The Broad is Back!

February 27, 2014

Pay Attention! The Grapes of Wrath are Filling Up

“In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” ~ John Steinbeck

 

This quote comes from that great novel of the Depression and the Dustbowl, The Grapes of Wrath by the Nobel laureate John Steinbeck. Today would have been Steinbeck’s 112th birthday, so in honor of him and his view of America, I wanted to post something.  His novel, one of 27 books he wrote, is an American classic and one of my favorites in the American canon.  Its theme of social justice called to me when I first read it as a high school senior;  later readings only made me love it more.

 

Steinbeck wrote of the radically unequal America of the Depression, and as he said when he was writing it,  “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this.”  After it was done, he said, “I’ve done my damndest to rip a reader’s nerves to rags.”  He certainly did for this reader, and for millions of others since its publication.

 

But Steinbeck wrote this novel in 1939. That was 75 years ago.  I wonder what he would think of this America, now in 2014.  Based on his writing, I suspect he’d be shattered.

 

His words still fit today. I see the grapes of wrath building, building, building.  Something has to give.  Something must give.  There must be social change.  Greed has taken over, and the “greedy bastards” are kings in our society.

 

What has happened to my America? Have we learned nothing from history?

 

If you haven’t read the novel, please do. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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February 17, 2014

It’s Not Just a Sale Day–Presidents’ Day 2014

My inbox is full of sale offers–it’s Presidents’ Day–shop! Shop! SHOP!

 

I get sick of it.  Why is everything in this country an excuse to go shopping?  No, I know why. That was a rhetorical question.  This is supposed to be a day to remember Presidents Washington and Lincoln and frankly, any others you’re particularly partial to, I guess.

 

One of my favorite presidents is Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th president, Republican and founder of the Progressive Party.  I’m thinking had I lived under his presidency my view of him may not be so rosy, but so many of his words have resonance for me.

 

Like these: “The things that will destroy America are prosperity-at-any-price, peace-at-any-price, safety-first instead of duty-first, the love of soft living, and the get-rich-quick theory of life.”

 

Those points about prosperity, safety, soft living and get rich quick are ringing bells.

 

When did duty, discipline and hard work become negative words?  When did laziness become a virtue? Every semester I hear students tell me they are “lazy” as if it’s something to be proud of. No shame, no embarrassment.  I don’t want people to hang their heads in shame, but a little perspective, please?

 

Poor Teddy is often depicted as a macho man, “cowboy,” and hawk. And he was. But he’s consistently ranked as one of America’s greatest presidents–he busted up monopolies, made laws to protect people from corporations, fought to keep food and drugs pure.  No one is perfect, and I’m not one who believes that leaders need to be perfect.  But what I love about Teddy is his no-nonsense approach to life.  He told it like it saw it. He was blunt. I love that.

 

Instead of shopping today (or realistically, maybe after shopping), spare a thought for those who tried to build this country up, save it, improve it.  Pick up a presidential biography, scan some history pages on the web.

February 5, 2014

You Mean That’s It?

Since Monday morning, I’ve been hearing about “that Coca-Cola commercial”.  People were offended. People were offended that people were offended. People thought “America the Beautiful” was the national anthem. That one flummoxed me. People getting offended seems to be the American way now. But getting the national anthem wrong? That takes a special kind of talent (especially if you’re complaining about Coke misusing it!)

 

I tell ya, Coke got its money’s worth.  They wanted to draw attention to their brand? Mission accomplished.

 

I have seen so much back and forth that I finally watched it today. It’s a minute of pretty pictures of ethnically diverse pretty people in pretty places in the United States. The hymn, yes, hymn “America the Beautiful” is sung, often by children, in eight different languages. For a few seconds, there’s a gay couple with what is most likely their daughter, though it could be a niece.  Shots of Coca-Cola are laced throughout.  That’s it.

 

It’s a commercial. It’s selling something. It’s selling something that’s not particularly good for humans to consume: high fructose corn syrup, caffeine, caramel color and a lot of empty calories.  But this is America, so selling stuff is okay. That’s not “offensive”.  Selling an idea that America might be a mix of peoples, that people might sing in their mother tongue, even a song about America? That’s “offensive”.

