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Monday, April 29, 2013

Back to the Future, or Maybe Forward to the Past


We seem to be in a strange place right now, or maybe all societies are constantly measuring themselves against the real and imagined past to assess the present. I see us longing to turn back the clock in weirdly conflicting ways.

First, the positive. I’m encouraged by our conversation on work and the material world. It feels like we rode the wave called progress and now here we are, out to sea on a floating mound of plastic and toxins, working around the clock without any chance to rest. The prophets among us call us to turn off our devices and read books, and have conversations. How old school!

I’m getting used to unhomogenized milk in glass bottles. I remember the milk box on our porch at the duplex in Erie when I was seven, but I don’t remember the chunks of milk. It has always been kind of, well, not chunky in my lifetime, and retro milk is sort of odd, texturally, but so, so delicious.  I read about how harmful plastic is – you do, too, I know – my god, we go to war for the petrochemicals that end up housing our milk for a few weeks – that’s insanity, right there. The fact that it leaches a toxic soup into our food, and is filling the ocean with its broken-down-pellety self, eaten by seabirds and leviathans until they starve… that’s past insanity, that’s evil.

There’s a big buy local/cottage industry movement afoot, and again, that’s more turning back the clock, saying a collective NO to the idea of economies of scale. It seems that only a few benefit from the transition to a box store economy. Producers, consumers, communities and resources are not among them. To stick with milk, who is better off in our plasticized, homogenized dairy world? Not the cows, certainly. Not people, who are ingesting hormones, antibiotics and petrochemicals, even if our government subsidies make milk cheaper. Not the land, where manure runoff is an environmental catastrophe. Not local farmers who don’t get paid enough to live on. But way up at the tippy top of that ladder is a few fat cats.

So I think those are wise movements, and I guess instead of framing them as retro, we can say we’re moving forward to a more thoughtful way of living. Americans seem to care more about how their lives impact the world, whether or not buying a cheap t-shirt at Walmart leads to a death by crushing or fire in a massive factory in Bangladesh or China.

But there are other efforts in the works that feel to me like we’re un-evolving. The way we pay for work is one of them. We’re racing to some kind of serfdom system, allowing, insisting! private and public employers drop wages until people qualify for poverty programs, and then we’re furious with people for qualifying for assistance, because… they’re lazy. We have more people living in poverty now than we did when President Johnson began the war on poverty, and more inequality than the Old World when our ancestors swarmed to America for a fresh chance. We are so segregated by wealth that a child’s zip code is a greater determiner for success than any other. That’s pretty vintage of us. Countries in our situation have seen revolutions. But I guess we’re still in that poor-people-are-lazy time in our national thinking. The buy local/cottage industry will help us reverse the trend, but alone, that will take more time than we have. Too many Americans are living in cars and under bridges.

Which is a pretty irrational time to be restricting reproductive services, but that isn’t stopping us. 

We also seem to be very eager to take justice into our own hands. Let’s all have our own weapons, and trick out our kids with bullet proof vests, and live like they did… when? How far back do we have to go to find a society with no law and order? I think we’re talking The Iliad, although we might look to Yemen and Somalia for current references. It’s wild how rational people think they are. Someone just this weekend was telling me how angry he is about Obama. What do you mean, specifically? I asked.
You know, he wants to get rid of the Second Amendment.
I said, You mean repeal the Amendment? Change the Constitution?
He nodded. That’s right.
But the president can’t do that. Only Congress can draft a change to the Constitution.
I know, he said, nodding deeply, and indicating that the president is so outrageous, so power hungry, he was going to try to do it himself.
My friend, if you are stockpiling weapons to take over the country, let me say that you are the last person I want taking over our country. And if you’re arguing that the Founding Fathers wanted violent offenders and the violence-obsessed to be cleared to buy semi-automatic ammo over the internet, then you should be seriously questioned.

And the one that really gets me thinking is this idea that we should all strive to be independent. You know the rhetoric: I built that, socialized medicine makes us dependent on government, etc. Again, that’s crazy talk. Even the pioneers, who loaded up their bumpy wagons with tooth-breaking biscuits and headed out into wolf lands relied on each other in inter-connected ways.

We are no different. The teacher of my child is dependent on taxpayers for her salary; on her principal for a positive environment; on the state and federal government for specific standards that inspire her to work hard, but also respect her; on the parents of her students for valuing education, for reading to their kids and taking them to mind-enriching places. She is dependent on the free market for food, housing, energy and a car. She is dependent on the government for her retirement, for drivable roads or a bus or train, for clean water and air. Her local, state and federal government depend on her to pay taxes, and to live safely and within the law. The restaurants in her community depend on her and her colleagues to eat in them occasionally, as all the other businesses in her community would shut down without customers. The parents in her district depend on her to do well by her students, to enlighten them, excite them about learning, provide a community for them to know and love their classmates. The kids in her class depend on her to give them a chance to live up to their potential, and to instill in them a love of learning by rewarding intellectual risk-taking and creativity.

This inter-dependence asks a lot of all of us. And certainly sometimes people refuse to do their fair share, and we have to decide to either carry them or let them starve. Sometimes we have to pick up their trash, pay for their children's shoplifting, provide addiction counseling to their brothers and sisters, or chemotherapy to their impoverished parents. But that's a lot different from fantasizing that we're all living our individual lives, and because of our good choices, we shouldn't have to pay taxes or living wages to our employees, or watch out for each other.

We are interdependent. Our work, children, food, environment, justice, everything is interwoven, and creates a whole. We are at our best when we consider these things together, and when we strive to move into the future, learning from, without worshipping or rejecting out of hand, the past.

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