Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Big Picture

I was watching television today and had one of those moments where the interconnectedness of bad things (of which I was already well aware) gave me that sinking feeling. It all started innocently enough with a ad for a mortgage for up to 125% of a homes value. I turned off the television and reflected on some of the concerns I'd had in recent weeks and called O. We chatted for a spell and then I was back to reflecting. To appropriate a cliché, I think culturally we have cancer, and I think we're addicted to the malady. On a blank slate, what are some of the hallmarks of a great society (prior to their decline)? I would submit, tolerance (ethnic and religous), prosperity, education, freedom of expression, advancement of art and science, health/healthcare, and compassion. No, that's not a complete list- just what I'm focusing on at this moment. How are we (in this context, "we" means the United States- having never been anywhere outside of this country, I feel ill-equipped to assess any other nation) doing these days?

Tolerance- I read this last week an article about a 9 year old girl in Paris, Texas that was sentenced to 7 years in prison for shoving a teacher out of a doorway at school. No knives, guns, grenades, etc. A shove. The teacher was unhurt. Seven years in the pokey. Oh yeah, and she's black. I have no misgivings about being especially "in touch" with the black community, but I am not blind. Color of skin still matters everywhere. That's shallow and embarrassing. Now add reactionary hysteria about Muslims. The only problem there is that the debateable issue over extremism is ONLY portrayed with the Muslims. What of all the scary-as-hell Christian extremists? Nope- only the Muslims are scrutinized. Further, US cultural ignorance is so endemic, that Sikhs are being attacked as Muslims. For the benefit of those who went to public schools, Sikhs are the folks that wear the wrapped fabric headgear and are from India. They have been badly treated by Muslims and fought to keep Muslims out of India. As such, they have some atributes (beyond the headgear), such as wearing bangle bracelets, and carrying a dagger at all times that, when taken at face value can be easily misunderstood.

Prosperity and Education- We're in deep shit here people. Subprime lending, and the longstanding trade imbalance is going to come home to roost soon. No one seems to fathom the year to year deficit, let alone the cumulative national debt. I'm no economist, and I've certainly made foolish mistakes (that led to bankruptcy- so feel free to challenge my opinions), but I've become acutely sensitive as a result. As I interpret our direction, I think we're heading toward a new kind of slavery. Huh? Yes, I'm not being flip or sensationalistic- I believe this. Observe the manner in which the middle class has had negative savings this last year, and then look at how we are encouraged to (not) manage our money. Sub prime lending has run amok, and will lend you 25% more money than your home is worth. Add to this, many markets having over-valued homes (in the case of Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer just reported that housing here is 30% overvalued). You can do the math for yourself on this one. Add to this mix predatory credit card practices, and the tactics of short term loan outfits, such as tax-return refund loans, which work out into the hundreds of percents, and the ubiquitous check cashing stands that are found in poor neighborhoods and where military families live. Funny how in an almost completely "Christian" Congress (with few Jews, one Muslim, and the first admitted atheist) that the laws would permit this kind of usuary ("neither a borrow or a lender be" anyone?). At any rate, the means by which the middle class is being removed from it's financial power are staggering, and the coffers are dwindling. I'm trying to imagine the outcome when a large portion of the middle class go into default, and who benefits. I can imagine the housing market being upended with foreclosures (this may already be happening in some areas), but there are bigger consequences. Social Security (and damn near ever other government program) are funded by taxes on the middle class. Now that bankruptcy is more difficult, I see ugly futures for lots of people who will be beholden to their creditors, and maybe this is the strategy. This is the angle I was thinking about when I said a new era of slavery is being fashioned. What could a creditor ask of you if you were beholden to them? With a friendly administration such as this, I think possibly anything. Also, as the coffers of the middle class empty, and there are fewer and fewer of them, expect secondary eduction to faulter. Trade and technical schools will replace them and a classical education will fade from memory. As people learn less and less, we will lose any remaining competitive edge internationally, but worse, we will be more easily led like sheep- willing to believe that we are fortunate and blessed by an unseen God that annoints the hand of our great leader. It pains me as well to see how unable my addle-minded countrymen and women are able to remember ANYTHING these days. I think it's television's fault. Abu Ghraib is news for a few days, but Anna Nichole Smith gets months of play. I can't find a study that breaks down to the individual voter level, the correlation between secondary education and votes for Bush, but at the state by state level, the states with more college grads tended to vote against W.

