Let my people go

We have finally invented the internet. In current form, the internet allows for things like the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and the documenting of a tragic school building collapse in China. It reveals the terrible innards of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012. This is a limited window of opportunity wherein information passes freely from person to person without direct interference. Let’s use it.

One Palestinian is dead and nine others wounded in an accident on the fence that keeps the people of Gaza from entering Israel. One side thought the fence was safe. The other side thought the fence was under attack. 6,000 miles away, I know about the ceasefire. I do not know what conditions were like on the ground. I hope everyone is committed to peace.

Palestinians began firing homemade rockets and mortars into Israel in 2001, after their land was surrounded by two fences, one kilometer apart, a no man’s land wherein any unidentified person might be shot. In 2005 Israel withdrew all troops from the Gaza strip.

In January 2011, the Gaza Youth Manifesto for Change appeared, declaring:

We are sick of being caught in this political struggle; sick of coal-dark nights with airplanes circling above our homes; sick of innocent farmers getting shot in the buffer zone because they are taking care of their lands; sick of bearded guys walking around with their guns abusing their power, beating up or incarcerating young people demonstrating for what they believe in; sick of the wall of shame that separates us from the rest of our country and keeps us imprisoned in a stamp-sized piece of land; sick of being portrayed as terrorists, home-made fanatics with explosives in our pockets and evil in our eyes; sick of the indifference we meet from the international community, the so-called experts in expressing concerns and drafting resolutions but cowards in enforcing anything they agree on; we are sick and tired of living a shitty life, being kept in jail by Israel, beaten up by Hamas and completely ignored by the rest of the world.

This is truth. We can now share it. The internet facilitates free speech by democratizing the means of production. What does this mean?

Santa Spendalot

Affluenza: Black Friday is America’s new high holy day

Originally published on 11/23/2012. It’s worse this year.

Black Friday is under way – has been since midnight, in fact. In many places around the country, retailers started kicking off the festivities at yesterdayover a quarter of Americans said they planned to go shopping on Thanksgiving. Or, as it will soon come to be known, Black Friday Eve. Or Black Thursday, maybe.

Want to hear some fun statistics?

The number of Google News results at press time for “Black Thursday,” the term for stores starting Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving instead of midnight after Thanksgiving. The general mood in the media is that Black Thursday is a terrible idea because retail workers should be able to spend the holidays home with their families (and potential shoppers should be home eating with their loved ones instead of out buying stuff). Black Thursday is already getting pretty ugly, with workers at stores like Walmart — where Black Thursday begins at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving — and Target threatening to strike. A number of petitions to stop the madness are also going viral online.

The number of Walmart stores that will have extra security measures in place on Black Friday. “Nobody wants to go into an event when they are risking injury for a video game,” Josh Phair, Walmart’s public affairs and government relations director told the Arizona Republic. Well at least they figured that out this year!

The number of people who shopped on Black Friday last year.

The number of dollars spent on Black Friday last year.

Imagine the stress on the workers who have to ride herd on these “doorbusters.” Imagine going to work – on a holiday – worrying that you’ll have to break up a fistfight over a toy. Or that someone might get trampled to death. Literally.

How about some breaking headlines?

What the heck. Let’s watch a video, while we’re at it.

No, folks, this isn’t a Mad Max movie. It’s Christmas shopping in America. Christmas. You know, birth of the savior. Peace on Earth. Three Wise Men, star in the east, baby in a manger, all that. I wonder if this year’s misbehavior will match last year’s carnage.

(A friend of mine works at Target. At 11:20 last night he reported that only one F-bomb had been lobbed at him so far. Of course, he still had over six hours left in his shift.)


