by Gilles d'Aymery
"Silence is one of the hardest arguments to refute."
—Josh Billings (1818-1885)
(Swans - April 21, 2008) "DID YOU KNOW PENGUINS CAN FLY?" asked a local resident recently. "Penguins do not fly," I retorted. "You are wrong," he replied. "How come? if I may ask... " "I saw it on TV," answered the strong-headed chap. To see something on TV -- a computer simulation -- was enough to make that man believe that penguins do fly. In September 2005, I had a conversation with another long-time Boonville resident who was adamant that we were importing only 5% of our oil requirements. When I objected that we were importing much closer to 60% of the country's gluttony needs, that old-timer shot back, "Not from the long article I read," as he was giving me a look that silently, yet loudly, meant "and who are you, anyway...you have an accent..." Whatever he had read -- quite possibly the Santa Rosa Press Democrat (a New York Times possession in Northern California) -- he had obviously misread it, but his belief was much stronger than the objective knowledge of that alien man sitting in front of him. Ignorance keeps thwarting understanding. So, when Martin Murie advocated in his March 24 piece, "Streets, Doors, Offices," that we should be ambidextrous and go talking to people in the streets, I merely smiled in both disbelief and the regret that all the talking we can have, when we can have it, is for naught. We are either ignored, mistrusted, shunned, or ostracized. There may have been a time in the old days for this kind of endeavor, but those days are long gone. Not only does one have to deal with people who are misinformed through extremely well refined propaganda, but one has to engage people who for the most part refuse to talk or even listen (with the possible exception of the effects of the migrant workers on the community). It quickly becomes a rather insurmountable challenge.
GO TO THE STREETS AND TALK. Where in the streets? All I see are zooming cars. The only time people walked and demonstrated on Boonville's main street since I've been around (November 2003), it had to do with immigrants' rights. The Mexicans were out telling us, white folks, that without their labor this area would be dead in the water -- and they are right. The event was covered on page 8 of the local paper. Care about the war in Iraq? Last Wednesday, I asked the post office employee what the latest talking points in town were. The post office is a great place to engage into "conversations." "It's faded away," he said. "People are tired of it. We should have bombed the hell out of them in the first place. Don't we have those great bombs? We went in to help them. See the mess they created... They do not deserve our help" (I paraphrase). "Anyway, the problem is the economy -- gas and food prices.... Clinton or Obama? Makes no difference. Some will not vote for Clinton because she is a woman. Others won't vote for Obama because he is black. The white guy will be elected. It makes no difference anyway because the president has no power whatsoever. Congress is the name in town."
WANT TO ARGUE WITH THIS?
I ASKED OUR FAMED MUCKRAKER, Bruce Anderson, the publisher and editor of the local rag, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, whether there had been any antiwar demos in Boonville that he could recall. Yes, he remembered, a small one before the first Gulf War. What about the fall of 2002 and early 2003? Three guys walked once with antiwar signs, and perhaps a couple of pro-war marches containing no more than 10 people at the most. Then, there are the Valley kids in Iraq (almost 10 have been on one tour or the other and some have been seriously mangled). It's a small rural community in which families know each other and where reputation counts. Mutter a word that's out of place and it surely will drip all over the Valley like rainwater. You would not want to see your "patriotism" questioned now, would you? Politeness and prudence call for silent reserve.
SO WHAT TO TALK ABOUT? Iraq is off the table. No one seems to notice Afghanistan, the forgotten war. Better not to talk about torture and the damage done to America's standing in the world. First, people don't believe that we torture, and if it occurs it's only due to a few bad apples, and then everybody does it or has done it, and finally they deserve it (the "terrorists"); and if the world does not like us, who cares. They envy our wealth, and the world does not expand much farther than the 30-some-miles that constitute the length of the Valley with a trip to the stores in Ukiah or Santa Rosa.
