With a Happy Eye But . . .: America and the World, 1997--2002

With a Happy Eye But . . .: America and the World, 1997--2002



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With a Happy Eye But . . .: America and the World, 1997--2002 by George F. Will, George Will

In the introduction to this, the seventh collection of the newspaper and magazine columns, book reviews, speeches, and occasional writings of George Will, he notes the bemusement with which some may react to his choice of title. W. H. Auden wrote his poem The Horatians from which the following lines are taken: We can only do what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective. The poem was written in 1968. It was a year notable in the United States for assassination, riot, war, and political violence unseen for the preceeding 100 years. If humanity could be instructed to view that world with a happy eye, can America today do any less, faced with the clearest and most coherent expression of national unity since the Second World War? With a Happy Eye But ... is both a clear description of the attitude that informs these collected pieces (and the attitude of their creator) and an admonition to Americans.

For while it is true that the proper response to the carnage of September 11, 2001, is not pessimism, but sober optimism, it is also true that the events largely covered in this collection do not describe a nation overwhelmed by the virtues of sobriety. The three-year period bracketed by Time magazine's choice for Person of the Year for 1998 (Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr) and for 2001 (Rudolph Giuliani) is evidence of a dramatic change in the American psyche ... a change for the better.

And so it is with a happy eye indeed that Will, America's most honored and by far its most widely read political columnist, has collected the best of more than five years of his observations on politics, the economy, justice, international relations, and symptomatic events such as the public reaction to the death of Princess Diana. It is frequently a sobering critique of the last five years: the Clinton years, from Whitewater to Hurricane Monica to the impeachment trial; the endless demagoguery of the champions of campaign finance reform; the election of 2000; 9/11/2001. But it is anything but sober. Here is Will on fashion ("Yes, yes, we have been told. Philosophers tell us that change is life's only constant. Poets tell us that the center cannot hold, and all that is beautiful drifts away like the waters. Scientists say even the continents are adrift. But Brooks Brothers, the clothier founded in Manhattan in 1818, was supposed to be the still point of the turning world"). On celebrating his 60th birthday ("It has taken me 60 years to identify the three keys to a happy life -- a flourishing family, hearty friends, and a strong bullpen"). On Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield ("Like Ulysses he was a wanderer. And that exhausts Holden's resemblance to anyone heroic. By declaring reality a terrible disappointment, he helped teach America's youth how to pout"). And, of course, on baseball ("For America west of the Hudson, the best thing about a Subway Series is that it guarantees that millions of New York baseball fans -- the followers of whichever team loses -- are going to be depressed"). Here are profiles of C. S. Lewis, Joe DiMaggio, and James Madison, and touching obituaries for Will's mentor, Meg Greenfield, and his father, Professor Frederick Will. A brilliantly diverse collection from an extraordinarily diverting mind, With a Happy Eye But ... is the nation's best known commentator at his sober -- and happy -- best.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684838212
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 09/28/2002
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.44(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.25(d)