America has a social disease

Have you read Affluenza? You should. This fantastic book examines, in uncomfortable detail, our culture’s pathological need for stuff. The editor’s review at Amazon sums it up this way:

The definition of affluenza, according to de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor, is something akin to “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It’s a powerful virus running rampant in our society, infecting our souls, affecting our wallets and financial well-being, and threatening to destroy not only the environment but also our families and communities. Having begun life as two PBS programs coproduced by de Graaf, this book takes a hard look at the symptoms of affluenza, the history of its development into an epidemic, and the options for treatment. In examining this pervasive disease in an age when “the urge to splurge continues to surge,” the first section is the book’s most provocative. According to figures the authors quote and expound upon, Americans each spend more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods, our average rate of saving has fallen from about 10 percent of our income in 1980 to zero in 2000, our credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s, more people are filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and we spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything. “To live, we buy,” explain the authors–everything from food and good sex to religion and recreation–all the while squelching our intrinsic curiosity, self-motivation, and creativity. They offer historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons that affluenza has taken such strong root in our society, and in the final section, offer practical ideas for change. These use the intriguing stories of those who have already opted for simpler living and who are creatively combating the disease, from making simple habit alterations to taking more in-depth environmental considerations, and from living lightly to managing wealth responsibly.

Grist notes that in the wake of 9/11, affluenza seems to have evolved from social disease into official policy:

In each of the past four years, more people declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. On average, the nation’s CEOs now earn 400 times the wages of the typical worker, “a tenfold increase since 1980.” Although the United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; since 1950, we “have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before then.”

Many of us also know that bigger houses, bigger cars, more gadgets, and more expensive clothes do not make us more content, despite the glossy promises of advertisers. Yet consumer spending has long been used as an indicator of both the national economy and the national mood. The more we spend, the better off we are — or so we’ve been told. This mantra has been particularly insistent in the past year, as the great blooming bubble of stock market riches began to deflate and the Bush administration chose instant gratification as an economic strategy. Since Sept. 11, national leaders have been telling us with ever-increasing urgency that consumer confidence must and will rebound. While confidence — as an indicator of our faith in the future — should return, it’s equally clear that the past few decades’ rate of consumption is neither sustainable nor desirable. Moreover, we must assume — and hope — that tragedy has made us wiser, and tempered the impulse of so many Americans to affirm their existence with a pleasing new purchase.

To be honest, reading Affluenza is one of the hardest things I’ve done in some time. I not only saw the moral emptiness of my society laid bare, there were entirely too many pages that described my own life. Even in instances where I feel like I’ve won the battle against consumerist addiction, I still had to acknowledge that once upon a time I was eaten up by a craving for material things that not only couldn’t have made me whole, they would have made the hollow space even larger. I had to slog through passages that seemed specifically written about people I know, people close to me. Worst of all, the book flogged me relentlessly with details about how our obsessions with status and toys are annihilating the physical world that sustains us … for the moment.

Affluenza ripped at my guts in ways that brought me literally to the brink of illness. Or maybe past the brink. I’m currently battling at least a couple of medical conditions that may ultimately be the result of affluenza. One of them is certainly a product of the American food complex: if you drink, on average, a liter of soda a day for the better part of 25 years, how many milligrams of high-fructose corn syrup have you strained through your body? I’m not blaming anybody for my stupidity, which was considerable, but let’s not pretend that our consumption patterns exist in a vacuum, either.

The physical impact pales next to the psychological, though. I grew up desperately seeking the sort of validation that comes with success in America, and if you aren’t careful you can fixate on all the wrong goals. Is success a certain income level? Is it a house in a trending neighborhood? Is it the security that comes from knowing that your children have newer, cooler and more expensive basketball shoes than their friends? Is it a Lexus or Beemer or Mercedes? Is it having a particular number of people reporting to you?

Is it the satisfaction that comes from working so many hours your wife doesn’t recognize you when you come home? Is it the number of ulcers you have? Is it having a physical stress level so consistently high that your body is more or less always sick in some way?

Affluenza made me think about the lies we tell ourselves about success. About happiness. About the “American Dream.” We grow up enculterated into a consumerist assumption (unless our parents raise us in the woods, miles from the nearest television – and then we have a whole ‘nother set of problems). At some point we realize that we’re not happy (although “realize” may be the wrong word – one thing affluenza seems to do is systematically kill off our self-awareness – in any case, we aren’t happy). Everywhere we look, though, we see happy people (they’re in these things we call “advertisements”), and the happiness we see always – always – emanates from a thing. A car, a haircut, a shirt, a house, an iPhone, a gaming console, a next-generation tablet…whatever it is, it’s something that can be purchased. So purchase it we do. If this means we leave the family on Thanksgiving (or worse, bring them with us) to queue up around the block at Best Buy so we can be ready to kick the door at 8pm, so be it.

