Tag Archives: capitalism

Berrying Perspective

Two people looking at the same thing see something different. Since we’re living with a government of distorted perspective this truth appears refreshed daily. I was reminded of this while picking huckleberries. Huckleberries, according to the local edible berry guide, are called many different things. In this part of the country you know them when you see them. And if you see them you pick them. They appeal to the frustrated hunter-gatherer left in us city-dwellers. As I was trying my best to fill my bucket, I kept thinking of those who only see nature’s bounty as a means of turning a profit. In my mind they’re meanies—those who take all the fun out of the few freedoms we have left—although I realize that it’s a matter of perspective. Consider the huckleberry.

I’m a mere seasonal visitor to these parts. Since not too many of my own species make this location their permanent domicile, that’s perfectly natural. Many of the berry pickers I’ve encountered have been seasonal guests as well. There are the more “industrial” pickers, though. In a good year huckleberries can command fifty dollars a gallon on the local market. Unless you know an unfrequented secret site, a gallon can take several hours to pick even in a promising location. Overall, you need to arrive before anyone else and get the most productive bushes so that you don’t have to wander around the mountainside in search of a more lucrative locale. Not to mention that, like most berries, they have a limited shelf life. Nature prefers sharers to hoarders.

While I’m picking I generally think of bears. Unlike my species they don’t have the grocery store option. These berries are their survival, I suppose. Nature does provide. That’s how evolution works—we form symbiotic relationships with our environment. The meanies, however, can’t see beyond the self. What nature provides must be accumulated for my own benefit and not that of others. There are never enough huckleberries to go around, the industrial mind thinks, and so I’d better control the availability and set my price. You don’t even have to like huckleberries to do it. Ironically we call this having a gift. Standing here on this isolated mountainside, bent over a bush offering nature’s abundance, I believe that I’ve found a gift. I have to remind myself, however, that this too is a matter of perspective. It is a perspective that tastes right to me.

Clean Sweep

The other day I was reading about cleaner wrasses. These are the fish, usually in coral reef community, that establish a place of business, and other fishes who want to be rid of parasites come onto location to be cleaned. They allow the wrasses to nip them all over to get the pests taken care of, even allowing the smaller fish to swim into their mouths to work their specialization there. Kind of a mix between a visit to the dentist and the car wash. Documentary makers have filmed the process multiple times, and, being humans, we project onto the piscine scene a kind of business template—an exchange of goods for services. Then we turn back to our own lives and forget the underwater world.

Image credit: Robbie N. Cada, courtesy FishBase, courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Still, I have to wonder about what’s going on here in the realm of consciousness. We do not yet know what consciousness is, but we all recognize it in ourselves. We know we’re alive and conscious—except when we’re dreaming when we don’t seem to realize what’s going on in our brains isn’t really happening. Most of the time, however, we set our goals, have our intentions, and go about our business accordingly. What is the motive force that drives a fish to the cleaner wrasse’s studio? Isn’t there a level of consciousness involved to know that this fish’s house is where you need to be for this kind of treatment? Don’t the larger, predator fish know that if they eat the wrasse in their mouth they’ll have to find a new service provider? Are they aware of this or are they, as some scientists like to tell us, simply biological machines following their programming?

I’m not a scientist, but I see consciousness all around me. I watch the interactions of land animals—I generally don’t take trips under the sea, no matter what Sebastian says—and they are anything but simple. The birds on the wire and in the chokecherry trees have complex interactions. All you have to do is watch a single individual for a few minutes. They make decisions—the sky is a vast, open template with no obstacles, surely they have to decide why they want to go this direction and not that! And bowerbirds build nests as elaborate as Victorian mansions. Not that there are bowerbirds at my bus stop, or even in New Jersey. There are limits to how far even nature will go. As I stand here, waiting for my bus, I can’t help but think how like a cleaner wrasse I am. And I’m sure they must be conscious of what they’re doing since life’s all about the exchanges of goods and services.

Capital Carol

The idea of exchanging presents on a holiday emerges from the impenetrable veil of time. We don’t know when the practice began—the idea of copying the Zoroastrian wise men in Matthew is a bit of a stretch and the date of Christmas wasn’t settled until much later in time. However and whenever it started, giving gifts at this time of year has become one of the defining features of late capitalism—it’s almost as if Jesus of Nazareth was born for this. An economy that measures self-worth in terms of money is just the place to have God-incarnate celebrated by giving lavish gifts. Those of us who make no money off the holidays can’t deny that it feels good to give someone something. People like, in general, to make each other happy.

