Friday, March 17, 2017

Not Divided, Isolated

© Wired.com

We keep talking about how the U.S. is "divided," meaning along religious, racial, ethnic, lifestyle, gender, and other traditional lines. This is largely fiction, and meant to distract us while powerful people and corporations work at deregulation, and dismantling the public foundations we need to engage one another.

Take the proposed elimination of funding for Meals on Wheels, for example. This is a vital program for maintaining not only the nutritional health of the elderly, but their mental and emotional health as well when they greet the person bringing them dinner. This is in fact the news that prompted this post. As many have pointed out, Meals on Wheels is often the only social contact a homebound elderly person has each day, even if they are able to secure food by other means.

We are told by our leaders that we should not trust our neighbors, let alone "foreigners," or those with a different lifestyle. This constant drumbeat of distrust is intended to further divide us, right down to family-level relationships. A splintered electorate can achieve no consensus, allowing powerful individuals and industries to have their way. Government and industry have always had an unholy alliance, each one reinforcing the other until some catastrophe or social movement intervenes. Now, having successfully convinced the electorate that it is hopelessly divided, those in power have little organized opposition to reducing government programs that have helped to unite us until now.

Furthermore, we choose to isolate ourselves with our earbuds, cell phones, and other personal electronics instead of conversing on the daily bus, train, or subway commute, or during the lunch (half) hour. We "Netflix and chill." It's chilling alright. This is exactly what an unregulated economy wants: Nobody talking to each other. If you are isolated you don't learn, you don't do anything but consume; and you consume as a person who no longer understands their rights as a consumer because you are getting input only from the marketplace.

By "products and services" I also mean media. I am experiencing radio silence from many friends in the wake of the executive orders and other actions of our newly-elected President. Why, if they support our Chief, are they not answering for some of his choices? Why are they not speaking to bills before Congress that will undermine our nation's stability and health? Then it dawned on me: they probably aren't plugged into the same media outlets that I am. This is not good. Media is now fostering the very division of our electorate that in the next breath it is lamenting.

The marketplace promotes this isolationism as catering to the individual. It takes your preferences, which it learns from social media, data collected at the grocery checkout, and an infinite number of other sources, and creates "opportunities" for you to get more of the same. You are treated as nothing but a consumer.

Who needs a Department of Education when all industry wants is consumers and, maybe, robotic personalities to staff....whatever jobs have not yet been automated? Unquestioning servitude is what corporations want on the production side; and unquestioning brand loyalty in the marketplace. Who needs the Environmental Protection Agency, either, when deregulation means cheaper energy and allows for the privatization of water?

There are signs of hope, especially encouraging because they are largely grassroot initiatives. I don't mean the women's march, or the upcoming march for science. No, I am talking about utility co-ops offering innovative and cost-effective energy options. I am speaking of local farmers markets and community gardens springing up to answer questions of food security in "food deserts." Food trucks are feeding people on every corner. Credit unions are prospering.

The greatest thing about local economies, of course, is that you can't help but meet your neighbors, and discover that you have more in common than you imagined. The hardest part of participating is just getting off the couch, out from behind your tablet or laptop, and unplugged from your ear buds. Let's do this. We can't wait for anybody else, least of all an elected official.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Gratitude

I struggle with gratitude. It should not be a problem. There are plenty of friends and strangers who suffer more and never complain. In fact, they often offer words of gratitude in place of sharing their misery. Bear with me if you will, though, as there are reasons gratitude is difficult for many people to express.

Those who express frustration and despair at their financial, social, or physical circumstances are often shamed for it. Constructive criticism, if even warranted, has been replaced with indignation and hateful remarks. Civility is no longer the order of the day. Even well-meaning friends often couch their sympathy in religious, condescending tones that still imply that you more or less get what you deserve. If only you were more grateful, more positive, or more....something other than who you are, you would be happy as you are.

All of us are constantly bombarded with examples of material comfort and excess by the news and entertainment media, as well as advertising aimed at ever-wealthier consumers. We invariably either allow ourselves to be persuaded that material wealth is something we should aspire to, or we become despondent over our realization that we are in debt for things we already have. We compare ourselves to others and become depressed over our "failure" to provide for ourselves. It does not matter how unrealistic our views of ourselves and others, it is a nearly automatic response. Our work ethic erodes as we see ourselves as devalued, or at least undervalued, cogs in a machine that makes other people comfortable.

