Life is Great! Life is Horrible!… OK, It’s Both!

The amazing free public Flower Piano takes place in the San Francisco Botanical Garden over two weekends in July… over a dozen pianos set in gorgeous spots with an endless stream of talented pianists either scheduled, or dropping in to play for fun. On Sunday July 16, the weather was spectacular, the crowds were plentiful but not overwhelming, and the hours passed blissfully in one ideal spot after another… Here is the California native plant garden with a piano in the distance, surrounded by enthusiastic listeners.

It’s a beautiful summer in San Francisco. I’ve obviously not been keeping up my blogging. We’re living in strange times to be sure, and I, like most people, am intermittently obsessed and disgusted by the ongoing trauma of what passes for a federal government these days. Not that I would’ve felt much better with another round of Clintonism, but this endless narcissism and inarticulate stupidity distracting attention from the profoundly venal and kleptocratic seizure of public wealth is a tough diet to stomach. And our collective responses have been pretty feeble, after an encouraging first few weeks, having descended into predictable patterns of “clicktivism” and frenzied, panicky “activistism,” neither of which does anything but reassure the practitioner that they are “doing something” (no matter how impotent). I’m not saying this from a position of having the correct line, or the appropriate program, or even better behavior. I’m busy writing one book, contributing to another, carrying out a summer full of research for yet another project, and as always, preparing an interesting line-up for our Fall Shaping San Francisco Talks and Tours. I’m also organizing a syllabus for a new class on labor history and politics that I’ll be teaching this fall at USF, the first time I’ve been able to design a class on this topic that’s been so central to my life, so I am very excited about this! So I’m busy. I also realize that most of our political efforts are hollow at best, whether directed locally, state-wide, nationally, or globally.

Premonition of Civil War to come? Nah… just a routine 4th of July on Harrison Street a block from my home…

This doesn’t mean I don’t believe it’s possible to radically change the world, to radically change how we live. Our political efforts fall short because we don’t address the heart of our predicament. For a long time I tended to explain this by saying “wage-labor” was the heart of the problem. I still think so, but obviously that doesn’t get you too far in this culture. Lately I’ve taken to framing the question as “how do we make life? How do we produce the world we want to live in?” I want to engage and stimulate the subjective capacity of each individual to rethink their own behavior, but also to reconnect to the collective process by which we make life together. Because even if we live in a neoliberal fantasy that our personal choices make our lives, and that all problems are solvable by changing those choices (like whether or not to have health insurance?!?) in a context-less, permanent present, the reality is that our collective and cooperative social production of life is dominated by interests and powers that ensure they are the winners and most of us are the losers. The enormous concentration of wealth in San Francisco and the Bay Area has as its inevitable and necessary companion the enormous rise of homelessness and desperate poverty, conditions that threaten to grow dramatically worse if the current regime’s agenda is carried out. Even if we just manage to hold it at bay, the polarization will continue to gain speed, and the expansion of poverty will continue while the 1-10% at the top keep getting richer and more clueless.

Where does that leave us? Should we be signing more petitions? Writing more letters to corrupt millionaires who masquerade as our political representatives? Continuing to post articles on Facebook proving our point of view about politicians, generals, corporations and their CEOs is true? It seems that with all the imaginary power to communicate we’ve gained from social media, what has really happened is a radical increase in our isolation and social impotence. We feel connected through our phones and screens, but that connection amounts to nothing when it comes to the trajectory of society. I’m not alone in feeling this, and like many I’m coming ever closer to checking out of the social media house of mirrors.

Organizing, going door to door, making real relationships among neighbors, coworkers, people who live and work near each other on an ongoing basis, is the indispensable missing link. I assume lots of newly activated people are doing this in various parts of the country. I have heard anecdotally that a lot of old friends have decided to join DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) because that group is the closest to the Bernie Sanders-style politics that suddenly legitimized a type of left-wing democratic socialism, and they are committed to grassroots organizing… I haven’t felt the same calling, but I respect those who have. I do share the frustration with the circular firing squad logic of young radicals, who continue to attack anyone who fails to embrace every nuance and detail of what today’s recipe for “real revolution” entails.