 

Of course, the “factoids” have been hitting social media, as well.  The hymn was written by the now famous (thank you, Coca-Cola) English professor Katharine Lee Bates, who lived in a “romantic friendship” with Katharine Coman for 25 years. I hesitate to use the word lesbian because Bates didn’t. But it was definitely romantic as Bates’s published poems illustrate. You can find snippets here.

 

Then there are the words to the song itself.  That the song is a prayer for America to be refined into a perfect place is being mentioned.  My favorite verse is this:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

Those are my italics. I don’t think God cares what language (or style) we pray in. Mercy is important; success is nobleness and we’re hoping that we’re growing more and more godly. Hate and intolerance are not godly values. Nor are they noble.

 

I have to admit, this has always been my favorite of the national songs I learned as a child.  I like the values it espouses of self-improvement, national improvement, and striving for brotherhood: “And crown thy good with brotherhood”.  Love that line.  Some people are realizing how “Liberal” the song actually is.  Instead, I like to think of it as Transcendental, even Puritan in its lyrics.  Of course the adjective Puritan is double-edged. Yes, they pursued liberty, justice, literacy, equality, but from a very narrow, very specific Christian outlook. The irony of my word choice does not escape me.

 

But what’s really bothering me the most about this brouhaha is that this is yet another weapon of mass distraction. There are very bad things happening in America every day (I won’t give a list–every one has his or her own priorities). If someone thinks a Coke ad in multiple languages is the worst problem we have here in America, he or she clearly isn’t paying attention.

 

I do realize that some people feel that the commercial is a symbol of bigger things gone wrong: of the “gay agenda,” of a “Muslim agenda”. I don’t think asking for acceptance is an agenda, but then that’s me.  Isn’t America about freedom and having the right to live as one likes, as long as it’s not hurting someone else?   How is a married gay couple hurting anyone? There are some people who, for religious reasons, see homosexuality as a sin. That’s fine with me. Don’t practice homosexual acts.  Your religious freedom to believe that can not be forced upon other people, though.  Homosexuality is not a “lifestyle” or a “choice”. It’s like being left handed. Once upon a time, being left handed was considered a sign of evil, so people were forced to use their right hand. Made a lot of people a little nuts.  We don’t do things like that any more. And a “gay agenda” to “turn people gay”? That’s not a thing. Really, it’s not.  There seems to be a “straight agenda” to “turn people straight,” but the gays know how well that works. Why should they turn around and do the same?

 

As for religions, why shouldn’t we accept Muslims? Roman Catholics and Jews were once systematically marginalized and made second class citizens. Some think they still should be.  People actually thought the Catholics would rise up and kill all the Protestants some day.  (My godmother’s mother-in-law was sure of this back in 1939–when my Catholic godmother married into the family.)  Obviously, that hasn’t happened.  And won’t.  Some believe the Jews control a) the government, b) the media, c) Hollywood and/or d) banking.  Um, I don’t think so. Yet I’m sure someone will post and show me how they do.

 

The irony that I am writing about a commercial when I said there are better things to write about doesn’t escape me.  But one of the main goals of commercials is to generate buzz. As I said, mission accomplished.

 

November 29, 2013

Can We Reverse the Trend?

Right before I left school on Wednesday, I was helping a student with her classwork.  She’s only been in America two years–coming from China with her family for a better life.  As we were packing up I asked if her family would be celebrating Thanksgiving.

She brightened right up and happily exclaimed, “Oh yes! My mother will make the traditional turkey tomorrow and then we will join the traditional shopping on Friday!”  My heart cracked a little, but I had to go to another class.  I didn’t correct her. She seemed so happy that her family was being “American” for a few days.

Black Friday, a term from business turned against consumers to now whip them into a shopping frenzy. Taking advantage of Black Friday deals has become *the* thing to do the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, the masters of manipulation have brainwashed our society so well that we now start the madness on Thanksgiving night itself.  No more a day off for people to share with their families and friends. To feast, to gather, to rest. Now people must eat then go into work for a late night shift.

