I’ve said before that I became an American by reading Heinlein books. This is true at least to an extent, though I’d be at a loss to explain the process to you. I mean, if you knew how to do that, book by book, chipping away, so someone starts out wondering what’s wrong with all those Americans who don’t like taxes (don’t they know taxes are civilization? And have always existed) and ends up thinking getting a Don’t Tread On Me tattoo is a brilliant idea, even while immersed in a socialist, communitary system, we’d have no problems. We’d just use “the process.”
Mind, you, it is likely that the er… Heinleinizing (totally a word. Don’t worry your pretty head) of my opinions came from watching socialism up close and personal. Heinlein had help. But all the same, and even so, by the time I came to the States as an exchange student I had been, so to put it, primed to react to the US as “home.”
Even so, things about the US surprised me – things that Americans thought were completely logical. For instance, the fact that classes are – objectively – a zoo. No, we’re not talking about a war-zone type school. Stow High School had good teachers, by and large, enthusiastic about teaching and their subjects.
I’m just talking about classroom behavior. People just TALKED. In Portugal, once the teacher entered, absolute silence reigned, unless he asked a question. More conducive to learning? Sure. Maybe. But in the US it just didn’t happen. There wasn’t that built in respect for the “master” who got up front and spoke, and therefore all must fall silent.
There were other things – a distinct lack of respect based solely on someone’s age and position (respect for real accomplishments was granted, of course.) – a wicked sense of humor that showed up in signs on hallways and doors of classes, the fact that people could talk back or joke with teachers.
But possibly the most surprising thing in the US was … how people interacted. You could have ornaments and decorated trees in your front yard and no one stole them. This made my jaw drop, particularly since my host family’s house didn’t even have a nominal fence. (This might be gone in certain areas. At least someone stole both a cement giraffe and – months later – a cheap composite fountain from our front yard.)
And when something went wrong, say a massive snowfall, people grabbed shovels and went to the street, to shovel not just their driveway, but as much of the sidewalk as they could, and to make their area as functional as possible, before official rescue/help arrived.
This would be unheard of most other places in the world.
This image/these ideas gelled for me as I read P.J. O’Rourke’s comment about a restaurant somewhere – the Soviet Union – and said “An American would grab a bottle of windex and solve most of the problem.” Or something like that.
Every time I go back to Portugal, now, I find myself thinking about that type of thing or wanting to do that type of thing about ten times a day. Most of the time I don’t, because there’s a crab bucket thing over there, you know, the crabs pull the others down, i.e. if I – say – grabbed a bottle of cleaner to save a sanitation problem, I’d get asked “Who do you think you are?” And my parents live there. (If they didn’t, and didn’t have to live with the consequences of my actions, I’d probably do it anyway.)
Yeah, Americans talk back, and make classrooms noisy, and can sometimes be counterproductive. On the other hand, Americans, faced with a gadawful mess don’t look around and wait for “the proper person” to fix it. They roll up their sleeves and each of them goes “Well, I’ll do this.”
It’s hard to explain how different that makes us. To most Americans it seems logical behavior (it is) and I only get the difference because I remember being brand new here and how ALIEN it was. And I remember living in Portugal without the constant “oh, for heavens’ sake, just do it” moments I have when I go back now. (I should possibly point out that most Europeans find most middle aged American women bossy, interfering and a bit terrifying.)
Yes, I know some of you are going to tell me that spirit is now lost.
It’s not. It is, of course, in certain areas – but certain areas always had issues – and for certain people. And it is more muted than it used to be.
Part of the thing with Europe is the worship of the “experts.” “We’ll take it to the expert” or “We’ll have the expert do it.” There is now some do it yourself (and my mom was always one of nature’s do-it-yourselvers. I think given time to acculture, and if she’d come here early enough mom would have made a great American) but it’s nothing like in the US and it would never have started without the US.
