Monday, December 29, 2008

Madoff Makes Me Kvetch

I first thought seriously about Madoff's Judaism when reading the recent New York Times article about how he not only betrayed countless individuals and non-profits, but more specifically—his people. His religion is separate from his crime, and emphasizing that connection so that all us "chosen people" can tut-tut is a bit self-congratulatory—this type of behavior from a Jew?! The idea that this was somehow about Jewishness was exemplified in Rabbi Visotsky's statement, "the fact that he stole from Jewish charities puts him in a special circle of hell." (Wait—we believe in Hell now? Oy vey.) The fact that Madoff made off with the money of charities—period!—puts him in a special circle of Hell. Would it have been better if he stole from non-Jewish charities? We, as a culture, do not need to take blame for this mishegos, just as we don't get credit if he had done a mitzvah.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Consumed by America

Has there ever been a more heinous Christmas tale than Black Friday's trampling-to-death of Walmart worker Jdimytai Damour? Just outside NYC, on the biggest (and most annoying) shopping day of the year, in the wee small hours of the morning, the seasonal employee lost his life to a mob of angry shoppers who wouldn't even leave when the cops tried to clear the crime scene, because they had "been on line since yesterday morning." Personally, I think Christmas gift-giving should be called off this year in memory of this Hatian man from Queens who, just before getting murdered, had spent his night stocking shelves, for nearly no pay. Consumerism at its finest.

As an agnostic-Jew, semi-Christmas and semi-Hanukkah celebrator, the jingle-bell-merriment of the holiday season does not strike me at the core. Around this time of year, I have been known to increase my eye-rolls and lock myself in my apartment for longer periods of time than normal. The holidays irk me just a bit. Still, I live in NYC, and though I avoid most big stores and keep myself far away from 5th Avenue, I am not a Grinch--I like it a little, I do. Like most, I do find myself in the spirit of the holidays, picking up a Mad Libs for my 32-year-old brother because I know it will provide hours of petulant fun. Nor am I totally immune to the desire for fun things. (At a Thanksgiving dinner two days ago, I left a family member's house holding myself back from stopping at the store and picking up a newly-discovered Nintendo Wii.)

But the lust for stuff has led us somewhere dangerous. We have become a country obsessed to no end (not even manslaughter) with material goods. Yesterday, a young man went to work at a shitty job so that he could make some extra money, but he was killed by America. This country is in the midst of an economic crisis, and we are being forced to reassess our priorities. People are losing jobs and hope, but juxtaposed to that is the crowd so eager to consume, that they consumed Jdimytai Damour's life, and didn't even look back long enough to notice--they just kept shopping. (There was a good sale.)

The fact that this crime occurred at Walmart is just rubbing salt in the fatal wound. Walmart, which has notoriously neglected even the basic needs of its employees (resisting unionization, paying poverty-level wages and forcing workers to work around the clock, not providing health care to over half its 1.39 million US employees, and violating the Fair Labor Standards Act, as well as a plethora of other disgusting crimes), has been a hot source of controversy, even acting as the inspiration for the hit show, Walmartopia. The musical, which takes place in the future--a time when the inevitable occurs and Walmart takes over the world--is supposed to be a satire, but is just a little too close to just-an-image-of what's-to-come. In real life, to avoid the continuation of Walmart sucking the souls of Americans far and wide, there are a host of websites detailing Walmart horrors (Walmart Watch being my favorite)--everything from discriminatory practices to environmental degradation.

This reminds me of my summer vacation this past July, when, while driving through St. George, Utah, I had to stop at a Walmart to pee. I noticed, as I was leaving, a section of what was supposed to be pro-environmental messages (ironic, huh? And on sweatshop-produced crap, to boot). There was a shirt meant for a young child, and it had a picture of a globe on it, and in big print, it said "MINE!"

Doesn't that just say it all?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Lesson in Compassion

Today, as millions of people begin a yearly ritual based upon consuming the flesh of another animal, let's all take a minute to reflect on the life that was lost to bring you that meal.
No, not the turkey, the human.

I know that animal activists often get accused of loving animals more than they love people, and I want to be clear that I am not doing that here. The cost of animal agriculture on human life (particularly on the lives of immigrant workers) is enormous and cannot go another minute without severe reform. I believe that to my very core.

The article brings this chilling statement from the Guardian:

The government does as little as possible to protect poultry workers from mangled hands, severed digits or crippling musculoskeletal disorders. It leaves it to poultry plants to police themselves, and gets involved only when companies report problems. Workers who have no way to speak out pay the price in pain and in injuries that leave them disfigured and unable to do simple tasks.