One friend in retail went in to work for 9PM last night then has to do a double shift today.  This retail job is her second job, too. The one she had to take to help meet expenses of college for her children.  Sure, she’s getting paid, but the company she works for is the one really making the killing.

Corporations have convinced us that Black Friday means great sales.  Take a look at prices and you’ll see that’s a lie. Oh sure, there may be one or two door buster specials, but that’s about it.  Google it. Consumer advocates publish articles every year saying this. It’s not just my anecdotal evidence.

And I know many people have to shop for holiday gifts, but does it all have to be done a month ahead? And why all today? How much of today’s frenzy is a manufactured need spurred on by clever manipulators, skilled in human psychology? My nine year old niece made a passing complaint yesterday about all the Black Friday advertising she’s been seeing, and she doesn’t even have a television in her home!

I rarely use my own television, but every time I open my email, there’s another “Black Friday Special” junk mail. Every site I visit with advertising has ads for today.  It’s revolting.

When I left America in 1995, Black Friday was just starting to be a “thing” that was being strongly marketed, but it was no where near “tradition” level.  And on Thanksgiving itself, hardly anything was open.  Forget something for the dinner table? Oh well, you’re probably going without unless you spotted it by 2PM. I remember spending 40 minutes one year looking for something my mother forgot. My grandmother liked it, so off I went only to find one lone deli open that was getting ready to close minutes after I left.

But when I came back to the US in 2007, it was to the land of Black Friday madness and instant gratification.  It’s horrendous.

When I lived in Europe, one of the things that drove me slightly batty at times was the store hours. Stores had certain hours, and when they were closed, that’s all she wrote. In Switzerland, the strictest place, stores were closed on Sunday all day and closed at 5:00PM Saturday evening.  But we knew that was the system.

People had all day Sunday off to spend with family and relax.  For all its rules, I think the quality of our family life in Switzerland was the best it ever was.  Every Sunday we went to a museum, the park,  the lake or for a family stroll. Restaurants and the big museums were opened, so some people were working, but because the shops were closed, I was forced to get the errands done beforehand giving me time with my family on Sunday.

Switzerland, for all its wealth, was not a retail mad country, and no one was urging us to BUY BUY BUY.

Can we here in the US reverse this trend? Can we be “unprogrammed” to rush to the stores early on “Black Friday” to buy, buy, buy, emptying our pockets into the corporate maw and depleting our own stores of happiness?

I think so, or frankly I wouldn’t be writing, would I? Resist.  As a nation we must learn that we are being manipulated and used by corporations.  More and more I’m seeing this, and it’s breaking my heart.

And I know some people think of shopping as a hobby, but I have never heard one person talk about the pleasure of shopping on Black Friday. They complain of the crowds, the crush, the tempers, the surliness, the lack of parking.  After a lovely, relaxing day, why subject one’s self to that?

Want a tip from someone who hates shopping (I love giving the gifts, but I hate the actual shopping part and always have)? Early morning Saturday the week after Black Friday is a totally different experience. I went into Macy’s when it opened and had the place practically to myself.  It was still three weeks before Christmas, so I wasn’t too frantic, and the crowds had spent their money the week before.  Lesson learned.

I have friends who are happily out shopping today, and that’s their decision. I refrain, mostly out of my hatred for the manipulation, but in part because of my abhorrence of crowds and long lines.

If you shop today, though, all I ask is that you do it mindfully not because you were brainwashed. And please, please please treat the workers politely, Many have given up family time to help you and far too many people are rude and nasty. Kindness costs nothing, and really, truly is the American way.

November 28, 2013

I’m Thinking Maybe He Should Reread the Gospels

Many of my friends are abuzz with Pope Francis’s most recent pronouncements.  In his first apostolic exhortation. “Evangelii Gaudium” “Joy of the Gospel” he basically blasted unchecked capitalism and consumerism as “selfish”. I’m beginning to like this guy.  He said a lot of other things, and admittedly, I haven’t read the entire thing (it’s over 50.,000 words long), but unsurprisingly, this topic is what made headlines.

