“I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.”
NEW YORK — Where Oedipus once tormented us, it is now Narcissus. Pathologies linked to authority and domination have ceded to the limitless angst of self-contemplation. The old question — “What am I allowed to do?” — has given way to the equally scary “What am I capable of doing?” Alain Ehrenberg, a French author and psychologist, speaks of the “privatization of human existence.”
Community — a stable job, shared national experience, extended family, labor unions — has vanished or eroded. In its place have come a frenzied individualism, solipsistic screen-gazing, the disembodied pleasures of social networking and the à-la-carte life as defined by 600 TV channels and a gazillion blogs. Feelings of anxiety and inadequacy grow in the lonely chamber of self-absorption and projection.
These trends are common to all globalized modern democracies, ranging from those that prize individualism, like the United States, to those, like France, where social solidarity is a paramount value. Ehrenberg’s new book, “La Société du Malaise” (“The Malaise Society”) is full of insights into the impact of narcissistic neurosis.
Sometimes, it seems, we are as lonely as those little planes over the Atlantic in on-board video navigation maps.
I was thinking of this during a recent spell as a grand juror. Thrown together for two weeks at Brooklyn Supreme Court with 22 other jurors, I was struck by how rare it is now in American life to be gathered, physically, with an array of other folk of different ages, backgrounds, skin colors, beliefs, faiths, tastes, education levels and political convictions and be obliged to work out your differences in order to get the job done.
It was not always easy, of course; not easy to deal with the fidgety paramedic chewing chips through murder testimony, the scattershot flirtations of the former rhythm-and-blues musician, the off-point ruminations of the old guy who knew he was always right, the intermittent tedium and incoherence.
I can still hear the juror next to me. “I work at 311” — the number New Yorkers dial with complaints or questions about the city. “Drives me nuts, been doing it five years. People treat you like idiots. Most of the time it’s water seeping into basements, sewage systems blocked. At least my job hasn’t been outsourced to Bangalore. People ask me, ‘You in New York?’ They ask me, ‘Are you a human being or a robot?’ Sometimes I say, “I … AM … A … ROBOT.’ But we’ve got supervisors listening to calls. One thing that drives me crazy is all the people who speak slowly, as if I’m an idiot. I tell them, ‘You can speak faster, you know!’ Jury duty’s actually a relief!”
In a way, it was — a relief from being alone on a phone or in front of a screen. We got to know each other’s tics and, having dealt with killing and rape and assault and insurance fraud, we all embraced at the end. Oh unthinkable act, we’d done something selfless for the commonweal, learned to listen to each other, accepted differences and argued our way to decisions.
America could use more of that kind of experience. As it is, everyone’s shrieking their lonesome anger, burrowing deeper into stress, gazing at their own images — and generating paralysis.
Which brings me to health care: Crunch time has come on a question central to the nation’s future, where an acknowledgment is needed that, when it comes to health, we’re all in this together. Pooling the risk among everybody is the most efficient way to forge a healthier society. That’s what other developed societies do. And they don’t have 30 million plus uninsured.
Now, as I understand it, the Tea Party movement is angry about waste, bail-outs for the rich and spiraling debt. They detest big government. But if waste and debt are really what’s bothering them, how about the waste in the more than 1,800 daily health-care related personal bankruptcies, the 25 to 30 percent of some corporate insurers’ costs going on administration (versus 6 percent for Medicare), the sky-rocketing health premiums that are undermining U.S. corporations (and so taking jobs), the endless paperwork of private reimbursement procedures, and the needless deaths?
Americans don’t want a European nanny state — fine! But, as a lawyer friend, Manuel Wally, put it to me, “When it comes to health it makes sense to involve government, which is accountable to the people, rather than corporations, which are accountable to shareholders.”
All the fear-mongering talk of “nationalizing” 17 percent of the economy is nonsense. Government, through Medicare and Medicaid, is already administering almost half of American health care and doing so with less waste than the private sector. Per capita Medicare costs for common benefits grew 4.9 percent between 1998 and 2008, against 7.1 percent for private insurers. Why not offer Medicare as a choice — a choice — to everyone? Aren’t Republicans about choice?
The public option, not dead, would amount to recognition of shared interest in each other’s health and of the need to use America’s energies and resources better. It would involve 300 million people linking arms.
Or we can turn away from each other and, like Narcissus, perish in the contemplation of our own reflections.