Why proximity matters

Filed under: Contributed Column,Opinion,Print | Tags:

In the Digital Age our reach is global, but our expertise is local. We have access to information from around the world, but we really know only what’s around us. We know whose coffee is best, and the bartender who fills your wine glass more than anyone else. This local knowledge is tacit; we may not even realize it unless asked by others.

This is true for coffee and wine, as well as for economic and political issues. The price of corn futures may be up at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but it rings true when drought conditions fan the fires of Colorado rather than the fields of the Midwest.

We hear of the banking industry, but only when we try to get a loan from the local branch and are turned down — even for a great idea that would add much needed jobs to the local economy — do we appreciate the great fraud: claim disaster, threaten to collapse, ensure we believe you are too big to fail, divine the ripple effects of your demise, and collect billions in interest-free support to maintain profitability.

Large bank profits are up, ours are down. Equilibrium is restored once again to the great capitalist marketplace where the Invisible Hand rules and the laws of supply and demand regulate prices. The Invisible Hand has been replaced by a Visible Grease that oils the wheels of commerce for the largest banks at the expense of other, worthwhile small businesses who could use some grease, visible or not.

The same goes for social and moral questions when they hit close to home. It’s one thing to argue about the merits of capital punishment, and quite another when your daughter is raped. I have asked many fathers over the years what they’d do, and even the most bleeding-heart liberals turned vicious: I’d kill him, they admit. The faint-hearted said they’d hire someone else to do the job. Proximity matters!

When it comes to political shenanigans, we remain even more in the dark, not knowing which “Hand” is doing what. It’s all happening far away in the corridors of Washington buildings or the many bars and restaurants reserved for the elite, the lobbyists. Distance makes a big difference.

Having returned from the Middle East where three hot spots remain the focus of the international media, it became clear how much proximity matters. Visiting a friend some 10 miles from the Syrian border, you can appreciate how close everything is, how refugees cross borders to safety in Turkey, Jordan and Israel (primarily Druze), hoping to escape the cruelty of Assad’s minions.

Iran is also not that far off when you see Israeli citizens given gas masks and instructions about how to use fortified underground parking garages as shelters from nuclear or chemical bombs. Yes, it’s only a possibility, and yes, even when one in 300 bombs has a nuclear head, the probability of being able to spot the nuclear one as opposed to the other 299 is small and terrifying.

To the south, where the border with Egypt is only an hour’s drive from the pristine Mediterranean sandy beaches, where the water right now is as warm and inviting as a bathtub, any altercation is frightening as well. Are the multinational force and observers sufficient deterrent for any border crossing? Is the Sinai safe from terrorist activities?

From Colorado, the Middle East is far away. It’s like the photojournalistic reminders we got from Iraq and still now from Afghanistan. For those who live in Israel, geo-political maneuvering means life or death, a real threat to one’s survival.

Living under survival conditions, one’s thinking gets twisted. Everything is contextualized in war terms. Some listen to the hourly news obsessively, trying to glean any new morsel of information; they read newspapers daily and listen to TV newscasts nightly.

Others ignore all news media, not as if they were ostriches burying their heads in the sand, as someone explained herself, but as a way to remain calm and not clutter her mind with anxiety. This is as good a coping mechanism as one can muster under these circumstances.

The rest of Israel finds itself somewhere in the middle: listening and caring, worrying and shrugging shoulders. What can we do, they ask fatalistically. If the war comes, we’ll deal with it then. The inevitability of yet another war in the region is palpable; you see it on people’s faces.

Perhaps this is why they drive like crazy, fill all the restaurants nightly, and make passionate love whenever they can.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS who served in the IDF. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com See previous articles at sassower.blogspot.com