Friday, June 01, 2007

Band-Aids and Open Wounds

I am thinking about this article Tyromaven sent from WorldChanging a couple of weeks ago, and I am thinking about food donation and the general concept of "helping those less fortunate," and I am thinking about the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing and the possibility of the Olympics in 2016 in Chicago, and I am thinking about comfort in all its ambiguous definitions and necessities.

And they're all related. Seriously.

I've been suffused lately with a blanket contempt for Band-Aid social solutions. Food pantries in particular have been on my mind for a variety of reasons. What's bothering me, basically, is that they do indeed solve a problem that has to be addressed immediately—a person is hungry, he needs food—without acknowledging that food is, indeed, a political problem. I can extend that to most charities, the problem that they don't contextualize what they claim to serve. Yes, if a person is on the street, she needs a bed, and yet to what degree are you then saying it's okay that she doesn't have a bed in the first place, as long as you're there to provide it?

By the same token, Daley touts his 2016 Olympic plans as a revitalization of the South Side. Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world, was chosen to host the 2008 Summer Olympics back in 2001, probably with the hope that such an honor might help them to take their pollution problem more seriously. But who's really going to change the structure of their lives permanently to suit one summer? Whatever's put in place to help the Olympics will be there briefly and leave with the event. I can't remember where most of the Olympics in my lifetime have taken place (all I can call to mind right now is Lillehammer and Atlanta).

Last year in Chicago, LaSalle Bank piloted a really upsetting ad campaign in which the collars of shirts and sweaters were displayed with such labels as "The last time this sweater was in fashion, Carter was president." (I'm not remembering the exact ads, but that's the idea.) At the bottom of the poster, it then suggested that if you had such relics lying around your house, you should donate them to the LaSalle Bank Clothing Drive to help those less fortunate. Thus, of course, reinforcing social hierarchies—the poor can have what you can spare. The stuff that's in fashion, of course, is the stuff you require; perhaps then you'd be able to distinguish those "less fortunate" by the fact that they're wearing less fortunate clothes.

All right, that's a little angry. And it also perhaps points to my fears regarding the organics movement and food donation, which is to say, the possibility that the "less fortunate" are just going to end up with less fortunate food. I recognize that there are some great organizations working to counteract that (which obviously means I'm not the first person to think of it), but the idea does point to the social problems of Band-Aids—that if you just stick them over stuff, with no further care or consideration, nothing's going to heal.

Chicago this year has attempted to change Earth Day to Earth Month, which calls to mind perhaps my favorite Onion headline ever, 'White History Year Resumes." In grossly oversimplified terms, that's what the WorldChanging article addresses. As ought to be obvious, and in most cases is, we need to commit ourselves to Earth Behavior, because every year is, indeed, Earth Year, just as every year technically is the year for every form/version of history. That's how we're going to heal gaping open social wounds.

However, the co-founder of Balls to Congress would be kind of a fool to deny the importance of Band-Aids. Which is to say, a world where we're entirely focused on gaping wounds and ignore things that need Band-Aids would be a world in which a lot more open wounds were created because the Band-Aid problems went untreated. In Harry Potter terms, even with Voldemort gaining power, we still need Fred and George's joke shop. It's essential to be able to distinguish between Band-Aid problems and open wounds (and to acknowledge that there are, in fact, things in between that need stitches), but I'm not even certain that one treatment takes priority over another. I aspire to be a person who always has Band-Aids handy and knows that if you require more than, say, three of them, it's a problem that requires treatment and devotion to its healing.


At 12:14 PM, Blogger Connor said...

I'm not sure exactly what you're saying here... in a way it seems like you make one argument throughout this post and then turn around and undermine it atthe end.

Generally, though, I feel that if purity of intent and social objectivity is a prerequisite to progress and improvement, then we're in dire straights indeed.

I have a big frustration (generally speaking) with the "organic foods" movement overall because it seems to be a way for people with money to spend to feel good about themselves, even if that money could be activated for change in more meaningful way. Buying non-Whole-Foods-cheddar-cheese and paying to immunize in Mauretania is better for the world (and the environment!) than getting your cheese from free-range cows. That's statistically true, whatever cultural baggage (ie. assumed entitlement) it might seem to involve or impose.

