July 25, 2004

Wimbledon, Willie, and me

By: Ilya Shapiro

A few weeks ago, when this great nation was celebrating its 228th birthday, I had the great honor, and privilege, of spending the day with two great (and alliterative) American institutions: Wimbledon and Willie Nelson. These grand and somewhat incongruous icons reminded me, on Independence Day, of that which makes this country great.

Before you accuse me of inhaling too much of whatever Willie was smoking, let me clarify that my Wimbledon consisted of Breakfast at Wimbledon, NBC’s morning broadcast of the men’s final from the All England Club. It conveniently takes place in the morning in America, often on the Fourth of July.

When I was younger, Breakfast at Wimbledon was an eagerly anticipated summer tradition in my family, even though my parents never held a racket in their hands and I still talk a much better game than I play. There was just nothing like a lazy Sunday accompanied by strawberries and cream. (Except perhaps that exciting Monday a few years ago when I was studying in London and treated my Dad to a grounds pass on the first day of the tournament.)

When the final weekend of Wimbledon rolled around this year, I happened to be about as far from the verdant damp of south England as one can get–geographically, culturally, and, in particular, horticulturally–visiting a good friend in Dallas. Unfortunately, we miscalculated the start time for the festivities (this was my first Breakfast at Wimbledon in the Central time zone). Fortunately, the owner of the big-screen TV where we were to partake in our prandial delights also had TiVo, the digital video recorder that is wonderful to use when visiting friends who are technological first adopters.

TiVo is an utterly American invention in that it solves a problem that nobody knew existed, and does so in a way that improves the quality of life and expands personal choices to an extent previously thought impossible. In this case, the TiVo inventors were not satisfied with having to miss several minutes of their favorite shows when answering the door, the phone, or nature’s call–or to have their viewing breaks dictated by commercials. So they developed a way to pause live programming, as well as incorporating funky features such as the ability to record a full season of The Sopranos (or all programming featuring James Gandolfini, say) with a few clicks of the remote.

I say TiVo is a good example of American ingenuity because it reflects the entrepreneurial spirit unique to this country. As well as one can live in Singapore or Spain, New Zealand or the Netherlands, the United States has the greatest concentration of what the writer Virginia Postrel calls “dynamism.” A dynamist society is an open-ended one where creativity and enterprise, operating under predictable rules, generate progress in unpredictable ways. As Postrel explains in her book The Future and Its Enemies, dynamists are united by an appreciation for such complex evolutionary processes as scientific inquiry, market competition, artistic development, and technological invention.

Despite the Nader-Buchanan coalition that stands against international trade, immigration, Wal-Mart, and biotechnology, America is more firmly rooted in the dynamist tradition than any other. Looking at the developed world, none of the sclerotic European states or tunnel-visioned Asian ones even come close to this ideal blend of Schumpeter’s creative destruction and Hayek’s spontaneous order.

In any event, our late start enabled us to skip through the inevitable rain delays and eventually “catch up” to the live broadcast. So we enjoyed our strawberries, drank many tangy mimosas, and were enthralled by Roger Federer’s captivating victory over Andy Roddick, which heralded a new age of tennis rivalries–and personalities. “I threw the kitchen sink at him,” explained the brash American, “But he went to the bathroom and got his tub.” Indeed.

While most of those who watched Wimbledon in Texas may well have been heading out to their country clubs as breakfast ran into early afternoon, for me it was time to head to Fort Worth for Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic. As one would expect, this was a picnic like no other: Imagine a barren, flat piece of land ringed by two stages and multiple souvenir and food stands. Add lawn chairs, camping chairs, blankets, and tents crammed together such that a bird’s eye view would yield a pointilistic tableau worthy of Seurat. Then bake in the 100-degree land-locked sun all day, and mix with thousands of drunken rednecks (in previous years, with the picnic near Willie’s hometown of Austin, it was naked hippies). What a marvelous sight!

Suffice it to say, we were the only ones there reading the Sunday Times–except for the woman who pointed this out to me after admitting that her group had already read its copy while watching Wimbledon. This made me a little wary; what kind of Texans would watch tennis and read the New York Times, if not the sum total of John Kerry’s support in the state? I quickly switched to the Economist.

The rest of the afternoon proceeded apace. I stood under the spray of water hoses generously provided by the fire department and drank fresh water from spigots provided by the water district. Then we meandered down the Fort Worth Stockyards–a sort of historical district cum Frontierland–to take advantage of beer gardens that were decidedly unlike the ones I had grown to love in Munich (but just as homey). Returning to the concert, we were welcomed by the raunchy, guilty-pleasured comedy of Larry the Cable Guy, who was followed by Merle “Okie from Muskogee” Haggard.

Finally, there appeared on the north stage a little wisp of a man with blond braids and a red bandanna. And those forearm braces people wear when recovering from carpal-tunnel surgery. (“You thought he got in trouble from masturbating,” croked Larry, “but actually it’s from rolling joints.”) I don’t quite recall what Mr. Nelson sang–I’m pretty sure I missed “On the Road Again”–but it was the perfect accompaniment to the colorful bombs bursting in air that were the perfect end to this national holiday.

As we drove home past the diverse contingents of Texans parked on the side of the road to watch–and light–a variety of fireworks, I couldn’t help but reflect on the rich milieu of cultural, commercial, and scientific phenomena I had experienced that day.

Only in America.

Ilya Shapiro, a regular contributor to TechCentralStation.com, is completing his clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

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