Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The "Empire of Consumption"

I saw Chris Hedges speak last night and the "empire of consumption" was the phrase he used to refer to what this society has become.Was it always this apparent or have things changed drastically? The commercialization of society has never seemed more obvious and obnoxious than it is today. He observes that it is a progression that has happened over time.But this out-of control growth was years in the making and, like any malignant tumor, it will destroy the host organism.

Of course, for many years the Gay Pride Parade has been used as a vehicle for advertising, some of its biggest sponsors being alcohol companies. This is not subtle irony. The fact that alcoholism is a big problem in the LGBT community only makes the strategy more blatant and obscene. What a fertile field for new consumers! And what a sad commentary on queer liberation for those of us who remember the early marches to the aptly named, Marx Meadow in Golden Gate Park.

Materialism and privatization are the mantras of the 21st century. An Ayn Rand-style, libertarian world is barreling down upon us inch by inch. It is one where the corporations and the 1% are in the driver's seat and the rest of us are under the wheels. No sector is immune. The final steps involve the destruction of labor unions so that workers are easily exploitable, cheap and plentiful. The education system is being replaced by a network of charter schools where teachers are expendable and students, taught to perform like trained seals on exams but not to employ critical thinking skills, must pay to attend. Libraries, hospitals, the postal service and prisons are all being targeted for privatization in the new survival of the wealthiest economy.

Chain stores and chain restaurants are rapidly replacing the mom 'n pop genre. The internet provides competition for almost every market excepting only those like food, medical care and hairdressing. The trades that require the physical presence of our bodies. Everything else is up for grabs. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Is Resentment of Privilege Inevitable?

Where the Rubber
Hits the Road
Now that our society seems to have fully incorporated the one percent/ninety-nine percent concept into our socioeconomic discourse, right-wing conservatives are busy impugning that all this negative attention the one percent are receiving is simply the jealousy and resentment of the "deservedly" unsuccessful, or less successful, underclass.

With all their money behind them, they are getting some traction with this approach. As for myself, in my sixth decade, I am trying to make peace with my life decisions, opportunities and lack thereof. Lately I've been thinking a lot about whether or not my political positions are motivated by these types of unsavory and destructive emotions.

Just this past Friday, my partner and I went to see a couple of films at the San Francisco LGBT Film Festival that were on the subject of specific lesbians of our generation who achieved recognition in progressive politics. One film was about Charlotte Bunch who started out in the seventies as a lesbian feminist activist and wound up a career academic (without advanced degrees) who worked with international organizations advancing women's rights in mostly third world settings.

The second film was about Ellen Ratner, someone whose work I was not familiar with. She is a liberal radio broadcaster (she claims the only one) for the rabidly conservative Fox network. Ratner is my age and actually attended the same junior high and high school that I did although I never spoke with her. She inhabited a wealthy world that did not intersect with mine in any way (neighborhood, friendship circles, activities, interests).

This documentary, "Ellen Ratner: "A Force of Nature," was produced by Barbara Kopple filmmaker of "Harlan County, USA," the award-winning chronicle of a coal miners' strike in a rural Appalachian town. Clearly, this film was a challenge for Koppel. Unlike the Kentucky coal miners, Ratner is an heiress from a real estate dynasty. (this information is from other research, it is not in the film). I understand that in these times particularly, depicting an eccentric, essentially kind-hearted, but massively privileged, liberal who made good is not easy. None of her homes or living arrangements were shown. The segment of Ratner, a boss in her workplace, trying to get a black woman underling to say she liked Ellen as a person, made me cringe. But more safely, Koppel filmed Ratner almost exclusively on a philanthropic mission in Africa. The only outright allusion to the wealth of her family was the fact that she bought her wife, a former Air Force pilot, her own airplane as a gift. It was a sweet gesture but certainly not one that many other folks could duplicate.

So am I resentful of people, even those who are speaking up for lesbian rights, who have benefitted from so much more opportunity and privilege? And, if I am, is that wrong? I am aware that when I am feeling good about myself and my life, my negative feelings toward others disappear. As a nominal Buddhist, I know not only that those feelings are counterproductive, but also that having access to money and things doesn't necessarily make a person happy. On the other hand,  not having any access, i.e.: living on the street and starving, can truly make a person miserable. To some degree, I also believe, even though this sounds really corny, that experiencing struggle tends to build character and resourcefulness.

I do often wonder who I would have been and what I could have done if I'd come from a background where financial stress did not play such a starring role. But truly, that's as hard to imagine as who I'd be if I'd been born African-American, straight or even gentile. I'm not sure of what that person would have been like, only that she (or he) would have been someone else.

So, do I covet Ellen Ratner's cushy life and experience? Absolutely not! Do I resent people who have had access to more power, privilege and opportunity? Well, not in theory, but my honest final answer would have to be that it depends on which moment you ask me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Friend Selection: Do I Know Too Many Jews?

