I find that I am not done with the subject of Flint. After posting declining crime statistics yesterday, I went rummaging through old files to find their companion graphic. Despite a positive 20+ year trend – here is how people perceive the state of affairs:
After 25 years of teaching social issues, I am not at all surprised that almost 3/4ths of the population believes the world to be different than it is. And in this election season, when Republicans claim for the gazillionth time that Obama wrecked the country, I am sure that they sincerely believe it. We are all the products of selective perception, of the voices we choose to listen to.
More than Trump, or Bernie Sanders, or #BlackLivesMatter or this generally bizarre election season, Flint has gotten me thinking about the state of The States and the state of the world. It has thrown me back into my previous life when such topics were part of my daily fare. It is a conversation I will be having with myself for the coming months, right up to the moment when my absentee ballot arrives in the mail. Hillary or Bernie? Hillary or Bernie? Here’s Part One of that conversation.
All day long – as I was assisting my cleaning lady (doing the disgusting things like moldy-vegetable- and dog-accident-removal in a desperate attempt to keep her working for me – good household help is so hard to find!) my thoughts were wandering around aimlessly in my political and professional past, starting with the four years of undergrad studies that I spent debating god and the world with roommates and partying pals. Strangely enough, a lot of them were Republican and studying Business. And yet (!) – we stayed friends. I wonder if it is still okay to let the sparks fly and then agree to disagree so that the party can begin. Or . . . are college students now divided into separate but equally antagonistic camps? If so, that is too bad, because those years – those many debates – prepared me almost more than my Liberal Arts degree for the job I would eventually do for a quarter of a century, namely teaching English to Business and Sociology students at the university level.
After removing hair from the shower drain and shoveling the poop out of the kitty litter box, I took a break from household chores to surf through my old computer files and reread some of the materials I used in those university courses. I was actually searching for the unit on “Corporate Power” which included the film “Roger and Me” (mentioned in yesterday’s blog post) as part of the required preparation, but ended up getting lost among old familiar literary and social criticism friends. I was struck by the bizarre mix and high level of readings I had required my students to do. Everything was in there from Plato’s Cave to Mein Kampf, from Thomas Jefferson to Noam Chomsky, from Karl Marx to George Orwell to Joseph Stiglitz. From Gore Vidal to Malcolm X to Shakespeare to Douglas Adams to my sister’s parody children’s book. I had them reading poetry! Business students!
My cleaning lady cleared her throat a few times and it ripped me out of my post-intellectual nostalgia. Noticing that she had a feather duster and a rag in her hand, I ran through the house, quickly freeing all the flat surfaces of paper and garbage piles while collecting all the dirty clothes from floors and furniture into a laundry basket. “Social and Economic Issues” was the name I had finally decided on for my Business English 2 course. I wanted to discuss aspects of everyday life with the students – food, health, drugs, education, financial security, gender . . . – while investigating how both governments and (big) businesses affect our lives in these universal concerns. What role did each play and what purposes did each serve? When was it best to let the economic system freely do its thing and when should the government step in and regulate?
I openly admitted my intention to be subversive – to get my students to question the system they lived in. Or better, to discover the questions they had not yet asked – the things they had so far simply assumed to be true. Their professors were teaching them the tired old truisms that free enterprise leads to best prices and practices because the greatest economic force was demand and consumers made rational decisions in their own best interest. Then God said “Let there be money.” And money appeared. And God was pleased with it and let it make the world go round. . .” I threw out a question to my students. How about if we don’t simply accept these Truths to be self-evident, but investigate their veracity? I brought two loads of dirty laundry down to the basement. Through sheer luck I noticed the dead mouse in the bucket by the floor mop before the cleaning lady discovered it. I took the bucket to the basement door, tossed the corpse out onto the lawn, and returned the bucket back to its usual place. Whew! That was close!
I wondered what Barbara Ehrenreich (another of my required readings) would think of the power dynamic that existed between me and my cleaning lady. Her final argument about our system is in full –if somewhat distorted – display in my household. It is not the poor who depend on the “handouts” of the wealthy to survive, it is the wealthy who depend on the continuing existence of people willing (or desperate enough) to do all the hard and shitty work necessary for the wealthy to maintain their cushy lifestyles. It is probably my own awareness of this truth that keeps me shoveling the poop and removing the corpses to keep my cleaning lady happy. I started to tackle all the overflowing garbage cans, carrying bag after bag to the containers outside.
Over two decades of teaching the course, certain new truths became clear to me. The first was that no matter which issues the students chose to investigate, there were always a small number of huge corporations behind the curtain – or better, looming over the stage and holding the puppet strings. When we discussed drugs, the awful practices of the pharmaceutical industry came up. How their marketers dreamed up new uses for already existing drugs – suggesting new diseases to healthy people with the cure already available. Ask your doctor! When it came to food, we researched the rise of Monsanto, Round-up Ready, and processed foods. Factory farming and “The Meatrix”. We discovered how very little we knew about what we were putting into our bodies or where it came from. We looked at our clothing too and followed “The Travels of a T-Shirt” on its race to the bottom. We wondered which Asian or Central American factory our clothing came from and how old the seamstress was. Which reminded me, I had to start doing the laundry. While I was down in the basement, I might as well get the vacuum cleaner and carry it upstairs for my cleaning lady – she was almost ready to start the floors.
In all of these investigations, the most astounding thing we learned is this: that what we think we know might be completely false. Or in any case, very incomplete. When everything periodically comes crashing down around us – like it did in 2008 – we act surprised and say “Who knew?” despite the fact that the whole mortgage crisis was described in detail two years in advance.
We are all busy, working hard with precious little time to really inform ourselves even on such basic things as “what’s in this water I’m drinking?” Instead, we choose which Kool-Aid we prefer (the one put through the lefty filter of MSNBC media conglomerate or the righty one of Fox) and we drink it.
I heard my cleaning lady turn on the faucet and fill up the empty pail with mopping water (no dead mouse here!). This is always the last thing she does, so I could finally return to my laptop to catch up on the news. Rachel updated me on the latest outrageous development in Flint and how Bernie Sanders is doing in the polls. Bernie is right in everything he says – but it is not only the big banks and Wall Street – corporations have gotten too big and consolidated too much power in every major industry of our economy, including the media. They have grown beyond or risen above the government’s sphere of influence. Politicians are reduced to puppets in the voters’ perception (and so they are drawn to the one who seems to be manipulating strings of his own.) It may not have been a big company that put lead into Flint’s water, but surely the perennial budget crises behind the decision to switch sources can be traced back to GM – the one corporation the entire city depended on – taking off for better havens. The people can organize and petition and protest all they want. The bag the government is left holding is empty.
I paid my cleaning lady – as usual about 15% more than she asked for – and tried to hide the hopeful tone of my voice as I said “See you next week!” It still came out sounding like a question. As she drove away, my mind returned to that other question: Bernie or Hillary?
I feel myself tending toward the woman with a plan – even if she is a part of a corrupted system. I truly like and admire Bernie Sanders, but until he explains exactly what he means by “We need a revolution”, I will not be voting for him. Do we need change on a revolutionary scale? Yes, of course. Fixing campaign finance and reigning in Wall Street are only the tip of the iceberg. And a lot of people are ready for change and willing to do their part. It’s just that we are going to be really busy in the coming months. It will be hard to find the time to revolutionize. In my case, I’m thinking Friday afternoons might work. Right after my cleaning lady leaves and before my daughter’s piano lesson.