Likewise, if Earth Month isn't as good as Earth Year, isn't it a step up from Earth Week? Shouldn't we cheer this as a step in the right direction instead of deriding it as a compromised vision?

When did anyone ever accomplish anything without compromise?

Again, I'd rather the Olympics be held in Nairobi than Chicago, but I won't regret some South Side economic revitalization. It's a compromised revitalization, but people without jobs will have jobs, and money will circulate in economically stagnant areas. Maybe some of those potholed roads would be repaved. Maybe train and bus routes would improve. These are tangible benefits that would affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Again, I'd rather Beijing fix its infrastructure and environmental standards for the good of its people, but I'd happy to see China even considering these issues worth addressing. In fact, many of these solutions involve the city developing non-coal-based-power, so the benefits are more reaching and less short-term than you suggest here.

I worry that when progress (or, if you prefer, "progress") becomes too unacceptible unless certain conditions are met, we're not only perpetrating stagnation but allowing ourselves undue distance and personal moral comfort.

Again, I'm not sure what you're arguing here exactly, or if we're even at odds. I guess I just feel that there *is* no unqualified progress.

All good news comes with a price tag and interest.

At 11:19 PM, Blogger Ammegg said...

Fair enough. (I didn't see this comment for a while, so I apologize for the delay in response. Spacey coupla weeks.) But another player in the discussion is that something that happens isn't progress just because it happens. To quote Martin Luther King, "human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability." I'm not sure a surge of jobs for a year or so then abruptly pulling out really leaves the South Side "revitalized" in any way just because it happens. Some form of decision has to be made. And, while it wasn't a great post, I don't think I'm contradicting myself at the end. I think there are Band-Aid problems and open wounds, and I think we do need to know which is which.

I'm not sure I agree with you about Mauritania and the cheese (when did "immunizing Mauritania" become our shorthand anyway? Didn't you start that?), but I need to think about it a bit more. Whatever difficult class-oriented things Whole Foods in and of itself represents, the way we in the mainstream are currently dealing with agriculture, including dairy production, is probably less sustainable than an unimmunized Mauritania. It's a separate question whether we are promoting agricultural change in the appropriate way.

Thereby, I think, hangs a tale, and thereby I get in circles with what you're saying. Or what I think you're saying. I'm usually someone who says compromise is necessary as well, because, y'know, it is—and yet, what do you do when a system is genuinely not sustainable, when compromise with it really does harm?

You'll be able to poke a dozen holes in what I just said, because I'm not thinking too straight right now. I look forward, therefore, to having some holes poked.

At 7:50 PM, Blogger Connor said...

Hey Gemma,

First, I never really thought you were contradicting yourself... the balance between a band-aid (a pragmantic concession given present opportunity) vs. surgery (a legitimate, necessary, and sufficient solution) made sense to me. It's more that I'm struggling to see where you draw the line between these two things... that you seem to be objecting to things as band-aids that seem, to me, to be immanently reasonable.

Anyway, I don't think I'll be necessarily more convincing, because if you're writing in a daze, then I have to confess that I am using this as a chance to try to argue out (iron out?) a broader subject that has been troubling me for some months now.

I should just do a drive-by and say that, in the Chicago and Beijing cases, I don't see why you are so suspicious of the long-term benefits of the Olympic selection. I think for Beijing, it's a pretty well-established thing. Any time the ROC acknowledges, much less does anything about, it billion people and their living conditions, that's pretty unexpected and remarkable. Not burning coal all over the place in a semiarid climate will make a huge difference, long and short term. As for Chicago, I don't know the situation as well, so it's hard for me to say objectively. And yet... I cannot imagine that hosting the Olympic would not involve reworking the infrastructure, repaving roads, improving public transit, and encouraging business through, say, tax incentives and renaissance zones, which have had both targeted and long-term success. A lot of that HAS to have a long-term benefit to it. Remember that the Chicago machine is only stil lin power because the South Side is standing behind it, and a disappointing "Olympic effect" would be as damaging to Daleys hand-picked successors as anyone.

But the more important issue to me is the American liberal vs. "fixing the world" problem. Because I feel, to be frank, that a whole lot of people I love and respect have really become quite emphatic and outspoken about their consumer choices, and it's being sold to me as "surgery" and I don't buy it. It isn't even a band-aid.