My cousin Dolores (faithful readers have read her ideas here) sent me an email this morning ending with:

Rush Limbaugh called the Pope a Marxist for preaching the gospel of Jesus…astounding!!!

I really think Mr. Limbaugh needs to read the Bible.  Actually, I think a lot of American “Christians” who shout and holler about how “socialist” America is becoming really need to reread the Bible.

Let me direct them to the Gospel of Luke, chapter three, verses 7-14

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” (NIV) (emphasis mine)

Granted, this is John the Baptist speaking, not Jesus, but Luke left it in, and really, Jesus gave John His seal of approval, so I think we should take this as, well, as Gospel.

Admittedly, as I tell my students, it’s tough to use the Bible to support an argument, because it’s so contradictory, but we’re talking about basic tenants of Christianity here. I do realize Jesus himself said, “The poor you will always have with you,” but the end of the sentence was “but you will not always have me” (Matt 26:11 NIV).  He was responding to a very specific incident.  Here’s the context for those who like to see it:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”

10 Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt 26:6-13, NIV)

In his comments about the poor, Jesus was echoing the Old Testament in his speech to his followers:

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” (Deut 15:11, NIV)

A lot Bible quotes, perhaps, but a national commentator just called the head of the Roman Catholic Church a Marxist.  I’m thinking someone doesn’t understand Christianity. Still, when I was in grad school, at a Catholic college, one of my favorite professors, Sister Francine Dempsey, CSJ, mentioned in class that someone once said that the only place Marxism would ever work was in a monastery.

Think about it.

What Marx says about wealth, while political and overtly anti-religious, is basically the same as the message of John the Baptist and his cousin, Jesus.  But they are speaking from a place of Love.  We share because we’re all brothers and sisters, and we love our brothers and sisters.

So I can see why Mr. Limbaugh was confused. Marxism/Christianity. Rather close. (can you hear my heavy sigh?)

And Pope Francis isn’t the first pope to condemn unchecked capitalism. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Church’s Social Teaching), Pope John Paul II (you know, that Nazi-fighting, freedom fighting guy?) wrote:

The tension between East and West is not in itself an opposition between two different levels of development but rather between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction.

(you can read the entire encyclical here)

This wasn’t the first time Pope John Paul went after unchecked capitalism. In 1984, in a speech to fishermen in Canada, he said

The fishing industry has also been concentrated more and more in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Around the globe more and more small or family fishing concerns lose their financial independence to the larger and capital intensive enterprises. Large industrial fishing companies run the risk of losing contact with the fishermen and their personal and family needs. They are exposed to the temptation of responding only to the forces of the marketplace, thus lacking at times sufficient financial incentive to maintain production. Such a development would put the security and distribution of the world’s food supply into ever greater jeopardy, if food production becomes controlled by the profit motive of a few rather than by the needs of the many.

It’s actually a pretty kickin’ speech, and you can find the the entire text at the Vatican website.

And Pope John Paul II was pretty consistent in his economic message throughout his papacy.

Can you imagine Mr. Limbaugh trying to get away with calling Pope John Paul II a Marxist?

So just what did Pope Francis say that has put everyone’s knickers in a twist?

Here are some key passages I found on the website Aleteia:

In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting. To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us. (54)

Oh my! That’s the same song I’ve been singing for years.  I’m really starting to like this guy.  And then there’s this:

While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules. Debt and the accumulation of interest also make it difficult for countries to realize the potential of their own economies and keep citizens from enjoying their real purchasing power. To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule. (56)

Some might call hypocrisy here, as the Church doesn’t pay taxes and is incredibly wealthy. But he also called for reform:

“Since I am called to put into practice what I ask of others, I too must think about a conversion of the papacy. It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization. Pope John Paul II asked for help in finding “a way of exercising the primacy which, while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation”. We have made little progress in this regard. The papacy and the central structures of the universal Church also need to hear the call to pastoral conversion. The Second Vatican Council stated that, like the ancient patriarchal Churches, episcopal conferences are in a position “to contribute in many and fruitful ways to the concrete realization of the collegial spirit”. Yet this desire has not been fully realized, since a juridical status of episcopal conferences which would see them as subjects of specific attributions, including genuine doctrinal authority, has not yet been sufficiently elaborated. Excessive centralization, rather than proving helpful, complicates the Church’s life and her missionary outreach.” (32)

So, a start.