This year my wife asked for a non-material gift. We made our way to the McCarter Theater in Princeton to see their acclaimed performance of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A gift of a memorable family time and a truly spectacular play. Seeing this story in 2016 felt especially important. Dickens was a famous advocate for the poor and was well aware of how they suffered at the hands of the wealthy. Indeed, those with too much money lose their humanity almost completely. The story is focused around Christmas, but the message is needed for every day, especially in over-long years such as this. Capitalism is a form of social evil. Anything that lowers humans to mere ciphers on a page is the very definition of sin.

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We all know how the story goes, but to see accomplished actors undergoing conversion is nevertheless a strangely hopeful experience. As the story makes abundantly clear, it requires so very little to make others happy. The point of having money, after all, is to use it for the good of others. Seeing one man facing his own mortality only to realize that he has isolated himself from the care of others is a powerful experience. As we move forward into the long and dark days ahead, there is a reminder here that we need to keep close to our hearts. There may be fewer presents under the tree this year, but we are all the richer for it. This is the kind of gift that we need to share with the entire world.

Solstice Blues

The relief is so real that you can feel it with your fingers. Or brushing your cheek. The feeling of being done with another semester, and knowing you’ve got some time for recovery after the intensity of going flat-out for months at a time. I miss that feeling. As a guy who has often been accused of being “too intense” I tend to run pretty near the red line all the time. Pit stops are few and very far between. Once this vehicle’s in drive, there’s no stopping until the destination is reached. What do you do when there’s no clear destination? That’s what working for mere money is like. How do you know when you have enough? Just ask Mr. Trump. Too much is always too little. That’s the kind of world we live in.

Higher education, it used to be, was a place for people who believed in higher values than mere lucre. There was a time, historically, when we took transcendence seriously. The price (if you’ll pardon the analogy) that we’ve paid for letting transcendence go will become apparent. Those who believe only in what they see miss most of reality that swirls by them like a river under the ice. Yes, it still flows. Just ask the fish. There’s a wisdom outside our paltry economic efforts, if we’d only just get out to inquire of it.

Work is built around the foolish concept that you can never have enough. I have to think that our fear of a year of drought has deeply impressed itself on our psyche. Back in biblical times and up until just a couple of centuries ago people considered work to be farm work. Growing your own food. Building your own house. Knowing what to do in an emergency. If nature didn’t cooperate with that scheme what choice had you? Now, however, we labor for a concept as abstract as transcendence. When’s the last time you were paid with actual cash? What wouldn’t you pay for a little more time off? Time to stay in your pajamas all day and ponder what’s really real? Perhaps sleep until you’re not tired rather than awaking at the sound of a factory bell? The sun hasn’t risen by the time I reach my windowless office. When I step out again it’s already set. The solstice reminds me of the semester break that no longer exists. I have to believe, however, that under the ice the river’s still flowing.

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Are There Not Workhouses?

dickensworkhouseAs colder days settle in I add layers and sit in our under-heated apartment and think about the lot of the poor. I don’t think billionaires really understand the plight of those who, no matter how hard they work, just can’t get ahead in a society that values class above individual welfare. I’ve noticed the increasing number of homeless on New York City streets. Many are clearly those who’ve lost jobs and can’t afford to pay the rent of even a modest apartment in the city, let alone Trump Towers. Having lost jobs myself after a lifetime of hard work, my sympathies are with the street dwellers. Ruth Richardson’s Dickens and the Workhouse: Oliver Twist and the London Poor reminded me that this is not just an American phenomenon. The book begins as kind of a detective story to locate the workhouse that Dickens features, if fictionalized, in Oliver Twist. Richardson makes a strong case that this workhouse has been found and that relics of Dickens’ under-acknowledged London residence just a few doors down from it influenced much of his first-hand knowledge of the life of the poor.

In the case of London, poor laws were put in effect to punish those who couldn’t fend for themselves. Inmates at poor houses were kept on a legally mandated starvation diet (literally) with inadequate medical care. Instead of censuring this injustice, the Church of England stood behind it. The perverted thinking was that if anyone knew how bad it was in such places they would try doubly hard not to be poor. The funny thing about living in poverty (I have some experience of this) is that it isn’t a choice. I didn’t particularly get along with my step-father. I can say, however, that he was one of the hardest working men I ever knew. Long hours spent at work, sometimes the whole night through, to support a family of six on just above minimum wage. This was his daily existence. I must’ve looked soft in his eyes.

