You Might Come To California

Jay C. in comments over at the Crack Den, on the wildfires and coverage of the same:

Just a tossed-off observation in a radio news segment, but the whole tone -“Man, that sucks. What else is on?”- seems to be indicative of how we’re all little islands of consumption, rather than a society with a mandate for dignified living for all. When something goes wrong, it’s that person’s problem I guess.

Which is something I noticed during coverage of Katrina, as well, not the immediate of course but the aftermath, this idea that it’s all very far away, and we don’t need to worry, that we can watch like it’s a soap opera, just another missing white woman, something to chew over while getting our hair cut but not something that affects us beyond basic voyeurism.

And if it’s far away, it’s not our responsibility to fix it, it’s not something that could happen to us. It’s not something we need to worry about, when the insurance companies deny these people’s claims, or politicians turn their backs, or radio hosts say they hate America. It’s not something we need to get all that pissed about, because we’re okay in our little island.

Until we’re not, and here’s the thing. We’re always okay until we’re not. We’re always employed until we’re not, well until we’re not, rich until we’re not, safe until we’re not. Nobody walks around all day saying, “Well, it’s a matter of time until I’m fucked.”

No, you tell yourself, I may not be rich but at least I’ve got a good job. Then your company moves its factory to Mexico and its call center to Malaysia and tells you it’s Mexico and Malaysia’s fault you’re hosed so don’t hate us for increasing our profit margins, it’s all just business.

You tell yourself, I’d never live in New Orleans, because of the hurricanes, and then a tornado rips through your town and takes your roof off.

You tell yourself, I’m okay health-wise, I don’t smoke or drink too much, I work out. Then the cancer comes along, the birth defects in your kids, the rare genetic disease your parents didn’t even know the name of. Then you just drop dead one day, brain anyeurism, or a stroke.

You’re always okay until you’re not, okay on your island. Well, if not on your island, then in your city. If not in your city, then in your neighborhood. If not in your neighborhood, then on your block. If not on your block, then in your house, with your locks and your alarm system and your worry and your fear. And then you start looking at the people inside your fortress: Are you safe from them, too? More horrifying: Are they safe, from you?

My point is this: We can keep distancing ourselves. We can keep watching what’s happening in NOLA and SoCal and saying, “Eh, they moved there, their fault.” We can keep thinking of ourselves as separated from others’ trouble, and turn the channel, and find a way to blame the victim, and make it okay not to care, and go to sleep secure until we’re not, and then wonder: Why didn’t somebody stop this? Why didn’t I get help? Why isn’t anybody here for me? Why am I alone?

Or we can make ourselves one country. We can take our chalk or sand or salt and draw that line around all of us, one to the other. Until we’re all inside it. Until we’re all protected. Until we’re all safe. Because until I take responsibility for you and you take responsibility for me, neither of us is okay. Until I care about you and you care about me, neither of us is cared for.

And I think what holds us back is the same thing that always holds us back. We’re so afraid of being conned, of being taken, of giving something out there and not getting anything back. We don’t trust in the decency of others and man, can you blame us sometimes? People are basically assholes. We’re so used to thinking of the world like a vending machine, like you put something in and should get something out, when in truth, sometimes it doesn’t happen like that, sometimes you put in virtue and get vice spit back at you. Sometimes you are being conned. Sometimes people do suck and lie and not deserve it.

But you know what? Until we stop using the equation entirely, until we stop making it about deserving on the receiving end and start making it about decency on the giving end, until we start caring about people not because they’ve somehow earned it but because that’s what we do, this dynamic’s never going to change.

There will always be a story about people who asked for what they got, by moving to SoCal and hating America, by making bad choices, there will always be a story about some dirty hippie who spit on a veteran, a story somebody can use to answer the question, “Why should I?” The trick isn’t to argue the answer. The trick is to stop accepting the question. The trick is to make it so that it isn’t a question-and-answer at all.

Then California’s not “eh, whatever, they hate America, they’re losing their homes.” Then NOLA’s not “they spent their relief money on bling.” Then the neighborhood I live in isn’t “eh, they’re all on welfare and smoking crack, anyway.” Then all of that is America, and all of that is us, and all of that’s our problem, and the question, the answer, the equation, the vending machine, all of that means nothing, because we’re not watching it on TV anymore.

It doesn’t just suck to be them. It sucks to be us, and we’ve got to fix it.

California relief.


11 thoughts on “You Might Come To California

  1. Great post A! And, none of us is immune from this syndrome. My first thought about the fires was, well they live where such things happen with the Santa Ana winds, and they are all wealthy anyway, and it isn’t as bad as CNN tries to make it look. Thank you for setting me straight too.

  2. Athenae,
    As always, you’ve written a wonderful post.
    We’re not thinking of ourselves as a community in America the way we did before Reagan became President in 1980. I’m old enough to remember the day JFK was shot
    (although honestly I don’t remember that day as well as I do the day Oswald was).
    Before “Reagan Democrats” and “voodoo economics,” we didn’t see the meanness displayed publicly that has become not merely the norm but de rigeur for “conservative” political opinion; we didn’t see this “with us or against us” mentality (well, except among football fans; had Reagan been elected yet when bottles thrown from the stands to knock officials cold on the field became a fad?) permeating literally every aspect of our discourse, our culture, our livelihoods (remember when there were more some other kind of shows on TV than there were cop shows? Remember when sometimes the cops weren’t the good guys?)
    In the America I remember — not just with childhood nostalgia, because before 1980 I’d already served my hitch in the US Air Force — we didn’t admire small, bigoted, greedy, me-first philosophies backed by bullying spin-master crap-flinging pea-brains. We admired men and women with vision, gumption, and generous spirits; we reached out not to give one another anything, or take from each other, but to hold on together.