I despair of America sometimes, where we’re going, what we’re becoming, and I think the reason Rush Limbaugh’s comment goaded me into writing was that it exemplified the ignorance of so many Americans I meet.  As a professor, a teacher, I spend my professional life removing ignorance. But willful ignorance? That’s my nemesis. And since I’ve returned to America the level of willful ignorance I’ve encountered is dumbfounding.

I do have so much to say, and hopefully at least over the Thanksgiving   break I will be able to carve out some time to write.

It’s Thanksgiving in America, the time we set aside to be grateful for our bounty.  To those who celebrate, I wish you a wonderful day full of beautiful memories.

October 3, 2013

Still Hoping for Power to the People

“We want to empower our people; we want to strengthen them; we want to provide them with the kind of qualifications that will enable them to build up their own country themselves.” ~ Aung San Suu Kyi

When Aung San Suu Kyi said these words, she was referring to the people of Burma, but I think this is what we should want for people in all places.  But instead of empowerment, much of American culture (and I’m speaking as an American–I know it’s similar in other places) sets out to disempower the people.

Yesterday I spoke of our broken educational system. I do often wonder quite seriously how much is done deliberately. We have a popular culture that glorifies ignorance, stupidity, vapidity and violence. We undermine authority figures in almost all genres of entertainment. Authority isn’t a bad word, but if we teach people it is, no one will want it or seek it other than those who turn it into a bad word through their actions.

This post started on my other blog, but as often happens when I’m thinking about things that are important to me, it spills onto this one.

I’m deeply disturbed by the state of America right now. Not just the current crisis, but by all the factors that brought us here: poor education, weapons of mass distraction, selfishness and even a sense of ennui in so many people. Working hard for too little money, scraping by, living paycheck to paycheck dulls the mind to other things.   According to a report released last year, over two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s hard to think about eroding freedoms when you’re worried about missing work and getting pay docked.

This is a trend that must be reversed.

I teach to empower people, but as much as I want to give my students the tools they need to take control of their own lives, true control, free from the overbearing corporate influences playing on people today, no one can be empowered with the desire to wield power.

So many people are perfectly willing to abdicate responsibility for their own lives. This is a sad way to live.

Actually, as I tell my students, this can be a fine way to live. Nothing is your fault when it fails and no hard decisions need to be made. Multitudes aer plenty happy in this kind of life.

Those who want to live freely know that they must have power over themselves. And as Francis Bacon famously wrote, “Knowledge is power.”

Societies have changed radically in the past. All things are cyclical. When I call for change, people tell me, “You can’t change anything. This is the way it is now. It is what it is.”

Lie. That’s a lie sold to us by people who don’t want change. We can turn this around, hopefully. It will not be easy, but it can be done, but only if people want to be empowered.

 

September 2, 2013

A Call for Labor

Because today is Labor Day, I want to make a plea for those who would labor in this country but who can’t. I want to make a plea to bring manufacturing back to America.

We keep saying the jobs of the future are in technology. Many of them are. And factories don’t need as many people as they used to before robotics. But because Americans want to buy cheap, cheap, cheap, we’ve taken bread out of our neighbors’ mouths.  And hurt the country in the long run.

Why should a company pay a living American wage to a craftsman or a worker when work can be done in a developing country by someone with no union, no laws protecting workers? I may be thought naive because I’m going to answer, “it’s the right thing to do.”

Our country prospered when our working class prospered. When a “working man” or in many cases a working woman, could support a family with an honest wage. I hear many people blaming the unions. Hogwash. Unions got you a weekend and safe working conditions. Unions make sure you’re compensated if you’re injured at work.  Is there corruption in unions? Yes. Is there anywhere humans are that does not have corruption? No. Unions, churches, governments, corporations. It’s humans who are corrupt, not unions.

