where everything ; it is a place where every man feels in the depth of his soul that he is the equal of every other man, and it is a country so free, in so many ways, that I doubt I will ever be able to convince anyone who hasn’t seen it with his own eyes that this kind of freedom really exists.”

    And Liberals desperately want to change that, because they see that freedom as chaos that must be brought under control by experts… for the greater good, of course.

    Recall this from Barack Obama’s “Now I’m Teddy Roosevelt” speech:

    “”Now, it’s a simple theory,” said Obama. “And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked.

    Such is the Democratic Party

    • #18
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    @Douglas
    Lady Bertrum:

    I could create an endless list if I touched on the nature of the bank and auto industry bail-outs, college loan stupidity, or the real estate situation.

    If we could dig up and re-animate Dickens, he’d make a fortune – he’d also be writing for HBO, but that is another issue altogether. I realize people have always been stupid, but we’re reaching some kind of new level of absurdity, and I increasing get the feeling, much like Kay Corleone, that this must all end.

    That was a pretty insightful post. Well done. But the zombie apocalypse has come and gone already. The Occupy *insert city here* camps have been cleared out, cleaned up, and hosed down. The smelly, shambling, blood-lusting masses were made to go elsewhere.

    • #19
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    @DuaneOyen

    I might add that twenty years ago, NY was a lot like Detroit, Newark, etc. Re-birth is quite possible.

    But the operative question here is, you can’t take NY our of the girl, we understand. Why can’t we get the girl out of Turkey? She must love those “stimulating” and unpredictable exercise machines described.

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    @
    Paul A. Rahe: Claire, your piece reminded me of what Time Magazine once was and of what it has become. The degree to which elite institutions have come to be dominated by a small segment of the population made up of people who live in a bubble and talk only to one another is amazing. · Dec 8 at 6:21am

    I liked starting my day with this post, however I cracked up about the New York part. For most of us New York City is very American in a Disneyland sort of way. One could write an essay on that- it’s probably been done.

    • #21
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    @
    Publius

    Crow’s Nest:

    Americans? We don’t tolerate sucking.

    That reminds me of the George C. Scott as Patton saying:

    “Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans traditionally love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost, and will never lose a war… because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.” · Dec 8 at 8:28am

    Exactly. My husband is LITERALLY working 24/7 to save our business of 15 yrs. He learns more bad news (in our case most recently LaceyAct/Cites-we build acoustic instruments-it’s all true and insidious) narrows his eyes and doubles down. If Obama wins again we will reconsider, regroup and try to outsmart- determined, not idiots.

    • #22
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    @EJHill

    States.jpgThe problem with TIME or any journalistic endeavor is the parachute journalist. You drop in, ask questions, and write your story. The problem is that you’re not there long enough to really understand the story.

    The map on the left shows you all the states that I’ve worked in since I began my television career. (And I get to add a state next week!). I’ve been to these places but wouldn’t begin to say I understand the people that live there or their unique problems or the advantages they enjoy. All you get is the perspective of the few people you talk to. And if you’re talking to politicians or “activists” then you get no perspective at all, since that’s not how most people live their lives.

    • #23
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    @Charlotte
    PracticalMary I liked starting my day with this post, however I cracked up about the New York part. For most of us New York City is very American in a Disneyland sort of way. One could write an essay on that- it’s probably been done. · Dec 8 at 8:55am

    This reminded me…when I was a kid a Simon and Garfunkel song came on the radio, and I asked my dad whether S&G were American (being very much into the Beatles at the time I thought most “oldies” artists were British). He replied, “Well, they are from New York City, but I’m not sure that’s the same thing.”

    • #24
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    @DavidWilliamson
    Douglas:

    “”Now, it’s a simple theory,” said Obama. “And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked.

    Mr Obama needs a better speechwriter, Claire – you should apply.

    Oh, wait, he probably wrote the speech himself :-(

    Hard to be optimistic about America, where such a President can be elected – what could go wrong?

    • #25
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    @KeithSF
    EJHill

    The problem with TIME or any journalistic endeavor is the parachute journalist. You drop in, ask questions, and write your story. The problem is that you’re not there long enough to really understand the story… All you get is the perspective of the few people you talk to.

    EJ, you just reminded me of journalist Edward Behr’s memoir, and its very cynical title:

    http://www.amazon.com/Anyone-Here-Raped-Speaks-English/dp/0450053601

    “Anyone Here Been Raped and Speaks English?”

    • #26
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    @Valiuth

    Even if we give assume that Obama is right and admit that rugged individualism has never worked and never will. It is a far superior ethos to ascribe to than determined dependence. One makes us view ourselves as a nation of adults in charge of our own lives, the other a nation of children incapable of standing on our own two feet.

    The truth is no one is really independent we need other people for all sorts of things (food, power, clothing…no one person makes all these things any more, well maybe the Amish) but we need to have a sense of power and individual control. Without this we will become fatalistic. Rugged individualism encourages us to stand up and fix problems we see and self organize. Ultimately it makes us better part of the whole by giving society greater flexibility. I think rugged individualism can become self destructive when it falls too far down the Objectivist path, but that is not its true essence or its ultimate conclusion.

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    @Publius
    David Williamson

    Hard to be optimistic about America, where such a President can be elected – what could go wrong?

    America fired Jimmy Carter at the earliest possible opportunity so we might not be cooked just yet. However, if we keep Obama on for another term, I think a pessimistic view of the overall fortunes of the nation will be justified and confirmed, unfortunately. It would be confirmation that we have more people in the cart than are pulling it.

    Obamacare fundamentally alters the relationship of the citizen and the state. Its logical conclusion is a single payer system of some sort. It might be that the HHS becomes the ultimate provider of health care funding or maybe we put an American skin on European single payer and launder the money and control through some puppet insurance companies. Such a system would be one of the greatest infringements on personal liberty since slavery. I know that sounds hyperbolic, but we’re literally talking about the state making direct life or death decisions for you.

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    @DianeEllis
    EJHill:

    As for San Francisco… Ever been to the west of the Union Square area? · Dec 8 at 11:52am

    Yes, the Tenderloin. Not a great area to be sure, but even they have pretty delicious places to eat around there, which is more than I can say for most of Michigan. And besides, the Tenderloin only occupies a few square blocks of space. Easily avoidable.

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    @FlaggTaylor

    I just loved this post Claire! I was in NYC in early November and had a similar reaction. There is a certain energy to the city that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.

    • #30

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