Laws and Packaging | A Stranger Reflects on American Life 1

by , under Blog Series, City Life

LawNewYork

I’ve been in New York a few days now, and part of me feels it’s too short a time to make any sense of what I’m seeing, too soon to have any valid critique. But then I read Georg Simmell, who notes that the stranger in our midst is important because they ‘hold up a mirror to the society in which he or she enters, since [they] cannot take for granted ways of life that seem to natives just natural’ – and think that perhaps my raw strangeness in this place is a good thing.

The stranger is an interesting character – they are recognised, denominated as ‘someone’ – but not known. I am a stranger here. But I’ve come here. So don’t take this the wrong way… I do love NY. But…

So here’s two things that immediately spring to mind as a stranger in the US: you have excessive packaging, and excessive laws.

First, the laws. As soon as the plane landed the announcements and signs begin: this is against the law, we have the power to remove your mobile device, we have the power to keep your mobile device, the law states that it is dangerous and unlawful for more than 178 people to be in this room… and so it goes on and on.

One of my first thoughts here was this: rather than legislate for every last thing, why not work to create the conditions within which people will want to do the right thing? I think the answer is that legislation means that we can avoid contact with the other. If it is against the law to do something, then I can call the police and make it their responsibility to sort out. Rather than go to my neighbour and try to sort it out between us, we call 911 and get law-enforcement in.

Why? Because we are afraid of engaging the other. Afraid of what they might do. The other is dirty, is dangerous. We need to push them away, outside of our gated communities and below us in the mean streets.

And that, I think, is actually linked to packaging. Which I’ll get to tomorrow.


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  1. Corinne

    Wow… thank you for your thoughts. Sometimes I find myself in sore need of a “mirror” in which to see our culture. Not only do strangers in our midst serve as mirrors, but also becoming strangers somewhere else can help pinpoint areas of excess or things with which we have grown comfortable. I know when I took a month long trip to Zambia in college, becoming a stranger not only pointed out the things to a culture there, but upon return to the US, I found myself suddenly uncomfortable with things that I had once taken for granted (such as the laws and the waste you mention). The problem, though, and the sad part for me, was how quickly I re-assimilated to my home culture, even with things that I did not care for (such as waste). I wonder what your thoughts are on getting past this and learning to change amidst a culture of waste once you see the need for change.

  2. Becky

    Kester – Yep, the US is still in many ways a Victorian nation as though one can legislate ourselves into a perfect society. Far cry from what Toqueville observed about us as a nation and definitely NOT why ancestors came over on the Mayflower from your land followed shortly by another Brit Roger Williams. Hence, our obsession over Clinton’s privates instead of his public acts – one could easily argue that far more people were screwed over by legislation enacted during his more conservative second term than any moves he did in private. Behaviors that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the UK or Europe can be a career wrecker here in the States especially for those seen as a “Christian” leader. THAT’S why I caution anyone coming to the US on religious business albeit to do an author tour, speak at conferences, etc. get educated into the weird workings of Americana Christianity ™. I’m not a prude (ask Andrew Jones and he can vouch for that) but it’s more about being practical so that people remember your message and not your moves. Hell, Tony Campolo got banned from Calvin College (no clue if it’s been lifted simply for saying sh*t during a speech. Yeah, it sucks but that’s how it rolls.