Freedom of Expression (including speech)- You need not refer to Michael Moore to see the damage to the First Amendment (for those of you who attended public schools- it's the freedom of speech, press, religion, and peaceable assembly and the right to petition the government, although fuck lot of good that last one is anymore). If you disagee with what's happening (and what you are paying for to boot), then you "embolden the enemy" and are not being patriotic. Anyone who honestly and truly believes that, please go drink a tasty glass of bleach. The jingoistic rhetoric designed to have us form opinions solely from emotion and without any cerebral action are poison. Why we as a nation can't ask ourselves one simple question, (who benefits?) is evidense of how we have faultered.

Advancement of Art and Science- Two words: Stem Cells. Two more: Terry Schiavo. When I was 1, we had a man on the moon (you know, in theory :)) and now we send high tech sticks up to poke at shit. Great. We used to have supersonic passenger planes that could go from New York to London in about 2.5 hours. Now, we celebrate the A380- a flying barge that takes more than twice as long. Why? Because we're not at the top of the value system- money is. There is no financial incentive for supersonic travel- we're all cattle that can be moved about in any economical way the big money favors. 10 hours on the tarmac? Tough titty. Complain about it and we'll put you on the "no fly list". Aside: is there or should there be such a thing as an inalienable right to fly? Controlling who flies is a limit of freedom of assembly in my book. And how about art? Do we dare say that Maplethorpe fucked it up for everyone, or was it already a lost cause? We have a little bit of original art in our home, and the most valuable bit is a large wooden horse made by a native american artist that I bought for my daughter from the American Indian College Fund (shameless plug- check them out, they support tribal colleges and are nice folks). Even this I suppose would only have an insurance value of $1000-ish, but it's never been appraised or anything. My point is this- who has original art these days? Anyone supporting the arts? I don't feel that I'm doing enough, and I take great enjoyment from it. And don't get me started on music...

Health and Healthcare- We eat petrochemicals. Did you know that McDonalds Chicken McNuggets are >50% corn and corn byproducts, and also contain a legally permissable amount of butane. As in lighter fluid. We're so far removed from actual ingredients, that any tirade about the omnipresence of corn syrup and modern obesity (of which I am included) is laughable. I'm also diabetic and have been having trouble of late controlling my blood sugar, despite increased activity. I decided Monday to make a concerted effort to eat very few starchy carbs, and instead try to eat more fresh fruit, meats and cheeses. I can tell you that at times I'd kill someone for french fries, pastries, and shit food. I'm now looking at it like an addiction and I'm amazed at how hard it is to resist. I'm hoping that there will be a plateau or point at which I "break" the desire. On the plus side, my blood sugars are MUCH improved. The core question I suppose is whether or not I will be able to live this way permanently. Back to the big picture though- I'm convinced that our disproportionate health problems are coming from our diets, and this is nowhere more pronounced than with the poor and young. I fail to see that as a coincidence. As for the institution of healthcare, I don't know that I'd endorse a system of socialized medicine per se, but I think that'd be better than what we have now. I tend to avoid institutionalized things, however healthcare is now and undue influence in other life decisions- particularly in matters of employment. I for one, have to consider health insurance in any job opportunity, and I know many people that remain in jobs that make them miserable for the sake of continued health care. Yet another control mechanism driven by the dollar.

