Sunday, August 29, 2004

Commentary: Freshening, Focus, Rising Bile, and the 'Ownership Society'

I suppose I should be used to it by now: balancing the budget on our backs, scheming to take every possible advantage of us, the attitude from owners that they're such paragons of virtue we ought to be willing to work for them for nothing and consider it a privilege, the invisibility, the lack of respect, and the daily fight to get through another week. I should be but I'm not. Some of you have noticed a rising tide of phlegm on FTT, and you're not wrong. I admit it: I'm not less angry in my old(er) age, I'm more angry.

When I was younger, I thought conditions would improve. When I was younger, the unions were stronger; you could live on minimum wage jobs, not well, but you could live; there were rules and at least a few of them favored us; and one of the national political parties acted like it cared what we thought, thought about what we needed, and needed some, anyway, of what we had to offer. That was when I was youger. When I was younger, I had hope.

For 25 years I have watched our lives go from bad to worse to awful, experienced the shrinking of our presence in society from near-invisible to practically-invisible to 'What? Are you still here? I thought you were dead.' I have seen the gains we made with sweat and blood--literally--washed away in a sea of anti-labor rhetoric. Saddest of all, I have seen way too many of us buy into that rhetoric and sign on to a movement that we refuse to understand, despite all the signs and signals, is dedicated to our destruction.

We have been sold a bill of goods, a pig in a poke, a sow's ear pretending to be a silk purse. They took advantage of our lack of education (which lets them think we're stupid), our limited resources (which they call 'laziness'), and our willingness to believe the best of people (which makes us, in their eyes, 'unrealistic' and 'naive'), and used them to convince us that unions weren't lifting us up, they were tearing us down; that management was really on our side and wanted to see us succeed; that our poverty was our own fault, not the result of what they were paying us, and that the way out of it was to work harder, longer, and cheaper.

I was talking union at the shop one day a couple of years ago--which I used to do a lot, to the point where many ran when they saw me coming--and one of the guys said to me that he would never join a union because he'd be 'stuck with it' forever. To him, joining a union was an admission that he would never be, could never be anything other than what he was--a laborer. A union wasn't a step up, it was a trap from which there was no escape. His idea of salvation from his low-income status was in owning his own business. 'Ownership' was the Holy Grail.

'Gonna get your GED soon, are you?' I asked--he quit high school in his junior year because he didn't think there was a 'point' to it.

No, he said, he wasn't planning on that. He didn't need to. All he needed was a good idea. He'd get a few grand from his dad as start-up money, and as long as he worked hard and aimed at the top, he'd get there. He didn't want to be 'a slob' (his word) all his life. He was going to be a millionaire before he was 40.

There's nothing wrong with dreaming. What was wrong was that he wasn't even rich yet and he already saw protecting workers as something separate from that dream and a barrier to it. He was a worker himself, yet he saw other workers as his natural enemies; a union was a bunch of them banding together to take away from him what he didn't even have yet, scheming what and how much they would steal as soon as he managed to acquire...something.

That's what makes Bush's sales pitch so powerful--and so dangerous. First they convinced us that we all want to be owners; then they convinced us that we all could be owners if we'd just stop wasting our time demanding frivolous luxuries like fair wages, affordable housing, and protection from the powerful. We, too, could be rich if we stood on our own two feet and stopped expexcting the government to do 'everything' for us. And now they're trying to convince us that society itself is based on 'ownership'; that if we don't 'own' something, we're not really Americans and we don't really count. So they, philanthropists that they are, are going to arrange it so we can 'own' things.

The invidiousness of this concept is almost beyond words. It takes Social Darwinism to new heights and predicates an entire society based on the premise that no man is his brother's keeper because it's the brother's problem and if he can't solve it, it's because he's lazy or stupid, and you're not responsible for those things are you? Then why should society be held responsible?

Apparently, Christ was lazy, stupid, naive and unrealistic, not to mention that he was probably a Commie, too.

This is only the beginning (I have to stop here or I'll go on for days). I've been thinking about the 'Ownership Society' for a few days and getting madder and madder at the intolerance, arrogance, and sheer brutality of it. Which leads me (yes, I know, 'Finally!' you're saying to yourself) to the point of why I started this post: The Changes.

