“How old are you, usually, when it all hits you?”
— Tom Wolfe, “The Frisbee Ion”
One of the great pageants in American life, the Super Bowl, is happening in my new hometown of Houston today. House Williamson has decided to treat this occurrence as a natural disaster, and our strategy for dealing with natural disasters is always the same: Be elsewhere. When Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, I watched it on the news in Palm Springs. Whatever transpires in the city today, I’ll be keeping a wary eye on it from a good bit farther on down the Gulf Coast.
Houston can be horrifying much of the year. Summers here are unbearable, and I write that as a man who lived for a time in India — without air conditioning. Sometimes it rains for days, the traffic is positively Third World, and the city’s great landmarks are an empty sports arena and a shopping mall. But this time of year, Houston is glorious, warm and mellow winter sunshine on palm trees, cloudless skies. This is neither America’s prettiest city nor its most exciting nor its most refined — “refined” here mainly refers to petroleum products. But it certainly seems to be a place that works. It has stupid municipal government, like practically every major American city, and it counts Sheila Jackson Lee as among its great political assets. But damn it all if it doesn’t seem to work, from the guys out in Baytown refining oil and churning out petrochemicals to the manufacturing businesses that build the tools they use to the downtown financiers and lawyers who keep everything moving. Lots of new pickups, lots of full restaurants, lots of guys making a good living installing swimming pools for the guys who are making an even better one. You’ve never seen a median household income of $61,485 look so rich.
We Texans like to sneer at Californians, but they aren’t doing too badly out there, either. I am a big fan of the unwritten sumptuary laws of Silicon Valley: Nobody wears a suit, but everybody wears an oh-so-casual cashmere sweater that costs about three grand, and nobody drives a Lamborghini but nobody’s Tesla is more than about 18 months old, either. California has its problems, to be sure, though we Texans shouldn’t laugh at them too hard: The green-eyeshades guys tell me that there’s a good chance we’ll see the public pensions in Houston and Dallas go toes-up before the ones in Los Angeles and San Francisco do. (Weirdly, New York has been relatively responsible on this front — who could have seen that coming?) Everybody who reads knows the idiots in Sacramento are screwing things up like it’s their job, but there isn’t much in California that feels like a crisis. The Bay Area is rich and slick and happy, and sprawling Los Angeles seems to be doing quite well, too, and even the drought-stricken farm country still for the most part is looking pretty prosperous.
And so it goes: Washington, D.C., is not only thriving but maybe even doing a little better than your thinking small-r republican would like to see in principle. For all the talk of “carnage” and the very real problem of violent crime plaguing a handful of its neighborhoods, most of Chicago is doing just fine and some of it is spectacular. South Florida’s low-rent good-fun vibe has figured out a way to coexist with serious business, thanks in no small part to excellent state-level political leadership and a very forward-looking business community. New York is still New York, and Boston is still Boston, which is great if you like that sort of thing. And outside of the big cities, American farmers are prospering beyond the imagining of their forebears only a generation ago, with high-tech 21st-century agriculture having grown into something that’s influenced a lot more by what they’re doing in Palo Alto than by what they used to do in Muleshoe. If you haven’t visited an American cotton, wheat, corn, or soybean operation, you really should — the sheer vastness of the enterprise is eye-opening.
Part of my job is writing about social problems such as poverty, crime, and drug addiction, which means I drive around the country looking for the worst parts of everywhere, which are pretty easy to find if you know how to do it. I’ve spent the last couple of years interviewing hookers in Charleston and heroin addicts in Birmingham and welfare cheats in Tennessee. I’ve been in jails and Alcoholics Anonymous meeting rooms and halfway houses, talked to dealers on drug corners in New Orleans, and heard the story of a family living in a gas station in Kentucky. Generally speaking, when I show up in your town, it isn’t good news. And we need to talk about those things, but those situations — in this land of unbelievable peace and plenty — are the man who bites the dog, not the other way around. The news is the news because it is not the norm.