Meanwhile, we are still cognizant of friends and strangers who are worse off. The Facebook couple who were in a wreck that totaled their vehicle. The friend on Twitter fighting cancer with physical, mental, and emotional strength you cannot comprehend. The town erased by a tornado that you saw on the evening news. "Minorities" who struggle daily against intense public hatred, bigotry and discrimination based on attributes determined by genetics. You are grateful for your White privilege, your gender privilege, your "normal" lifestyle, but also ashamed you have not done more with it. Gratitude for your own condition seems somehow empty or false in the face of that.

A good many people were raised with the idea that one should suffer in silence, that it is not your place to disclose "personal" trials and tragedies. Exposing your vulnerabilities was inviting someone to take advantage of your condition. It was also considered poor taste to flaunt your good fortune. Modesty and humility were virtues that garnered respect. How times have changed. It is important to share emotions, even negative ones, because it helps ease stress and also opens the doors to treatment for depression and other psychological illnesses. You cannot receive professional help if no one knows you need it and you won't admit it. Unfortunately, we no longer have the same sentiments toward snobbery and irresponsible affluence as we did back in the day.

Personally, I have no desire for wealth. I would rather have fewer material possessions, in fact. Were I to want to become wealthier, it would be to help others a lot less fortunate. It pains me at least as much to be unable to donate to causes I believe in as it does to be scraping the bottom of my bank account to meet my own financial obligations. I do wish my wife and I could travel more, learning more about other cultures, other nations, other organisms we share the planet with. That is what life should be about, rather than status and luxury.

I will be the first to admit that I need to express gratitude more often, but you cannot coerce someone into gratitude. One way I am guaranteed to remember and express my "blessings" is when I see someone else setting the example by sharing what they are grateful for. Leading by example, being the change you wish to see in the world. Those credos are popular and longstanding for a reason.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Media

© MadMikesAmerica.com

What a difference a couple of months makes. When I first drafted my concept for this post, "fake news" was not a....thing; and the war on the press waged by our President-elect had not yet manifested itself. I will not speak to either of these topics, instead staying with my original intent, which is again aimed mostly at local and regional television, radio, and print media. As consumers, we need to hold our local outlets responsible for their conduct and priorities.

Seek responsible advertisers. Just as the consumer has a choice in which companies he or she wants to do business with, so networks and newspapers can choose which advertisers reflect socially and environmentally responsible ethics, while making quality products or providing quality services. The media endorse certain businesses through an agreement to allow them to advertise. At the same time, the press is the first line of defense for consumers in the face of inferior products, services, and ethics. This responsibility should extend beyond reporting product recalls and indictments of CEOS, and investigative reporting that exposes wrongdoing. The media must decline advertising revenue from such businesses.

Empower consumers. The above paragraph demonstrates how the media can empower consumers, but they also need to be more creative in how to do so. Maybe the new version of "reality television" will be to follow lab workers at the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Bringing back Mythbusters couldn't hurt anything, either. The challenge lies in making informative material entertaining. Right now we have a surplus of "empty calories" of entertainment with no purpose other than escapism.

Increase public service announcements. The Ad Council is one of the most underrated, underutilized, and no doubt underfunded organizations in the U.S. Go to their website and you will see some public service announcements you recognize, and an awful lot you have never seen before. That is probably in part the fault of your local media. Ask them to print and air more of these. Meanwhile, suggest your own issues to the Ad Council, and include resources where they can learn more and get ideas for building a message campaign. We cannot make a difference if we are unaware of issues, or do not know where to go to help change a situation.

Diversify for real. The media is getting better at projecting ethnic and lifestyle diversity that reflects our evolving cultural makeup, but that is not what I mean by "diversify." The media is the most glaring example of what comedian George Carlin described as the "illusion of choice." Think you have a huge number of choices in your cable or satellite television package? Think again. Most of those "networks" are subsidiaries of an enormous conglomerate. The "Disney family of networks," for example. There is constant duplication of content, and most of the new or live content is going into the networks you must pay for access to. Meanwhile, the newsstand is full of self-help, diet, food, celebrity, and "lifestyle" magazines, most of which are light on content and heavy (literally) in advertising.