Here's why. I suspect (and I haven't spent a ton of time looking into this, so I could be obnoxiously wrong here) that the relatively small set of American liberals, say, spending their money on organic cheese are 1) not going to affect the profitablity of the cheese, and are 2) not going to create a cross-cultural movement around sustainable living.

This is quite simply because there is nothing sustainable about the organic foods movements, or many of the liberal projects at work in the U.S. today. 1) Most Americans can't afford these foods or products (even as a ridiculously well-off nation), and 2) the market for them is such a niche that it's inconsequential.

To me, it smacks of an abjuration of guilt: We *did not* get Bush out of office, nor have we made strides against global warming, the war in Iraq, the health care debacle, or any other of these pissy issues. But dammit, we have our organic cheese! It's distressing first because it has a very odd (and unexpected) similarity to the standard neocon argument... you circumscribe your own choices within your emotional reaction to your times, and use it to justify a platform that is just radical enough to exempt you from a status quo. (I'm saying "you" editorially here... I don't think you are particularly culpable, G).

I don't remember which of us came up with the Mauritania example, but as time goes on I feel it is especially appropriate. Mauritania has one of the lowest standards of living in North Africa. It also, however, has a small population, making its "immunization" more possible. Most importantly, though, I feel it suggests a transference of power. Mauritania is one of those countries that has been in disarray for the 40 years since its independence. Providing immunization relieves a critical lack, a disadvantage that the rest of the world can comparatively write off. To immunize Mauritania would give it another opporunity to stablize itself politically, to get its economic bearings. To hazard a statement in which you know much more than I do -- post-colonial political franchises -- it would give Mauritania the opportunity the set its own agenda and to struggle for an agenda in line with the needs of the world as a whole.

After all... if we don't get our crappy milk because the tropics are squeezing us for pasture for cows (none of which is necessary to "feed America") that's a good thing, right?

But we'll never do that as long as those countries float themselves through pasturing cows.

And they'll never do it as long as their political structure is incapacitated by povery.

So I basically feel that there is no environmental or political solution that does not transfer power. And ironic as it is, these days, more power seems to be transferred by band-aids then surgery.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger tyromaven said...

A quick word from someone who came to the local and sustainable foods movement wary of boutiques and looking for levers for change:

(notice I didn't say organic, because that word is the property of the US Dept of Agriculture and can be used to apply to industrially produced Whole foods cheese and also to the produce of small-scale family farmers who are earning a fair wage for their work and employing per acre, many times as many people as industrial farms, and an increasing number of local sustainable--in terms of economically, socially, and environmentally-- producers are foregoing the organic label because it means less than knowing the people who buy your produce and it's prohibitively expensive for many)

Because I'm about to go to work, I want to recommend two books that I think give some urgent global social, economic, and environmental reasons for changing the food supply system as a means to address land use, economic development, personal nutrition, community quality of life, our environmental future, and the military policy of our goverment.

Diet for a small planet, Frances Moore Lappe
The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan

I'll be back with a few more comments later.
Cheers, Rasha

At 9:29 AM, Blogger tyromaven said...

oh, quicker even:

Summary on Sustainable food and articles list from Worldchanging:

Just a partial foundation for our conversation. I tend to be critical even of these pieces, but it's good grounding to start with.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Connor said...

Hi Rasha!

Thanks for the recommendation. I'll post again when I've had a chance to check them out. :)

At 3:45 PM, Blogger tyromaven said...

Great! I'll be keeping an eye out for your responses. As I plan to leave my current work to head for more strategic work, I'm spending more time thinking critically about this work. I feel painfully aware of some of the hollow places, and also real damn itchy about the things that could just MOVE IT if a reasonable amount of effort was applied.

I've seen too much work get done under the local/organic food banner or the community gardening banner that is all surface, just cute or self-congratulatory. The kind of stuff that people do to exempt themselves from judgment or guilt. And that kind of stuff doesn't interest me in the slightest. I think the potential for the local/sustainable food movement gets traction when it puts production methods into the hands of the people who need good food.

And you know, I think the same methods should apply to immunizing Mauritania.

So rock out with criticisms and radical re-imaginings of strategies! I am ready!


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