National Security & Defense

Hey, Watch This

American gymnast Simone Biles trains in Rio de Janeiro, August 4, 2016. (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)
Man at his best, and his worst

‘Hey, Dad, watch this!” Here is a scene that is played out at swimming pools around the country millions of times every summer. There is a little boy, who perhaps only recently has grown confident operating in and around the water, and there is a father, whose attention and approval he is seeking. This particular family is black, the sort of married-with-children-and-a-mortgage black family the existence of which our political discourse often ignores. The crowd at the pool is in fact as diverse as a Benetton ad — white, black, Hispanic, Asian — which is how they do diversity in the affluent enclaves on the west side of Houston: All the ethnic diversity you like, economic diversity starting at around $150,000 a year per household, a gorgeous mosaic of engineers and bankers and bankers and engineers here in the heart of the oil business, the most ruthless and pitiless expression of global capitalism known to man.

A cannonball is executed with some flair.

“Hey, Dad, watch this!”

What does that scene look like without Dad? Too many American children, millions and tens of millions of them, know the answer to that question.

Simone Biles was one of them. The 19-year-old American gymnast, who at 4 feet 9 inches and 104 pounds is one of the world’s greatest living athletes both in absolute terms and certainly on a pound-for-pound basis, was abandoned by her father and left to a drug-addicted mother who was not capable of caring for her. There were periods in foster care before she and her sister were adopted by their maternal grandfather. When she was six years old, she went on a field trip to a local gymnastics school, and that was that. At the beginning of the Rio Olympics, which are shaping up exactly the way you’d expect a Brazilian affair to do, the world’s gymnastics-watchers weren’t talking about Biles winning a gold medal — they were talking about her winning five.

There’s no point to gymnastics, in the same sense that there’s no point to art, at least the best kind of art (never mind the tedious, consciousness-raising sort for the moment). It serves no practical purpose, except to delight and shock us. Watching Biles perform her signature move (a double flip with a half-twist, which she says she discovered more or less by accident — you know, just goofing around with double flips, as one does), you have to remind yourself that you are not watching a Hong Kong martial-arts movie with rococo wire-work but real-life flesh and blood moving through space.

The joy of watching these wonderful exercises in uselessness comes from the unique pleasure of watching human beings doing things that they are unusually good at doing. There’s no mystery to running, but there’s a great deal of mystery to running the way Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis does it. You can learn the basics of tennis in an afternoon, and you’d know just enough to know that Serena Williams is playing the same game you are, but only technically.

At the beginning of the Rio Olympics, the world’s gymnastics-watchers weren’t talking about Biles winning a gold medal — they were talking about her winning five.

It isn’t just sports, of course. My old guitar teacher once said that you could learn to play the instrument pretty well in a few months, but to really play it? “Well . . . ” He’d been a student of Andrés Segovia’s, recorded with Christopher Parkening, toured with Dave Brubeck, was celebrated as a virtuoso by the people who know, but he didn’t seem to think of himself as finished. There was always room for improvement, even if there were only maybe 20 people in the world who would be able to appreciate the difference. His son became an accomplished guitarist and teacher, too: “Hey, Dad, watch this!”

Of course, you don’t have to wait for the Olympics or a Lang Lang concert to know man at his best. You could be reading The Lives of the Saints. (Some Fathers are more difficult to impress than others.) Or you could just be reading the news: A Florida-based company just received permission from the U.S. government to stage a robotic expedition to the moon; in July, Solar Impulse 2 completed a round-the-world flight using nothing but solar power; of interest to our friends in Rio, in a remarkably short time after the emergence of the Zika virus as a serious public-health issue, not one but two vaccines (a DNA vaccine and an adenovirus vaccine) have been developed and used effectively in monkeys, though more development remains before they are safe to use in humans; when I visited Baton Rouge in the wake of the police shootings there in July, I interviewed the very impressive man who founded a local program that helps police and the communities that sometimes regard them with suspicion build mutual trust and social bonds, and learned that his next big challenge in life is deciding what to do after high school.

There’s something special at work in all of those stories, and it usually starts with a child: “Hey, look what I can do!” becomes “Hey, I’m pretty good at this!” and sometimes, like Simone Biles or Steve Wozniak, they just keep going, all of them in their own way carrying the rest of us forward with them.

Biles in Rio de Janeiro (Dylan Martinez/Reuters)

The Olympics are not the only thing that happens every four years. As for that other thing . . . There are many good, intelligent, decent people in politics, but it is not an enterprise that usually brings out the best in us. Government is only a necessary evil — at best. Politics thrives on convincing us that things are worse than they are, telling us that we must live in fear of violence and misery if we do not elevate the members of a very special caste of people who do very little resembling real work. The contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton is not only unworthy of us as Americans — it is unworthy of us as a species. We contain within us greatness and the seeds of greatness, and the belief that the affairs of this free, dynamic, prosperous, good, unprecedented republic of 319 million souls rests on the choice between Enfeebled Psychotic Miscreant A and Enfeebled Psychotic Miscreant B is a superstition, one that we should leave behind. To the extent that there is some truth underpinning that superstition, the situation is that much worse.

#related#These people do not represent the best of us. Even the best of them do not represent the best of us. They can do some good, mainly by protecting property and the freedom to trade, organizing the occasional public good here and there, while otherwise staying out of the way.

We — we human beings — cut global poverty in half in 30 years, built an ever-expanding electronic Library of Alexandria and have connected (so far) about half of the world’s population to it, all but eradicated polio, and saw the average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa grow by 70 percent in 50 years. What’s next?

Hey, watch this.

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