Posted by: MC | August 14, 2011

The Streets of London and a Bridge in Portland, OR

There are weeks when I think, “I have no idea what to write in this week’s blog.”  Really.  Lots of them.  Then, without fail, events turn.  They may be close in like with bus rides, or widespread like weather, or painful like the death of a dear one.  They can also seem to have nothing to do with one another, and then, out of the nowhere of random neuron firings, I see a connection.  This week was one of those.

A bridge over the Willamette River in Portland OR and riots in the streets of London.  Six thousand miles apart and today, for me, they both cry out for … well … listening.

Last Sunday, I had an OpEd in the Oregonian  I was surprised and happy when the Bob Caldwell of the Oregonian editorial desk, called to say they were interested in the piece I had submitted over a month ago retelling an incident on the Steel Bridge.  In fact, that particular turn of events had solved one of my blog quandries (EX:C blog, “Common Courtesy,” 6-26-2011).  Midday one sunny Saturday, I had been walking across the bridge.  I was right at the gate when the bridge-lift warning sounded, so I ran.  Cyclists who had been behind me sped past and the bridge operator thundered over the loud speaker with choice language for reprimanding all of us.  The editorial staff decided to include the piece in the Sunday edition.  Then on Monday, the article was posted on the OregonLive website and, oh my, the electronic commentary.  Here’s a sample:

Maybe the professor had a leftist college social activist psychobiological episode. Overeducation syndrome disorder complex. Never pretty, hard to pronounce, and impossible to treat…

Sounds like you got what you deserved. Apparently some people need to be humiliated publicly to act as responsible citizens rather than entitled brats.

To my way of thinking, this is the problem, not part of it. You further compound things by whining about getting called on your actions. You were rude and self serving and got insulted because someone brought this to your attention in front of others, good for him.

…hope the arrogant Lewis and Clark professor reads this, she was out of line, and deserved to be yelled at. If more Drivers, bicyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, were yelled at, I’d wagerPortlandwould have the safest roads in the world.

Typical liberal worrying about the important things in life. Your country is in three wars (but hey your guy is in office so who cares?). We are being invaded byMexico’s poor and paying for them to stay here while the law breakers laugh at us and call us racist. Ah no big deal we have plenty. The Nation is deeply in debt our currency your savings is losing value daily……..who cares the government will provide. What’s really important is that somebody said something and you don’t like the way it made you feel……… freaking hoo!!!

So, this was an opinion piece.  To my mind, it was about listening, about taking responsibility for my part in a public misunderstanding while also calling out verbal violence (as I perceive it) and underscoring the importance of listening across difference (because that’s what is so persistent in my thoughts these days, months…years).  As with any public opinion, making a statement is a natural opening for other expressions of opinion.  Sunday evening and early Monday I had received several e-mail comments from people who took the trouble to find a way to write me through my work.  All but one wrote with stories and sentiments supportive of what they had read.  The one is a gun-rights advocate who took issue with my imagining what might have occurred had the bridge operator been armed.  His note was clear and respectful and, in the end, helpful to my gaining insight into his perspective.  I wrote to thank him.

The difference between the OregonLive comments and the ones that came via email seems to reside in anonymity, mostly, although there are other explanations.  But let’s leave all of that for a minute to consider London.

London is experiencing serious circumstances.  Riots and violence in the streets that are damaging property, upending decorum, and most hideously, harming people who are not directly involved.  The media have been vigilant.  I caught a video of Darcus Howe, a 68 year old W. Indian journalist and writer from Brixton.  He was, in this instance, being interviewed in the streets of his hometown and speaking of the discontent beneath the unrest.   Even as the TV newswoman asked again and again about the gratuitous looting and violence, Mr. Howe continued to speak of the importance of attending to the causes beneath the crisis.  When interrupted and redirected a fourth time with an accusation that he had himself taken part in riots in the past, he said, “Have some respect for an old West Indian negro instead of accusing me of being a rioter.”  The interview came to an abrupt halt there and, in the video version I saw you could hear a camera woman saying, “She doesn’t know what to do because she looks like an idiot.”  The BBC apologized to Mr. Howe later in the day.

