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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.