I was talking to a friend a couple of days ago in a café about our having spent too many years being pure, being so sure of our own revolutionary beliefs that we had a hard time relating to anyone who didn’t share the same ideas, and that we were both sick of that. We’re at least smart enough to look around and realize that whatever certainty we held had no effect on a larger social movement (as we imagined it might at various points going back as far as the 1970s), and that actually the kind of social movements we thought of ourselves as the far left-wing of had withered away and died, much as we’d always hoped the state would! Whoops!

So we’re having this conversation and a young woman a couple of tables over hears us and starts to smile. We notice and say hello, inviting her in to the conversation, and for a few minutes we share a briefly exciting connection across generation, gender, time, and space. She’s supportive of our ruminations and recognizes the problem. We are curious about her, but before we learn very much the conversation veers sideways into a bizarre cul-de-sac. Somehow drinking water came up, and she confidently insists that public water is contaminated by flouride and must be avoided. She admitted that she would drink it but only if she boiled it first and let it sit on her stove overnight! I spoke about the healthy water San Franciscans get from the Hetch Hetchy system, and that the city has gone so far as to ban the sale of plastic bottled water in public buildings and expanded public water fountains throughout their buildings too. The young woman was unconvinced. Another woman nearby piped up that the solution was to put some kind of “crystal” in your water and that would purify it.

My friend and I were both stunned at what seemed to have been a promising conversation quickly descending into what can only be thought of as a paranoid, anti-intellectual, anti-scientific idea about public water. I suggested that she might consider that thinking about public water in the suspicious way she did was a good example of the triumph of neoliberalism and the softdrink industry having spent decades peddling the notion that tap water is untrustworthy (and by extension, the state is incapable of meeting public needs by publicly owned means) and the solution is to buy bottled water, a filter, or a crystal… That didn’t convince her either, though she agreed to follow up on her “research” into the flouride conspiracy. Now, I’m not saying that such crises as Flint, Michigan don’t exist, or that lead pipes aren’t a problem in many older buildings, but the idea that tap water is inherently dangerous because of flouride seems to be a perfect example of tin-hat paranoid conspiracism…

And there you have it. A moment in a public café, a brief connection in political conversation, and suddenly, the cavernous gap of worldviews, assumptions, and ideology open up in an abruptly painful way. How would you “organize” in a world beset but such magical thinking? And we all know many people, often good friends, who buy into one or another version of suspicious skepticism towards common goods, like vaccines, or believe in elaborate conspiracies around 9/11 or chemtrails that would necessitate the silent complicity of thousands of people. It’s complicated by the fact that it was thanks to suspicious skepticism towards say, nuclear power, or chemically-saturated foods, that led to some of the most progressive developments in the past half century, nearly eliminating nuclear power as a way forward, and leading to widely available organic food. Perhaps the point is we have to find ways to work together in spite of these moments. We can’t write people off as victims of magical thinking, nor can we give up when someone says something that might indicate a discriminatory assumption deep in their worldview. The old enlightenment assumption that open discourse can lead to the truth, and produce a consensus view of reality, still animates me, even if we live in a world that seems hellbent on proving that wrong. Anyway, our purist instincts don’t help, and thanks to Frances Lee for a smart post asking to be excommunicated from the Church of Social Justice, which does a good job of addressing some of this.

Another semi-random thing that is changing my life for the worse: the micro-rental car business based on Uber and Lyft… Nikil Saval has a great piece on it in N+One. I’ve been thinking about transportation for a long time of course, being a cyclist and pedestrian and finding buses and BART endlessly frustrating. The imminent arrival of the self-driving car is already happening in our neighborhood, though for the time being they still seem to have humans clutching their steering wheels as they are test-driving around our streets.

On Folsom, one of the many self-driving cars being test-driven in the Mission District.

Of course the m%^*#f*^#krs at Uber are doing it too, apparently using Google’s proprietary technology… which may lead to a collapse or sale of Uber before much longer.

