I grew up in a household in perennially corrupt Chicago, where all politicians were considered guilty until proven innocent. This seems to me even now a sensible standard, and well beyond the city limits of Chicago.
The one exception to this standard chez Epstein was during World War II, when my father was a strong supporter of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Even here, though, he was less for Roosevelt than against the American isolationism, which he detested, of Roosevelt’s opposition. Eager for the United States to join the war against the Nazis, not least to help stop the mass murder then in progress of European Jews, my father was so passionate about this that he would not allow Colonel McCormick’s isolationist Chicago Tribune in the house. He used to tell the story of one day having a flat tire when a driver in a Tribune truck pulled up to help him. “Get the hell out of here, I don’t need your goddamn help,” my father told the guy. Recounting the story, my father commented, “That’s how stupid politics can make you!”
Politics, I know, has made me stupid more than once during my life. Happiness is often cited as the end of politics, but politics hasn’t brought all that much happiness into the world. The more intensely political the time, the less happiness seems available. Nor is truth another leading by-product of politics. I used to say that I have never lost a political argument, a claim whose remarkableness is offset only by the sad fact that neither have I ever won one. As for politics and rational argument, Jonathan Swift nailed it nicely when he remarked that it is useless to attempt to reason a man out of something he wasn’t reasoned into.
This is truer than ever today, when our politics seems more divisive than I and most other people can remember. The politics of rivaling interests of an earlier time — labor versus management, big versus small government, urban versus rural — seemed more sensible, certainly less heated. Today our politics presents us with rivaling virtues, which is, somehow, more poisonous. “I’m for social justice, for eliminating poverty and all traces of racism and making the world the better place I know it can be,” says the new progressive, adding, “unlike you, Schmuckowitz, with your pathetic greed, belief in a decadent capitalism, and total failure of imagination.” The conservative replies: “Without liberty, the spirit of entrepreneurship and its resultant prosperity, and proper respect for our country’s best traditions, we are nowhere, and your naïve utopianism, Schlepperman, not to mention indignation and anger, are no help.” So they go on, Schmuckowitz and Schlepperman, back and forth, each informing the other that, let’s face it, I am a much better person than you.
The politics of rival virtues under which we have long been living, and which has been heightened during the days of Donald Trump’s presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the race protests and riots, has sent up a fog that has screened out much of the splendor of our country. The progressive Left is of course committed to the view that the United States is little more than the equivalent of what President Trump is said to have called Haiti, El Salvador, and certain African countries, and is thereby blinded to all that is grand about the country. The far Right doubtless exaggerates the splendors of America. But, then, ideology has never been known for enhancing clear vision.
My own I hope not too heavily politically polluted view is that America is the most interesting country in the world. I should never have said that in my twenties, for in those years all Americans of any cultural pretensions felt like little more than yokels next to Europeans. Long before, the most cultivated Americans — Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and many others — had expatriated themselves to England, France, Italy, there to breathe a richer, more cultivated air. Europe then had not only all the great universities, museums, public sculpture, and monuments, but the most impressive writers, visual artists, and composing and performing musicians. This, alas, is no longer so; today in Europe only the bricks and mortar remain. If Henry James and T. S. Eliot were to expatriate to England now, they would find kids in LeBron shirts and nose rings and Sir Elton John and Sir Mick Jagger awaiting them.
Not that America currently has all the great artists — there seems to be a paucity of those on the planet just now — but our country, one has a strong sense, is where the action is, in culture and much else. For all the criticisms that can, and should, be made of many of our institutions (our politicized universities, our clogged Congress, our bleak theater), America retains a pleasing liveliness and strong sense of possibility. Our variousness continues to surprise and delight. What other country could produce Tiger Woods and Thomas Pynchon, Jeff Bezos and Jay-Z?
America is also just now in the midst of a heightened transformation. (But, then, when has it not seemed to be changing?) The country is no longer preponderantly white. In many quarters whites no longer constitute a majority. Hispanics and African Americans now make up two-thirds of the population of Chicago. The city, no longer under the domination of an Irish political mafia, currently has a black lesbian mayor.
Amid much agitprop about “systemic” racism, America has never been more welcoming to its black population, and the number of true racists in the country may well be fewer than that of recently transgendered people. Because of political correctness, one dare not speak the truth about race, not even certain obvious facts: that the wider success of African Americans will come about not by falling back on government programs, or through protests or reparations, but by relinquishing victim status and relying on one’s own efforts — in the same way that any other group in this country has managed to flourish, through strong family ties, hard work, saving, future-mindedness.
When not torn up by the politics of virtue, America, no doubt owing to our never having had a rigid class system, remains perhaps the world’s most socially fluid nation. People go from working-class to zillionaire in a lifetime, the obscure become famous owing to a song or an athletic feat, talent pops up in strange places. “The United States,” H. L. Mencken wrote, “to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth.”
If Mencken viewed America as a circus, he preferred above all to concentrate on the ring of that circus in which the clowns performed, chief among them the country’s politicians. Mirth, he claimed, quoting Martial, is necessary to wisdom, and America’s politicians provided him with a more than ample supply of laughter, which, through his richly ornate prose, he passed along to the rest of the nation. What a shame we do not have Mencken around to cover the forthcoming Trump–Biden election. Henry! thou shouldst be living at this hour.
From Crèvecoeur through Alexis de Tocqueville through George Santayana and continuing in our day, writers and thinkers have attempted to construe and describe the American character. None, safe to say, has locked it in definitively. One doesn’t generalize about Americans as confidently as one does about the English, the French, the Germans, the Italians. Perhaps this is because America is a more populous, geographically wider, more various country, one seeded by ever-fresh waves of immigrants. Although it cannot of course be proved, one nevertheless feels about America — and about Americans generally — an essential decency. We may have our pathetic snobberies and cultural inadequacies; injustices doubtless linger throughout our social institutions. But we also live by a set of definably American ideals, believing in equal opportunity, in encouraging ambition, in an ultimate fairness for all. As national ideals, these remain admirable and go a long way toward making America the country it is.
Blatant patriotism has been out of fashion since Samuel Johnson referred to it as “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” but without wrapping oneself in the flag, one is, I do believe, permitted to feel exceedingly lucky to have been born and lived out one’s days in this extraordinary country.
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