Sunday, November 09, 2008

Where Do We Live, Again?

I'd like to suggest that citizens are all members of their national
community and nations are in turn citizens of one global community.
The amassing of great personal wealth allows for insulation from one's
community that I don't think ultimately makes for a strong, secure,
functional nation. Along these lines, my own borderline lower middle
class finances make it possible for me to insulate myself from, say,
those starving and dying in the shantytowns outside Nogales, a mere
120 miles south. So American attitudes about wealth have also by
extension isolated and insulated the US from being a more participant
global citizen. We were perhaps shocked awake by 9/11, but in my
opinion immediately put back to sleep again by promises of war and

It seems to me we aren't as a people given to any regular and
sustained awareness of events and realities around the world. Small
pockets of starry eyed citizens occasionally band together to fight
hunger, human rights violations, injustice and oppression in "other"
places. But generally, if it isn't at our doorstep, it's not our

This applies within the island nations inside the US as well. Behind
security kiosks and gates, in countless enclaves of wealth for which
no account must be given and which, as a culture, we idolize, any
sense of connection is lost. The wealthy have their own rules, their
own justice system, their own ideas of scale, their own ideas of
fairness and citizenship that are fundamentally, culturally different
from the rest of the population. The more I traveled around the US and
lived in different places, the more exposure I had to this insular
reality. Because my employment has been as a teacher of the wealthy,
I've only been able to afford to live in neighborhoods that were
liminal, on the border between wealth and poverty, yet had a lot of
experience of the values and culture of the rich, "liberal" and
"conservative" alike. It seems to me there is a point at which
quantitative differences become qualitative, at which one no longer
lives in the US at all.

The other island nations are within our borders too, "red-lined"
bombed out urban war zones, rural poverty and scarcity we don't often
shine a light on or even think about. Cities like LA, Philadelphia,
NY, Boston and even towns like Santa Fe offer jarring contrasts
sometimes in a matter of a few blocks. Poverty, hunger and suffering
of our own citizens used to be a popular theme, used to provide a
rallying cry of some kind for those who saw injustice and wanted
equity. In my opinion, it seems that these realities are now just not
very good television, just too dreary and boring to sell newspapers.
You'd think we won the "war on poverty" if you hadn't seen poverty
yourself on a daily basis. It's like the War in Iraq: we can't handle
pictures of coffins, even if they are draped in flags.

So it is that I roll my eyes and think GMAFB when those that got talk
about how unfair it is to be asked to give. "I'm the best steward of
my own wealth, thank you" is really just an excuse for continued
unaccountability, irresponsibility, disconnectedness, insularity.
"Government can't be trusted to solve problems" is an absurd
statement, given the emergence of essentially socialist democracy
since the Great Depression. Real social problems, actually solved by
that old much-hated gummint. Imagine an American historical landscape
over the past 75 years if pure free market capitalism had been adhered
to, no New Deal. My vision of that is wars, uprisings, violence,
destruction, anguish, revolution. "You just want to throw money at
_____________" is a childish dodge. For example, regarding education.
I'd sometimes hear folks spending $27,000 a year on their child's 7th
and 8th grade years dismiss "throwing money" at public education. 9
times the average per student expenditure, in that case. Seems to work
for you and your kid, I'd want to say, but wouldn't. When do we hear
someone say "You just want to throw money at terrorism, you can't
solve the problem that way." Never.

Anyway, we live in the world. If we don't take responsibility for the
gestalt, it will come around and kick us in the ass.


the unreliable narrator said...

our father who art in a penthouse
sits on his 37th floor suite
and swivels to gaze down at the city he made me in
he allows me to stand and solicit graffiti until
he needs the land I stand on

...but I love this city, this state, this country is too large
and whoever's in charge
they better take the elevator down
and put more than change in our cup
or else we are coming up

(mr. difranco, "coming up")

Urban Hermit said...

And thank you for that.

My work brings me glimpses into the urban economy ignored and occasionally deplored by the latt├ęd classes. In San Francisco there are three reliable currencies besides the familiar greenback: sex, drugs, and, I shit you not, bicycles.

Aren't shows like Cops a way of turning poverty into entertainment? It's not good television but it's cheap to produce and people watch it. And after a few episodes it might seem reasonable to pay thirty thousand dollars annually to keep the precious offspring in private schools far from the unwashed--who are obviously unworthy lost causes. Not that I really think posh parents watch Cops.

One bit of brilliant television has been made about the poor and the flows of money through American culture: Have you seen The Wire?

the unreliable narrator said...

Oooh, which reminds me: of about ten or eleven things: including that DFW's parents were watching The Wire with him the week before he died: and:

1) Mackerel as a prison currency! It's true if the WSJ says it is:

And 2) here is what happens when they let the Poors into Yale: which reminded me of some of my & Ms. Hermit's experiences at the Schmantzy-Ass Wimmin's College:


the unreliable narrator said...

PS it occurs to me one could usefully put quotation marks around "change" in the next-to-last line of the DiFranco poem.

Stupid bl•gsp•t ate my hotlinks.

Dan said...

Well said on all points. I agree entirely!

peter breslin said...

Thanks all for comments. I fluctute between hope and despair. Maybe I should lay off the sugar.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Breslin: beautifully described, this post-mod hell in which we are being slowly spit-roasted.

The phrase dirty old man was never to me anything but a phrase until I met H, a 76 year old attorney and widower born and raised in the Bronx and currently living alone in Scarsdale with one foot firmly planted in the grave. He still waddles his way to Manhattan 3 days a week to make money and whisper foul-breathed obscenities in his young secretary's ear. He wears his clothes until they fall apart, eats leftovers long past date code, claims to be worth $111M. His habitual mental space is a wasteland of scatology and adolescent sex jokes. His taxes last quarter, he exploded one day, were $85,000. He agreed that McCain was a hopeless wreck of a candidate for POTUS, but voted for him anyway, so frightened is he that "Obama's going to raise my taxes!"

Yet I'm not half as disgusted by H as I am by every new story I read quoting the NEW BOSSES to the effect that government layoffs are preferable to raising taxes, and that the election was not a mandate for redistribution of social resources. As if deliberately increasing unemployment will stimulate economic activity. Don't need a PhD in Econ to read the tea leaves here, people.

The fact that a minority is always keenly aware of the rottenness pervading Denmark is key to human progress. Sometimes it comes in dribs and drabs (Nov 4, 2008), sometimes in titanic destructive/creative explosions. It is a given that Mr. H and his ilk (and yes, even the "englightened bourgeoisie," who went overwhelmingly for Obama) will powerfully oppose a socioeconomic/political housecleaning.

Real housecleaning only happens when we join hands, screw our courage to the sticking place and together leap the chasm twixt desire and act.

Sez Joe Hill on his dying day: "Don't mourn, organize!"

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artful touch music said...

Peter!! You subversive egghead, you. Nice to find your enlivening rambles on the internets...

Really, guy. Don't you remember that Jazz died in 1939, or was it 1964, or was it 1917 when the ODJB recorded a single on wax thereafter ruining the pristine experience of hearing Jazz live the way it should be?!?!?!? Why you still listening to old music, man?

Let's be in contact, soon.