Politicos and angst-peddlers left and right want you terrified and anxious, and they want you to believe that these United States comprise a vast impoverished anarchic Eliotic wasteland.
Perhaps it is because there is not much in the way of genuinely bad American expletive-deleted with which I am not at least passingly familiar that the hysteria and negativity of our political discourse strikes me as so very expletive deleted insane.
You’d think the United States is poor, desperate, backward, and on the verge of either civil war or building concentration camps or both.
The idiot children in Berkeley who risibly style themselves “antifascists” say that they are going to “war,” that the United States is descending into some sort of Nazi-style nightmare state, and that allowing a daffy Anglo-Greek homosexual writer to speak about current affairs on a University of California campus is only one step away from — their words — “genocide.” Surely, if there were to be some sort of neo-Nazi regime in the United States, its poet laureate would not be Milo Yiannopoulos, who is: gay, Jewish by birth, Catholic by profession, and something of an enthusiastic race-mixer to boot. He’s the guy who’d be put into a camp, if there were camps.
Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren want you to believe that the economy and the political system are “rigged” against you, that you have no real hope of prospering, rising, and thriving in what Senator Sanders insists is an “oligarchy.” (He pronounces it “Allah-garchy,” and, sharia hysteria notwithstanding, we aren’t getting one of those, either.) The guys on talk radio want to sell you gold coins and freeze-dried ice cream, and so they need you to believe that we are on the verge of total anarchy, that somebody — the Islamic State, Black Lives Matter, Chicago gangsters, somebody — is coming to get you. Politicos and angst-peddlers left and right want you terrified and anxious, and they want you to believe that these United States comprise a vast impoverished anarchic Eliotic wasteland, a kind of gigantic continental Haiti with lots of shopping malls and a surprisingly large number of Range Rovers.
But if you drive around the country, it doesn’t look like that at all. It looks, for all its very real problems, amazing.
Tom Wolfe, the peerless chronicler of American life, tells a wonderful story of the 1960s, about a group of philosophers and social critics flying in through O’Hare to descend on an American college campus. The assembled scolds and beard-strokers and Chicken Littles describe the myriad of problems facing the United States — horrifying, existential, insoluble. And then one young man stood up:
I’m a senior, and for four years we’ve been told by people like yourself and the other gentlemen that everything’s in terrible shape, and it’s all going to hell, and I’m willing to take your word for it, because you’re all experts in your fields. But around here, at this school, for the past four years, the biggest problem, as far as I can see, has been finding a parking place near the campus.
Dead silence. The panelists looked at this poor turkey to try to size him up. Was he trying to be funny? Or was this the native bray of the heartland? The ecologist struck a note of forbearance as he said:
“I’m sure that’s true, and that illustrates one of the biggest difficulties we have in making realistic assessments. A university like this, after all, is a middle-class institution, and middle-class life is calculated precisely to create a screen—”
“I understand all that,” said the boy. “What I want to know is — how old are you, usually, when it all hits you?”
And suddenly the situation became clear. This kid was no wiseacre! He was genuinely perplexed! . . . For four years he had been squinting at the horizon . . . looking for the grim horrors he knew — on faith — to be all around him. . . . War! Fascism! Repression! Corruption! . . .
The Jocks & Buds & Freaks of the heartland have their all-knowing savants of O’Hare, who keep warning them that this is “the worst of all possible worlds,” and they know it must be true — and yet life keeps getting easier, sunnier, happier . . . Frisbee!
Yes, bread and circuses and all that, but the least expensive ticket to this weekend’s big game is going for about $4,500, which suggests to me a society with a great deal of disposable income and leisure time on its hands. And if that’s too rich for your means, there’s always Frisbee, or Starbucks, or starting a business, or MIT OpenCourseware, or the Appalachian Trail, or reading Mark Twain at the New York Public Library.
How old are you, usually, when it hits you? I’m 44, and it hasn’t hit me yet.