Monday, September 1, 2008

"Get Out of Harlem" is the Microphrase for the American Macrofear Inhabiting Americans

Ranchers in Abilene assess world affairs in unilateral fashion

Recently, my father, a western businessman who works in Abilene, Texas as a consultant manager for a bottling company, called me on the phone to inquire into my living situation.

I mentioned to him that I was thinking of moving apartments from my current position in Harlem, in the Spanish barrio near 125th and Lexington, to something more leafy and South Manhattan.

I wanted to live somewhere where the girls walked around with blue hair and men wore faux-Western button up shirts and hipster jeans in a post-modern shrug to the traditions of this great frontier-shaping country. The idea of living in a place where bars stayed open till four and you needed code words and special networking connections to get into restaurants intrigued me. There is something very American about access and special privileges. This is the New York City that I had seen from my television in Hong Kong. This is the New York City that I had moved to, but I was not experiencing it up in Harlem.

In Harlem, I am without privilege and exposed to all that is the world in New York.

Harlem is, in general, a nice place to live. Not many people are crowding around in it trying to experience it all. It doesn't have the frenetic hyper-attentive hierarchy of trend-snatching hipsters. Usually the streets are filled with people from all over the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Middle East and South Asia, accompanied by their music.

Foreigners and native New Yorkers mix. Migrants, destined to arrive in order to send home all they capture, mill around and work incessant hours in part-time jobs that are easy to capture.

But on any given day, Harlem is dirty and it is dangerous, in relative terms. Almost every morning on the way to work I will literally walk around piles of trash, flying newspapers and at least once a week I will be stumbled into by someone who is in some kind of alcohol-induced or drug-created stupor. In other words, the tourist in New York is likely not sending home postcards with Harlem's realities pasted on them, inscribed with "Wish You Were Here!"

This obviously doesn't please my parents, hard-wired as they are to ascribe success to their three children. Even though I am 33 years old and have lived well on my own for over 15 years, they worry about me more than they ever have, dreaming up improbable terrors that pale in comparison to the riots I have worked in, and the fascist dictatorships that I have traveled to visit.

Offhand, I mentioned to my father that a man had been murdered on my street corner, 33 stories below, only 100 meters from my front door. This unsettled my father, and rightly so. He asked for details. Was it a gun? Yes, it was. What was he doing? I don't know. I thought it had something to do with an argument. But nobody in the building has said anything about it.

My father took the news with barely a second thought. "Get out of Harlem, find somewhere else to live. You represent money to them, and that's not their fault. That's the social conditioning," he said.

This is my father's thinking. I believe that it represents more of the country's thinking, too, when it comes to foreign affairs. It is the same kind of thiking that has framed the federal response to September 11.

Dominique Moisi is a Senior Advisor at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, in Paris, and the author of the forthcoming book The Geopolitics of Emotions. He writes in The Land of Hope Again? An Old Dream for a New America:

The United States looks at the outside world with the distance, if not the distrust of a psychologically self-sufficient country. Since World War II, he United States has been aware that its security depends on its ability to interact with the world -- a realization that was reinforced by the Cold War and more brutally by 9/11. But it has, nevertheless, always felt alone in its power.

The ironic, and I might even say hypocritical, mindset of the modern day American living in the post-modern world, is to retreat and to hide behind the walls of its fortress all of the character, personality, possessions and unique traits that the rest of the world wants to share with it, because it feels that it is so unique that other people want to steal and to take from it.

How medieval!

The world that walks around Harlem under my 33rd floor apartment is the greater world that America exists in, to its own self an island.

My father's thinking is the thinking that is running this election in competition against Barack Obama, the world candidate. In a world that is becoming more American, in terms of its cultural sameness and its penchant for the unique and the different, America is becoming more like the Old World. As Moisi writes in this letter to Americans on the verge of their elections for president:

The task facing the United States requires a sort of Copernican revolution of the American mind: it means accepting that although the world will look more and more similar to the United States an even familiar in cultural terms, it will not longer be defined by the United States alone or even by it principally. The first challenge of the next U.S. president will be to adjust Americans to this new world system, whose creation you have accelerated.

I have seen that in Asia. China is not striving to be democratically open and liberal like the United States. No, it took from the United States model the behavior that was most fluid and most easily traded to the rest of the world: the art of making money.

With money comes power. With the need to make money comes innovation. Not in politics, but in the power politics has to make new connections. Welcome to the world where you can go to sleep watching the news and wake up on your couch seeing the buildings you built as a testament to America's unmoving power be sold to the highest bidder, a bidder half a world away.

The truth about China is true for the Middle East.

Chrysler Building now owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority

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