by Margaret Wyles
January 30, 2000 - Note from the Editor: Everything is make-believe: God won the Superbowl; the New Hampshire primary will be decided by God. And God wants you to do right by the environment, and by Martha Stewart's perfect world. Then you want to send some money to your relatives in Serbia. That is, if you can find them. Five to six thousand Iraqi kids die every month and Serbs cannot heat their homes in the middle of winter. God must not be on their side. Then again, we are so superior, so well-intended, such puking, castrated, mindless believers--we have the ammunition and the gun-boat policies to prove it--that we must be right. Margaret Wyles, in a very personal way, reflects on self-defined superior do-gooders. Heed her words.
My son celebrated his 7th birthday recently. As has been our custom, it was the birthday boy's choice of location for the family dinner. His choice? McDonald's - he wanted the toy. I cringed. Politically and dietarily offensive, I envisioned the rain forests being cleared to make way for grazing cows ground up and served in disposable packaging, the fat and chemicals that would cling to my insides, no doubt shortening my life by a few moments at least. But a deal's a deal, even if made with the devil. We went.
My daughter's toy, a plastic mini Barbi performing some sort of career function with a pink plastic podium, ended up in the garbage before we even left. My son's gender-specific car fared better, and apparently made it home only to get lost in the heaps of stuff with which his birthday was accompanied.
I had hoped to eat and run, but was forced to endure some after-dining pleasure as the children romped in the play structure, the other major attraction. So for some time, I amused myself in people-watching the McDonald's clientele. Mothers in outdated hair styles, wearing stretch pants testing the limits of their latex content, fathers with permanent traces of oil and tobacco on their fingers, sternly watching over their unruly children. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone taking a photograph. No doubt grandparents, treating their grandchild to a special birthday, the photograph a necessary adjunct to such an important event. Certainly his toy would be played with upon the return home until it was lost or broken a year or so later.
The meal, such as it was, cost us $12. We could have afforded to go somewhere else? But what about those others...the ones that seemed to belong there?
We live a few miles from Pacific Lumber, the origin of Redwood Summer and the Headwaters controversy. Old growth redwoods have been logged practically in our back yard, and giant stumps dot our property, evidence of clear cutting several years back. My daughter, not knowing much difference between old growth and kindling will often yell out the car window at a passing log truck, "Don't kill old growth." She learned that from a friend. While everyone is aware of Julia Butterfly, we have our own neighborhood tree sitter for whom that same friend makes breakfast every Sunday. She recently had her property clear cut to make way for the house her parents are buying for her. She's a vegetarian and buys organic.
I used to work on the same floor as an attorney instrumental in a large environmental suit against Maxxam, the corporate owner of Pacific Lumber. He was single, worked tirelessly for a couple of years, running off periodically to South America to go river rafting. He won his case. He took the settlement money, bought an airplane and shortly thereafter left Humboldt County. He was raised in wealthy Marin County. His parents own substantial acreage on an idyllic mountain nearby. I don't believe he ever ate at McDonald's.
I had been employed by a workers' comp attorney at the time. I met several of those timber workers, the ones whose livelihoods were now in jeopardy because of the combined efforts of corporate greed, a shaky junk bond deal, and the idealism of a chorus of self righteous environmentalists. There was one who couldn't write his own name. Several could barely read. They had never gone river rafting in South America or owned any aircraft. When the mills close, no one will bring them breakfast on Sunday. They will be the human waste discarded by both the corporate elite and the environmental do-gooders as they vacate the scene.
I have an instinct for buying real estate at the right time. My instincts having paid off rather well in the Bay area, we "dipped into" our unearned equity, vacationed in the Southwest and bought property in Taos. My instincts again served me well. Our land, which borders Indian land, is not far from Julia Roberts' new ranch. It has tripled in value. On our tour of the Southwest, we stopped at Shiprock, a remote outpost near the reservation, where we purchased some Navajo rugs. The names of the artists/weavers appeared on tags attached to each rug, evidence of my personal link to Native culture. I had hoped they too would be a good investment, but was told only the older rugs were of interest to collectors. They're in my bedroom now. I've created sort of a "western" stylish look. Visitors compliment me on my taste, proving one can't value everything in terms of money.
I live near a couple of Indian reservations in a spacious country home on what was, I would imagine, Indian land at some point. For those of you in the cities, real Native Americans rarely cross your path in everyday life, but they do mine. One can glimpse their reservation from the road, a disorderly consortium of trailers with the requisite Casino nearby. They don't reflect the Native American Martha Stewart style I've so tastefully cultivated. It's not uncommon to see members of the local tribes eating at McDonald's.
My father never finished high school. By sheer stubbornness, perhaps, he was able to gain a white collar position at General Motors as an engineer. But he was never one of "them," the ones with the Navajo rugs, an instinct for real estate, the ones like me. His aunt scrubbed floors for a living, resorted to stealing coal from a local business to heat their home, and was forced to choose between her husband and her niece and nephew when her sister, my father's mother, died. So poor they were, her husband couldn't envision feeding two extra mouths. She never ate at McDonald's either. For most of her life she was too poor. What she did manage to extract from her meager earnings, she sent to her Serbian relatives in the Krajina. They have since disappeared.
My father never did quite fit in, or was it that he never completely sold out, or was it that he couldn't quite stomach the shit he was fed? In the end, they won. Broke him into a thousand little pieces. You could hear the rage as each piece sputtered to the ground, until, finally, there was silence.
I've maintained that silence - silence instead of kind words to the lonely looking overweight woman in front of me at the checkout counter. Silence instead of speaking out on behalf of the people I hired at half the salary they deserved. Silence instead of outrage.
My friends and I think ourselves superior because we eat organically, think "consciously," and speak cleverly. Some of us have even entered into conversation, over cappuccino and on the internet, sharing in a kind of mass fantasy that we are at the vanguard of some enlightened revolution, the edge of a new "paradigm of participatory democracy" we were defining - utilizing the kind of buzz words that are touted in corporate boardrooms or human development workshops. A secret code among the chosen few. Our exercise in revolution is no more than a cybergroup mental masturbation, designed to temporarily alleviate our sense of guilt and put off a need to choose sides and take action.
We look down on and decry the brutality of the cops, the troops at the border and beyond, the ones who at some risk to themselves keep us from being overrun with human need. Are we any less brutal when, with a stroke of a pen, a click of a mouse, we cut payroll, take people off welfare, draft briefs in support of corporate interest, find loopholes in the tax laws for our wealthy clients, or in less obvious ways collude with those in power for the crumbs they send our way, fighting with each other as even fewer crumbs finally fall to the bottom?
Should there actually be a revolution, none of us sitting at our computers will have participated in it, and it won't be earned by muscles formed on weight machines or in aerobics classes. Should there be a revolution, will we consider it won or lost when we must give up our privilege and return the stolen artifacts, the plunder from our colonial heritage, the Yurok basketry, Ming vases, and relics from Eastern European churches sold in desperation to western tourists? Will we still be environmentalists when trips to Bali are forestalled because fuel is being diverted to more practical uses, like heating homes and cooking food? Will we still feel an egalitarian sense of generosity when our children are educated alongside those of farm workers, truck drivers and housekeepers, instead of others like ourselves?
Who will we be after we've lost our houses and all the other evidence of our successful careers; when we are no longer a "better than" but merely an "also"? What will we say to the daughter of the man with the oil and tobacco stains on his fingers - the one with the gun to our heads? Care for a cappucino?
Resources on the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath
Articles Published on Swans Regarding the War in Yugoslavia and its Aftermath