Since I’ve been back in America, I’ve gone through countless small appliances, clocks. chairs, the list can go on and on. Things break. They just stop working. I’m not saying one country or another is doing shoddy work, and I often think, in my paranoid moments, that companies do it on purpose to up their bottom line. But I know I would rather pay more for something that will last than keep throwing things in the trash. Living in a disposable world is wrong on so many levels.

But I’ve started to look at labels very carefully. I’m buying more things built in Germany, Switzerland and England because I want better quality. Yes, I’m paying more, but in the long run, I am sure I will save money.  I would rather buy things made in America in order to support my fellow Americans. But I can not find them!

I’ve said it before, more than once. If a clever person opened a factory here and made kitchen appliances, he or she would make a mint. Yes, I would pay twice as much for an American made toaster. I did it already for an English made one.

Not everybody wants to go to college.  Not everybody wants to work in an office. I’ve never worked in a factory, but I’ve worked in a factory lunch counter. It was not pleasant. It was hard work. But it was 9-5 with a regular and good paycheck.  The more skilled workers got paid more, which makes sense, but they had jobs. Now the jobs are gone.

Don’t tell me that working for a subpar wage with no health care or retirement benefits at a big box store is less stressful or easier on people.

My late father-in-law was a machinist in a mill. He and my mother-in-law raised nine kids on his paycheck. It was tight. Very tight. He supplemented his income with providing much of his own food with gardening, hunting and fishing, but his children were fed, educated and went on to good lives. But there’s no mill anymore for any of them to work in. The area they live in has been hit hard economically, and not just in this century. Things were getting bleak there in the 80s and they’ve never truly bounced back.

There are only so many tech jobs that can open up.

We’re being sold the story that we live in a service economy. That the jobs have moved overseas and there’s no getting them back. Why not? Prices will go up if people get paid a living wage. Americans have to say well, I will pay $6 for quality that will last instead of $1 at the dollar store. I’m no stranger to dollar stores. But how many times have I thrown out things in a matter of months and then had to replace it?  That’s false economy.

I feel like I’m on a soapbox right now. There are so many issues that are part of this problem. But I know there are people who want jobs and we keep telling them: “There are none. Learn a new skill.”  We have the factories, shuttered, many being turned into luxury housing for those in the professions. Housing is good. But so are jobs. Why repurpose a factory into housing when we could reopen it and start bringing in jobs?

I’m not an economist, so what the hell do I know? I read, though. I know history, though.  We see what happened to Detroit. We’re at a crossroads. Time to start a revolution in thinking about this country. Americans have to wrest America back from corporations and governments, local, state and federal, that pander to their needs.

July 10, 2013

Past Wisdom

Looking through some inspirational quotes today, I found this:

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.” Franklin D Roosevelt

When I read it I thought, “Oh dear. How will this decade, this century so far, be judged?”  We’ve done a very good job adding to the abundance of a few, but we’ve actually made it harder for those who have little.

That’s just not right. Now of course, I am the result of two generations of Roosevelt Democrats. Perversely, I actually like his cousin Teddy better and will occasionally call myself a Roosevelt Republican (which, by the standards of today’s GOP, means not a Republican at all), but I do think FDR’s administration tried to do something to help people.

My mom’s cousins and my great uncle were in the Civilian Conservation Corps, giving them work during the Depression. Social Security was introduced making retirement easier for many of my older relatives who would have ended up living in poverty once they could no longer work.

But now I live in an America where corporations have the rights of  people, very rich people, even though America was never supposed to be an oligarchy. I have a government that bails out banks and huge corporations because they are “too big to fail,” while saying those corporations should be allowed free reign to drive the economy. Make up your mind, corporations. Do you want federal help or freedom? If the free market says you fail, why then you should fail. Companies have failed since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Why not now?

Like many Americans I have reached a tipping point. I’m well beyond the “last straw” phase. The camel’s back was broken years ago, so now each fresh illustration of a world gone mad just pushes me further into despair.

