Valuing San Francisco
Blogging from San Francisco, I probably already regularly reinforce a civic narcissism that celebrates our little burg as the only, or at least one of the very few really livable places in the USA. I apologize in advance if this entry goes down that same self-absorbed, self-satisifed path, which is not my intention but probably an inadvertant result regardless.
I woke up today, after a wild week of very San Franciscan celebrating, ruminating on the mini-flurry of political attention being paid to a mysterious category called “San Francisco Values”… Seems like a good time to ruminate on that, following Halloween, Day of the Dead, and our own earlier Slow Food Feast two weeks ago…
Halloween is the municipal holiday of San Francisco values I suppose. The bridge-and-tunnel crowds pour in to the beleaguered Castro, where increasingly wealthy residents and merchants bemoan the loss of an imaginary innocence. Attempts to move the party out of the neighborhood have failed, and this year’s concluding shoot-up by teens will probably be used by the local monied to try again to “stop Halloween”–fat chance! Whatever happens to the ‘official zone’ of Halloween, the whole city goes crazy for a few days on either side of it. Parties and costumes are everywhere, it’s almost becoming a kind of Carnival. The end doesn’t really arrive until Dia de los Muertos is celebrated on Nov. 2 with a candle-lit procession full of skeletons and ghouls, rocking to dozens of drums, paying honors to the dead at magnificent altars built in Garfield Park and the SOMARTS gallery, while the Galeria de la Raza and other local institutions host shows that resonate with the theme.
The right-wing blowhards who are using “San Francisco values” to try and scare voters to vote repugnican seem to think that Nancy Pelosi and Gavin Newsom are actually opposed to the political and social world that comprises today’s United States… Hah! Probably they know perfectly well that Pelosi will be a reliable cog in the imperial war machine, just like Mayor Newsom’s gay marriage efforts are perfectly designed to reinforce the conservative institutions and behavior this society holds up as proper and necessary bulwarks of civilization.
It’s long been a source of Orwellian amazement to me that the conservatives are so brazenly homophobic that they don’t embrace gay marriage. If you hate free sex and flamboyant public licentiousness, shouldn’t you then SUPPORT those who want to put sex back into the closet of two-people-for-life, quietly at home in their upscale, well-furnished condominiums or homes? Gay marriage is all about being normal (affluent) Americans!
San Francisco values? What could they be? Carl Nolte in today’s Chronicle takes a stab at it, providing a cross-section of middle-of-the-road answers to that question. I don’t think he gets too close to the real subtext of the query though.
San Francisco is a city founded before the abolition of slavery, a city that came to be a center of wealth and power through the rapacious exploitation of cheap labor and natural wealth, especially the living critters of the Pacific Rim. The first half century of San Francisco’s life saw the growth of globe-spanning enterprises headquartered here, mining minerals and mammals from the Aleutian Islands to the Philippines, Idaho and Montana to Hawaii and Guam. Silver, gold, mercury and copper mining were matched by the wholesale slaughter of seals, walrus, and whales; the latter especially being the first source of lubrication and illumination for early industrialization, before the rise of petroleum fossil fuel. (Oil wars anyone?)
Southern gentry arrived early and brought with them their pro-slavery ideas, but the outlaw city that grew even faster made room for a western terminus of the Underground Railroad, and gave political strength to the admission of California as a ‘free state’. The racist urges of the new American Californians were directed first to the liquidation of the native peoples indigenous to the quickly disappearing paradise, and then against the growing population of Chinese who were crossing the ocean to escape famine and war and stake out new lives in western North America. Vicious violence and legal repression went hand in hand until well into the latter half of the 20th century. Few remember now that the great baseball player Willie Mays could not buy a house in San Francisco when the Giants first arrived in 1958 due to racist restrictions on property deeds. (Then-Mayor Christopher took Mays in for a couple of days until the owners rescinded the restrictions and sold him his house, back in 1958.) San Francisco is the home to the union bug, a symbol of working class solidarity whose first expression was the white cigar makers of SF assuring customers that their cigars were made by “WHITE MEN”. Local unions have a long, sordid history of racist exclusion, and the businessmen who dominate the city’s history have often turned to scabs and strikebreakers that exacerbated racial tension. So goes the history of social alienation, class conflict, exclusion, and racist hierarchy which has done as much to shape San Francisco as anywhere else in this upside-down North American society. It remains very much a live context for today’s city, though not often widely acknowledged in our self-congratulatory liberal smugness.
The banality of liberal politics is nowhere more obvious than here, where the aforementioned politicos Pelosi and Newsom are only the latest carriers of the last gasp of capitalism-with-a-human-face. Newsom’s mayoral victory came not against a repug but against Matt Gonzalez, a green running to his left but with a program that was too vague to get a real groundswell of poor voters to tip the balance in his favor. Visionary politics percolates in the cracks and corners of San Francisco, but never makes it to the halls of power; mostly it doesn’t even try. Critical Mass continues to be an interesting example of a different kind of politics, a monthly mass seizure of the streets that makes no demands and offers no coherent ideas because there is no center and no leadership and no program. But it does not die!
Meanwhile there are endless discussions in bars, cafes and living rooms, as the relatively motivated dissident subcultures of San Francisco try to overcome the historical impasse we face. The old forms, whether demonstrations, pickets, electoral campaigns, shame and guilt, what have you, have stopped working. There are powerful urges, compelling visions, radically reasonable alternatives that many of us can describe in detail… but they get no hearing, are given no credibility, are basically invisible, and we don’t know how to break through the spellbinding Spectacle with new ways of thinking and living… we’re just doing it as best we can, in the hidden pockets of our everyday lives. Outside of any recognized political realm, there are underground cafes, vibrant public forums, public art and performance, and much more. The San Francisco values I find inspiring are the ones that keep people coming here year after year, determined to invent new ways to live and play and work together, and for the most part, doing it! The emergent values of conviviality, cooperation, mutual aid and tolerance, and a healthy dose of the deep pleasure that comes with a profound mutual engagement are not just contagious (which they are!) but also visionary and inspiring and unstoppable.