Swinging Again

“A few of the images may be familiar from other documentaries: deputies prodding King and Abernathy onto the pavement with batons, probably in Selma; a black man shoved up against a wall in Watts in 1965 gets in a blow at a surprised cop and is answered by three or four wildly swinging batons; they are swinging again in 1992, beating Rodney King, and not just for a few seconds of video either,” writes Darryl Pinckney in The New York Times Book Review, describing Raoul Peck’s film I Am Not Your Negro.

Familiar images, yes, but the phrase that sticks with me here is swinging again. Every day, it seems, people are swinging again, almost always at those who don’t deserve it. Despicable. Unconscionable. Yet written, yet scripted, by nefarious forces. By the ones in charge.

Writers are not exactly in charge. You don’t really decide what you write, George Saunders tells us in the Guardian. Something just occurs to you, so you try it: “He just liked it better that way, for reasons he couldn’t articulate, and before he’d had the time or inclination to articulate them.”

This is not what is happening when people are swinging again. It did not innately occur to them, could never occur to anyone but the most mentally deranged, to suddenly swing at, swing again at, shoot at, to kill, another person for no reason at all. It does occur, often, to someone else, someone powerful, that they should get others to swing for them, to keep up their dominance.

We are taught to swing. And because we are taught, we must un-learn and un-teach. Anytime we hear about a swing, we need to say: that makes no sense. There is no reason to swing at that person. That person has not done anything bad or harmful. That person is (or was, in the worst cases, of which there are so many) okay.

Instead of un-teaching us to swing, the current administration incites us to swing again and again, always on its behalf, never on our own. VOICE is a sadly apt name for a committee to investigate crimes committed by immigrants. Despite ample evidence that immigration is good for the economy and immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than those who are already here, VOICE will investigate immigrants alone. In so doing, it will not make us safer in any way. It will not catch or prosecute the most dangerous criminals of all: the ones in charge. Instead, it will continue to give voice to the notion that we should swing against people who help us, to call the police about someone eating a burrito, as long as those people look “different” from “us.”

Pinckney mentions, also, images of “German children wearing Nazi flags” in Peck’s film. Those children did not ask to wave those flags, most likely, or if they did, it was to be like their parents, who were waving them too.

Saunders writes, “The artist… is like the optometrist, always asking: Is it better like this? Or like this?” One or two. Three or four. Flag or no.

Let us be artists. Let us ask ourselves: is it really better like this, with one group of people asking others to swing again and again against all the rest? Couldn’t it occur to us not to swing at all?

Saunders deems the idea that writers affect readers “a hopeful notion, because it implies that our minds are built on common architecture – that whatever is present in me might also be present in you.” Let us hope this; let us not swing at ourselves.

Futureminded 10: Spotlight. Arrow. Cross.

So it’s been one week. In that week, I’ve watched Spotlight for the first time. Read about the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Catholic Nazis who killed Jews in WWII and attained 29 Parliamentary seats through voter suppression!) in Susan Faludi’s book about her father’s gender transition. Watched Noam Chomsky’s Requiem for the American Dream. Oh, and I went to that march thing, but so did you, probs.

A few lessons have emerged from these media experiences (more so than from the actual march, perhaps). The most clear to me: abuse of power requires complicity. The Catholic Church (and its many –goers) didn’t just “look the other way” when it learned about its priests abusing young churchgoers. The Church actively went after victims and their families and pressured or paid them to keep quiet. It made legal settlements off the books and pressured (and paid) the lawyers to keep quiet. And the priests themselves didn’t just abuse young people, they actively decided to prey on the most vulnerable (and least likely to talk): kids whose parents had died, who were poor, who depended on the church for financial and psychological well-being. They made the kids dependent on them, they made the kids trust them, and they relied on the kids’ fear and shame making them complicit.

I don’t think that a calculated system of abuse and suppression is exactly what Jesus had in mind when he said when you did it to the least one of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me.

But, you know, it worked. The Catholic Church actively and intentionally sustained a system of child sexual abuse and kept it under wraps for decades (if not far longer before that). You know why the church was able to do that? Because it wasn’t just one person who bowed to power and kept the secret. The system worked because they all did. Because they were all too tempted by the money or scared of the Church’s power to do much. Because when people went to the press, the press ignored them. It took a lot of people saying no to the pressure to break through. Yet together, all of the people involved could have overthrown the Church and stopped the pattern of abuse much earlier, before it reached more children. But they didn’t.