Today’s Washington Post headline: “Wal-Mart says it will pull out of D.C. plans should city mandate ‘living wage'” summed it up for me. Wal-Mart has done more to ruin this country than I care to think about. People who work there full time still need government assistance. It destroys local businesses and has forced many American manufacturers to either move to China in a bid to keep costs low or plain put them out of business.

The 2oo5 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price pointed out some of the problems caused by this behemoth but it’s not the only critic. Google “Wal-Mart dangers” and you will find articles from the New Yorker, BusinessWeek and MSN Money, a report from 60 Minutes from 1996 as well as reports from a number of watchdog groups. But the mainstream media seems to be aware of the threat Wal-Mart poses. But Americans still flock there to save a few dollars, dollars that then flow back out of their pockets to support Wal-Mart through taxes and lost opportunity.

Six years ago I started this blog to chronicle my return to America after 12 years abroad. I have gone from happy to be back to wanting to leave more than anything. This kills me because I truly love my country. But I had a better life in the three other countries I’ve lived in. Since I’ve been back it’s been six years of working part time or temporary jobs because in spite of my PhD, 23 years of teaching experience (during which I’ve won teaching awards), there are few jobs to be had. Twice I’ve had to turn down college teaching positions because I couldn’t afford to live on the salaries offered.

One college president even told me, “This is really a position for someone who has someone else in the household bringing in a second income.” Yes, truly, that was said to me.  And this was not at a small, private college. This was at a state school.

I’m looking for positions in other fields, but it’s not easy. I send out over 75 job applications a year–sometimes closer to 150. (The real lesson here is not to earn a PhD in the humanities. Seriously.)

Oh, America, what’s to become of you? Have we taken nothing from the past? The path we are on is not a viable one.  What is my son inheriting?

 

May 5, 2013

The Unholy Trinity: Salt, Sugar, Fat

I just finished reading Michael Moss’s book Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us. It was full of very appalling information, and if you haven’t been paying attention for the past 20 or so years, I highly recommend it.  Luckily, I have a mother who is very aware of the evils of processing, so she passes the fruits of her research on to me.

Sometimes we tease her about her diet choices, but the woman will be 81 in a few months and takes no medications. Her blood pressure and cholesterol are low, and in fact her 40-something physician told her that she wished her numbers were that good. So obviously Mom is doing something right.  And she’s regularly mistaken for being in her late 60s. It’s partly genetics, but also partly vigilance.

As I was reading the chapter on Lunchables–and yes, that particular product has its own chapter–I realized how lucky I was to have “missed” them.  We left America in 1995 when my son was 4; we returned in 2007 when he was 16.  His entire schooling was in other countries.  By the time we returned, his tastes and preferences had been set. And in other countries, at least the ones we lived in, children’s school lunches were serious business.

My son went to school in Taiwan, Switzerland and Sweden, but at every school hot lunches were supplied every day, and children were not allowed to bring a packed lunch. They learned to eat what was put in front of them. If they didn’t like something, they could fill up on salad and bread.  Sweets were not allowed on school grounds, and the beverages served with lunch were water or milk. Plain milk, not chocolate.

So thanks to the rigidity of the schools he went to, I never had to fight the peer pressure of Lunchables or any of the other vile products marketed to children in this country. Although I almost always gave him plain oatmeal, sugary cereals were always available, but super sweet American cereals were not. When we came home to America on visits he was allowed a box of Froot Loops or Lucky Charms, his favorites, and I allowed him Pop Tarts, something I wouldn’t have had I lived here.  Ironic, I know, but as ex-pat moms, we just have different ways of working out our guilt.

Before we left America, I was much stricter. Until he was about 2 1/2 I had him convinced that rice cakes were cookies. The babysitter’s house disabused him of that notion, but at home, after the rice cakes deception was up, he got juice sweetened organic cookies. I was trying hard to give him good eating habits and not develop an overly sweet tooth.

Something worked as he’s not a sweets person. After the first few months back in the US, eating all the things he’d missed in Europe–Pop Tarts, donuts, root beer, sugary cereal–he mostly stopped. He felt glutted just like some tourists to America who come and eat all of our foods, loving it, but then are very happy to go home.

