Category Archives: Politics

All These Weird Creatures Who Lock Up Their Spirits

Budapest shop cat.  © 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

The more I see of this president, the more intelligent I’m starting to think animals are.

This is not, by association, to insult animals in any way.  Nor to romanticize them.  The animal kingdom is as cruel as it is beautiful.  It’s just that there is something to be said for a silent intelligence that can never be fully apprehended.

As this administration drags on, minute by minute, hour by hour, my ascendant urge is to sit down and talk with a housecat for a couple of hours.

There is a reason that malicious neighborhood idiots the world over poison cats.  They correctly intuit that cats, on some plane of existence, are their intellectual superiors.  Such people gleefully and repeatedly point out the fact of the cat’s peanut-sized brain, which of course misses the point entirely.  Any animal’s intelligence lives in its entire body, in its movement, attuned response, and self-inhabitation.  Cats are nature’s insult to stupidity.  Therefore idiots must destroy them.

Hunting as a moral issue makes a fascinating debate, but setting that aside, there’s something singularly revolting about the image of soon-to-be presidential sons posing with their big-cat kill on safari hunt in Africa in 2012.  The image appeared on the site Hunting Legends, was leaked to social media, and has been making the rounds ever since.

The creature draped over Eric Trump’s arm, even in death, is noble and magnificent.  He and his brother, in contrast, wear expressions that are brightly self-satisfied, yet babyish and uncomprehending.

Animal-rights advocates are often dismissed as precious, overheated eccentrics.  Yet images like this, along with our own encounters with the animals in our lives, can make even the stoic among us wonder who on this earth is truly dominant.

© 2017 Jen Burke Anderson

Song for Europe

Budapest train

This is the train I took from Budapest to the lakeside resort of Balatonfüred last September. 

As you can see, it was a fairly bread-and-butter railway experience.  You switched on the air conditioning by pulling down the windows.  The toilet was a sort of interactive sculpture inviting the patron to lift the lid and get intimate with Mr. Trackway.  Everything about it was pleasingly non-Western, blessedly free of wi-fi and flatscreens and sound systems.  The silence was vintage and magnificent.

It was mid-week, mid-day, and the only others in my carriage were some elderfolks and a spindly student with a violin case.  It could have been 1975. 

As the capital’s suburbs fell away, the land opened up into simple farms, villages, and railway stations small as private homes.

Summer lingers through Hungary’s September, and as we rolled down into thick riverlands, the towering stands of chestnut and linden trees flying by looked still in the fierce verdure of late spring.  The slipstream stirred the humidity just enough to make it feel like an embrace.

Having just gritted my teeth through another grey, foggy, windy San Francisco summer, here at last was proper summer:  a spontaneous sense of contentment, ease, and abundance.  Out the south-facing windows, at long last the silver corner of Lake Balaton flashed into view.  It was one of those rare, exhilerating signposts of peace and contentment by which you relocate yourself after a season of wandering.

Had someone told me then that in less than a year the Hungarian rails would become the scene of such abject chaos and misery as we’ve seen this last month—that the very type of train whose simplicity I treasured would soon be dangerously, agonizingly packed with people in the most desperate of circumstances—perhaps I would have believed them, but they would have had a fair bit of explaining to do.

Then again, as Mark Twain said, history rhymes.  Hungary by nature is a gateway to the West, and these episodes have never been without their problems.

Sopron 1989 comes to mind.  At that time some 100,000 East German holiday-makers refused to repatriate and became refugees camping around the Balaton; at the same time, some 30,000 to 40,000 Romanian refugees were pouring over the country’s eastern border seeking asylum.  But Prime Minister Miklós Németh dealt with that crisis a little more creatively than Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is dealing with this one.  

In fact, the events of the last several weeks have jarred me into joining and becoming active in a human rights group for the first time since my early adulthood.

The migration crisis is admittedly a fiasco any way you slice it.  The transversed countries in this story have troubles of their own, and nobody wants to see their crops trampled or their small town overrun.  Naturally, local resources are overwhelmed, and it’s not as though the EU nations of entry are doing that great economically.

But you don’t have to be Mahatma Ghandi to see that roughing up women with children in their arms just isn’t right.

Remember that the root causes of this fiasco are even bigger fiascos.  Maybe mass migration of this kind, which after all has been part of the human experience since there have been humans, is best understood as a force of nature.  Anything alive tries to stay that way; why would hundreds of thousands of war survivors be any different?

Would you try to stop a hurricane by detaining it?  Or building a fence?

