In 1985, I was a young man touring Italy by myself, as dark-skinned as someone whose people came from Calabria and the Campagna is going to be if he is outdoors all the time, as I was, and my hair was glossy black, just as you might see among the natives. But while I was walking up one of the steep hills of Assisi, a car approached me from behind, and the driver, an American, leaned out.
“Excuse me, young man,” he said, in English, “but can you tell me where the church of Saint Clare is?”
It was farther up the hill, so I pointed the way. But I was curious, and asked, “How could you tell I was an American? I look like everybody else around here, and I’m not dressed any different, either.”
“I could tell it from the way you walked,” he said. “Americans walk as if they always have some place to get to, fast. Italians don’t walk that way.”
I was startled. He was right, of course. I was walking as if I were a kind of human arrow. Italians are, or were, more leisurely. Americans are going to have fun whether they like it or not. They invent things like the exercise bicycle. But the first time I saw a single gym in Italy, it was in Sorrento, in 1998, and I was faintly disappointed by it. I had told my wife and children that we would see plenty of Italians here and there in the evening, singing to the mandolin, or playing some other musical instrument. I recalled a large, bearded man on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, playing a harp, and blessedly lost to the world. But that seemed to have faded.
In that same Assisi, in 1985, I was sitting alone in a restaurant, having supper, and another young fellow was sitting alone at another table. He called me over, saying that it was stupid for each of us to be sitting there without any conversation. So I joined him, and we got to talking about places. He was a salesman from Florence, and proud of it, too. I asked him then why it was that the Florentines still hated the Sienese. He laughed, and said, “Of course we hate them! We have to. We’re from Florence, and they’re from Siena. And we both hate the Pisani!”
Being American, I suggested that maybe it would be better if they thought of themselves as Italians first, and Florentines or Sienese or Pisans second. But he grew serious, and he shook his head. “No, that isn’t right,” he said. “Italy—what is it? Your paese comes first. That’s where your people are.”
In many ways, I thought—at least I thought so then—that if you could combine the virtues of Americans and Italians, you would have something really great. Italian hotel owners and merchants and restaurateurs often told me they liked young Americans because they were cheerful and generous, even if they didn’t always know much about what they were going to see. They also would not behave as if they were superior to the Italians, as if they deserved to own the place, as—so they told me, and I sometimes witnessed it—the Germans did. Italians would marvel at the freedom of American boys and girls and their backpacks, and they sometimes told me, too, that kin of theirs had gone to “America,” under which term they included Canada, and had made good, because in America you had the freedom to run a business as you pleased, and you didn’t have to pay off this or that politician or regulator or tax collector first.
I could also have added, at that time, that religious faith was far stronger in America than in Italy. It was not that Italy was full of atheists, or that Italian schools at that time were embittered against the faith. But there was in Italy nothing like what, for example, would bring millions of American Christians of all denominations together in the homeschooling movement, or in large scale attempts at cultural revival, such as Promise Keepers.
What I would say now, I don’t know. I saw, in Italy, pornographic postcards on open display in a streetside shop by the train station in Rome—and I was startled, that the sour old lady who ran the shop would sell such filth, right in the open, where little children would be. Not in America, not then, anyhow.
What about America, now? Good cheer? You won’t find much of it in our schools and colleges, where the predominant attitude is sullen, resentful, touchy, and eager to catch people up in sins against the prevailing secular orthodoxy. Don’t expect bright and full-blooded generosity from people taught to despise their own heritage. Don’t expect confidence from people whose homes have been riddled with holes—with divorce, out-of-wedlock births, and the general chaos that ensues. Religious faith? It exists in America but under sufferance, and the religious ignorance and intolerance of our leaders in mass education and the mass media are legendary.
The things I love about America, I have come to understand, cannot be exported. Woodrow Wilson thought they could be, because he thought first of political machinery, then political ideology, and home-grown culture only far down the list. But Wilson was by no means the first or the last to believe that America was the final destiny of all the world.
Something of that naïve trust, or that misplaced faith, has lasted into our time. We may recall the hasty jubilation, quite a few years ago now, when our television screens played up the sight of Iraqi women and their purple-inked fingers, as they beamed and showed that they had cast a vote for the first time. And we may think of the default position for our foreign policy, whereby we do not ask, first, what will be of immediate and obvious benefit to the American people, but rather what will help spread “America” to the rest of the world. And this “America” is not a love of ordered liberty, not the small shopkeeper, not the local dairyman, not the churches deeply involved in the social life of every town, not the blessed time and place that are celebrated by the inscription upon the capitol rotunda in Providence, “where a man can think what he will and speak what he thinks,” not a Congress that actually gets important things done, and not even baseball. It is “America” as a diseased idea, a combination of sexual license that makes for misery, with mass control wielded by the mass phenomena in education, politics, news, business, agriculture, medicine, and entertainment. It is not Saint Thomas Aquinas Church, the “bread man” and his truck, free-ranging children, and an old teacher in the public school playing “Praise to the Lord” on the piano, regardless of what nine lawyers in Washington have just said about it. It is not, any longer, the counter at the beer garden, where you can argue about whether Malcolm X was a good man or a charlatan, and not fear for your livelihood.
I am old enough no longer to want the whole world to look like America. I prefer a world of distinct cultures and nationalities—a diversity that the mass phenomena I have named threaten to obliterate. But even if I did, I would want it to look like America, not like “America.” And first of all, I want America herself to come to her senses, to remember that good cheer is a passing thing, and the love of liberty comes at a price—often, the price of discomfort, of risk, of willingness to hear what you do not want to hear.
I want America to remember that, just as people are not machines, so their institutions stand or fall not by machinery, but by the virtues of the people who make them up, such virtues as piety. Moreover, I want America to remember that realism that sometimes goes by the name of humility, promise keeping, diligence, and gratitude. We need a revival of those virtues. We had better pray for it, fast.