I’m just back from a week in New York. The city is as vibrant as ever, as hectic as ever – both exciting and a bit exhausting. It will always remain something of home for me. There was particular excitement this time around with the goings on at the United Nations (visible from the lovely apartment on the East River where I stay). I remember this period of street closings and motorcades well from the years when my office was nearby on 49th Street. New Yorkers are always relieved when it’s all over much as the year round residents of a resort town are happy to see vacationers go back to where they belong. Of course, unlike the off-season hibernation in those places, this city will only be a tad quieter, if that.
There is a sameness about the opening session of the UN, marked each year by a perceptible of-the-moment atmosphere. At its center, is some star player enjoying a transient spotlight reminiscent of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. One would think the whole world revolved around him (it’s always a him) and his particular cause, though much of the hoopla is driven by American perceptions and hype. All eyes are transfixed on the current anti-hero, if not nemesis, whose importance is often overstated. There was the year that a young and brash Fidel came to town hanging his hat symbolically in a Harlem hotel, or the time Arafat appeared on the podium “packing”. This year’s headliner of course was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who devoted half his assembly speech to belligerent defiance and the other to what can only be described as a religious sermon. In their time each of these stars put on quite a show. One wonders what next year’s attraction will be? In all of this the “great powers” are generally eclipsed, most notably this year was George Bush. The President, who both we and the world seem to have written off at this point, came “speakin” (the letter “g” apparently was neither in the Yale or Harvard curriculum), but no one seemed to be “listenin”. For sure, he too had his moment but, despite the retained enormous power of his office, it has passed.
We helped found the UN so that people could talk to each other instead of shooting at each other; a commendable but unrequited dream. Perhaps more important than the talking, is that it is a forum designed for listening. In that, it’s been a total failure. None of us, it turns out, are very good listeners. More to the point, we’ll do everything possible to evade hearing anything but our own truth. In that spirit, the US delegation childishly (assumably in the name of making a statement) absented itself during both Ahmadinejad’s talk and, even more comically, that of the Cuban Foreign Minister. I guess they never heard the adage, “sticks and…but words will never hurt you”. Such walkouts are sadly not uncommon at the UN, but they are especially disturbing when done by a country that prides itself on free speech. The walkout presented yet another metaphor for an administration that hasn’t confronted a potential negotiation that it likes and has fashioned a foreign policy more appropriate to Dodge than for our complex world. We’re all paying the price and probably will be for years, if not decades, to come.
Speaking of free speech, the big story in New York was the Iranian President’s appearance at Columbia University. Opinions pro and con ran red hot with opponents protesting giving a platform to a rabid dictator and unabashed anti-Semite. Much as I disdain this despicable character, free discourse is central to the spirit of the academy and, as such, Columbia made the right decision. Interestingly, it turned into another example of our need to talk rather than to listen. President Lee Bollinger’s lengthy and gratuitous “introduction” reminded me of a Congressional hearing where elected officials are more eager to hear themselves pontificate than to illicit information from witnesses. Bollinger, of course was covering his rear end, probably thinking more about contributors than free speech. Since he gets credit for going ahead with the controversial program (which no other institution did), I guess we should cut him some slack. In the end, Ahmadinejad’s talk was predictable and, we should all be relieved that the student body survived it unscathed. Did his appearances in New York strengthen him at home? Perhaps so, but so did we gain by reminding the world, not to mention ourselves, that this is a free country where even bad speech reflects on the speaker and a willingness to listen on the self confidence of the listener. In the era of Abu Ghraib and threats of invasion on privacy, we seem to have forgotten this and, in doing so, to have lost our moral footing.
If you really want to get a glimpse of what’s going on in American these days, descend into the bowls of the New York Subway system. The American heartland reflected down under where trains are called 1, 4, A or R? Yes it is, even if seemingly an unlikely spot. Now there are differences of course. What’s striking about people in the Big Apple is that they all seem to be moving ahead with an earnestness that you don’t see in all other places, and often with their heads down rather than straight ahead. Averting one’s eyes seems more appropriate in the Subway than meeting those of others, as if that may give some unwanted signal. But don’t be fooled by this surface-deep difference between city and country folk.
Down under, things are moving along as usual (in this case somewhat noisily). With people of every imaginable color and background (an encapsulated America) headed intently toward their chosen or mandated destination, the theatrics above ground are not part of their reality. Passengers stand or sit (if so fortunate) caught up in their own private worlds, many tethered to iPods, some reading the paper or a book and others silently waiting for the train to reach their destination. To be sure, the headlines in the papers some hold shout the news of the day, and some, perhaps many, have even strong opinions about the events at the UN and other places. But the main picture was of people whose routines were undeterred by anything that was happening on the “street” above. Perhaps they were disturbed by the day’s news, the war, or the state of the nation, but more in an abstract context than by how it practically touched their lives. Without question, some on that subway may have lost their jobs because of a faltering economy and perhaps there were those who had lost someone in Iraq (though the likelihood of that was even smaller), but by and large whatever was happening upstairs was absent as the train rattled through the endless tunnels of Manhattan and into the Boroughs.
Americans, myself included, remain untouched by the events of the day. That’s true for New Yorkers and its true for people on the back roads of Indiana, Main or Arizona. Perhaps we’re mounting up debt that one day will have to be repaid, but isn’t that just the normal American way? New York is bigger than life, but scratch the surface and it’s anywhere, anyone. That’s what struck me on this visit and it was a startling reality check. It doesn’t bode well for any of our futures. Keeping us on track with our own lives and seemingly untouched by the real world is exactly where our leaders want us to be, and even today’s aspirants for the Presidency don’t seem ready to change that. When people become engaged, who knows what will happen? My take is that engagement better happen soon or we’ll be cooked.