Thursday, December 22, 2005

X could be Or the shaky foundation of our City

A modern city has been described, roughly, as that giant space in which massive numbers of people coexist in loneliness. And when our lives connect, there are signals to guide us.

This way to the hospital, that way to sanitarium. A green light you walk, and the red one you wait. The straight yellow lines caution you not to overtake the car in front of you and the dotted yellow lines to pass cautiously.

In the more tolerable cities, this principle at work has become an art form. Yes, it can be intrusive, manipulative, annoying and exhausting. Especially in the supermarkets. But they take the guesswork out of life. No escaping them even in our private spaces. Look at any of your gadgets, or your computer. All the couplings, gears, and various connection points are either uniquely shaped or color coded.

When you move from city to city, you look for your points of contact. You try to find your way around reading the signs and signals. You attempt to become good at interpreting them because even though all the cities are beginning to look almost identical, there is still some unique flavor left to them.

It is still possible to talk about distinctive culture of a city.

So when our man protests that, “for all I know, Ganji could be the one…,” my initial reaction is to be sympathetic to his claim. Especially since I loath the rulers of the city and every one of their multiple organs of power that make life a living hell.

Unless, of course-- and this is the key, unless that crucial could be phrase is such a foundational principle in the city that by now I have become sick and tired of hearing it.

In one sense, this could be clause is what is relied upon to acculturate us into the life of our cities everywhere. It is also one of our best friends long-term.

It is a constant as a child.

The next car could be the one that hits you so wait for your parents. The dog you kick could be the one that bites you so be nice. The swing in a playground could be the one that throws you then be careful. And your friend whose yogurt you eat without permission could be the one that smacks you and the teacher you don’t listen to could be the one that kicks you out of her class. So be polite.

As adults, we continue to rely on it. The house you are buying could be structurally unsound. The stock you are counting on for your retirement could be a bust and the car you drive could be the one that blows an engine. So it always helps to remember.

But like so many other things in life, it’s never that simple.

It might also be the cause of many embarrassing moments for the discerning when you really think about it.

I mean, the erudite professor who has not taken that customary condescending tone with you could be an idiot so you cheat and are caught and get thrown out of the university you have been attending using your parent’s hard earned cash.

The modest woman who is speaking with you while smiling could be a slut you pinch and end up being slapped silly. The long haired engineer and his hirsute lover whose application for a job you reject could be the hippie moron you learn has put you out of business after going their separate ways to come up with the Microsoft.

That odd looking man in the elevator you insult in Farsi for 2 minutes because he could be foreign ends up your guest for dinner and Iranian indeed. And the millionaire who’s not flaunting his Armani suit and you think could be a pauper and beneath your dignity to engage seriously ends up the next big investor who bails you out.

That’s why in the more “tolerable” cities, they used to know how to teach you to avoid thinking in those terms because it was deemed ultimately counterproductive. They used to teach you about logical fallacies as well and expected you to act accordingly in real life.

But life has been a tad unpredictable, especially these days. Life can be funny that way. The “superior” ways of life despite all the nauseating self-satisfied babble tend to unravel quickly after a couple of blows! But we’ve digressed.

We were talking about this could be attitude.

So the whole thing has become a lot akin now to that roll of the dice. The next one could be a double six, or not, who knows? A lot depends on your temperament. And, of course, also on your experiences or your perception/expectations of long-term stability and/or radical insecurity of life in your city. It could always go both ways.

So, for instance, if you’ve seen a lot of people go from rags to riches in one life time, there is no reason not to think that your next purchase of a mobile phone could not be the one that makes a millionaire out of you. And the fellow named Hakha who speaks so confidently about returning on a certain date could not be the one who frees you. And that latest pyramid scheme of a certain Goldquest could not be the one guaranteeing free lunch for you for the rest of your life.

Who knows why we get to be so optimistic some days, and such cynical pessimists other days. But that attitude which guides our connection with others goes a long way in determining that uniqueness of the culture of the particular city we inhabit.

Run them out of town in disgrace one day and wait for their miraculous re-appearance the next. Always, though, somehow connected through that could be clause! A Mystical politics of sorts.

There are a lot of factors which might have affected this particular attitude or orientation we encounter in our city. Yes, a religion, our history, the wars and the conflicts of the past, and the open or closed nature of the city, as well as the intricacies of ethnic relations, or the nature of the rituals, or prudence, fortitude and acumen of the rulers or the lack thereof.

And so many other factors to consider as well since some very smart people spend years studying them to try to make sense out of the whole mess we call “civilized” life.

But I think we can all pretty much agree that there is a definite relation between politics and culture. And here attitudes come to matter a great deal. It could make or break you and your city.

Long term, “Democracy,” of course, provides the most promising possibility for living in a vibrant city where maximum number of people can negotiate and thereby discover/invent the most plausible ways of actualizing their potentials.

And the rule of Law, of course, is essential.

That’s why it is important to pay attention to the political. And to participate in the life of the city and to take active interest in the multiple fights that are a constant in order to open up space, and more breathing grounds.

A lot hinges on that attitude, though, since long term, the life of your city is affected so terribly adversely by this could be business. We’ll focus on the political ramifications in more detail soon. But the toll is particularly devastating on the individuals.

Authoritarian societies do that to you. Still, that attitude now has acquired an independent life of its own.

It perpetuates itself and gnaws at your spirit constantly and prevents you from effectively engaging with your fellow city dwellers—something essential if your aim is to run the authoritarians out of town.

And sadly, it goes with you no matter where you go. It seals you inside yourself and shuts your access to outside world. You can change your city, your outfit and you’re missing Imam or Messiah, the university you attend and the books you read and the language you study, but for all practical purposes, you can still remain petrified of seriously engaging the world given you with that requisite audacity and openness.

The city then becomes a dreary city. And each city-dweller reproduces that dreariness no matter what new city the person arrives at.

People humor each other and belittle and demean one another or insult and laugh at each other perpetually and do their best to avoid listening to one another. There is no awe, wonder, astonishment, surprise, or genuine curiosity left in the city. It has become an enraged city. A self absorbed city where people are hesitant to look past their own noses and their own personal pains and adversities.

The land of cynical know-it-alls who insist on squeezing themselves and others into pathetic little jars that make it hard to breath and become terribly suffocating.

And the sad thing is, there is even an additional bolt we use to further lock ourselves in hell from inside. That’s what we’ll examine in the next post.

I am talking about the complementary evil twin to this could be clause.

That horribly ugly: [Even] if not….still a….

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