Blackout Blues

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There are those, both outside this country and inside, who delighted in the nation's two-day partial blackout. I'm not referring to terrorists and such, who are most likely jealous that something accidental managed to cause this disruption before they could.

I'm referring to those who, like activist-actress Susan Sarandon (search) explaining Sept. 11 to her children as, "We've just joined the rest of the world," have been saying that now Americans have a taste of what life is like in the Third World, as one Nairobi man did when he told Reuters: "America, welcome to Kenya. See what we go through."

A suit walking in front of me on last Thursday's mobbed uptown trek home to the Upper East Side said as much when he told his walk-mate: "Now we know how they feel in Iraq . They haven't had electricity there for six months, and this is just four hours." (Why, instead of Iraq, didn't he cite Cuba, where electricity is a novelty and hot water is for tourists, and whose salsa street life is romanticized as carefree when the reason Cubans stay outside is there's no air conditioning inside?)

Likewise, when I saw the photo images of working professionals sleeping on the steps of the public library, I could already hear the chorus in my head. ("This blackout is good because it gives affluent, complacent Americans a taste of what it's like to be homeless (search).")

This kind of talk has the ring of familiarity. Just like the seeming vindication of the guilt-ridden American prototype over last week's blackouts and over terrorism hitting home two years earlier, the weak Carter economy also was once cause for celebration among those uncomfortable with American supremacy. At the time they, like Jimmy Carter (search) himself, threw their arms up and said, "Americans will just have to make do with less, like everyone else."

Yet the ubiquitous chorus has maintained some conspicuous silence in comparable situations. It stayed away during California's 2001 rolling blackouts, perhaps because those were the result of price-control policies and power plant shortages caused by environmental regulations -- two things that fit into an overall agenda of making us look a little more like the "rest of the world."

The self-righteous vindication was also missing in 1993, after the first World Trade Center attack. Waiting until Sept. 11 to assess the United States as having joined the rest of the world indicates that too few Americans died in the '93 attack to satisfy a Sarandon mindset. Nor do all the successfully averted attacks prior to Sept. 11, including a plot to blow up New York subways in 1997 and another eyeing bridges and tunnels on New Year's Eve 1999, seem to count as Americans being targeted. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing (search) didn't elicit the infamous response either, even though the Timothy McVeigh terror attack is more similar than Sept. 11 to the homegrown terrorism that the rest of the world most often contends with.

So what we have are people who gloat when terrorism against Americans fits into a class warfare model of haves versus have-nots; who regret that Americans don't experience blackouts more regularly; who are agitated that working avoids homelessness; who are frustrated that our intelligence apparatus isn't less effective; and who sneer at the durability and resilience of the American economy.

Because anything that makes us look, even for two days, a little more like the Third World is good news for those who want to see the U.S. knocked down from its superpower post, and who ask, "Why should America be Number One?"

But to the collective voice that every time howls "Now Americans know what it's like ...," the favor should be returned with the suggestion that the Third World (search) try finding out what life is like in the First World -- by taking time out to build something, sustain it and learn a way of life in which everyday transactions don't involve stealing from, bribing and killing one another -- in short, learning what it takes to run the most complex economic and political system in the world -- where a two-day blackout makes international headlines.

Julia Gorin is the author of the newly released The Buddy Chronicles, available through

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