Table of Contents

To the "Gallant Girls" (Just Kidding) of National Cathedral School9
Chicks with Sticks13
Marines, Rough and Polished15
A Summons to Gratitude17
In Praise of Fierce Patriotism19
The Unabomber and American Squeamishness21
The Unabomber's Sanity23
The Black-Lung Disease of the Intelligentsia24
Minibars and Family Values in Vegas27
The Anthropology of Latte Towns28
Et Tu, Brooks Brothers?30
Secrecy and the Mother of Stupidity32
The Triumph of "Perceptions"34
Rodney King Revisited36
Victimhood as an Equal Opportunity Condition39
The Census and Tiger Woods40
Making Uniforms into Billboards42
Oh, Swell. New York Wins Again44
Nykesha Sales Misses the Point46
1951 Diminished48
Fifty-one Two-Bit Solutions50
Santa and His 214,200 Reindeer52
NASA and the Meaning, if Any, of Life54
1997: Year of Living Dangerously56
1998: Not in Good Taste58
1999: Satisfactory, Sort Of60
2000: The Most Interesting Year of the Millennium, So Far62
2001: Ring the Bells Backward64
The World67
War Beyond the World of Westphalia69
The Relevance of General Sherman71
The Healthy Aspect of War73
Next, Weapons of Mass Disruption?74
Scary Scenarios from a Decorous Cassandra77
Arms Control by F-1679
The End of Human Nature, Not History81
New Consequences for Old Ideas83
Language and the Logic of Events87
Kosovo and America's Identity88
Russia's Long Crawl Up from Communism90
Italy's Fifty-ninth Postwar Try92
Cheddar Man and the Abolition of Britain94
The European Union's Lawlessness96
Denmark and Goliath98
The Currency of Cultural Blandness100
The Rape of Nanking Remembered102
Arafat, Castro, and the Liberal Mind104
The Hijacking of the Holocaust106
Germany: Unending Self-Examination108
July 10, 1941, in Jedwabne110
Israel at Fifty112
Justice and Injustice115
"Do Not Iron Clothes on Body"117
Microgovernment and the Law of Litigation119
Hate Crimes: The Criminal Law as Moral Pork Barrel121
Punishing States of Mind123
"Bigotry" and the Boy Scouts124
Privacy and the Boy Scouts126
The Privacy of the Unencumbered Self128
Prison, Procreation, and FedEx130
Stem Cells and Human Flourishing132
Peter Singer Comes to Princeton134
The Right to a Dead Baby138
Infanticide: Ho-Hum140
A Sacrament in the Church of "Choice"142
Fetuses and Carolinians144
Protecting Viewers from Something "A Little Too Vivid"146
Solemnity at Texas High School Football Games148
Coping with the--Well, Some of the--Ten Commandments150
Censoring Zachary152
Good News for Zachary154
School Choice and the "Hecklers' Veto"156
The Supreme Court and the "Essence" of Golf158
Reasonable Doubts161
Worrying Rationally163
Increasing Speed--and Safety: A Cautionary Tale164
What Did We Know, and When Did We Know It, About Smoking?166
Supersized Americans168
Boys Will Be Boys. So Drug Them170
The Mask of Masculinity172
Rethinking Puberty, and High School174
The Death of School Discipline176
Disorder on Campus178
Education and the 9/91 Factor180
Multiplying Knowledge at Monterey Bay182
"Barkis Is Willin'": An Address at Princeton's Sesquicentennial184
Virtues Versus Values: Commencement Address at Lafayette College194
Rule by Microrules: Commencement Address at Washington University in Saint Louis197
"Recognition" in San Francisco202
Sustainable San Francisco204
Making America Safe--and Profitable--for Eminem206
Walker Percy, Richard Petty, Whatever208
Karen Finley's Major Tragedy210
Contingencies Large and Small213
History and Contingency215
... The Iceberg Too216
Neurologically Wired to Wall Street218
What Began with Jim Clark's Boat220
Capitalism Is a Government Project222
America's Long-Term Leveling224
The "Strip Mall Socialism" of Government226
Hillary Clinton's Insouciant Insincerity228
The Silence of the Law and "the Silent Artillery of Time"231
Closing the Lewinsky Parenthesis233
Sorry About That235
Clinton's Legacy: An Adjective237
A College Education239
435 May Be 565 Too Few241
What the Remorseless Improvers Have Wrought242
A Free-Love Nominating System244
FDR Pays His Taxes246
A Democrat Learns to Love Trickle-Down Economics248
Conservatism: Freedom Plus250
Relearning the Lessons of "the Most Important Law"252
A GI Bill for Mothers254
In Need of Another Moses256
Congress's "Nuremberg Defense"258
The Appendix of the Body Politic260
The Politics of Pathos262
Listening to Politics with a Third Ear264
"Let Us ..." No, Let's Not266
Missing Coolidge269
Al Sharpton's Parricide271
Regulating Campaigning: The Many Misadventures of Reform273
The "Latin Americanization" of Campaign Finance Law275
One-Third of the Senate Versus the First Amendment277
The McCarthyism of the "Progressives"279
A 100 Percent Tax on Political Speech?281
Congress and the "Misuse" of Political Speech283
A (Speech) Policeman's Lot Is Not Easy285
The Speech Police Find "Offending Passages"287
Minnesota Takes Exception to the First Amendment289
The Scandal the Media Are Missing291
Virtue at Last! (In Ten Months)294
The Next Mess Reformers Will Make of the Last Mess They Have Made297
The Forfeiture of Princess Noor301
Princess Diana and the Law of Inverse Ratio Rhetoric302
Princess Diana, Conjurer305
Magic in Broad Daylight306
Hitler and Epistemological Optimism308
The "Ah!" of Avery Dulles310
Francis Cardinal George, Unenthralled312
C. S. Lewis's Cult of the Ordinary314
P.D. James, in Earnest315
Rough Rider in Green Bay317
Joe DiMaggio's Seamless Life319
Gentlemen in Spikes321
Don Zimmer: The Face of Baseball323
John Adams, Popular at Last328
James Madison, the Subtlest Founder330
Barry Goldwater, Cheerful Malcontent332
Robert Kennedy, Conservative?334
The Nutritiousness of Pat Moynihan337
Patrick O'Brian's Sense and Sensibility339
Holden Caulfield Turns Fifty341
Sara Jane Olson and Terrorism Chic343
Daniel Johnson, Without Regrets345
Meg Greenfield's Potent Measuredness347
The Columnist at Sixty351
Frederick L. Will's Angle of Repose352


