Saturday, June 7, 2008

Skinheads, Libertarians, Recession & Salutes.

I watched with my family Shane Meadows' semi-autobiographical film "This Is England" last night. It proved to be an ambitious, if ultimately erratic, series of vignettes into skinhead culture. Set in 1983 during the Falklands War, the miner's strikes, and when 3.1 million Britons found themselves jobless, the film traces a shy boy the same age as the director was then, eleven, as he finds a surrogate family, and then a father figure, among the local skins and musically subcultural misfits. The movie, as Leo noted, could have benefitted from a transitional penultimate scene from its climactic violence into a shot of the boy folding up his once-treasured St. George's Cross and tossing it into the grey sea that borders his Yorkshire town.

Actually, its three final deleted scenes (on DVD) suggest an brighter alternate ending. I'm intrigued that the film went with a more ambiguous, less hopeful conclusion. Perhaps-- my wife's protests aside-- this made a bleaker dénouement that captured the somber mood of those Thatcher times, a quarter-century ago. (Although it appeared that its producers lacked rights for the right songs, or at least the approval of the artists; a Smiths song languished as a cover, and "This Is England," the only good track off the Clash's dismal "Cut the Crap" LP, would have graced the movie well.) It's more unsettling for me to see my own memories of similarly clad disaffected youth on screen. The (post-)punk era, in its brevity, turned out to be my own cusp of adulthood, if only by accident. Instructive how nostalgia compels those, whenever they became grown or at least filmmakers, to return longingly to a period that to others resists any sentimental attraction.

I lack the smug satisfaction of the Woodstock Nation and lag behind on the totally wired cohort that I teach. I'm old enough to remember gas (leaded, and ethyl) under 29 cents a gallon! My MTA commute's getting mighty crowded: L.A. subways begin to rival New York's density, and their olfactory ambiance. It'll be insightful how our own slippery slide into what the L.A. Times gingerly calls a "slowdown" that's obviously a recession will fare in stoking further comedies on TV about the 70s, when oil prices and job losses again dominated our mundane lives. My dad was out of work for a year and a half. I think we went that period without eating any steak.

That stint also aroused an ingrained distrust in government. Being a kid during Vietnam and an adolescent around Watergate, I thought when I'd get to college, if I could wrangle the dough for it, there'd be moratoriums and riots. During the year I entered, Carter dimmed while Reagan ascended. Soon, my grants, given for low-income families like mine, dwindled. I made it, but many of my classmates dropped out. Frightened, I studied maniacally and worked steadily to keep my eligibility for what remained in aid. Terrified each spring when I opened the bill for the next year's tuition, I resolved to succeed, but I did need the government's trust to pay my way.

A few miles away from where I now type this, for his first two years of college, Obama attended a prestigious liberal arts school, Occidental. His chronology parallels mine precisely. Our generation, between the hippies and the slackers, too old a bit for Gen-X (the demographic; the band we did listen to) and too young for yuppies, tends to be ignored, although Obama's rise to power may change the media's perception of how to pigeonhole those of us born that summer. Maybe that's why he resists the facile symbol of a flag pin.

For all my disagreements with the former Barry from Punahou (my college roommate freshman year was a fellow grad-- and presumably his classmate-- from that Honolulu prep school, so I remain confused how Obama matriculated as the sizable islander contingent on my dorm floor told us you had to be part-Hawaiian to enroll there), I do recognize perhaps his own ambivalence, and maybe a bit of Michelle's ill-concealed contempt for much of the Beltway. Yes, any post-Watergate temporary resident of D.C. plays off of the insider-outsider divide, pretending to bowl or order a cheese steak. We all know that the world of lobbyists (Obama has 47 or so on his payroll despite his rhetoric) and fundraisers endures. It's essential for any aspirant to elected power.

