Bedbugs and Bullying

In his column for the October 18 issue of Time magazine, an amusing meditation on his wife’s paranoia about bedbugs, Joel Stein describes New York City as “the international capital of bedbugs: “Cassandra has been trying to find a way to trick my father and his wife — who are not only traveling from New York City the international capital of bedbugs, but also staying at two hotels before visiting us.”

The aim of the piece is to make light of his wife’s fear of the critters, and to argue that “hypervigilance is weakness” and that “the greatest control comes from deciding not to control.” The column ends with the suggestion that Cassandra’s fear simply gives her an excuse “not [to] travel, got to our friends’ parties or have visitors stay over” — which turn out to be “the things that Cassandra hates to do anyway.”

But, Joel, I’m wondering if you’ve thought about your wife’s namesake from the annals of Greek epic, the Trojan princess who had been given the gift of prophecy and the curse of never being believed. She always foresaw doom — and she was pretty much always right. Just saying.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the same issue of Time, there are two discussions of incivility in public discourse in the United States. In the cover article, “An American Journey,” Joe Klein reveals what he discovered during a 24-day road trip across the country about the concerns of ordinary Americans on the even of the midterm elections. Americans turn out to be worried about “the incivility of public discourse” and about “the loss of jobs to China” — and angry about the fact that the financial community “has made a killing off the death of American manufacturing.” Also in the issue is a disturbing piece about the four teenagers in different parts of the country who committed suicide recently after being bullied in large part because of their sexuality.

Throw the various forms of U.S. imperialism that characterized the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, and it’s hard not to think that we are reaping what we’ve sown: we’re a nation of bullies who have produced a public discourse that is impoverished at best and all too often characterized by bullying of one form or another.

Which is why Spike Lee’s film Do the Right Thing, which I read as an indictment not only of racism and economic inequality but of the fact that the incivility of our public discourse has deprived us of the tools with which to combat racism and economic inequality, will remain on the Writing New York syllabus this spring.

If only we were as vigilant — and freaked out — about the state of our public discourse as we were about annoyances like bedbugs …