THE WEALTH PART OF THE LITANY might be the single most difficult myth to debunk in spite of irrefutable metrics: An infrastructure in disrepair at a cost of over $1.5 trillion to fix it (e.g., 160,570 bridges "are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete"). A broken school system from which for the first time ever high school graduates are less educated than their parents and retired forefathers. A hollowed, tanking economy whose manufacturing jobs have been disappearing in droves, exported to slave-wage nations, an economy that has been transformed into a huge service sector that pays lowly, and a "financialization" of capital based upon Himalayan debts and speculative Ponzi schemes not seen since the time of the tulip craze in the 1630s in Holland or the 1919 swindle that brought Charles Ponzi the honor of being the remembered precursor of our current Wall Street moguls. Add the foreclosure epidemic; the credit crisis; the soaring cost of health care; the most inequitable tax system in the so-called civilized world; the crumbling of pension funds for our retirees; the hugely expensive, destructive, and not productive military expenditures; the accumulation of waste; the energy guzzling (4.5 percent of the world population consuming 25 percent of the world energy!); global warming, etc., and you know what, people flip. They don't want to hear any of this potage.
WHEN I TELL, in my peep talk, that the liabilities of the American people top $53 trillion dollars, and add that each American is carrying a public debt burden of $175,000 and each American household is responsible for $455,000 in public debt, people stare at me and do not believe a word of it. Never mind that these figures come from David M. Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States (Government Accountability Office) in a December 17, 2007, statement in the 2007 Financial Report posted in full on the Web site of Financial Management Service of the US Treasury Department. Here's the relevant excerpt of that statement:
Considering this projected gap in social insurance, in addition to reported liabilities (e.g., debt held by the public and federal employee and veterans benefits payable) and other implicit commitments and contingencies that the federal government has pledged to support, the federal government's fiscal exposures totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007, up more than $2 trillion from September 30, 2006, and an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000. This translates into a current burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household.
NOTICE THAT THESE LIABILITIES have increased by $2 trillion in 12 months. Add to these liabilities the $2.5 trillion of consumer debt and the $11 trillion of mortgage debt owed by Americans and submit to whomever in polite local society that all this miracle growth that officials and chattering classes keep heralding is nothing more than a simulacrum, a balloon filled with hot air; that wages for the vast majority of Americans, once adjusted for inflation, have been stagnant since the 1970s; that the only reasons people feel better off are due to longer working hours, multiple jobs, double earners in many households, and a crippling mountain of debt... It does not register. People will at times patiently listen but they won't hear.
RAISE THE ISSUE OF HEALTH CARE and the urgent necessity to develop a single payer system, which close to 60% of the medical profession, including our local primary care physician, is desperately calling for, and the immediate answer is: I do not want the government to get in. I do not want socialized medicine. Attempts to explain that a single payer system has nothing to do with socialism; that family practices, clinics, hospitals, etc. would remain private; that it would save one third of the current exorbitant costs, even before addressing the scandalous scams concocted by the health care industry; fall on dead ears. We have the best health care in the world, don't we?
A COUPLE OF WEEKS AGO, I sent two articles to Bruce Anderson to "beef up the content of his paper" -- Michael Doliner's thought-provoking piece on Israel and the parts of my Blips #68 regarding the state of Democracy in America. Anderson did not publish them. The reason? They were, in his words, "too high end, too scholarly" for the paper's readership. While I suspect there are more subterranean, untold motives behind the rejection it reminded of the old axiom that only an educated and informed citizenry can foster the aim of the Founding Fathers, "to form a more perfect Union." So his paper is publishing stories about local controversies, Mendocino County past (Anderson has a book out on the history of Mendocino and is obviously pushing it in his paper -- though he would not spare a review copy! "I'm into selling books...don't care about reviews..."), never-ending stories about marijuana, which may well be the second biggest crop in the county after the vineyards, and his musing on his San Francisco existential meanderings. What happens, one wonders, when education and information are trashed and information rejected or ignored? Dunno. Ask Bruce Anderson.
EVEN THE LOCAL STORIES that are covered amply in the paper do not seem to affect or rile the local people. Mendocino County has an unemployment rate that hovers around 7% (which is closer to 12% if the methodology used in the 1970s was still applying). Budgets are being slashed for practically all social services (except law enforcement, of course). Yet the supervisors voted a 40% salary increase for themselves, from $48,000 to $67,000 a year. Aside from a few whining rants in the paper no serious, popular, democratic reaction took place. It's not been a part of the post office lingua franca.
