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.