I have seen a few articles popping up lately about the effect of the self-driving car on transportation and the economy. I find it easy to imagine a post-crash, greenish economic lift-off that is based on redesigning city streets to be much narrower, to be filled by publicly owned autonomous cars and vans that provide free door-to-door transportation for anyone anywhere anytime. Along with this new publicly owned transit system would be ubiquitous bikeways and pedestrian zones, full conversion to distributed renewable energy production and consumption, free broadband internet everywhere, urban farm expansion, gray water and rain catchment systems installed in every building everywhere, and a universal income for all at about $2000/month to start. Eventually we can dispense with the cash, since we’ll finally figure out that there’s more than enough of everything for everyone, and we can just work a lot less, and let these increasingly automated and self-extending technologies do a lot of the work, presuming they can made to function harmoniously with a much more robust sense of urban nature.

Fantasies like that are actually the new world straining to be born within this madhouse we’re living in now. Luckily there’s a lot of people and lot of ideas about how to do this. What’s missing of course is the aforementioned organizing that would produce the dense trusting communities of humans who can and will work together cooperatively even when they disagree and dislike each other because they know from experience that that is the key to making a better life than the one we’re saddled with now… or as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it in the 19th century: “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.”

But I said life was great didn’t I? So here’s a pile of photos to confirm how lovely it still is around here, even in the midst of whatever this new perverse political system that is trying to impose itself is taking shape (fascism? Americanism? Stupidism?).

Whales have been cavorting off the Golden Gate. I took these photos from the bridge.

from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nothing like a fluke!

Our bison herd-let is apparently the source of most of the resurgent populations now roaming around again on the Great Plains.

The expanding population of wild parrots, seen here in upper Noe Valley on July 3.

In Chan Kaajal, a new park at 17th and Folsom, named in Mayan (“Little Village”)

Dignitaries and locals came together to celebrate the opening…

Head of Dept. of Public Works Muhammad Nuru gives a talk…

Pier 70 saw its last shipyard close a month ago. No more barnacle scraping, no more repairs…

Warm Water Cove park, at the end of 24th Street, with a view of the hardly used cranes in Port of SF, haunted by a container ship parked in the bay awaiting offloading in Oakland.

Queer people of color, very young, organized their own protest against police harassment after problems at Pride March.

More pianos at Botanical Garden…

J. Raoul Brody and friends.

Afro-cubano music.

Many pianos are open to anyone to sit down and tickle the ivories… like here on a pond.

Moon over Mission Dolores on a glorious summer evening…

The skies! The skies!

Sunsets….. aaaahhhh sunsets!

4 comments to Life is Great! Life is Horrible!… OK, It’s Both!

  • Gerry

    But have you heard the story of the Buddhist monk who saved his leg from gangrene by meditating?

    But seriously great read as usual. And speaking of face-to-face encounters over clicktivism, see you at Crissy Field next Saturday? That is, if those so-called patriots even show.

  • Great title, fascinating reporting, as always well on top of the zeit and its geists, but – and this is said as social nihilist, so feel free to bat this one away and block the site from us accursed n-words- it is fine and dandy to descry the youngster’s crystal blathering under the rubric of “skepticism,” but then to aver that
    “This doesn’t mean I don’t believe it’s possible to radically change the world, to radically change how we live” is to invite the same sort of skepticism.
    No, it is not possible for us to “radically change” the world. Ain’t happening, won’t happen. Crystals or no crystals.

  • Josh Wilson

    Chris, as always, thoughtful, demanding and honest. Thank you. Regarding magical thinking and bullshit paranoia and the inability of people to organize around facts — look at our mass media and there you will find the heart of the problem. As long as the media diet of hundreds of millions is defined by commercialism priorities — clickbait and massive attention markets that make billions for the five or six media corps that own most public-discourse arenas — we will live in a world where Trump-style demagoguery is inevitable and people believe that crystals purify government-contaminated tap water.

  • Deborah Kaplan

    Great blog piece Grandpa Chris. Thanks. Deb

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