We can onlydo what it seems to us we were made for, look at this world with a happy eye but from a sober perspective. -- W. H. Auden, "The Horatians"

What? Look at the world with a happy eye, even after 9/11/01? Yes, indeed, especially after the terrorism that abruptly rang down the curtain on a remarkably carefree, and remarkably uncharacteristic, era in modern American history.

Who are the "we" who supposedly are "made for" a happy stance toward life? Auden intended the pronoun's antecedent to be humanity generally. And maybe humanity is so made. That depends on a philosophical, even theological judgment as to whether all of humanity has a common Maker, as well as an opinion on His disposition. Be that as it may, for the portion of humanity privileged to be Americans, looking upon the world cheerfully is simply doing what comes naturally. And the reasons why Americans should be of good cheer were underscored by the nature of our nation's enemies, who announced themselves at 8:48 a.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time on the eleventh day of the second September of this millennium.

When the first hijacked aircraft, traveling much faster than commercial aircraft are authorized to fly in that space, came screaming low over the Hudson River and into the South Tower of the World Trade Center, the country was paid a huge, if unwitting, compliment. To the perpetrators of this mass murder, the United States is a provocation. It is because it is, as the sixteenth president said, a nation dedicated to a proposition: that all men are created equal. And that proposition is a distillate of the rich cultural inheritance of Western civilization, with its due regard for individual autonomy and rights, and a society of duties and disciplines that incubate respect for rights and competence in the exercise of autonomy.

The scream of the incoming aircraft was a howl of negation. As such, it was remarkably sterile. The terrorists' critique of Western society lacked the analytic rigor of Marxism, and consequently it lacked the brio that Marxism briefly acquired -- until events proved uncooperative -- from its doctrine of historical inevitability. History was supposed to have an inner logic. The unfolding of that logic -- the "march of events" -- could be accelerated or retarded a bit by this or that political program, but the outcome was predetermined. The terrorism was neither logical nor deterministic but reflexive, a wild recoil from what America is. Terrorism does not articulate or advance an alternative vision of human community remotely capable of coping with the world of applied reason that the West has made, a world the vast majority of people desire once they have glimpsed its possibilities. It is a sobering responsibility for America to be the clearest expression of this vision. However, it is safe to say that on 9/10/01 many Americans did not look upon their circumstances, or those of their nation, from a sober perspective. It is not even clear what counted as sobriety during the years covered by the columns and other materials in this collection.

In the last years of the last century, and through the first twenty months of this one, looking upon the world with a happy eye was easy for Americans. Indeed, their challenge was to avoid giddiness about their good fortune in living in such times. The nation was not merely at peace, it was feeling less threatened from abroad than at any time since the 1920s. And Americans were almost startled -- somewhat as in the 1920s, come to think about it -- by their own prodigies of wealth creation.

Certainly sobriety was utterly absent during the mass irrationality and exhibitionism in the week following the death of Princess Diana, an episode that historians will, I suspect, find deeply symptomatic of the temper of the times before the eruption of terrorism. Auden once wrote that

Our intellectual marines, Landing in little magazines, Capture a trend.

Columnists try to be trend capturers, and this columnist wonders whether the Diana death hysteria tapped, among other things, a hitherto unsuspected hunger for a poetic dimension of life, a dimension sometimes scanted by that of the West's commercial civilization.

Money, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson, a very American thinker, represents the prose of life. In the years covered in this collection Americans were preoccupied even more than usual with how money is made -- and lost. If one were to pick a Person of the Era, politically speaking, he would be the unelected head of the Federal Reserve Board, an institution the arcane workings of which few Americans understand. Think about that. These pretty much happy years have been presided over by a man, Alan Greenspan, who, even when he is mildly happy -- which is about as happy as central bankers ever are -- has a demeanor about as cheerful as Woodrow Wilson's must have been when he learned of the sinking of the Lusitania.