© MadMikesAmerica.com

Be Your Own Media. Back in the day, you could produce your own television show through public access, a community-based resource that allowed citizens to learn television production skills and use studio equipment free of charge to air their programs. By 2009, public access had largely faded away or, more to the point, been driven into the ground by media corporations eager to again turn everything into a profit-making venture. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) largely endorsed this, as it has endorsed the mega-mergers that have left consumers with fewer and fewer media choices. Today, YouTube and its descendents have become the new personal channels; and blogs have become the new printed media, albeit you have to print them yourself. Most of these personal endeavors are not local, either, and that is what public access was all about. It may be time to resurrect that medium.

Consumers are increasingly left to their own devices in assessing what is truth, what is fiction, what is propaganda. I wish I could see it getting better, but for the time being we must practice mindful consumption of what passes for information. We must view everything through the filtering question of "who benefits from this?" Follow the money, indeed.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Why You Should Leave Your Bank...Now

© Makeyourmoneymatter.org

There may be nothing better you can do to empower yourself in today's economy and political structure (for lack of a better term) than to choose where your hard-earned dollars go. No, you don't have much of a choice in taxation, but you have a marketplace full of financial institutions. Some of those are better than others. Some of them have demonstrated time and again an absolute contempt for conventional middle-class consumers. Here are some reasons why you should choose wisely, and maybe opt for a credit union instead of a bank.

Fees. Many traditional banks nickel and dime your accounts to death. You need a minimum balance or you get a "maintenance fee." You bounce a check, you get a fee. Ok, you might deserve a fee if you are fiscally irresponsible, but too often you do not have to do anything to incur a fee.

Maximums and minimums. We already mentioned minimum balance requirements for traditional banks. They usually have a maximum withdrawal amount, and/or number of withdrawals, too, which means you are being punished for emergency situations in which you may need more than the usual amount. The most you should suffer is an interest penalty for a low balance.

Socially and environmentally irresponsible investments. This may be the overriding reason you should leave a commercial bank. Are you opposed to the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL)? It may interest you to know that Citibank, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley have all extended credit to Energy Transfer Partners, the company constructing the DAPL. Don't believe me? Check out the Snopes.com article. We can collectively make a statement by taking our own personal business elsewhere.

Lack of interest. Literally! Can you remember the last time your bank account earned interest? Neither can I. Savings accounts are essentially worthless. Certificates of deposit (CDs) lock your money away for at least several months or more at a time and still pay next to no interest. Banks have no interest in paying you to save, or creating products that reflect the need of the average person to keep assets liquid for emergencies yet still earn a little interest in the meantime. Sure, the Federal Reserve chairman is responsible for setting interest rates, but banks still have more flexibility they choose not to exercise.

Lack of interest in you. Unless you are wealthy enough for private banking services, you are probably of little interest as a customer to the average bank. Priorities at least appear to be: Shareholders, CEO, customer and/or employee. Banks are profit-driven institutions that profit off of customers, not for them. They push loan and credit services like....I'll resist comparisons to nefarious enterprises. We are encouraged to live beyond our means, and to think first of ourselves instead of our communities. It's what banks do.

I have been with a credit union for the communicating arts for decades, and finally divorced myself from conventional banks....at least five years ago. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Customer service is outstanding, no matter how much is in my account, or how many products I have. This excellence has persisted even after a merger with another credit union. When was the last time an event like turned out for the better?

Because credit unions are not publicly traded, the customer is the priority. Because credit unions are usually local, or at least regional, and/or tied to a particular profession or military service, responsiveness to members vastly exceeds that of a traditional bank. Further, they are often sponsors of local charities and charitable events, from which we all prosper as a more healthy community.

I no longer live in the same city (not even the same state) as my credit union, but no worries. Many credit unions do what is called "shared branch" transactions. I can go to a totally different credit union to do my banking. How cool is that?

I urge my readers to give serious consideration to switching from a big bank to a credit union, for all of the reasons mentioned above. At least take stock of your current bank and make sure it is doing right by you, and right for our world at large. This is how you become empowered. You deserve it, and so do the rest of us.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Writers Have a Right to Rant

© Pixabay.com

The best rants are written so well that they do not offend. At least, they do not give an impression of being self-serving, or even bitter. The best rants create an understanding where there was none before. Today, I hope to deliver just such an essay, about what life is like as a writer in the digital age.