They’ve – by which I mean the cultural establishment – tried to bring the same here. I’ve railed here before about how cozies were – in effect – blacklisted by the publishing establishment because “amateurs can’t be better than the professionals.” And how my books couldn’t have funny policemen because “Policemen are professionals and must be respected.” And I’ve talked about how shocked I was when a bunch of high school kids came to beat me on my blog because I’d criticized their teacher (I actually hadn’t. I’d criticized the curriculum which is is not teacher set, but they lacked the semantic ability to distinguish these) and how dare I? She’s a TEACHER. I’m supposed to respect her. (She also was considerably less educated than I, much younger and I have reason to believe she sent the kids over to harass me – the harassment stopped when I threatened to scan in some of her (outrageous) grading handiwork and post it. – which leaves me in doubt of her moral character.)
While these things annoy me and shock me, as does anyone preventing my questioning him by saying “I’m the expert” – it is still new here.
The people on top are trying to do it, but I wonder how much of it will stick.
No, listen. We’re still… Us. Still likely to roll up our sleeves and do it.
Look at blogs. Sure, there are blogs abroad. I hear Portugal is one of the most connected countries in the world. But are there newsblogs? Big enough to rival, say instapundit? Drudge? (There might be something like DU or the others – because, well, they’re funded and organized by organizations. But, you know, I have problems enough without tampering with my blood pressure.)
Oh, please. News have to be reported by experts. It’s not the individual’s job. And besides, why undertake that mass of work if no one will pay you?
There are tons of interesting recipe blogs, etc, but I have yet to find something with the scope that Americans cheerfully undertake.
The same could be said for ebooks and indie publishing. They have access to the same facilities we do (though more regulations in the way) but do you see a flood of books in foreign languages appearing? Some, sure (there are displaced and unaware Americans everywhere, in the sense that being American is to an extent a place in the heart) there are some. But nothing like you’d expect.
This is to an extent why – to quote Bill Whittle – the future comes from America. We are willing to go ahead and try it, and see how it plays.
The spirit is still there. Diminished, perhaps, but still much stronger than in the rest of the world.
And this is why I say we also don’t know what the result of what the people on the top – publishing, politics, news, etc – are doing to us. We know how it works in other countries, but I don’t think they realize how different we are.
When people’s lives are made impossible, they find ways to live. This was true, even in Portugal in the seventies, with a flourishing black market and most regulations ignored. How much more true will it be here, at the first signs of true pinching?
And then there’s the fact that in the rest of the world, if things get unbearable, you can always go to America. But we don’t have an America to go to. Which will only make us more determined to “ignore the order, buck the directive, roll up our sleeves and do for ourselves.”
This is why statists of any stripe so often throw their hands up and call us ungovernable. Not that this gives them the idea they shouldn’t try. No. Instead, they try to devise more cunning ways of governing us. You have them to give credit for dreaming the impossible dream. It’s the one proof we have that the sons of beetles are Americans.
So… after sixty years of creeping statism, they’ve now “captured the flag” – they have actually got all of the important systems sewn up: news, entertainment, education, government.
They think – can you blame them? – that they won.
I won’t say they can’t hurt us. They can. The mechanisms they’ve seized hold of are important and they are – natch – misusing them.
I’m not saying that this will be easy. It won’t. Our economy is likely to be an incredible shambles, and I’ve said before I think we’ll lose at least one city.
But, listen, the problem with these sons of… Babel is that they might be American, but they’re not American ENOUGH. If they were, they’d understand “ungovernable” and this willingness for each of us to go it alone (often for common benefit, but on own recognizance, nonetheless) is not a bug. It’s a feature. And that it’s baked in the cake of a people who came here to escape the top-down spirit of other places. Some of the black sheep (or as one friend of mine calls it, the plaid sheep) attitude is genetic, hereditary, inborn. And enough of us have it.
Push harder and we escape harder, through crevices they don’t even know are there. Forbid us from making a living, and we’ll find a way to go around you. Make it impossible to defend ourselves, and I shudder to think what some of my friends and neighbors will come up with. Make the economy impossible, and we’ll create another one you can’t reach. Make regulations too binding and we’ll either ignore them or – more likely – creatively subvert them.
They captured the flag, and they think they captured the nation. It’s the type of mistake that the bureaucratic mind makes.
Poor rats. Try not to laugh at them too hard, as you go about the business of undermining them.
We have them surrounded.