Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Do You Do When It's Not Your Moment?

I was leaving work and they have these headlines in the elevator. Sometimes they’re news – I know things are bad when I realize I’m getting most of my news that way – and sometimes they’re entertainment or the Word of the Day (today’s was “lamster”), and they also have opinion polls. So tonight when I was leaving, the inspirational factoid they had decided to share was “60% believe obese people should have to buy a second seat on airplanes.”

I was stunned. First, I thought, “God, people are mean!” Then I thought, “What are they doing asking people that question?” It’s like asking if people think women should have the right to vote, or if gay babies should be euthenized. A lot of people think a lot of stupid things; who cares? So when I got home, I went online to see if I could find out why they were even talking about this. I didn’t exactly figure that out, because it didn’t seem like anything had happened in the last few days that makes it particularly relevant, but I did find out that back in April, United announced a new corporate policy requiring “obese” people to buy a second seat. Continental, Delta, JetBlue and Southwest also have such policies (Southwest has had it since 2002). Air Canada did but the Canadian Supreme Court, which is doubtless more enlightened than ours will turn out to be, struck it down.

So now I’m asking, “Why haven’t people been up in arms about this?” The articles I found online quoted people from NAAFA and even a woman from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University saying that the policies are discriminatory, but I didn’t find anything about a boycott or picket line against United or any of the others. Incidentally, I also learned that the standard for seat width, 17 inches from armrest to armrest, dates from 1954, when the average U.S. woman weighed 140 and the average man 160. Those numbers themselves surprised me, because 20 years later, I was told unequivocally that a woman who was 5’4”, which I think was the average height for women at that time, couldn’t weigh more than 120. So even then, before Kate Moss, we were basically being sold an impossible standard.

This small-ish (though in fact, it’s really not that small; national health data consider 32% of us “obese” so theoretically, one-third of our population could be double-charged because airlines are too cheap to provide enough space) incident got me thinking about something that I’ve been hovering around for the last few days: What can you do when you realize the moment you’re living in is not the one that you wish it were?

Sounds like kind of a duh moment, but it’s not really. My whole life, I have secretly believed that things were going to change for the better. I think most of the left cherishes some kind of hope that a different way of organizing society is somehow just around the corner, or at least that it might be, or that if we just work hard enough, form the right coalitions, craft the right strategy, cover enough butcher paper with the right power analyses – that we can push neoliberalism out the door and usher in a compassionate green society.

It started when I was watching the news and they announced that California legislators are close to an agreement with the governator on the budget. I thought, “Is that good or bad?” It’s good because people have been getting IOUs instead of checks, and no one will cash the IOUs or accept them as payment, so people are being thrown out of their SROs (another time when “How can people be so mean?” comes to mind), and not being able to buy food. But it’s bad, because the gov has made it clear that the only deal he’s willing to consider is one that slashes every social service while preserving tax breaks for the rich, so if a deal goes through, people might be able to eat today but a lot more are going to be starving tomorrow. And no matter how long it drags out, it’s not going to get any better because the people making these decisions will never have to choose between putting food in their kids’ mouths and putting shoes on their feet, and they determinedly have no compassion for the people who are making that choice every day.

I know people who are working on “reforming” Proposition 13, which is one reason we’re in this mess, and some people are talking about an initiative to repeal the two-thirds majority required for a budget which is another reason. And both of those would be good things to do, but I don’t have real hope that either of them is going to pass any time soon. And if they did, they would help but would they help enough? Because isn’t the real problem that people don’t believe everyone has a right to eat, be housed, have medical care and enjoy their life?

The health care debate is another thing that drives me crazy. 72% of the voters support single payer, which is pretty amazing given how steadfastly the media has refused to even mention it. Lot of credit to Michael Moore and the National Nurses’ Organizing Committee. But we’re not going to get it. We’re not even going to get a good “public option” plan. Why not? Because somehow, the people in Congress don’t have to do what the voters want, and we can talk about voting them out, but who else are you going to vote for? What seems most likely is what happened in 1994, that the Republicans are going to take back Congress because the Democrats didn’t deliver on anything they promised. And I know people who will say that that won’t make any difference, but as unlikely as it sounds, I know it will. Things are terrible now but they will be worse if the right wing sweeps back in with a mandate to scrap whatever’s left of the social welfare state.

I do know that if there were Million Voter Marches for Single Payer in every major city, or even in Washington DC and a few other places, that would be our best chance to actually get it. But I haven’t heard any of the activist groups organizing for single payer propose that. Instead, they’re mounting endless internet petitions and sending a few people to Washington to disrupt hearings (which is great), standing in for the rest of us. It’s like they’re trying to bore people into voting for it. But wait ‑ Cleve Jones is planning a Million Gay March for marriage, which is just kind of insulting. They keep saying the reason they want marriage is for health care, so why not call for a huge health care march and then you can have a marriage contingent – but of course, if we really had universal health care, we would not need marriage so they don’t want to join forces lest people notice that they’re asking for first-and-a-half class citizenship for some rather than equal rights for all.

Why can’t what is happening in Iran happen here? Two elections were stolen outright, and a third was by public relations, and still people won’t go out into the streets. Everything right now is about symbolism. Sonia Sotomayor is about symbolism and Obama is about symbolism and marriage is about symbolism, Guantanamo is a symbol and Afghanistan is too. It seems like symbols are somehow satisfying people, even people who can see that their real lives are getting worse and worse. And it’s not only here. I watch Charles Taylor in the Hague, denying that he committed war crimes, and think why is he up there and not Bush? Why are the same people who put Milosevic on trial shaking hands with Tony Blair? Why is Europe so stirred up about Muslim overpopulation that an Egytpian woman in Germany is killed for covering her head?

It doesn’t make sense to me to keep trying to chip away at the crust of cruelty that is covering everything. I mean, maybe I will, because I’m an activist at my core, but I know know know that it won’t make any difference. We need to strip away, not chip away; we need a revolution in our core values, so that people value an equitable society, or at least one in which people have their basic needs met, more than they value the opportunity to feel better than someone else. I don’t know what it is going to take to bring that change about, but I know it’s not in our control.

So what should you do, when you realize it’s just not your moment?

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