The headlines overwhelm me. The financial markets. The NATO rioting. Our own politicians’ posturing about the debt “crisis.” I have grown weary of the political forums on Facebook and elsewhere. The caricatures of Obama as monkey. The tar baby references. The Right tells gays they are abominations. The left talks loudly about dildos in response. The Right blames Obama. The Left blames eight years of George W. Bush. For everything. Believe it or not Ayn Rand is STILL being talked about though she never had anything to say. Every year teens “discover” her and use her as an excuse to not clean their rooms or take the trash out or babysit their little brothers and sisters.
A pop singer’s nipple was exposed during Good Morning America. Why do I care? We spend $13 billion on porn every year in the United States and girls are sold into sexual slavery in an alarming number of countries and I’m supposed to care about a nipple? I see people’s faux outrage and it makes my whole body tense.
Everywhere I go, I am marketed to. Advertised to. Movie theatres. Driving. At baseball games. Even high school football games. There are ads in the back of my church bulletin. Capitalism drains me. With every purchase I make I wonder who is being exploited and where my money is going. If my money is being used to support things that I don’t believe in.
I ignore celebrity culture as best I can but unfortunately during the Academy Award season in 2011 I did discover who James Franco is. I regret that.
There is a frenzied layer of fear and banality frothing at the rim of our popular and media culture.
So with the above litany you would think that I would be ready for a revolution. Corporations own our government. The tax code is ridiculous. The Pentagon has misplaced billions of dollars but our service men and women still aren’t paid enough and don’t have enough health care and psychological care when they come home after serving.
We have become fat, distracted, vacuous. Seemingly uncaring of almost anything as long as we can have a quesadilla burger at Applebee’s Sunday night, watch Monday night football and American Idol on Tuesday night. It doesn’t matter that the 400 richest people in the United States now control more wealth than the bottom 40 percent or that we are now stripping basic services to that 40 percent to pay for further tax cuts for those 400 people. It doesn’t matter that people financed mortgages that they never should have been approved for and that “short sale” has become a verb. It doesn’t matter that the free market isn’t free and it hasn’t worked. If you say a word against capitalism, you are Un-American. Does every American really think our GDP can expand on and on into infinity? Our whole society is built on economic growth. On us buying things. Do we think we can keep that up forever? I’ve seen episodes of Hoarders. I think that answer would be no.
I am 44 years old and I no longer think a revolution will solve this problem. Perhaps it’s the 16 years of parenting or the 35+ years of reading. Perhaps it is the fact that I have been to way too many funerals. I read Tom Hodgkinson’s The Freedom Manifesto and I concur with him. That whenever revolution takes place, the people who rebelled end up, within a few generations, being just as bad at the people they rebelled against. We slaughtered our native people. Our industrial revolution exploited working men, women and children for generations. And now 400 rich people have taken the place of the former aristocrats who ran our little colony. Go United States!
Also in a revolution (as in our current political system) one side is TOTALLY wrong and one side is COMPLETELY correct. Facts are twisted, overstated, ignored. People are pigeon-holed and forced to talk from a script of what America supposedly stands for. Do we realize when we read our left wing and right wing blogs that things are more complex than they seem? When we watch Fox News do we realize that we are being talked down to? This partisan “debate” is a smoke screen which encourages our society to maintain a dangerous status quo.
My family and I recently visited the Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I know that the Meijer family is Republican. I also know that Frederick Meijer donated the 132 acres which houses the park and many of the sculptures throughout it. Sculpture displays and shows are offered in the sculpture gallery inside. In the “carnivorous” green house, families and elementary school students can ooh and ahh over pitcher plants and Venus fly traps. In the indoor tropical gardens, bamboo grows meters daily and tropical birds hover at the top of banana trees. The children’s outdoor garden is an enchanted place with a castle, a log cabin, a story garden, fountains to run through, colorful wolf sculptures and sly, sleepy dragon keeping watch near fences. Title I schools and their students can visit the gardens for free. The gardens charge three to five dollars per student for other field trips. The “cafeteria” offers healthy, delicious food and drinks served in compostable plastic cups.
Depending on how the stock market is doing, Frederick Meijer is worth between four and five billion dollars. Does Frederick Meijer sound like the caricature of a Republican to you?
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The idea that once America was better, purer… perhaps before Watergate…the idea that we once believed in our government and our process and that capitalism was checked by public servants of honor? Those ideas appeal to me but I am not entirely sure they are true. I have fond memories of Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill but I also know we have always been human beings, muddling through. And in the public arena of the United States, money has been and perhaps always will be, more important than human beings. The only importance human beings have had recently in our federal government is to the extent to which they can be controlled and manipulated as consumers.
If we rule out revolution, what does that leave? It leaves you. It leaves me. While the Right preaches on and on about personal responsibility, especially whenever federal money is involved, I don’t care who you sleep with or whether or not you go to church. What I do care about it what kind of world you want to live in. And if you want to live in a better world, you’re going to have to think about what you’re buying and why. Global capitalism has gotten too big. It has created an unsustainable structure for our planet, for our workers and for our system of government. I’m not against socialism and many European countries seem to have made this work in conjunction with capitalism but in our current political environs I don’t see this happening to the United States any time soon. Now the Supreme Court has even given corporations the rights of people. This does not bode well for socialism replacing King Capitalism in our decaying empire.
Much of the time when we buy things, we buy them out of fear. Or to feel better for a moment. Or to forget that we’re going to die one day. Or to try and get more sex. These are in the very things advertiser’s use to pry our money from our wallets.