ASKED WHY PEOPLE were not more engaged in the issues of the days, Anderson replied: "There is much apathy in this Valley." Apathy looks like a casual, yet simplistic explanation for the overall silence of the local population, repeated all over the country -- and it's as much condescending as the assertion that people cling to their guns and their religion. For all I know of the Anderson Valley residents my path has crossed is that they are in their overwhelming majority friendly and light-hearted. They still don't want to engage in any serious, meaningful exchange of views. It has to do with more than personal reputation and misinformation. It's a mixture of time constraints, a deep distrust in the powers that be, an inchoate sense of helplessness, and an overall fatigue.
PEOPLE ARE WORKING LONG DAYS and don't have the luxury to spend hours looking for the proper information on the Web, even if they were inclined to do so. They may watch the TV news and perhaps peruse a daily newspaper published by the corporate media. Everybody seems to take for granted that corruption is the name of the game and government, whichever party is in power, from the local to the state and national levels, is synonymous with Don Corleone. This sentiment leads to an oft-repeated opinion: Get the government off our back -- with its recurring corollary, cut taxes, cut taxes, cut taxes. (Mention a Nader presidency and you are either slapped with the spoiler syndrome or merely laughed off.) Now, they certainly cannot be faulted for feeling helpless in the political arena. (Don't we all?) They have no say on the policies that engage the future of the country and impact their daily lives. (Do any of us?) That fatigue sets in should not surprise anyone: War fatigue, election fatigue, economic duress fatigue... It all adds up. "Why do you want to keep talking about all this mess of potage?" asked one acquaintance. "I don't," he concluded.
ACTUALLY, I'm not sure I want to either. It takes two to dance. What "good" does it serve to try to engage people who are reluctant to hear bad news, shirk the message, or talk about politics except to criticize "illegal" Latino migrants? The last time I asked Bruce Anderson his opinion about the entire mess we are in, he answered: "We are doomed." This kind of assessment is poorly conducive to a constructive advocacy for change or for entering into any meaningful discussion, to say the least. Could it be that even muckrakers are partisans of the status quo...so long as it sells papers?
I HAVE NO ANSWER TO THAT QUESTION, and I'm not sure Martin Murie would have one either. What, I'd like to ask Martin, however, is what he wants me (us) to do besides struggling to keep Swans afloat. Jan and I have hosted several local residents at our home for dinner. We've invited others to local restaurants and picked up the tab. In over four years, not one of them has reciprocated. Please, Martin, if you read this, kindly inform me what Jan and I are not doing right, or what Jan and I ought to do. Our culture, from Maine to Southern California, and from Key West to upper Washington, is all about me, me, me, and me, and more, more, more. How we change this paradigm falls into a discussion that's far beyond my penny brain.
MEANWHILE, I'll keep Swans going as much as I can (it's a real struggle) with the hope that the small lantern is not extinguished, which if history is a guide, will never be, because we are not doomed, notwithstanding Bruce Anderson's reactionary judgment and the local populace's dreadful silence. Still, any feedback shall be welcome and appreciated (from Martin and others).
I don't want to give the impression that these local friendly people are ostriches. It's just that they simply do not want to talk politics. Whether it has to do with the views I hold or my foreign accent is only a matter of speculation...among many others. In any case, when one can engage in a light-hearted exchange of views, even with a moderately progressive friend, the "conversation" does not get very far, as this exchange of e-mails between Jan Baughman and a good friend of ours demonstrates (I'm not divulging her name -- let's call her L -- but I did secure her permission to publish her comments).
January 9, 2008 (morning after the New Hampshire Primary)
L: Thoughts on Hillary winning? Thoughts on Obama?
Jan: I think as a spectator sport (though in SF I have only local channels so it's tough!), it's interesting to see a tight race, but I have no interest in either one of them being our next president...
