February 12, 2020

Grief in the face of prosperity

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , , at 12:32 am by chavisory

The first thing I thought of when I finished reading Alyssa Ahlgren’s essay after it came across my Facebook news feed was this article from the New Yorker this past fall, about the experience of publicly mourning the death of a glacier, about how to collectively  acknowledge grief for losses on a scale that we as humans are just not psychologically prepared to cope with at all, and our own responsibility in the face of them.

And I know that ecological concerns were not really the main thrust of Ms. Ahlgren’s observations, but still, it’s the first thing, somehow, that I thought of, that I wished she would read. It was the first thing I read that articulated heartbreakingly concisely something I’ve been struggling with how to acknowledge.

“This is one of the most distressing things about being alive today: we are witnessing geologic time collapse on a human scale.”

It’s February and I haven’t had to wear a coat more than five or six times total this year. Our blue herons haven’t bothered to leave for the winter. There are daffodils coming up in the park this morning. That would be normal for February if this were Georgia.

But I’m in New York.

I’m not being brainwashed into this. I’m seeing this with my own eyes.

And I’m a little over a decade older than Ms. Ahlgren, so admittedly my frame of reference is somewhat different. I’ve seen things change more. I also know that we didn’t used to have fireflies into mid-September. Perhaps things look fine from her perspective because in her adult memory, this is more or less the way they’ve always been.

But they haven’t.

*

Ms. Ahlgren’s reliance on the apparent ready availability of consumer electronics to prove that we’re all simply ungrateful, that we’ve been tricked or brainwashed into thinking we’ve never seen prosperity is…interesting.

I’m not sure if she knows this, but my generation is actually the first in decades to be projected to have a shorter life expectancy than that of our parents.

Many of us, even if we have professional careers, will never be able to own a home.

I live in an apartment without a dishwasher or washer/dryer or microwave or television. (I haven’t actually owned a television in so long that whenever I encounter one I barely know how to operate it.)

That’s actually okay with me. I don’t really need those things, and I’m used to getting along without them. (I’m also an old Millennial, or a “Xennial,” or a member of the Oregon Trail generation; I do know what it’s like to live without the internet or smart phones.) But it is very much a mistake to assume that standards of living and access to technology are equally high for everyone in this country. Or even that they’re uniformly better here than elsewhere in the world—they’re not. There are still parts of this country where indoor plumbing and access to safe drinking water can’t be taken for granted.

Access to gadgets isn’t quality of life. It isn’t safe and stable housing. It isn’t job security. It isn’t reliable access to healthcare.

It’s not that we’re ungrateful. But we’re anxious and afraid, for our own futures and our world.

We don’t know right this minute if our votes matter anymore, whether if our sitting president invites foreign interference into our elections again, that there is anything that anyone will do about it.

We keep seeing our country refuse to honor the ideals or even the Constitutional protections were taught to believe it stood for. It’s starting to look a whole lot like our laws don’t matter, that rules are considered to apply to Democrats and not Republicans, that members of one faction of our political class can do literally anything it wants, to anyone, no matter how explicitly illegal, without consequences.

We see how our fellow humans are being treated at our borders, our fellow citizens poisoned by their drinking water, and we don’t feel we have the right to say “It doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t matter to my life.”

I was on jury duty this past week, and the sheer number of people I saw being excused, after having to explain to a judge, that we simply could not afford to serve on a trial of significant length because that’s not how the way in which we’re employed works, was a little astonishing, even to me. That’s a problem of justice for defendants who literally cannot have a jury of their peers, because such large swaths of our society cannot afford to participate in the justice system.

I’m 37 years old and it still feels strange and wrong every time I buy a book or a movie ticket, because I couldn’t do that for so long.

*

I’m sitting here in a sunny coffee shop, too, and I am grateful.

I’m grateful to have control over my own life to the degree that I do. I’m grateful to be employed in a career I enjoy, even if it will never give me a luxurious standard of living, because around 85% of people with my disability are unemployed or under-employed (or employed under schemes in which employers don’t even have to pay us minimum wage).

I’m grateful for my union, because of which I have workplace protections and health insurance and a pension plan which I’m relatively confident will survive even if Social Security doesn’t. And I don’t normally buy into Social Security alarmism because I know that it is actually one of our more stable and traditionally politically untouchable government programs, that it’s survived many threats from deficit scapegoating more or less unscathed over the years, but this administration seems unusually hell-bent on setting fire to the stability of our social safety net from the bottom up.

