debbie millman

Friday, March 03, 2006

Commentary: Public Displays of Bullshit

Last week I took the subway to visit a friend on the upper west side. As I was departing the 96th street station I saw a man, probably no older than his mid-30s, rifling through one of the trash receptacles. He was pulling out piles of newspapers, scattering them all over the ground in a way that resembled a rather subversive and messy Christmas tree skirt. He was rapt with attention at his task. As I walked by, another man, a fairly dapper older man in his 60s, charged over to him and insisted he stop what he was doing. The younger man paused for a second, skeptically looked him up and down, cocked his head and loudly retorted: Mind your own business. The elderly man responded with an expletive and stormed off.

This incident has been plaguing me. In replaying the event again in my head, I can’t help but puzzle over what the younger man meant when he stated, “Mind your own business.” After all, he was in a New York City subway station, he was infiltrating a community garbage can and he was littering in a public place. How is that not everyone’s business?

The lines between our public and personal experiences have become more ambiguous than ever before. Wireless Internet, cell phones and a rabid media have made much of our personal lives quite public. I have overheard a racy one-sided phone conversation in an airport restroom, a conversation on a bus wherein my seatmate had their cell volume so high I could hear every word of both sides of their conversation, and one time I mistakenly read a love letter sent to me that was actually meant for another Debbie M in a colleague’s email address book. The whole world knows about a certain President’s penchant for oral sex and cigars. We recently became privy to a Kid Rock post-concert orgy. And how could anyone ever forget the image of OJ flanked by police in his white bronco? It is a strange phenomenon--this participation in not only what is private--but is often more information than required or requested. But now, as much as I may have snickered when Paris Hilton’s phone book was broadcast to the world, I shudder thinking that if it could happen to Paris, it could happen to anyone. And it does, quite easily.

It is a new kind of cultural intimacy, this mass exposure to experience and information. In our sharing, we have become a community without boundaries. This has both its advantages and its drawbacks. For every blog that mightily exposes a writer’s false memoirs, there is a targeted identity theft or an intended breach of confidentiality. Now, not only have the lines between our public and personal experiences become more ambiguous, the lines between our private and public consciousness are nebulous as well. I recently read a powerful editorial in the March issue of Poetry magazine. Titled “In The Flux That Abolishes Me,” the piece poses pertinent questions as to the relevance and preservation of what may or may not be publicly consumed work, or art in the public consciousness. The writer asks this: “Does it seem cruelly inadequate that, out of all those hours these poets spent in solitude and silence, and given all the life they sacrificed for the sake of their work, only a handful of poems, maybe nothing more than a stanza here and there, persist in the consciousness of a later generation.”

I, for one, feel that it is cruelly inadequate. For all the time spent bombarded by useless and trivial public displays of bullshit, I’d much rather be exposed to the private profundities of unknown poets and philosophers and musicians. What is our responsibility to this fragment of our culture? Or asked in a different way: What is our business or isn’t? What should be our business and isn’t?

A friend of mine recently related a story that deeply resonated. He recounted an experience on his commuter train, wherein the woman sitting next to him subjected everyone in the vicinity to a deafening cell phone conversation. After listening ad nauseum for about half an hour, he politely asked her if it was possible to speak more softly. She looked at him in utter amazement and told him to mind his own business. Rather than take it on the chin, he stood up, and asked everyone sitting around them if anyone else might be bothered by her loud and outlandish banter. Every single person raised their hand. The woman angrily—and noisily—hung up and hurried to another car. The remaining passengers applauded and quietly continued their commute. And in my perfect world, they were all happily reading poetry.


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