It’s a similar situation for the Arrow Cross, one of many fascist groups in Europe during WWII. It wasn’t just that Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews. It was that of thousands of other people followed his lead and carried out his orders. And thousands more people stayed silent about all of it for too long. So long that six million people died.

Same for a lot of shit before and between all that horror. The destruction of labor unions, the replacement of manufacturing (of, like, real things!) with finance (moving around numbers on a screen). In his documentary, Chomsky shows us how the complete concentration of wealth and power requires only ten simple steps, and illustrates just how far along we are with all of them:

  1. Reduce democracy.
  2. Shape ideology.
  3. Redesign the economy.
  4. Shift the burden.
  5. Attack solidarity.
  6. Run the regulators.
  7. Engineer elections. (ahem)
  8. Keep the rabble in line.
  9. Manufacture consent.
  10. Marginalize the population.

(David Swanson proposes adding 11. Dump massive funding into militarism and shit, that’s an obvious one too.)

So, we’re there, I think. We’re reduced, marginalized, shaped, redesigned, burdened, isolated, deregulated, engineered, in line, consenting, marginalized (and, of course, militarized). To a large degree, most of these things are true of most of us.

But we are also, increasingly, one key thing: aware. We’re aware of the bad things that have happened, and are happening. We’re aware that our complacency let the powerful seize too much wealth, too much power. We may not be able to stop it. It may be too late. But we may be finally ready, at least, to try.

Millions of people are being extremely vocal about their opposition to Trump, and that’s a good thing. A great thing (make America, for real, etc). Far better than covering it up, slinking into the shadows, staying mum. We’re loudly exposing Trump’s hypocrisy and lies, and we will need to continue to do so for 1400-odd more days or until impeachment. (That’s going to take a lot of motivation. But we have it.)

But. The but. But what else will we do? Will we boycott? Divest? Act? Run for office? Sustain? March, more than once a month/year? Me, I wanted to go to a protest against DAPL and KXL tonight. I didn’t go. I was tired after work(ing all day for a capitalist corporation upholding the profit imperative!!! ugggh). I wanted to go for a run and eat dinner. I wanted to be a normal person.

Many others protested. Thousands of them. I thank and respect these people. I saw the pictures; everyone looked beautiful and noble and just and right. But I wasn’t there, and I should have been. All of us should have been. Because now is not normal and may never be again. And I have the privilege of acting like it’s normal, but many others do not. So yes, I am disappointed in myself, and yet: I didn’t go.

Will I go next time?

This is our biggest danger: of running out of steam. This is how they do it: keep the good folks down. They use the power to tire us. They keep us running in circles. They manufacture us, they marginalize us. They hold on to our money and take more. They make us work, get us too tired to protest (keep the rabble in line; manufacture consent). They get us hoarse with phone calls to representatives and numb to pushing speed dial.

But I hope and think we’ll persist. I hope we’ll keep the spotlight on Trump’s lies and hate. We’ll keep our arrows pointed forward, continue pointing out injustice. We’ll cross new victories off our list (yeah, I know it’s weird that I’ve used “arrow cross” of all things as part of my list of progressive things to do? but bear with me). We’ll keep going. And we won’t be complicit. Because otherwise, we’ll all be dead.

Futureminded 9: Recognized

I recently read Melissa Harris Perry’s Sister Citizen, which is a deep study in data and social analysis that introduced me to many new and important concepts. The one that struck me the most deeply and I’d previously thought about the least (even though it makes striking sense) is the concept of recognition. It hit me because I know that as a blonde, straight, cisgender, white, employed, married, two-straight-and-still-married-parented, car-driving, cheese-eating, book-reading, two-eyed, sighted, able-bodied / four-limbed, medium-sized dog-having, money-investing, Facebook-surfing, liberal, internet-having, cell-phone-holding, college-degreed, bank-account-equipped (but not-yet-mortgage-holding) person, I am fully recognized.

