From Peggy Noonan’s blog which, unusually for a political columnist, is almost always lovely and generous and warmly-acute:
“Man needs less to be instructed than reminded,” Dr. Johnson said, but it wasn’t really a reminder I got yesterday, it was a sort of revivifier.
I was at the big annual street fair in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Big turnout, beautiful day, many thousands of people clogging Third Avenue from the 60s through the 80s, what looked like more than a hundred booths. The people filling the avenue were an incredible mix—young and old, infants and grandmas, all colors and nationalities, families, kids in groups, all kinds of garb—young Arab women in headscarves and abayas, Italian kids from the old Bay Ridge, elderly Irish women who go to the local evangelical church, young Latinos, tall blond Nordic-looking girls in black suede leather boots, Filipino families. In the beauty shop on 76th Street where my mother popped in to get her hair done everyone spoke Chinese, including a 5- or 6-year-old Asian girl so proud of her new bangs. One booth looked like a gold souk and sold Arab dress. Another sold Catholic saints’ cards, crucifixes and Rosary beads. At the Obama 2012 booth, some members of “Brooklyn Democrats for Change” teased me, gave me an Obama button, and posed for pictures. (No Romney booth, alas.) At another, evangelicals offered a free New Testament, and when I said I already had one, they asked if they could pray for a specific intention. I said yes, my back’s bothering me, and a white-haired woman put her hands on my neck and back, said a prayer and asked for a healing in Jesus Christ’s name. A Mexican woman across the way had a headset on and was telling everyone how to make the best salad ever with her Super-Hyper-Veg-O-Matic. She had a big crowd. Young Asian kids with iPhones were tweeting what they were seeing as they walked behind their grandparents. Two teenage Arab girls were sitting on storage boxes and laughing, and as I walked by I saw they were breezing through pictures on an iPhone and posting them on Facebook.
I’m walking along with my niece and her baby and fiancé, Dominic, and suddenly in some new way it hits me. “The entire political future of America is on this street,” I said.
Everyone different, everyone getting along, everyone feeling free to be who they are but everyone also—you could just kind of see it—feeling free to be different from who they are, too. Everyone selling their wares, not just material ones but spiritual ones. There was a really loud kind of rap group, and I asked who it was because I didn’t get its composition—young black and Hispanic men, a middle-aged white woman. Singers from a local church, I was told. The Knights of Columbus were giving out flyers: Come to the October dinner dance. The Gateway City Church was inviting you to an “Overcomers Meeting . . . a fellowship of men and women who are dealing with alcohol, drugs, nicotine, depression and anxiety, fears, anger, gambling, lust, family problems. . . . All are welcome regardless of religious and spiritual beliefs and persuasions.” An Albanian sect of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was there, too.
This, she says, is the future of America. Not because it’s New York City or even Brooklyn (though of course it’s both of those) but because this is where it begins. This, she says, is where you see “the big mix” that becomes “the big blend“. It’s that e pluribus unum thing. It often starts in Brooklyn or Los Angeles or San Antonio but it spreads across the continent.
And, as Noonan suggests, every so often you need a reminder of how extraordinary it all really is. It’s easy to scoff at the Great American Experiment’s shortcomings and sometimes, yes, a measure of scepticism is warranted. But every so often and despite everything else there’s a glimpse – and sometimes more than just a snapshot – of what it’s all about.
A sunny day in Brooklyn is as good a place as any to start. Peggy Noonan says that “we’re getting it righter than we know” and I think she’s right. There’s a sense in which America is always fresh off the boat. You’ll know America is failing when you lose that sense and the wonder that it occasions.
That’s something worth remembering this election season.