Contrast with John Edwards, an immensely wealthy candidate who could not pay his own way forward, for his refusal to accept PAC-moneys. It's an oligarchy, backed by a plutocracy. Nevertheless, I tend to think that I'd rather vote for a rich man or woman less beholden to backers than a candidate who when elected has plenty of favors to return. Such is what our representative democracy's evolved back into: the res publica, the guardians of the "public entity" chosen from the mandarins and nabobs. Jeffersonian self-government, I can hear John Dos Passos chortle from his grave. Yes, but Dos, scion of Harvard as well as earnest anarchist-turned-Goldwaterite, tended to forget that he like his father enjoyed his 7,000 acres on the Potomac thanks to Wall Street and that paternal ablilty to manipulate the fortunes of many beyond his own privileged estate.

To think that soon I will visit Northern California. Our state may lack Virginia's plantations, but many there certainly abound in the good life I envy. However, as my wife noted this week in her blog, we know one distinguished by his choice to leave the coastal enclave's comfort for the dusty impoverished interior, in his vocation to serve those less fortunate than himself. Such integrity, I muse, does appear to attract the admirable among us into the classroom rather than upon the hustings.

How many "Change" and "Hope" posters will meet my weary and wary eye as I travel north? This year's race leaves me disheartened. I'm not a flagwaver. I'm both resentful at the choice we citizens have been given, and impatient at the lack of substance in the two opponents. Barack's an empty suit. While stubbornly unconvinced of Obama's abilities, I also cannot support his opponent's hawkish policies regarding Iraq. My environmentally sensitive (we Californians) nature bristles at whatever deals any GOP president would surely make with the corporate and agribusiness and real estate backers of his. Especially one from the West, like McCain, who undoubtably appeals more to land-use advocates than tree-hugging vegans.

The N.Y. Times had a brief piece on libertarians. I've been characterized by those who have endured my own unpredictable rantings as partially such. I've always gravitated towards third parties and contrary positions. Yet, I doubt that libertarians would welcome me; I distrust capitalism. My Green tinge disavows the Libertarian Party's admiration for Ayn Rand. Not only for her sins against prose. But, opposed to the pandering of the Greens in their typical refusal to take seriously the impact of demographics-- for fear of being tagged insensitive to the demagogues of victimization from the identity parade-- my harder line on overpopulation and unregulated immigration warps me, to my wife's horrified bleeding-heart reactions, into a partner she married from what she imagines a fascist fringe.

However, even she would agree with me as I nod approvingly at the Libertarian endorsement of fewer restraints on our personal liberties. Still, how far does a citizen go in wanting less assistance from the powers that be? Curious what all those property-rights and anti-statist ranters will do when the Big One hits. Either retreat into their survivalist redoubts and shoot us, or line up with us hapless urbanites for armory cheese and stale crackers from old Civil Defense stockpiles.

While happy to leave the D.E.A. out of the way when it comes to invading a pot smoker's den, I do resent the expectation that any medical marijuana clinic has to advertise with rasta colors or tie-dyed (Alton Kelley r.i.p.) logos this stoned Cheech 'n' Chong rasp. Search hard to find a sober facility dedicated to a serious cause. And, if a cabal of nineteen year olds by their half-baked slouch provoke a crackdown on our tenuous legal rights, I'd be as nearly angry at the potheads as I am at the Feds. The national government needs to respect the laws of our state and our cities. And, Californians better accept that not all 38.5 (and rising) millions of us qualify for a legitimate need, under the current statutes, for weed. While it'd be great for the restrictive drug laws to change, it might also a relief for prostitution to be legal. What about an eight-hour workweek? And, as with pre-Silicon, Saville Row Apple, a store where they give it all away for free?While we're at it, let's plan to celebrate the civility of same-sex marriages in each of our fifty states. Well, these harbingers of the Aquarian Age too will not likely soon come to pass either. No matter who's elected come November.

Libertarians, I fear, foolishly may goad our draconian authorities into actions that will spoil the intended purpose of a compassionate law. We risk spoiling our chances for future legalization. Such foibles by clinics and their stoner clientele stir up a backlash. If freedom advocates want laws to broaden steadily, then upstanding citizens need to conduct themselves with more sense, following the law while campaigning to change it. Users need to earn respect, not to flaunt their immaturity. This rush into permissiveness helped doom the gains of the 1960s, notwithstanding the undercover instigations that certainly foiled many fevered utopian schemes. Seems to me the Feds lurk, waiting to trap users in a crackdown.

