Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hello sir, do you have a minute to listen to my rant today?

Oh my, it's been a month. And here is another repost from an older blog - but oh well, something is better than nothing, right? Most of my time has been sucked in by my other blogging enterprise, and you know, life and work. But I will try to at least keep this blog alive, even if only in a, once-a-month kind of way. 

Anyway, I chose this piece because yesterday I actually stopped, sighed, and expressed to the young woman asking me if I had time for the ocean the general sentiment, in a very shortened form, of this post. She answered, "you'll just have to find a grassroots movement," to work for social and economic justice. Too true, too true. 
About those people always asking if you have a minute for the environment? Well no, I’d rather this not be too rant-like, to be honest. But I do have a complaint – actually, a concern, more accurately, about what I’m constantly getting stopped for during my pedestrian commutes.

No one does this more often of course than Calprig. When my sister used to live in California, I just told them she had covered our family’s commitment to the environment and move on. Today I just have to decline as politely as I can. Yesterday, I was stopped by Amnesty International to be asked whether or not I have a minute to help end violence against women. Again, smile, politely decline.

I try to be polite because I do have sympathy for these people, and I have some sympathy for their causes. Anyone who decides to spend some of their time on actively trying to improve the world is doing better than most, I’d say. Violence against women, for example, is obviously something I would like to stop. But violence against women where, and how? Amnesty International seems like a good organization, but whether or not they can curb corrupt regimes driven by power and/or religious fundamentalism through the good will/guilt of middle-class American donations seems dubious to me. I wonder why they do not attack the structuring problems more directly, more broadly, rather than pouring energy into smacking band-aids on the results.

But I have no idea what would stem international violence against women, and I’m not here to claim I do. But what I do notice about these enthusiastic young people asking for a minute of my time is that almost always, they are advocating for something I will, and I admit this has some derogatory connotations, call “soft issues.” Yes, saving the environment is an important issue. I wish them the best of luck with it, and, I recycle. But why is that political issue so much more attractive, so much more morally compelling, to young people than well let’s say, the immediacy of social injustice in their own country? Global warming is real, and there is a good chance it will eventually fuck us over; but in the meantime, wealth inequality has continued to expand since the 1980s, the Tea Party spirit is trying to take over our nation’s education via Texas, and oh yeah, homosexuals still are not considered equal human beings in the vast majority of the country. Why don’t I run into people asking me if I have a minute for that more often? I almost always would. I’m all for the environment, but I, like all people, have priorities as to where I want to place my time and money – but while those involved in the green movement currently have a huge cultural upswing of being taken seriously by the rest of the world, my issues – shall I dare call them the “old leftists” issues – remain as unpopular as they have been since the 1970s.

For example, why isn’t there some powerful non-profit organization like Calprig which interrupts pedestrians by asking, “Hi, do you have a minute for poor people today?” upon which they present their petition to raise taxes considerably on upper middle-class and rich Americans, to pay for a more redistributive society that takes social justice seriously. How about that phrasing actually, “Do you have a minute for social justice today?” Hell yes I do.

Another example is the green/organic movement around food. While I have some mild concern about the health quality of my food, I am less concerned about that than I am about the exploitative labor practices of Food, Inc. Instead of having almost one of everything labeled “organic” in the grocery store why aren’t products labeled according to how well companies pay and treat their workers, whether or not they provide them with health insurance or deport them to Mexico in the middle of the night? Seriously, this is what I would base my purchasing choices on if I was given the information I’d like to filter products with.

Of course, to ask all this is rather silly – I might as well ask, “why are Americans so afraid of redistribution,” or, “why do Americans value property rights over human rights?” But I guess my surprise comes in with the fact that the absence of top-down funding and mainstream political acceptability is really enough to stifle almost all interest in economic justice at the student or undergraduate level. I hate to have an elitist-driven viewpoint of history – after all the New Right is profoundly grassroots – but sometimes all the evidence tends to point towards it. Our young people today can’t get fired up about economic injustice or the limits of American political discourse as easily as they can about baby sea turtles. (And really – I was asked the other week if I had a minute for baby sea turtles. Who can say no to that? Baby sea turtles are stupid cute.) This is apparently because they were never taught to, or even exposed to the issue in any sustained way. And indeed, while I distinctly remember a documentary about global warming I used to enjoy and watched several times over as a child, I never remember seeing anything about ghettos or rural poverty, especially nothing directed at children.

Again, all this is obvious to state – holy hell, Americans are quite comfortable with economic injustice, believe it to be the normal order of the world and, don’t really question the assumptions of our center-right political consensus. But I reserve some right to be disappointed in our youth population all the same, especially the ones at the university – the same people who like to fantasize about the 1960s are the ones who abandon the fight to really challenge the status-quo and put up posters about fuzzy polar bears instead. (And again, nothing against polar bears, which are also stupid cute.) But since they aren’t going to learn it anywhere else, this to me emphasizes how important the university is as the absolute last hope for really holding the line against collective cultural stupidity. I have seen some progress in this regard with the recent protests about the fee hikes – but even there, students tend to focus on a few (granted, totally authentic) villains in the UC Regents and Governor’s Mansion, and advertise their plight narrowly, on a very clear but narrow issue, rather than building a cross-class, cross-issue coalition that sees the connection between California’s voters condoning the erosion of their public school system and a broader American public that does not believe that the government can or should provide equal social services to everyone.

But the university isn’t really about questioning the system anymore — quite the contrary, it is about shaping people into cogs in order to ensure its smooth functioning — and who knows if it ever was. But no worries. We will always have a minute for baby sea turtles.