We never seem to notice that after a few minutes, we’re not happy all over again. Clearly, we need to go buy something else.

I once watched a young boy on his first big Christmas morning. The monetary value of the presents he had under the tree was probably triple the value of all the presents I’d ever had under all the trees during my entire life. I mean this literally. He was the first child of affluent parents and everybody they knew was competing to outspend each other on this precious little boy.

He ripped into the first present with gusto – it was spectacular. He looked at it for a few seconds, then dropped it and ripped into the second one. Then the third. And the fourth, and fifth, and so on. He never paused to play with any of them. The holiday experience wasn’t about having or enjoying, it was only about more, more, more. When there were no more, he still didn’t sit down to play with them. I will never forget the look on his face at that moment: it was as profound a disappointment as you’re ever likely to see in a child. There were no more.

I had never seen anything like it, and I was as horrified as he was unfulfilled. That boy is a teenager now and has had many more Christmas mornings since then. As best I can tell each one has been little more than a ritual re-enactment of that first one, only with escalating price tags. He’s a smart kid and a very good kid in many ways, but I shudder to think of the hollowness that now threatens to consume his entire life.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that he’s one of the millions and millions out shopping today – assuming he didn’t make it to the stores last night.

Can I complain about the parenting decisions that have been made in this child’s life? Well, I could, but in truth the significance of the story isn’t what happened to him, it’s that what happened to him happens millions of times a day all across our consumerist nation. The more we have, the emptier we are. We’re a nation of addicts, and all the stuff that we’re Jonesing for is a million times more addictive and destructive than crystal meth.

What happens when we run out of fantasies?

We are the age of insubstantiation,
a generation of digital bells,
loose change on the sidewalk.

Our days are loops,
our nights tight spirals,

and if the virtual is
even better than the real thing

it’s only because the real thing is so goddamned empty.

So here’s my theory/hypothesis/question. We’re a hollow nation, a society that provides nearly all of us with rampant access to more material goods than we know what to do with. But we cannot find happiness in the material because there is not happiness in it. On the contrary – it’s a system that’s rigged to feed us a shiny, pretty lie that hollows us out some more, all the while whispering that only more of the lie will make us happy. Our consumerist society is a church that, instead of communion wafers, dispenses crystal meth. This is my body, broken for thee….

Welcome to the American reality: We have everything that this world can offer and we’re bored to tears.

Black Friday is our new high holy day. We’ve always looked at Christmas, the most sacred of holidays for a majority of our citizens, as our most important cultural celebration. Whether we’re reveling in the unbridled secular glee of exchanging gifts or ranting about the “war on Christmas” and the ways in which everyone has lost sight of the “true meaning of Christmas*,” December 25 has been our unquestioned national holiday.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink things, though. In truth, it’s Black Friday that most typifies the American pathology. Christmas is the big reveal, to be sure, but in a culture addicted to acquisition, the day that matters most is the one where we camp out, line up, bust doors, fight each other and trample each other to death – both figuratively and literally – in order to buy. To throw money at the retail giants that are our true church, to beseech the managers and cashiers, priests and acolytes, in the name of commerce, to fill the sucking holes in our souls with stuff so that we might at last be happy.

Thanks, but I’ll pass. I like playing with fun toys, too, but I’ve long since realized the truth about them. I won’t be venturing out to shop today and I salute those of you who are boycotting the madness, the utter sickness, and the corporations who promote it. To hell with Black Friday, Black Thursday, and the retailers who are cranking up the Christmas shopping music before Halloween.

My friends and family will be receiving what I think are some really nice gifts this year, but none of them are coming from Target and Walmart and Best Buy, and I’d encourage them to do the same, especially when it comes to getting me something. In fact, if you’re having a hard time deciding what to do for those you love, how about a gift that makes a real difference in the lives of people who need help the most: think about donating in their name to Heifer.org. If my friends are family are reading this, know that there isn’t much you could do that would make me happier than to give some chickens or a goat in my name.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season. And when I say “happy,” rest assured that word has nothing to do with stuff.

*That, of course, would be the imperial Christian appropriation of pagan solstice celebrations.

Portions of this article were adapted from a post that originally appeared on Sept. 9, 2009.