This article is a comprehensive and detailed account of the myriad ways in which factory farms abuse humans and the environment. The collection of resources and references included is beyond impressive, and focuses very strongly on the affect of this business on communities of color which is a correlation that is often overlooked by mainstream accounts of industry behavior. However, I am disappointed that someone would take the time to write what I would consider to be a compassionate and deeply revealing article, without once considering compassion towards the non-human animals who are being victimized by these workers just as these workers are being victimized by the companies they work for.

Here is another example of a well meaning reporter who fails to see beyond his own speciesism to fully realize his argument.

Again, the point that I'm making is not that human suffering is less important than animal suffering, but that animal suffering is no less important than human suffering, and should be given the attention it deserves. This article points fingers at the process by which the animal industry operates, without once questioning the very nature of an industry that is based on abuse and oppression and where correlations may lie.

The article ends with this paragraph:
So this holiday season, remember that most of the food that crosses our dinner plates has a troublesome history rooted in the changing dynamics of the South and a renegade industry in need of better regulation and reform.
Which is a statement that I would alter by replacing "regulation and reform" with "abolition."
If we are to end one type of slavery, we must end all slavery. The correlation between human abuse of animals, and human abuse of one another is a topic that will take more than one post to fully express. However, reports like this lead me to believe that it is only a matter of time before this reality seeps into the public consciousness. In the meantime, I will continue to abstain from all possible abuse, and encourage others to do the same.
Happy holidays.

Dispatches from the Unemployed: 6:00am Edition

The list of foolish things I have done is not just expansive, but falls suspiciously into one very distinct area of my life. This is a fact that has gone fairly unexamined until my most recent act of stupidity landed me in a position so unpleasant that I cannot help but attempt to make sense of it from the ground up and hopefully, wrest myself from its grasp for good.

The demon I'm speaking of is unemployment and its master is my education. I'm going to use my sister's story as a backdrop for my own, not just because it's easy, but because I think it provides more than one clue into the nature of my design.

From a young age, my sister and I were funneled into two very different paths. Despite being no more than three years apart (I am the younger sibling), we have pursued lives so fundamentally different from one another that I cannot help but call into question some very basic facts about the state of American public education and the after effects of so many encounters with a failed system.

My sister, Eleanor, and I went to the same underfunded public elementary school in suburban Seattle until the age of ten, when Eleanor (who had skipped a grade already and was eligible to skip another) was airlifted from the depths of educational serfdom and placed squarely on the throne of private, single-sex, catholic schooling. Eleanor attended this institution until she graduated at seventeen and left home to pursue an aggressive degree in Medieval Studies from the University of Toronto.

Conversely, I toiled away in public school until the age of nineteen when, after flunking out of high school, I was forced to attend night school to earn the extra credits needed to receive my diploma. After taking some time off, I began half-heartedly attending a local community college off and on for two years before finally dropping out just short of achieving my degree.

It seems obvious to me that I was excruciatingly bored, but the biggest problem with public education is that it is excruciatingly boring. The education I received was based on listening to information and repeating it back at random intervals. The only critical thinking that was ever required of me was during the periods when I would have to think creatively about how I was going to pull my grades up. I remember sitting in a second year English class and being stunned when my instructor gave us a detailed outline with which we would write our paper on "The Great Gatsby." When I asked why we weren't being required to write our own outlines (and thus, our own papers), he explained that "If I don't do it this way, the majority of you won't do it right." I wish I was making that up.

The connections between education and employment are obvious. However, what I have learned recently about my performance in school as it relates to my employment history, runs even deeper. It turns out, the job market isn't too kind to a girl who is smart but can't pull it together to perform the easy, albeit mundane, tasks that most jobs require you to do. Despite this simple fact, it has been all but impossible for me to accept that I should have to settle for a job that is not constantly challenging, fun and rewarding at the same time. The most recent example of this happened just a month ago when I left a well paying job in my ideal field, because I didn't want to stomach any more of the bureaucratic nonsense that I felt was superfluous to the real goal of the organization. In high school, I couldn't be bothered to care about mindless busy work. In my professional life, it seems I couldn't be bothered to care about mindless paperwork.

Ironically, my sister, the one with the multi-thousand dollar education, has been experiencing the exact same problem. After receiving her graduate degree from U of T, she has returned to Seattle and found exactly zero jobs that relate to her interests or educational background. Instead, she has settled for a series of nice, but ultimately unfulfilling jobs as a technical writer. After failing to flourish in her most recent position as a recruiter in the technology industry, she has once again found herself unemployed, dissatisfied, and existentially woeful.