Richardson’s book, although fascinating, is also distressing. The idea that a society thinks the most humane way to deal with those who are struggling is to punish them further, for me, defines evil. One of the characteristics of our species, according to biologists, is that humans often show extraordinary care for other creatures, often of other species. For our own, however, we feel that if you’ve “earned” something by exploiting others it is your “right” to keep it and let them suffer. This economic system is rotten to the core. We may have come a long way since Dickens’ time. We don’t have such exploitative workhouses in Manhattan. Instead, we have so many people sleeping in the streets that a walk to work has become very Dickensian indeed. Somehow I don’t see the situation improving in the next four years.

Frozen Over

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For reasons that may eventually become clear, I was watching The Blob. It seems that each generation’s fears are unique to its time—let the reader understand. For whatever reasons, star-appeal I expect, Steve McQueen was cast as the teenage Steve Andrews. A little unbelievable as a twenty-eight-year-old teen (Sissy Spacek was a more convincing teenage Carrie at twenty-six) Steve drives around his small town trying to find and stop the Blob. What is the Blob? Nobody really knows. Emerging from a meteorite, it seems to be an EBE (Extraterrestrial Biological Entity) that encompasses, dissolves, and assimilates animal life forms, getting bigger all the time. In a day when the Russians were actual enemies, this is hardly an intentional vision of capitalism but an apt description nevertheless. If it touches you, you’re dead. Since it can ooze through air vents, there aren’t too many places at hide. It forces itself upon you.

Steve’s love interest, Jane Martin, has a lisping little brother named Danny. While big sister is out on a date battling the jello-monster, Danny—a future NRA member—charges outside in his pajamas shooting at the thing with his cap gun. Can this be? One capitalist shooting at another? Don’t be fooled. This is the nature of the free market. Either the Blob ends up on a dinner plate, or Danny does. We know that prior to 1960s monsters seldom kill little children (but don’t get me started on Frankenstein), so it is the Blob that will succumb. As the town’s teens combat the goo with fire extinguishers, freezing it, Jane, Danny, and Steve escape to go hunting another day.

Those of you who’ve read my blog for any time know that subtext is often the point. I’m counting on you following along with me here—think of what day it is. The small town police chief, Dave, calls in the Feds. No wall will keep this alien out. It has to be deported. To some place that will never thaw. Like all good monsters, the Blob never really finally dies. It must be kept frozen to keep humanity safe. The final words Steve utters are indeed chilling, “As long as the Arctic stays cold.” Getting on sixty years later our “industriousness” has begun to melt the ice caps and the friends of the Blob deny global warming. I’ve seen The Thing from Outer Space too, and I know the last thing you want to do is thaw the Arctic. Remember what day it is, and do the right thing.

The Least of These

Despite criticisms to the contrary, the pre-Reformation church did have concerns about the average person. About the poor. In those days church offices commanded a good deal more esteem than they currently do among the populace, and being a priest was a position of power. The concern for the quotidian human—at least of the Christian variety—was demonstrated in All Souls’ Day. Although the date migrated around the calendar before settling on November 2, it came part of one of the very serious (days of obligation) annual celebrations along with All Saints’ Day, November 1. It was recognized that not everybody could be a saint, and all the faithful departed deserved a special day of commemoration. Through a complicated history this two-day celebration came to be associated with Celtic beliefs about the crossover day between worlds, samhain, giving birth to Halloween. It seems appropriate on All Souls’ Day to think about the poor.

An article in the Washington Post reports on findings that poor children, in their words, “that do everything right don’t do as well as rich kids who do everything wrong.” There are indeed deficits that attend the poor all their lives. Those of us who began in such circumstances can sometimes break through in a system that favors the upper classes, but it is rare. Good paying jobs are reserved for friends of the wealthy or to those who might pay them back in some way. The poor have little to offer beyond their souls. Our system, the so-called “free market” deals in souls. The poor are, make no mistake, chattels. Even in higher education, where we’d like to think thinkers think, positions are granted based on privilege. The loftier music and liturgy is, after all, reserved for All Saints’ Day.

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Like many raised in humble circumstances, I grew up hearing about the American dream. If you work hard you can succeed. But that really depends on who you know and how much they’re willing to help out. Stats are now beginning to back up what those of us who have lived experience in the lower register already knew. Having faced it throughout my career, I know I’m not alone. Just the other day I met someone else who grew up poor who’d hit the bullet-proof ceiling carefully installed by children of privilege. Not ambitious beyond desiring the basic comforts of a job that covers the bills and allows for some reasonable amount of surplus against lean times is, it seems, more than the wealthy are willing to grant. After all, All Saints’ must come before All Souls’, for even Heaven has its hierarchies.