First, traditional markets for non-fiction writers are ever dwindling. Magazines are disappearing, their circulation sliding as people turn more and more to online content. The magazines that still exist are relying less and less on freelancers, so there are even fewer prospective clients to approach. One of my favorite, and most dependable, clients was forced last year to limit freelance work to in-state authors only as a result of state congressional mandate (which applied to all government agencies hiring contractors).

Second, if you manage to land an assignment, the time lag between when you deliver and when you are compensated can vary from a few weeks to months, even years. You always aim, as a writer, for clients who "pay on acceptance." That means that once they receive and approve your article, they cut you a check. Many magazines, however, pay "on publication." Editorial calendars typically work several months or more in advance, so even if they love your piece, you will not be paid until it goes to press.

There is no guarantee that even if the editor agreed to entertain your piece, that it will ever see the light of day in the publication. New writers almost invariably have to write "on spec," short for speculation, until they can demonstrate to the editor that they provide quality content and meet deadlines consistently. Good publications will offer a "kill fee," a percentage of the contracted payment amount for the article, if for some reason they cannot use the completed assignment. Really good publications will pay a "finder's fee" for research you do that they want to keep on file and perhaps spread over several articles.

The continuing expectation of free content from yourself, dear reader, feeds into the collective devaluation of all forms of artistic expression, from photography to painting to literature to music....and that is when you are not stealing those images and passages to raise your own profit margin. Hear that, advertising agencies and corporate marketing departments? This is a rampant criminal enterprise flying under the radar. I, myself, have had my entire Bug Eric blog reproduced without my authorization.

Copyright infringement has become so obscene that many writers, photographers, and artists now devote more time to writing Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notices to search engine and blog platform providers than they do to producing new material of their choosing. One author I know regularly files suit for infringement; but you have to register your work with the U.S. Copyright Office, at $35 a crack, to be eligible to file lawsuits. She now earns more from lawsuits than she does from new projects.

When you put all these factors together, writing presents itself as an occupation that is disrespected, pays little and rarely with any predictable frequency, and is subject to copyright infringement at any time. Consequently, we have mostly beleaguered, demoralized writers who mutter "what's the use?" to themselves every time they plop down behind their keyboards; and, not surprisingly, few new writers are emerging to take their place.

I don't know what we should expect from a culture and society that has devolved in its ability to spell words correctly, and arrange them in grammatically appropriate ways. That is, when we even use words. Every damn thing is an acronym anymore, with resulting confusion, misunderstanding, and inappropriate assumptions that serve only as fodder for "Damn You, Autocorrect!" Clear communication is vital to the sustainability and advancement of civilization. We devalue writers at our collective peril. They are not out to make a monetary fortune, but they deserve to make a living.

© Myriadeditions.com

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Immigrants My Ancestors Were

© historythings.com

The roots of my personal heritage literally go back to the Mayflower. I suppose I should be proud of that distinction, but as I have grown older the novelty has worn thin and my more informed understanding of history, thanks to enlightened friends and obscure media outlets, has left me less than comfortable with my ancestral privilege. I take less for granted now, and have even more respect for those who have succeeded despite the governmental, cultural, and social obstructionism they have faced. Recent executive orders and openly hostile segments of our U.S. population are making me question what we are so afraid of, and the answers I suspect are ironic and troubling.

When my forefathers arrived in North America there was no United States. The land was occupied by indigenous tribes which either embraced the European aliens or slaughtered them, depending on which accounts you read or have been exposed to. Back in my day, at least, little mention was made in the textbooks about the diseases the White Man exposed the natives to, and how those illnesses devastated indigenous populations. I suspect this fact is still omitted from school lessons in an effort to protect our heroic Caucasian reputation.

We certainly don't make a habit of discussing our legacy of Native American oppression, from confining entire "tribes" to bleak reservations, stealing their children and placing them into boarding schools where they were "re-educated" to conform to the standards of their new White masters. Somewhere between the noble savage and the sworn enemy of progress lies the truth between stereotypical extremes. We still excuse ourselves today, turning a blind eye to the routing of indigenous Nations from where we have already banished them if it blocks the path of a pipeline, or sits atop an oil or gas deposit. Progress today is measured in White profit only.

