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A Summer Reflection on Why America Works

By Victor Davis Hanson

I was at a crowded central Sierra Nevada lake last weekend. The recreation scene there was a good example of how well the United States works as a cohesive society despite radically different public tastes.

The California Alpine lake was full of powerboats. Then later in the afternoon it was the site of a sailboat regatta. And that same Saturday the lake also served as a transit stop for a marathon bike race from Fresno to the crest of the Sierras--while at the same time Central Valley motorcyclists made their annual group ride along the same route.

Forget that there were all ethnic groups, races, and religions getting along fine without the need of law enforcement--something impossible in the Middle East, most of Africa, or the Balkans. A brown skin, Mormonism, or speaking Punjabi were of no interest and would hardly determine what people did or whom they were with. There were no fistfights between motorcyclists and bicyclists; no jet-skiers chasing catamarans.

Far more interesting than our singular civility, however, were the apparent distinctions in recreational choices that tell us even more about the stability of America--as I found that long day from talking with and listening to various disparate groups.

The lake sailors were clearly upscale. In their high-tech accoutrements--stylish wetsuits and blazons, Volvo and Lexus SUVs with sleek boat trailers, bright-colored sails--they gave off a certain air of aristocratic taste. There was not a gas-guzzling Yukon or Winnebago among the bunch.

From the evidence of their license plates, many seemed to have driven from the northern coast rather than from the nearby San Joaquin Valley below. What little I heard of their politics seemed hyper-liberal, as if their privileged salaries had excused them from worry over taxes or the costs of spiraling entitlements.

The power-boaters were a different sort altogether. The vast majority was not made up of lawyers, architects, doctors, and financiers. Instead, from their shop talk, they appeared to be more independent businessmen, salesmen, and salaried workers. And if they were in theory less able to invest in their lake craft, they nevertheless somehow spent far more on muscle boats, jet-skis, and motored houseboats that all dwarfed the sailboats on the dock.

I suppose America's easy credit and growing economy mean that often the middle class can enjoy leisure and material things every bit as much as those wealthier--and often in a noisier and more ostentatious manner. Chevy Tahoes and enormous dual-cabbed, 4x4 pick-ups pulled their custom painted trailers that had risqué names emblazoned at angles on the sides. From listening to bits and pieces of their shore conversation, I would imagine that most of the gasoline crowd was about as representative of the red-state Central Valley as the yachtsmen were of our blue California coast.

The two disparate groups of bikers offered the same counter-intuitive contrasts of some Americans making less, but still spending more on their hobbies--and, of course, being more conservative despite the less money they made.

How one peddles up 8,000 feet from the valley floor in a single-day, 160-mile ride is beyond me, but there was not one ounce of fat on any of these cyclists that I saw, many of them long in the tooth and graying in their fifties.

These admirable riders felt that life was too good not to savor by letting themselves go. Like the sailors--but unlike the power boaters--they looked sleek on their sophisticated toys. And their sport is not just physical training--cycling in the Sierra is surely as dangerous as motorcycling, especially with motor homes and boat trailers fishtailing in crowded and curvy lanes. Their featherweight bikes of carbon fiber were as high-tech as the lightweight composite sailboats on the lake below. Most bike riders wore skin-tight bright green and yellow spandex that reminded me of the sails of the Hobies and Catamarans out on the water.

Not so the Harley riders. All were in jeans with various accoutrements of black leather. Many wore Darth Vader-like black helmets. A few looked even more sinister in headgear and goggles that resembled those of Wehrmacht soldiers. Most had ample guts and tattoos, and their machines were as loud and smoky as the bicycles were quiet and clean. If the hurried cyclists lounged momentarily outside the lodge with sports drinks and mineral water, the bikers lumbered into the log-cabin saloon for a long afternoon.

I would guess that each motorcyclist had spent about ten times as much on his machine as the peddlers had on even their imported Italian Masi and Bianchi cycles. But once more, I wouldn't be surprised that the bicyclists that I saw made a lot more money than any on motorcycles. And the patches on the motorcyclists' jackets, and the occasional tasteful stitched insignia on the bicyclists' reflective jerseys, suggested that--as with the dichotomy between power--and sail-boaters--those of the middle class who relied on high-priced gasoline were of more modest means and more conservative than those powered by wind and muscle.

A sociologist would note from all this that Americans' politics are not predictable by their incomes, much less predetermined by rigid class structures. Taste, perceived values, and lifestyle issues determine outlook as much or more than one's financial status.

Thus, sail boaters had more money and yet were more liberal; those with motorboats spent more, probably had less, and seemed more conservative. If there was slight agitation and occasional condescension on the part of the sailors toward the noisy, wave-generating, and alcohol imbibing jet-ski crowd, it was innocuous and tastefully expressed. And the loud motor boaters, who made sure to detour around the sailboats, probably thought the wind pilots were equally silly to fret and hassle out on the blue lake with the changing gusts when they could far more easily recline in their captain chairs, pop a beer and dart along at 40 mph.

But there were other lessons this day well beyond differing approaches to enjoying nature in the High Sierra. In the general store and restaurant, all the various cliques seemed to get along. I can imagine that these groupings are not altogether static or all inclusive either. Most all of them when aged may some day end up alike as nearly invisible trollers, like the older fishermen puttering along with their rods and reels in the quiet coves and out-of-way eddies of the lake.

Even in this age of political acrimony, Americans in their individualism retain their creed of live and let live, and an admirable tolerance for what they don't go in for. For all the recent hype about our supposed age of small-mindedness and the strategies of "personal destruction," politics is not a divide that daily separates us into warring factions--and not so based on skin color, religion, or even income. America is no Bosnia, Rwanda, or Iraq--or even Europe with its rigid class demarcations and doctrinaire ideologies.

The sociology of a Sierra lake proved all that well enough, where wealthy prove liberal, middle class conservative, but both with more in common as Americans despite radically different private tastes and agendas.

At the end of the day, one married couple came late into shore with a small motor on their sluggish sailboat. These hybrids pilots were calmly disagreeing--and I wondered whether it was over the upcoming elections this November.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author, most recently, of "A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War." You can reach him by e-mailing author@victorhanson.com.

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