So the prose of life has been much with us. "Poets," noted a pretty good one, G. K. Chesterton, "have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese." He was, of course, being droll. That silence of the poets is not mysterious. Cheese does not summon poetic thoughts. Still, money and other prosaic things are the normal preoccupations of journalists, as Chesterton, a very good one, knew. And even when, as in the 1920s and again seven decades later, politics is especially prosaic, that does not preclude a vigorous enjoyment of civic life.

In his book The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life, Michael Schudson of the University of California, San Diego, notes that in 1922 the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated. In 1924 the nation's two defining original documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which had been kept in a State Department vault, were put on display in the Library of Congress. In 1935 the Supreme Court, which held its first Washington meetings in the basement of the Capitol and since 1860 had met in the old Senate chamber, at last got its own home, the temple-like building across the street from the Capitol. President Franklin Roosevelt laid the foundation stone of the Jefferson Memorial in 1939.

Schudson believes that these attractions of patriotic pilgrimages are less monuments than shrines. They serve America's civil religion. As is the quintessentially American extravaganza that the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, with the blessing of President Calvin Coolidge, began carving on Mount Rushmore in 1927, at about the time Henry Ford built Greenfield Village and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., launched the restoration of Colonial Williamsburg. Notice the melding, beginning in the 1920s, of two complimentary streams of American reverence -- for political heroes, and for the quotidian of small-town life.

In the years leading up to 9/11/01, politics -- presidential sex, presidential DNA on a little blue dress, presidential impeachment, a presidential election with dueling supreme courts (those of the United States and Florida) -- became, to say no more, peculiar. When Joseph Lieberman became the first Jew nominated to run on a national ticket, he exclaimed, "Only in America!" Oh? This was 132 years after Britain's Conservative Party, not then a deep lagoon of advanced thinking, produced a Jewish prime minister and 44 years after Catholic Dublin elected a Jewish mayor.

Until 9/11/01 it seemed that the only presidential election in the years covered by this collection would be long remembered not for what it started but for the way it ended -- with an electoral train wreck. As the 1932 election approached, President Herbert Hoover, who was about to be swept from office by a tidal wave of discontent, received a telegram from an angry voter: "Vote for Roosevelt and make it unanimous." Boring unanimity was not America's problem in November 2000. Ten months later Americans were fused into incandescent unity by the heat of burning jet fuel.

Of course, the fact that a presidential election evenly divided the nation did not mean that the nation was bitterly divided. Fifty years ago, scorching arguments boiled around names such as Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, Joseph McCarthy, and Douglas MacArthur. Thirty-five years ago, American politics was roiled by disputes about whether African-Americans should have the right to enter restaurants and voting booths. Thirty years ago domestic tranquillity was a casualty as the nation fought a ground war of attrition on the mainland of Asia with a conscript army, for ill-defined purposes. In 1981 a president who considered the Soviet Union "the focus of evil in the modern world" replaced a president whose secretary of state (Cyrus Vance) thought that Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev "have similar dreams and aspirations about the most fundamental issues."

Those were years of serious political differences. But at the dawn of the first decade of the twenty-first century the great political question seemed to be, When will there again be a great political question? Then terrorism gave us a surfeit of enormously consequential questions, ranging from where and how to wage war to how much liberty must be curtailed in the interest of security. It was exhilarating. And it reminded Americans, who were an avid audience for Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, and who made Tom Brokaw's celebration of The Greatest Generation a best-seller, why people can be nostalgic for war.

In January 1946 Charles de Gaulle, fresh from his heroic role as France's liberator and disdaining the banal normality of peacetime administration, abruptly resigned as president of France's provisional government. Having fought for la grandeur de la France, he told a colleague, with characteristic hauteur, that he did not deign to "worry about the macaroni ration." Well. A recently published list of prudential maxims (e.g., "Never give your wife an anniversary present that needs to be plugged in"; "Never order barbecue in a place where all the chairs match"; "Never buy a Rolex from someone out of breath") should have included this one: Never wish for an era of scintillating politics.

This isn't -- yet -- one. But that's nothing new: William Henry Harrison's 1840 presidential campaign caught the public's attention by distributing pocket handkerchiefs printed with a picture of his purported birthplace, a log cabin. Actually, he was born on Virginia's splendid Berkeley Plantation. So when Americans lament the high nonsense quotient in contemporary campaigns, they should remember the words of Dwight Eisenhower: "Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."

Yet different, too. Peacetime politics has become less central to the nation's life than at any time since, yes, those 1920s. But Chris DeMuth, head of the American Enterprise Institute, Washington's most intellectually high-powered think tank, believes that the marginalization of politics can be said to have begun eighteen decades ago.