L: I totally understand but for me the alternative, i.e. old, white guy for the other side scares the bejeesus out of me, so I am gonna have to back one of them -- leaning towards Hillary for the first time (was for Edwards but he is not catching on and his wife is not looking good) after her last debate. Obama is exciting and eloquent but too inexperienced for me and I can't help but believe that our country isn't ready for an African-American as president (alas, I don't know if it is ready for a woman either -- historically we got the vote even later). It's at least an interesting race with some people I actually like this time including Richardson and Dodd (sorry to see him go). Kucinich is a party favor that I enjoy having in the race but he will never pull it off.
Jan: Yep, well, just be prepared for continued occupation of Iraq and more wars!
L: I know, I know, I know, but do you have another viable candidate for me? I am game -- find me one. Not Ron Paul, he's just Ross Perot without the pie charts. I can't help but think that any candidate who would fit our liberal bill will never ever make it on the national scene -- not in this country, not in this time, no way, no how. "We" have to win this time -- even if it hurts -- bad as it may be it really could get worse -- imagine McCain, Huckabee or Romney (Bush apologist despite history of personal attacks -- he's a good solider like Powell -- scary) a clueless evangelical preacher or an utter pandering tool).
What do we do???????????????????????????????????????????
Jan: Why do "we" have to win this time, even if it hurts? How is that winning? If we vote for Hillary, who voted for the war on Iraq, the Patriot Act (twice), the referendum against Iran, No Child Left Behind, tax cuts for the wealthy, Alito, Roberts...then we are telling her we agree with her agenda.
I think we have to vote for candidates that represent our views, even if it hurts. Otherwise, how will they ever get in office if we never vote for them?
January 10, 2008
L: All I can do is think Ralph Nader -- we can never be sure, but the margin was slim enough that his 3-4% appears likely to have tipped the scales (especially in Florida) so that we got the idiot -- look what has transpired over the past 7 years both nationally and globally. He and his cronies have caused ripples [ed. actually, it's tidal waves!] that will affect generations to come. I truly wish we had a four-party system (as I believe a 3-party system will likely just draw primarily from the Dems) but we don't right now, and I believe from judicial to cabinet appointments, to the mentality that trickles out from the Oval Office and beyond that it really does matter who sits there even if the differences are imperceptible at times. As for the war on Iraq, they lied, manipulated, and used the dead bodies of 9/11 to get what they planned on from the moment they arrived. A lot of really good people voted for it and it didn't help that the media didn't ask any tough questions either. Obama has the luxury of being able to say he wouldn't have voted for it, but since he wasn't a senator at the time, he didn't see the 'evidence' Congress was shown so he can feel superior and right now. It's not that Hillary is/was my choice but I just can't stomach the idea of the evangelicals continuing to wield power and the Republican agenda moving forward. One more placement on the Supreme Court and Roe vs. Wade is history. Period. (As an aside, I think John Kerry is a jerk for endorsing Obama so early in all of this -- what a slap to Edwards -- he's an a**)
Just what you wanted, a soapbox for lunch:-)
I wish it all felt better -- I wish I wasn't so cynical -- I wish I could get really excited instead of just scared the other side will win. If wishes were fishes...
Jan: I'll just add that more registered Democrats and Independents voted for Bush than for Nader in 2000...
L: And maybe the 3-4% would have voted for the idiot as well if they didn't have Nader on the ballot but again, we'll never know. I am a bit nervous that Bloomberg may yet throw his hat into the ring and be a spoiler as well -- I actually really like him. Wouldn't it be interesting if our candidates for Pres end up being either an African-American or female, a Mormon and someone Jewish? Probably won't happen (Romney is such a pandering fool he won't pull this off) but it's cool to think about it.
Jan: Well, we have to find a place in the administration for the Baptist minister, just to round things out... (Office of Faith-Based Initiatives?).
POST SCRIPTUM: Northern California light-hearted exchange, non? Could anyone help me get rid of my Martian accent?
. . . . .
C'est la vie...
And so it goes...
La vie, friends, is a cheap commodity, but worth maintaining when one can. Supporting the life line won't hurt you much, but it'll make a heck of a difference for Swans.