The Road Trip

We were somewhere near the Tennessee-Virginia border in early April. Night was falling, and I was at the wheel of our minivan. We’d been driving for most of the day, having left Arkansas a little before noon.

My son Julian was in the passenger seat, queuing up music on his phone to play this new Canadian artist he’d recently discovered. I was trying not to lose sight of the other car in our caravan, the black Chevrolet with my other son and his girlfriend. The interstate was hilly here and with their taillights not working properly, it was easy to lose track of them.

Julian had driven until we switched drivers somewhere near Knoxville. We’d run through a variety of conversation topics, and the scenery rushing by outside had kept our attention. But with dusk and a change of drivers came a change in mood, as we continued to roll into the night.

The coronavirus pandemic had only recently become a reality, and it had been three weeks since I’d begun working from home every day.

As the music played, I asked him how community college was going, now that they’d moved classes online.

“I’m not going to class anymore,” he said. “And I don’t think I’m going to enroll in the fall.”

“Oh?” I said.

“Being online isn’t working for me,” he said. “And I think this coronavirus thing is only going to get worse.”

We listened to the music for a minute.

“You’ve been staying in your room a lot,” I said. “Some days I hardly see you.”

“I need my space,” he said.

It was hard to be optimistic about the coming months. Anything I could think to say would sound hollow. I nodded in agreement, but realized he couldn’t see that in the fading light.

“What’s your plan, then?” I said, throwing the topic back to him.

“I don’t have one,” he said. “What’s the use anyway? It feels like the whole world is a shit show right now. Everything I expected for this year isn’t going to happen.”

I glanced over at him. His dimly-lit face gazed out at the highway ahead while he got quiet again as the music played. He leaned forward to turn up the volume.

That night, I had no way of seeing just how bad it would get, both in the world and in Julian’s life. The weeks and months to come would be filled with awful news, the shutting down of normal life, the cancelling of so much, and Julian being fired from his job, retreating further from his mother and me, leaving the house to go smoking, getting drunk alone in his room late at night.

But we had a long way to go still until we could get home to relative comfort and some sleep.

Take This Job and Find a Better Way

About 15 years ago, I was in Reno on a business trip with a colleague. While we were waiting to meet with a client, we ate lunch in a hotel restaurant and had a brief conversation about the nature and value of work.

As we ate, a thin woman who may have been in her late 50s wandered through the dining area and repeatedly announced “Keno” in a high-pitched voice. She was wearing a uniform of some sort that identified her has an employee of the establishment. She gave off a vibe of tedium, which seems understandable if all she did for eight hours a day was solicit wagers on the Keno games inside a windowless hotel casino. (In case you’ve never been to Nevada, pretty much all hotels are casinos.)

Photo: John Sanphillippo

My colleague and I watched her come and go. After a while, my colleague looked at me and said, “Is that the kind of job that makes someone grateful to be employed?”

“No,” I said with a sad chuckle. “She actually seems rather pathetic.”

Employed, but pathetic.

Up until recently, our current president was very proud of the number of people employed in the United States. Whether these statistics portray an accurate picture or not, there was a lot of verve in the economy before the coronavirus brought things to a screeching halt.

Since March, a lot of people have lost their jobs. Some of those job losses will be temporary, but many will likely be permanent. And it is worth asking whether those were jobs really worth having to start with. Perhaps there is something more than the job/no job binary.

There are many in this country who have a point of view that goes something like this:

  • any employment is better than no employment
  • having no job is “bad,” as in “idle hands are the devil’s workshop”
  • all jobs are of equal quality when viewed in the employment/no employment dichotomy
  • any job will be a step up the ladder of progress.

This is a very simplistic perspective that ignores many realities of human interaction. Among them are the fact that employers take illegal (and sometimes immoral) advantage of their employees all the time, day in and day out. One has only to look at the number of lawsuits that employees or former employees have filed against companies to get a sense of the magnitude of the situation.

This also ignores the plight of the working poor, who are employed and yet still unable to afford basic necessities such as decent housing, food, and health care, and have no guarantee that things will improve. Also, freelancers, contract workers, and those stuck in the so-called gig economy have little reason to feel that they’re being paid fair compensation for their efforts.

