It's illuminating to spend our country's birthday somewhere other than home: you get a different take on how Americans feel about America.
Technically, when I allude to home, I'm talking about a place inhabited by an assortment of cats, both working and of the leisure class; a dog by the name of Mona; a black horse name of Zeb; Maurice, who is a burro by trade; and but a single human being. Me. Ergo, in years such as 1999, the attitude at home toward America and Americans is one of utter indifference. I'm not there.
I am in Montana at the moment. My foot's in the stirrup, my pony won't stand, as the old song goes: I fly at dawn for a crossroads town east of Denver, and a shooting match. Last weekend I was in Butte, for the Montana State Black Powder Cartridge Rifle Championship. I didn't win, but I did get to feel the pulse of a good group of people who really like America and being Americans. As the week leading up to the Fourth of July played out, I didn't hear a lot in the way of pious preaching about the meaning of America, or of patriotism, or of our way of government and perceived threats to its continuance.
What I heard was the sound of freedom: sharp, booming reports accompanied by the sulphrous smell of gunpowder. Oh damn, you say, there goes Smith on one of his Second Amendment tirades again. Wrong, Chardonnay Breath: what I've been hearing, all the way from Pocatello to Butte to Big Timber, is fireworks. They let kids do like God and Thomas Jefferson intended, up in this part of the country. They set up roadside stands in the early summertime and sell firecrackers by the boatload.
That rat-a-tat-tatting you hear all hours of the day and night, up and down the tree-lined streets of these 19th-century-looking American hometowns, are not drive-by shootings: they're Black Cat firecrackers, in strings so long they'd give Sarah Brady and Dianne Feinstein the fantods. And the grumbling you hear from grumpy adults is not directed at Gangsta rappers with 9-mm pistols, but at wholesome children with matches, making them dampen their Depends.
It's just wonderful.
Why is it that in Arizona, the last of the Wild West territories, the last of the continguous 48, where Geronimo surrendered in the last of the Indian wars, we are so timorous and superficially civilized that a kid can't legally set off a string of firecrackers to celebrate living in the most free country in the history of history?
But attitudes tend to be a bit more timeless in Montana and Wyoming and Idaho, it seems to me. I can hear my city friends from Tucson sneering that the attitudes of this part of America are better described as 19th century than timeless, and in part this may be true. But in larger part there are verities of the 19th century that apply equally to the 20th, and did to every century preceding it, and will as well to the 21st. You still hear ads on the radio for farm tractors. Because people in Tucson still have to eat, and people up here still make their grocery money growing groceries for people in places like Tucson. And you see television commercials for sporting goods stores, with women talking about that nice, new Winchester .270 they've got their eyes on for next fall's deer season.
This is remarkable to me in its sharp contrast to the prevailing style and mood of the media back where I come from. I come from Tucson, born and raised, and while Tucson and Arizona still affect to style themselves as uniquely Western, the mainstream has come to ape the manners of urbanites from the cultural models on either coast. Tucson tries to act more like L.A. or New York City than Butte or Big Timber.
And where I find fault with this phenomenon is the rising fashion of demeaning America and Americans. Would-be sophisticates among us like to deprecate the Great Unwashed of Middle America as violent, chauvinist, isolationist louts with too much material matter and not enough grey.
To them, and to my fellow Americans of normal expectations and attainments, I say (in addition to Happy Birthday felicitations): chipper up! We're not half bad, as nations of people go. Not nearly so bloodthirsty and churlish as the Serbs. Indeed, cleaner-handed than most of the Europeans who do so love to look down their noses at the Ugly Americans.
Yes, we've done some pretty awful things to the Indians, the Africans, the Mexicans and other immigrants. But no worse than many of their countrymen have done to them back at home. We've got a lot more bad press, because being at the top of the heap, we're such a handy target for criticism.
But whatever else we may be, for good or ill, we've built and maintained the most free country on the planet, where human animals live in a manner most nearly approximating the natural order of things.
Long may we wave.