Politics & Policy

What a Country

Thoughts from a traveling man.

Okay, so I’m home (in case you took some bad acid and had to miss this column because you were being held captive in the dungeons of the Gopher Queen’s Dark Temple, or some such, for the last few weeks, my wife, my über-hound, and I went to Fairbanks, Alaska and then drove back to Washington, D.C.).

I didn’t think I’d be nearly this happy to be back. Sometimes, the only way to find out if you’re content with your life is to leave it for a while and see how you feel when you return. This is just one of the many Deep Thoughts that occurred to me on my three-week hiatus. Unfortunately, most of my Deep Thoughts were so deep and so dense that they folded in on themselves and sank to the bottom of my brain, and I can no longer retrieve them without risking getting the bends on my return. Instead I — by which I mean you — will have to make do with the effluvia that have floated to the top of my brainpan, like something unpleasant floating at the top of something else (my metaphor/simile generator is still on the blink).


This was the third time in a year that I’ve driven across the country. Each time I’ve been simply stunned by what a big place America is. By big I mean geographically, of course, but not just geographically. America is huge in every sense.

In Washington — and New York, Los Angeles, and everywhere else journalists, admen, movie producers, marketers, publishers, and politicians play with each other — we constantly battle to simplify America. Hollywood strives to appeal to the common denominator. Networks yearn to produce the least objectionable programming. Publishers crave crossover appeal. Politicians chisel the edges off every verb and noun in pursuit of the most palatable pabulum. Advertisers and marketers want to make everyone a customer even if that means convincing trout they need bicycles. And journalists — perhaps the worst culprits because their job isn’t to sell but to inform — force every set of facts into one of a few, predictable storylines.

Whether it’s the bogus secular astrology bound up in all the talk about “Generation X,” or the monochromatic indictments of the popular culture, or the reflexive bigotry which assumes that southerners or Christians are backward or that blacks and (liberal) women have an elevated moral sense, too many journalists subscribe to the notion that some things have to be believed to be seen.

This was the case since long before Walter Lippmann (a great waster of letters, as his name indicates) introduced the word “stereotype” into our social lexicon. For example, Matthew Arnold, the great English pundit, crankily wrote in 1888: “Everything is against distinction in America. The glorification of the ‘average man,’ who is quite a religion with statesmen and publicists there, is against it… Above all, the newspapers are against it.”

What Arnold may (or may not) have missed is that in a sprawling land of mostly poor newcomers building a nation on the fly, there was a recognized imperative to finding what was common to everybody — to “print the legend,” as they say at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.

But the problem today is that people don’t want to print the legend: they want to fabricate it entirely. Which is a good excuse for going out and seeing the country for yourself.


For example, if you read those little plaques that mark and explain historic spots around the American and Canadian west, you can learn a lot about the real story of America’s indigenous peoples. I wish I’d taken notes, but what’s lasted in my mind is how, time and again, various tribes were wiped out, pushed out, or put out by other tribes. From the Badlands of South Dakota to the Canadian Rockies, I would find the stories of one native people oppressed by another native people transcribed for all the tourists to ignore. Of course, some (but by no means all) of these tragedies were the result of Europeans pushing or bribing some tribes westward, causing the cruelty to cascade from one people to another. But even these stories are a lot grayer than the black-and-white tales of evil white men oppressing gentle natives that are offered to schoolchildren across America. After all, many of the Europeans were members of various tribes that had been pushed out by other tribes across the pond. Such is the story of mankind.

Another popular myth is the idea that native peoples live in harmony with their surroundings. I even have a roll of “Seventh Generation” brand toilet paper on my desk — available at any Fresh Fields — which invokes the “Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy” (“In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations”) to hawk “Affordable, high quality, safe and environmentally responsible” toilet paper which will “keep you, your home and our planet healthy.” Even Goebbels didn’t use T.P. (no pun intended) to peddle propaganda.

Of course, if you spend any time in Alaska, you’ll learn about how the natives are far more cavalier about the impact of their hunting and fishing practices than the “white” people are. Alaskan natives get a free pass on all sorts of regulations concerning when, how, and where you can catch and kill delicate species. Why? Because they’re natives, so they must know what they’re doing as they zoom around on their snowmobiles, shooting animals no other citizen could shoot with such abandon without risking monumental fines or jail. Talk about protecting the fisheries for seven generations to some Alaskan natives and they’ll hit you with the old Tonto joke: “What do you mean ‘we,’ kemosabe?”

I don’t mean to disparage Indians and other natives. My point is just that they’re human like everybody else. There’s this ongoing campaign in America today to make Indians somehow more than human (which can only have the result of making them less than human in some peoples’ eyes). But the fact is, Indians mucked up their environment just like everybody else. Take the great prairies, which many people want to hand back over to the exploding buffalo population (the herds are now bigger than at any time since the 1870s). I don’t necessarily think that’s such a bad idea, but let’s remember that restoring the prairie to the way it was when the Indians used it to hunt buffalo is not the same thing as restoring it to its “natural state.” The prairie itself was, in all likelihood, burned out from the primeval forests (or as a comic-book writer might say, “from the forests primeval”) by Indians looking to create massive buffalo farms. Multinational corporations and capitalist democracies aren’t the only entities that clear cut trees, but they are among the few that replant them when they’re done.


There’s more to say about my trip, including various conclusions I’ve drawn on the differences between driving cross-country with a beer-drinking buddy and with your wife. (Hint: Beef jerky is not a “meal” when your better half is around, and “bad smell” competitions are strictly forbidden.) But I thought I’d say a few words about you guys.

First of all: Thank you. I cannot tell you how many smart, funny, generous people got in touch with me to offer free meals, clean sheets, or great advice. I would often read your e-mails to Jessica (and Cosmo) as we barreled down the highway and Jess would marvel at how many of my “twisted fans” were such wonderful people. The dog stories were especially helpful, as our radio was useless for the first couple thousand miles and the CD player broke our second day out. I wish I could thank everybody personally, but if you didn’t hear from me, please know that I am grateful and more than a little flattered.

Second, I’d like to apologize for the whininess. I complained once or twice about people pestering me to post more or how nobody was reading (which was an exaggeration, and simply untrue toward the end). These readers fairly noted that I did say I would “continuously update” the Travelblog and I didn’t. It turned out to be a lot more difficult technologically, logistically, and psychologically to stay on top of things. So, I’m sorry about all that.

And last, there’s the tumult this “Jonah and the Man” post has elicited. I’ve gotten barrels of e-mails from people who just didn’t get it. But since the NRO home office wants to get out of here for Labor Day weekend — we won’t be formally posting on Monday — and this is getting way too long, I’ll address all of that in The Corner. Check it out when you can. Have a great weekend and thanks again, seriously.


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