The job vs. no job view of employment paints a flat picture. It disregards the idea that employment–serving a valued role in society–can be key to one’s sense of self-worth. Once, all employment, with the possible exception of royalty, served a purpose. Today, there are far too many “bullshit jobs.” Perhaps we will actually be better off if many of these just go away, to be replaced by truer, more worthwhile vocations.

This may sound unsympathetic, but I would question how much people really enjoy selling shit on Ebay day in and day out, or taking money from drivers while sitting all day in toll booths, or calling out the next round of Keno betting in a forgettable lunch cafe in Reno. I think there is a better way, and I think we can take some time during this moment in our history allow ourselves to consider the possibilities.

There is a perhaps unsolvable tension between the economic need of having the means to fulfill one’s basic needs and the psychological need for fulfillment and understanding. We’ve created a society where the two are often mutually exclusive. Perhaps we could do better.

Don’t Like the News? Kill the Messenger

I’m not a journalist but I have worked with and around journalists for over two decades, something I have talked about before here and here.

Which is why I found it disheartening to read the story of the demise of LAWeekly as I knew it. While it is true that newspapers and other journalism outlets have struggled over the past decade or so in the face of economic hardship brought on by the internet (and to some extent, themselves), to learn that an established news outlet has been deliberately targeted for destruction is chilling.

Years ago, I read the LAWeekly and its sister publication the East Bay Express rather frequently when I was a college student in California. These “alternative” weeklies could always be relied on to provide thoughtful stories about local issues not covered in much depth by the bigger news organizations. (Washington, D.C.’s alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, is still chugging away, but it’s sister paper, the Baltimore City Paper, folded in 2017.)

The story I read about how the LAWeekly has been gutted may contain some hyperbole–journalists are not perfect, and often they have an overblown sense of self and of the importance of their work, in my view.

But I have no doubt that the institution of journalism with its modern emphasis on fairness and accuracy is essential to the effectiveness of democracy and the protection of civil rights. To disparage legitimate journalism as so-called fake news–as President Trump does almost daily–creates a situation where fewer and fewer people trust facts, such as they are.

(It’s important to remember that the freedom of the press was important enough to the Founding Fathers that it is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution–alongside the freedom to practice the religion of one’s choice and ahead of the right to bear arms.)

According to this version of events from the editorial staff at The LAnd Magazine, the LAWeekly was bought by a “cabal of Republican donors and Trump supporters from Orange County” who are “devoted to defeating progressive ideas by indoctrinating young conservatives and infiltrating what they considered to be liberal institutions.” If true, this is another example of the hypocrisy of conservatives these days.

Conservatives themselves claim with alarming frequency that liberals are somehow “indoctrinating” or “brainwashing” people (if you want examples, leave a comment–I don’t want to unnecessarily drive traffic to people promoting falsehoods). The argument is illogical, however.

The conventional concept of brainwashing requires that someone is led by the intentional actions of others to believe something they would not have and could not have believed if left to their own thought processes. If a journalistic organization publishes verifiable fact, without attempting to manipulate its audience, and someone reads it and draws a conclusion, I can’t see how that, in any way, is brainwashing. (Note that conservative “news” manipulates its audience intentionally every day by distorting the facts and not questioning unsupported claims.)

Conservatives give lip service to individual liberty. However, conservatives are all too eager to oppose that exercise of personal liberty when individuals make up their own minds about their own lives and the lives of those around them in a way that does not conform to an established conservative point of view.

Conservatism, almost be definition, is threatened by new ideas and the reconsideration of how we as a society view the world. It is thus not in favor of personal liberty at all, but rather the adherence to a strict set of codes of (mostly old fashioned) behavior. If a news outlet such as LAWeekly questions those conservative “values,” it is seen as a threat to the conservative ideal.

A threat that, unfortunately, is sometimes targeted for elimination. So who is the larger threat?

