Peter Pringle's America: Virtue lives on in the backwoods

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AT DUSK, or thereabouts, a middle-aged woman who comes of sturdy stock, fell off her front porch into a bed of wild lilies about 5ft below. Amy, as I shall call her, was not taking 'time out', as most of us at first assumed, from the celebrations of the Labour Day weekend on Black Bear Lake. The soft forest floor had not broken her fall, and she could not get up.

The incident was something that everyone who spends summers on the lake fears most: a serious injury in the backwoods, with no road access and the nearest hospital 60 miles away. The reaction of the tiny community was an astonishing display of compassion and efficiency - qualities often regarded as disappearing from the American character.

Across the lake from Amy's cabin, a couple of minutes by boat, lives 'Dr Bill', a retired surgeon. Within minutes of the mishap someone had fetched the doctor, who declared that Amy had probably broken her neck and should on no account be moved until the Emergency Medical Team arrived from the fire station five miles away. The EMT is a volunteer group, supported with donations from the local community. The fire station is not manned permanently and volunteers live in cabins scattered in the forest and connected by short-wave radios. No one at Amy's place expected them for an hour at least, but 10 minutes later - by the time we had taken a boat two miles down the lake to the public landing - there stood two volunteers, dressed in white coats and carrying a large duffle bag of emergency equipment. One of them was speaking on the walkie- talkie to the ambulance driver, guiding him through the backroads to the public dock.

Within half an hour, Amy was strapped on to a medical pallet, her neck firmly supported in the foam rubber brace carried as standard equipment in the emergency duffle bag, and on her way to hospital in one of the finest, modern ambulances money can buy. Everyone was optimistic that Amy would soon be back, and a friend was gently explaining to the EMT that her fall might have been worse if she had not been 'a few sheets to the wind'.

It is events like this which mock the view of those American politicians who bemoan the passing of the republic's old purity of community spirit and portray the citizenry as being steeped in post- empire decadence. To counter an epidemic of uncivilised, uncaring souls, the Clinton White House has fashioned a new agenda dubbed 'communitarianism', which stresses responsibilities over rights and community service - especially of the voluntary kind - over selfishness.

The idea is that the slide to incivility started with the Sixties rebellion against the rigidity of the 1950s; that the foundations of American society were mercilessly attacked, brought down, shredded; that they have been replaced by a kind of anarchy that has sapped the basic goodness of the American character. Clinton's advisers want to start resuscitating the American character in schools, starting with self-discipline and empathy - creating, as one of the advisers put it, the ability of one child to 'walk in the shoes of another'.

Conservatives are especially hot on the issue. William Bennett, the former secretary of education and a possible Republican candidate for president, made the bestseller list this year with his 831-page The Book of Virtues. It is a surprisingly successful collection of poems, essays, fairy-tales, folklore and short stories from Plato, Jefferson and Tolstoy to Martin Luther King. Bennett champions ancient ideals of behaviour including self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, work, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and faith - in that order. Like other leading politicians, Bennett argues that mindless acts of incivility - from hate rap to angry motorists shooting at each other in rush-hour traffic - arise from a basic lack of character, rather than from social and economic factors.

Bennett's suggestion is that the challenge to America now is not how to cope with multiculturalism, but how to revive the basic virtues in the American character. Schools, he says, should be obliged to 'offer instruction to all our young people in the area in which we have, as a society, now reached a consensus; namely, on the importance of good character'.

To be sure, there is deeply unattractive evidence in America today of uncivilised behaviour. Even on this lake, as I have mentioned in a previous column this summer, visitors with fast boats haughtily claim their 'right to recreate' on their holidays in any manner they wish, regardless of their neighbours' comfort. But as Amy's unfortunate fall demonstrates, in the heartland, away from the dirt and crime and fear of involvement that infects the inner cities, America does not appear to be in danger of imminent moral decay. In places outside the 'cultural centres' of New York, Los Angeles and even Atlanta, Americans do not need a political programme of nostalgic moralism to trigger community compassion. In the outback, they already know how to move in an unselfish instant to help someone like Amy.