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The Worst and the Best of America

I don't watch much broadcast television, so it was unusual for me to have CNBC on tonight -- I had been watching the Olympics on that channel when they switched to a few hours of news programming. Tim Russert had Paul Krugman and Bill O'Reilly as his guests. I've watched perhaps five minutes total of Bill O'Reilly in my entire life -- and that was five minutes too much. Facing off against Krugman, O'Reilly managed to give simultaneous clinics in how to be unaccountably rude on national television and how to violate every rule of civilized debate. I half expected Krugman to get up and walk out, and he would have been well within his rights to do so. It was so bad that I found myself thinking I was almost ashamed to live in a country where a person like O'Reilly can have a large popular following.

A little over an hour later, I watched Michael Phelps win his first gold medal in the Olympics, in the 400 meter individual medley. His win seemed assured after the first 50 meters -- the real race was for silver, between fellow US swimmer Erik Vendt and Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. Vendt touched second and swam across two lanes to congratulate Phelps with a hug, who then raised Vendt's arm in the air. Then they both swam over to congratulate Cseh, Vendt doing so with a hug.

Who more fairly represents America? The insufferable, insulting, incoherent O'Reilly, or the respectful, sportsmanlike Vendt and Phelps? I choose to believe in the latter. I choose to believe that O'Reilly and his type are freakish products of our media-mad culture, asymbolic aberrations in a country of generally good folks. I choose to believe that Vendt and Phelps represent the people most of us want to be in our hearts, even if we aren't always as neighborly or as generous as we'd care to be. I choose to believe -- as so many of my foreign friends have told me, in more or less the same words -- that Americans are generally "lovely people," even if America itself isn't so loved around the world these days.


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