Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Five reasons to be bitter

I am a 38-year-old, middle-class, black woman. And I am bitter.

I am bitter because I am not doing better than my parents did. That is the way it is supposed to work, isn’t it? Each generation is supposed to advance on the achievements of the last. My mother is the product of a working-class family; my father’s parents were farmers. My grandparents did not go to college, but my parents did. They earned bachelors and masters degrees. They became educators and they raised their children in suburban comfort. I did the right things, I think. I went to college and I have a good job, but my hold on middle classness seems ever more tenuous—a constant struggle, a balancing act. I commute more than 40 miles each day and gas is inching toward $4/gallon. The cost of groceries is rising. My husband and I have a heavy tax burden. Our energy bill is outrageous. The car—our only car—needs new rear tires. And my stepson wants to play football with all the associated fees. I don’t need to keep up with the Joneses. I don’t need a big-screen, high-def TV. I only want comfort and security for my family. But how the hell do you do that these days? Maybe it has never been easy. But I’m hearing an awful lot of people say that it has never felt so difficult to do well.

I am bitter because my hometown looks like a wasteland. I grew up in the Indiana rust belt—“the region” as people here call it, more a part of the Chicago area than the more-rural rest of the Hoosier state. Stand on the beach in my old neighborhood, look over Lake Michigan and you can see a line of steel mills belching smoke into the air. For a long time, those pollution-heaving stacks meant prosperity for men (and women) like my grandfather, who worked at Inland Steel for decades and was able to own a smart little bungalow and send four children to college. All that changed in the 1980s with the recession and massive layoffs by steel companies. Somehow the benefits of Reagan’s grand economic plan never trickled down to the folks in my hometown. The city never recovered and remains mired in high unemployment and crime, and low development. A couple weeks ago, while visiting my parents, I took a wrong turn through a detour and ended up on Broadway—a once-vibrant main street. I confess, though I lived in that city for more than 20 years, for a moment I did not recognize my surroundings. I rode past rows of burned-out, leveled buildings, and boarded up businesses. Shuffling people loitered on the streets like zombies. It was not the city I once knew.

I am bitter because the fourth estate is failing me. As I watched the news Monday morning while getting dressed for work, one of my local news stations gleefully reported on Britney Spears’ weekend fender bender, and I wondered why. Why waste time on celebrity news when oil prices are soaring? Why waste time on celebrity news when our country is in recession? Why waste time on celebrity news when the Bush administration has nine more months to inflame the international community, line the pockets of Texas cronies, and decimate the Constitution and our rights? Why waste time on celebrity news when media consolidation threatens to stifle all but a few voices? Why waste time on celebrity news when Darfur is still in crisis? I am increasingly disappointed by a mainstream media that seems more devoted to sensation than information, and that routinely confuses opinion with fact. I am sick to death of smirking, shouting pseudo-anchors like Joe Scarborough, Chris Matthews and Dan Abrams. I am a media junkie. I stay informed by watching TV news, listening to alternative talk radio, and reading a host of mainstream and alternative books, newspapers, magazines, Web sites and blogs. But too many people don’t have time to sift through the crap, and thus, we are an uninformed electorate. Thank you free press!

I am bitter because society has not advanced as far as I thought. It seems I have been na├»ve. I thought most of us—at least we progressives—were on the same page regarding sexism and racism. The 2008 presidential campaign has shown me that I have been wrong. I believe there are many reasons not to like Hillary Clinton. Her laugh, her voice, her pantsuits and her husband’s infidelity shouldn’t be among them. Misogynist name calling has no place in a reasoned discussion about candidates. As a feminist, I am angry that thinly-veiled sexism can be passed off as political discourse. At the same time, I feel increasingly marginalized by my white sisters who challenge my feminist bonafides for not supporting Clinton, who overlook or excuse her campaign’s deft use of racism, and who claim black skin is a mark of privilege in American society. And I am increasingly saddened by the recognition that a lot of the mainstream believes racism is a thing of the distant past, and those of us who complain about it are simply ungrateful, whiners and radicals.

I am bitter because I live in an age of anti-intellectualism. Increasingly, we are a culture that will not watch the whole thing if we can find a clip on You Tube. We will not read if we can catch the highlights on television. We will not consider informed counsel if we can trust our guts. We dismiss political candidates without bothering to so much as peruse their Web sites or read their position papers. We swallow talking points whole. We pursue only what confirms our existing world view. We distrust the elite and the cerebral. We are too frequently loud, ignorant and outraged—our emotions led by the latest media-inflamed scandal. And our rantings are given voice on talk radio, podcasts and…well…blogs. It is frightening. For, as Al Gore says in his book The Assault on Reason, “Never has there been a worse time for us to lose the capacity to face the reality of our long-term challenges, from national security to the economy, from issues of health and social welfare to the environment…We have precious little time to waste.”

I don’t think Barack Obama was referring to people like me last week in San Francisco. It is a privilege to be able to ruminate online about my bitterness. As I post this essay, I have a job, a roof over my head and healthcare. There are many, many folks worse off than I. Still, I am bitter. But what I cling to is the hope that this year, when Americans have the opportunity to change things, when we have a chance to put the corporatocracy in its place, when we have a chance to move toward a country that works for the majority of its citizens not just a few, when we have a chance to see each other as people and to come together for the greater good, this time…this time…we will do something different. We will look beyond media-created controversy, dirty politics, sexism, racism and fear mongering. We will reject anti-intellectualism and we will be informed. We will stand up and we will demand better from our government representatives, from our media and from ourselves.

Hope and change are not empty words. They mean something. They are the cure for the bitterness that ails people like me.

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