I read with some mild interest the article in the New York Times May 18 Sunday Style section called Park Slope: Where Is the Love? In it, the writer, Lynn Harris, interviews two people who I knew, James Bernard and Steven Johnson, both of whom live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood that I called home for almost 12 years. The sights and sounds described in the article, the “stroller moms,” the overeager shoppers at (great) gourmet shops, the general simmering of class envy, the trampling of liberal history – all of these things recalled my own fond and estranged feelings of living in a fantastic part of the world. In many ways, Park Slope was the most natural place in the world for me, a young, Jewish, artist-writer guy who wanted to celebrate New York from just slightly afar and who saw the light of the city only a few miles away as a beacon of the possible, a place where diversity was real, grit was golden, and comfort was paramount.
But the article brought up another, more immediate feeling, which I’ve been finding hard to articulate lately and especially so on this blog. In fact, I haven’t been able to post much of anything on Deckchairs lately because, from my small perch in Mittel Canada, everything appears very askew and nowhere more so than in the New York Times, the minor reflection of liberal American (or North American) culture, generally. The list of recent tragic events in other countries, including China (80,000+ dead in the earthquake), Myanmar (135,000+ dead), Iraq (more civil war), Chad (300,000+ displaced from Darfur), Darfur (150,000+ dead) – take a tired, worn-out backseat to the relishes and realities of our elections, our layoffs and our self-made housing and crises. While Ms. Harris interviewed the interviewees about a media-happy Park Slope all too willing to accept the jaundiced eye of the media, our mediated lives have ignored that which is not fully seen.
To me, it appears that modernity has changed life in North America so radically that we are now almost fully insulated from the inequities created by or evaded by our happiness. The Democratic election is a good case in point. While the number of American children who don’t have food or access to medical care continues to grow, the candidates (both Hillary and Obama) provided the equivalent of a giant yawn; instead, they focused on American “security” and the challenge of maintaining visual and policy “integrity” throughout. For Hillary, this meant catering to a blue-collar base, with whom she has absolutely nothing in common. For Obama, it meant being playing nice to everyone so that no one would be offended. The sheer obliviousness of the media and the candidates to the real issues is astounding – and outstanding in its ignorance of very recent history. It’s not that the two candidates didn’t attempt to address things like poverty, housing, medical care, racism, and America’s role in the world; they did and they did it so obliquely, with such care for their most conservative bases, that no ideas got expressed or shared. Obama’s “Change” mantra ended up sounding like a new blueberry breakfast cereal. Hillary’s “universal health care” attempts sounded like a daydream interlude between campaign stops.
What am I suggesting? I think that I’m so dismayed with the blindness of American (and Canadian, which I’ll get to later), democracy that it’s hard to even find reproach in its candidates. They’re doing the best they possibly can to walk around the very edges of the deep water we’re all in if we don’t figure out how to solve climate change and curb energy consumption at the same time (which, quite nicely, go hand in hand) while helping the poorest of the world deal with the crises that are yet to come. The shiny, happy gladtalk of American politics these days, with Obama thanking Hillary and Hillary hoping for a place near the Oval office simply reeks of inanity, a silliness so deep that it’s serious.
And yet, here’s the rub: Obama is the best candidate we’ll have in our lifetimes, probably. The New York Times is the best media vehicle we’ll have. And Park Slope is the best neighborhood one can live in. But, in many ways, we can’t afford them, as they only offer the very best that liberal culture offers and no more.