All of the things I am or am perceived to be (whatever I really am, and I don’t always know this) make some kind of sense to most people, fall in some kind of category, and are recognized as “normal” (whatever that means). I don’t live on the street, I am not trans, I don’t keep money under my mattress (at least not on purpose), I’ve never lost a child, I look approximately how I’m “supposed” to (according to “society”), I’ve never been fired, I’ve never been on welfare or school lunch, I drive a car, I’ve never been arrested (a clear activist shortcoming), if I were arrested I (or my family) could make bail, Facebook doesn’t harass me about my gender orientation or real name, and on and on and on. I am seen, I am acknowledged, I may be at times overlooked, but I am not, generally, unrecognized:

un·rec·og·nized ˌənˈrekəɡˌnīzd/ adjective

not identified from previous encounters or knowledge.

not acknowledged as valuable or valid.

The things that I am or appear to be make sense to people and, for the most part, to myself. Is that right? Wrong? I’m not sure. But I can now see that in my knapsack, I carry recognition.

I also recently read The North Water by Ian McGuire. In some ways, even though this book is about (straight-ish, white, employed, etc) men on a whaling ship, something few of us are now “familiar” with, it’s still more “familiar” or “recognized” than a book about, say, the young black male experience in “the inner city” (wherever that is!) might feel to some readers (Moonlight vs The North Water? I am glad for both to be popular). Whaling, despite its utter obsolescence, still resonates as a Somehow Important Part of Our Past We Should Know About Because Moby Dick and Stuff, so a book about it seems relevant. Whaling is “recognized” as historic (while inner-city [and other] black folks, despite suffering historic injustice, remain largely unrecognized).

Anyway, it’s a gripping book, fraught with a tension-driven plot, curiously beguiling descriptions of the arctic landscape and whaling ship life, such as the following:

“The whirl and caw of the gulls, the creak of cartwheels, laughter, cursing, all of it, the crude harmonics of the night, coming together, like a primitive symphony. After opium, this is what he likes best: these smells, sounds, and visions, the crush and clamor of their temporary beauty. Everywhere a sudden alertness that the ordinary world lacks, a sudden thrust and vigor.”

One of McGuire’s clever observations in the novel that “to be nothing is also, looked at from a different angle, to be anything at all.” Not being recognized means you’re no one, but also that you could be anyone. It’s an oversight but also, possibly, an opportunity. Perhaps it’s merely an empty pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sentiment: “Not recognized? GET recognized!” Or perhaps it’s an opportunity for the unrecognized to create themselves in some way.

I feel this way often: that I have only one person to be. That I am not creating myself. That I will keep on being various forms of “recognized” default: straight, white, cisgender, employed, married; driving a car (despite guilt and aversion); having a bank account; feeding the dog; whatever. Do these banalities define me? Are they invisible, incidental, so normal they merit no remark? Do I merit no remark, merely being seen, recognized, and moved on from, like a lamppost or a tree?

“You are free, therefore choose — that is to say, invent,” says Sartre. In being recognized I am also free to accept that recognition or create my own. Recognition, if nothing else, is a foundation for me to build on. When Harris Perry quotes Donna Kate Ruskin’s “The Bridge Poem,” where she says: “I’ve got to explain myself / To everybody,” she is also recognizing that some people (like me) don’t have to explain anything to be recognized. That’s a privilege. That’s a responsibility to let others explain, or let them be without explaining. “Individuals become who they are as a result of being seen,” Harris Perry writes. I may not always recognize. But I can at least see. And, in being seen, perhaps someone becomes more free to be who they are.

Futureminded 8: Progress

“Make America great again” is a (vomit-inducing, for some; cheer-inducing, for others; satire-inviting, for the cleverest) refrain that we know to be false: America is already great, or better than it’s been for most of its history, for most of its people. The economy is doing fairly well, unemployment is down and most people feel economically better off on a personal level (on a country level, results are, somewhat inexplicably or at least illogically, different).

So that’s why a President-elect should personally manage (and nearly live-tweet) an offer to pay $7 million for one company to keep 1,000 jobs in (his Vice President–elect’s state in) America, right? Is that how we’ll Make Us Great Again?

Well, probably not. An article in the New York Times points out, a hands-on approach might work for a paltry few-thousand-employee, multi-million-dollar company (ugh, yawn), but not for a country with hundreds of millions of (mostly working) people and a multi-trillion-dollar GDP. “Mr. Trump’s deal-cutting approach is wholly inadequate — and impractical — in view of the size of the American labor market. While the workers at Carrier benefited from Mr. Trump’s attention, the problem is that this approach doesn’t scale,” notes economist (economists, what are those? we prefer bankers with scarcely so much as a BA) Justin Wolfers with the Good (?) Hair.

