Thursday, February 10, 2011

It's The Wrong Economy, Stupid!

"What is finished... is the idea that this great country is dedicated to the freedom and flourishing of every individual in it. It's the individual that's finished. It's the single, solitary human being that's finished. It's every single one of you out there that's finished, because this is no longer a nation of independent individuals. It's a nation of some 200-odd million transistorized, deodorized, whiter-that-white, steel-belted bodies, totally unnecessary as human beings, and as replaceable as piston rods... " -- Howard Beale, Network, 1976

We knew this back in the seventies. We knew it. We had all the information at our fingertips, because even if we didn't read books or newspapers much, we watched people like Walter Cronkite (who only occasionally lied to us), who was willing to spend an hour on a single news story, and that was all the national news you got that day. Now, we spend less than five minutes on news stories, opinions are undifferentiated from news, and of course the more sensational, the better. Even with multiple 24-hour news channels, I would bet that The Daily Show spends more time on individual news stories than CNN does. We knew there was something wrong, and we kept right on going.

Large-scale satire is either dead, or overplayed. War, Inc. was meant to be a broadside against the whole Neo-Con, PNAC, guts-passing-for-brains political shithole that was our last administration, and, even with millions of dollars, John Cusack and Dan Aykroyd, they still missed the target. In The Loop, on the other hand, did more damage with a few simple, well-placed swear words than the expensive digital fakery of War, Inc's Rockettes prosthetic-leg kick-line.

There is certainly public rage these days. Just ask Gabrielle Giffords. What's wrong with the public rage of today is that it is entirely misinformed. Even better, it's proudly misinformed. Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, Coulter, Malkin, on and on and on, these bastards spew hate-filled bullshit out over cable TV and the radio and even in print, and entire genomes genuflect themselves into an orgasmic coma of seething dumb anger that spills into the public, attached to various calibers of bullets, or voting patterns that will guarantee these same comatose fools will lose their jobs to some poor schmuck in China for one-tenth the wages, and all because the asshole they're voting for said he/she believes in "God and Country." Oh, yeah, and "gays are evil." Let's not forget the gays.

But let us also not forget our own folly. We, as the Liberal wing of politics in this country, with facts and science on our side, still can't convince a lot of people that global climate change and evolution(!) are scientific facts. Still can't convince a lot of people that pollution is bad for you, that the EPA serves a purpose. We gave up on teaching kids how to think, and pressed them into learning how to pass tests. I know that America was founded on compromise, but I think we've maybe stepped a little too far back from our own ideals.

But the worst part is that America has changed its concept of itself over the last thirty years - and we've just accepted it. We can point to improved job stats, fewer unemployment claims, a thriving Wall Street, and business profits that are through the roof; but what we can't do is say that things are going to get better. Because this version of better is spiritually bankrupt. We are achieving more now than we ever have as a species, and it's making everyone a little more unhappy every year. We medicate ourselves, not to feel better, but to feel less. I have fallen victim to depression, and taken anti-depressants to "fix" me, and what I realized was that I wasn't getting angry about things I should have been getting angry about (they also play merry hell with your sex life, but that's a whole different issue). We have a space station, privately-funded space tourism, we can communicate with anyone in the world via phones we carry around in our pockets, and pretty soon (as Neal Stephenson once said), we'll be able to move Nebraska to Africa overnight for $5.

But why would you want to?

What good does all of this wonderfulness do for us? Certainly, the technology of the present allows me to spew this unformed rant at the lot of you all at the touch of a few buttons, but what of the rest of it? I've had people yell at me because a fax that was meant for them wasn't properly sent two minutes earlier. "I can resend it right now." "BUT I NEEDED IT THEN!" How did we manage before fax machines, Federal Express, e-mail and texting? How did we survive at all? Could we survive without them? We're teaching our kids to fit into this world, because if they don't have those sorts of weird, unfathomable skills, they won't be able to get a decent-paying job in America. Being able to cook a meal, balance a checkbook, or to think for yourself have become not only superfluous, but oddly suspect.

I will allow that thinking for yourself has always been considered suspect by the majority, but we're supposed to be the smart ones...

I'm no luddite. As a filmmaker, I am thrilled that I can edit a film, fix the sound, mix the music, and burn a DVD in my little basement office. It is an awesome, empowering experience to move through the creative process and have what can be termed a professional-looking finished product without spending millions of dollars to do so. I like being able to get feedback from my director in a few minutes, rather than a few days, and he doesn't have to rent a projection room in order to view what we've worked on.

