by Jan Baughman
(Swans - December 17, 2007) The year 2007 began with a momentous event in America: the swearing-in of Nancy Pelosi as the first woman speaker of the house, and many were energized that their antiwar referendum had been passed in the 2006 election. As I predicted in last year's review, "It won't take long for the status quo to emerge from the aftermath of the 2006 midterm elections and insert itself into the 2008 campaign," and so it went. Disconnected from developments outside of this country and the myriad problems within, the media has spent most of the year covering the US presidential campaign with its endless debates, repetitive interviews, and no substantive challenges to the candidates' respective positions. We have been lulled into thinking that our choice for president in 2008 is the most important decision we'll make for the future, but we are not permitted to choose from those who represent change. While we all suffer the consequences of the elitist policies that affect every life on this planet, we remain technically and emotionally disconnected from those who share our reality, swallowing the propaganda that convinces us that we, too, are or could be the beneficiaries of status quo.
None of the candidates we're considering for change is willing to say that the troops will not come home now or any time in the near future; nor that war is our greatest export, keeps the US economy afloat, and is the primary reason we consume so much oil. Each repeats the required mantra, "all options are on the table with Iran." Meantime, the demonization of that country continues despite our own evidence to the contrary. Will we learn from 2007 what we failed to learn in 2001?
The year brought us many technological "advances" such as the multitasking iPhone and the television Slingbox, which we are told we need in order to be connected to a world of round-the-clock information, allowing us to be somewhere other than the place we're in at any given time. Yet if I am not in the same place and time with you, the very person sitting next to me on the train talking to someone else in a different place and time, we have no connection; we are merely side-by-side in two distinct realities. It is no wonder that despite the tragedy of endless war, the foreboding state of the environment, the economy, health care, wages, that we cannot come together and create a better, more humane world. With all the technology at our fingertips, our individual worlds appear to be working just fine, and the other's doesn't exist.
Earlier this year I walked away from Verizon Wireless, disgusted by their continued offerings of phone records to the government. Unfortunately, I could not find another carrier that worked where I needed it, so I hung my head and rejoined the dreadful informants. Suddenly I was thrust into a maze of confusion -- having quit for a week, I was no longer an existing customer, but rather a new customer despite having been with them for the last 5 years. My needs didn't fit into the pre-recorded automated telephone options or the customer-service script, and after hours of runaround I decided to show up in person to get some face-to-face help. I relay all this to make the point that when the young woman in the store told me she couldn't help me and I should call customer service, I demanded that she do it with me, right then -- which she did, all the while looking down and sending messages on her Blackberry as I stood facing her on the other side of the counter. While one of her ears was on the job and her thumbs were out on the town with her friends, I and my quagmire did not exist in her world.
With her attention finally turned to me when it came time to make a sale, I asked for the simplest phone without a camera, only to learn that every one of their phones not only has a camera but even a video recorder so we can capture our reality to send to those not present in the moment, seek 15 seconds of fame on a YouTube presidential debate, or to produce a sensational video to help fill the media's 24/7 coverage.
Who would have believed a century ago that we would walk around with telephones, cameras, computers, and video equipment affixed to our ears, able to communicate at a moment's notice with people in other countries, yet separated from the very human beings standing right in front of us in what should be a shared reality? We've all had these existential experiences: The customer at the checkout counter of the grocery store speaking on the phone, not interacting with or even acknowledging the clerk. The patron in a restaurant with his cell phone in his ear, listening, talking, passing the time while dining. The message is: You who is serving me, you who I pass on the street or in the park is not as important as the voice being broadcast in my ear at the moment. You do not matter to me.
We need to take a good look at our well-being and that of the people around us, and compare it to the official line that we've heard time and again in 2007: The economy is strong, the situation in Iraq is improving, our health care system is working, our constitutional rights are protected, we take care of our troops, the polar bears are fine, we're helping those in need around the world, we wage war to make peace... The value of life outside of our own reality seems increasingly diminished, and the onslaught of school, church, mall, and gang shootings that took place this year have not made us more likely to reach out to those around us, but rather to fear them. The disconnect that allows or inspires an individual to shoot randomly at his neighbors is unfathomable. But when disaster strikes, whether through violence, flood or fire, hurricane or drought, it is those in our local community we will look to for help. This is so because we continue to support the very system that has turned its back on us for its own enrichment.
If we cannot even connect locally, we will certainly never embrace the humanity of those in cultures outside our physical reality. We need to break through the cycle of disconnect and use our technology wisely to sift through the distractions and propaganda that allow status quo to continue. We must understand that life is not a spectator sport, reconnect with the political process, and apply the lessons of 2007 to a better, saner, and more humane way forward.
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