During a phone conversation the other day, she explained the trouble she has been having even bothering to apply for jobs because she already knows she will hate them. At the brink of tears, she wondered whether it was so damned unreasonable to want a job that you are excited to perform. A job that stimulates and inspires you, and also pays the rent. Are the vast majority of people in the world really just...unhappy?

Eleanor's education had prepared her for a very explicit life of challenge and reward. Rewards that she took to be material as well as spiritual. In a completely inverse way, I all but assumed that the real world just had to be more rewarding than high school almost by default, so my expectation of what it meant to receive reward for honest work was never fully vetted against the reality of the wage labor system. We both ended up with vastly overinflated senses of what it meant to be fulfilled by your profession, and we both have suffered greatly for it.

So here I am. Living in my dad's basement, trolling Craigslist for jobs as a barista, and wondering
how on earth I am going to find the motivation to pursue higher education if I can be fairly sure that it will lead me right back here in a matter of years? I know the answer to fulfillment is going to lie in compromise, but the question we are facing is this: How much of yourself is it reasonable to give up in order to be professionally satisfied, and when do you know you're giving too much? Does anyone really know that? Are we all trained to be numb to our own unhappiness because to begin to honor it would be perhaps too much to bear?

For the most part, I think both Eleanor and I are having trouble seeing the far end of the curve. The delayed rewards that we are sowing now for reaping later. Perhaps this constant state of agitation will die down as we settle into our strengths and preferences. Or perhaps, we will go numb and forget that we once used to know what it felt like to want more.

PS: I would like it to be noted that I strongly (but narrowly) resisted naming this post "A Tale of Two Sisters." You're welcome.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Anarchists of Color

Anyone who considers themselves to have the slightest drop of anarchist blood in them is acutely aware of how they are perceived by the media, the general public, and their government.

As a white, middle class, American female, the media that I receive is colored (or better yet, whited out) through a certain lens of privilege. Thus, my perception of anarchists is presented to me through a series of actions and reports that look very different from how anarchy might be presented in different parts of the world. Because there is a certain level of privilege attached to the status of every American citizen (I use citizen carefully here), anarchy in this country is often presented as a bunch of mostly white, rabble rousing youngsters with too little education, too much time, and a boat load of misplaced anger. Americans who protest the actions of their government are portrayed by the media as spoiled children who are arguing that they got the wrong color car for their birthday. For examples of this, please direct your attention here, here, here, and for some backhanded prejudice disguised as understanding go here.

What I am trying to understand then, is this article by the New York Times which is an alarmingly even-keeled approach to the current anarchist protests in Thailand. I am surprised at how neutral the article is considering its content which includes depictions of violence (real violence against people, not fake violence against buildings) and a huge dismantling of corporate and governmental activity. I know that the Times is supposed to be our big liberal propaganda machine, but as members of the capitalist media, they have routinely expressed their obligation to skew events such as these. Take this (somewhat satirical) example from 1893, a time when anarchy was considered responsible for one of the single most important events in American history - The Boston Tea Party.

Then, I read a little closer.

The modern impression of anarchists usually points to images of white, young people who are at best, mindless property destroyers and at worst, terrorists. And yet, the article in question doesn't use the word "anarchy" or even "terrorist" anywhere which leads me to wonder whether there is an inherent fear of depicting social justice movements of color as "anarchic" despite using the term freely to express identical events in the US. While I agree with the assumption that anarchic activity in developing countries is infinitely more pressing than the same activity in the developed world, doesn't media bias such as this help to absolve Americans of their responsibility to dissent? As the most powerful country in the world, isn't it equally important that we encourage our government, by whatever means necessary, to divest from the caustic influences that are helping to oppress indigenous people across the world? Why then is American anarchy considered less important than anarchy in other countries?

Perhaps the answer is that if Americans were to seize upon the reality that our political actions are relevant to the political desperation of people in other countries, the whole system of capitalism and free market enterprise would be jeopardized as people began to boycott the actions of their governments and corporations. It seems like such a simple truth, but it's one that threatens the entire Western paradigm so badly, as to instill a silent prejudice in even our most "liberal" spokespeople.

What we see then is a media machine who must go to great lengths to depict American anarchy as distasteful and unpatriotic, and Other anarchy as politically just, socially responsible, and practically saintly.

If anyone has any opinions on this issue, I would love to hear them. Am I taking a simple semantic oversight and extrapolating to an extreme degree, or has anyone else had experience bristling at this kind of blatant disregard for journalistic integrity? Am I being privileged to suggest that an Americans' attempt to u-lock herself to a JP Morgan building is anywhere near as vital as a Thai woman who is willing to shut down an airport to help deliver herself from oppression? I'm open to ideas.