Before we can have our workers' revolution in this country, we need to have people who know how to work. Better still, we need people who know how to think, not just how to be a well-trained parrot or mule or whatever you want to call the hybrid we've been creating of our children for the past thirty years. Celebrities do not matter. What happens to a newsman doesn't matter. What happens in Tahrir Square, that matters immensely. How we could translate it into our own democracy, that matters immensely. We have to raise expectations for our children, and we have to teach them music and art and sports, and all the other things that our educational system has deemed too expensive. We have to learn to live with less, so that at least one parent can be home more. We have to learn to grow our own food, and to teach our kids the value of home-grown vegetables and fruit (and watch them when they try their first tomato plucked off the vine).

Until we can get this country back to where an individual person really and truly has value (and not just because they're willing to do something stupid on YouTube), America has become Metropolis. With better cable.

So, to quote Howard Beale again, you've got to get mad. You have to remind yourself, every day, that your life has value. And that you want your life to have been for something more than just improving the GDP.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Egyptian Question

I do have a question to ask, but not without prologue.

I know that of late my rants have been on the sad side of the scale, and for that I have to apologize. Originally, when I began this endeavor, I did so as a sort of entertainment for my friends, all of whom said I needed to write down all the insane stuff that was rattling around in my brains, if only so I didn't have to repeat myself over and over again to different people, telling the same story (something I'm a little too good at). And the stories were often funny, since I have a pretty sarcastic frame of mind, and even the most brutal tales could be told with a humorous edge, so long as they didn't touch me personally, or as long as I wasn't dealing with stories of war and death. But as the years have progressed, the stories have begun to have a depressing sameness, a theme that draws a line from the beginning to now, and I think I know where it really started, where I really noticed what was going wrong in America the first time.

I was sixteen years old, and watched a film called "Network."

For those of you unfamiliar with this work, and other works by Paddy Chayefsky, well, shame on you. Chayefsky was one of the great writers of the twentieth century, and if he hadn't died in 1981, I think he could have skewered the Reagan era beautifully. Strangely enough, he managed to skewer both our current era and the seventies with frightening accuracy, and for the former, he didn't even know he was going to do it. But what was true then is truer now, because we haven't learned much from that era. An excerpt from a rant by the character Howard Beale, played by the great Peter Finch, who won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in this film:

"We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, 'Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won't say anything. Just leave us alone.' Well, I'm not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don't want you to protest. I don't want you to riot - I don't want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you've got to get mad.

There have been wonderful flashes of lightning in the interim, the punk movement being one of them; but that's been co-opted, and even better, commodified. Any new popular uprisings quickly appear on MTV as the latest fad, thing to do, group to follow, and rapidly become as significant as the latest style in tires. Rap music, which began as a form of street protest, now rarely ventures beyond the confines of the various forms of "bling" one can acquire. Certainly, there are still protest musicians, and they fight in their own ways: Fugazi, for one, Ani diFranco, for another. They have generally eschewed the mass-marketing efforts of the big systems, and are consequently viewed as being so far out of the mainstream that only a small, vocal minority even knows they exist.

Sure you can go to a Green Day or REM concert and feel like you're politically aware, but then you go back to your nine-to-five job and essentially continue to suck on the same teats you've been sucking on since birth. Or you go to see James Cameron's Avatar, and recognize the plight of the indigenous peoples, recognize the obvious references to the militarization of corporate greed, and still manage to go back home and think, "I really need a big-screen, 3D HDTV."

So as we sit in our houses or our apartments, watching a country a world away turn itself into either a great place to live or yet another Middle East hell-hole, we can be distracted by democracy taking place as spontaneously as it ever has. And the question that follows that is, how bad does it have to be here, before we react in a similar fashion? What will it take, ultimately, for America to get off its collective ass and do something that's not just the usual weak street protest, or (my personal favorite) astroturf movements sprung by large corporate interests that people think were their own ideas?

Can't we, like Gandhi recommended in the thirties, have a day of "prayer and fasting?" Where no work is done, no busses, no trains, no planes, no cars on the street, no financial transactions, no nothing. Perhaps someone needs to tweet this out to create the largest flash mob in history, and it's something everyone can do from home - just not go to work.