A fragment from 1947 - 12 January 1947
In the year after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, it's very hard to pretend that the New Year is the turning point of anything very serious but Americans, more than most people I think, like to enjoy the fallacy of freewill and pretend that a new calendar means a new and better life.
It's just possible, this time, that history may give a boost to this old illusion for what would strike a stranger about the 80th Congress that has met this week is not so much the personalities and the political programme involved, so much as the hopes that Americans are sinking in it. Even a man who couldn't read could have learned something this week from the rash of cartoons in the newspapers.
From most of them, I think he would have got the notion that Americans are hoping, against their own misgivings, that a Republican Congress can prove that capitalism, or more respectably it's called "free enterprise", is still the white knight who will rescue a distracted Columbia from the seductive and brutal passes of other systems of economy and government.
There's a mythical devotion in all this, which I can best explain this way. Halfway down Long Island, there's a fish store where I stop in summer. The moment you open the door and go inside, the air is pungent with the tang of clams and fat lobsters and writhing crabs, and the glass cases that lie between the counter and the sawdust floor gleam with great slabs of swordfish and the steady gaze of striped bass.
But if you take a child in there, though he may exchange a suspicious glance or two with a a staring blue fish, the thing he notices right away is a picture on the wall that dominates the whole place. It's a very fancy coloured print, about three foot long, of a desperate battle between Indians and whites. It's a highly fanciful version, in fact, of the last pitched battle between them in the United States, only 70 years ago, out in Montana on the plains by the Little Bighorn River. Scalping and knifing are drawn with the greatest zest, but while everybody else is feinting and shooting and scoring his neighbour, there stands in the middle a noble soldier with a goatee beard. He is clothed in white, a brave, not to say forgetful, figure quite untouched by the bullets and the blood, measuring his height against an American flag.
He is the immortal character whose real character few Americans bother to know about known as "Custer"; Colonel Custer, who in one of the most stupid blunders in military history managed to go down in the massacre of his entire regiment. However, Custer's last stand is an event and a phrase that American boys learn about as soon as they start to chew gum. And though you can kid about him, it's as well not to make contemptuous remarks even at this late date about Custer himself.
The emotion that Americans bring to this picture, whether it's in this fish store or in the mind's eye, is much like that they bring to such phrases as democratic capitalism and a free economy. And the heart of Americans goes out this week to the new Congress, whether their head goes along or not. For there's a sort of secret understanding in the air which nobody cares to say out loud, that we have taken up our position and are going to try and maintain capitalism's last stand.
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