Saturday, August 30, 2003

Inside Outside

I spent last week sitting in a jury box.  After being called every four years like clockwork , this was the first time I was actually selected to sit in judgment on a fellow citizen, a weighty experience in a criminal case.  It was a particularly hot week in New York coming at the end of a summer of wacky weather around the globe.  Taking the subway down each day and walking the half dozen blocks across to the Moynihan Federal Court Building was a bit like hiking through the environs of my kitchen oven.  That was outside.  Inside Judge Stein's courtroom it was so cold that one could only survive in a winter sweater – he likes it that way, keeps everyone awake.  Without making light of the trial experience, what I couldn't get out of my head throughout was the sharp contrast between the cold inside and the heat outside on the street.  Being so accustomed to the synthetic climate control in which we regularly function, we don't think about that much.  In fact, how we privileged few experience life bespeaks a consistent unreality, an apt metaphor for our times and most especially for our country.

Sitting in that cold room, we were totally out of touch with the reality of the streets below which, given being in the act of passing judgment on what happened out there, is kind of bizarre.  Don't get me wrong, I think we jurors got a pretty good picture of what went on and we reached a fair and reasonable verdict.  That's the particular, but in a more global context, we tend to see the outside from an inside perspective and to act accordingly.  It's like a movie set in a foreign land where the locals all speak English on screen, their natural language having been subverted in the name of art.  Well we function in much the same way looking out into the world feeling that the American way, our way, is the natural order of things and everyone should be partaking of it's values – a kind of born-again nirvana.  I am not saying others don't do the same in reverse, but if so, they are equally delusional.

The funny thing about this insight is that one might have thought it would have occured the week earlier when the lights went out while I was sitting at my computer.  Here was a dose of reality, not to mention the absence of air conditioning.  But that's the point, during the great Blackout of '03, inside and outside merged.  There was no disconnect.  Sure we were up to the task (in my case less than twelve hours of deprivation), but we quickly retreated into "normalcy."  The conservation measures we collectively took to reduce strain on the system by restraining ourselves from unnecessary consumption once the lights returned lasted but a fleeting moment.  A little bit of energy sticker shock, but back to our collective SUVs (which most of us "drive" in one way or another).

No, if you look at what's going on these days --  the depressing international situation and the continuing economic slump – much of it stems from planning in "air conditioned" rooms where assumptions are made about the heated world outside.  There is a disconnect, and to some degree we all engage in it.  Indeed our idea of deprivation is so ridiculously tepid compared with what most people experience, that it's a true conceit to claim understanding or worse to impose our solutions.  People behaved themselves enormously well, we tell ourselves, speaking of the power outage that stretched into 27 hours in lower Manhattan, but how would any of us behaved if, like the Iraqis, we were without electricity and clean running water for months since being "liberated?"

It's not that all our intentions are suspect or disingenuous, it's that we are simply stuck in the air conditioning of Judge Stein's courtroom.  Inside, outside two very different places and that is where the trouble starts.

Sorry for the interruption.  Let the circus continue.

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