The Lights That Didn’t Fail

I mark the coming holiday remembering the words of a friend of Samuel Johnson, who said, “I meant to be a philosopher, but happiness kept breaking through.”

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July, and we must celebrate. Let us hold high a single sparkler to honor those American institutions that, in this interesting year, did not flounder or fail. Much has been said of those that did—Wall Street, big business, big accounting, the Catholic Church, the FBI and CIA. But most didn’t. Some stayed good and some improved and some seem to summon a metaphor: While the towers of the institution tottered, the men and women who worked within them took the stairs two at a time, hauling 80 pounds of gear to save the structure.

So: Let us hold a single sparkler to the lights that didn’t fail.

The U.S. military. Honored more than ever across the country and the world. They’re not just tough, they’re smart and brave, and to the extent we dig our way out of the current crisis they’ll be the ones with the shovels and pails.

Cops and firemen. Once patronized, now poster boys, and rightly so. They’re exemplars of courage and sacrifice, especially the firemen. What they did at the towers last September was like what was done at Omaha Beach on D-Day: They raced to fight a battle and proved we’d win a war.

Airline pilots and stewards. Under incredible stress, in a fearful time, without combat pay, they get us seated, settled and flying safely and in style. They have tons of guts. They do their jobs in spite of terror threats, pressure from family and friends to get out, and Department of Transportation rulings and methods that seem almost deliberately designed to encourage the bad guys and discourage the responsible.

The men and women of newspapers. We forget until history reminds us. But there are times when the lengthy, detailed, independent coverage of the great newspapers, and the gutsy work of reporters and editors, is irreplaceable. The past year reminded us of what Thomas Jefferson said: Given the choice between government and a free press, he’d take the free press.

American television. More news shows, more stations, more networks means more voices, more views. Only 20 years ago Big Media still had a monopoly on information, greatly pleasing those who found stimulation in bland, gray-suited corporate liberalism. It’s changed. Now more than ever we need options, now more than ever we have them. And: On Sept. 11, reporters and crews on the ground in New York literally risked their lives to get the story and the pictures.

Television entertainment. Once MGM had “more stars than there are in heaven,” but now the great studio of our time is a cable outfit. HBO will be studied by future social historians who’ll ponder the cultural impact of groundbreaking drama from “The Sopranos” to “Six Feet Under” to “Oz.” No network has reached such a consistently high level of product excellence since William Paley’s CBS, in the first golden age of television when his shop was called the Tiffany Network.

American wit. From Conan to Dave to Jay to Comedy Central. It more than thrives, it keeps the country together each night as comics and writers tear apart What Isn’t Working Now.

Science and medicine. Research labs, new treatments, technologies, medicines. All continue as the best in the world. Some day someone really will cure cancer. It will happen here.

The Internet. On Sept. 11, it was the light that didn’t fail. Phones in New York and Washington went down but the Internet kept humming. Separated parents, children and friends instant-messaged news of their safety, or wrote last words. And within the Internet this year the rise of a new institution:

Blogging. The 24-7 opinion sites that offer free speech at its straightest, truest, wildest, most uncensored, most thoughtful, most strange. Thousands of independent information entrepreneurs are informing, arguing, adding information. Imagine if we’d had them in 1776: “As I wrote in yesterday’s lead item on, my well meaning cousin John continues his grammatical nitpicking with Jefferson (link requires registration) ‘Inalienable,’ ‘unalienable,’ whatever. Boys, let’s fight. Start the war.” Blogs may one hard day become clearinghouses for civil support and information when other lines, under new pressure, break down.

Local government. The federal government tends to flail about at the beginning of national crises but local governments continue doing what they do: seeing that traffic lights work, garbage is hauled, libraries stocked. Local governments provide the basic services of protection of person and property. They did their job this year.

The local church. Whatever is happening in the higher structure, chances are the ministers, priests, nuns, rabbis and brothers on the ground in your hometown are doing the work of God. They’re like airline pilots and stewardesses: They’re saving the institutions they represent by doing their daily work with professionalism and love.

American abundance. From the farm fields to your table it all still worked, and shows no signs of weakening. A friend wrote the other day: “Have you tasted the peaches this year? So sweet they’ll make you cry, the best in years. Tomatoes too.”

The American Dream. Our greatest institution. Our greatest tradition. It proceeds apace. Individual dreams continue to flourish, and we chase them with a freedom of movement, an encouraged creativity and a sense of possibility that remain unparalleled.

The other day I went to the oath-taking ceremony for new citizens at the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. There were hundreds of people in saris, in skullcaps, in suits made in Romania. There was a hugely pregnant woman from Nigeria, dressed in a red-and-white plaid cotton dress; there were young Eastern European women in too-tight pants from the Gap; there were young men in gym clothes. The usual mix from all over the world. They were so happy to be joining what others of us were lucky enough to be born into. They knew they were in the right place doing the right thing, and changing their lives for the better.

New Americans. We hold high this sparkler for you.