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In Search of a Public Life

Now that I can get up and down and out and about, pushing and prodding the limits of my prepositional life, I’m SOOO glad it’s our semi-usual February summer. I actually made the walk to the top of Bernal Heights with Adriana a couple of days ago, and have been bicycling around town a lot, though quite slowly as befits an old (recently incapacitated) man… The plum and cherry trees are in spectacular bloom. Here’s the plum tree outside my window, followed by a cherry tree we found on Bernal…

Taking advantage of our city’s beauty, walking around my neighborhood and the nearby hill (more photos of this recent walk at the bottom), but it’s all in a much larger context of a decaying society and its current political life. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how ardently people are embracing the Obama campaign, what it means. I’m obviously unmoved by it, and find myself scratching my head in my quadrennial puzzlement at the urgency of people’s beliefs, their willingness to swallow all this vague rhetoric spooned up by a guy who is bought and paid for by the likes of Goldman Sachs and the Illinois coal industry. A guy who won’t rule out nuclear power! and yet is treated as the embodiment of major change… and to be sure, he is a highly symbolic form of change on the surface at least. If everyone’s secret wishes come true, he’ll actually be a pwogwessive once in office, sweeping aside the neocons in favor of a New Green Deal… it’ll still be capitalism, still dominated by corporations, but maybe, just maybe, a bit more humane, a partially restored social fabric and safety net, a creative approach to intractible problems like climate change, carmeggedon, drug wars, imperialism…

Oh, sorry! I got carried away. I think Goldman Sachs and Zbigniew Brzenzski and the many other major backers and advisers from the ruling class who are rallying around Obama may be the wing of capital who see the need for some real reform, after two terms of brazen looting and a foreign policy that has sent the U.S. plummeting over the cliff. The financial system is unravelling, the world market is in for a period of retrenchment, renewed nationalistic protectionism, and probably some kind of global rules on investment and capital flows… or at least, one might presume that’s what Obama promises the monied interests behind his blandly passionate and vaguely populist words…


I can’t help but notice that his success is working in a way that’s quite similar to the upswell of enthusiasm Matt Gonzalez got in San Francisco in 2003 for Mayor. Then and now there are a lot of cultural signifiers and winking going on, never being too explicit about any actual programs or commitments, but by establishing a tone that embodies cultural yearning and expectations, people get motivated and enthusiastic. It’s a telling lesson in contemporary Spectacular Society. Being specific and detailed and programmatic is boring. Being inspirational, remaining opaque enough to be everything to everyone, and promising to fulfill everyone’s inchoate desire for MUCH more, a BIG change in the pitifully limited lives we’re forced to live in modern capitalism…well, that works in this image-centric political era. Like Reagan (who Obama spoke about as an important reference point for his own politics, whether or not he actually endorsed the policies that were carried out in Reagan’s term), Obama invokes a moral stance, one that unites Americanism and prosperity, comfort and safety. For anyone on the left with any kind of critique of U.S. imperialism and domestic domination by unaccountable corporations (not to mention the basic institution of wage-labor that underpins it all), this sweeping patriotic rhetoric is pretty hard to stomach… but if you think of yourself as political AT ALL in the U.S., the presidential election is for most people the MOST important arena for public participation. And the circus of the campaign (taking on all the trappings of an exciting pennant race these days) can be quite fulfilling compared to the dull, meaningless isolation in which most people function day-to-day. For another view of the Obama phenomenon, check out Barbara Ehrenreich’s Unstoppable Obama that was on Common Dreams a couple of days ago.