  3. Another problem with America now, besides the lack of a true community spirit, is the current regime’s posing itself as the “daddy” party, that will protect us from all danger–except that it actually is the cause of most of the danger that we now face. Look at Katrina–the levees were known to be inadequate. The mortgage crisis? “Free market” forces and de-regulation sure fucked things up. The SoCal fires? Boy, wouldn’t additional National Guardsmen help out in that situation–but they’re far away, fighting an illegal and useless war. From the neighborhood apathy all the way to the White House idiocy, we’re just SCREWED.

  4. Thank you for that beautiful post. I am so tired of “We the people” being replaced with “Screw you, I’ve got mine.”

  5. What is the difference between a hurricaine or wildfire (which doesn’t unite us as a society) and an Oklahoma City bombing or NY WTC plane crash that seems so close to some people?
    Or why, from my far inland state of Missouri, does a tornado seem so close and a hurricane seem so far away?

  6. Absolutely. Right. On. This is what needs to be discussed, hard and true facts on the ground, not some BS bipartisan crap where once again I get mine if I help you screw someone else. This is a great and giving country in many, many ways, despite our go it alone ethos. I live near NY City and the people can be rude, arrogant, and self centered – but if you need a hand or help – wow – New Yorkers can come through like nobody’s business. I’ve seen it many times, including on 9/11.
    And like that day and Katrina it really is coming down to “We the People” because the government has abdicated and will remain that way until we reassert control. So here you go NSA, a quote from Jefferson: “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories.” And after rescuing all the poor citizens here, and bringing our troops home from over there, we will be coming for the ruling elite – taxes and jail, taxes and jail through a device called the law which will bring justice back to this land of criminals who have abandoned every sacred principle this country stands for. Next time the fire is in DC.

  7. I’ve got an idea as to what happened. This certainly isn’t the whole explanation and some sociology-wise sort will probably tell me there’s a name for it and it’s been disproven, but here goes:
    Because genuine bad news like the California fires and NOLA reaches us from the same radio and teevee and internets as the missing white woman alerts, and because they’ve used up all the hyperbole and screaming for non-events, we aren’t registering the legitimacy of the really bad stuff anymore.
    No, it’s not a valid reason for not caring. But I think it explains a lot of the reaction (or lack of it).
    On a note I think is related. Does anyone else get freaked out by movie trailers at the cinema? The camera shots start out at about 2 or 3 seconds long, then get shorter as the soundtrack, usually with screaming and explosions, gets louder. By the end of the trailer the shots are about a third of a second long and you’re sitting in front of this crazy flickering screen with fireballs coming out of it. And sometimes tits. Then it’s silent while the next one starts and builds to its climax 45 seconds later. The formula is depressingly predictable.
    God, I sound like an old man.

  8. I wrote about this years ago. I called the series, “Why I Like Paying Taxes.” Funnily, all the randroids who tried to argue against it used something along the lines of the non-argument:
    “Government is good, or at least a necessary evil, because it promotes the common good in these specific, service oriented ways (like roads, schools, and healthcare*).”
    “Bu-bu-but governmentspass bad laws!! Therefore government is TEH EEVIL!!”
    Trying to redirect the argument to my original point resulted in the goalposts taking up residence in Dunsinane.
    What’s that quote again: “We must all hang together, or we shall assuredly hang separately”?

  9. On a note I think is related. Does anyone else get freaked out by movie trailers at the cinema?
    Steve D, this may not be exactly what you’re talking about, but I’ve felt since 9/11 that disaster films are not exactly cool anymore. I don’t know, remember Mars Attacks! with the little old lady laughing because the Martians blew up Congress, or Independence Day with the White House exploding? That shit doesn’t amuse me, not that it really did ever, but especially not lately.
    I’m working up a post, eventually, about movies about this whole thing, like the Harrison Ford Fallujah thing and Steven Bochco’s TV series for FX. I mean, we barely know what this is yet. And already they’re shoving it into the box and telling us what’s on the label. I mean, in other words, OMG TOO SOON.

  10. I was listening to NPR last night (well, a fund drive with NPR bits) and they were talking about a new Brian DePalma movie about Iraq. And DePalma was talking about how he couldn’t have made Casualties of War during the Vietnam War. And *I* thought (and I quote) “Holy effing shit! Why would you *want* to?”
    Call me old fashioned, but I’d like my movies to have, you know, some PERSPECTIVE! Even if I agree wholeheartedly with whatever the premise of DePalma’s movie is, I’m still going to be a bit uncomfortable thinking about it. Because we’re going to find out more about what really happened there over the next ten, fifteen, twenty years, and DePalma could end up looking like a complete tool. And what good will that do anybody?
    Sigh. A., help me out. Write that post and put into words what I’m ineffectually trying to say here. Then I can just say, “What A said!”

  11. Athenae, I’ve got mixed feelings about your mixed feelings about current-event related movies. I get the same discomfort you describe when I feel I’m being sold entertainment designed to shape how I understand what’s going on around me.
    Except I think that’s what movies, and music, and theater, and books, have always done. I’m not sure I want to start telling people where they’ve got to draw a line. Is it OK for me to pick up my guitar and sing some song about the war, but not OK for someone else to pick up a camera and make a movie about it?
    Maybe the part that bugs me most, though, is that the more something like Iraq becomes a movie or TV show or song, the easier it is to forget that it’s still a country and a war that we’ve got a responsibility to address in real life.

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