Monday, July 10, 2006
What I've Learned
The author in Providence last weekend among friends and a couple of generations too.
I fell in love with the wings of birds
The light of spring on them!
In the light of flowers
Just for the sake of traveling.
The mind creates the abyss, and the heart crosses it.
Some replies received to the post I put out yesterday, which was sort of about global warming but involved a sense of futility as well, have motivated me to get my act together. I didn't start out writing on the Internet about political things, but somehow or other during these Bush years, when concerns about the "mainstream media" in this country come from all sides, I started sending stuff to friends and contacts that I hoped would be helpful in keeping discussion going. I think that media problem may motivate much of the blogging revolution for people. Where do you find out what's really going on in the world? Ordinarily I sprinkle links and footnotes all over such pieces, which is how I learned to do research for social studies papers and debating. I'm not going to do that this time because I need to speak from my own history and experience. I see no other way to address those replies.
I know a couple guys online I've never met face-to-face who like to keep things jumping with really basic questions. I hesitate to summarize what they stand for...and they are very different people...but they share a sort of warrior mentality. They live in the US---I think---and seem ready to survive, if necessary, with a knife and some matches...or with nothing if those luxuries are not available. So whenever I post about a political solution to something, one or the other or both generally jump in with both feet.
One of the guys grew up in the inner city but now lives in the Arizona desert, very close to the recent fires. His nickname is Bushman, for a couple of reasons probably...but I think he is available to do landscape work and tend your bushes. He wrote back the following: "It's all right here. Cleansed by fire, again." And he included a link to some Hopi prophecies. He means he's ready to ride it out with things as they are, rather than muck about with government agencies trying to regulate everything.
The other fellow changes his nickname about once a month and currently is going by Darklander. Here's what he has to say: "Fear is a good tactic that all hierarchs love to use to keep the sheeple in line. Stop voting for these dingbats (sure doesn't do you any good!), disband the military, stop sending your sons and daughters to Moloch, quit the 501 3C 'Corporate' churches, find out who you really are... be free from the lot of the rot. Nah, easier to blame it on, ah, global warming..."
Now I like both these guys a great deal. For one thing, they have great wit and keep me laughing. Nothing is better in the midst of argument and struggle. I have a friend here in Athens something like Bushman and Darklander, who just retired from 3 decades of teaching industrial tech and intends to move into a cave and become a cannibal. What do I say to people like this...and why does it matter?
I see signs everywhere in America that we are rethinking the basics. If the Bush paleocons and neocons, or whatever they are, have done nothing else, they've forced us to do that. How did it all happen to this country? There used to be a magazine called Saturday Review. When it went out of business, we got the first hint that institutions we thought were the very foundation pillars of civilization could collapse and disappear. Saturday Review had a series of occasional articles by geezers called What I've Learned. I think those essays got collected into a book eventually. Now that I'm a geezer, I'm going to try one.
When I was a boy it was the postwar 1940s. My mother had a wringer washer and there were no driers. She washed clothes twice a week and hung them out on a clothesline. A mile east were factories and the Erie railroad. Coal was used to fire everything. We just had gotten rid of our coal furnace, replacing it with oil or gas...not sure which. But most people still used coal...or steam fired somehow by coal. Coal meant soot. In the late '40s there was soot everywhere...on windowsills (no air conditioning) which meant lots of dusting every day, and on Mom's clean sheets hanging outdoors. She cursed the darn soot...but not too much. We lived with soot because it meant prosperity and food in the fridge. We liked seeing smoke pour out of the stacks because jobs and production were going full blast. We liked the locomotives puffing through town, carrying passengers and goods alike. The sound of a train whistle still is enough to stop a geezer in his tracks!
Did anyone think about carbon emissions destroying the planet? I don't think so, and on we went into the automobile models of the 1950s. My father even got a job selling them, and so we had a brand new Mercury every year. What kind of mileage did they get? Who cared? Gasoline was pennies a gallon. Everything was pennies a gallon. Milk was delivered to your early morning door, in returnable glass bottles with cream on the top. Such a world may seem strange now, even alien...but many Americans yearn to return to it somehow. Ronald Reagan probably was such a man...and possibly even continued to live in the 1950s somewhere in his mind. Why did he happen?