Then, this morning, my daughter, who’s been living in the UKfor the past three years sent a link to the London Guardian and an article by Russell Brand.  Writing as an expatriate Londoner now living in LA where, in his words, “my hands are sticky with blood money from representing corporate interests through film, television and commercials, venerating, through my endorsements and celebrity, products and a lifestyle that contributes to the alienation of an increasingly dissatisfied underclass,” Brand offered a call for community.

Russell Brand grew up in thoseLondonneighborhoods.  He writes of the opportunities he got through public programs that were in place to address what he calls the features of “deprivation” in his youth.  Then he writes of the kids in the London streets this week,

“That [unaddressed] state of deprivation though is, of course, the condition that many of those rioting endure as their unbending reality. No education, a weakened family unit, no money and no way of getting any. JD Sports is probably easier to desecrate if you can’t afford what’s in there and the few poorly paid jobs there are taken. Amidst the bleakness of this social landscape, squinting all the while in the glare of a culture that radiates ultraviolet consumerism and infrared celebrity. That daily, hourly, incessantly enforces the egregious, deceitful message that you are what you wear, what you drive, what you watch and what you watch it on, in livid, neon pixels. The only light in their lives comes from these luminous corporate messages. No wonder they have their fucking hoods up.”

Toward the close of his article, he writes, “These young people have no sense of community because they haven’t been given one.  If we don’t want our young people to tear apart our communities then don’t let people in power tear apart the values that hold our communities together.”

About the situation in London, I’ve been thinking all week that the missing ingredient is listening.  It wasn’t until this morning that I began to see the connection with my ruminations about the electronic comments on the OpEd.  I’d only been seeing what I considered lack of decorum – absence of thoughtful criticism, courtesy (whatever – the list of my own reflexive ways of letting myself off the hook is very long).  Maybe it’s the case, as my friend Damian suggested, that the 57 comments were made by 10 or so people, most of whom are “trolls” who, whether or not they have the opinion they post, are very interested in getting a rise out of readers … me included.  But even if the words are mostly from trolls, it is no less true that there is something going on in our country that makes people have the anger expressed in so many of the OregonLive comments.

In all of this, what does listening mean?  Russell Brand approaches his conclusion by saying, “I don’t know enough about politics to ponder a solution,” and ends with a plea for not forgetting the youth.  I continue to make the pleas that we not forget listening.  While pleas are good and while inspiring desire to correct inequity is part of the action, the action remains to be taken.  What do we DO to make sure the youth are not forgotten, to make sure the people who have experienced generations of disregard and disrespect in either the US or UK – the people who resort to angry expressions when no other way of being heard works – are not only listened to but heard, respected and included in ways that have meaning for them?

I’m not a fan of the Tea Party tactics or message, except insofar as it represents an opportunity to include in the conversation of democracy people who have historically been excluded.  At this point it looks like actual inclusion will take listening through the bluster.

So here I have another opportunity to walk my talk.  I can listen but that may not be the endpoint.  I have a part to play in listening in ways that are perceived as being heard by those who have not been included.  It’s a two-way street in any situation and for all of us.  Speaking – listening – taking responsibility to hear – taking responsibility to articulate what being heard looks like.

The questions are where we start.  What does listening look like in the case of my little OpEd – and, more profoundly, what does it look like in the case of the historically disenfranchised voices of the US for which I may or may not have sympathy?  What does it look like for 21st century England?

The task of leadership, the first task of concerned people, is
not to condemn or castigate or deplore;  it is to search out the
reason for the disillusionment and alienation, the rationale
of protest and dissent—perhaps, indeed, to learn from it. 

Robert Kennedy

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