Compassion- I am very inconsistent with charitable giving. I gave a healthy chunk of change to a local outfit in Colorado that would feed the homeless. Their big drive was always around Thanksgiving, but the goal was to take in enough to spread across the winter. Conversely, I rarely ever give anything to panhandlers, although they all ask me, as I still make eye contact with people (how very un-Seattle). I should do more. I didn't give anything to the Katrina/Rita folks. I didn't give to the Tsunami folks. I don't give to the ACLU, Greenpeace, the NRA, or UNICEF. I'm not all that giving with my money. If there is any redemption in my efforts, it's that I try to help the people I know. This has mostly been a matter of giving time or effort to help accomplish something. I've also bought computers and given them away from time to time, in an effort to help bridge the "digital divide". All that being said, I'm not remarkably charitable, and I don't know that I'm all that compassionate, but I am selfish. I think it comes from jaded cynisicm, but I am not alone in this. I think I can partially explain this too. We are both overwhelmed and distrustful. The Red Cross is an embarrassment to charitable organizations, and many fair criticisms can also be applied to the United Way as well. On top of this, there are so many needing help- the 9/11 families still are hurting and the workers are suffering, New Orleans is still wrecked, and we can't even properly care for our wounded soldiers. It's disenchanting to say the least. I think we fare a little better on the compassion front, in circumstances where we allow ourselves to emotionally engage the subject. We cared about the Kursk, the Sago miners, and the Beslan School Massacre, but not so much about the Rwandans, Iraqi's, or Palestinians. How can that be, when all deserve our compassion? I believe this is evidence of another nefarious control- a thought control. This is to me the scariest control of all, and I think it is our biggest failing.

On balance, we are demonstrably declining civilization and I fear that there is no one waiting in the wings to replace us. I wish I knew how to wake people up and engage them constructively about this subversion. I wish it wasn't necessary, but then Jefferson was spot on when he said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

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Blogger Lexcen said...

What you've said is really worrying but not as worrying as the thought that maybe you've left something out.

5:14 AM  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

I can tell you Stucco, that you need to get out a little more. Most of your concerns about the state of America and Americans is hyperventilated hyperbole.

Sure systems are constantly under attack and are crumbling in their corners. That's what systems DO. The cool thing we still have i this country are some really good corrective mechanisms.

If your rant is this vapid toward this country, I would love to hear the level of your comportment after a drive from Tiajuana to The tip of South America.

Or a jaunt through South east Asia...

Or a week spent in Russia...

Things might not be "good" by idealistic standards, but let me tell you this. I'd take living in the states with G. Jesus Saved My Liver Bush as Prez. over just about anywhere.

We have it THAT much better than everyone else.

11:37 PM  
Blogger Cheesy said...

Very thought provoking post dear...

as for the Sikh community,, AMEN brother! These are a peaceful happy group of which I have daily contact with. It kills me to hear people tittering quietly behind their backs! Understanding a people would do so much for this country. I made a point to ask questions when I first got to know the huge Sikh group that is scattered along one of my routes. I was impressed with their beliefs. As to the food woes, I truly believe we ALL need to get back to basic whole foods. I’m no vegan and if you visit my site at all you know this lol. But I do think our country has WAY too much crap food available. Sweety when you get that hankering for fries.. Just baked some tater wedges with olive oil and a little spice and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, it will kill the yen and be MUCH better for the gut! As to the rest of the post I do tend to agree with Scott a little - we DO have it sooooo good in this country but!!!!!.... We need to take better care so we don’t lose it. PEOPLE talk to you kiddos about this travesty of borrowing till you bleed... it’s a huge woe that will destroy our young!

7:00 AM  
Blogger General Catz said...

FYI, the subprime plot is already causing marked damage. Just saw a docco on it last night.

There is so much in this post that i don't know where to start, so here goes. I think it was well-written and i agree with all of it. I HAVE lived outside of the US and was amazed and dismayed when i realized that i was learning more about the world while i lived in england than i ever did in all my previous 27 years in the US.

The US used to be isolationist, or so we are taught to believe. Let me tell you, it still is. Ignorance of the rest of the world is very high but i blame politics for it. It's the american way. Additionally, keeping children under-educated makes way for cheap labor in the future. Let the rich get richer. We are breeding slaves.

And you mentioned slavery. Congratulations.

As for health care, i don't even want to think about it.

I'm also sick of people saying "we have it better here than anyone else does". How do they know that? Is there any empirical evidence, or are they just spewing another lie we've been taught?

Yes, there are awful places to live in this world. Hideously awful places. But talk to Katrina victims, the poor of the US, many others who could tell you that things aren't so good for them, either.

Sleep warm in your beds, kids. Big change is coming. I predict civil war. I think Texas will win, they're the most heavily armed.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

"I'm also sick of people saying "we have it better here than anyone else does". How do they know that? Is there any empirical evidence, or are they just spewing another lie we've been taught?"