In less than 100 years, the jobs we hold have transformed from mostly farm laborers, farmers, operative and kindred (whatever that is: it appears to be machine operators mostly, form what I can tell), general laborers to mostly professional, clerical and managerial. That’s an almost complete shift, that happened rather fast. Even in the last 10 years, jobs have changed a lot. Could your parents have majored in data science or even computer science? Unless you’re quite young, probably not. Hell, my school didn’t even offer a computer science major until very recently.

The point being: jobs change. Jobs churn, as our economist (like a real one! with a degree?) said. We can’t strongarm or stupidarm our way back into the economy of 50 years ago (even if we can proudly wave those same prejudices). We can’t have our executive branch spend time and hundreds of thousands to bring back jobs by the thousands. We need to invest in new industries.

Technologist Om Malik is right that “Globalization is a proxy for technology-powered capitalism, which tends to reward fewer and fewer members of society.” But we can’t stop the progress of technology. We need to figure out way for it to reward everyone. Whether that’s Jaron Lanier’s radical idea of micropayments to Facebook and Google users whose data has made these companies and some of their employees (but not, like, the food service ones, of course) incredibly rich, more service jobs in areas where tech jobs take off or something else: it needs to happen fast, and it’s not going to look like $7 million payouts for every company.

Malik writes of automated trucking company Otto’s recent successful self-driven delivery of beer cans that “That one technical breakthrough puts nearly two million long-haul trucking jobs at risk.” Granted. But who says that humans are designed to drive trucks? We didn’t do it 50, 100, 150 years ago. We didn’t have trucks. We did different things, and we survived. Someone is going to have to program and monitor the automated trucks. Someone is going to have to build them, or manage the robots who do. There are still jobs, they are just different. We can’t Keep America Great by trying to re-create what it once was, now that conditions from our daily communication channels to the temperature of our atmosphere have changed entirely. Progress requires attention to how things really are, and an intentional shaping them for the good of all.

“[T]hey just weren’t talking about the human feelings in their product meeting” says Malik of Facebook engineers who didn’t think to prevent dead kids’ photos from showing up in year-in-review posts. I don’t have kids, but my dead dog regularly shows up in my Memories (thanks, Facebook!), and I know some of my divorced friends have images of their once-happy marriages shoved down their throats by the platform, so I can relate to the need for human consideration. And as someone who works at a tech company, I can confirm that we do think about how people experience our product. But the moniker “user experience” is telling: we don’t always consider the whole person. We consider them as a user of our product. Not an independent human being with hopes and dreams and aspirations wholly unrelated to us.

As Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management, told MIT Technology Review, “Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time, we have a falling median income and we have fewer jobs. People are falling behind because technology is advancing so fast and our skills and organizations aren’t keeping up.” It is, he said, “the great paradox of our era.”

So let’s approach the problems of progress with human consideration: how can humans (all of them) fit in? What world can we shape that includes, that moves forward, that makes us all greater and does not go retrograde to benefit few at the expense of many? It won’t be as easy as a few million dollars. But it will be far more beneficial in the long term.

Futureminded 6: Blood on the Piano Keys, Or, Boycott the Shit Out of That Shit, Yo

 

Yo! So. W.E.B. DuBois once said some truth (actually he said lots of them, but I’m going to mention this one), describing “a characteristic drama of capitalist exploitation, where the right hand knew nothing of what the left hand did, yet rhymed its grip with uncanny timeliness; where the investor neither knew, nor inquired, nor greatly cared about the sources of his profits; where the enslaved or dead or half-paid worker never saw nor dreamed of the value of his work (now owned by others); where neither the society darling nor the great artist saw the blood on the piano keys; where the clubman, boasting of great game hunting, heard above the click of his smooth, lovely, resilient billiard balls no echo of the wild shrieks of pain from kindly, half-human beasts as fifty to seventy-five thousand each year were slaughtered in cold, cruel, lingering horror of living death; sending their teeth to adorn civilization on the bowed heads and chained feet of thirty thousand black slaves, leaving behind more than a hundred thousand corpses in broken, flaming homes.”

