My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

a year of living dangerously

- sign on the marquee of the Shamrock Express, at 110th and Western

It's come to my attention that this blog is just about a year old. It was born a day or so after the 2004 elections, partly in an attempt to explain or at least explore the much discussed Red/Blue cultural divide. My sense was that the essential conflict was not so much between states or classes as between types of communities - dense, diverse places like Chicago in which the attempt to build and sustain community is paramount vs. low-density sprawl and rural areas in which the cult of the radical individual is more important.

I still hold fairly strongly to those ideas, but my thinking has become a lot less simplistic over the past year. So I want to take a look at some exceptions. Do they prove the rule? Who knows.

The other weekend we were on a subway train on our way to 125th Street in Manhattan (yes, music lovers, the A Train to Harlem)when it was boarded by a large group of creepy African American churchgoers, who commenced to start singing hymns. Some of the passengers knew the songs and started to sing along, the others looked uncomfortable. Trope gave me one of her ear bugs and we sat there listening to Ditty Bops MP3s trying to ignore all the Jesus. Then they stopped singing and a preacher lady started talking about how God had destroyed New Orleans because of all the voodoo and homosexuality and it was time to repent.

"Hell no," I failed to say. "Get your ass off this train and go spew your hate in the sewer where it belongs, you nasty old cow," I failed to add. I sat there, heart beating in my ears, blood pressure about to make my eyeballs explode out of my face, paralyzed. I wouldn't (and couldn't) have actually pushed her in front of a train, but if someone else had done so I might just have cheered. The only thing hate begets, evidently, is hate.

If there's a core "problem" with American culture it's our tendency to kick down the ladder. If we need someone to blame, it's far easier for us to blame someone beneath us on the food chain, rather than someone "successful," or god forbid, ourselves. Blame the poor for drowning in a flood, or blame gay people - apparently everything is their fault today. First it was divorce and sex abuse scandals, now even the weather can be blamed on gay people!

Take my favorite bete noir of recent weeks, White Sox fans. While it's true to some extend their bitterness towards North Siders is class based, and thus "progressive," it's expression is usually "cultural" rather than economic. Even within Blue America territory, they vent about "yuppies" and especially about how there is a large gay community surrounding Wrigley Field (overheard at a game: "This one's a Cubs fan and the other one's a Red Sox fan. I should have just dropped them both off at the Man Hole.") What's up with that, anyway? Homosexuals are just one of a crowd of scapegoats I keep hearing about. Working class Americans, rather than uniting against the depredations of Corporate America, tend to blame: welfare moms. Affirmative action giving "their" jobs to minorities. Foreigners: as welcome as Americans' righteous indignation about the Katrina disaster was, you didn't have to listen to people talk about it for long before someone said: "We should stop all foreign aid until we rebuild the Gulf Coast." Because people who drown in Bangladesh are so much less important than we are, right?

We're all like this to some extent. Blue people too. Our country wasn't taken over by a coup or a conspiracy, people chose this. Until we can come to grips with that truth, we'll never change it. And I'm not just talking about voting. We chose this by our lives, by our consumption, by the way we participate in keeping other people down and then justify to ourselves how they brought it on themselves. They didn't finish school, couldn't keep their pants on, did the wrong kind of drugs, whatever. It couldn't be our fault.

Game 3 of the World Series - wow. After 14 innings, the White Sox finally get a couple runs in to win as reliever Ezequiel Astacio collaped. After the game, Astros manager Garner vents to the press about how "pissed off" he is that his team played terrible and wasn't hitting. But none of it was his fault, for not pulling the pitcher, for not calling for a bunt with a guy on third, in short for not doing his job. It was all the people under him, who work for him, what a bunch of losers.

Often I see progressive America behaving exactly like Garner. It ain't us, it must be the refs. The media. Voting machines. The Democratic Party leadership jockeying for the next election. It couldn't be us. We can't even imagine a world in which people might see us as hypocrites.

It's so easy for corporate elites to roll over us time and again in their single-minded pursuit of profits because the rest of the country is a bickering, squabbling mess. Religion, race, and "culture" divide us and keep us down. Some people want to build a progressive movement that's a mirror image of the Right - well-funded, ideological, bent on manipulating the public's understanding of reality rather than understanding it. None of that for me - I'd prefer a team that looked like the White Sox.

As I've noted, it's hard for me to root for them, since their fans express such contempt for my sushi-eating yuppie ass. And it's especially hard when they're playing in Houston and the camera pans across the crowd, zooming in on the disappointed faces of little kids in Astros gear as their team gets beat down, again. But that's not the team's fault, that's just life. And the team is interesting. A minority-led coalition not based in religion or language, but unified by a goal. They let each other off the hook when they make mistakes and present a common public face. They laugh, and do belly flops on the tarp when it rains. They like themselves, but take responsibility when their screw-ups cost the group. They bring crippled old Frank Thomas along for the ride even though he can't play anymore.

What's with all the sports metaphors? It's all about achieving a goal. In baseball, the goal is totally inconsequential and arbitrary - nobody really cares what happens to the little white ball, so the whole thing can be about process.

American Progressives don't have a goal these days. Everybody knows what the Right wants - a dog eat dog libertarian world with a veneer of religious and cultural bullshit to explain to the little dogs why they deserve to get eaten. But what's our goal? What does our America look like? We need to stop complaining about how bad things are and start talking about how great they can be if we pull together and try to accomplish something.

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