WASHINGTON joined America last week. God looked upon it and, seeing that it was the capital and yearned to suffer with the rest of the land, sent it the Big Snow.
It coped well enough, if not always with majesty. But this does not alter the fact that normally it is paralyzed by an inch of snow when it arrives more or less on schedule every year.
At the first flurry each winter I turn on the radio, simply to listen to the catalogue of schools and offices that are being closed, and public events that are being cancelled. One might be listening to a broadcast from Rome when it was being sacked. When I think that not even the worst night's bombing in London used to prevent us from getting to school the next morning, through streets which overnight had been ripped apart, still to be reprimanded if we were late, it is hard not to wonder at this instant surrender to even a light coverlet of snow.
But we cannot be satisfied merely to smile at Washington. There is a characteristic of all America here. Any disruption of the daily round -- the slightest inconvenience or discomfort -- tends to be treated by Americans as a disaster. And the disaster is of course an affront. There are exceptions. No hurricane will shake the determination of people on the Gulf Coast to rebuild their homes where a hurricane is sure to hit again. It is very difficult to get people to move from the flood plain of the South Platte. But these are the stubborn. By and large, Americans do not regard disaster and calamity as natural, to take in their stride.
The nations of the Old World are so used to conquerors marching across their lands, scourging their way with rape and rapine, putting homes to the torch and infants to the sword, that any disruption is just another expected calamity under the eye of eternity.
"Where were you the day the Mede came?" we are told, was the question that every ancient Greek asked of his fellows. But all that America has is, "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" which seems only a trifling episode in comparison. That so small a happening -- a mere assassination -- should matter so much!
This is what Ortega y Gasset meant when he said that the Americans were as yet incapable of leadership because they have not suffered. The easy retort is: "No suffering at Plymouth?... No suffering on the Frontier?... No suffering at Gettysburg or Antietam? Or on the outskirts of Richmond, where you are still likely to stir a bone in a trench, there among the grassy plots of the suburbs?... No suffering in the immigration?... Among the Irish, the Slavs, the Jews, the Poles?"
Of course Ortega knew all that. He was not dumb. He was saying something much more profound. Americans will not accept suffering as part of the natural order of things. This exasperates any European. Americans still cling to the absurd idea that it ought to be possible to be happy.
This is the breeziness of the Americans, which can still make me grind my teeth. Every farewell is a command to be happy. "Take care!" Perhaps I don't want to take care. "Have a good day!" Perhaps I want to have a foul day. The very philanthropy of Americans fills me with age-old misanthropy. It is all uplift.
There are dangers in this refusal to accept suffering as natural. One of the reasons why America thinks that it will gain a victory by unloading trillions of bombs on a village is that it does not realize that to be bombed does not mean all that much to peoples who are accustomed to misfortune. Bombing draws people together. Start an Englishman on his stories of the Blitz, and five hours later you will be yawning through the tears and laughter.
To be in London during the Blitz was really quite exhilarating. Alarming but exhilarating. Having experienced it, one never understood why the Allies then thought they could bomb the Germans into submission, in Hamburg or Dresden. What are bombs after the Goth?
What are bombs, indeed, after the Black Death? When E.M. Forster wrote of the English in 1920 that "they are splendid at emergencies," he may have been noticing something peculiar in the English character, but it is also true that in all old countries emergencies are generally accepted as God-given. In no other country would it be regarded as a calamity if the price of gas went above a dollar a gallon. Yet Americans speak of such a possibility as if the heavens would fall in.
ALL OF THIS is, as I have said, exasperating to an outsider. But I have come to believe that the refusal of discomfort and inconvenience is one of the irreducible elements in what we slowly begin to understand as the American character. Without this belief in happiness as one of the natural pursuits of mankind, just as the Declaration of Independence said at the beginning, there would be no America turned away from all the past ages of human acquiescence in misery. Naive? Unsophisticated? Soft-headed? It is none of those things. It is hard as bedrock.
I remember that, when I first came to America, I was appalled by the evidence of poverty, the bums on the streets corners. "America has no niches for the poor," I used to say in criticism, and I remember an English friend, John Midgley of The Economist, once saying quietly, "It's not very nice to be poor in America." But then there came a moment of revelation. "America has no niches for the poor," I still said, but now added, "because it says that involuntary poverty is disgusting."
It shoves the involuntarily poor in your face. There may be weaknesses in its public services to the poor, but this does not gainsay its vital injunction, "Get out of being poor." And for all the lack of real opportunity that there is for some, there is still enough opportunity for the myth to contain an active seed of truth.
The promise is just often enough fulfilled in the performance. And it is fulfilled because America is ready to say that involutary poverty is a disgraceful condition for anyone to be in. This creed may seem harsh. It is harsh. But there is something daring in it nonetheless. It will not allow involuntary poverty to seem genteel, that besetting sin of societies like England or Ireland. There is no such thing as genteel poverty in America.
It may not seem much of a belief. There is not much glow of idealism to it. There isn't the age-old sigh, "The poor are always with us." then that is why it is America. That is why the immigrants could push their way up. That is why the immigrants still come, even for the wretched pay of migrant workers. There is a way up, for enough for it to count. The misery of involuntary poverty is not accepted as part of the natural order.
The great difference between America and the Old World is that parents in the Old World by and large expect their children to do no better than themselves, while parents in America by and large expect, and justifiably expect, their children to do better. And it is not far-fetched to see a reflection of this attitude in the wondrous way in which the inconvenience of even a small snowfall is regarded as having the proportions of a disaster. There should be no snow, except on holidays! There should be no poverty, except for those who choose it.
It runs through all of American life. Anyone who has used the London underground as a way of life can only be amazed that, in the throes of its birth, the Metro in Washington has so few failures and inconveniences. But to Americans, trains should never be late! Escalators should not stop!
There should be no emergencies -- never -- to be splendid at! And from this the attitude runs deeper, in the claim of everyone to have rights as a special case of a special class. The right not to be unhappy! All the rights movements in America just now are claims to be exempt from unhappiness, from the inconvenience of being a man or a woman or a child or indeed from suffering from a handicap.
I personally believe that these exaggerated claims to individual rights can only mislead in the end and yield disappointment. Yet this misdirection and disappointment seem to me worthwhile, simply because of the American spur that incites them all, the refusal to accept suffering as part of the unchangeable order of the world. That may mean that I am ceasing to be a European, that at last America is driving up in my veins. The change is not facile. I understand Max Ascoli when he wrote that, since he was born an Italian, it cost him no trouble to be an Italian, but "becoming an American has been all my own work." It is hard work for a European.
And at the core of it all are those much despised realities of American life, simply like having a home warmed by central heating instead of shivering in a threadbare sweater. It was no less a man than Matthew Arnold who exclaimed at the Franklin stove, "Why are we at home willing to be cold?"
At the deepest level of all, I have long thought that great damage was done to the American idea, to Americans' own confidence in it, and not least to the generous impulses of the American liberal, by the rather secularized notion of Original Sin which Reinhold Niebuhr injected into American thought, especially in the 1940s. In this secularized and banal form -- we are all evil anyhow, there is not very much we can do about it -- that is like striking a shaft into America's heart. As I once said of Existentialism, it should have been thrown into Boston Harbor when it arrived from France, and so should any acquiescence in discomfort.
Perhaps in March there will be a centimeter of snow. Well, be Americans, and complain. Close down the schools. Tie up the traffic. God shouldn't send snow like that, not on God's own country! Jefferson promised that. Didn't he? He promised almost everything else.