Street Smarts

May 16 - Real quick: I forgot to mention that the Calcumulator—the all-purpose moronic metric converter— is now available for download. It's on the front page of the site, but you can also just click here. More little goodies will follow on a characteristically sporadic schedule.

(I hosed the thing off with my anti-virus software when I uploaded it, but who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of web-crawling villains... you should probably hose it off yourself after you download it if you don't have anti-virus software that does that kind of thing automatically.)

* * *

I've been wanting to talk about the European street for a while. Unfortunately I couldn't find it, so I've decided to talk about the way we've been talking about streets.

After 9/11, the "Arab street" was all the rage—literally—and as time went by we began hearing about the European street, the American street, and so on. Like so much of our public discourse, I figured this was just euphemistic blather, a popular catch-phrase that would die a quick and unremarkable death.

I was wrong, so here's my attempt at driving a stake through its heart.

The main problem seems to be that nobody's got a decent definition of "the street." I know we're not talking about actual streets, avenues, boulevards, or even lanes. I also know what it means to call someone street smart, but I don't think anyone means to imply "the street" is the one that makes people smart.

I'm assuming it's supposed to mean something like "popular opinion," except that we already have a word for that (ie, "popular opinion") and popular opinion in the Arab world has a tricky habit of keeping itself hidden from view, usually because stating it out loud would be grounds for imprisonment, beheading, tongue removal, or the punitive rape of a beloved child.

It could mean "the general mood you get from people walking down the street." This would make sense if we were hearing things like, "the Arab street is angry," or "the European street is sad." But these streets are attributed all sorts of complex ideas. Could you walk down the streets of your own town and get a feel for the "mood" on irradiated food, say, or the sixth amendment?

Well, you could if there were people posting signs and waving banners and shouting about irradiated food—but that wouldn't be the mood of your street, it would be the mood of the activists on your street.

Even if you could accurately identify the mood of any given street, which street would you use to calibrate your readings? While I was in London I attended a meeting on Chiswell Street in the financial district, where French jokes were the order of the day. But when I went book-browsing at the stalls on Portobello Road, you couldn't escape the antiwar posters and graffiti. Which London street was "the" London street?

Is it a class thing—the suites versus the streets, as Curtis Sliwa might say? And if so, is it right to compare the sentiments of the American middle-class to the Arab lower class and the European working class? And if it is, how do we define those classes? Income? Education? Affinity for opera?

Phrases like "the Arab street" and "the American street" mean about as much as phrases like "these guys I know in Decatur." Less, actually, because at least in the latter example the group in question is more narrowly defined.

Wissam S. Yafi, writing in the English-language version of the Aljazeerah website yesterday, put it this way: "does anyone in the Arab world truly know what the Arab street wants?" I'd phrase the question differently: "does anyone in the world truly know what the Arab street is?"

I honestly don't think so.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to the Danish street...

* * *

On May 16, 1763, James Boswell first met Samuel Johnson in Tom Davie's London bookshop. Due to the lax stalking laws of the period, Mr. Boswell followed Mr. Johnson around for several decades. On May 19, 1795, Mr. Boswell died. (This could not have come a relief to Mr. Johnson, who had already been dead for some time and was probably relishing the privacy.)

Frank Capra was born on May 18, 1897, and Jimmy Stewart was born on May 20, 1908. Without them we would not have had such American classics as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Smith Goes Back to Washington," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Again," "Mr. Smith Is Still in Washington," "Mr. Smith Feels Your Pain," "Mr. Smith is Really Very Serious about Term Limits," and, "Mr. Smith Drops Dead in Senate Chamber."

The duo also gave us "It's a Wonderful Life" with its own magnificent sequels: "It's a Really Wonderful Life," "It Just Doesn't Get Any Better Than Life," and "Life Is Just So Damn Good I Don't Know Whether to Shit or Go Blind."

Janet Jackson turns 37 on the 16th. She shares her birthday with Debra Winger (1955), Liberace (1919), Studs Terkel (1912), Henry Fonda (1905), and William Seward (1801).

The 17th is Sugar Ray Leonard's 47th birthday, and also marks the birthdays of Dennis Hopper (1936), Maureen O'Sullivan (1911), and Ayatollah Khomeini (1900).

Besides Frank Capra, the 18th is also the birthday of Chow Yun-Fat (1955), Reggie Jackson (1946), Pope John Paul II (1920), Perry Como (1912), and Walter Gropius (1883).

May 16 is International Pickle Day! The 7th is Constitution Day in Norway and Nauru (no relation), as well as Gaza Liberation Day in Palestine. The 18th is Flag and University Day in Haiti, Social Development Day in Niger, St. Erik's Day in Sweden, Las Piedras Day in Uruguay, and the Pope's Birthday in Vatican City.

Enjoy the weekend.

2002, The Moron's Almanac™

[close window]
[Daily Briefing Archive]