For me, though, reading this book was partly preaching to the choir.  Many of my students write papers about the obesity epidemic and almost all of them cite the cheap availability of fast food or convenience food as a main problem.  This riles me because I know for what you’d pay to eat at a fast food chain, even one with cheap menus, I could prepare a meal that’s half the price and immeasurably better for them.  I even once wrote a cook book (unpublished, alas) of cheap, unprocessed, healthy recipes.

And per pound, much junk food is much more expensive than carrots, apples or any in-season fruit or home popped popcorn not done in a microwave.  But as Moss points out in his book, we’re pretty much addicted to the salt, sugar and fat in junk food.

The overprocessing and over commercialization of food in America is a real and serious problem.  I have no answers for a quick fix.  As with everything, I believe education is an important step. More people should read Moss’s book. More people should read nutrition labels.

One interesting point that Moss does make is that poor nutritional choices are marketed at certain economic classes.  Upper middle class folks and above, well their children aren’t taking Go-Gurts and Lunchables to school.  I see this as problematic in two ways.

First, there is a perceived notion that “healthy” food is “expensive” food.  This is sadly true when it comes to organic in this country, but the fewer processed foods in the grocery cart, the lower the bill.  Even if we buy minimally processed goods, it’s still cheaper than buying convenience foods.  A can of tomatoes mixed with some garlic and herbs, dried is fine, makes a fine pasta sauce without the added sugar, fat and salt found in commercial pasta sauces. It also costs less.  A PB&J, even using natural peanut butter and spreadable fruit on whole wheat like I do, is still cheaper than an Uncrustables PB&J. I’ll get off the soapbox now.

Second, and I see this as much more insidious, children in certain socio-economic groups are getting poorer nutrition and are already facing high cholesterol, high blood pressure  and diabetes, all of which are debilitating. But what I see as even worse, they aren’t getting what they need for their brains to develop to their fullest potential.  In this way the academic divide between rich and poor is ever so slightly widened.  All I can think when I think of this is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the strictly delineated classes are fed differently from gestation on. This, to me, is chilling.

I’ve written about food in America before, and I do see this as a major problem of American society.  If you’re looking for some hard facts about the situation, a good place to start is Moss’s book. But I think this might be something I come back to.

Follow up: Shortly after I posted this, I saw a photography project I’d seen before: One week’s worth of groceries from around the world. There couldn’t have been a better visual if I tried.  You can find an article about Peter Menzel’s project here.

June 5, 2010

Once more into the breach

Filed under: American culture,consumerism,economy,New Broads — by maggiec @ 2:28 pm
Tags: , ,

I haven’t had the energy to write in a long while thanks to a grueling teaching schedule. But I keep giving this address to students, so I guess I should post something here.

Oddly, after three full years back here in the US, I’m still experiencing culture shock. Or maybe “re-entry shock”? All I know is that America changed rapidly in the years I was gone. And I changed, as well. I’ve gained much distance, so I still see things differently.

Most of these observations are in education, since that’s my field. But the oddest things will set me off, and I’ll think, “I need to write about that.” And then I never do.  But I want to get back to it if just to have a venue to speak my thoughts.

So many things happening.  The BP crisis of all things is what draws my attention.  It’s not just the horror of the spillage.  It’s the total pig headedness on the parts of Americans to wean themselves from oil dependence.  It’s dinosaur juice for cripe’s sake.  It’s not unlimited.  The spill is not unprecedented. The scale is, but come on. We’re a disaster waiting to happen. Oh wait, it happened.  But then there’s the yelling and the blame.  I say fix the damn thing first then get all retrospective.  Bad policies all around got us here, but can we concentrate on fixing things first?

That’s off my chest, but there’s more.  And it will be coming out sooner than later.  Thanks to the economy, the summer classes I depend on were not forthcoming, so I’m basically unemployed. So I’ve got plenty of time on my hands.  Just wish I wasn’t so worried about the ability to pay rent.  We all know how distracting being poor can be. 

So on that cheery note, let me go off to ponder which topic to address first. See you soon.

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