Update: No sooner had I posted this when I saw a story on MSN with the headline "Terrorists Strike in Mumbai, Western Hostages Held" Let's see if we can compare notes between these two events. Deaths? Check. Hostages? Check. Property Destruction? Check. Terrorism? Only in the case where there are Westerners involved. Suspicious? Very.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sacrifical Sham

Okay, so I have a soft spot for 80's music, so what? On a bitterly cold November Sunday, the only thing more comforting than Journey's "Faithfully" is perhaps Elton John's "Sacrifice," which, to me, is actually a brilliant piece of self-indulgent poetry. No, I don't do drugs--but I do enjoy listening to these (soy)-cheesy songs and ruminating just a bit. So, in honor of National Elton John Day (which I totally just made up), let's start with sacrifice, since the whole meaning of it has been percolating in my brain as of late...

The concept of sacrifice is based on the fact that I'm entitled to this. I'm entitled to eat animals, I'm entitled to get married, I'm entitled to have whatever car I want, as long as I want it. People seem to think that doing the right thing is a sacrifice. Is abstaining from marriage a sacrifice? Is not eating animals a sacrifice? Is car-pooling more often, getting a more eco-friendly vehicle, or choosing public transportation a sacrifice? Our touchstone in deciding whether we're entitled to do something is not whether we personally can afford it; it's whether everyone could do it and if so, whether the planet and all it's inhabitants could survive.

We have a nation which just elected the first African American president, yet same-sex couples are still not able to get married. Marriage itself is an institution that is based in handing over property (women). Oodles of years later, half the time marriage winds up falling apart anyway.

Instead of gay people seeking what straight people have, maybe straight people should consider seeking what (some smart) gay people have, to figure out their relationships in a way that makes sense for them, including taking into account what happens when the marriage falls apart. There is something so icky here--straight people get engaged, can't bare the idea of a pre-nuptial agreement, and then when they split up and sue each other over beach houses and stubborn pride, it's our tax money--and by "our" I'm including people who aren't married either by choice or force--that pays for the court's time. Here's a hint, engaged folks: Get a pre-nup! Or better yet, why not just consider the "pre" part and ditch the "nup." You wouldn't go into a business relationship without a contract. A romantic relationship is like a business relationship, except, if you're lucky, your romantic relationship also includes some nooky.

Now, I won't bore you with my in-depth feels about the entire institution of marriage. I will, however, point your attention to an essay called "I Do Not: Why I Won't Marry," written by straight woman Catherine Newman. This essay is full of many ingredients I look for in a story: a pinch of self-righteousness, a smear of radicalism, and a dollop of smart wit. But the author, who chose not to get married, has an annoying (and hypocritical) habit of making too-many crude meat-comparisons.

In a way, it was a breath of fresh air to read this essay, in which Newman uses this sensible rationale--"because the Religious Right and their Defense of Marriage Act use marriage as a vehicle for homophobic legislation"--as a reason for why she "does not." But then, she kept talking about things like "pulling the skin off a roast chicken and eating it right there in the kitchen, before the bird even makes it to the table," and several other gross things like that...things that made me wonder how someone can be so right-on with issues of unjust privilege, and recognize the necessity of standing in solidarity with gay people who aren't given marriage "rights," but then turn around and flippantly take the life of another animal. Gay people have continued to be subjugated throughout history, in ways such as not having the right to marry (though I'm not sure why they'd want to partake in something so deeply flawed, but they still should be able to make that decision for themselves), as well as the other end of the spectrum--violence and murder.

Speaking of violence and murder, vegans (those who choose not to consume beings who were murdered) are not "noble" because they are choosing not to take something that is not theirs to take in the first place. Just because we are given that unjust power does not mean we are virtuous for not using it. Same thing with marriage: by abstaining from the legal privileges it comes with, you are not making a huge gigantic sacrifice, though you are making a teeny tiny one (but a necessary one, nonetheless). More importantly, you are simply doing the right thing, and, much like Newman, making an important statement while you're at it. Now if Newman would only ditch the carcasses...

But by abstaining from eating animals even though you can eat one if you want, by not driving around in an gas-guzzling SUV, you are not sacrificing anything. It is our moral imperative in today's society to help preserve the earth and all the earthlings on it, and to do our part to not contribute to the degradation and commodification of the planet and the non-human animals.

We are currently faced with an economic crisis, and people are being forced to look at things from a slightly new angle, holding onto their assets like it's nobody's business (which it's not). If it's true that things have to fall apart before they can get fixed, then I certainly hope that the last decade has counted as falling apart, because bureaucracy and participatory patriarchy is so 2005.

As Sir Elton John once said... "And it's no sacrifice... no sacrifice at all."