In 1820 John Dalton, a British chemist and physicist, published a paper, "Memoir on Oil, and the Gases Obtained from it by Heat," which presaged the basic science that would result in the modern oil and petrochemical industries. During a lecture in April 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted, a Danish physicist, noticed that a magnetic needle aligns itself perpendicularly with a wire carrying an electric current. Within a week of learning of this evidence of a relationship between electricity and magnetism, André-Marie Ampère, a French physicist, prepared the first of his papers on the theory of electromagnetism, from which came (via Michael Faraday) machines that generated electrical energy from physical motion, and motion from electrical energy.

"The events of 1820," says DeMuth, "mark the beginning of the modern age -- the age when science and industry have displaced politics as the driving force of social and economic development." In America today, and even in many European nations, where giving politics precedence over economics is considered the cardinal virtue, politics is an increasingly secondary phenomenon. This is so because political argument is primarily confined to the question of what portion of the wealth created by industrial applications of science should be distributed through government, and to whom.

The authors of 9/11/01 are having none of that. They would radically revise, and enlarge the stakes of, political argument. They would enlarge politics by melding it with religion as a regulator of all of life. What they are up against, recoiling from, is exemplified by two of the most consequential facts of our era, calculated by Dale W. Jorgenson of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government: the first logic chip, created in 1971, had 2,300 transistors, whereas the Pentium 4, released late in 2000, had 42 million. And between 1974 and 1996 the prices of memory chips decreased by a factor of 27,270. Terrorism is a futile damper of this inferno of social change.

It is a remarkably prosperous inferno. In an age when two of every three poor American families have microwave ovens and three out of four have VCRs attached to their color televisions, the pervasiveness of affluence is changing the political categories by which we classify citizens. James Twitchell of the University of Florida, author of Lead Us into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism, says, "One of the reasons terms like Yuppie, Baby Boomer, and Gen-X have elbowed aside such older designations as Œupper middle class' is that we no longer understand social class as well as we do lifestyle, or what marketing firms call Œconsumption communities.'"

And class matters less and less. In 1875 the British elite lived on average seventeen years longer than the population as a whole. Today that difference is one year.

On a number of other domestic matters the news has been good. And certain explanations of the good news have become apparent to everyone except those who report the news. (An actual New York Times headline: "Crime Keeps on Falling, but Prisons Keep on Filling." But?) Journalists deal in news and believe that the phrase "bad news" is redundant and "good news" oxymoronic. They go through life looking upon the world much as Job did after he lost his camels and acquired boils. Americans have never been like that, and were never less so than in the years immediately prior to 9/11/01. In those years per capita beef consumption hit a per capita high, the number of weight-loss centers declined sharply, and the magazine Eating Well ceased publication. Americans were not tempted by asceticism. They were looking at this world less with a happy eye than with a glazed look of surfeit.

Americans are legatees of the Enlightenment faith in mankind's ability to bend the recalcitrant world to reason. Their experience doing just that has confirmed their native optimism. Before breaking fascism and then communism, they put a bridle and snaffle on nature itself. Did they have a problem getting across, and getting the most out of, the Great American Desert (as maps used to identify the expanse west of Missouri)? They did, so they built railroads across it and irrigated it. Did they have a problem controlling floods and producing power? They did, so they did things such as build the Hoover Dam, which required first moving the Colorado River. San Francisco's Golden Gate? Piece of cake. Americans threw a bridge across it.

For Americans, the word "problem" in politics, as in mathematics, implies a solution waiting to be found. In this, Americans are looking on the world with too happy an eye. Society, and hence politics, is not as tidy as mathematics. Lots of problems do not have solutions, at least not neat and complete and permanent ones. And some solutions create their own problems, world without end, amen.

So what next? Remember the rule: There are knowns, unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Collections such as this necessarily have a retrospective cast. Granted, the recent past is inevitably pregnant with the future, even an unimagined future, as was 9/10/01. This much-chastened columnist knows he does not know what the future will look like. One Catholic priest, asked how one might come to understand the Church's teaching on Heaven and Hell, answered succinctly, "Die." If you want to know what comes next, live.

Live with due sobriety. But live while looking around with a happy eye. Americans did so after 4/15/61 (the firing on Fort Sumter). Eighty years later they did so after 12/7/41. And they have resumed doing so sixty years later, soon after 9/11/01.

February 25, 2002

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