I’m grateful for the work of everyone who’s helped secure those basic worker protections for people in my profession.

I’m grateful to have gotten a high-quality college education without going into student debt, because a lot of my generation did not, and no, not just because they made bad or lazy choices, but because even state college tuitions have risen completely out of proportion to wages in the past two decades. It used to be possible for an average student to pay their way through state college with a summer job. It’s simply not now. And I support the policies of people like Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Elizabeth Warren regarding student debt forgiveness because even though my family had the good fortune in many ways to be able to do what many regard to have been the right thing and just didn’t incur any, there are now so many people my age so burdened by debt that they can’t take part in economic life in any normal way and it’s affecting the health of the economy for everyone, including me.

When I walk through my neighborhood, and see the number of shuttered, empty storefronts—of bars, restaurants, stationery stores—where small businesses (and sometimes even corporate chains) couldn’t keep up with astronomical rents… I am not being brainwashed into seeing that.

We aren’t making this up.

I run another, very small blog, where with the help of other readers, I tally up every progressive, environmental, or civil rights victory, big or small, that we have secured in this time despite the depredations of our current administration, and I am grateful for every single one of those events and for everyone whose work and commitment made them happen.

I am grateful. I like my iPhone and my laptop and our easy access to information and media and living in a lively, diverse city with incredible access to music and theater and cultural resources.

And in a lot of ways, living here long term is not good for me. My health and well-being would be better served, honestly, by living in a quieter, smaller place. But I fear the economic and personal consequences of trying to move somewhere and start over, of giving up the theater community and faith community and network of known and trusted employers I have here, of winding up lonelier and poorer and more isolated. I just feel like I’m being pulled apart at the seams sometimes. But there’s nothing really to do except to just keep working until there’s a more viable obvious choice.

I don’t think we’ve been brainwashed into thinking we’ve never seen prosperity, rather than that we have seen prosperity, but many of us have not gained access to its benefits in terms of true freedom of movement or security about the future, for ourselves or for the world we’re leaving our children.

I’ll survive, because it’s just what I do, but more and more I don’t know what kind of a world I’ll survive to live in, and I know I’m far from unique in that, and that the consequences I’ll face, given where I live, are nowhere near as severe as those that people elsewhere in the world will, but it’s still sad and it’s hard, and if Ms. Ahlgren can’t appreciate that..?

After the 2016 elections, those of us who were scared and upset got told a lot that we lived in a cultural “bubble” and had no understanding of the anxieties and fears that would lead so many of our fellow citizens to vote the way they did—

And now to be told, in response to our genuine fears and our responses to them at the ballot box, “You just don’t understand how good you really have it…”

Well, which is it? And also, how dare you?

You can reasonably conclude that I am wrong in my assessment of the facts. As I was saying to a friend not long ago, both the beauty and the horror of the human mind is its ability to assemble narrative out of data in a basically infinite number of ways. It’s a fallacy to think that someone who has access to all the same information as we do will necessarily agree with us about what it means, that if only people knew what we knew, they’d agree about its significance or what to do about it.

(Although I do have to wonder whether Ms. Ahlgren knows that within the lifetimes of some of her peers, America has virtually always been at war. No, this isn’t World War II or Vietnam, but that does not mean that we aren’t witnessing historically consequential events or that we don’t get to respond or have feelings about them.

“The oldest Icelandic texts are a thousand years old,” Magnason said—around the same age as the ice in the country’s oldest glaciers. “In all that time, the Earth has been quite stable, but the Earth will have changed more in the next two hundred years than in the last thousand years.”)

 

But if you cannot look around at what is happening in this country right now, at what is being done to our environment, if you can turn on the news and not at least understand why someone of your generation might be legitimately angry at our government and scared for our future, might not simply be comfortable with what we have—

Then I am not the one who lives in a bubble.

*

There’s a line in the song “Bright Horses,” on Nick Cave’s new album, that goes “We’re all so sick and tired of seeing things as they are.” Trust me, most of us wish we weren’t witnessing our democracy and our rule of law, along with our natural world, crumbling under our feet. Almost everyone I know is exhausted from heartache, but we can’t pretend not to be seeing what we are in fact seeing, what we are experiencing. And you can disagree with our electoral responses to it, but please do not tell us we’re imagining it; we are not.