Think about what you buy. My weaknesses are books, movies, technology, espresso. Can you cut back on anything? Can you buy what you need locally from the farmer’s market? A smaller shop? Like Hodgkinson suggests in The Freedom Manifesto, can you make your own bread? (It’s easier than you think.) Can you go to the library a bit more? Can you axe your cable and get Netflix or a deal at your local video store? It’s not that buying things is bad or evil, we just don’t think enough about it. And we don’t think about the system we’re buying into. The system we’re paying for. Think about your favorite designer. I see Coach bags wherever I go. Why do we want Coach bags? Coach’s website says ,“Coach seeks to be the leading brand of quality lifestyle accessories…” The linking of those two words together is oh-so subtle. If you have a Coach bag, you will have a better quality of life.
It seems so small in the midst of this cacophony for me to tell you to mind your spending habits (and I need this reminder myself) but I fear our revolution must be quiet and personal to be effective at all. The more we push or pull against the status quo, the larger the rebound will be bringing us back to the status quo. The Tao instructs us to “do nothing in order to do more” and “He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still.”
Tip O’Neill, who I earlier said I have fond memories of, also is credited with the famous “All politics is local.” Can you go to your PTA meeting? Your city council meeting? Your public works or zoning hearing? Can you read about these meetings online or in the news after they’ve happened? Most committees and councils have to place their minutes online. This is how the world works. Your school board is just Congress in a microcosm.
I know how mired we can be in our misery. I, too, have been mired. Financial problems. My dad dying of cancer. I thought I did not have time or the emotional energy to be involved in the world. Even in these dark times in our lives, we still make decisions every day. We still choose what to place in our refrigerators. We still choose where to put gas in our car. We still choose how to speak to people and whether we act or sit with things and see what happens. We still choose whether or not to be violent. Our hallowed American Revolution was an act of violence and we have become a violent nation in return. We are at war most of the time. We own more handguns than the rest of the world combined.
Hodgkinson says in The Freedom Manifesto not to vote. To ignore the whole thing entirely and go and live your life and drink and be merry and try to get by on the bare minimum of work. I think we need to still participate in our system but we need to not reduce things to talking points we’ve heard others say. We need to read. We need to read what our founding fathers really said and not just have Glenn Beck tell us what they said. If you want to read conservative thought, read William F. Buckley, not Sarah Palin. We need to re-explore the works of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer. We need to understand the psychology of buying and pick up Thorstein Veblen’s The Theory of the Leisure Class and give it a read. These things will not be taught in our high schools.
We need to let go of our anger. We must know that Republicans and Democrats are both to blame for this current sham of public discourse. Neither side is the demon that the other makes them out to be. For every Republican that screeches about baby killing, another one understands that abortion is a deeply personal decision and that the government has no place in telling women when, where and how to have a baby. They just can’t say it out loud. For every Democrat spouting that more money will fix our broken education system, another one speaks out that the home, too, must foster a sense of learning and a sense of wonder. Teachers cannot repair students that keep getting broken at home. Teachers should not be punished for poverty, divorce, abuse, hunger, or parenting ineptitude. We need to stop trying to be right and start being compassionate. When I hear a homophobe talk, I know it is fear. Fear of the world changing. Fear of their own sexual feelings toward their own gender. Fear that someone else having something will take away from what they have. Fear of difference. We can reduce these fears to “hate” but it does nothing to help the homophobe understand his behavior and accept the consequences for it.
When we hear a politician say “America is the best country in the world.” That is also fear. Patriotism, with its monuments and flags, is a form of fear. We do not want to admit that we are one human community with one fragile planet and one set of resources that are being steadily depleted. We want a sense of righteousness, justice, uniqueness. But we are all the same, unique only in the form of our human misery—be it starvation or psychological isolation and depravation. We all start to die the day we are born. And as hard as we try, nothing we can buy, no political virtue we espouse, no “team” in Washington we cheer for, can prevent that.
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I hear my own preachiness here. I hear the tone of this essay that I, somehow, have all the answers. I don’t. My own relationship with our society echoes my relationship with myself. Most of the time I try to cultivate the habits that will bring me peace and happiness but I also spray Round-up on stubborn weeds in my yard. I eat too much. I think unkind thoughts. I like to watch Hoarders and post-apocalyptic movies. I’ve questioned the need for monogamy. The fact that I know there is a better way doesn’t stop my humanity from creeping through.
Yes, part of my tiredness is the exhaustion of my moral outrage. And this comes from the fundamental way I have chosen to view the world. We can either try to make the world a better place, and ease the suffering of our fellow inmates, or we can live with our personal gain forefront in our mind, smashing through life collecting things and running from our fear and death. Perhaps my moral outrage doesn’t stem from people wanting things or liking to watch TV for hours on end, but the inauthenticity of it all. That most people turn away again and again from the dark vastness that exists inside them and dark vastness that exists above us that Hubble telescope documents without pity.
Perhaps I don’t want to change the world one person at a time. Maybe I just want more fellow sufferers, gazing inside and out, to see as I do, nothing but pain and beauty and mystery.
Telaina Eriksen holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared in The Feminist Press’ Under the Microscope, Hospital Drive, Marco Polo Quarterly, The Truth About the Fact, poemmemoirstory, Recovering the Self, and in other online and print publications. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2010 and 2011, attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2011, and is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Michigan State University. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her through the Yahoo! Contributor’s Network.