This particular force of nature is driven by unique individuals.  Hungary’s fresh imprint on my memory isn’t the only reason this crisis packs such an emotional wallop.  I now count among my friends several Balkan emigrés who went through the refugee experience in the 1990s.  Once you personally know a former refugee, you can no longer, for example, look at Syrians kept in battery-hen conditions on the Hungarian border and see an indistinguishable mass.

The media responsible for relaying these images would make no profit from taking the long view, and the long view is that these people whom they depict as unrelenting hordes of filthy wretches will—with the help of an intelligent host country and/or through their own luck and pluck—eventually stop being refugees.  They will start businesses.  They will go to school.  They will marry, begin families, and re-integrate into society.  The only difference between you and a refugee is that he or she was interrupted by history.

At this writing, the EU will meet in a few days to try to sort out, among other issues, a more coordinated response to the crisis.  As an American, I’m thinking about my connection to the refugees coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, our own refugee crisis on the Mexican border as scores of women and children flee gang violence in Latin America, and this summer’s brutality in our own cities.

We can no longer deny our residence in an epoch of upheaval, especially as we all contemplate the long-term spectre of climate migrancy.  This moment is a crucial opportunity for people everywhere to wake up.  Democracy is not a law passed but a life lived—by individuals, communities, and nations.  We can no longer cruise on cultural autopilot.  If we’re to have a future with any carryover of humanist ideals and constitutional rights it will take much more than—as plenty have suggested—simply rejecting or just wiping out those who don’t check your particular box under Religious Identification.

I don’t expect that one more American joining a human rights group will promptly change the world.  But I do believe in duty and responsibility.  If we treat people like animals, the whole world becomes one big nasty zoo.  We must do better, and quickly.

Let’s talk about it.

A Culture of Poverty—or Depression?

“…poverty is not, after all, a cultural aberration or a character flaw. Poverty is a  shortage of money.”  —Barbara Ehrenreich, “What ‘other America’?” in, March 15, 2012

The other week Ms. Ehrenreich attempted to dismantle the “Culture of Poverty” theme that recurs in American political language from both the left and the right, framing the poor as inherently “other”; they “[think] differently, and [pursue] lifestyles characterized by shortsightedness and intemperance.” (Here Ehrenreich is paraphrasing the idea as expressed by democratic socialist Michael Harrington, whose 1962 book “The Other America” influenced the Great Society policies of the 1960s.  According to the essay, Harrington was the coiner of the phrase and the idea.) The essay ends with the blunt conclusion quoted above.

For the record: I am a fan of Ehrenreich. Who else would revive the grand tradition of gonzo journalism by trying to survive on a string of minimum wage jobs, then telling the tale in a book like Nickel and Dimed?

I know what she’s getting at.  Too many voices in the media and political arena feel obliged to cleanse themselves by blaming poverty on what would seem to the casual observer to be the unruly lifestyles of the poor.

But, to paraphrase my friend and associate, a psychotherapist for San Francisco’s public health system whose patients are mostly very poor people: there’s a difference between saying that there is something about the poor themselves that makes them poor—and pointing out that the poor respond to their situation with particular codes of behavior and values that allow them to help each other survive.

If we reject the former but ignore the latter, we undercut Ehrenreich’s essential argument.  There’s a danger in taking a strictly materialist view of the experience of having no money.  The cumulative psychological, emotional, and social effects of long-term unemployment/underemployment are very, very real.  For those of us who know firsthand what it takes to get through Day Without a Job #451, the “Culture of Poverty” meme, even coming from someone clearly out to hurt us, can have the persuasiveness of a grey lie.

I’m certain it wasn’t Ehrenreich’s intention to imply that poverty has no emotional fallout.  But let’s take a moment to acknowledge the landscape of the financially constricted psyche as it rolled out for yours truly.

Changes I observed in myself during a long spell of underemployment: depression, alienation, lack of motivation, anger.

It was the early part of this century, in what we San Franciscans groaningly call the Dot-Bomb. The combination of a failed mono-economy, the psychic aftershocks of 9/11, and the mega-scandals of Enron et al. sent us hurling downward into an abyss from the heights of a skyscraper made of cards. The future seemed worse than uncertain; it seemed over.

Just yesterday we’d all been Tomorrow’s Wonder Kids—web designers, online copywriters, nouveau journalists, glamour-industry denizens on the edge of a new cyberfrontier. Suddenly we were on the scrap heap of the Great Unwashed.

If only we’d known what we were in for, and how long!  The economy would never truly recover; it would stagger somewhat upright in the mid-2000s only to fall eight feet under in 2008.

