I got a new lesson on the force of narrative during the blackout that affected much of the mid-west and east coast in early July. It was the third time our own neighborhood had experienced an extended power outage in four years. This time, however, the temperatures soared to the 100F mark for eight powerless days.
In the past, it had been an unexpected pleasure to sit out in the evenings, dark but calm without the buzz of air conditioners. But not this time. At the moment of power loss, a monster began to clamor to our left, boasting its capacity to keep the lights on. Another began to make noise from the house adjoining our back yard, to be joined by its neighbor. And in a few days, the now familiar roar-roar issued from the house opposite us. So we were now were enveloped by a wall of brutes, shrieking out their window-rattling and ear-piercing malice.
To get a sense of what it means to be surround by generators, try taking a nap in a golf course with six or seven lawn mowers being driven about you.
But where was the outrage of neighbors already so sick of the outage? It being the Fourth of July, I thought I would ask people about the injustice of the generators. Was it proper for individuals to withdraw within their cool houses while dumping their decibels on the community?
To the extent that I could hear them, I could not get a sympathetic ear to my suggestions for a neighborly discussion on generator etiquette. What did people want? To get their own generators. And what did they suggest that I do? Buy one for myself. (There were none left.)
On the Fourth of July of 2012 Americans reinforced their right to the happiness of air conditioning. And what about the rest of us who rebelled against fireworks exploding for eight days around us? How about moving to Canada and join those United Empire Loyalists who abandoned America after the Revolution!
Personal stories abounded, however. In fact, the crisis generated two types of narrative: neighbors helping neighbors and the heroes of the power company working selflessly to get the lights on.
Both were true. Neighbors checked on neighbors. They shared ice. Or better, they passed on news of where to find ice. Those with generators allowed others to plug in their fridges with long extension cords. One set of neighbors actually invited us to move into their oasis while they were away. (If there is one thing my children won’t forgive me it is that I declined the offer. After all, what is the point of an experience if you can’t write about it?)
And yes, the employees who had come from as far as Texas and Canada suffered sixteen-hour days in Amazon-like heat and humidity, cutting trees, climbing poles, struggling with recalcitrant cables, and calming nerves of impatient neighbors. These two incessant narrative lines were repeated and purveyed in the Columbus Dispatch and our neighborhood paper, The Booster. What rarely came up was a political critique.
I, for instance, would have liked our newspaper to pose three questions:
1. Why was American Electric Power caught again so unprepared for the third time in fewer than four years? How do companies in other countries cope with their storms?
2. What has the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio, which is chartered to oversee the utilities, done protect the interests of consumers? Why did it abandon us again to the vagaries of AEP?
3. What does our governor, who pitches constantly the beauty of the free market, suggest that citizens do? What recourse do they have?
The fact that these questions were rarely raised points to the anaconda-like hold that the personal has on social life in the United States. We much prefer the story, be it of perseverance or suffering, to political critique, favoring talk about the victims of the Colorado shooting than discussion of our gun culture.
Even in academia, the recourse to private experience becomes an unassailable strategy in a class discussion or scholarly conference. What do you say to someone who criticizes your argument on the basis of his own story of grief or identity? “As a Greek, I find your position insulting.” Or “Having suffered so much at the hands of racists, I think your views ….”
Of course, sharing stories is an important characteristic of being human. (I too began this blog with a description of my ear-plugged misery in early July, perhaps to gain attention or even sympathy.) Stories are everywhere. The very being of a human being is, according to Mikhail Bakhtin, the “deepest communion. To be means to communicate.” Or as Friedrich Hölderlin put it in his poem “Friedensfreier,” “we are discourse (ein Gespräch) and hear from one another.”
But we are also political creatures. We not only share stories. We also have to talk about how we live together in neighborhoods and cities. As Aristotle says: "He who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god." Since we are neither, should we not discuss whether it is right to make others suffer in pursuit of your own comfort?
This type of perspective was in short supply in the Fourth of July, 2012. In the tug-of-war between the personal and the political, the former seems to pull with greater force.