01 May 2022

End of the World in the Big Lots Parking Lot

I had a dream the other night where Dua Lipa was giving a concert in the parking lot of a big box store that was on fire. She performed next to large shipping containers while we all sat on ratty lawn chairs. They were green and white plaid.

There's something to be said about not giving into despair even in the face of certain doom. Dance in the parking lot. Be the band on the Titanic, play until the water takes you.

As I turn the dream, and the metaphor of the band, over in my head, I realize that the metaphors for perseverance that I know seem to no longer work. In the beginning of the second decade of the 21st century we are so accustomed to playing until we can physically no longer go on that the very idea of not doing it is strange to consider. There are so many swords hanging over us that the sky is all sharp points.

The world is ending and we will still have our fun. And the waters will rise around us and we will continue until we can't and that is just true. We've been playing and the water has been rising. For decades. So what does one do with a broken metaphor when the water is still coming?

A broken platitude or metaphor becomes a zombie saying. Something that we all understand but is so divorced from itself that silence would be better. I don't believe that meaning can be reattached once it's lost. Broken things can only be assembled in a simulacrum of the original. And the new meaning will always be there as well. Maybe we're way passed sayings being helpful anyway.

In the dream, we danced and had fun while the building burned. On the Titanic the band really did keep playing. We even think we know what song was the last played.

I leap to thinking about individual vs collective responsibility. How we put up blinders to both protect ourselves and to turn off our responsibility. I lived in New York long enough that I tend to walk by people with their hands out on the street. This isn't a ding against cities, it's an acknowledgement that to live in the US today, you have to find ways to exist. Sometimes existing means ignoring those who are struggling more than you because if you stop to try and help all of them, you will go under yourself.

If there were to be an idealized takeaway from the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be that we find a more concrete version of collective responsibility. A better version. One where we can openly discuss the lines between personal, individual responsibility, and the greater collective one.

This is obviously not happening.

One look at the news will point out that many, possibly most, have instead found a more insidious shade of righteous selfishness in the aftermath. A truly lost opportunity if there ever was one in modern history.

It's inviting to make a claim like "we owe each other more than this", but it's a bit of a false narrative. The collective good should outweigh the personal unless it will cause harm. Ultimately we owe ourselves to be better. But seeing that is difficult. Forest for the trees - which is a metaphor that still works. Though a metaphor where the original version was "he who sees no wood for trees" which has a totally different connotation to the modern version.

The individual isn't really capable of change at the level needed anyway. Unless you are incredibly wealthy, most individuals are only capable of small changes. The big stuff, the putting out the fire stuff, takes a group working as one. And the putting out the big fires, takes governments, the rich, and corporations. If the world around us just pops back to pre-pandemic ways, it's hard to push against that when you need an ever increasing in cost roof over your head. It's a question of scale. Where is the line between what I can do and what I cannot?

It's a gray area that is dependent on the person doing the work and the work needing to be done. And again, the good being done amplifies the more people working towards it.

An example of sorts: It has been drilled into the public that it is up to us to fix climate change. Drive less, recycle more, get a bike, use less plastic, eat a plant-based died, cut down on beef, etc etc etc. Every major drive to course correct on climate change that I've witnessed in my lifetime has focused on the personal level. And personal, small scale, change does help, just not at a scale that impacts the massive undertaking in front of us. We are way passed volunteering to clean up a roadside as a means to impact the climate.

When you learn that BP invented the concept of the personal carbon footprint and sold it to the world as a means to distract from their corporate culpability it's hard to take any of the things that individuals do to combat climate change seriously. Corporations have spent billions convincing us that we are to shoulder the weight of many aspects of modern life that are simply out of our hands.

The attitude that only we can change things, that we must because governments and corporations will not has bled throughout culture. It is a broken social contract. You can see the results in the US in the disintegration of public trust for institutions. The obvious, dangerous, endpoints that spiral out of this inward focus can be seen in events minor to international. Not wearing a mask to dumping trash on the side of the road to storming a capitol building.

The tirelessness of continuing to carry on in the face of all of this is supposedly virtuous. An attempt to stem some kind of tide. But in 2022 it feels like this concept has been boiled down into a strange parody of itself. Working 10-hour days 6 days a week with no time off is virtue. Today, going down with the ship means holding onto the computer keyboard so you can get that report out before the waves get you.

I'm not advocating for giving up. But the energy needs to be refocused onto those who can actually effect change at scale. The billionaires, the governments, the corporations.

Obviously there is a movement to correct some this going on - at least in the workplace. Unions are once again rising in the US, and wages seem to be going up in a real way for the first time in decades. People are talking about work life balance in ways that aren't about optimizing their time off. Real discussions are happening. But it is hard not to be cynical about what will occur in the next 18 months as the US and the world moves further out of pandemic mode. Toxic patterns that have been hard-wired are hard to break and we've been here before.

Underestimating the power of the wealthy and corporations to reaffirm their dominance even in the face of immense tragedy is a losing game. Every single one of the band members on the Titanic died that night. Only 3 of the 8 bodies were found. And the company that did the booking for the White Star Line sent a bill for the lost uniforms to the grieving families. Public outrage led to those bills being voided, but they should never have been sent in the first place.

Corporations should not be considered people under the law. Their money should be out of politics. They should have limits on the demands to their employees. Billionaires should not exist full stop. Governments should not be afraid of saying these things, or of acting on these issues. And all the above should be the ones being asked to make the largest sacrifices to protect the world around us.

I'm all for shaming the devil. So let's fucking dance. Let's focus on the small things we can do. Let's pick up a bucket and toss some water on the fire in front of us. But let's also think about how and when the fire started and who is responsible for putting it out completely.