Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Yours, Mine, and Ours... What exactly is the difference anyway?

The West Village probably shouldn't feel like such a cozy nook of a neighborhood, given how many people are always moving in and out. All those NYU students coming and going all over the place, recent grads who'd heard "the village," was the place to be, but realize within 6 months or so that Brooklyn, or maybe the Upper East Side, is the place they can afford, the long time renters getting priced out and moving east or up, or who knows where, and new people coming every single day. The thing about the West Village, though, is that when you live there, you almost never need to leave, unless, of course, a job requires you to do so. Otherwise, where else would you ever want to go? Really? I can't remember the last time I went much above Union Square, below Houston St., or east of the Bowery, unless I was heading out of town entirely. I do like the Natural History Museum, and the Met, I'll go uptown for those two, but I think that's pretty much it.

Living here, it's hard enough maintaining any real connection with the rest of the city, let alone with the other inhabitants of that huge place called America. We just don't have much in common with them, do we? They wear pastels, and shop at Wal-Mart. They value things like a good night's sleep, and eating breakfast. They are the ones responsible for both the Simpson and the Duff Sisters' celebrity. They drive SUV's and live in actual houses with backyards. We live in apartments the size of their SUV's, if we're lucky, and think of our fire escapes as private terraces. We walk everywhere, or take the train, and get to feel superior about our independence from the petroleum economy. They come to New York expressly for the purpose of asking me for directions to stores they'd have e no trouble finding back in their hometowns. I could be mistaken, but I'm pretty sure there's a Gap in every mall this country has to offer.
More importantly though, we don't seem to think about anything the way those people out there do. CNN tells us we live in a divided nation, shows us a map made up of sharp red lines and hard blue angles, footage of angry protestors at funerals, proud little boys dressed up in soldiers uniforms they cannot possibly be old enough to wear. A woman with pink cheeks and brown curls assuring an interviewer that yes, she absolutely does believe God hates. Their world feels nothing like mine. Down here between west 14th and Houston, give or take a block or two, we're afloat in a soft, warm sea of indigo agreement. If anybody's waiting impatiently for the Rapture, over on Perry St., worrying just a little bit about being left behind when that great day finally dawns, well, he's keeping it to himself for now.

Of everyone I know in the West Village, I can think of exactly one self-identified conservative. One. A lawyer, I believe. Even she is the kind of conservative who makes me disconcertingly nostalgic for the Reagan era. It's possible to have a reasonable and interesting conversation with her about things like the Iraq War, or the budget deficit. She's not interested in the radical religious right's agenda. She's an old fashioned conservative, focused on fiscal responsibility and military strength. I disagree with her opinions, but they are not those of an insane ideologue. Conservative though she calls herself, this woman has nothing in common with the people currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Tucked away here in our village, surrounded by like minds, all the happy lesbian undergrads, the shaggy guys with their sunglasses and guitars, the all night lights of the sex toy stores all over Christopher St., it's often almost inconceivable that anything they might be doing in America, or even just down in D.C., could ever touch us here. They might have some problems, out there, it's true. But us? Here? Nothing really changes here, we'll be o.k. These are the things we say to ourselves, and to each other, aren't they? When elections don't go our way, when the housing market starts to crumble, when the economy starts looking dicey. It's nothing to do with us. And who can blame us? Who doesn't want to feel safe? That's what so many of us came here for in the first place, I think. So we could feel safer than we had, one way or another, growing up out there in America. And then there's the sense I have sometimes, and I don't think I'm the only one, though this isn't something we talk much about, this feeling that America didn't really want me, that I was just a little bit too something, too loud, too smart, too crazy, too confused or too confusing, or maybe just too much, I don't know, for America's liking. So I skipped out on America, and I wound up here instead. Here, I finally felt safe.

Nothing good lasts forever though, does it? Every so often, something happens to jerk me right back into America, remind me I've never really left. No matter how I feel, who, and where, I am remain the same. I'm an American in America, like all the rest. It's certainly much nicer to feel safe, but the dangers we're dealing with these days are altogether different, and if the safety isn't real, well, what's the point in that? All the differences about which we are so insistent become meaningless when confronted by the fact of citizenship shared. Distance, metaphorical or literal, can't push you beyond the borders you're willing to cross.

There's a long, sad list of Americans whose home proved their undoing, but just one who's reminding me of this right now. Jose Padilla, remember him? He was arrested by the FBI in Chicago's O'Hare airport in 2002, getting off a flight from Pakistan. He was then declared an enemy combatant and transferred to military custody, held in solitary confinement for the next three years. An American in America, he faced the prospect of indefinite detention, was denied access to legal counsel, the right to confront his accusers, the right to a speedy trial by a jury of his peers. Why? Because Donald Rumsfeld said so, more or less, that's why. That was all it took. I've known the basic facts of this story for years, you probably have too. Whenever I stop to think about them though, give them just the briefest moment to sink in, I am stunned by it all, all over again. All the power this government has, and our protections against it vanished somehow, while we were busy with other things.

By 2005 Padilla's petition for a writ of habeus corpus made its way to the supreme court. At that point, the government transferred him from military to civilian custody, adding him to an existing indictment in Florida's federal court. This conveniently allowed them to avoid a confrontation with the Court and a potential ruling definitively prohibiting such treatment of American citizens in the future. The charges Padilla and his co-defendants face are in no way related to the dirty bomb allegations which prompted his initial arrest. The evidence against them includes allegedly coded wiretapped conversations about going on "picnics," so they can "smell fresh air, and eat cheese." Sounds pretty sinister to me. Then there's something in there about a zucchini. It's all pretty nonsensical, and would be laughable, if the first act hadn't been so bleak.

And if it didn't force us to remember that we're still in Kansas after all, still Americans, still in this America we have somehow created for ourselves. Just as we are all equally vulnerable to the power of this state we've made, we are also all equally responsible for the fact of its existing as it does. None of us, in this America, is as safe as we deserve to be, not even on Bleecker st., nor are we innocent. Those other people out there, the ones we'd like to blame, they are our own, like it or not and we are theirs. And nobody is innocent. We can protest as loudly as we like, wear the t-shirts, march with the banners, proclaim, "Not in our names!" but it is. Every bit of it is. It's all in your name, and it's all in mine.

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