And the media jobs were gone for good.

For the first half of 2002, there was simply no work.  The office-temp jobs I finally found involved security-related data entry, then packing boxes for a dying company.

This after a corporate media gig that had thought nothing of flying me to New York and giving me my own room in a chic Madison Avenue hotel for a schmooze-fest on the Hudson River.  This isn’t the way the story is supposed to go! I whined inwardly, brushing the cardboard dust off my sweatshirt and jeans.

Probably most of us college-educated New Economy refugees were thinking the same thing. We’d all heard that, statistically, we were supposed to end up financially worse off than our parents’ generation, but obviously we were the exceptions, right? (. . . right?)

Imagine the armor of our arrogance slowly rusting and dropping away. Years dragged on.  How else can I put this?  Nothing happened.  You’d get a temp gig here, a little freelance assignment there.  You’d check Craig’s List and there were a couple of things—temp and freelance things.  Sometimes it was even someone expecting you to work for free.  You applied.   You never heard back.

We all knew the rules.  The Real Jobs weren’t advertised; you had to have an inside line.

But all of our inside lines were unemployed, too.  Our hot contacts were also watching Oprah with mom and dad and a carton of Ben & Jerry’s, hitting “refresh” on Craig’s List every few minutes, wondering what had happened to their lives.

There’s a particular definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results.  This, of course, is the essence of the modern job search.  If it goes on long enough, you will have at least a few “close but no cigar” interview rounds, which seem specifically designed to deliver exquisite emotional torture.  Getting very close to a job achieves nothing but greater disappointment than you would have had otherwise, and it’s at this point “Why bother?” starts seeming like an intelligent question.

Pundits may debate the existence of a Culture of Poverty, but they cannot debate that a Culture of Employment lives and breathes inside the increasingly guarded silos of privilege.  This culture smells of freshly brewed cappuccino, hustles purposefully down hallways, blurts its own inside jargon and private jokes, and is hip to the latest version of Windows because naturally IT has outfitted everyone’s machine with it.  Everything in the Culture of Employment is freshly updated and dynamic by nature.

Once the Culture of Employment leaves you behind for six months or more, it’s very difficult to make it recognize you again, for reasons large and small.

Your hair grows shaggy.  You need a cut.  What are you going to do?  If you’re lucky you can cut your own hair.  If not then a friend or family may donate a haircut.  But the humiliation of it piles on top of you like the shirts you can’t dry clean, the shoes you can’t get polished, the shoddy laptop bag you can’t get repaired.  You can’t support your own upkeep, and it’s not long before you feel that everybody plainly sees this.

“I never realized,” I told a bartender one night in the thick of the Dot-Bomb detonation, who asked why he hadn’t seen me in awhile, “that when I walk out my door, I present a certain face to the world.  Usually I don’t have to work at it or think about it.  The face says, ‘I’m all right, Jack.  I can take care of myself.  No problems here.  And furthermore, you’d better not fuck with me.’  When you’re unemployed for a long time, putting on that face gets to be harder and harder, and soon you feel you just can’t do it anymore.”

The personal appearance front is painful enough to prop up.  But what about all the pragmatic details, like your technology?  It was easy enough to stay on top of the latest applications when the company tech team made it all a no-brainer and a no-coster.  But when you have to be your own IT department, it gets time-consuming, stressful, and expensive.  Soon it makes sense to drop out of that race, too.

(Aside: the cost of being unemployed has skyrocketed in the last 20 years.  It used to be that all you were expected to have was a landline [for which you could get low-income Lifeline service] and an answering machine.  Now you’re expected to have an iPhone and 4G wireless Internet access.  Pay for those rates on top of staggering COBRA payments and all the costs of living, amidst little or no income, and it’s a one-way ticket to Debt City.)

So you stay in.  Which makes sense.  Staying in doesn’t cost any money.  And you can take comfort.  Some in alcohol, some in Internet chat rooms, some in the daydreamy half-sleep of long-term, low-grade depression and disappointment.

It’s amazing what starts to seem logical as the months drag on.  Looking at pure probability, simply lying in bed seems like a good choice.  Chances of your getting hired despite your best efforts?  Pretty slim.  Chances of your finding some shitty, shallow, desperately needed comfort by pulling the covers over your head?  Pretty good.  Add to that the probability of feeling ten times worse after yet another “close but no cigar” rejection, and spending life in your pyjamas looks like a reasonable, adult option.