No, I can’t look around me and see what I see, and in good conscience decide to just sit here and be happy with my coffee and my iPhone.

I can’t. I won’t.

September 19, 2012

Dear Mitt Romney

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , , , , at 10:07 pm by chavisory

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” —Mitt Romney

I am actually not one of the people whose character you insulted the other night at your private donor event, in footage now made public by Mother Jones Magazine.  You see–and this may come as a shock to you, as it does occasionally to people when they learn how much money I actually make, or who think that freeloading is easier to do than it actually is–I pay federal income taxes.

I mean, sure, I can barely afford my rent, my health insurance, the steadily rising cost of public transit, and the $300 in unexpected repairs that my computer needs, and may be applying for food stamps this month because even though I worked steadily all summer, the work was chronically underpaid and I’ve run through my savings…but I still pay federal income taxes.  I say this not for your pity or anyone else’s; this is just how it is.  I pay federal income taxes, and I’m very, very happy to do so.  I have a fondness for the trappings of civilization, I think the social safety net is a good and moral idea, and I’m glad to be a contributor to those things.

But let’s take a look at some of the people who you did call entitled victims with no interest in taking responsibility for their own lives.  Because I don’t think they are who you want us to believe they are.

People who find themselves exempt from paying any federal income tax may include, but are not limited to:  People who receive tax credits for dependent children, or for being the sole head of a household; people who buy their first home, or an environmentally friendly vehicle; who suffer an initial loss in the course of starting a new business, or who make improvements in energy efficiency to their home or business.  People with more than one income source who can deduct half of the self-employment tax they pay on freelance work, or charitable contributions, or the costs of private health insurance or health care if they don’t get insurance from their employer.  They include students who still manage (or need) to work part-time during high school or college.  They include people who survive primarily on disability or Social Security, or are financially supported by their families, but who volunteer or do other informal work in their communities.

They include people who work full-time, and yet still do not make enough money, particularly if they also have children, to be legally liable for federal income taxes under our current tax code.

Do these sound like people with no interest in taking care or responsibility for their own lives to you?

But no, I have a feeling that images like these, of people who are benefited by the tax code because they do economically or socially advantageous things, are not what you meant to evoke to your donors.  People who in fact are doing the opposite of not taking any care or responsibility for their lives.

You meant to evoke a bogeyman image of a lazy bum who purposefully refuses gainful employment and would rather sit around collecting government benefits, mooching off the hard work of the rest of us just because they can, and who will vote for anyone just to protect that status.

And those people do exist–I’m sure they do, because wherever there is any system of benefits or safeguards, there are people who will figure out how to take unfair advantage of it, among the rich as well as the poor.  But that is really, really, really difficult to do these days, in our current system of welfare benefits, if you are a non-disabled adult with no dependent children and no work history.  (Hell, it’s difficult to get benefits if you are legitimately disabled, generally requiring more than one appeal no matter the validity of your claim.)

This leaves about two possibilities that I can think of.  Either that, one, you don’t know very much about how our tax laws work and how responsible, working people can benefit from them to the extent of winding up owing no federal income taxes, and you don’t know the difference between people who reap tax advantages by working and people who choose not to work, and you don’t know the difference between people who work full-time (or more) and still don’t make enough money to pay taxes on and people who think that the world owes them everything.

Or, two, that you do know these things, but you thought that you could win some advantage or approval with a few rich and powerful donors by smearing these people, and so you did.

You either know nothing about the lives and economic situations of nearly half of our citizens, or you see them only as pawns for your own advancement, whose character, work ethic, and well-being mean nothing.

Either one leaves you unfit to be President.

I, on the other hand, believe that if we don’t hang together in times like this, we will surely hang separately, so non-freeloader that I am, it doesn’t help you to tell me that nearly half of my fellow citizens are economically or morally disposable moochers.

I believe, unlike you, that the vast majority of our citizens and not only a little over half of us, both desire and are capable of doing something worthwhile with our lives and making this country a better place, and that valid ways of doing that are not confined to occupations that wind up making you an arbitrary amount of taxable income.

And this is the reason that I will vote for Obama and not for you.  Not because I’m a freeloading entitled victim who pays no taxes and just thinks the government should provide for me.  But because I don’t like how you treat people.