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Meeting the 21st Century 

We love meetings in this country. On any given day there are hundreds of meetings unfolding in every city. Professionals meet to exchange ideas, hobbyists meet to trade items, companies meet to unveil products, scholars meet to present papers, even criminals meet to share the latest in cracking safes. Some of these meetings come with entertainment and fanfare, others are sober-minded, and some are secret. Members elect their officials, pass on priceless gossip, and make career moves. Meetings are one of the great pleasures of American democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, because they allow the citizens of this huge continent to break momentarily out of isolation and reassure one another of the worth of their endeavors.

And then there are meetings of crisis, "meditations in an emergency," as the poet Frank O'Hara called the need to think fast. These are meetings of citizens who must decide the fate of people and places. Hurricane Katrina spawned meetings all over the country to discuss everything from exile, diaspora, engineering, race, architecture and culture. These themes, though born of Katrina, are recognizable also as the major themes of the 20th century. The re-emergence of these questions marks the end of the 20th century and puts us squarely into the 21st. We must no longer meet as we did in the 20th century. We must make of our meetings more than the blah-blah that made most conferences in the past so pleasantly ineffective.

I've now been to enough meetings in both centuries to know that they are a good thing, and I've sat on enough panels to know that they are sometimes useful. The meetings I attend are, for the most part, occasions for scholarly or poetic speculation on the state of our minds in unique historical circumstances. Hurricane Katrina is one of those perfect clusters of real questions that can spin easily into the most abstract concerns. The Storm changed a city and put the whole idea of cities under scrutiny. The real questions will take years and money to answer: Are we going to have safe levees? What will happen to the poor? What will the city look like? The abstract questions are no less vexing: What is a city? What is culture? Whose money talks? What (except money) talks? And then there is the underlying question: How do we talk about all this in a new century to try to make it matter?

I have two solutions:

1. Reverse every seemingly obvious relation of power. Instead of top-to-bottom thinking, reformulate the questions from the point of view of the poor and the powerless. This reversal of perspective will free great creative forces, because people without money have great imagination. People with money just want to go back to business as usual and are full of fear. Let the fearless and the penniless decide. In a true democracy, that would be the case, but in our mediated world of advertising, true democracy is rare. Let the poor decide: This is Jesus' way, not the American way. And it's the 21st century.

2. Never end a panel without forming a post-panel working group that will meet regularly and try to get things done. A panel should be like a group marriage -- once hitched, the panelists should be obliged to keep on relating. This, of course, is not the American way either. But it's the 21st century.

Andrei Codrescu's new book is New Orleans, Mon Amour: Twenty Years of Writing From the City.

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