Far away, people in countries across the Mideast have been rebelliously signaling to their leadership that they want better governance and more freedoms. Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo spoke about a world where differences in religion become opportunities to better know each other and to create a shared world where all children grow up with the same dreams. He described his own life as the remarkable production of different religions and countries all within the embrace of a democratic nation.
Like Bruce Mason in Wallace Stegner’s Recapitulation, every sweep of one’s personal life history is also a geographic tour. Place is meaningful. We remember where we first walked atop a high structure, like a tree or stone wall, heard John Lennon’s voice, or realized that we really liked someone (wasn’t it on the campus lawn underneath a canopy of trees?), or where we met our spouses. Here in New York it is easy to take for granted how important developmental places also span a variety of divergent cultural spaces. Gay, straight or somewhere in between; dark, light or medium colored; scarved, hooded, capped or pony-tailed; there is no New York without its differences and there is no person here who isn’t larger for having made sense of that diversity while still finding a place to stand as one’s self.
In thinking about the question of political leadership and the Mideast uprisings, I only know that the attachment to space, place and geography is largely personal. Territory is as psychological as it is a bordered landscape. Sometimes nation states and the authorities that run them tend to mistake what is personal and geographic for that which is symbolic and societal. There has been a loud cry from the Mideast upholding the integrity of a people’s right to their own meanings of land and country.
Everyday when I wander about the streets on New York, I am aware of the many problems we face in our country. I am, however, very appreciative of the fact that no one group or leader owns this place. It really does belong to a kind of cultural multiplicity. Through a variety of small economic exchanges, personal relationships, or simply sharing a sidewalk or a subway ride together, we create the beginnings of a world where differences present an opportunity to know each other better and to therefore augment humanity’s growth. Nonetheless, it is a much harder life.