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Overblown reactions, conservasnark, and neighborliness - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Overblown reactions, conservasnark, and neighborliness
Okay. sjepstein sent me a copy of this op-ed from the New York Times about a Muslim woman in Cambridge who had a close encounter with Al Gore (he handed her the keys she dropped) and came out of it feeling better about some things. Jonah Goldberg, about a week later, snarked at it quite admirably (if a little too bitterly), pointing out things like, come on--the People's Republic of Cambridge isn't exactly a hotbed of anti-Muslim activity (as someone from right across the river, I can tell you that on September 12, 2001, I saw more people running around making sure that the Muslim guy who owned the local convenience store wasn't in any trouble than people, well, making trouble), and all of the woman's responses were entirely subjective, and, er... the dude picked up some keys she dropped. This makes him a hero?

It amuses me because (a), silly, overblown personal essays amuse me, in a grotesque kind of way, as long as they're not down at the level of Chicken Soup books and (b) Goldberg's response to the article was mostly mine: WTF? Who wouldn't do that? It's keys, man. Someone drops them near you, you scoop down, pick them up, and hand them over. What else would you do? Am I to be called a heroine because I helped someone who looked lost find his way around downtown Boston? I could see the opposite being the case--someone who refuses such a simple gesture on the basis of someone's ethnicity really is villainous--but have we really reached a point where common, everyday politeness is the stuff of NYT editorials?

However, there is a point here that's kind of lost in all the multicultural sensitivity stuff that's been attached to the incident, and I think it's what Ms. Abdrabboh was talking about, and what she was feeling when she left the gym--that sense of connection to the place, of feeling like one belongs and is wanted, and that is an important thing. Not something heroic or partisan or remotely related to multiculti sensitivity training, but something much more basic. What Ms. Abdrabboh experienced was a sense of neighborliness--a sense that you are in a community, and it is part of you, and you are part of it. And this sense, not the common action of returning someone's keys, is shockingly rare, especially in urban areas of any stripe. And it is wonderful when it occurs. The little courtesies happen a lot more than you'd think--when I hurt my foot last year, I never once had to ask someone to give me a seat on the bus, people regularly thank bus drivers, kids apologize for intruding, and so on. But seeing the people around you and thinking, "Yes, I'm part of them"--that's rare. We move too often and too fast, and we hide in our little coccoons in ways that are quite alien to collective psychology. But sometimes, when you're feeling fragile for whatever reason (in Ms. Abdrabboh's case, it was news reports about conflicts with the Muslim world), there is a moment of connection, when suddenly you realize that there's a "we" here, and the person holding the door for you is someone you share your world with.

The place where the Op-Ed was wrong was in attributing all sorts of political and multicultural aspects to a fairly simple moment, and Goldberg's response was on the money because of course Gore's actions in the story aren't somehow the essence of the difference between Big Hearted Liberals and Evil, Racist Conservatives (in fact, Gore was performing in a perfectly traditional way, even Reactivist--a gentleman helping a lady!). The place where Goldberg was wrong was in assuming that it's a minor and unimportant incident.

The truth is, as much as I love many things about urban life, cities don't do community very well. They're too big, too hyper-organized about some things an totally unorganized about others. I grew up in a small town, and, while the culture wasn't anything I care to return to, now and then I miss the sense of community. There were about ten churches (maybe more) in a town of 4,000, but kids perpetually bounced from one to another for youth group stuff, if someone had something interesting going on. No one paid much attention to it. There was a community theater group full of people who were just there to goof around, not to clutch at one another's throats as they tried to get noticed, because frankly, there was no one in Perry to notice them anyway. Kids would meet up in the park sans adults--this got a few kids in trouble later on, of course--and adults would hang out on one another's porches, drinking coffee and shooting the breeze for hours. I've lived where I am for three years. I wouldn't know my next door neighbors if I fell over them. It's just not part of the culture.

But it is a human need, which Ms. Abdrabboh's article points out. She was feeling isolated and alone, and someone made a simple, common gesture, and it moved her so much that she wrote an Op-Ed piece about it, because, in her specific observation, it made her feel like part of the community.

I find it sad that this is so rare that I also felt inclined to post about a neighborly incident last year, or about the neat atmosphere in Boston after the Sox won the series. For just that moment, we were all part of the same community, and we all recognized each other.

In the end, it's the little things that actually count. And unfortunately, it's the little things that too many people ignore or discount the importance of.
5 comments or Leave a comment
olympe_maxime From: olympe_maxime Date: June 29th, 2005 03:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
In case you haven't considered this already -

You should send *this* to the NYT. Or at least another publication.

I'm not kidding. Your 'Opinion' pieces on this blog are nothing short of outstanding, and have too much insight in them to let them sink into the archives of your wonderful blog. It could even get you further on your writing career.
mysticblueside From: mysticblueside Date: June 29th, 2005 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree! Although I don't always get a chance to comment on your insightful entries, I almost always read them (and feel smarter for it!). We really need more people like you out there informing people. ;)
story645 From: story645 Date: June 29th, 2005 05:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
Read the sbark, couldn't read the original, and basically word. I'm surprised at this girl cause most of the people I've encoutered in city life have been polite, and something like picking up keys is an automatic reaction. Just, wow, she must have been feeling insanely isolated, or been treated like dirt for a week straight, for that to have such a reaction. And the NYT printing it? *weeps for what it used to be*
From: (Anonymous) Date: June 29th, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nothing to do with it, but I'd love to hear what you have to say about eminent domain and the whole Souter's House thing.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: June 30th, 2005 12:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Just read the two articles. I agree with your feelings about the need for community in the city, and how these small events really do affect us, but I have to say, the op-ed piece practically begs to be ridiculed. It's embarrassingly earnest. Goldberg's response is a touch strong, but I couldn't help laughing at the end.

I think it's her style more than the subject - you mention the posts you wrote about community in Boston, and the Red Sox one you linked to has stayed with me since you posted it. olympe_maxime is right - you should be writing for the NYT op-ed page instead. :)
5 comments or Leave a comment