My father was a simple man. His family circumstances during the Depression made something like college unthinkable. He had to help support his family and went to work, and continued to work until he couldn't anymore and was content to get a week or 2 off a year for vacation. I don't believe he ever made more than $10,000 a year. In the 1960s and 1970s, when my father was heading into retirement, young people just starting out got $20,000 a year at least. Inflation. But Dad's Social Security check was based on $10,000 a year in a world where everybody needed $20,000 a year. Republicans blamed Democrats for causing the inflation and Reagan won. My father voted for him.
Some say the inflation was caused by big government. There were regulatory agencies that sucked up your income and they had to be dismantled. The Bush people are completing that job at the moment. Others said corporations were passing their labor costs onto the public by raising prices of goods all the time. People blamed the unions for this and even the working man believed it and turned against the union movement. I must say I was startled when I did some factory work in the mid-'70s to see high school dropouts making more money on a machine than I had made teaching school with a college degree. But part of their wages were going to pay for the new medical benefits that came with the job. Why in the world did companies start up benefit packages like that?
One answer I heard was in the late 1940s there were price controls. The Truman administration may have tried that approach to inflation. I've always liked the idea of price controls as a way to control corporate excess...but they have significant disadvantages. One is that a company has a hard time attracting the best workers if they can't offer higher wages than the next guy. To get around it, companies began to offer benefits other than money. An insurance plan shared by the company workers, with premiums paid by the boss, did the trick. Did anybody think eventually your part of the medical premium out of that paycheck would amount to hundreds of dollars a month?
Let's talk about schools. In my hometown of 40,000 people in the 1940s and 1950s, there were 6 elementary and 3 junior high schools. You walked to them everyday, came home for lunch, and walked back for the afternoon. Out in the rural areas, they were starting to shut down the one-room schoolhouses, where my aunt had taught all alone, and build central schools. They had something called schoolbuses out there and sometimes even a lunchroom. I never saw a schoolbus in town except for those few that brought country kids into our high school. Gas was pennies a gallon.
During the 1960s, for a number of reasons including civil rights, school systems in the US started buying whole fleets of buses. That meant hiring a lot of drivers too. At the same time we decided to build cafeterias and hire cooks and servers to be sure everybody got good nutrition. (Checked a school menu lately?) Food and transportation now have become huge budget items...and of course gasoline is forcing teachers out of work. Why didn't anybody foresee these problems? Can we go back to the old way? Those schools have been converted into housing units for the elderly by now. Privatize? Do away with public education?
You see what I mean...and of course Bushman and Darklander are way ahead of me here. These problems of environment, oil prices, education, and the health system are so gigantic few political leaders seem able even to talk about them. Yeah, flagburning is an issue we can get our heads around. I know the idea of government agencies and bureaucracy is loathsome and there is waste galore. I did some of that work in my time too, and I can tell you there are plenty of workers and administrators alike who drink lots of coffee everyday and do little else. But the work of regulation and services that don't make the kind of profit that interests Republicans is necessary work I say, and watchdogging those agencies can be done. Agencies are easier dogs to watch than these corporations we have around it seems. Unless the agency is locked up in secrecy---which is another problem the republic faces.
What I've learned is mistakes have been made. They're gigantic and some may be reversible and some may not. What many think now is calculations were made too. Maybe that inflation that brought Reagan to power was planned out. Maybe the banking system is corrupt beyond repair. Lawyers are to blame. All I know is I don't want to bide my next 2 years either hoping Bush will croak or somebody will blow the ultimate whistle to expose the whole mess. I don't want to look in vain for a politician to dare to speak out either. But I have faith people can wake up and come together and build something sensible and lasting. I'd like to think there can be more to life than building a fortress around your own little campfire. Let's talk about it.