Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Social Contract

Today, when I was out on my walk, it occurred to me, several times, how much we all depend on each other to behave appropriately, to adhere to social norms, and to generally be honorable and trustworthy. The stakes are very, very high in  this respect. The first thing that made me think of this today was when I saw a workman at the top of a very tall ladder that was balanced against a brick building. The bottom of the ladder was in the middle of the sidewalk, and the man was about three stories up. No one stood beside the ladder, to steady it or protect it in any way.

It made me think that this man was very trusting. He was trusting me, and everyone else who happened to pass, to be fully in control of her body--that is, not prone to stumbling or losing one's balance and knocking against things--fully sighted, not under the influence of some substance that would make one do destructive or ghastly things, not sadistic, not a sociopath. Of course, he might also have just been desperate for work, had no choice but to climb up and do it. All in all, though, there seemed to be a lot to it.

About 15 minutes later, when I was crossing a semi-busy street at an intersection without a traffic light, I had a similar thought . . . that the drivers were depending on me and trusting me to wait for a clearing in traffic, to know the rules of the road, to be cognitively intact, or sufficiently so, and not suicidal, so that I would not simply cross the street, place myself directly in their path, at their mercy.

Drivers, of course, depend on every other driver to obey the rules of the road, stop at stoplights and stop signs, use their turn signals, and all the rest. These are only a few of the ways that we are all held together in a net of relationships and dependencies and trust. This is what I think of as the social contract. Not that it doesn't fray, and fray seriously. But overall, it's a pretty solid document.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

From Here to There



The other night on NPR, I heard a story about the Sundance Film Festival, and  some push-back it had received from a conservative think tank in Utah, where the festival is held. Some of the folks at the think tank don't like the idea of state subsidies to the festival, in particular because of the nature of some of the films shown there. Paul Mero, president of the think tank had this to say: 

"A lot of these film festivals are held in major cities and elite enclaves. In those circles, maybe it complements their values," Mero says. "But these highly sexualized films don't complement the values of most Americans, let alone Utahans."

Robert Redford, who started the festival, responded by pointing out all the economic benefits Utahans get from the festival and the influx of visitors. But I wonder whether Mero is right that the films "don't complement the values of most Americans," and I wonder how he would know that.
Meanwhile, back in the elite enclave of Chicago, my husband and I just went to see The Book of Mormon. It was enormously energetic and well-done and clever, and it's wildly irreverent and also wildly popular--sold out every night, run extended now until September. But what struck me the most about it (and actually pleased me the most) was how enthusiastic the audience was at the complete gloves-off irreverence.
So as we rode home on the El that night after the show, and in the days following, I was exuberantly celebrating the thought that I live in a place and a time when people don't have to be afraid to push things to the very edge. At at the very same time, back in Utah, it was a different story. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Which Side?

A few weeks ago, I went to a memorial service for the father of a good friend of mine. Norm Adelman, the father of my friend, was a fine person, but I only knew him during his last ten or so years of life, when he had been visited by Parkinson's. In his earlier life, which I learned about mainly from his daughter, he had been a vigorous political activist--pushing for integration in the Milwaukee of the 1960s--and a social activist, leading a community organization that sponsored summer camps that were not only coed (considered scandalous when he first proposed the idea) but also racially integrated (unheard of!). I think he knew that no one could overcome racial/ethnic fears and misconceptions without exposure to "The Other" in a daily and communal context. And, as my husband said, he likely also thought that the artificial divisions set up between people and groups based on sex and race/ethnicity were just stupid--and also damaging and diminishing.
     Norm and his family were/are extremely musical, and camps always have music (camp songs) associated with them. So the memorial had much music--from this family members, including daughters and grandchildren, as well as former campers and camp staff. It was pretty great--all the variety of styles and voices and sounds.
     One song we heard that day was "Which Side Are You On?" which was written in 1931 by Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer for the United Mine Workers in Harlan County, Kentucky. This song made a lot of sense in those union-organizing times and also in the context of Norm's memorial--because of the era in which he came of age and his political activism.

As I listened to the song, though, I thought about how much times have changed--not just the attitudes about unions (imagine, Michigan, a right-to-work state!), but how we've come to see (in these post-modern times) things as not so clear anymore, or to use an old (and perhaps racist) expression, not so black and white. There are no longer just two side to be on (though I realize the state of the polarized US political system likely belies what I am saying here). To me, the idea of having to choose a side, declare which one I'm on, is pretty terrifying. We live far more in the era of nuance than sides. At least that's how it seems to me. Though I still feel a thrill at the images from that era, and the courage, to declare which side one was on and stand with it, despite the high stakes and the consequences, which were often dire.