If you’re not careful, you won’t observe these changes happening in yourself.  You’re likely, for budget reasons if nothing else, to hang out with other underemployed friends who are going through the same thing.  They can provide a certain degree of comfort, but also unwittingly affirm a place of helplessness, a maze of insecurity with no exits.  Your collective personality changes can create an unquestioned consensus reality, just at the time you need to be pinpointing those changes as symptoms of an abnormal situation.

So if a college-educated white chick who once had a totally hot job can feel this level of degradation and resentment towards the world, how much more so if my birth certificate said South Bronx?  South Detroit?  What if nobody I knew had ever had a job?  What if the Culture of Employment didn’t just seem like a long walk across town from me, but like another planet viewable only on TV?

The contrast between the entitlement and confidence I’d always felt without knowing it—and the realization that some people spent their entire lives with this exact sense of futility I was now feeling, only multiplied a gazillion times into a wraparound reality that defined your vocabulary, your social interactions, your cultural opportunities, your ability to conceive of options for your life . . . well, let’s just say some small sliver of new understanding dawned forth.  Hopefully it continues to dawn forth.

After long years of temping and underpaid jobs, underpaid jobs and temping, during which I often felt I was just expensively subsidizing a fragile, synthetic dignity I could use to get through the next day—I got hired on to a Real Job with benefits.

My first big-ticket purchase with the disposable income was a heavy winter coat.  This was February.  My family had offered to buy me one back in November, which was kind, but if I’d taken their offer I would have felt obliged to choose the bog-standard, utilitarian coat they’d approve of.  I held out and saved to buy my kind of coat with my own money.

I walked out of the North Beach boutique bundled up in it (a cape-cut black wool vintage I. Magnin “swing coat” from the early 1960s, since you asked), all warm and cozy in the chill, damp night.  And I wondered: how in the hell have I lived so long without this?

I wasn’t just thinking about the coat.

[The illustration photo: Ocean Beach, San Francisco, March 2012.  To give you some idea of the extreme sandstorm conditions: there were piles of sand in my pockets after 10 minutes of walking on the promenade.]

I Need Another Glass of Wine. Fast.

Oh Gawd, I suppose I’m cornered now. I was enjoying myself at this art gallery but now you’ve got me in your sights, fixing me with your beady, mucous-caked eyes and verbally shredding this so-called liberal politician who’s a complete sell-out, and that supposedly progressive politician who’s a corporate stooge, and your district supervisor the Lord God Almighty who’s actually the right hand of Satan. And I’m going to be standing here all night getting, shall we say, progressively more depressed.

If I had a dime for every Failure-Narrative, “lone gunman” radical sadsack who thinks he’s too good to join any sort of established group or contribute to any sort of organized effort that might actually achieve something, I’d be rich enough to fund the wealthy, well-organized Left-Wing Conspiracy that Fox News keeps conjuring nightly.

And to think when I was younger, I (ugh! blech!) went out with a few of you guys.

And you are usually guys. Guys with filthy eyeglasses, jackets that haven’t been washed in ten years, and skin conditions you refuse to do anything about because that would, you know, make you less pathetic.

Because grooming and presentation aren’t supposed to matter, right? Libertarian America is supposed to become Western Europe by tomorrow and nothing else will do. Compromise isn’t supposed to be necessary. That kind of thing can be attractive to younger women.

Until it isn’t. Until younger women get so tired of your carefully cultivated victimization, self-disengagement, and endlessly rotating summer/winter Emo Olympics that it finally occurs to them they’d like to actually win every now and again.

Was I disappointed by the BS, watered-down health care reform bill? Absolutely. But look how hard we had to fight to even get that. You, Mr. Guy cornering me in the art gallery – I’m curious about whether you really think you’re going to get the public option patched in at some point in the future (“Oh, that’s not going to happen, it’s too late now, and besides the public option is bullshit because etc. etc.”) by taking endless, feeble, random pot-shots at everything you happen not to like?

OK, so you wrote some letters and made some phone calls and spoke truth to power today. Fair enough. Good for you.

Did you bother looking into who else was doing the same? Did it occur to you that pooling your efforts with those who have a name, a website, email lists, and the ability to appear as something like a voting block to a politician might empower your efforts so that they actually make a difference?

Or would you rather just go on blaming those in power for making your life miserable and saying that all those activist groups are really just too bureaucratic for you, and you sort of part ways with them on Issues X and Y anyway, and off you go continuing to enjoy your treadmill of marginalized self-pity?

Would you rather, in other words, be the sort of guy who corners women in art galleries and railroads their otherwise delightful evenings?

Sir? Sir?! I’m going to get another glass of wine. Good night and good luck.