That is heavy, and it speaks to the deep responsibility of existing in this age, which is just as deep as or deeper than it used to be because of the many more ways in which we now consume. But today’s task is somewhat lighter: you can clean the piano keys. You can stop playing pool. You can free your own personal slaves (whatever they are). You can boycott shit (Gap, H&M, Zara too). You can vote with your dollars every day instead of your ballot every two years. You can vote with your feet by walking into local businesses and past chain stores, with your hands by making something instead of buying it with a few clicks, with your inaction by consuming nothing at all (please still eat, though). You can do all of this.

You can recycle. You can buy used. You can craigslist, you can donate. You can consume less, create more. Oh, I know, this feels like a cliche. And it is. But it’s a cliche that keeps growing itself across the years, winding and stretching its thin rope self because we keep failing to grasp it and we keep consuming more from capitalist companies that keep paying us less or the same.

I mean wouldn’t you rather drink tea from this than this? Wear this than this? Feed your prehistoric hunger with this than this? Be real, be authentic, be a part of what exists rather than make factories manufacture something new? Because here is another truth: just as it enslaved us, as it made us waste more want more, finance ruined manufacturing. Finance said, you are costing too much. Finance dismantled the companies, took the jobs. And they won’t come back.

This means we have a choice about what we make and do and how we make it. We can make something real instead of do something fake, something that’s just moving numbers around in spreadsheets or words on PowerPoint slides. When the world ends, when the markets crash, those skills will not transfer. They’re not stressing Excel formulas or PPT animation in The Walking Dead. They’re trying to survive. So let’s survive, smarter, by understanding the deaths that our current mode of survival depends on, and making an effort to let those things and people live.

Futureminded 5: Dehumanizing Trade

Now that we’re all subject to the results of an election rigged by machines or lies or racism or anger or sexism or poverty or whatever other sad and unreasonable thing led so many people to support the candidate I can barely name, and now that we have a president-elect dedicated to the dehumanization of the majority of our population, it’s time to think about what comes next. And, as Danny Lyon’s message to us showed, the way to see what’s next might be to look at what’s past.

While Donald Trump has gone so far as to call for deporting Muslims, assaulting women, and building a wall to keep out Mexicans, he hasn’t gone so far as to call for slavery to come back (yet? we’ll have to wait until he talks to the KKK a little more, I guess. Or maybe that’ll be Bannon’s department). And I have enough problems with Trump’s stated views that I don’t need to invent new ones. But there’s no denying at least two things about slavery (and the slave trade, which benefited more than just slavers): it was bad for people, but pretty good for the economy. So if people really want profits… I shudder to think. (Fortunately, if they want paychecks, slavery won’t work out so well.)

Given that the biggest supposed driver of Trump’s victory was some kind of desire for better jobs, we see that he represents to people the hope of capitalism. The problem is, capitalism doesn’t care about people, and certainly not the masses. If anything, it cares about the few individuals who’ve managed to obtain enough capital to stay in control of making more capital from what they have.

Throughout the entire campaign, it’s been an absolute and boggling absurdity to me that people would look to a billionaire who benefited from and actively worked the system to get his money in order to find the key to demolishing that system. Trump loves the system! It’s what made him rich! Why would he change it? How else did he get on TV? Buy Miss Universe? Cozy up to the Clintons? He worked that system so good that he worked people’s dissatisfaction with the system to become its head and, you can be sure, keep it going in ways that benefit him alone. (I mean, appointing the head of the RNC to his cabinet? Boy, that sure is change you can believe in.)

“Global capitalism is the monster and Trump is its most dangerous, confused and hateful messenger,” Henry Giroux writes in truthout. I agree, and the problem at the bottom of it all is, we’re looking for hope in the consumerist, capitalism system that already failed us. We’re looking to bail out the big banks, the bloated jobs. We’re looking to bring back something that never should have worked and won’t work again. What we need, instead, is something different.

“It is time to wake up and repudiate the notion that capitalism and democracy are the same thing,” Giroux expands, an important point especially in the light of capitalism’s roots in slavery. Given that the workers whose labor sparked some of our country’s most crucial capital gains (untaxed, probably, though I’m not an expert in the history of tax law) didn’t get paid (but were paid for), it sets an ugly precedent for the pay of workers over time. And we’ve certainly seen riches increase, but concentrated only in the hands of the few. And that’s because capitalism is designed this way: to work for the few. Which means we can’t look to it to save the many.