Maybe this is an isolated incident and perhaps I’m over-generalizing (overreacting?). And maybe the ideal of having news that’s free of bias is a pipe dream. But the possibility that reasonable people cannot agree on some basic structures of society, such that we now have flavored news that meets our preferred tastes, is frightening.

“Participatory democracy depends on a broadly shared view of reality, and therefore on trusted institutions of journalism and mass media.” – Kevin Platt, University of Pennsylvania

Music of Hope and Change

In the summer of 1988 I went to see Steve Winwood in concert, and his opening act was Johnny Clegg and Savuka. In case you’re unfamiliar with the band, they were a South African group formed during the final years of apartheid, but their music seems as relevant today as ever.

I don’t remember much about their performance other than liking what I heard and saw. Years later, I picked up a CD of their greatest hits and each time I listen to it, I find more to like.

Their sound is fairly typical of African rock and roll of the era, with the distinctive guitar tone, steady drum rhythms, and chanting vocals. For comparison, Paul Simon’s “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” has a similar feel.

Here’s the thing: Clegg was a white South African and say what you will about the “white savior” problem in the arts, but his work shows a profound sensitivity to the issues of apartheid. In the songs that I know, the band sings of a pan-African unity, the heartbreaks of racial injustice, and the resiliency of the African people.

One song in particular jumped out at me as I listened to my CD last week. “Asimbonanga” is a slower tempo song with a lot of Zulu lyrics. But it becomes clear upon repeated listening that they’re singing about Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment on Robbin Island, and also about the many South Africans who suffered and died from the systemic racism in that country. At the end of the song, Clegg recites a few names–Stephen Biko, Victoria Mxenge, and Neil Aggett. He is “saying their names,” reminding us that these were people who dedicated their lives, literally, to ending systemic racial oppression. “Asimbonanga” translates as “we have not seen him.”

Johnny Clegg may not have understood apartheid in the same way a black South African would, but he nonetheless risked a lot. According to Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography, “Apartheid was a police state, a system of surveillance and laws designed to keep black people under control. A full compendium of those laws would run more than three thousand pages and weigh approximately ten pounds….”

My ticket to see Nelson Mandela, June 30, 1990.

Under the system, it was illegal for blacks and whites to mingle, and the band risked attracting the attention of law enforcement every time they performed in South Africa. Despite the risk, the band was undeterred in its goals. The band was advocating radical change.

Two years after I saw Johnny Clegg and Savuka in concert, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He made a triumphant tour of America, and my mother, my girlfriend (now wife), and I went to see Mandela live at a large rally in Oakland, California. Even considering the depth of my own white privilege, I understood that the decades of hard work by artists, journalists, and ordinary people had at last yielded results.

I can only hope for the same here in America.

Gen X Has a New Hero

A few years ago, I wrote about how people from Generation X*–my generation–are essentially nonexistent in the public sphere. With few exceptions, we are almost invisible.

I used the example of Reid Hoffman, billionaire founder of LinkedIn, as an example that proves the point. Without Hoffman, who I went to summer camp with, there is nobody of my generation who has “made it.”

I now want to amend that statement and add to my list Eric Garcetti, the Gen X mayor of Los Angeles.

Garcetti began serving as mayor of L.A. around the time I wrote my post on Hoffman, and has shown in the past seven years to be very capable of being in charge of a large and diverse city.

Los Angeles currently has about 4 million people and serves as the keystone to a metropolitan region of about 19 million people. It is often said that the region has more Koreans than anywhere outside of Seoul, the most Mexicans outside of Mexico City, the most Iranians outside of Tehran. The economy of the Los Angeles region is larger than the economies of several nations, including Argentina, New Zealand, Saudi Arabia, and Sweden.

I think that whatever Garcetti is doing, he’s doing it right. Like any large city, L.A. has its problems, including crime and homelessness. But no one person can solve all of a city’s, state’s, or country’s social problems, despite what some people want to believe. That takes everyone working together.

However, an effective leader provides the vision and the glue to keep a large and diverse city, state, or nation on track. Garcetti is clearly doing this, and I’m impressed.

*NOTE: I am using the Pew Research Center’s definition of Gen X, being people born 1965 to 1980.