Howard Jacobson: Proof that free enterprise doesn't work is on the snowy streets of Washington

Individualism is a fine ideal; it’s only a shame individuals suck

Share
Related Topics

A small American in a small art-lover's beard – a small art-lover's beard on an even smaller art-loving American would be a better description – greets us at the door to the permanent collection and asks us to leave our coats in the cloakroom.

I let him know we would rather not; our time is limited and we don't want to spend it queuing for cloakrooms when we could be looking at the Rothkos and the Bonnards for which the Phillips Collection is renowned. May we keep them on? He shakes his head politely. Washington is a polite town. "They look pretty heavy anyway," he says, as though he's insisting on this only for our convenience.

I don't say that the weight of my coat is my business, that no one tells me how many clothes I may wear at Tate Britain, and that this is pretty rich all round given the fuss America is making at the moment about state intrusion into what Brits call civil liberty and Americans free enterprise. If free enterprise means anything doesn't it mean I may look at Rothko in a coat if I so choose?

In fact, if he'd had his way, Rothko would have determined not only how many clothes people looking at his work should wear, but of what colour and what weave. There's a small Rothko room at the Phillips Collection, chapel-like according to the painter's stipulations, an environment in which, in his words, the walls are to be "defeated" so that the space can be "saturated with the feeling of the work". Myself, I think the artist should leave feelings of saturation to the person looking. Which is what Bonnard does. Look if you like, Bonnard says. My colours will work on you or they won't. Very French. But not Rothko, who is very American. With Rothko you don't look at the work, you submit to it.

Call this art as tyranny. First the gallery dictates your wardrobe, then the artist commandeers your mind. So is this an American paradox or another instance of American schizophrenia? Free the individual and then tell him what to do with his freedom; entangle him in red tape and then raise the roof if anyone mentions socialism.

The shock jocks of American television are defining socialism as the government invading your home with a shotgun and stealing your furniture. The mad hatter's tea party, whose patrons include Sarah "Read-My-Hands" Palin – otherwise described by the comedian Bill Maher as "the Nudnik from Alaska" – is making inroads into popular opinion with a mix of perfectly explicable loathing of the banks and perfectly inexplicable anxiety regarding health-care reforms which they are convinced will lead to the elderly and the sick being left to bleed to death in the corridors and waiting rooms of filthy hospitals, as they are in England, rather than on the roads as they are, if they happen to be uninsured, in the USA. (Don't bother to correct me on either score. I am infected by the new adversariality of American politics. Someone attacks you with unreason, you strike back with more unreason still.)

You would think that what has happened in Washington this last week would have finally disclosed to Americans the overwhelming truth about free enterprise: namely, that it doesn't work. It's the snow I'm talking about. Not who was responsible for making it fall, but who is responsible for clearing it away. Questioned by snowed-in citizens on the matter of uncleared sidewalks, the Mayor of Washington, Adrian Fenty – a man with an unnervingly over-polished bald pate – explained that responsibility for clearing a path outside a house or shop falls to the individual whose house or shop it is, and not the city. Interrogated further as to why he hadn't used his powers to compel people to fulfil these responsibilities, Mayor Fenty raised a hand and did to his glistening head what he will not do the city sidewalks, "I prefer the carrot to the stick approach," he said.

Meaning, we don't hold with telling people what to do in these parts, unless they're wearing too many clothes to look at art in.

So the situation is this: some stretches of sidewalk appear passable, because owners of property have been out with their shovels, but these you can access only by leaping the hummocks of filthy snow, or fording the roaring rivulets of freezing sludge, left by owners of property who don't give a shit. The consequence of which is that the cleared sidewalks are of use to you only if someone helicopters you in.

Now wouldn't you think that if you were clearing your own two feet of pavement you would clear the two feet on either side of you while the spade was in your hand, no matter that the persons charged with that responsibility can't or won't? If not as an act of common courtesy, then in order to make your own coming and going that little bit easier. In socialist England where the Government steals our furniture and leaves us to die where we fall, we shovel away snow and ask who the snow belongs to later. But in free-enterprise Washington this apparently is not possible. What's mine is mine, what's yours is yours. So go break your neck. But it's said politely.

I could have the sidewalks cleared in minutes. I'd invite government intervention. That's what governments are for. To make us do in a body what we are cussedly incapable of doing as individuals. Individualism is a fine ideal; it's only a shame individuals suck.

Bill Maher, to whom I've already referred, made the same point in an interview with Larry King the other day. "The people stink," he said, alluding to the illogicality of the popular disillusionment with Obama for not doing what would, were he to do it, disillusion them still more.

There, in a nutshell, is the case against empowering the people. They stink. But how can you not love a country where someone will say that on television? We Brits might shovel one another's snow but we haven't the courage to insult the Demos. Love is what our politicians and comedians crave. They want the people to adore them. Cry a little over them. Feel their pain. Not even Paxman will tell the British public they stink.

So, thanks to Bill Maher, I approach the great democratic experiment which is America from an upside-down position. It doesn't work because the people stink. But in a country where you can say the people stink, the people can't stink. So it does work.

It's convoluted, but you can get there. Which is more than you can say about the sidewalks.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
.  

When league tables claim that 0% of students at top schools are getting a good education, it's glaringly obvious that they need to be scrapped

Chris Sloggett
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links