"At this moment in time we'd like to invite
First Class passengers only to board the aircraft."
~ Simon Armitage
"Isn't it funny how no baby is born racist, yet every baby cries when they hear the cries of another. No matter the gender, culture, or color — proving that, deep down, we were meant to connect and care for each other."
~ Prince Ea
On Easter morning all over America
the peasants are frying potatoes in bacon grease.
We're not supposed to have "peasants"
but there are tens of millions of them
frying potatoes on Easter morning,
cheap and delicious with catsup.
If Jesus were here this morning he might
be eating fried potatoes with my friend
who has a '51 Dodge and a '72 Pontiac.
When his kids ask why they don't have
a new car he says, "these cars were new once
and now they are experienced."
He can fix anything and when rich folks
call to get a toilet repaired he pauses
extra hours so that they can further
learn what we're made of.
I told him that in Mexico the poor say
that when there's lightning the rich
think that God is taking their picture.
Like peasants everywhere in the history
of the world ours can't figure out why
they're getting poorer. Their sons join
the army to get work being shot at.
Your ideals are invisible clouds
so try not to suffocate the poor,
the peasants, with your sympathies.
They know that you're staring at them.
The Family Business
Jackie’s been here for twenty-five years and he tells me you get used to it. He says your nose learns to seal itself when you dive headfirst into an ocean of dust; your eyes develop nictitating membranes to keep the chemical sprays out; and your hands… they will grow their own gloves, invisible and tough and permanent. I’ve been a janitor for three weeks and I thought I was made of stronger materials.
We play chess in the break room. Jackie asks me what my favorite piece is. I say the pawn because, you know, he’s the underdog; the odds are against him. Jackie identifies with the pawns too, but he finds nobility in their sacrifice, he sees beauty in their simplicity, in the fact that they’re always moving forward.
Jackie shambles from room to room, moving half as fast as me but somehow getting twice as much done. The night shift will mess with your head like that. Jackie smiles, the saddest face I’ve ever seen. Sometimes I look at that face and feel like we are the servants entombed alive with the pharaoh, polishing someone else’s gold while our oxygen runs out, dutifully preparing a grand feast for a god who will never be hungry.
But Jackie tells me that there is honor in this. A good day’s work. An honest living. There is poetry in this.
But what kind of poetry lives in a can of orange naturalizer, the liquid breath of dragons? The mist dissolves every word creeping up my throat, overwhelms every idea. They got me wiping my reflection from the glass, scrubbing the shadows off the walls. They got me so scared of my alarm clock that I can’t fall asleep, even when my muscles drain out from underneath my fingernails and my thoughts stream out of my ears, and I am left with nothing but two eyes that refuse to close for fear of what they might see.
Is there really honor in this? Or is that abstract notion the carrot they dangle in front of us pawns to move us across the board?
But Jackie says you can’t think about it like that. He says that without us, the people who live and work in this building couldn’t function, that we keep the gears turning and that it might not be glamorous but it’s necessary. And maybe he’s right. Maybe I am just a working class kid who somehow hustled my way into college and got delusions of grandeur. Maybe now I’m “too good” to go into the family business: a hundred generations of janitors and farmers and infantry and factory workers and pawns.
So I suck it up… and last for two more months. And on my final day before an uncertain future, I make a point to shake Jackie’s hand, and I say:
"I’ve been thinking man. I think the reason pawns can’t move backwards is because if they could, they’d kill their own kings in a heartbeat.
"Instead, we are forced to keep moving, believing we can get to the other side and become royalty ourselves, but most likely dying on the way there, sacrificed for a cause we don’t even understand. I wish you… I wish you the best, man. I wish you horses and castles."
Jackie smiles, the saddest face I’ve ever seen, and disappears into his work.
I think [these are hard times], but also they've probably always been, in the sense that we aren't really born very well equipped [for] the struggles that we're gonna go through. We're kind of born with this idea that we're permanent and we're central and we're enduring and we're the most interesting person in the room, and then, especially in times like these.
When I was growing up, the sort of things was that capitalism was in a battle with socialism and communism and anarchy was sort of the crazy uncle over there on the side. And now, in our time, I think capitalism has just won. There's no question. It's just overwhelming victory for capitalism.
But I think we're in an interesting time, in that maybe capitalism is trying to decide which capitalism it's going to be. And it seems to me that just in my lifetime, it's kind of been decided that the form of capitalism we're going to embrace is the one that says, "If you got it, you deserve it. No guilt. Don't worry about it. And anybody who doesn't like that is whining."
Whereas, the one I like is sort of a Emersonian-Whitmanesque form which says, "There's no point in any of this—democracy and capitalism—if we're not simply making more citizens—making brighter citizens, making the lives of the least among us better.
So I think it's some kind of weird diffuse way, fiction can remind us that even those people are on a continuum with us and that remembering that actually enobles us.
Phillip Blond argues that over the past generation we have witnessed two revolutions, both of which liberated the individual and decimated local associations. First, there was a revolution from the left: a cultural revolution that displaced traditional manners and mores; a legal revolution that emphasized individual rights instead of responsibilities; a welfare revolution in which social workers displaced mutual aid societies and self-organized associations.
Then there was the market revolution from the right. In the age of deregulation, giant chains like Wal-Mart decimated local shop owners. Global financial markets took over small banks, so that the local knowledge of a town banker was replaced by a manic herd of traders thousands of miles away. Unions withered.
The two revolutions talked the language of individual freedom, but they perversely ended up creating greater centralization. They created an atomized, segmented society and then the state had to come in and attempt to repair the damage.
The free-market revolution didn’t create the pluralistic decentralized economy. It created a centralized financial monoculture, which requires a gigantic government to audit its activities. The effort to liberate individuals from repressive social constraints didn’t produce a flowering of freedom; it weakened families, increased out-of-wedlock births and turned neighbors into strangers. In Britain, you get a country with rising crime, and, as a result, four million security cameras.
Excerpts from “Hollywood’s Brilliant Coda to America’s Dark Year,” by Frank Rich, New York Times, December 12, 2009:
The fictional doings in “Up in the Air,” adapted from a 2001 novel by Walter Kirn, are bookended by brief montages culled from interviews that the director, Jason Reitman, conducted with real-life laid-off workers while shooting in Detroit and St. Louis. He asked the interviewees what they had told — or wished they had told — the H.R. bureaucrats who let them go. “On the stress level, I’ve heard that losing your job is like a death in the family,” says one man. “But personally I feel more like the people I worked with were my family, and I died.”
...What gives our Great Recession its particular darkness — and gives this film its haunting afterlife — is the disconnect between the corporate culture that is dictating the firing and the rest of us. In the shorthand of the day, it’s the dichotomy between Wall Street and Main Street, though that oversimplifies the divide. This disconnect isn’t just about the huge gap in income between the financial sector and the rest of America. Nor is it just about the inequities of a government bailout that rescued the irresponsible bankers who helped crash the economy while shortchanging the innocent victims of their reckless gambles. What “Up in the Air” captures is less didactic. It makes palpable the cultural and even physical chasm that opened up between the two Americas for years before the financial collapse.