Additionally, looking to close our borders and end free trade – and let’s not forget that good ol’ trade, the slave trade – is disingenuous and assumes some kind of possibility in internal economics that is not possible in trading with others, that interacting with others.

The trade metaphor and resistance to open borders speaks volumes about our core problem: people don’t want to interact with others, to believe anyone else could hold the solution to an issue, that looking outside could never be useful, that only the monster inside the self whispering the worst things about others could be right. Don’t trust the monster.

 

Futureminded 4: Danny Lyon’s Message to the Future

 

Photographer Danny Lyon’s message to the future is: sorry dudes, it already happened. The street protests, Mexican migrants and prison conditions he documented in the 1960s and 1970s are surfacing again in Black Lives Matter, Trump walls and Free Alabama movements. The police state and the desire to keep walls between us is not new; if anything, it’s grown larger, stronger and more repugnant.

Lyon’s photos also document a motorcycle (gang) counterculture: free range, rides on the bridges, the radical act of going nowhere. His images tend to have a split focus; many feature with asymmetrical balance or two figures in the near-middle looking outward. This type of orientation calls us to question whether where we’re looking is really the future or if we’re constantly reliving our own past, a modern ouroboros, doomed to rechecking the same social media statuses over and over and liking and unliking them continually. We’re already so deep in our filter bubble we don’t know where to look to get out.

Or there’s Leslie, looking left (past?) through the window of (her?) old vehicle, with a ripped-out door panel. Does the panel hold the keys to her past? Secrets she’d rather hide? Is it a vessel for drugs? Or just an accident of time, materials worn away by an aggressive elbow pressed up against the door to flip the bird to an even-more-aggressive fellow driver? Cut out to form part of the clothing pattern below? We don’t know, but her look invites us to imagine about much more than a missing door panel, or whether she’s going to fix it.

Like both the future and the past, Lyon’s photos are often one step removed. Looking into the future, the past. A mirror. One person staring at the camera, another angled away. The precise placement of bodies is a reminder of the physical and temporal space around all of us. A man getting a tattoo looks left, again past, even as he builds himself a new future right on his body. The tattoo gun’s angled trajectory points us both into the body and out of the frame, to ponder what the imagery will look like next week, in a few months, in years as the subject catches up to the artist in age, his hair thinning into strands he’ll comb across his head, canvas becoming painter becoming timeless with photographic recognition.

Nearly everyone clad in prison white in Lyon’s prison photos is brown; the whites in charge get to wear other colors, the khakis of authority. Though black and white blurs the power of color, the divide is still clear as photo after photo shows prisoners with skin darker than their uniforms and the skin and uniforms of the officers sent to search, watch, and command them. As though something’s hiding in the state-issued whites. As though reversing skin and mandated uniform automatically renders suspicion. As though anything’s changed in the near-50 years since these men were imprisoned except smartphones giving us a better way to document this. Shivs were always in there; now communication is as contraband as weaponry.

Lyon also writes to frame his photos, capturing not just the moment in time but also his thoughts at that time, something nebulous and flowing, written in wandering mostly block letters fading between cases. It’s a frame of context, of thinking, reframed at times in doodles or whitespace or even physical frames, too. Like mirrors and windows, these written frames become lenses into past, present, future and identity: the people we are or think we are at any given moment, scratching our elbows, sighing loudly, ambling down the street or flipping someone off.

Then, too, the posed pictures may mark time most of all, saying here we are, this is us now. The concept of reality being fluid and temporal but defined in one static moment by the clothing we wore, the hairstyles we had. We look back and these photos and laugh, how far we’ve come, or how great we used to be, or I remember those days. By looking directly into the camera we acknowledge our own recording, our own recordedness and beg to stay on screen, to keep being filmed, to continue having our identities recognized and validated by the inhuman lens creating images for human eyes to consume.

Are they protecting us? Are the images we hold of ourselves and others protective, somehow?

We’re looking back to the future, beckoning to our future selves: come along for the ride. We ain’t going nowhere we ain’t already been.

Futureminded 3: The Culture of Deceit

When you need to sell something, you need (most of the time) to deceive. You need to shield people from the reasons they might not want to buy what you’re selling. You need to hide the shortcomings of your product. You need to lie.

That’s why Donald Trump is a liar. He learned how to sell, not how to do. He learned how to promise people the world: a casino that brings jobs and a tower that brings tourists and taxes you don’t ever have to pay. He learned how to promise everything and deliver nothing and make sure the everybody suffered but himself.

