Sunday, June 13, 2010

Brunch for thought

Just read Thomas Friedman's Sunday column reflecting on the BP catastrophe and the question of "responsibility." In it, he quotes from a letter to the editor that appeared in The Beaufort Gazette in South Carolina. "It is the best reaction I’ve seen to the BP oil spill — and also the best advice to President Obama on exactly whom to kick you know where," Friedman writes.

The letter is sincere. It resonates. It expresses sentiments that I think a lot of thoughtful people share right now:

It’s my fault. I’m the one to blame and I’m sorry. It’s my fault because I haven’t digested the world’s in-your-face hints that maybe I ought to think about the future and change the unsustainable way I live my life. If the geopolitical, economic, and technological shifts of the 1990s didn’t do it; if the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 didn’t do it; if the current economic crisis didn’t do it; perhaps this oil spill will be the catalyst for me, as a citizen, to wean myself off of my petroleum-based lifestyle. ‘Citizen’ is the key word.

I especially like the emphasis on citizenship.

However. (You knew it was coming.) I think about the terrifying speed at which an assertion like this, which I read as the attempt of a citizen (and the other citizens who share it) to take control of the public discourse and direct our efforts and energies in directions like an energy climate bill, financial regulation, and immigration reform (as Friedman suggests), instead will become appropriated or co-opted by, say, BP, Transocean, or whomever has an interest, frankly, in not seeing an energized citizenry.

Is there a way that We the People can take control over the terms of discourse and the agenda for action without (at least rhetorically) blaming ourselves? In part because I fear the hijacking of this narrative and the control it is meant to assert on behalf of citizens. More important because I think it is not in itself the irreducible truth of the matter: I mean, think about the ways in which, as individuals, the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives are structured.

The point is not to recuse ourselves from these proceedings or absolve the actions that we take. I think the impulse to take the blame comes from the desire and the ability that we have to understand what is happening, even when it is painful and unflattering to ourselves. So, let us continue to take that hard look: We tend to see ourselves as people with biographies, or our own life's stories, or to use another word, memories. We fail to recognize ourselves as people with and in history, which apparently happened somewhere "in the past" with little to do with individuals. (Unless you happen to be one of the Great Men or Great Women of History.)

So, I want to stop talking about "blame." I want to talk about history. We need to see ourselves as the people who have been making histories that we do not approve or even especially wish to claim, much less control, and the the people whose histories have made us what we are.

As an aside - this reference to the difference between memory and history has haunted me for the last two days since I read it in the June 7th issue of The New Yorker, in a review of Hirsi Ali's Nomad: From Islam to America - A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations. The review tells us that Ali is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Somali woman who has rejected Islam. I appreciated this observation in the review, in response to Ali's comments on visiting a neighborhood of Muslim immigrants in London:

Whitechapel has much in its past - oppression, bigotry, poverty, radicalism - that would have helped Hirsi Ali understand not only the neighborhood's newest inhabitants but also her own family. But "Nomad" reveals that her life experiences have yet to ripen into a sense of history. The sad truth is that the problems she blames on Islam - fear of sexuality, oppression of women, militant millenarianism - are to be found wherever traditionalist peoples confront the transition to an individualistic urban culture of modernity.

The last bit I find to be rather a sweeping statement that could be explained further - like, how individualism and modernity are never quite a done deal, but constantly being claimed and asserted, and that the problem is not a retreat in "traditionalism" in the face of modernity, but that the so-called confrontation or more precisely the process of modernity can be seen as itself producing such effects. For example, social anthropologists over the decades have suggested that "witchcraft" and "sorcery" become reintroduced and reinvented in moments of historical instability. Tradition is not the problem per se. "Modernity" - and this concept, like tradition, needs to be unpacked - is.

The BP catastrophe, including the laying and claiming of blame, clearly represents the problems of modernity.

1 comment:

  1. For the record, StraightMan and have two cars. One or the other of us walks Beanie to / from school everyday. When we can, we take Bubbie to / from day care in his stroller, but typically, this happens on the way to / from work. Which for both of us is just beyond walkability, between the backpacks and the desire to maintain appearance (i.e., not be a perspirous mess) and also the design of the campuses themselves, each cloistered on its respective hill. How different our choices and habits might be with different structures...