Dare I even get started on how we have treated Blacks? Equally shameful. Again, we have barely progressed in the realization of past mistakes, while continuing to invent new transgressions. Reparations? Between Native Americans and Blacks alone, our debt of guilt and shame dwarfs the National Debt by several orders of magnitude, as it should. By some miracle of forgiveness and faith, these "minorities" have refrained from violently overwhelming us. Instead, most have exhibited remarkable tolerance, and extended the hands and hearts of friendship and cooperation in all segments of our society.

So, I ask you, those who stand behind measures to ban refugees, build a wall to block those seeking a better life, and exile those who are already here because they are of different faiths or cultures, what are you so afraid of? I think I know. You fear that what we once did to the natives and other minorities will now be done to you, to us. How ironic and awful that our own shame and guilt have morphed into toxic "protectionism" and nationalism. Those are poorly-disguised versions of racism, and you know it. We persist in this framework at our collective peril. No one profits from this mindset and the behaviors that stem from it.

The only way I can overcome my personal angst and sorrow over the fire my forefathers started is to not remain oblivious, idle, or silent. I am not proud of the errors of the past, but I am proud to recognize them, and to not ignore the ongoing plight of those less fortunate, regardless of their ethnicity, origin, or religious beliefs. The societal privilege I enjoy is a sheer coincidence of skin color, gender, and genealogy. Yes, it comes with historical baggage, too, but I own it. How about you?

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

It Is Not "Politics"

© Horizons.gc.ca

This week I have seen several friends on Facebook complaining about all the "political" posts in their newsfeed, and wishing it would just stop. Perhaps they can be forgiven for being confused. Politics is what got us here, but what is happening now is not politics. It is executive orders and cabinet appointments and congressional initiatives that people are objecting to, and with good reason.

It isn't "politics," it is current acts of GOVERNANCE that threaten to destroy our democracy, civil rights, and environmental health.

There may be a little residual whining about who won the election, but the overwhelming majority of comments and links that are appearing in my social media platforms are directed at the actions of the President-elect and Congress. Even traditional Republicans are voicing concern over the heavy-handed executive orders, especially the "ban" on refugees and other immigrants from select nations that appear to have little if any history of exporting terrorists.

Equally alarming is the appointment of Chief Strategist Stephen Bannon to the National Security Council. This executive order may actually violate federal law. Only secretaries and undersecretaries are eligible for appointment to that council, and it has traditionally been composed only of the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of Energy (which overseas nuclear weapons), the President, and the Vice President. I would be disturbed by this appointment regardless of who the President is, or what party affiliation they purport to have.

Our President-elect has no respect for either party, and is taking excessive liberties....to trumple (yes, I just coined the word "trumple") the rights of citizens of all political persuasions....

Perhaps that is at the root of this. Our President-elect has no respect for either party, and is taking excessive liberties with his power to trumple (yes, I just coined the word "trumple") the rights of citizens of all political persuasions in order to advance an extremist agenda aimed at dismantling all regulation of corporate business, abolishing protections of every kind such that labor, consumer, and environmental safety will suffer unimaginable horrors and, finally, pour gasoline on the smoldering and false notion that we have more to fear from immigrants and other nations than we do from corporate abuses and excesses here at home.

Trust me, "politics" would be tolerable, tame, and a lot less provocative compared to the hostile policies spewing from the Oval Office at present. Besides the executive orders, the President-elect has retreated from the press corps, viewing them as domestic enemies to be blasted at every Twitter-tunity. Our Commander-in-Chief has zero interest in explaining his actions, and uses social media not to connect with the citizenry but merely boast and bash as he sees fit. This man is not anybody's President, unless they are perhaps shareholders in his businesses.

So, the next time someone objects to "political" posts on Facebook or elsewhere, I hope they will reconsider what is truly at stake here, what is happening already, and what will happen if we do not find common ground, in a hurry, as the body of the electorate. Continue to don your rose-colored glasses if you will, stay blissfully unaware by blocking, "unfollowing," or even "unfriending" those who do not share your opinion, but you ignore the facts at your peril.

Maybe today you say good riddance to immigrants, public education, the Environmental Protection Agency, or any other group or agency you view as a waste of your taxpayer dollars; but, sooner or later, something you do value is going to go away thanks to this administration's careless, misguided, and single-minded railroading governance. What will you do then? Who will have your back?