I changed the name. Slightly. It never felt finished to me. I didn't know why until the last few days. I should have. The very first post I wrote (the opening of that post is on the sidebar now) said very clearly where I was going; I just didn't recognize it. I thought the white heat in which I wrote it would pass. And it did--or at least it seemed to. Actually, I buried it--like I always do, like a lot of us do, like we've been taught to do--so I could get on. But it never actually went away, and every article I found on the latest insult, the latest raw theft, the latest blatant manipulation, fed it like wood feeds a fire. The implementation of the new overtime rules and their consequent re-imagining of what constitutes 'management' only a day or so after Junior's latest 'Ownership Society' bilge got respectable write-ups everywhere sent me into a tailspin. I was so pissed I could spit nails, as my mother used to say (she didn't say 'pissed'; she said 'mad').

Then, the other day, I was doing some research on something totally unrelated to it when I stumbled on Lynd Ward's dark, angry engraving Moloch--the demon heart of Mammon. I remembered it from years ago but hadn't thought about it, in, I bet, a full quarter-century, so seeing it again was like seeing it with fresh eyes, grown-up eyes, eyes that knew exactly what it meant, not as a vision or a stylization or a warning but as a reality I was living in and had been for some time. Something clicked--my anger was starting to make sense to me; I was beginning to understand it.

But something was missing--the words. There were words that went with it, I knew that, but I couldn't remember them. Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti or Kenneth Patchen, I thought--one of the Beats, anyway. Howl?

Ginsberg, yes, but not Howl--a special, one-time only collaboration between a rising young poet and the established artist whose work had been his inspiration. Ward did the engraving and Ginsberg wrote the poem; neither pulled their punches. They called it The Moloch Broadside because it was published--picture at the top, poem underneath--on a single long sheet of paper and tacked to walls and telephone poles. It was intended as a call to arms like the Revolutionary broadsides it was copied from.

I hadn't read it in at least 35 years. The first time I read it I thought it was juvenile, over the top, almost childish. I wasn't even 20 yet. This time it was like getting kicked in the stomach--all the air was sucked out of me by Ginsberg's bold, bald shot to the heart. Talk about ripping away the veil! Ginsberg and Ward hadn't just opened the curtain the wizard was hiding behind, they had torn off the wizard's mask and shown us what it hid: The God of the Walking Death, the gaping, stench-ridden yaw of The PuppetMaster. Moloch--the worship of Things and the destruction of Life.

That's what I was feeling. That was the source of the rage I could hardly keep a lid on. Bush and his corporate cronies are actually Molochite devotees, servants to the belief that Greed is the highest emotion, and the acquisition of 'things' is the only measure of achievement. Moloch recognizes no human values, praises no human qualities, shows pity for no one and remorse for nothing. He is a single, simple force--he Takes. He is that in all of us that urges the virtues of unchecked selfishness whenever our generosity would have a price that would be hard to pay. He's the one who looks in the Sharper Image catalog, scopes out the mansions on the other side of town, dreams of expensive linens and designer clothes and cars that cost more than the house you live in. He's the one that whispers to you in the night that you deserve those things, you have a right to them, and that if you don't have them you're a failure.

I knew we were in a war. Now I've identified the enemy. The enemy isn't Bush or Cheney or Ashcroft or Chao or Norquist or DeLay. The enemy is the shadowy figure behind and above all of them, the cold stone of a dead idol in which we've invested massive power because messy, chaotic, undisciplined Life scares us but doesn't move the stone.

All of which is an astoundingly long-winded way of saying that this site is going to stop assuming the war is metaphorical and start treating it like it's a real shooting war--which it is. Thus 'Dispatch From the Trenches'--messages from and for The Front where the battles are being fought and the troops are doing the dying. And thus the words of Allen Ginsberg to remind us who the real enemy is.

I can't say I know yet how this is going to work out in practice. What I can say is that I intend to try to cut to what's behind the stories; we can never match his superiority of weapons, but maybe we can even the playing field a bit by cutting off his supply lines. In any case, I probably ought to warn you that there's going to be a lot more anger floating around here--and plenty of targets to aim it at.

I think hope (remember 'hope'?) is a function of the belief that things can change for the better, but also the result of active resistance to and rejection of anything and anyone who tries to take that hope away by closing off options and rigidly defining what's an 'acceptable' response. Anger is a key part of that half of Hope. You need focused anger to resist and resist and resist again.

Welcome to the Resistance.