Sunday, November 29, 2009

Oh you got a man? Well, you need a richer one.

I'm listening to a mixtape today and the MC says "You know when you're really doing something? You're really doing something when you put 10 G's on fantasy football. That's when you know you made it." Something about it struck a chord with me, and I'm still trying to figure out what I think about it. My immediate reaction was laughing, because it's a ridiculous statement, a ridiculous boast, and it displays the sense of "I am who I am and I'm not apologizing for it" that is such a trademark of hip hop, and, increasingly, American culture in general, at least when it comes to lavish displays of wealth.

And of course, part of me thought, that's actually tragic that he's saying that, because even if he's joking and he didn't do that (unlikely), some father might hear that and waste money that could go to his child's education.

But then there's the part of me that understands where the MC is coming from, that understands where everyone is coming from when they find a way to make money and are proud of it, because they thought they lived in a world where, no matter what, they couldn't make it. But it made me also think of the other, less hopeful side of the American Dream. Millions of people, convinced that they can beat the odds, transcend the limitations of their environments, and "make it," which is always closely allied with making money, start acting like they've already beaten the odds, spending money on things they can't afford, whether it's a new house, a new car, or a shopping spree, when that money could have gone to better food or education or health insurance.

I know that this problem would be less dramatic if people weren't fed massive amounts of bullshit from popular entertainment which tells them that they're irrelevant, inferior, and basically worthless unless Robin Leach is narrating their lives. It's really striking when you look at Asian women having eye surgery and Black women putting deadly chemicals in their hair so they can more closely resemble that idea of beauty which is so closely allied with wealth.

A lot of the problem comes from the consumption compulsion, the basic human response to scarcity. It's the desire to obtain the object of one's desire immediately, without any delay. This is the very desire which is encouraged on a daily basis by the marketing industry: Bad credit? No credit? How can you say no to this deal? At 75% off you're basically losing money not buying it? Imagine how popular you'll be!

When the recession hit, I started thinking, 'what good can come out of this?' Because it's bound to stay with us for a little while, anyway, so we should take stock of everything and think about what the positive consequences of it might be. And I started thinking maybe it would cause people to be more conscientious, to be more resourceful. Maybe people would be more efficient with the way they spend their money, from the poorest people to (most importantly) the federal government, putting resources into education and jobs and other necessities instead of bullshit. Bullshit for rich people is war, "homeland security," a lot of things.

But there's part of me that looks at our society and thinks, well, in any other society before the United States, people would do that. They would put their resources into things that offer long term benefits, rather than short term ones. But there's something about the US of A that is so obsessed with winning, with beating the other person in every possible area just to show that we're the best, that makes me hesitate. And maybe that's a good thing-- maybe it means that we do it for a love of the game and we actually have learned to enjoy the simple things in life like flatscreen televisions and diamonds. Or maybe (and this is what I actually hope), we'll have the courage to alter the way we look at status and value in general, to be able to look at someone and not judge them immediately if they don't approximate our (store-bought) notion of success and worth.

No matter what you may think, and no matter what your family or friends might tell you, you can't buy self-worth. And therefore, there is nobody on earth who can't afford it. Some of the poorer women I've met are actually much more beautiful than some of the richer ones I've met, because they know their beautiful and they're not threatened by that possibility. And when you love yourself, you take good care of yourself and those around you. So instead of boasting about what we have, we should boast about what we've done. Pretty soon, nobody will care about what you have because the American Dream will have evaporated before their eyes. There will be multiple American Dreams, not just the one that marketing built. "A person who never dreamed would be dead in a week."

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Open Letter to the Discovery Channel

Dear Representative,

First, I would like to thank you for your program "Gang Wars: Oakland." I am writing to let you know how much it means to us Oakland residents that the longstanding problems of our city are finally being addressed. Ideally, I would like to participate in a focus group or somehow give feedback to the producers of this segment, because I really would like to have a chance to let them know my opinions.

While I am very grateful that you have chosen Oakland as the subject of a program, I was struck by the polemical tone of the production. While this is certainly an occasion for heartfelt messages, I strongly disagree with the narrator's assertion that the 8-man Police Task Force on gangs is our "only hope." The Oakland Police and municipal government have asserted since the 80's that this is in fact not at all true--it is, rather, the responsibility of citizens such as myself who have been personally affected by homicide to build relations with law enforcement and between citizens in order to tackle this problem.

I know that the producers of the show may have been aware of this--that the 8-man task force is not actually our "only hope"--but they may have figured, perhaps with a keen entrepreneurial spirit, that the mostly-suburban viewers of Discovery would respond with more excitement to the idea of a select few versus thousands. Indeed, this image conjures any number of popular action and war movies, from Rambo to Kill Bill, and is very much a part of the American popular imagination.

But, speaking as a person who has seen the intimate relationship between social policies, which destroy communities by starving them of the most basic resources like education, and homicide, I do not appreciate the metaphor of Oakland as an action movie. In order to do justice to Oakland, or any other city whose plight is similar, one would need to show that the people dying are real people, not extras with squibs, and that their families and communities are torn asunder by their premature deaths.

It is my dream that Discovery and its affiliates could produce television that gives more of a voice to the people involved in the battlezone that is the American ghetto. We must collaborate on this.