He is not only a consummate consumer but a consummate encourager of consumption: someone whose only message is more, more, more (for us, not them). More money for you, more money for me, more laws keeping people out, more freedom, more jobs, more trade here and less there. An unending escalation of more that appeals deeply but can never be fulfilled and, even if it could, would not be fulfilling.

“You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel … kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die.” – Louis CK

Consumerist society is unfulfilling. It guides us to want that unachievable je ne sais quoi, that snakeskin neck warmer, that ostrich feather enema (is there such a thing?). That’s how our 1% has gotten so much, perhaps—they took that “more” exhortation to more to more extreme levels than ever before. So now they do have more. But because of that, the rest of us have less.

And even within that less, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we can have more. That we should have more. That it would be good to have more. That, somehow, more is all we need.

Freakonomics explores the consumer surplus Uber provides: that is, the value above and beyond the actual price of an Uber that people would be willing to pay for the convenience of not having to drive and park, or not having to deal with the hoi polloi and slow pace of public transit.

What are the advantages of Uber that it affords? Let us count the perks:

  • No need to talk to anyone. The driver knows where you are going, and you don’t have to pay him/her.
  • Able to stay on your phone the whole time. This is harder when driving.
  • No distractions from pesky weirdos on the bus (poor people, amirite?).
  • Also, it’s faster (at getting you to your next meeting where you can fail to interact by focusing on your phone!).

According to Freakonomics, this is worth $6 billion in consumer surplus. That’s $17 for every American.

This $6 billion should, in theory, go directly to Uber. Which would strengthen its already-strong hold on the rideshare market and further decimate public transit, which runs at a deficit with a $500 million budget in San Francisco alone.

I’ve been volunteering with a nonprofit and it’s making my head spin to realize that volunteering is the only hour or two a week I spend in a room with non-friends not talking about how to make money. At the nonprofit group, we talk about how to engage people as people, not as potential sources of money or attention. It may be a familiar undertaking to those who work in nonprofits but it’s really been blowing my mind (both how odd it is to me, and how odd that is itself).

“Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action.” – Andrew Sullivan summarizes Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Ours is not a secular age. It’s a consumerist one. Where every headline is about money (Trump taxes, Wells Fargo) or violence (UFC, police shootings). Or both. Because both are inextricably linked to that other relevant topic: power. Money and violence get you closer to the power that you crave.

Which is why Trump craves money. Which is why he does violence to others with his words. Which is why we should resist: not with money, not with violence, but with power. The power that we already hold and have a right to without paying, without doing violence to others. The power to vote, to have our say. And not only that, but the power of speech: the power to talk with others about how we are voting, what we believe, what we care about.

I think these things go far beyond what we pay for and what we do. Consumerism and violence are, easy mindless cycles to get caught in. Thinking about what we truly value will typically lead us away from buying or hurting and toward finding something else. But when there’s nothing else there: then what?

Our future lies in finding that other thing, that thing that can’t be killed or bought, which I guess comes down to human connection. So talk to somebody. Be honest. And if your honesty disturbs you, change yourself.

Futureminded 2: Apple Butter and the Food Conspiracy

“please remember to empty yourself, all of you” – Nick Twemlow

[of preconceptions, of course – come hungry]

What do coffee cans, Patty Hearst and Twinkies have in common? They’re all part of the food history of San Francisco, something I learned about in some detail during a recent Food Politics History Tour. I learned that every restaurant in SF used to have a (white) union waitress pouring coffee and that once-bustling produce markets were uprooted for unimaginative housing (but you can still see the market entrance, unmarked and unremarked). I saw the old Hostess factory that’s been turned into a U-Haul storage building and heard how Patty Hearst’s kidnapping gave rise to mass food distribution. I also discovered that Golden Gate Park was made possible by horse poop (and, the next day, I sat in said park in 90 degree heat–thanks, poop!).

