TCS Daily

'God Bless You, Dude'

By Ilya Shapiro - June 28, 2005 12:00 AM

OCEAN BEACH, SAN DIEGO -- The seeming incongruities of this country's crazy cultural mix never cease to amaze me. Like the aged hippie playing top-40 riffs on his guitar by the taco stand on the beach. Or the biracial couple taking their kids fishing on the pier (self-described as the West Coast's longest), where head-shaved would-be Latin gang members already have their lines cast.

As I ran along the beach with my friend -- who had moved down here to study for the bar after graduating from Stanford Law -- I found myself wondering how California can be so successful (the Gray Davis years notwithstanding), so dynamic, when everyone's so laid-back. Then it hit me: it's just different strokes for different folks.

Whatever people do in their leisure time, whatever music or food or entertainment they prefer, if they still work hard and behave responsibly, they will prosper -- and so will the country. As long as the tax and labor laws are decently oriented toward rewarding entrepreneurship and industry, of course. (Impose a 35-hour work week or Carter-era marginal rates, and it all goes to pot no matter how protestant your work ethic.)

But assuming no French-style policy shenanigans, America is remarkably well disposed to succeed economically, regardless of whether you're talking about Minnesota or Mississippi, Iowa or Idaho. Whether the local sport is hockey or jai alai, and the food of choice shrimp-and-grits or clam chowder.

Or fish tacos; even before I'd ever been here, San Diego was synonymous in my mind with that maritime version of Mexican cuisine's staple creation. On this visit I averaged about 2.5 per day, mixing and matching mahi and wahoo, shrimp, shark, and lobster, all made better by the secret white sauce at the best joint of its kind, South Beach. (Which leads friends to comment that even when on the opposite coast, I can't escape Miami's allure -- but that's another story.)

Though I find California a little too chill for my cosmopolitan sensibilities, for some people it works, and I say, "vive la différence!" Or, as they would say in SoCal slang, "hook it up, dude!"

In other words, culture is the key determinant of success -- but work and political culture, not "culture" qua ballet, blues, and Bollywood.

For example, the friend of a friend with whom I stayed is a respiratory therapist who works two 12-hour night shifts a week at the hospital and spends the rest of his time surfing, playing darts, and drinking Guinness. A third-generation Japanese-American, he adorns his bachelor pad with L.A. Dodgers and L.A. Kings paraphernalia -- the photo of Wayne Gretzky's tie-breaking goal in game six of the 1993 Campbell Conference finals was particularly painful for this Toronto Maple Leafs fan -- and invests his savings with an uncle's brokerage. His neighbor, having grown up in Colombia, went to school in Columbia -- South Carolina, where he played rugby -- and now works a cubicle job while trying to figure out what he wants out of life.

While some would call this professional indecision and personal indulgence decadent, one of the many signs of America's coming decline, I welcome each individual's ability to determine his own optimal level and type of employment -- as well as the great opportunity to craft leisure time. Only in America would such diversity of backgrounds, interests, and future possibilities be brought together.

At the same time, only in this country would this liberty (and libertinism), be cabined by a moral code that, while eroded by a relativistic post-modernism's triumph in the media and the academy, still disciplines the idealism at the heart of the American Dream. As my Stanford friend summed up after pointing out the plethora of churches in the heart of Ocean Beach's hippie-and-surfer redoubt, "This is still God's community."

While this sentiment seems inapplicable to place filled with college kids hooking up in seedy dives and thirty-something slackers playing horseshoes on the beach -- or indeed, to a country that celebrates Britney Spears and Paris Hilton -- I think it apt. Not to engage in a theological debate for which I'm woefully underprepared, but it seems to me that it is precisely a nation that has so much productivity and creativity -- and piety -- at its core that can afford the frivolities of crass culture. Not a nation, a republic (if we can keep it).

Returning to the beach, I will never forget the grizzled heavy metal aficionado I bumped into during a Christian biker concert held annually during the Memorial Day weekend. "God bless you, dude," he pronounced as he passed, shaking his gray mane as if to animate the large cross tattooed across his back. And God bless America.

Ilya Shapiro a Washington lawyer, writes the "Dispatches from Purple America" column for TCS, where he last explained why judges matter.



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