Life Is Not an Embassy Party

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It occurs to me that a surfeit of money, and the associated life within an invisible plastic bubble that seems to accompany it, may explain much of our curious political lunges. I have nothing against money (you can test this by sending me a lot) or people who have it. But it has side effects.

Two incidents come to mind, of no shattering import but serving as windsocks. First, a politician I barely know, but of import in the making of national policy, told me recently that he had never been in Washington’s subway, though he lives in Washington. Second, there was the astonishment of the senior Bush on observing the technology of a checkout line in a supermarket, into none of which had he apparently been. He didn’t know how to buy groceries.

I wondered: How much of the dysfunction of national policy can be explained by our rulers’ never having been in the subway? Never having encountered the world in which the rest of us, here and abroad, live? Sure, things other than insular innocence play a part: ambition, greed, idealism, vanity, good intentions, bad intentions. But…how do you manage a world you haven’t seen?

I grew up mostly in the South of small towns surrounded by woods. In such places you learn about school-yard fights, in particular that you need either to avoid them or win them, and about hunting rats at the dump with a .410, and working late shift at an Esso station on a lonely highway, and that country boys from poor families don’t think like nice suburban people. You still have to deal with them.

Most of us have learned these things, though in different ways and places. A high school in Brooklyn or Casper is different from mine in Virginia, yet very much the same. The young find themselves with a slice of humanity, not all of it agreeable, and have to figure it out on their own. When you learn a high school in Brooklyn, in a sense you learn the United States. I wonder what you learn going to Andover with your chauffeur.

There are experiences, of which few have had all but most have had some, by which people learn how life works. The very rich do not seem to have these. I wonder whether they really know where they live.

During the sixties, I spent time on the big roads, thumbing from coast to coast and from wherever to wherever else. So did countless other kids. (This isn’t a column about how special I am, but about how special I’m not.) We learned much about truck stops at three in the morning, about taking care of ourselves on a deserted road at dusk with rain coming on, about the wild variety of people that make up a country and, particularly, about people without a lot of money.

We also learned that there are men who will beat you senseless with a pool cue just because they don’t like your looks, and no, they won’t listen to reason. Life is not an embassy party.

Do the delicate flowers of National Review know these things? Has George Bush even been on the road? Have they seen America from a dying coal camp in West Virginia? A great deal of money is a good thing, or at least one I would like to try. But I suspect it isolates you from the world beyond Yale.

The military is another such adventure, common among the generation which now manages the country. Literally millions passed through the military, many of them through the war of their time. In the enlisted military you come to know…many things. You learn how armies work and think, meet black kids from the slums of Chicago and white kids from shadowed valleys of Tennessee, learn what it is to be hungry and exhausted and never able to sleep. You see what a war really is, and what people look like who have been badly hit.

In the White House they don’t know these things, or at the slick policy-shop magazines manned by bright Fauntleroys. I am not sure what they do know, other than board rooms and good hotels.

There is the simple matter of working for a living other in an ermine-lined sinecure. Tending bar, for example, driving an eighteen-wheeler, working summers in a saw mill, or doing construction. Starting your own business without daddy’s millions. When you know the woman pushing seventy who is waitressing long hours with swollen ankles — “I’m too tired to work, and too poor to quit” — you might change your ideas about, well, lots of things. Some folk don’t have silver tea services.

Who in the White House understands any of this?

There is travel of the sort that shows you the planet as it is. If you look in the back streets of Asia and South America, or of Europe for that matter, you will find people, mostly from their late teens to early thirties, who are traveling on a low budget. Sometimes they stay in one place for six months or a year and work on the language. Sometimes they keep moving, backpacking it, grabbing the tramp freighters or rattletrap goat-and-chicken buses. Many are well educated. Not infrequently they are professionals who don’t want the Hilton.

On the third-class buses in Michoacan, in the ramshackle motor launches in the pampas of Bolivia, they learn…it’s hard to say exactly what. A sense of humanity, perhaps, that people in other countries are not dinks, slopes, sand-n_____s, zipperheads, spics, dot-n_____s, or gooks. They learn, however strange it may seem from Crawford, Texas, that the Laos, Thais, Mexicans and Colombians actually like their countries and cultures, and fiercely resent meddling. This latter has consequences. Consult your newspaper.

They don’t know these things in the White House, or at the rattling little policy magazines. I watch as if contemplating idiot children as the current administration consistently and needlessly infuriates other countries by its moral lectures to sovereign states, as it miscalculates over and over the reactions of other nations, as it publicly announces that it is seeking “regime change” here and there. The effect of course is to make people rally around the regime. But in the White House they have no idea.

How could they? They have never been in the real world. How many speak — I’ll be kind and say “another language” instead of “any language”?

Again in that strange real world where most of us live, there are the street trades — police, fire, and ambulance. Granted, these are accessible only to their practitioners and to the occasional reporter. Here you see another United States, that of the huge hermetic slums, and how they work and their intractable misery. You see the ghastly car wrecks and the paramedics who try desperately to get to shock-trauma with something other than a corpse. Have those who set policy for society seen this? Have they seen anything?

A rich friend once invited me to his house in the West End of Richmond, Virginia. At supper when you wanted the mashed potatoes, you didn’t say, “Pass the potatoes, please.” No. You rang a little bell and a black guy came out and held the bowl while you scooped potatoes. It was hugely embarrassing. I suspect that he felt like a fool. I know I did. I wanted to scream, “What’s wrong with these people?” and go have a beer with the black guy.

It doesn’t matter whether an investment banker has seen a barracks or a pair of work gloves. It bothers me to have policy made, and wars started, by those who have never seen the country they rule, or the world they play with, who have never had to make a living, to carry a rifle or worry about snipers, who have never run the back alleys of Taipei or anywhere else and, god help us, can’t serve their own potatoes.

Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well and the just-published A Brass Pole in Bangkok: A Thing I Aspire to Be.

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