I found out about some aspects of San Francisco history for the first time and gathered more bits of information to come to a better understanding of things I already knew. I had some awareness of the United Farmworkers Union story (Cesar Chavez), of course, but I hadn’t realized how involved Filipino workers were in the movement or that activists hung out in grocery stores telling people not to buy the grapes, presumably popping up from out behind a mister (did they have those then?) to gently intervene when someone moved to bag up green or purple globes. And I’d heard of the Diggers, but my knowledge gained specificity: they baked bread in coffee cans so it came mushrooming out the top (you can do it too!) and made big pots of soup with whatever they could find, totes stone soup style. Perhaps most compellingly, the Diggers didn’t just give away food, but eschewed credit for doing so—a novel concept in today’s attention-craving world.

Throughout the tour, I couldn’t help but look at food through a bit of a startup lens (particularly when we stood within Axe-sniffing distance of the tech bro epicenter near the Howard Langton community garden, which despite being a “community” garden is ironically but necessarily locked and only accessible with a key—just like tax-break-benefiting startup offices. Take that, homeless people who actually live in the community!). How (and for whose benefit) can technology disrupt food? So far, “tech” companies have mostly “disrupted” food by moving it to rich people faster, by way of a variety of meal delivery services that often charge exorbitant prices (and even undisclosed markup) and pay low wages for moving already-overpriced food from its location a few blocks away to your door. Slowww clap. <insert that weird emoji that is like clapping or praying but also high fiving? idk>

Another type of food startup also delivers, but ingredients instead of meals: perfectly pre-portioned ingredients (from undisclosed though possibly “local” farms) designed so “you’re never investing in an entire bunch of parsley” (the horror!) and can pat yourself on the back for following a few simple steps and generating tons of packaging waste on your way to eating food, something that by nature has no or its own packaging (how bananas).

There are also, of course, startups literally reinventing food by making things like vegan mayonnaise and meatless meat. As a vegetarian, I’m particularly interested in these projects, but also curious about their implications. Do we really need to spend hella resources making more non-food food when we already have too much of it, right here? Could a little awareness go a long way in terms of making people understand their existing locally produced options and even encourage them to grow their own food (something literally anyone can allegedly do, indoors, affordably, even if I’ve killed every basil plant I’ve ever touched).

All of these inventions may have their place, but are they really related to food at all? If the tour taught me anything it’s not just that food doesn’t have to be packaged, but that maybe food can be free. It’s a radical concept in a consumerist society, but there’s a long history of people working—right here in San Francisco—to feed people for free. Whether it’s Food Not Bombs, Curry Without Worry, or whatever remnants of the Diggers might still exist, it’s possible. Some of these groups used to call themselves “food conspiracies” that banded together to get good food cheap.

While heading home after my food tour (not a conspiracy) with several extra apples that had been intended for a cooking project (it’s a separate story, but the project did turn out a tasty batch of apple butter), I was surprised by how foreign it felt to have a simple realization: I could give these apples away. I could leave one on a bench, on a curb. I could put one in someone’s hand. I could give them as a gift. I’m not sure I would have thought about giving the apples away if not for the food tour. Perhaps unfortunately, I didn’t actually give them away, but I do hope to use them to make this cake.

The other side of food being free is the fact that food is actually pretty cheap, and the prices for many foodstuffs haven’t risen that substantially in a while (a separate issue is how that affects the farmers and corporations that produce our food). The idea that food—fundamental nourishment that keeps us alive—is just another thing that we pay for is intimately familiar to us from our first trip to the grocery store with our parents, but also deeply odd if you (we) dwell on it some. It’s especially odd how we accept that healthy food is more expensive, and unhealthy food is cheaper, even though that initial price disparity may actually end up dooming poor people to a life of poor health or high health expenses.

We can’t get through a day without food, at least not without suffering some. That’s why the hunger strike is such a dramatic undertaking. That’s why food is something that should be political, not consumerist. Human, not corporate. It shouldn’t be so easy to buy unhealthy packaged food without thinking where it came from. It shouldn’t feel so hard to grow your own food. And it shouldn’t be uncommon to give food away.

Poet Harryette Mullen wrote a book called S*PeRM**K*T (confirming it’s a bad word in many ways! also spermkit lol) and revealed to an interviewer: “When I was writing this poem it made me very conscious of what I was doing in the supermarket—how we behave as consumers and define ourselves by the products we purchase. . . . We really are what we eat, what we consume. As a nation, as a culture, as a society, we consume way more than the rest of the world.”

We have more than we need, and we waste it. Is there another way to approach what feeds us? Can our history feed us and motivate us to approach eating from a conscious instead of consumerist place? I don’t know, but let’s think about it.