All you have to do is look around sweet thing. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the difference in living standards for Americans to anywhere except a few other countries in Europe and, of course, OZ.

We know this because we have observed this.

What civil war?

Teehee! Man, people on the net crack me up!

12:56 PM  
Blogger General Catz said...

You can't know what living in a place is like until you've done it.

Civil war = one side against another in a violent struggle. I predict the christian right (and the gov't) against everyone else.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Stucco said...

Lex- I've surely missed things, but the core message is unchanged. I should've included a bit about John Taylor Gatto too when discussing education.

Scott- As has happened before, I repectfully disagree with you. I realize that you are far more worldly than I am and that you are speaking from your heart, but "hyperventilated hyperbole" only has alliterative value. The nessage behind this is seemingly intended to deflate my points without engaging them, and I think you can do better if you are sincere.
Don't get me wrong- I appreciate a well turned phrase ("Nattering Nabobs of Negativity", for example) but I was trying to convey more than the raw words.

As for your rebuttal, I expect we ARE still better off than those in Russia, but then comparing ones self to the less fortunate is an ego stroking escapist tactic that avoids the principle argument. And name calling (vapid) isn't strictly speaking, and answer either, and I don't think it's fair. Perhaps I've not made the best case for these thoughts, but they are substantive.

If you want to try and compare "apples to apples" for your argument, try comparing us to the USA 30 years ago. In 1977, civil rights were not under fire, and 60% of the Bill of Rights hadn't been nullified (and I can make a seperate write up on the six I see as endangered if you want that debate). I've never been, but I would venture a guess that many nations in northern Europe could demonstrate higher standards of living and freedoms than we presently have. Oh, and incidentally, I don't measure standards of living based upon cheeseburgers or flat screen televisions. In India, I could hire someone to cook for me for the cost of a microwave oven and hot pockets.

Cheesy- I think the Sikh business stems from our collective ability (or handicap) to see better than we think. That and we're horribly culturally myopic. The average American doesn't even know how many provinces and territories there are in Canada, let alone the difference between a Sikh or Muslim.

Catzy- Indeed keeping people undereducated will lead to cheap labor, but realistically, how many people cooking french fries does one nation need?

5:04 PM  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

Funny, Stucco. Your post came AFTER my post. It must be the spring that is thawing out the politicos in all of us.

Yeah, vapid was a poor choice. Heck, I think I need to go look it up.

I did like "hyperventilated hyperbole", though. I thought it sounded kind of cool...

You want to compare the America of today to the America of thirty years ago?

Eek! Not sure I want to google stuff with bell bottoms in the background if I can help it.

What I get, Stucco, is that your decency and idealism leads you down intellectual paths that lead to certain conclusions and feelings about the state of things.

Without trying to argue specifics, I just want to point out that humans have set up all kinds of systems on this planet, and the manifestations that occur culturally are evident if you would just go and look.

The whole notion of "America being in decline" doesn't fit the facts on the ground, nor does it set a reasonable path for America to follow.

In other words, for an idealist, you are being awful pessimistic.

You want to understand the state of America, do a survey of what is found in an American's garage verses the rest of the world's garages.

Me, I got four pairs of nice snow skis I rarely use. Golf clubs. Bicycles...

At some point, you (well, ok I) have to compare the nature in which most humans live to the whining I hear coming out of American's mouths.

If anything, Americans have lost the ability to be thankful for just how much better we actually do have it.

Now why would THAT be?

6:25 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

This is what I mean when I say I worry about the effect on the psyche of the lack of sunlight -- you sound a bit down, Stucco!

Of course, I'm here in Yuma, getting plenty (and then some) of sunlight, and I'm depressed.

I think Colorado is a happy medium. :)

Miss you guys.

8:34 PM  
Blogger slaghammer said...