I have argued with a colleague over related matters of supervision. How much do we need a government to watch over our weaker tendencies to not be able to take care of ourselves? He insists that his only priority is to elect somebody who will keep taxes low. While admitting the foibles of any bureaucracy, I counter that few capitalists turn philanthropists without tax breaks. I guess as a teacher I also know how hard it is to keep people on task.

I respond to my colleague that (my own self-motivated habits aside, even I get lazy) I doubt if there's many people with enough intelligence who can be trusted to run our complex society, to preserve our fragile environment, and to ensure public safety and basic literacy. But, I'm not sure if we abolished authority if much would get done out of our own idealism or good intentions. Even communes produced gurus, and monasteries need abbots. My cynicism betrayed, I doubt we humans have enough sense left on our own to stay out of trouble. We need a Nobodaddy or Godot; few of us make much of a society if we're left to wander the desert as hermits or cranks.

My colleague and I bicker over class. I see economic disparity everywhere, while he denies it as any barrier, repeating the capitalist slogan that the rich do not take money from the poor-- it's not a zero-sum game. This perplexes me. I disagree, but I'm too ignorant economically to argue, so I bow out gracefully in my ignorance!

Despite my lack of monetary acumen, I benefitted from college thanks to Cal Grants and financial aid-- and what used to be affordable UC fees during the slog to my doctorate-- I suspect that the libertarians, like the GOP, would expect people like me from humbler backgrounds to take out loans or fling burgers to meet often exorbitant tuition. This free-market reaction disheartens me. I agree that our government helped millions of us who, unlike the Obamas or the Clintons, did not enroll at Harvard or Yale, Columbia or Wellesley, Georgetown or Princeton. And, some entered those corridors of power only with assistance from Uncle Sam. My students lack the same boost I earned. Unlike my undergrad opportunity, the Federal and State governments today offer my students far fewer grants. The banks loan to this indentured customer base. However, what the fat cats in and out of office fail to understand is this enormous debt burden. This weighs down my students when they graduate. They must often move to a cheaper city. They may turn down a public-sector job. They will not be able to quickly recover their investment in an education (whose costs continue to inflate at ridiculous rates vs. the rest of our goods and services, at least until recently).

I doubt if either presidential hopeful can pull our country out of this tailspin. We're hocked. Owe our souls to the company store or Citibank or Fannie Mae. We've left our country open to any one bold or desperate enough to cross. Millions now live here beyond detection; meanwhile we endure surveillance under the Patriot Act, not to mention at airports, that any dastardly minion could outsmart. Special interests enrich lawmakers, mayors, and judges. They've pandered to big business, exploited legal and illegal labor, and gorged off of our 1040s. Those who spend our taxes have poured too much unwisely into an educational Lazy Susan of trendy reform initiatives or extravagant district investments. Contrarily, somehow, we've stinted on sensible schooling. We've been ripped off either way.

Of course, we invest in bombers. Even here, as my students who work for Boeing tell me, we outsource production of our commercial jets. Those recalled by American Airlines had been manufactured on the cheap in Asia. We sent off our military jets to be assembled the past decade in China. Boeing built plants all over the U.S. and world that combine, at great expense that again we customers and taxpayers must pay for, to make one plane. Not in the name of globalized efficiency. The corporation must please hundreds of pork-barrel pols and fulfill lucrative trade agreements.

Most of my polyglot neighbors (not to mention the local press) may care more about "American Idol" than world history. You may regard me as if I'm no patriot. Yet I care about our bedraggled country's future. We've binged the past half-century, but our hangover's minor compared to most people's headaches. Nevertheless, we Americans predictably blame the world for our own failings. If you asked the folks where I teach, I am sure most would dutifully tell you of their concern for the environment. However, I can't even get my colleagues, diplomas on their walls, to recycle. They toss paper into the trash rather than walk a few steps to the other marked bin. When nobody's looking, I transfer neat sheets from the trash into the paper bin. If clean, I will do this with bottles into their green-lidded receptacles too. I placed signs urging recycling, but they're ignored. My efforts to have more stations installed were met with budget excuses and claims of manpower shortages. A microcosm of the problem we face. We know better, but leave it up to somebody else.