The dearth of public life and public space is an important frame to understand the four-year suspension of disbelief that drives presidential politics as a popular form. An article about the recent Northern Illinois University killer speaks to the empty banality of American daily life. It came to me via my pal Eddie, written by Mark Ames who wrote a book called “Going Postal: Rage, Murder, and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond,” and it does a good job of revealing the disgust percolating just beneath the surface of an insignificant Midwestern college. Ames’ argument that the killer was reacting to the emptiness of the life he was succeeding at is repudiated by most of the comments attached to the piece, but I think he’s spot-on. There are so few avenues for expression, for public participation in a life with meaning (the presidential election is a compelling arena for those that fall into it, but for more people, it’s another of a long line of empty rituals that underscore our basic powerlessness). It’s obviously insane to go out and murder a bunch of people and then suicide as a “statement” but it’s hard to argue with the finality of its punctuation. Did the shooter have a critique of his empty life? Who knows? But the increasing frequency of such flip-outs (sci-fi writer John Brunner called such people “muckers” after running amok, in his early 1970s novel Stand on Zanzibar, a book that was amazingly prescient about this) cannot be only seen in terms of personal psychology and individual failure. The social context we’re living in is producing this response because, in part, there are so few other apparent ways to act meaningfully. In a life drained of purpose and enjoyment, why not go out in a blaze of mayhem? It makes a twisted kind of sense.

San Franciscans are not so despairing in general. Maybe our social fabric is a bit more coherent than places like Dekalb Illinois? Or perhaps it’s a coherence that is more tolerant and realistic and not requiring of its participants to pretend to be happy with a life that is plainly unsatisfactory?… hard to say. But here’s a couple of exmaples, both quite minor to be sure, of ways locals are currently making public statements and engaging with public life. First, I saw this flyer for an anti-war vigil in the Haight a few days ago. Note its insistence on a single-purpose demonstration (reflecting a frustration that I’ve heard often enough about how many people bring multidimensional concerns to every public demo… seems fine to me, but if you’re in the world of seeking 10 seconds on the news, you want to “stay on message” I guess)…There are also special offers at the bottom to entice participation…

A permanent monument in Golden Gate Park is the AIDS grove, which I’d never visited before… it’s a lovely small forest with many dedications covering benches and plaques, but the nicest was the centerpiece, this circular list of people that have died of AIDS and were memorialized by their friends here…

This beautifully establishes a public space for personal and public grief and mourning. It is very moving to sit in the grove and think about friends who have passed…

A rather different use of public space, moving in its own way, is this small patch along the Bernal Heights ring road. The local gardener has done some serious work to make this lovely jade garden, but has had to post the sign to ask for public respect…

A short distance further east is a small community garden, another of my favorite public features of San Francisco life (there are over 100 such community gardens scattered around the city)… Here I am, on my happy return to walking uphill, visiting the garden:

In a city covered with advertising and private property, there are not so many places for public expression… the sidewalks, though, are always available. Here someone had a fit of philosophical generosity and left it etched into cement,

and then perhaps another person decided to extend it with this chalked addition…

Before we made our way up the hill, we paused in Precita Park, brilliantly green in the February sun. Here’s a lovely addition to the park, this bench on a pretty mosaic foundation… Adriana is smiling from the bench.

We had a nice visit to some friends for Valentines Day, another example of the silly effort by commercial society to manufacture public life out of shopping rituals. But with that in mind, we had to laugh at the site of this mouse trying to get her chocolate right in the middle of the BART tracks as we waited for a train home.

The next day we were walking on 25th Street and saw this juxtaposition, which can only be titled “I missed your call!”

And with all the plastic junk, the bags, the wrappings, that we all have to dispense with no matter how hard we might try to avoid gathering it all, it’s worth remembering that it all goes somewhere. And it’s increasingly obvious that that somewhere is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’ve written about waste semi-regularly, and I always like coming back to it, since it’s not going away! Check out this recent piece in the UK Independent on the Giant Garbage Dump in Pacific Ocean

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One Response to “In Search of a Public Life”

  1. 1
    Dan Benbow:

    Good commentary on how people dump their aspirations into Obama (I’m guilty of it too), and how Obama remains purposely vague so as not to offend, when in fact he should be very specific (if voters were really rational and wanted the straight dope.) True that even if he succeeds in upending Hillary, and McCain, and maintains a Democratic Congress, he still won’t get that much done because of our corporatized, parasitic system of gov’t — Matt Gonzalez is the closest I’ve ever seen to having a government of the people, for the people, and of course he lost to a machine politician. On a lighter note, good shots of the garden at the top of Bernal — I discovered that on my bike a few months ago — it sure beats billboards and advertisements and other postmodern blight…

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