I usually stay the hell out of political discussions in blogs. There’s not enough time or space to lay out the cold hard data. I’m all about data. Compiling and reconciling data is what I did for fun before I made a career of it. My bookmarks are jampacked with shit that nobody cares about until they are shelling out the shekels to pay off on a bet over how many people are killed each year by curling irons and blow dryers. What I’m building up to is this; the two primary points of view that are being discussed here are both correct on countless levels. It is a simple fact that many of the data points that we as Americans used to point to, as evidence of cultural superiority, are no longer supportive of that view. It is also true that given the choice, more people want to immigrate to this country than any other place in the world. Neither of these points account for shit unless they are broken down into their constituent parts, which nobody can do in this format. But since we are talking big picture, I have one of my own. The most basic law of the jungle is this, “Grow or Die.” It is true of ant colonies, municipalities, cultures, countries and last but not least, individual human beings. This principle encompasses everything from simple survival to emotional growth. Historically speaking, the degree to which this principle has been successfully implemented correlates precisely to the growth and decline of every single organism, ecosystem and/or culture to which an adequate pool of data can be obtained. Applying the principle of growth to cars and food without giving equal weight to cultural advancement is like saying the ratio of sand to clay is the measure of farmland. In fact, as a general rule, high ratios of sand do increase the crop yield of clay based soils but people are not stalks of wheat. For human beings, amenities mean squat without emotional and/or spiritual growth. Scott, your points can be reasonably supported by common sense and fairly reliable data, but I respectfully suggest that you’ve missed the point of this post, which is practically a grocery list of sentiments that no civilization can reject without ceding moral high ground in the process. Ironically, it is morality on which all other measures of a culture are gauged. Without moral high ground, growth will absolutely and undeniably reverse itself. In this context, there can be no denying that we as a culture have ceded moral high ground on some (I said some) issues and attempting to argue otherwise will result in failure to make the point, data is data after all. The argument over whether or not it was worth it is another issue completely; you would probably be pleasantly surprised at some of my views on that subject. We as a culture can and will regain some and hopefully all of that lost ground, but not without a little bit of embarrassing introspection. In addition, I can say with total confidence that we will not succeed in that endeavor without people who are willing to stand up and risk being branded as traitors and whining bed-wetters for the sake of stating the obvious.
Scott, one more thing, I’m aware that I’ve engaged in a bit of self indulgent inference and maybe even some mischaracterization to make a point. Feel free to rip me a new one.

2:52 AM  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

Actually, slaghammer, I should be ripped the new one for my disrectful response to Stucco's heartfelt posting. Too many hours spent combatting nutjobberdoodooheads back in my political days has left me with an argumentative style that was undeservingly dished out on a good soul like Mr. Stucco.

For that, I apologize. (You will appreciate, Stucco, that I usually rip into Bush licking rubber stampers, so at least the style had some moral backdrop, and a righteous feel.)

I like to think of America as being in retrograde. While we expand and grow, there are times when humans must cycle back and collect themselves. This is one of those such times.

Observe though, how global warming is back on the stage, environmental concerns, a deeper knowledge of the effects of using bullets and bombs to affect change, a rising political atmosphere...

Cancer research is doing astounding things, engineering is leaping and bounding...

We aren't ruled by Mugabe and we really don't fear being blown up.

Congress is holding minor political misdoings up to the light and those in power are squirming...

That stuff is all good.

And I even heard that Bush had hired a speech therapist and is working on his nucular pronunciation for an hour after Idol on Tuesday nights.

10:08 AM  
Blogger General Catz said...

I like the positive upswing this convo has taken. I suppose there is always hope.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Stucco said...

Slag and Scott- I appreciate your positions and Slag, I too am a big fan of hard data. Scott, there is no need for apology- my skin is much thicker than that, and I don't think you were being mean spirited.

Cancer research and science are not part of this equation (unless you want to argue over the way government manupulates and limits science- global climate study, stem cells, etc.), the core problem that eats at me is how no one seems to be paying attention. What is more important in this country than the Bill of Rights? Why is no one upset by the piecemeal manner in which it is being deconstructed?

The carelessness is heartbreaking.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Scott from Oregon said...

There IS nothing mean in my spirit, Stucco, but Lord knows there is sarcasm in the soul...

People ARE noticing Stucco. People everyday are taking note of the Bill Of Rights and its erosion.

Think of the US as a sea anemone for a good visual. 911 was like your probing finger being stuck in the middle of it.

You get a retraction, and then a relaxing of the goo...

That's all that's happening in this country. We are somewhere just after the finger has been pulled out but somewhere before you have wandered off.

You got to give the little guy some time to relax, man...

6:02 PM  

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