Birds of a Feather?
I have been thinking a lot lately about the process of selecting friends. I don't know if I'm good at it, I think for the large part, I let them select me. Still, when I view them as a group there are some common themes. Yes, I do know a lot of Jews, tons of childless people, a good number of queers and an overwhelming amount of civil-service workers. Throw in a handful of starving artists as well. Almost all of my friends seem to be from lower middle class or working class families, who have backgrounds somewhat similar to mine.

Obviously, I never set out with a set of guidelines for friends, the results just evolved. It all seems random like it just happened. Friendship, like lovership is surrounded by an aura, a mystique. But clearly, the people we gather around us are folks we are drawn to for a myriad of reasons.

The Jewish dynamic can be a bit unsettling. I grew up in a neighborhood near Cleveland that was about 85% Jewish. This did not evolve through cliquishness, but was a natural consequence of "gentleman's agreements" that limited the places Jews were permitted to live. I despised the insular nature of this singular, ethnic community and couldn't wait for the time when I would try my luck in the, reputedly quite Anti-Semitic world. So why, in adulthood, do I return to my roots so often in the friendship realm?

The Jews who made up my world left deep marks on my psyche. Not just because of history and sad tales of persecution but due to cultural styles, modes of expression, ways of looking at life and both interpreting and expressing it to others. In later life, I was forced to come to the conclusion that, in spite of my best efforts, I am a terminal Jew. People of all ethnicities who appreciate my humor, my observations, my glass half-empty perspective gravitate towards me. Those who find it annoying, overly analytical or too negative head for the door.

Oppression has a language all its own. It's not a upbeat idiom but we learn it by heart when we are young.The more oppressed people are the thornier and more difficult they tend to be. Not because they are inherently inferior, but because they are more damaged. I don't think this is, in and of itself, a bad thing. Would you choose to eat bland food at every meal? Many Americans do.

The upside to a heritage of oppression is that we need each other more. This explanation applies to differences in gender orientation and socioeconomic class as well. The class thing is especially difficult to sort out. I tend to experience more working class people as more open, less what we used to call, snotty. When I worked at the San Francisco Water Department I would get into conversations about everything from laundry detergent to unrequited love.The topics were not necessarily deeply introspective but there was a free-flowing exchange of information that was not coated with suspicion and trepidation.

At the Main Library, people with master's degrees were circumspect. You were expected to keep your mouth shut and climb, baby, climb. In the striving class, to expose yourself is to give weapons to the potential enemy. The "appropriate" subjects of conversation are based upon work. Unless you found someone you could really trust you did not talk about real life experience. I found the walls that co-workers intentionally placed between one another jarring and upsetting. I was never acceptable in the upper middle-class world that I had worked so diligently to enter. My role was that of the square peg being relentlessly hammered into a round hole. Fortunately for me, those corners never got shaved off or worn down. I must be made of harder material than I'd previously imagined!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The World on Tuesdays

Things happen every day in the world that working people know nothing about. For example, now that I have been retired a couple of weeks I've discovered that my town, Berkeley, has a big farmer's market on Tuesday afternoons. Seventeen years of missed Tuesdays, can I really account for that? Clearly, many folks fill cafes and stores every week day. They must be either unemployed or work odd hours.

Tuesdays are full of other wonders as well. Elections invariably take place on them. Yesterday was an example of this phenomenon. The despicable Scott Walker won out easily over the recall efforts thereby demonstrating the devastating impact of Citizens United and just what money can purchase in our increasingly no-holds barred plutocratic society. The corporations and the 1% outspent the now-decimated unions and progressive groups seven to one. The senate Republicans also managed to block the Paycheck Fairness Act a followup bill to the Lily Ledbetter legislation that would mandate equal pay for women.

It's hard to know what will come next. The repression against the 99% has been largely successful. There seems to be only a small percentage of Americans who are capable of independent thought. The splintering of the various subgroups and caucuses is evident to those of us who are still active. Old prejudices keep rearing their ugly heads. I have every intention to keep on keepin' on but, as you can probably deduce, I am quite depressed at this juncture.

On another subject,  retirement is solidifying as a reality for me now. Sunday, the Emu, better known as my somewhat domesticated partner Deborah, threw me a retirement party with fabulous cuisine and even more fabulous friends. Thirty-two people of all genders and orientations filled the tiny cottage and yard. The one thing they all have in common is that they live large, not in the sense of consuming material goods, but in the sense that they all have hearts and minds that stretch far beyond the limits of a circumscribed life that revolves around the nuclear family. The second thing they all had in common was that they are my friends, a simple fact that makes me eternally grateful. I want to thank all of them for their warm wishes and support!