The Tech Curmudgeon – Eau de garbage bag

The Tech Curmudgeon was raking leaves recently when he noticed an odd smell. A flowery, almost sweet odor was wafting from the bag of leaves he’d recently filled. While some of the leaves were wet and had started to decay, it wasn’t the leaves themselves that had the overpowering stench of perfume. It was the trash bag.

Who the hell at Glad thought it was a good idea to perfume a 39 gallon black lawn and leaf bag?

The Tech Curmudgeon understands the idea of fighting odors coming from kitchen bags filled with food. He disagrees – vehemently – but he can at least understand not wanting the stench of rotting food in your house. Of course, there’s an easier solution to this problem that doesn’t require overwhelming the smell of decay with perfumes and coating the insides of you sinuses with Febreeze – get off your lazy ass and take the trash out before it starts stinking up the kitchen. But the Tech Curmudgeon digresses.

The stench excuse doesn’t apply when it comes to lawn and leaf cleanup. The Tech Curmudgeon seriously doubts anyone (sane) collects trash bags full of leaf litter or grass clippings and brings it into the house long enough for it to decay and stink up the house. As a homeowner, the Tech Curmudgeon knows just how nasty fermenting lawn clippings can get, especially after a rain adds some extra water to the mix, but that’s why he leaves them on the side of the house next to the massive covered trash can. If that smell is creeping into your house and your windows are closed, look for air leaks around the doors and windows and seal them with weather stripping or foam insulation – your sense of smell and your energy bill will both thank you.

Maybe Glad’s lawn and leaf bags are made on the same equipment that makes their “Odor Shield” kitchen bags. Maybe the perfume is just built into the polymers that make up the ForceFlex bags, regardless of whether its the white kitchen bags or the black outdoor bags.

The Tech Curmudgeon doesn’t care – it’s unnecessary and a stupid waste of money to perfume an outdoor garbage bag.

Image credit: Glad Products


Telling History vs. Making Art: “Frankly, my dear….”

Part three in a series

As the horn section carries Max Steiner’s score from its overture into the sweeping, now-iconic strings of its main theme, Gone With the Wind opens with haggard-looking slaves returning from a hard day’s work set against the first of many sunset backdrops. On-screen text immediately evokes a romanticized antebellum past:

There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…

The language, although overtly sentimental, suggests that this really was the way it was. The “pretty world” depicted in the movie overflows with all the “magnolias and moonlight” clichés: beautiful gardens, white-pillared colonnades, bulging hoopskirts, batting eyelashes. Characters start sentences with “Oh” a lot: “Oh, Ashley” and “Oh, Miss Scarlett!” The few slaves with any screen time are all loyal and well-treated archetypes, from the “old uncle” Pork to the voluminous bandana-wearing Mammy. This was the idyllic Camelot Southerners fought to preserve—and the idyllic Southern stereotypes Hollywood continued to preserve. Gone with the Wind was, to use Robert Penn Warren’s words, “the old inherited delusions which our weaknesses crave.” And if Hollywood does anything well in its quest for big box office returns, it’s that it gives audiences what they crave.

The word “gallantry” is an explicit part of Lost Cause vocabulary, and its use in the opening sequence immediately signals a Lost Cause lens for viewing the film. That interpretation carries through every other bit of on-screen text. For instance, the eyes of Atlanta turn toward Gettysburg “while two nations came to death grips on the farm lands of Pennsylvania.” The built-in assumption that two nations came to grips—rather than, say, two armies—is significant as an implicit acceptance of the Lost Cause perspective. So, too, is the mantle of victimhood the South gets to wear when it faces “another invader…more cruel and vicious than any they had fought…the Carpetbagger.”

Lost Cause ideology aside, the language serves an important aesthetic purpose first and foremost: it sets a tone for melodrama. Highly charged, romanticized language raises the stakes in the film, which is essentially little more than a soap opera in hoopskirts. Such interludes with text also serve as useful transition tools to jump forward in time while keeping the viewer caught up on the action. The technique might seem heavy-handed to modern audiences, but audiences in the late Depression, not that far removed from the era of silent films, were still used to movies telling as well as showing.