Our population soars, our water dwindles here out West; few legislators possess the courage to force developers into conservation. Everyone fears being called a racist if they question liberal immigration policies. I wonder what ever happened to Zero Population Growth. Any responsible person's reproductive choices are overwhelmed by fertility rates of thousands weekly who settle here. The right of a people to control their own population level withers. When I was growing up, Americans were warned of the dangers of too many people here. Now those in power claim that we will need millions of new arrivals to contribute to an aging population's needs. We import nurses while millions languish undertrained who could learn such jobs. The connection between ecology, traffic, declines in health care and infrastructure, and a faltering middle-class appears to have been severed by some logical legerdemain.

Our oil prices rise, so our easy coasting while the Europeans have paid three times as much for decades lurches to a crawl. Many products sold to us rarely can be found as made here. Factories close; owners ratchet up profits. Remaining workers earn less due to foreign competition. Now, other nations catch up or surpass us in literacy, skills, and ambition. We appear content to let them build whatever we buy. Then, we argue that we need these inexpensive goods, given our lowered paychecks. We've trapped ourselves. "Bargains" fill big-box chains and stuff 99-Cent stores.

Mom-and-pop enterprises falter before free enterprise; Baldwin Park and Santa Ana's assimilated Latinos demand a neon franchise. They rally for Chili's or Applebee's rather than the "amigo's stores" that cater to immigrants. I marvel at why a Starbuck's merits somehow one's business so much more than a local vendor. We cannot even support our neighbors, preferring to jack up dividends for a faceless multinational. Many of my fellow Americans, glutted with lattes or jacked up on Red Bull appear to confirm our enemies' caricatures of what our people have morphed into, parodies of greedy and ignorant tourists-- now whether we're home or abroad.

Still, as one whose namesake died on Saipan where now Japanese honeymooners frolic on its placid shores, my own perplexity over my native country cannot be reduced to facile name-calling. I set my thoughts down here, suspicious of left-wing and right-wing factions alike. Neither can force me into their ideological, poll-driven pose. No view of our world can be blinkered, prefabricated, or predictable-- if it's true.

I teach mostly immigrants and their children. They cram the crowded freeways and crowd the classrooms of my city. They build their houses around mine. They jam the same streets as my car does. They jostle me on the bus. Often my best students have been those who have fought in Iraq or Afghanistan and return home-- often again injured mentally or physically.

The final picture for today's jumbled reactions to our national state brings this entry around near where it began. Todd Heisler's image accompanies Janet Maslin's review of Jim Sheeler's "Final Salute" book about "fallen military personnel," in the June 4, 2008, issue of the N.Y. Times. The expressions of the passengers of this commercial flight at Reno, the Marines bent as they take out the coffin of Sec. Lt. James J. Cathey, and the mood of this photo all mark for me a close to these confused, yet honest, musings that began with my reactions to a film of a boy whose father has died in the Falklands. It's another battle for a land many could not have found on a map before a few were sent there in the name of a confused, contradictory superpower.

"Final Salute" Slideshow


harry said...

this is america
this is pittsburg steel
this is america
this is how we feel

Fionnchú said...

Is that Dos Passos, or John "Cougar" Mellencamp singing the praises of the heartland where F-150's roam free? There's more about libertarianism in the 14 June 2008 post "Time for Reflection" on the Independence Cymru blog that's linked at right, or directly at:

Scudbob said...

Good for you Fionnchu. Somebody needs to raise many of issues you discusses and "this is how we feel" is thoughtless drivel.

I am as scared of empty suited demagoguery as pant suited demagoguery, we have come real close to both. Now if only Obama and McCain can come up with an array of New Deal type proposals that will address our nation's educational, social, infrastructural, transportation, and criminal problems as well as address the looming jobs, health care, and credit card debt crisis.

If this happens we can then be assured the candidates know how we feel.