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Dream on, America

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow.

AS DUSK FELL, they danced barefoot on the grass, small children and straw-hatted grannies, fat and slim, rich and poor, white, black, Latino, Indian American, Chinese American, while the irresistible beat of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy band pounded from the stage. Some of the dancers looked great, others ridiculous, but they didn’t give a damn.

The concert to mark Independence Day here at Stanford University this year showed America at its best. It was an authentic, infectious celebration of freedom and national togetherness, but also of a very particular kind of equality. Not the European kind, which looks to a state-guaranteed social standard for all citizens, but the American kind, which claims that anyone, coming from anywhere, has an equal chance to make it to the top.

Where else would you get men and women of such diverse origins dancing so exuberantly together, barefoot on the grass, to celebrate a national holiday?

It was the enactment of a dream, of course. The statistical reality of social mobility in today’s United States is rather different. But a dream in which enough people believe is itself a kind of reality, and that has long been the case with the American dream. It’s a remarkable fact that many poorer Americans oppose high taxes on the rich -- presumably because they believe they might one day be rich themselves. There are just enough success stories to keep the dream alive.

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But two months later, we saw America at its worst, as members of the black underclass in the 9th Ward of New Orleans drowned, fled, became homeless and were preyed upon by violent gangs while government failed to help or protect them. Hurricane Katrina has become a synonym not just for natural disaster but for human and political failure. How could the richest and most powerful country in the world, capably of hitting a flea in Afghanistan with a precision laser-guided missile, fail its own poor so miserably?

And then there was Rita. I returned last week from Iran (where an ayatollah at Friday prayers used Katrina to illustrate the inhumanity of the Great Satan) to an America engulfed in preparations for the onslaught of Hurricane Rita. Watching television, which reported virtually nothing else, 24 hours a day for several days at a time, this felt like a country facing up to a Martian invasion. Just as the 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” triggered a mass exodus from U.S. cities, so now an estimated 1 million people fled north.

In the end, it was not as bad as they feared. But three things struck me about this week of Ritamania. First, how often people reached for the word “hero.” It would be interesting to do a word count for mentions of the word “hero” in American public life, as compared with Britain, France or Germany.

Second was the way the Bush administration fell back on the military. After Katrina, members of the 82nd Airborne Division swept the streets of New Orleans, guns at the ready, as if this was Somalia, Kosovo or Iraq. Again, after Rita, President Bush has been shown more than once being briefed by military commanders. The president confided that he was thinking about the circumstances “in which the Department of Defense becomes the lead agency.”

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The third thing that struck me was the number of people left destitute by the damage to their homes. Why? Because they had no savings. Indeed, many of the poor evacuees from New Orleans did not even have a bank account. This is not just about poverty. It’s also about a consumer culture, a relentless commercial pressure to spend, which has given the U.S. its lowest average personal savings rate since 1959.

In the U.S., there’s very little padding to absorb another shock, such as the soaring oil prices that are America’s other current obsession. On Monday, Bush even suggested that Americans might think of driving a bit less. If I had shares in manufacturers of the gas-guzzling SUVs, I’d sell at once.

Now, I believe that the U.S. will meet this challenge, precisely because of the spirit and diversity I saw in that Independence Day celebration. This is still a very dynamic society, full of enterprising people who want to be here and want to make it. But it’s hard not to come away feeling that this country needs to spend the next few years concentrating more on its economy and less on its military. When the next recession comes along, it will be no use sending for the Marines.


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