And does the movie show! The sets are big and the belles are beautiful. Atlanta burns in fearsome, memorable spectacle. Never do the fortunes of the Confederacy look so dark as when Scarlett goes to the rail station, which is being used as a field hospital, and the camera zooms out and pans across the dirt train yard to reveal thousands of Confederate wounded, ending with a tattered Confederate flag limply overseeing all. With film work like that, director David O. Selznick is clearly making art.

“You will leave [the movie], not with the feeling you have undergone a profound emotional experience, but with the warm and grateful remembrance of an interesting story beautifully told,” The New York Times said after the film’s release. Variety lauded “[t]he lavishness of its production, the consummate care and skill which went into its making, the assemblage of its fine cast and expert technical staff….” “If not the greatest movie ever made, certainly one of the greatest examples of story-telling on film…” says film critic Leonard Maltin.

As a result, Gone with the Wind “almost certainly has been the single most powerful influence on American perceptions of the Civil War,” says Civil War scholar Gary Gallagher. “More people have formed perceptions about the Civil War from watching Gone with the Wind than from reading all the books written by historians since Selznick’s blockbuster debuted in 1939.”

Couple that with the fact that the movie’s source material, Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, is considered on the most beloved examples of storytelling in print. “It’s been 70 years since the publication of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel…” wrote The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And in those seven decades, it’s been outsold only by the Bible.” In the first year of its release alone, it sold 1.7 million copies.

As in the movie, Mitchell’s South is still a Utopia where “raising good cotton, riding well, shooting straight, dancing lightly, squiring the ladies with elegance and carrying one’s liquor like a gentleman were the things that mattered.” Slaveowners like Scarlett’s mother “thanked God for the health and happiness of her home, her family, and her negroes.” It is a far cry from the prewar South depicted in, say, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

While the movie stays truer to the novel than most adaptations, it still had to, by necessity (despite its 233-minute running time), leave some things out and change others. In the novel, for instance, Scarlett has a child with each of her first two husbands before she marries Rhett. In the film, the children would have been nothing more than clutter drawing focus from the simmering hot attraction between Rhett and Scarlett. When Scarlett and Melanie give up their wedding rings during a fund-raiser to support the Confederate army, Rhett sends their rings back to them in the movie. In the book, he sends back only Melanie’s, with a note: “The Confederacy may need the lifeblood of its men but not yet does it demand the heart’s blood of its women,” Butler writes. “Accept, dear Madam, this token of my reverence for your courage and do not think that your sacrifice has been in vain, for this ring has been redeemed at ten times its value.”

The novel was clearly “not just a book” but “an answer, a clenched fist raised to the North, an anthem of defiance,” says author Pat Conroy in the preface of the 75th anniversary edition:

If you could not defeat the Yankees on the battlefield, then by God, one of your women could rise from the ashes of humiliation to write more powerfully than the enemy and all the historians and novelists who sang the praises of the Union.

Conroy called the novel “the last great posthumous victory of the Confederacy” and said it “shaped the South I grew up in more than any other book.” Journalist Tony Horowitz agrees. “Gone with the Wind had done more to keep the Civil War alive, and to mold its memory, than any history book or event since Appomattox,” he writes in a chapter devoted to the movie’s legacy in Confederates in the Attic.

Few people would mistake Gone with the Wind for actual history, though, despite its historical nature. It doesn’t concern itself much with facts: it shows no battles and its characters are all fictitious. Instead, it’s far more concerned with depicting a truth—one heavily influenced by the Lost Cause tradition. But it’s the depiction (the art) not the truth (the interpretation) that gets primary emphasis in the novel and the movie. “Hollywood’s overriding goal is to provide entertainment that will earn profits…” says Gallagher. “They focus on plots and characters that create and sustain dramatic momentum.” He suspects Selznick “almost certainly never issued these instructions to an underling: ‘Find me a good piece of material laying out the Lost Cause interpretation of the Confederate experience. The dramatic potential is important but will be secondary to our getting the interpretation right.’”

In both cases, novel and movie, the interpretation is strongly embodied in the creative work, but it always comes second. Audiences respond to Gone With the Wind because it’s good art, not good interpretation. It’s good nostalgia, too, for days gone by, real or imagined.


Next: Gods & Jacksons

Cross-posted at Emerging Civil War