A personal essay by David Owen (“The Dime Store Floor”) graces the Jan. 25, 2010 edition of The New Yorker magazine. Throughout the piece Owen’s narrative is intermittently brilliant, as he riffs on a theme posed as a question: What did childhood smell like? I think Owen should try his hand at writing a novel. At one point he describes a recent bike ride near his home, as he came upon members of a girls’ high-school cross-country team running in tight formation:
“As I passed the girls I rode through the invisible trailing cloud of their mingled shampoo fragrances, and suddenly I felt a sort of dumbbell patriotism. My thought was something like this: This is the tremendous strength of America — our vigorous, optimistic young people and their clean, clean hair.”
Dumbbell patriotism. I like that formulation. As an expression of aw-shucks awe at this, our country, and what this country hosts, it captures what I feel each time I come across some vibrant display of the nation’s life-blood.
I’m especially moved to thanks-giving by instances of everyday, nonchalant tolerance. In concept America is defined by freedom and diversity of thought in the public sphere. Happily, there are still a visible examples of that in practice. Consider the advertisement I spotted this week on the rear end of a public bus chugging along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC.
British novelist Ian McEwan, in conversation with Richard Dawkins, is less sanguine about the durability of America’s greatness in this regard. Video here. Dawkins mentions what he sees as an America “rapidly degenerating into a theocracy.” McEwan agrees, and says this development is “one of the most extraordinary reversals in history, isn’t it? You have this extraordinary social experiment: America, an immigrant state, founded in reaction to the religious absolutisms of Old Europe. And then, fast-forward a couple of hundred years, you have at least in Western Europe, more or less entirely, a set of secular governments, and political conversations conducted without any reference to God, while the United States is a place where you cannot hold high office without invoking this Deity.”